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  • Excerpts from “Drinking Jack” (1881)
  • Mary Dwinell Chellis

The following excerpts are from one of the three stories in Drinking Jack and Other Stories, a dime novel from the Fife and Drum Series (No. 4) published by the National Temperance Society and Publication House in 1881.1 In typical fashion, this tale features a drunken father who abuses and neglects his large family. His violent behavior is contrasted with his brother-in-law’s peaceful intervention to save his sister and her children.

“Drinking Jack” was the name by which John Neal was known in the community, and this reveals his character. He could work, and did work, whenever it suited his pleasure or convenience. If a job requiring both strength and skill was to be done, Jack’s services were in requisition, if he could be kept sober.

Yet, a terrible man and a most brutalized sot, he was despised by all, while he was pitied by none. His wife and children received sympathy. But he! Who cared for him? Reform was not to be thought of in his case. His only redeeming quality lay in his ability to labor, and his death would have been counted a blessing.

“Going home, Jack?” asked a rough-looking man, who encountered him just as he was passing the outermost limits of the village.

“Yes,” he answered with a fearful oath.

A little further, he turned to the right. By this time his clothing was completely soaked, and his boots sodden. The way seemed long, and for a moment he faltered. It must have been instinct which guided his steps until he could see the faint glimmer of a light. … Wonder that he should have seen, so faint was it; only the flickering ray of a tallow candle. Not always was there even this; but Mary, the oldest daughter, was at home, and George had been expected. A better supper than usual was in process of preparation, Mary having brought the materials.

“Good-evening, father!” she said, as he opened the door. [End Page 89]

“I don’t see anything good about the evening,” he answered surlily, throwing his cap upon the floor. “I’m wet to my skin. Start round, and bring me some dry clothes. Stop that brat’s noise or I’ll stop it myself,” he added, as the baby commenced crying.

Mrs. Neal looked up hopelessly. The child was sick and its wailing could not be hushed. Mary endeavored to engage her father’s attention, in providing for his own comfort. The other children crept noiselessly up the stairs leading to an unfinished chamber, where they huddled together in one corner.

“Oh, I’ve stepped in the water,” whispered one. “I feel it coming down on my neck, too.”

“Yes, I guess you can,” answered Harry. “This old roof leaks like a sieve. When I’m a man, I won’t live in any such old shell as this. I won’t drink rum, either. I promised Uncle George I wouldn’t.”

“Hush!” said Nancy. “Don’t talk. I wish George would come. I’m afraid father’s going to have one of his spells; and we shall all die if he drives us out in the storm to-night.”

“No, we sha’n’t either,” replied Harry, stoutly. “We shall go right down to Uncle George’s house. He said we must, the very next time father shuts us out.”

“Could you find the way in the dark?” asked little Nellie.

“Of course I could, if it was dark as pitch.”

“Hush!” whispered Nancy, and this time the injunction was heeded.

There was a crash below, and the light no longer shone through the cracks in the floor.

“Father, father!” cried Mary, “you have killed the baby.”

Such a wild, maniacal laugh as answered her. It was quite certain that Drinking Jack would “have a spell.”

Lying prone upon the floor, regardless of the water above and below him, Harry could see, when the candle was relighted, all which transpired in the kitchen. His father was striding about, with arms swinging, threatening at every step to demolish some article of furniture. His mother had made her escape...