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
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.
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.
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.”
By the 1850s the temperance movement was splintering. The Washingtonians, the Sons of Temperance, and allied groups thought individual abstinence, supported by loved ones, the best defense against demon rum. Men controlled society. Some, like Lewis, favored the individual responsibility endorsed by the Sons and the Washingtonians, coupled with the peer pressure that his mother had exerted. Lewis saw drinking as a moral failing outside government’s realm whose correction lay in personal commitment by the individual and by helpers, often women, an outlook that appealed to many of his female listeners. The Martha Washingtonians encouraged male and female drinkers to reform and helped feed and clothe the families of those who tried.
Some temperance advocates demanded government controls on drink, introducing bills in nearly every state to prohibit or curtail its sale. However, alcohol generated municipal revenue; many states empowered local jurisdictions to charge for liquor licenses. In the resulting political battles, women, denied the vote, had to watch from the sidelines. Some feminist leaders, such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton, argued that women first had to get the vote to make progress in the temperance fight.
For five years Lewis traveled, refining his talk on temperance, urging women listeners to take up the public tactics his mother had pioneered. One Sunday in 1858 he addressed a multi-denominational service in Dixon, Illinois. In response, more than 50 women formed a “committee of visitation.” They drew up an appeal to local retailers, took to the streets, and within six days Dixon was dry. Two weeks later, following a Lewis appearance in Battle Creek, Michigan, women there did likewise. Early in that six-week struggle, which closed 49 liquor outlets, an innkeeper said he would stop selling alcohol if the women removed his sign, hung from a high limb. His interlocutors found a ladder, dismantled the sign, and bore it in triumph past the residence where Dio and Helen Lewis were staying. However, no broader movement followed these isolated victories.
The Civil War hobbled the temperance movement. A federal tax on alcohol helped fund the Union cause, limiting political interest in banning alcohol. Men once pledged to temperance became accustomed to drink as a battlefield anesthetic and a way to forget the horrors of combat. Many mustered out dependent on the bottle. Brewers, vintners, and barkeepers often were foreign-born; when immigration surged after the war, these entrepreneurs fanned out across the country. Between 1864 and 1873 retailers selling spirits multiplied at an annual rate exceeding 17 percent, compared with the population’s 2.6 percent annual growth rate. Because doctors could prescribe alcohol, also the main ingredient in most popular patent medicines, many respectable citizens bought booze at pharmacies.
The volatile wartime blend of armed men accustomed to violence and drinking in bars caused lethal incidents. On September 3, 1864, in Greenfield, Ohio, as young William Blackburn was walking by the Newbeck and Hirn saloon, a stray shot fired within killed the boy. No prosecution followed, and ill will festered. When, the next July, a drunk shoved two married women off the sidewalk into the gutter, the women of Greenfield declared war. They told Mayor John Eckman they planned to confiscate every liquor inventory in town and asked him for a secure place in which to store the seized goods. Eckman scoffed. Furious, women, both black and white, assembled at the Free Soil African Methodist Episcopal Church. Arming themselves with axes, hatches, and mallets, they marched to a drugstore on East Main Street, demanding that owner William Ling surrender his liquor or suffer the consequences. Ling secured his door. Across the street, the Newbeck and Hirn bar already was locked down. “Here is the place my boy was murdered!” cried Drusilla Blackburn. A marcher smashed a saloon window and, protected by her skirts, clambered inside and unlocked the door. Women wrestled barrels of whiskey and kegs of beer onto the sidewalk and smashed them. Righteous violence spread through every Greenfield tavern and drugstore, as women destroyed inventories or secured pledges to ship the hooch away. When the female proprietor of a discreet drinking parlor swore she had no liquor, a raider lifted a tablecloth to reveal a barrel of whiskey, which marchers rolled out the door, broke open, and drained away.
Bar owners filed criminal complaints against 57 Greenfield marchers. The women pleaded not guilty, posting bonds ranging from $100 to $400. When a grand jury refused to indict, liquor retailers sued for damages. The civil case was to be heard in the nearby Highland County seat, Hillsboro, where residents greeted the Greenfield women as heroes when they arrived for trial in January 1867. Hillsboro women crowded the courtroom in silent support. The judge awarded $625 in damages, less than a third of what the plaintiffs had sought, but the impulsive raid had been a temporary victory. Greenfield’s liquor trade recovered.
Six years later, Dio Lewis came to Hillsboro to speak on women’s behalf and to give his temperance speech. His hostess, Eliza Thompson, skipped his lecture on alcohol, but her children Mary, 22, and Henry, 17, attended. That Tuesday evening, fired up by what they had heard, the two recounted Lewis’s performance in the family parlor for their mother as their father, weary from traveling the court circuit, lay napping. The younger Thompsons quoted Lewis, invoking his mother’s successes: “Ladies, you could do the same thing in Hillsboro if you had the same faith.” When he asked who would step up, the children said, more than fifty women rose. Lewis asked who would back them; 60 or 70 men and youngsters stood. Henry told his mother she was supposed to show up the next morning at the Presbyterian church, “and the ladies expect you to go out with them to the saloons!” Judge Thompson rolled over and propped himself on an elbow.
“What tomfoolery is all that?” he rumbled.
His wife brought him up short. “I ventured to observe that men had been in the ‘tomfoolery’ business a long time, and suggested that it might be God’s will that women should now take their part,” Eliza Thompson wrote later.
Christmas Eve morning, Eliza Thompson was praying when daughter Mary rushed in holding her Bible and pointing to Psalm 146. “Put not your trust in Princes . . .” the verse warns, promising, “the Lord opens the eyes of the blind. . . the Lord loves the righteous. . . but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin.” Eliza hurried to the Presbyterian church where fellow townswomen unanimously chose her to lead them. Participants drew up an appeal aimed at Hillsboro liquor purveyors. Asked to speak, Eliza Thompson said she would not do so until the men present left. When the women had the room to themselves, she stepped to the pulpit, told what had transpired at her home that morning, and read aloud Psalm 146. With tears in her eyes, Eliza called upon the group to sing “Cast to the Winds Thy Fears.”
To the tune of that hymn, 74 women marched two by two from the church. Their first stop was Dr. William Smith’s drugstore on East Main Street. Mrs. Milton Boyd read aloud the appeal. After much persuading, the druggist agreed to sign but reserved the right to fill alcohol prescriptions he wrote himself. Three drugstores, four hotels, and 13 saloons remained. At each establishment committee members massed, sang, knelt to pray and listened to the reading of the pledge. Three business owners signed the pledge; one put them off. The marchers agreed to resume action the day after Christmas.
December 26 dawned clear and cold. The women called on two saloons and three hotels whose proprietors hemmed and hawed. One proprietor offered to sell them his business, billiard tables included. Mrs. Thompson led her crusaders to Robert Ward’s High Street saloon. Ward politely held the door as the women had filed in, then stood impassively behind the bar. Even Ward’s sangfroid could not withstand Mrs. Thompson’s impassioned promise of forgiveness if he would “but agree to abandon a business that is so damaging to our hearts and the peace of our homes!” Sensing embarrassment in her target, she added, “Let us pray.” Everyone, Ward included, knelt.
Soon afterwards, Dr. Lewis reported that 44 women who had heard him speak in Washington Court House had set out from the Methodist church there and marched through that town. So did women in Wilmington, New Vienna, and Greenfield—for a second time. Like a winter prairie fire, women by the hundreds in towns across southwest Ohio closed dozens of saloons. Press attention fanned the flames. In the next five months thousands of women in 31 states and territories mobilized to create the largest protests by women that America had ever seen. The result was the founding of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, a powerful interest group personified by the cask-smashing activist Carrie Nation. That organization later endorsed women’s suffrage and supported the push for a constitutional amendment to prohibit alcohol that took effect in 1920. In 1881, Temperance Union president Frances Willard hailed Lewis “for the brotherly stand you have always taken for our liberties…To have been the prime mover, under God, in the crusade and to fight the battle of dress reform, is a two-fold achievement such as an archangel might envy.”
Dio and Helen Lewis spent three years traveling and camping in California, where they met a wide variety of characters. He recounted these experiences in a book, Gypsies. The couple came back east and settled in Yonkers, New York, in 1885. Lewis was riding near his new home when a carriage struck his horse. The animal reared, throwing him. The fall badly injured one of his legs, causing a chronic infection that went on for months. Lewis nonetheless maintained his schedule of activities and advocacy. Early in May 1886, he spoke at an event raising funds for a free public library to serve working women. On May 21, he died from his lingering injury. He was 63.
Diocletian Lewis in his own words
From his temperance lecture:
“Who is responsible for the hold drinking usages have on our community today? Clearly not the drunkards; they win no one, but on the contrary, with their loathsome and pitiful state help the temperance people. . . But it is the men who lead social opinion, and who drink now and then in a respectable and gentlemanly manner without exposing themselves to reproach; these are the ones who are, before God and man, responsible for the drunkenness of today. They are the recruiting officers in the devil’s army, and upon them is the guilt of the degradation that shall come to the young men who are now pure.”
“. . . None should go into this work until he can lay aside all combative or threatening tendencies. The movement is purely philanthropic, and only that spirit which comes from God and goes out to man should pervade its work.”
“Need I say that for a work which demands this love, this faith, this unwavering trust in God, this power when reviled to not revile again, the hope of the nation is in the women and in them alone?”
“. . . Let committees of men be organized to stand behind the women, supporting them by sympathy, by prayers, and by the necessary material aid. . . But let them be careful to leave to the women the management of the campaign. They have the instinct, as men have not, of the best way to do things, and when they fail, we need not hope to succeed.”
“During the years of my public lecturing my audiences were more than half made up of girls and women. . . My hopes of the future rest upon the girls. My patriotism clings to the girls. I believe America’s future pivots on this great woman revolution.”
“I could not respect my wife if she did not have opinions of her own, and the largest right of expressing them.”
This story from American History was posted on Historynet.com on January 26, 2021