John Gough's Autobiography

Book Excerpt

Background Notes

Although relatively unknown today, John B. Gough (1817-1886) was an international celebrity during his own lifetime. He was a temperance reformer and lecturer who delivered some 9,000 lectures to more than nine million people throughout the United States, England, Scotland, Ireland, Wales, Canada, France, and Switzerland. He was credited with inspiring 200,000 people to sign “the pledge” to stop drinking. His success was due in large measure to two factors: he was a brilliant performer who impersonated different people and displayed a wide range of emotions in his public addresses and he was a recovering or as he and his contemporaries would say a “reformed” alcoholic and he drew upon his own experiences battling “demon rum” to provide insight and inspiration to others.

He first published his autobiography in 1845. Soon it became a bestseller and multiple editions appeared in subsequent years often accompanied by written versions of his most popular lectures. He was often referred to as the “Apostle of Cold Water.” Even two well publicized breaking of his own pledge and lapses into drunkenness could not diminish his popularity. Later in his life he expanded his repertoire to include lectures combating poverty and the promotion of education and the equality of the sexes. Always the showman, Gough died on stage in Pennsylvania in 1886.

Although Gough is included in most scholarly treatments of the temperance movement no full-length biography has appeared since Tiger! Tiger! The Life of John B. Gough by Hanoré Morrison in 1930. The other major biography was written in 1893 by W. Carlos Martyn and is entitled John B. Gough, The Apostle of Cold Water. Gough also wrote two other books which appeared late in his life: Sunlight and Shadow (1881) and Platform Echoes (1884).

Transcription of Primary Source


by John B. Gough

Part Second

HITHERTO my career had been one of almost unmitigated woe ; for, with the exception of the days of my childhood, my whole life had been one perpetual struggle against poverty and misery, in its worst forms. Thrown at a tender age upon the world, I was soon taught its hard lessons. Death had robbed me of my best earthly protector, and providence cast my lot in a land thousands of miles from the place of my birth. Temptation had assailed me, and trusting my own strength for support, I had fallen, O, how low ! In the very depths of my desolation, wife and children had been torn from my side. In the midst of thousands I was lonely, and, abandoning hope, the only refuge which seemed open for me was the grave. A dark pall overhung that gloomy abode, which shut out every ray of hope ; and although death to me would have been a ‘leap in the dark,’ I was willing to peril my immortal soul and blindly rush into the presence of my Maker. Like a stricken deer, I had no communion with my kind. Over every door of admission into the society of my fellow-men, the words, ‘No Hope,’ seemed to be inscribed. despair was my companion, and perpetual degradation appeared to me my allotted doom. I was intensely wretched ; and this dreadful state of things was of my own bringing about. I had no one but myself to blame for the sufferings that I endured ; and when I thought of what I might have been, these inflictions were awful beyond conception. Lower in the scale of mental and moral degradation I could not well sink. Despised by all, I despised and hated in my turn, and doggedly flung back to the world the contempt and scorn which it so profusely heaped on my head.

Such was my pitiable state at this period—a state apparently beyond the hope of redemption. But a change was about to take place—a circumstance which eventually turned the whole current of my life into a new and unhoped for channel.

The month of October had nearly drawn to a close, and on its last Sunday evening I wandered out into the streets, pondering as well as I was able to do, for I was somewhat intoxicated, on my lone and friendless condition. My frame was much weakened by habitual indulgence in intoxicating liquor, and little fitted to bear the cold of winter, which had already begun to come on. But I had no means of protecting myself against the bitter blast, and as I anticipated my coming misery, I staggered along, houseless, aimless, and all but hopeless.

Some one tapped me on the shoulder. An unusual thing that, to occur to me ; for no one now cared to come in contact with the wretched , shabby-looking drunkard. I was a disgrace—‘living, walking disgrace.’ I could scarcely believe my own senses when I turned around and met a kind look; the thing was so unusual and so entirely unexpected, that I questioned the reality of it—but so it was.

It was the first touch of kindness which I had known for months ; and simple, and trifling as the circumstance may appear to many, it went right to my heat, and like the wing of an angel, in the waters in that stagnant pool of affection, and made them once more reflect a little of the light of human love.

The person who touched my shoulder was an entire stranger. I looked at him, wondering what his business was with me. Regarding me very earnestly, and apparently with much interest , he exclaimed :

‘Mr. Gough, I believe?’

‘That is my name,’ I replied , and was passing on.

‘You have been drinking to-day,’ said the stranger, in a kind voice, which arrested my attention, and quite dispelled any anger at what I might otherwise have considered an officious interference in my affairs.

‘Yes, sir,’ I replied, ‘I have.’

‘Why do you not sign the pledge?’ was the next query.

I considered for a minute or two, and then informed the strange friend, who had so unexpectedly interested himself on my behalf, that I had no hope of ever again becoming a sober man ; that I was without a single friend in the world that cared for me—that I fully expected to die very soon—I cared not how soon—nor whether I died drunk or sober—and in fact, that I was in a condition of utter recklessness.

The stranger regarded me with a benevolent look—took me by the arm, and asked me how I should like to be as I once was, respectable and esteemed, well clad, and sitting as I used to in a place of worship, enabled to meet my friends as in old times, and receive from them the pleasant nod of recognition as formerly—in fact, become a useful member of society?

‘OH!’ replied I, ‘I should like all these things first rate; but I have no expectation that such a thing will ever happen. Such a change cannot be possible.’

‘Only sign our pledge,’ remarked my friend, ‘and I will warrant that it shall be so. Sign it, and I will introduce you myself to good friends, who will feel an interest in your welfare and take a pleasure in helping you to keep your good resolutions. Only, Mr. Gough, sign the pledge, and all will be as I have said ; ay, and more too.’

Oh! how pleasantly fell these words of kindness and promise on my crushed and bruised heart. I had long been a stranger to feelings such as now awoke in my bosom. A chord had been touched which vibrated to the tone of love. Hope once more dawned, and I began to think, strange as it appeared, that such things as my friend promised me might come to pass. On the instant I resolved to try, at least, and said to the stranger:

‘Well, I will sign it.’

‘When?’ he asked.

‘I cannot do so to-night,’ I replied,’ for I must have some more drink presently ; but I certainly will to-morrow.’

‘We have a temperance meeting to-morrow evening,’ he said; ‘Will you sign it then?’

‘I will.’

‘That is right,’ said he, grasping my hand, ‘I will be there to see you.’

‘You shall,’ I remarked ; and we parted.

I went on my way much touched by the kind interest which, at last, someone had taken in my welfare. I said to myself, ‘If it should be the last act of my life, I will perform my promise, and sign it even though I die in the attempt, for that man has placed confidence in me, and on that account I love him.’ I then proceeded to a low

groggery in Lincoln square hotel, and in the space of half an hour, drank four glasses of brandy ; this in addition to what I had taken before, made me very drunk, and I staggered home as well as I could. Arrived there, I threw myself on the bed and lay in a state of drunken insensibility until morning

The first thing which occurred to my mind on awaking was the promise I had made on the evening before, to sign the pledge ; and feeling as I usually did on the morning succeeding a drunken bout, wretched, and desolate, I was almost sorry that I had agreed to do so. My tongue was dry, my mouth parched—my temples throbbed as if they would burst, and I had a horrible burning feeling in my stomach which almost maddened me and I felt that I must have some bitters or I should die. So I yielded to my appetite, which would not be appeased, and repaired to the same hotel, where I had squandered away so many shillings before ; there I drank three or four times, until my nerves were a little strung, and then I went to work.

All that day, the coming event of the evening was continually before my mind’s eye, and it seemed to me as if the appetite which had so long controlled me, exerted more power over me than ever. I grew stronger than I had at any time known it, now that I was about to rid myself of it. Until noon I struggled against its cravings, and then, unable to endure my misery any longer, I made some excuse for leaving the shop, and went nearly a mile from it in order to procure one more glass wherewith to appease the demon who so tortured me.

The day wore wearily away, and when evening came, I determined, in spite of many a hesitation, to perform the promise I had made to the stranger the night before. The meeting was to be held at the Town Hall, Worcester, and thither, clad in an old brown surtout, closely buttoned up to my chin, that my ragged habiliments beneath might not be visible, I repaired. I took a place among the rest, and when an opportunity of speaking presented itself, I requested permission to be heard, which was readily granted.

When I stood up to relate my story, I was incited to the stand, to which I repaired ; and on turning to face the audience, I recognized my acquaintance who had asked me to sign. It was Mr. Joel Stratton. He greeted me with a smile of approbation, which nerved and strengthened me for my task, as I tremblingly observed every eye fixed upon me. I lifted my quivering hand, and then and there told what rum had done for me. I related how I was once respectable and happy, and had a home ; but that now I was houseless, miserable, scathed, diseased, and blighted outcast from society. I said, scarce a hope remained to me of ever becoming that which I once was ; but having promised to sign the pledge, I had determined not to break my word, and would now affix my name to it. In my palsied hand I with difficulty grasped the pen, and, in characters almost as crooked as those of old Stephen Hopkins, I signed the total abstinence pledge, and resolved to free myself from the inexorable tyrant—rum.

Although still desponding and hopeless, I felt that I was relieved from a part of my heavy load. It was not because I deemed there was any supernatural power in the pledge, which would prevent my ever again falling into such depths of woe as I has already become acquainted with, but the feeling of relief arose from the honest desire I entertained to keep a good resolution. I had exerted a moral power, which had long remained lying by, perfectly useless. The very idea of what I had done, strengthened and encouraged me. Nor was this the only impulse given to me to proceed in my new pathway : for many who witnessed my signing, and heard my simple statement, came forward kindly, grasped my hand and expressed their satisfaction at the step I had taken. A new and better day had dawned upon me.

As I left the hall, agitated and enervated, I remember chuckling to myself, with great gratification, ‘I have done it—I have done it.’ There was a degree of pleasure at having put my foot on the head of the tyrant that had so long lead me captive at his will ; but, though I had ‘scotched’ the snake, I had not killed him, for every inch of his frame was full of venomous vitality, and I felt that all my caution was necessary to prevent his stinging me afresh.

I went home, retired to bed; but in vain did I try to sleep. I pondered upon the step I had taken, and passed a restless night. Knowing that I had voluntarily renounced drink, I endeavored to support my sufferings, and resist the incessant craving of my remorseless appetite as well as I could ; but the struggle to overcome it was insupportably painful. When I got up in the morning, my brain seemed as though it would burst with the intensity of its agony, my throat appeared as if it were on fire, and in my stomach I experienced a dreadful burning sensations, as if the fires of the pit had been kindled there. My hands trembled so, that to raise water to my feverish lips was almost impossible. I craved, literally gasped, for my accustomed stimulus, and felt that I should die if I did not have it; but I persevered in my resolve, and withstood the temptations which assailed me on every hand.

Still, during all this frightful time, I experienced a feeling somewhat akin to satisfaction, at the position I had taken. I had made at least one step towards reformation. I began to think that it was barely possible that I might see better days, and once more hold up my head in society. Such feelings as these would alternate with my gloomy forebodings, and ‘thick coming fancies’ of approaching ill. At one time hope, and at another fear, would predominate ; but the raging, dreadful, continued thirst was always present, to torture and tempt me.

After breakfast, I proceeded to the shop where I was employed, feeling dreadfully ill. I determined, however, to put a bold face on the matter, and , in spite of the cloud which seemed to hang over me, to attempt work. I was exceedingly weak, and fancied, as I almost reeled about the shop, that every eye was fixed upon me suspiciously , although I exerted myself to the utmost to conceal my agitation. How I got through that day, I cannot now tell, but its length seemed interminable, and as if it would never come to an end. I felt I was undeserving of confidence after I had so often broken my promises of amendment ; but I determined to make another effort to procure the respect of my employers, and going to one of the gentlemen in the shop, I informed him that I had signed the pledge.

He looked at me very earnestly, and he said, ‘I know you have.’

‘And,’ I added, ‘I mean to keep it.’

‘So they all say,’ he replied ; ‘and I hope you will.’

As he spoke doubtingly, I reiterated my determination to abide by the resolution I had made, never more to touch intoxicating liquors, and said to him, ‘You have no confidence in me, sir.

‘None, whatever,’ he replied; ‘but I hope you will keep your pledge.’

I turned to work again saddened in my mind and subdued in spirit; for the conversation I had just held with my employer showed me how low I had sunk in the esteem of prudent and sober-minded men. Whilst brooding over my misfortunes, I heard my name mentioned, and, turning round, saw a gentleman, who had entered unobserved by me. He said, ‘Good morning, Mr. Gough. I was very glad to see you take the position you did last night, and so were many of our temperance friends. It is just such men as you that we want, and I have no doubt you will be the means of doing the cause a great deal of good.’

This greatly encouraged me ; and the gentleman, whose name was Mr. Jesse W. Goodrich, then and now practising [sic] as an attorney and counsellor [sic] at law in Worcester, added, in a very kindly tone, ‘My office is at the exchange, Mr. Gough, and I shall be very happy to see you, whenever you would like to call in,--very happy.

It would be impossible to describe how this act, trifling as it appeared, cheered me. With the exception of Mr. Joel Stratton, who was a waiter at the temperance hotel, and who had asked me to sign the pledge, no one had accosted me for months in a manner which would lead me to think anyone cared for me, or what might be my fate. Now, however, I was not altogether alone in the world ; there was a probability of my being rescued from the slough of despond, where I had for so long been floundering. I saw that the fountain of human kindness was not utterly sealed up ; and again a green spot, and oasis, small indeed, but cheering, appeared in the desert of life. I had something now to life for. A new desire for life seemed suddenly to spring up ; the universal boundary of human sympathy included even my wretched self in its sheering circle. And all these sensations were generated by a few kind words.

What a lesson of love should this not teach us? How know we, bit some trifling sacrifice, some little act of kindness, some, it may be, unconsidered word, may heal a bruised heart, or cheer a bruised spirit. Never shall I forget the exquisite delight which I felt when first asked to call and see Mr. Goodrich ; and how did I love him from my very heart for the pleasure that he afforded me in the knowledge that some one on the broad face of the earth cared for me,--for me, who had given myself up as a castaway; who, two days before, had been friendless in the widest signification of the word, and willing, nay, wishing to die. Any man who has suddenly broken off a habit, such as mine was, may imagine what my sufferings were during the week which had followed my abandoning the use of alcohol. Any attempt to describe my feelings would inevitably fall short of the reality, and I shall mention only one or two circumstances in connection with this eventful period of my life.

On the evening of the day following that on which I signed the pledge, I went straight home from my workshop, with a dreadful feeling of some impending calamity haunting me. In spite of the encouragement that I had received, the presentiment of coming evil was so strong, that it bowed me almost to the dust with apprehension. The unslakable thirst still clung to me, and water instead of allying it, seemed only to increase its intensity. I feared another attack of delirium tremens, and not without reason ; for, on that very evening, when I took the iron pin to screw up the binding-press, it seemed to turn a writhing, creeping snake in my hands. I dropped it in horror, and it was nothing but a bar of iron! These and similar illusions terrified me, and ere long my worst apprehensions were realized. I was fated to encounter one struggle more with my enemy before I came free.

Fearful was that struggle. God, in his mercy, forbid that any other young man should endure but a tenth part of the torture which racked my frame and agonized my heart. As, in the former attack, horrible faces glared upon me from the walls,--faces ever changing, and displaying new and still more horrible features,--black, bloated insects crawled over my face, and myriads of burning, concentric rings were revolving incessantly. At one moment the chamber appeared as red as blood, and in a twinkling it was dark as the charnel-house. I seemed to have a knife with hundreds of blades in my hand, every blade driven through the flesh of my hands, and all were so inextricably bent and tangled together, that I could not withdraw them for some time ; and when I did, from my lacerated fingers the bloody fibers would stretch out all quivering with life. After a frightful paroxysm of this kind, I would start like a maniac from my bed, and beg for life, life! What I of late thought so worthless, seemed of now to be of unappreciable value. I dreaded to die, and clung to existence, as feeling that my soul’s salvation depended on a little more of life. A great portion of this time I spent alone ; no mother’s hand was near to wipe the big drops of perspiration from my brow ; no kind voice cheered me in my solitude. Alone I encountered all the host of demoniac forms which crowded my chamber. No one witnessed my agonies, or counted my woes, and yet I recovered ; how, still remains a mystery to myself, and still more mysterious was the fact of my concealing my sufferings from every mortal eye.

In about a week, I gained, in a great degree, the mastery over my accursed appetite ; but the strife had made me dreadfully weak. Gradually, my health improved, my spirits recovered, and I ceased to despair. Once more was I enabled to crawl into the sunshine ; but, O! how changed. Wan cheeks and hollow eyes, feeble limbs, and almost powerless hands, plainly enough indicated that, between me and death, there had indeed been but a step.

A great change now took place in my condition for the better, and it appeared likely enough that the anticipations of my friend, Mr. Stratton, who induced me to sign the pledge, as to my becoming once more a respectable man, were about to be realized. For a long period, of late, I had ceased to take any care with respect to my personal appearance, for the intemperate man is seldom neat ; but I now began to feel a little more pride in this head, and endeavored to make my scanty wardrobe appear to the best advantage. I also applied myself more diligently to business, and became enabled to purchase articles which I had long needed, and assume a more respectable appearance. Unfortunately, however, work soon began to slacken, and my circumstances, in consequence, were but poor.

I, generally, regularly attended the weekly temperance meetings, and my case being well known, I was at length invited to speak on the subject. After some hesitation, I consented to do so, and addressed an audience for about fifteen minutes, stating what my course had been, and what temperance had effected for me, and also expressing my firm determination to adhere to the total abstinence pledge. I well remember the first individual who first engaged me for a regular speech. It was a good man, and devoted friend of the cause, Mr. Hiram Fowler, of Upton. He heard my address at one of the temperance meetings, and thinking I should do good, was very anxious to secure my humble services.

One afternoon, not long after I joined the society, a gentleman invited me to speak on temperance, in the schoolhouse, on Burncoat plain. That evening I shall never

forget. I was not, from scarcity of funds, enabled to procure fitting habiliments in which to appear before a respectable audience, and so I was compelled to wear an old overcoat, which the state of my underclothing obliged me to button closely at the chin. The place assigned to me was very near a large and well-heated stove. As I spoke, I grew warm, and after using a little exertion, the heat became so insufferable, that I was drenched in perspiration. My situation was ludicrous in the extreme. I could not, in consequence of the crowd, retreat from the tremendous fire, and unbuttoning my coat was out of the question altogether. What with the warmth imparted by my subject, and that which proceeded from the stove, I was fairly between two fires. When I had done my speech, I was all but done myself, for my body contained a greater quantity of caloric than it had ever possessed before or since. I question whether Monsieur Chabert, the fire king, was ever subjected to a more ‘fiery trial.’

Not long after this, it began to be whispered about that I had some talents for public speaking ; and my career, as an intemperate man, having been notorious, a little curiosity as to my address was excited. I was invited to visit Milbury, and deliver an address there.

I went, in company with Dr. Hunting, of Worcester. Mr. Van Wagner, better known, perhaps, as the Poughkeepsie blacksmith, was also to speak. I spoke, for the first time, from a pulpit at this place ; and my address, which was listened to very attentively, occupied about a quarter of an hour or twenty minutes. At this time, nothing was farther from my intentions than becoming a public speaker. In my wildest flights, I never dreamed of this. I can sinccrely [sic] say that I was urged to give these early addresses solely by a hope that good, through my instrumentality, might be done to the temperance cause, to which I owed my redemption. Prior to delivering this address at Milbury, I had purchased a new suit of clothes, the first which I had been able to get for a long period. They came home on the day fixed for my speaking. Now, I had been so long accustomed to my old garment, that they had become, as it were, a part and parcel of myself, and seemed to belong to me, and feel as natural as my skin did. My new suit was very fashionably cut, and as I put on the articles, one by one, I felt more awkwardness than, I verily believe, I ever exhibited, before or since, in the course of my life. The pantaloons were strapped down, over feet which ad long been used to freedom, and I feared to walk in my usual manner, lest they should go at the knee. I feared, to, lest a strap should give, and make me lop-sided for life. The vest certainly set off my waist to the best advantage ; but it did not seem, on a first acquaintance, half so comfortable as my ancient friend, although the latter had long been threadbare, and minus a few buttons. And, then , the smartly cut coat was so neatly and closely fitted to the arms, and the shoulders, and the back, that, when it was on, I felt in a fix as well as a fit. I was fearful of any thing other than a mincing motion, and my arms had a cataleptic appearance. Every step I took was a matter of anxiety, lest an unlucky rip should degrade my smartness. How I tired the pockets, over and over again, and stared at myself in the glass! Verily I felt more awkward, for some time, in my new suit, than I did whilst roasting before the fire in my old one.

On the evening following my visit to Milbury, I delivered a second address, in another church there, which was well attended.

invitations now began to pour in on me from many quarters, and I had been asked several times, to go to the same old school-house, on Burncoat plain, where I had before spoken ; when, on the 26th of December, 1842, Dr. Kendall, of Stirling, applied for some person to deliver a temperance address. I was recommended as a suitable person, and went with him, occupying the whole of the evening, for the first time. Mr. Van Wagner spoke the next night, and I was detained until the Sunday morning. On my return to Worcester, I had found that several applications for my services had been made from other towns. Mr. Genery Twichell was desirous that I should go with him to Barre, where a New Year’s Day celebration, or temperance jubilee, consisting of singing and addresses, was to be held. In compliance with Mr. Twichell’s wish, I attended the anniversary, and felt much gratification; after which I again returned to Worcester.

I now, finding that my engagements were increasing fast, applied to my employers for leave of absence for a week or two, in order to enable me to perform them. The required permission I obtained. When I went away, I left a pile of bibles on my bench unfinished, promising to finish them on my return ; but unforeseen circumstances occurred, and I never returned to complete them.

My time was now almost entirely employed in lecturing on the temperance cause ; and, as good appeared to be effected by my labors, I was encouraged to proceed. I visited, about this time, in succession, the towns of Grafton, Webster, Leicester, Milbury, West Boylston, Berlin, Bolton, Upton, Hopkinton, and Mendon, together with many other places in Worcester county, the names of which it is not necessary to record. My audiences gradually increased in numbers, and, as I acquired more confidence in speaking, my labors were rendered the more useful and acceptable

Curator Notes

Exact Title: 
An Autobiography
172 pages
Gough, John B. (1817-1886)
the author
Place of Publication: 
Boston, Massachusetts
18 cm.
American Antiquarian Society
Catalog Code: