Charles T. Woodman, A Washingtonian

Book Excerpt

Background Notes

In the early 1840s, a new anti−alcohol organization called the Washingtonian Society took a novel approach. Earlier advocates focused on preventing the spread of intemperance by encouraging moderation among drinkers and keeping non−drinkers away from liquor. But the Washingtonians aimed to reform confirmed drunkards and to promote total abstinence as the only safe path. Like other reform groups, the Washingtonians used books, pamphlets, almanacs and public lectures get out their message and win converts to the cause. The great majority of Washingtonian speakers and authors were reformed drunkards who told their own stories.

Charles T. Woodman’s story is a characteristic account of degradation followed by reform. Born in 1802, in Newburyport, Massachusetts, Woodman had led a drunken and wandering life for many years, interspersed with periods of time in both almshouses and prisons. Then, in 1841 as he lay on what he and others supposed was his deathbed, he was confronted by Washingtonians and took the Total Abstinence Pledge. He gradually regained his health and with the help of fellow Washingtonians began to relate his experiences to the public in lectures and print. Woodman had an earlier reputation in eastern Massachusetts and southern New Hampshire as a “drunken poet” who sometimes wrote verse in payment for a drink. His reform seemed to be nothing short of miraculous to those who knew him. In addition to detailed and horrific accounts of both his alcoholism and his prison experiences, Woodman related his near−death reformation and the saving role that the Washingtonians and the abstinence pledge had played in his life.

Transcription of Primary Source

The Washingtonian movement began while I was an inmate of the almshouse, and there its invigorating power first cheered my heart, and bid me hope and live. In the spring of 1842, I was taken sick, very suddenly, had been in the almshouse three months at that time, was attacked in the oakum* cellar, and had to be carried to a chamber by two men. Three months I suffered all, it appeared to me, a man could suffer…For three months I could not help myself,—yes, reader, one half of my life has been spent in a bed of sickness, and the cause can be spelt in three letters—RUM.

One day while lying on my bed revolving in my mind the scenes of my past life, Mr Johnson [keeper of the Almshouse] came into the chamber and informed me that six reformed drunkards of Baltimore, were giving lectures on temperance. This to me was a new idea. He read to me from a newspaper an account of their sayings and doings. How novel it appeared to me, yet I had no hope, even if my life was spared, that I could live a sober life.

One day while [I was] weeping, Mr Richard Plummer of Newburyport, came to my room with three Washingtonian delegates from Boston, (Messrs. Rowan, Bennett and Moody,) and requested me to sign the pledge—a Washingtonian pledge—and they described the Washingtonian platform. I could hardly believe my senses. One of these delegates observed to the other, there is no need of his signing, for he will not live long; and indeed every one around were of the same opinion. But I thought I should live, and I resolved in my mind if God spared my life, that life should be devoted to admonishing the inebriate—that I would be a laborer in the cause of Washingtonian reform. Lying in bed, on my back, a mere wreck of what I once was,— I signed on the New Testament, “THE PLEDGE OF TOTAL ABSTINENCE from all that intoxicates.” A glorious event to me, and the one from which I date the commencement of my present happiness…

I left the almshouse in April, 1842, destitute indeed. But the feelings of the community towards the drunkard had changed. I went immediately to Mr Richard Plummer, the secretary of the W.T.A. [Washingtonian Total Abstinence] Society, of Newburyport. He was indeed a friend in trouble. Under God, that individual has been the means of propping me up, and keeping my mind firm to the Pledge. The keeper of the almshouse had no faith in my keeping the pledge.

The first time that I ever spoke in public, was the second night after I left the almshouse, in Phoenix hall, Newburyport, on the subject of Temperance…Wherever I went, some individual would recount to me some incident relative to himself and me while I was a victim to the bowl. I found I was more generally known than I had imagined. My forced eccentricity while travelling attracted the observation of people, and the excitement to hear such a curious being lecture was indeed a novelty. The great change in my looks and dress was indeed a convincing argument of the power of the pledge. My most sanguine friends never imagined I should break the chain that bound me to the degrading thraldom of the bowl. Regarding my reform as hopeless, I was considered upon the drunkard’s tide, and doomed to strike at last upon that fatal rock, where so many have foundered. And now when with a calm collected mind, I take a retrospect of my past life I can hardly believe, or at least realize, that I have been spared amid so many hair breadth escapes. Oft have the heavens been my only covering from the pelting storm in many a long night. Oft have I endangered my life when under the influence of strong drink. Houseless, friendless, and drear, I still embraced the great enemy who had subjected me to all these privations of the blessings of life. I had disgraced the image of God—I had quenched reason, that divine principle which enables us to distinguish between right and wrong, between man, and beast, and God, and thus permitted the storms of adversity to beat upon me by destroying that priceless gift to man; and if there is a being to be pitied, it is that man who is a victim to his bowl, with poverty for his only companion. He becomes doubly miserable by his isolated condition in life; he becomes a wanderer wherever he takes up his residence, till the gripe of the constable conducts his to a magistrate, and thence to prison, to atone for his want of self−denial…

Since I have been a Washingtonian lecturer, I have neglected no opportunity of informing myself where the greatest obstacle lay in this glorious reform; and I conceive it is principally in the want of co−operation generally by the “higher circles” of life. Pride seems to be the great obstacle to aiding in the reform, with a certain portion of the community; and by not lending their countenance in a direct manner, they clog the wheels of the locomotive car of intemperance. There appears to be a suspicious feeling with some in regard to the Washingtonian movement. This arises from its being an elevating movement—the gutter drunkard, so called, being restored by it at once to his forfeited station in society. There is a class who though they acknowledge themselves to be temperance men, look with a different eye on the Washingtonian movement than an eye of faith; they consider it as an insect of a day that flutters by excitement, soon to die and be forgotten. These men belong to no one particular class in society, neither are they of a particular sect in religion, nor of a particular grade in community; but they are from all sects, all grades and denominations, whose faith is bounded by their own narrow conceptions and long cherished prejudices…

I have endeavored in my narrative to give a true picture of the drunkard, hoping to deter the young man from indulging in any light drinks such as wine, beer or cider which if indulged in as harmless, will sow the seeds of future misery and degradation—Moderate drinkers! beware! beware!

As for myself, The PLEDGE is my polar star; it is at once my hope and my solace, my safety and my joy. I rejoice for the goodness of God, through the Washingtonian movement, in thus helping me to arise in the full vigor of my mind, and claim my forfeited station among my fellow men, and by His blessing, will use my feeble efforts in this crusade against our common foe. Since signing the pledge, I have never given the enemy any quarter—have not drank any thing that could raise the thermometer of a latent appetite. I keep a strict watch and drive away every association connected with my former habits, for one spark if allowed to communicate to my bosom, might kindle anew all those flames which for a time burned like a furnace. Therefore, “TOUCH NOT—TASTE NOT—HANDLE NOT,” I keep ever before me as my ruling motto—and, by the assistance of God—

I ne’er again will touch that bane
Which brings such misery—
In honor I have pledg’d my name
To live REFORMED and FREE!


  • oakham − fiber used in making rope. The residents of almshouses or poorhouses often worked “picking oakham,” pulling apart old rope to be used as caulking for sailing ships.

Curator Notes

Exact Title: 
Narrative of Charles T. Woodman, A Reformed Inebriate, Written by Himself
116−117, 121, 126−127, 131−132, 207−208
Theodore Abbot
Place of Publication: 
Old Sturbridge Village