Plains Folk

Delerium Tremens


The year 1876 is one we remember for a number of reasons, but in an army outpost south of the Black Hills, a little drama played out that resonates for the whole region of the Great Plains. The story is told by Paul Hedren, a historian retired from the National Park Service, in the recent issue of South Dakota History.

At this time the Black Hills gold rush was getting underway, and so garrisons of soldiers were established to protect the route from Cheyenne, on the Union Pacific Railroad, up through Fort Laramie to the hills. One of the outposts was Camp Mouth of Red Canyon, which was in the far southwest corner of present South Dakota.

Here on January 11 the commander, First Lieutenant Rufus Porter Brown, was called to deal with a situation: the post physician, Acting Assistant Surgeon R. M. Reynolds, was having an attack of delirium tremens. Brown knew right away what the problem was, although that Latin term, delirium tremens, requires definition for readers today.

Delerium tremens is a condition of alcohol withdrawal that comes to a person with a long-term problem. Its manifestations run from confusion to hallucinations to seizures, sometimes fatal. The treatment in the 19th century was to administer stimulants accompanied by opium. It’s no wonder that alcohol addiction so commonly progressed to drug addiction. In the case of Dr. Reynolds, the physician from the next post up the trail rushed to his assistance.

Although we often speak as though substance abuse is some sort of modern crisis, it is instructive to recall how widespread and profound was the addiction to alcohol in the 19th century. It is easy to caricature the raucous saloon-smashing of prohibitionists in those days, but their actions were justified by the situation. Many others just accepted the fact that a certain proportion of the population would be out of commission, on drinking binges, for periods of weeks or months at a time.

This included military officers on the western frontier, where access to alcohol was easy, and life was a matter of boredom punctuated by terror. Last year I read the account of military life on the northern plains by Major General Philippe Regis de Trobriand, entitled Military Life in Dakota. It seems as if the officers of his acquaintance spent all their time either boozing or bringing charges against one another for boozing.

As for Dr. Reynolds, he probably succumbed to the habit of dipping into supplies of medicinal alcohol. As soon as he recovered from his attack, he was sacked from his position. So, what happened to a guy like that? Did he just sink into dereliction and death?

In this case, no. Reynolds turned up next on the frontier of western Kansas, in Rooks County. Reynolds, like Brewster Higley, author of “Home on the Range,” became one of those drinking physicians who moved from one place to another on the prairie frontier.

After that, however, widowed and remarried to a much younger woman, he settled down in the little town of Gypsum, raised a family, opened a grocery, and became something of a town father. When he died in 1911 at age seventy, the town closed its schools for the funeral. Atop Reynolds’s grave in Gypsum stands a marker honoring his military service, alongside a heavy granite family stone denoting the place of a substantial and respectable citizen.



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