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Survivor of father’s alcohol abuse commits his life to empowering women—and dumping demon rum 

In 1868, the Reverend Allen Trimble Thompson died far from his hometown of Hillsboro, Ohio. Officially, the 30-year-old cleric had succumbed to pneumonia. His mother knew better; the cause had been alcohol. Eliza Thompson and husband James, a Highland County judge, were pillars of Hillsboro society. In 1836, at age 20, Eliza had traveled with her father, then Ohio’s governor, to Saratoga Springs, New York, for the second national convention of the American Temperance Union, focused on fighting abuse of alcohol. Despite her later

The New York State Inebriate Asylum in Binghamton was the first institution in the United States that treated alcoholism as a mental illness.

efforts, however, Eliza had not been able to save her son from the bottle. His life ruined by drink, Allen Thompson had left Hillsboro to seek treatment in Binghamton, New York. His destination was the State Inebriate Asylum, the first facility in the United States designed to treat chronic drunkenness—the term “alcoholism” had not been coined—as a mental disorder. After three months of treatment, Allen Thompson went on the road preaching a message of total abstinence. But his health failed; too ill to finish delivering an Independence Day oration, he returned to the asylum and died shortly thereafter. His widow and their children soon moved in with his parents.

Five years later, in late December 1873, the elder Thompsons were approaching Christmas with a houseful. Besides their three youngest offspring and Allen’s survivors, a traveler was staying the night. Dr. Diocletian Lewis was a homeopathic physician and itinerant educator coming to be known for a pioneering commitment to freedom for women at a time when society dictated their dress, curtailed their activities, barred them from voting, and limited their education. For 20 years Lewis had been lecturing on behalf of reform of women’s dress, exercise, and education and had put his ideas into practice near Boston, Massachusetts, at a boarding school for young women that he founded and operated in the 1860s. The Lecture Association of Hillsboro had engaged Lewis to speak on the subject of “Our Girls” at the town music hall Monday night, December 22. As was his custom, Lewis had allowed his customers to persuade him to stay and speak for free on Tuesday night against the use of alcohol, another longstanding theme of his. His own father’s drinking had scarred Lewis’s family. From his mother’s vivid and energetic response, the wounded son had honed a lecture he had been giving for 20 years on the theme of temperance, a word originally referring to the virtue of general self-restraint but in modern times mainly associated with abstinence from alcohol.

Temperance crusader Dr. Diocletian Lewis also campaigned for women’s siuffrage. (Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts)

Lewis was not the first to preach temperance, but his outreach to women—and the eager response of supporters such as Eliza Thompson—resonated across Ohio and elsewhere in the Midwest. Fighting alcohol abuse on behalf of women who suffered and endured as his mother had, he emphasized women’s rights and power. Diocletian Lewis—a man promoting a woman’s cause—was highlighting the widespread harm done by alcohol abuse, and women needed little encouragement to swarm the streets in protests that swelled into a national movement and a chain of developments that led to nationwide Prohibition imposed by the 18th Amendment.

Lewis was born in Cayuga County, New York, in 1823, second child of four born to Major John C. Lewis and Delecta (Barbour) Lewis. Like the entire American frontier of the early 1800s, upstate New York was awash in booze. The average American of the 1820s was drinking the equivalent of more than seven gallons of pure alcohol a year, and more on the frontier. Transport costs kept hinterland farmers from shipping bulk grain to cities; distilling grain into whiskey, which brought 25 cents a gallon, made good economic sense. The only cheaper thirst quencher was water—and whiskey was usually safer to drink. Liquor marked each break in the workday and every significant occasion, from christenings and barn-raisings to installing a new minister. “My grandfather Barbour was a deacon in the church and a distiller,” Diocletian Lewis wrote of his mother’s father, whose powerful voice was said to carry a mile. “He was a very prayerful man, but I suppose that for each prayer uttered by him into the ear of heaven, he sent out, for the stomachs of his fellow-men, five hundred gallons of peach brandy and whiskey.” Beyond limiting sellers’ days and hours of operation and mandates that taverns and inns serve food and provide lodgings, alcohol came in for little regulation, especially out west in upstate New York and Ohio.

John Lewis, after serving in the War of 1812, took over his father’s farm outside Throopsville, New York—until drinking cost him his inheritance and his family had to move south to Clarksville, then being absorbed into a larger town, Auburn. Delecta Lewis’s skill as a tailor kept the family afloat. Caring for and supporting four children and a sot husband strained Delecta’s spirits. “When she could bear it no longer, she would go away by herself, upstairs,” Diocletian Lewis later wrote. “We knew what she went there for, and sometimes we could hear her say `O God! Help me! Help me!’…When she came down to us again, her cheeks were wet but her face shone like an angel’s…I believe in my heart that woman’s prayer is the most powerful agency on earth.”

 

As early as 1808, small local temperance societies of limited impact were taking shape around the United States. In the 1820s the Second Great Awakening—a surge of religious fervor questioning formal modes of worship and founding new Protestant denominations—spawned the American Temperance Union, a nationwide entity. Led by revivalist ministers, the group at first targeted the consumption of hard liquor, advocating moderation until 1836, when the Temperance Union began demanding a ban on all intoxicating beverages. Men battling the bottle in private were also organizing. In 1840 six reformed drunkards in Baltimore started a group, the Washingtonians, to share their experiences and help one another stay sober, later broadening membership to any men who wished to assist. Dio Lewis’ younger brother Loran became a Washingtonian. A women’s auxiliary, the Martha Washingtonians, came into being. In 1842 in New York City the male-only Sons of Temperance formed, with members draping themselves in the regalia of a secret society.

In Clarksville, Delecta Lewis sought help in prayer but also in community. She joined the Disciples of Christ, another legacy of the Second Great Awakening. Intent on protecting her adolescent children, she fought alcohol sales, enlisting female neighbors to pressure dram shops in and around Auburn. Singing hymns and praying, the crusaders entreated barkeepers to stop selling spirits. When a barkeep protested that booze sales were keeping his sickly family alive, the women cared for the patients until the paterfamilias found other work. The campaigners soon convinced all but one local establishment to stop selling liquor; community pressure persuaded the holdout to shut down. For several years Delecta Lewis and her allies kept Auburn dry, an achievement that left a lasting impression on her oldest son, who left New York to start a school in Lower Sandusky (now Fremont), Ohio.

Near the end of his first year in Ohio, “a violent ague” sent Dio Lewis back to Auburn.  His illness triggered an interest in medicine, and he began to study under the staff physician at Auburn State Prison. After three years assisting his mentor, in 1845 Lewis entered the medical school at Harvard College but was unable to afford to complete the coursework. It not being unusual to offer medical services without license or degree in 1840s America, he began calling himself Dr. Dio Lewis and practicing medicine in Port Byron, on the Erie Canal north of Auburn.

Men achieving membership in the Sons of Temperance were one of these scrolls. (Bettmann/Getty Images)

In 1849 Dio Lewis married Helen Cecilia Clarke, a physician’s daughter. The couple moved to Buffalo, New York. During cholera epidemics there in 1849 and 1851, Dio took many risks, twice contracting the disease. Nursing a sister who succumbed to consumption, as tuberculosis then was known, Helen was infected and became very ill. The wisdom of the day urged consumptives to seek recovery in warmer climes. In January 1853, the Lewises spent several weeks in Fredericksburg, Virginia, where Dio Lewis joined the Sons of Temperance. Convinced the society should admit women, he delivered a public lecture entitled “The Influence of Christian Women in the Cause of Temperance.” 

Lewis proved a compelling speaker. To go with his robust physique and mane of red hair, he had a powerful voice like his grandfather’s. A listener described him at the rostrum as conducting “an animated parlor conversation between speaker and audience. . .  No stilts, puffery, or airing of medical terms, but a cozy talk on common-sense subjects.”

Seeing drunkenness as a vice to be corrected, Lewis argued against punishing those in alcohol’s grip. “Cursing the drunkard is useless,” he said. “To advocate force in regard to personal habits is dangerous ground.” Instead, he stressed the need for prayer and pushed for women to adopt his mother’s hands-on approach to stopping the sale of spirits. The rum-seller must become “the subject of loving and prayerful solicitude, that he may be saved from his reckless and inordinate desire for gain,” he said. He called his approach “reasonable and consistent with Christianity” and superior to “our American mania for regulating the world by statute.” (See “Diocletian Lewis in his own words,” below)          

Warm, humid Virginia air did nothing for Helen’s physical well-being, but when she returned north and visited nearby Toronto, Canada, where the air was cool and dry, she felt much better. Her husband credited exertion—he had her saw wood until she could cut a branch as thick as a man’s leg—requiring she breathe deeply. She gave up corsets and dressed comfortably. Her recovery was astounding. An acquaintance who last had seen her at death’s door asked her husband when the first Mrs. Lewis had passed away. “This is the first Mrs. Lewis!” Dio replied. Based on his wife’s experience, he began to challenge conventions restricting women’s exercise, dress, and conduct as he had challenged restrictions on women’s education. On the lecture circuit, along with counseling temperance, he began championing drastic reform on behalf of women. He railed at corsetry’s ill effects. “It means the organs of the abdomen jammed down into the pelvis; it means the organs of the chest stuffed up into the throat,” he said. “It means a weak back; it means a delicate and nervous invalid; it means a suffering patient, and not a vigorous helpmate.”

Along with temperance and suffrage, Diocletian Lewis campaigned against corsets, arguing that the restrictive garments were detrimental to women's health. (Photo by Historica Graphica Collection/Heritage Images/Getty Images


Along with temperance and suffrage, Diocletian Lewis campaigned against corsets, arguing that the restrictive garments were detrimental to women's health. (Photo by Historica Graphica Collection/Heritage Images/Getty Images

Along with temperance and suffrage, Diocletian Lewis campaigned against corsets, arguing that the restrictive garments were detrimental to women’s health. (Photo by Historica Graphica Collection/Heritage Images/Getty Images)