(Or, Mark Twain's Cocaine Dream)
Just under fifty years ago, I was on my way to Brazil. Well, actually, I was trying to save up enough money to go to a place I was profoundly ignorant about, knowing only that it was far away, therefore mysterious, and simply had to be different from Texas.
Then, I met The Doc. (Technically, she was Pre-Doc at the time.) Almost immediately, going on a date seemed vastly more important than going to Brazil.
My still unfulfilled desire to travel to Brazil makes me a little sympathetic to a story Mark Twain shared in his autobiography. Twain writes that when he was about the same age, he too, had plans to travel up the Amazon River. And just like me, he thought he could accomplish this task with far less money that such a trip would actually cost.
Both of us got the idea from reading books. While working nights as a security guard at a hotel in Houston, I had read Theodore Roosevelt’s Through the Brazilian Wilderness, a stirring account that I now know is filled with large geographical errors. Paddling a canoe up the Amazon River was far more enticing that sitting in a damp guard shack in the alley behind the hotel.
In 1857, Twain read William Herndon’s Exploration of the Valley of the Amazon: 1851–1852. At the time, Twain was bored out of his mind, working as a typesetter at his brother’s printshop in Keokuk, Iowa. The tedious job of setting type gave his brain a lot of opportunity to daydream about adventures in Brazil.
Commander William Herndon led the expedition for the US Navy, and had traveled up the Amazon making meticulous notes about the possible economic opportunities and natural resources available to exploit. He was particularly interested in the Brazilian silver mines and gave detailed notes about the “Amalgamation Process” of using “quicksilver” to extract the precious metal from the raw ore.
What Herndon did not record was that the process required the workers to mix mercury with the ore, physically stirring the toxic slurry with their legs and feet. Herndon also didn’t record—perhaps from ignorance—that those workers probably died relatively quickly from mercury poisoning.
Note: If Commander Willian Herndon’s name seems vaguely familiar, you probably know about his ship the SS Central America. A few years later, while transporting fifteen tons of gold from California, the ship was caught in a hurricane off Cape Hatteras. Herndon transferred women and children to a small ship offering aid, then elected to go down with his ship—a loss of over 400 lives, the largest loss of life for a commercial ship in US history. The loss of so much gold created the financial panic of 1857. The wreck was discovered in 1987, and roughly half of the gold has been recovered. When the ship sunk, the gold was worth about eight million dollars, but today is easily worth more than thirty times that value. A single gold ingot from the wreck recently sold for eight million dollars, making it the most expensive piece of currency sold at auction in history.
Herndon recorded that the “silent and patient” natives happily worked incredible hours without being fed, and that they seemed to have an unlimited amount of energy. According to Herndon, this was because the natives chewed leaves from the Erythroxylon plant. Herndon was undoubtedly correct, since today we know that the “coca” plant is the natural source of cocaine.
Twain immediately formed a partnership with two men to set up a business to import the plant into the United States. Their plan was relatively simple, travel to Brazil, buy large quantities of the plant, crate it up and ship it back to New Orleans. Since there were no laws against cocaine, or any other narcotic substance, the profitability of the enterprise was assured.
The idea is not as crazy as it sounds. Cocaine did sell in America for decades before it became illegal. It was available in popular medicines and for a while was an ingredient in Coca Cola. By the turn of the century, black workers—especially those working along the Mississippi River—were encouraged to use the legal stimulant while working. Today, even though the narcotic has been illegal for decades, the government admits it is used by twenty-million Americans. Twain was just a little ahead of his time.
Even after Twain’s partners backed out, Twain was eager for his new business to start operations. Twain was unsure whether it would be easier to book passage to Brazil from New Orleans or New York, but since Keokuk, Iowa was on the Mississippi River, he chose New Orleans. His decision was probably influenced by the fact that the entire operating capital of the new enterprise was only $30, and passage down the river was far cheaper than an overland passage to New York.
Twain booked passage on a river boat bound for New Orleans. Once there, he would book passage on the first ship leaving for Brazil. Twain was fairly careful with his limited funds, so the cheapest fare down the river was on a very, very slow boat. Somewhere along the long journey, Twain, too, fell in love. But for Twain, it was the Mississippi River he fell for.
The short-lived romantic era of the riverboat was at its peak and Twain was traveling on one of more than a thousand steamboats carrying goods up and down the river. He was one of the few passengers on the boat and soon sought out members of the crew for companionship. As he listened to their stories of working the river, he soon grew envious of the life they led.
Arriving in New Orleans, Twain’s life as a future drug czar did not last for long. Not only was the new enterprise about bankrupt, but he soon discovered that no ship was scheduled to depart for Brazil, nor was one likely to be scheduled for the next decade. Twain had to find a new career, and he quite naturally chose the new love of his life, the river. As he later wrote:
When I was a boy, there was but one permanent ambition among my comrades in our village on the west bank of the Mississippi River. That was, to be a steamboatman. We had transient ambitions of other sorts, but they were only transient. (Life on the Mississippi)
Nearly penniless, Twain apprenticed to Horace Bixby as a cub river pilot, promising to pay Bixby $500 from future earnings in exchange for learning the lower Mississippi. This was a fortuitous change in career that changed the future author forever. Would Mark Twain have ever written anything if he had made his way to Brazil? It is impossible to imagine Huck and Tom floating down the Amazon River.
A Small Postscript. Like everyone else who has written about Twain, I have wrestled with the question of whether to refer to him as Samuel Clemens or Mark Twain. There are lots of semi-established rules for writers concerning this, and I have elected to ignore all of them. The source of this story is from Volume I of a work the author chose to title, The Autobiography of Mark Twain.