Thinking about the tumultuous past of John Brown of Logansport, Indiana, prior to his 1897 death, I can’t help but wonder about the relationship he had with his bride, the former Emma W. Carle. Were comments like “I don’t know what she saw in him” on every wagging tongue in town? After all, it was a short three months between the time this bride and groom promised each other, “I do” until the time he decided, “I don’t.”
Reading the details in the all-too-chatty local newspapers—four different publications, at last count—I began to wonder the same thing, myself. What did possess the young Emma Carle to marry the man?
On the day after the suicide attempt, the Logansport Journal had declared in its headlines that John Brown “Took Enough Paris Green to Kill Ten Ordinary Men.” They, too, naturally pondered the same question I did.
What motive there could have been for the determined and successful effort at self-destruction is hard to find. Brown was a little over twenty-five years old, had been married, and happily, so far as known to his friends, for about three months.
In attempting to answer the question that must have been on everyone’s mind, the Journal reflected,
Before his marriage Brown had been addicted to drink, but for the past few months had not been drinking at all until last week, when he began drinking and laid off work all week.
The rhetorically-charged Logansport Times advanced its own speculation:
For years before his marriage he had been a hard drinker, but had stopped a short time prior to the marriage, and this was his first spree since his marriage. He was twenty-six years of age, and we believe he had spent ten years of this time a drunkard. The writer remembers well of seeing him reeling drunk as long as eight or ten years ago.
I can’t help but imagine a scenario in which a young man, beleaguered with an overwhelming and destructive habit, somehow found a way to rise to the occasion when catching a glimpse of a better option. Was Emma a “prize” that impelled the young man to try his best to re-invent himself? What a tragic story line—if only this were pulp fiction.
But it wasn’t. This was real life. And someone had to live through it—in fact, many someones. What became of John Brown—admittedly through his own “choice”—was something that not only he had to endure, but several members of his family had to bear as well.
If you’ve been reading along with me for any length of time, perhaps you recall my own immediate family’s struggle with some of the same difficulties. This is not a scenario for which moralizing people need merely to admonish, “tsk, tsk,” and move on. If I were a guessing person—and, being the writer here, I will take that liberty—I would say John Brown was suffering from some internal difficulty which no professional advisor of that time was equipped to resolve. He may have suffered from lifelong, deep depression—or possibly even a mild form of some mental illness for which his only relief of symptoms was to self-medicate with alcohol. Alcohol, then, became his respite from suffering, as ill-equipped as the substance might have been to solve for the need it addressed.
Of course, the question still stands: if that were so, what enabled him to rise above those difficulties to achieve the socially-acceptable appearance of sobriety long enough to snag a beautiful young bride? Was it, indeed, possible for him to do this? Or, having attempted it, did he discover the demons that drove him were insurmountable, after all?
The more I consider the plight of the unfortunate John Brown, the more I pity him, and the less I’m prone to sanction his actions. While I—and, certainly, his immediate family—wish it were otherwise, I can’t fault him for the eventual path he found himself taking.
Perhaps that very realization dawned on some people of his small town, too. Mercifully, as one newspaper observed,
His demise was peaceful, not being marked by any of his struggles earlier in the day.
Sometimes, in the face of life’s unfolding dramas, those party to the tragedy just need such closure.