from 1890's - Henry H. Ellis)
has been known for some years that the Kiowa Indians
of New Mexico are accustomed to eat, in their religious
ceremonies, a certain cactus called Anhalonium Lewinii,
or mescal button. Mescal which must not be confounded
with the intoxicating drink of the same name made from
an agave is found in the Mexican Valley of the Rio Grande,
the ancestral home of the Kiowa Indians, as well as
in Texas, and is a brown and brittle substance, nauseous
and bitter to the taste, composed mainly of the blunt
dried leaves of the plant.
has indeed spread, and the mescal rite may be said to
be to-day the chief religion of all the tribes of the
southern plains of the United States. The rite usually
takes place on Saturday night; the men then sit in a
circle within the tent round a large camp fire, which
is kept burning brightly all the time. After a prayer
the leader hands each man four buttons, which are slowly
chewed and swallowed, and altogether about ten or twelve
buttons are consumed by each man between sundown and
daybreak. Throughout the night the men sit quietly round
the fire in a state of reverie amid continual singing
and the beating of drums by attendants absorbed in the
color visions and other manifestations of mescal intoxication,
and about noon on the following day, when the effects
have passed off, they get up and go about their business,
without any depression or other unpleasant aftereffect.
1891 Mr. James Mooney, of the United States Bureau of
Ethnology, having frequently observed the mescal rites
of the Kiowa Indians and assisted at them, called the
attention of the Anthropological Society at Washington
to the subject, and three years later he brought to
Washington a supply of mescal, which was handed over
for examination to Drs. Prentiss and Morgan. These investigators
experimented on several young men, and demonstrated,
for the first time, the precise character of mescal
intoxication and the remarkable visions to which it
A little later Dr. Weir Mitchell, who, in addition to
his eminence as a physician, is a man of marked æsthetic
temperament, experimented on himself, and published
a very interesting record of the brilliant visions by
which he was visited under the influence of the plant.
In the spring of the past year I was able to obtain
a small sample of mescal in London, and as my first
experiment with mescal was also, apparently, the first
attempt to investigate its vision-producing properties
outside America1, I will describe it in some detail,
in preference to drawing on the previously published
description of the American observers.
Good Friday I found myself entirely alone in the quiet
rooms in the Temple which I occupy when in London, and
judged the occasion a fitting on for a personal experiment.
I made a decoction (a different method from that adopted
in America) of three buttons, the full physiological
dose, and drank this at intervals between 2.30 and 4.30
The first symptom observed during the afternoon
was a certain consciousness of energy and intellectual
This passed off, and about an hour after the final dose
I felt faint and unsteady; the pulse was low, and I
found it pleasanter to lie down. I was still able to
read, and I noticed that a pale violet shadow floated
over the page around the point at which my eyes were
fixed. I had already noticed that objects not in the
direct line of vision, such as my hands holding the
book, showed a tendency to look obtrusive, heightened
in color, almost monstrous, while, on closing my eyes,
afterimages were vivid and prolonged.
The appearance of visions with closed eyes was
At first there was merely a vague play of light
and shade which suggested pictures, but never made them.
Then the pictures became more definite, but
too confused and crowded to be described, beyond saying
that they were of the same character as the images of
the kaleidoscope, symmetrical groupings of spiked objects.
Then, in the course of the evening, they became distinct,
but still indescribable mostly a vast field of golden
studded with red and green stones, ever changing. This
moment was, perhaps, the most delightful of the experience,
for at the same time the air around me seemed to be
flushed with vague perfume producing with the visions
a delicious effect and all discomfort had vanished,
except a slight faintness and tremor of the hands, which
made it almost impossible to guide a pen as I made notes
of the experiment;
it was, however, with an effort, always possible to
write with a pencil.
visions never resembled familiar objects; they were
extremely definite, but yet always novel; they were
constantly approaching, and yet constantly eluding,
the semblance of known things.
I would see thick, glorious fields of jewels,
solitary or clustered,
sometimes brilliant and sparkling, sometimes with a
dull rich glow.
Then they would spring up into flower-like shapes beneath
and then seem to turn into gorgeous butterfly forms
or endless folds of glistening, iridescent, fibrous
wings of wonderful insects;
while sometimes I seemed to be gazing into a vast hollow
revolving vessel, on whose polished concave mother-of-pearl
surface the hues were swiftly changing.
I was surprised, not only by the enormous profusion
of the imagery presented to my gaze, but still more
by its variety. Perpetually some totally new kind of
effect would appear in the field of vision;
sometimes there was swift movement, sometimes dull,
somber richness of color, sometimes glitter and sparkle,
one a startling rain of gold, which seemed to approach
me. Most usually there was a combination of rich, sober
color, with jewel-like points of brilliant hue. Every
color and tone conceivable to me appeared at some time
or another. Sometimes all the different varieties of
one color, as of red, with scarlets, crimsons, pinks,
would spring up together, or in quick succession. But
in spite of this immense profusion, there was always
a certain parsimony and æsthetic value in the
colors presented. They were usually associated with
form, and never appeared in large masses, or if so,
the tone was very delicate.
I was further impressed, not only by the brilliance,
delicacy, and variety of the colors, but even more by
their lovely and various textures fibrous, woven, polished,
glowing, dull, veined, semi-transparent the glowing
effects, as of jewels, and the fibrous, as of insects'
wings, being perhaps the most prevalent.
Although the effects were novel, it frequently happened,
as I have already mentioned, that they vaguely recalled
known objects. Thus, once the objects presented to me
seemed to be made of exquisite porcelain, again they
were like elaborate sweetmeats, again of a somewhat
Maori style of architecture; and the background of the
pictures frequently recalled, both in form and tone,
the delicate architectural effects as of lace carved
in wood, which we associate with the mouchrabieh work
of Cairo. But always the vision grew and changed without
any reference to the characteristics of those real objects
of which they vaguely reminded me, and when I tried
to influence their course it was with very little success.
the whole, I should say that the images were most usually
what might be called living arabesques.
There was often a certain incomplete tendency
as though the underlying mechanism was associated with
a large number of polished facets.
The same image was in this way frequently repeated over
a large part of the field; but this refers more to form
than to color, in respect to which there would
still be all sorts of delightful varieties, so that
if, with a certain uniformity, jewel-like flowers were
springing up and expanding all over the field of vision,
they would still show every variety of delicate tone
Mitchell found that he could only see the visions with
closed eyes and in a perfectly dark room. I could see
them in the dark with almost equal facility, though
they were not of equal brilliancy, when my eyes were
wide open. I saw them best, however, when my eyes were
closed, in a room lighted only by flickering firelight.
This evidently accords with the experience of the Indians,
who keep a fire burning brightly throughout their mescal
visions continued with undiminished brilliance for many
hours, and as I felt somewhat faint and muscularly weak,
I went to bed, as I undressed being greatly impressed
by the red, scaly, bronzed, and pigmented appearance
of my limbs whenever I was not directly gazing at them.
had not the faintest desire for sleep;
there was a general hyperæsthesia of all
the senses as well as muscular irritability, and every
slightest sound seemed magnified to startling dimensions.
I may also have been kept awake by a vague alarm at
the novelty of my condition, and the possibility of
watching the visions in the dark for some hours I became
a little tired of them and turned on the gas. Then I
found that I was able to study a new series of visual
phenomena, to which previous observers had made no reference.
The gas jet (an ordinary flickering burner)
seemed to burn with great brilliance, sending out waves
of light, which expanded and contracted in an enormously
exaggerated manner. I was even more impressed by the
shadows, which were in all directions heightened by
flushes of red, green, and especially violet.
The whole room, with its white-washed but not very white
ceiling, thus became vivid and beautiful. The difference
between the room as I saw it then and the appearance
it usually presents to me was the difference one may
often observe between the picture of a room and the
The shadows I saw were the shadows which the
artist puts in, but which are not visible in the actual
scene under normal conditions of casual inspection.
I was reminded of the painting of Claude Monet, and
as I gazed at the scene it occurred to me that mescal
perhaps produces exactly the same conditions of visual
hyperæsthesia, or rather exhaustion, as may be
produced on the artist by the influence of prolonged
visual attention. I wished to ascertain how
the subdued and steady electric light would influence
vision, and passed into the next room; but here the
shadows were little marked, although the walls and floor
seemed tremulous and insubstantial, and the texture
of everything was heightened and enriched.
3.30 a.m. I felt that the phenomena were distinctly
diminishing though the visions, now chiefly of human
figures, fantastic and Chinese in character, still continued
and I was able to settle myself to sleep, which proved
peaceful and dreamless. I awoke at the usual hour and
experienced no sense of fatigue nor other unpleasant
reminiscence of the experience I had undergone. Only
my eyes seemed unusually sensitive to color, especially
to blue and violet; I can, indeed, say that ever since
this experience I have been more æsthetically
sensitive than I was before to the more delicate phenomena
of light and shade and color.
occurred to me that it would be interesting to have
the experiences of an artist under the influence of
mescal, and I induced and artist friend to make a similar
Unfortunately no effects whatever were produced at the
first attempt, owing, as I have since discovered, to
the fact that the buttons had only been simply infused
and their virtues not extracted. To make sure of success
the experiment was repeated with four buttons, which
proved to be an excessive and unpleasant dose. As the
experiences of this subject were in many respects very
unlike mine, I will give them in his own words:
noticed at first that as I happened to turn my eyes
away from a blue enamel kettle at which I had been unconsciously
looking, and which was standing in the fender of the
fireplace, with no fire in it, it seemed to me that
I saw a spot of the same blue in the black coals of
the grate, and that this spot appeared again, farther
off, a little brighter in hue. But I was in doubt whether
I had not imagined these blue spots. When, however,
I lifted my eyes to the mantelpiece, on which were scattered
all sorts of odds and ends, all doubt was over. I saw
and intensely vivid blue light begin to play around
every object. A square cigarette box, violet in color,
shone like an amethyst. I turned my eyes away and beheld
this time, on the back of a polished chair, a bar of
color glowing like a ruby.
Although I was expecting some such manifestation as
one of the first systems of the intoxication, I was
nevertheless somewhat alarmed when this phenomenon took
place. Such a silent and sudden illumination of all
things around, where a moment before I had seen nothing
uncommon, seemed like a kind of madness beginning from
outside me, and its strangeness affected me more than
also began another series of extraordinary sensations.
They set in with bewildering suddenness and followed
one another in rapid succession. These I now record
as they occur to my mind at haphazard:
(1) My right leg became suddenly heavy and solid; it
seemed, indeed, as if the entire weight of my body had
shifted into one part, about the thigh and knee, and
that the rest of my body had lost all substantiality.
(2) With the suddenness of a neuralgic pang, the back
of my head seemed to open and emit streams of bright
color; this was immediately followed by the feeling
as of a draft blowing like a gale through the hair in
the same region.
(3) At one moment the color, green acquired
a taste in my mouth; it was sweetish and somewhat
metallic; blue again would have a taste that seemed
to recall phosphorus; these are the only colors that
seemed to be connected with taste.
(4) A feeling of delightful relief and preternatural
lightness about my forehead, succeeded by a growing
sensation of contraction.
(5) Singing in one of my ears.
(6) A sensation of burning heat in the palm of my left
(7) Heat about both eyes. The last continued throughout
the whole period, except for a moment when I had a sensation
of cold upon the eyelids, accompanied with a color vision
of the wrinkled lid, of the skin disappearing from the
brow, of dead flesh, and finally of a skull.
these sensations and visions my mind remained not only
perfectly clear, but enjoyed, I believe, an unusual
lucidity. Certainly I was conscious of an odd
contrast in hearing myself talk rationally with H.E.,
who had entered the room a short time before, and experiencing
at the same moment the wild and extraordinary pranks
that were taking place in my body.
My reason appeared to be the sole survivor of my being.
At times I felt that this, too, would go, but the sound
of my own voice would establish again the communication
with the outer world of reality.
was painful for me to keep my eyes open above a few
seconds; the light of day seemed to fill the room with
a blinding glare. Yet every object, in the brief glimpse
I caught, appeared normal in color and shape. With my
eyes closed, most of the visions, after the first chaotic
display, represented parts of the whole of my body undergoing
a variety of marvelous changes, of metamorphoses or
illumination. They were more often than not comic and
grotesque in character, though often beautiful in color.
At one time I saw my right leg filling up with a delicate
heliotrope; at another, the sleeve of my coat changed
into a dark green material, in which was worked a pattern
in red braid, and the whole bordered at the cuff with
sable. Scarcely had my new sleeve taken shape than I
found myself attired in a complete costume of the same
fashion, mediæval in character; but I could not
say to what precise period it belonged.
noted that a chance movement of my hand, for instance
would immediately call up a color vision of the part
exerted, and that this again would pass, by a seemingly
natural transition, into another wholly dissimilar.
Thus, pressing my fingers accidentally against my temples,
the finger-tips became elongated, and then grew into
the ribs of a vaulting or of a dome-shaped roof. But
most of the visions were of a more personal nature.
I happened once to lift a spoonful of coffee to my lips,
and as I was in the act of raising my arm for that purpose
a vision flashed before my closed (or nearly closed)
eyes, in all the hues of the rainbow, of my arm separated
from my body, and serving me with coffee from out of
dark and indefinite space.
On another occasion, as I was seeking to relieve slight
nausea by taking a piece of biscuit passed to me be
H.E., it suddenly streamed out into blue flame. For
an instant I held the biscuit close to my leg. Immediately
my trousers caught alight, and then the whole of the
right side of my body, from the foot to the shoulder,
was enveloped in waving blue flame. It was a sight of
wonderful beauty. But this was not all. As I placed
the biscuit in my mouth it burst out again into the
same colored fire and illuminated the interior of my
mouth, casting a blue reflection on the roof. The light
in the Blue Grotto at Capri, I am able to affirm, is
not nearly as blue as seemed for a short space of time
the interior of my mouth.
were many visions of which I could not trace the origin.
There were spirals and arabesques and flowers, and sometimes
objects more trivial and prosaic in character. In one
vision I saw a row of small white flowers, one against
the other like pearls of a necklace, begin to revolve
in the form of a spiral. Every flower, I observed, had
the texture of porcelain. It was at a moment when I
had the sensation of my cheeks growing hot and feverish
that I experienced the strangest of all the color visions.
It began with feeling that the skin of my face was becoming
quite thin and of no stouter consistency than tissue
paper, and the feeling was suddenly enhanced by a vision
of my face, paper-like and semitransparent and somewhat
reddish in color. To my amazement I saw myself as though
I were inside a Chinese lantern, looking out through
my cheek into the room.
Not long after this I became conscious of a change in
the visions. Their tempo was more moderate, they were
less frequent, and they were losing somewhat in distinctness.
At the same time the feeling of nausea and of numbness
was departing. A short period followed in which I had
no visions at all, and experienced merely a sensation
of heaviness and torpor.
I found that I was able to open my eyes again and keep
them fixed on any object in the room without observing
the faintest blue halo or prism, or bar of glowing color,
and that, moreover, no visions appeared on closing them.
It was now twilight, but beyond the fact of not seeing
light or color, either without or within, I had a distinct
feeling that the action of the drug was at an end and
that my body had become sober suddenly. I had no more
visions, though I was not wholly free from abnormal
sensations, and I retired to rest.
lay awake till the morning, and with the exception of
the following night I scarcely slept for the next three
days, but I can not say that I felt any signs of fatigue,
unless, perhaps, on one of the days when my eyes, I
noticed, became very susceptible to any indications
of blue in and object. Of color visions, or of any approach
to color visions, there was no further trace; but all
sorts of odd and grotesque images passed in succession
through my mind during part of the first night. they
might have been the dreams of a Baudelaire or of and
Aubrey Beardsley. I would see figures with prodigious
limbs, or strangely dwarfed and curtailed, or impossible
combinations such as five or six fish, the color of
canaries, floating about in air in a gold wire cage.
But these were purely mental images, like the visions
seen in a dream by a distempered brain.
the many sensations of which my body had been the theater
during three hours, not the least strange was the feeling
I experienced on coming back into a normal condition.
The recovery did not proceed gradually, but the whole
outer and inner world of reality came back, as it were,
with a bound. And for a moment it seemed strange.
was the sensation only much intensified which everyone
has known on coming out into the light of day from an
afternoon performance at a theater, where one has sat
in an artificial light of gas and lamps, the spectator
of a fictitious world of action. As one pours out with
the crowd into the street, the ordinary world, by force
of contrast with the sensational scenes just witnessed,
breaks in upon one with almost a sense of unreality.
The house, the aspect of the street, even the light
of day appear a little foreign for a few moments. During
these moments everything strikes the mind as odd and
unfamiliar, or at least with a greater degree of objectivity.
Such was my feeling with regard to my old and habitual
the period of intoxication the connection between the
normal condition of my body and my intelligence had
broken my body had become in a manner a stranger to
my reason so that now on reasserting itself it seemed,
with reference to my reason, which had remained perfectly
sane and alert, for a moment sufficiently unfamiliar
or me to become conscious of its individual and peculiar
It was as if I had unexpectedly attained an
objective knowledge of my own personality.
I saw, as it were, my normal state of being with the
eyes of a person who sees the street on coming out of
the theater in broad day.
sensation also brought out the independence of the mind
during the period of intoxication. It alone appeared
to have escaped the ravages of the drug; it alone remained
sane during a general delirium, vindicating, so it seemed,
the majesty of its own impersonal nature. It had reigned
for a while, I now felt, as an autocrat, without ministers
and their officiousness.
Henceforth I should be more or less conscious of the
interdependence of body and brain; a slight headache,
a touch of indigestion, or what not, would be able to
effect what a general intoxication of my senses and
nerves could not touch"
next made experiments on two poets, whose names are
both well known.
One is interested in mystical matters, an excellent
subject for visions, and very familiar with various
vision-producing drugs and processes. His heart, however,
is not very strong. While he obtained the visions, he
found the effects of mescal on his breathing somewhat
unpleasant; he much prefers hasheesh, though recognizing
that its effects are much more difficult to obtain.
The other enjoys admirable health, and under the influence
of mescal he experienced scarcely the slightest unpleasant
reaction, but, on the contrary, a very marked state
of well being and beatitude. He took somewhat less than
three buttons, so that the results were rather less
marked than in my case, but they were perfectly definite.
"I have never seen a succession of absolutely
pictorial visions with such precision and such unaccountability.
It seemed as if a series of dissolving views were carried
swiftly before me, all going from right to left, none
corresponding with any seen reality. For instance, I
saw the most delightful dragons, puffing out their breath
straight in front of them like rigid lines of steam,
and balancing white balls at the end of their breath!
When I tried to fix my mind on real things, I could
generally call them up, but always with some inexplicable
change. Thus, I called up a particular monument in Westminster
Abbey, but in the front of it, to the left,knelt a figure
in Florentine costume, like someone out of a picture
of Botticelli; and I could not see the tomb without
also seeing this figure.
in the evening I went out on the Embankment and was
absolutely fascinated by an advertisement of 'Bovril,'
which went and came in letters of light on the other
side of the river. I can not tell you the intense pleasure
this moving light gave me and how dazzling it seemed
to me. Two girls and a man passed me, laughing loudly,
and lolling about as they walked. I realized, intellectually,
their coarseness, but visually I saw them, as they came
under a tree, fall into the lines of a delicate picture;
it might have been an Albert Moore.
coming in I played the piano with closed eyes and got
waves and lines of pure color, almost always without
form, though I saw one or two appearances which might
have been shields or breastplates pure gold, studded
with small jewels in intricate patterns. All the time
I had no unpleasant feelings whatever, except a very
slight headache, which came and went. I slept soundly
and without dreams."
results of music in the case just quoted together with
the habit of the Indians to combine the drum with mescal
rites, and my own observation that very slight jarring
or stimulation of the scalp would affect the visions
suggested to me to test the influence of music on myself.
therefore once more put myself under the influence of
mescal (taking a somewhat smaller dose than on the first
occasion), and lay for some hours on a couch with my
head more or less in contact with the piano, and with
closed eyes directed toward a subdued light, while a
friend played, making various tests, of his own devising,
which were not explained to me until afterwards.
I was to watch the visions in a purely passive manner,
without seeking to direct them, nor was I to think about
the music, which, so far as possible, was unknown to
music stimulated the visions and added greatly to my
enjoyment of them. It seemed to harmonized with them;
and, as it were, support and bear them up. A certain
persistence and monotony of character in the music was
required in order to affect the visions, which then
seemed to fall into harmony with it, and any sudden
change in the character of the music would blur the
visions, as though clouds passed between them and me.
The chief object of the tests was to ascertain how far
a desire on the composer's part to suggest definite
imagery would affect my visions. In about half the cases
there was no resemblance, in the other half there was
a distinct resemblance, which was sometimes very remarkable.
This was especially the case with Schumann's
music, for example, with his Waldscenen and Kinderscenen;
thus "The Prophet Bird" called up vividly
a sense of atmosphere and of brilliant feathery bird-like
forms passing to and fro,
Flower Piece" provoked constant and persistent
images of vegetation,
while "Scheherazade" produced an effect of
floating white raiment, covered by glittering spangles
In every case my description was, of course,
given before I knew the name of the piece.
I do not pretend that this single series of experiments
proves much, but it would certainly be worth while to
follow up this indication and to ascertain if any light
is hereby thrown on the power of a composer to suggest
definite imagery, or the power of a listener to perceive
would be out of place here to discuss the obscure question
as to the underlying mechanism by which mescal exerts
its magic powers. It is clear from the foregoing descriptions
that mescal intoxication may be described as chiefly
a saturnalia of the specific senses, and, above all,
an orgy of vision. It reveals an optical fairy-land,
where all the senses now and again join the play, but
the mind itself remains a self-possessed spectator.
Mescal intoxication thus differs from the other
artificial paradises which drugs procure.
Under the influence of alcohol, for instance,
as in normal dreaming, the intellect is impaired, although
there may be a consciousness of unusual brilliance;
hasheesh, again, produces an uncontrollable tendency
to movement and bathes its victim in a sea of emotion.
The mescal drinker remains calm and collected amid the
sensory turmoil around him; his judgment is as clear
as in the normal state; he falls into no oriental condition
of vague and voluptuous reverie.
reason why mescal is of all this class of drugs the
most purely intellectual in its appeal is evidently
because it affects mainly the most intellectual of the
senses. On this ground it is not probable that its use
will easily develop into a habit. Moreover, unlike most
other intoxicants, it seems to have no special affinity
for a disordered and unbalanced nervous system; on the
contrary, it demands organic soundness and good health
for the complete manifestation of its virtues.
unlike the other chief substances to which it may be
mescal does not wholly carry us away from the actual
world, or plunge us into oblivion;
a large part of its charm lies in the halo of beauty
which it casts around the simplest and commonest things.
It is the most democratic of the plants which lead men
to an artificial paradise.
If it should ever chance that the consumption of mescal
becomes a habit, the favorite poet of the mescal drinker
will certainly be Wordsworth. Not only the general attitude
of Wordsworth, but many of his most memorable poems
and phrases can not one is almost tempted to say be
appreciated in their full significance by one who has
never been under the influence of mescal.
On all these grounds it may be claimed that
the artificial paradise of mescal,
though less seductive, is safe and dignified beyond
(text written in 1890's by Henry