Victorian strangeness: The 3,000-mile drunken escapade
- 26 April 2014
Binge drinking is in decline, according to new research. It was recognised as a problem in Victorian times, as is demonstrated by the 1878 case of a man who drank himself all the way from London to Ohio without noticing, writes Jeremy Clay.
With his skull pounding, John Wren lay in bed, grieving for his poor, dead brain cells.
He peered around the unfamiliar room, searching for clues to his surroundings. Nothing.
Happily, someone appeared who could help. Wren promptly asked her for a whisky. When refused, he was moved to ask where he was.
Hospital, said the nurse. He guessed the name of one in London, the city he'd been in before alcohol wiped his memory. No, not London, she told him - Cleveland, Ohio.
"Good heavens!" he cried out. "Have I crossed the Atlantic drunk?"
Wren's rather sordid story began seven weeks earlier, at the tail end of 1878, when the teetotaller had been enjoying the convivial company of friends in England.
They persuaded him to have a drink. He declined. They tried again. He accepted. One thing led to another. And another. And another besides.
Wren travelled more than 3,000 miles without noticing. Christmas and New Year passed by in a boozy blur. In the press, they called it "one of the most extraordinary drunken frolics on record".
"Drunk for seven weeks" was the headline in the Edinburgh Evening News. "The voyage of an inebriate", said the Staffordshire Sentinel. "One way to escape sea sickness", offered the Dundee Courier.
"The discomfort attending a long sea voyage has been successfully avoided by an Englishman named Wren, who crossed the Atlantic the other day in a state of drunkenness so complete that he was unconscious of the fact that he had left Liverpool until some time after his arrival in America," the reports began.
"So hopeless was his state of intoxication that he was taken to the hospital where he remained for three weeks under medical treatment."
So how and why did a night out in London end up seven weeks later in Cleveland? The answer depends on which papers you read.
According to the British press, he'd sobered up to find he'd emigrated, after his friends put him on a ship with a through ticket to Cleveland.
The American newspapers, more plausibly, said Wren already lived in Ohio, and had been visiting his son in London.
Thus the case was framed in terms of the unerring homing instinct of a drunk.