John Allen BagleyJohn Allen Bagley began drinking socially during his service as Attorney General of Idaho, in 1902. He was a big fish in a little pond, and keenly aware of it. Although he was highly respected and admired in Idaho, Idaho was considered a primitive and rough place in the larger context of the United States. John was associating with educated and privileged society from the east, probably a little intimidating for a young man of humble, pioneer stock. It is easy to imagine the temptations he faced as a naive Mormon boy from Montpelier. He could not have known that alcoholism is a disease and that for an alcoholic "social drinking" is impossible. He developed an addiction to wine.
What if your star character was kind of a character? Here is an excerpt from a chapter I wrote about my great-grandfather.
Modern medicine indicates that the same gene is responsible for migraine headaches, motion sickness, depression and alcoholism. A person with that gene can suffer from any or all of these problems. Descendants of John Allen Bagley should realize that a tendency to addiction could be genetic. Did John suffer from depression as well? The circumstances of tragic death and sorrow during his life suggest that possibility.
Some members of the family remember hearing rumors that John used laudanum, as well. Laudanum was a popular drug at the time, recommended by doctors as a pain killer, sleeping medicine and anti-depressant. It was self-administered, cut from a brick the size and texture of a pound of butter, and then diluted or "cut" with a small amount of alcohol.
Laudanum is a solution containing morphine, prepared from opium. Later, a milder but similar solution became paregoric, a regulated medication. If John did use this drug, perhaps for migraine headaches, it is likely he became addicted to it. Alcohol and laudanum would actually contribute to the very conditions they supposedly cured.
John's grandchildren had a very different experience with him than those who knew him well as a younger man. Marie Bagley was afraid of him. Gerald Bagley recalled that "he smelled funny," and Melvin Bagley said his father, Hawley, had to "carry Grandpa home from bars when he was drunk. He seemed cold and uninterested in us kids."
Some of his grandchildren thought he was mean, and that he became frightening and angry when their father would not bring him wine. John's choices probably seemed justifiable to him in the beginning, yet the consequences of those choices may have rendered him unable to escape. Alcohol and drug addiction, even if entered into innocently, could certainly have changed John's personality.
Marjorie Turner, another granddaughter, said her brothers Stuart and Ben had opposite memories of John Allen. His son Loraine gave him work in his Salt Lake law office. Loraine's son Ben remembered his grandfather as "almost a bum, begging clients for quarters." The other son, Stuart, remembered John as always looking dapper in a starched white shirt and suspenders. John apparently struck people in very different ways.
John Allen Bagley has been described as poetic, brilliant, honorable, eloquent, warm, capable and loyal to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He has also been described as a boozer, womanizer, "scheming backroom politician," and "a damned drunk." The real man was probably neither as good or as bad as he is portrayed. Like most of us, he was most likely somewhere in between. His life should be viewed with perspective, balancing the admirable qualities with the objectionable details, tempering our judgement with our personal shortcomings, appreciating his worthy contributions and perhaps pondering his mistakes.
It's fun to play the devil's advocate. I think there's something heroic in just about everybody when you know get to know them, warts and all.
What kind of details would you want left out of your biography? Have you ever torn pages out of your diary? Why? Do you regret it? How have you reacted to secrets you discovered about folks you love? (Comment anonymously if you want to.)