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The history of John Stubbs by George B. Cheever

A warning to rum-selling grocers.

"A thing betwixt a story and a dream,—
It had more truth than fact, more fact than fiction."

John Stubbs was a grocer, wicked, but well to do in the world. He was a man greedy of gain, and of a savage disposition. He used to beat a poor little orphan boy in his possession as if it were a pastime, until the child suddenly disappeared, when Stubbs asserted that he had gone to sea, but from that hour the man's brow grew blacker. Some suspected foul play, but as there could be no legal investigation, the thing passed off.

John Stubbs sold rum; indeed, the greater part of his profits were made in that way, and as he used to sell on the Sabbath, he often made more money that day than any other day in the week. Yet you never seemed to notice the shop open of a Sunday; the shutters were all closed, and the doors were closed, there being a nook of an entrance hard by, almost out of sight, where the rum-besotted wretches of the neighborhood could glide in and out without disturbance. Excluding the sunlight from his dominions, John Stubbs went about among his casks on Sunday with a lamp at noonday. On suoh occasions Satan might have taken him for one of his own demons, and the darkened store, with its half-revealed paraphernalia of drunkenness, for one of the sootiest chambers in the bottomless pit.

John Stubbs did not merely sell rum—he drank it. What he drank did not intoxicate him; he was too fond of money for that; but it burned in him, and bloated him, and made him angry as fire. A poor woman came into the shop one day, and besought him to sell no more rum to her husband, for it starved the children and made the house a hell beforehand. "That's nothing to me," said the man; "he don't get drunk on my premises. Drink rum yourself, and then you'll agree." A good man in the neighborhood remonstrated with him, and another brought him the temperance pledge. It angered him prodigiously. "He was not going to have his liberty curtailed by your hypocritical temperance societies and your psalm-singing deacons, not he! He would sell rum, and drink it if he chose, though all the devils in hell were burning in every drop of it." His shop was on a corner and had a parcel of chalk signs, intermingled with herring boxes and potato barrels, ranged on the outside.

John Stubbs sold rum under cover of Law, and that served as a great plaster to his conscience if ever it needed one. It was a lawful calling, and with many persons besides rum-sellers what is lawful is right and just, and as a matter of course. There was no fifteen gallon law, nor virtue enough in the community to sustain it; and though there was a law against selling liquor on the Sabbath, John Stubbs felt pretty sure, inasmuch as many were known to violate it, and yet no notice was taken of the violation, that he would not be disturbed on that account. Besides, I am not sure but the owner of the building, and John Stubbs's landlord, was a member of a church; and if church-members would let their houses to rum-sellers to sell liquor on the Sabbath, it was hardly to be expected that the police would interfere. In fact, John Stubbs felt much quieted in his mind, if conscience ever did reproach him, by considering that his landlord was a professor of religion, and certainly would not sanction any occupation that was very sinful. Besides, John Stubbs had argued, at a time when he really did debate the question, that if he did not sell liquor others would, so that nothing would be gained to anybody by his giving up the traffic; on the contrary, somebody would be sure to set up a rum-grocery at his side, and perhaps do more mischief than he; so that on the whole it was a gain to the community if ho kept up the business. Let it not be thought that ardent spirits was the only kind of strong drink sold upon John Stubbs's premises; there was a good array of wine-casks, and portercasks, and strong beer and cider.

Now it happened that John Stubbs manufactured his own wine; so that those customers of his who restricted themselves to the use of that kind of liquor, were by far the most profitable to him, inasmuch as they received ardent spirit under a different name, at a far higher price than the poor creatures paid for it who drank it under the shape of rum. John Stubbs's enmity against the temperance society was much abated by that circumstance.

Things went on in this way a long time, and the grocer made a great deal of money; but all the while he drank rum himself; and though he had an iron constitution, and could bear a great deal, those who observed him thought it could not last. Many grocers sell rum who do not drink it; but let no rum-selling grocer congratulate himself on this point, for he is heaping together wealth against the last day, and the time is coming when the rust of all his money gotten in this dreadful traffic will eat into his soul like a fire, ten thousand times worse than that which now began to burn in the veins of John Stubbs. There is some difference whether a man ruins his soul by drinking or by making others drink; but of two grocers who sell rum, one of whom also drinks, but the other is sober, I doubt if the last will have any more tolerable place in hell than the first. Indeed, on some accounts, it is more wicked for a sober man to sell rum than a drinking one. For a sober man perfectly well knows what it is that he is doing; he does it with his eyes open, and with a cool calculation for gain; knowing all the while that ninety-nine hundredths of the liquor he sells goes to make drunkards.

And whereas, some grocers say that though they do indeed sell rum to be carried away, yet they do not allow any to be drunk on the premises, and do not sell to drunkards, yet on some accounts this is still worse; for they are just preparing men for utter ruin, before they are gone entirely. They are pushing them on from that stage where they might have been reclaimed, to that position where there will no longer be any hope of reclaiming them. They are making men drunkards by selling, which is certainly as bad as to sell after the drunkards are made. Alas! how little do they think of that terrible woe from God, so definite, so explicit, Woe unto him that giveth his neighbor drink, that putteth thy bottle to him, and makest him drunken.

One bitter cold winter's night, the woman I have spoken of above, whose child had been smitten with a sore sickness, even unto death, ventured into the grocery to find her husband. She had no money even to buy medicine for her poor sick boy; her last stick of wood was burning in the cold chimney; and she was as wretched a woman as could well be. She had come in the faint hope of getting some of her husband's day's wages before they had all gone to pay up his score for drink; but in vain; for John Stubbs told her he did not believe her child was sick, and swore that her husband should not stir a step till he had paid up all; and the miserable man, finding Stubbs' shop a warm place, and his liquor warmer, refused himself to move. So the poor wife returned back, heart-broken, to the place where her child lay dying. She must have perished in her misery had it not been for the kindness of a neighbor, for that night, which was Friday, the child died.

Saturday evening, after laying out her boy's corpse as decently as she could, she summoned courage once more to visit the grocery; for the child must be buried the next day, and as yet there was not even a coffin. In the height of her grief she could not help telling John Stubbs, that if it had not been for him her child had been alive and well that moment. Hearing this, the grocer started from among his casks behind the counter, and, with a dreadful face, swore that if ever he had anything to do with that or any other child's death, all the devils in hell might burn him and his shop together. This phrase, all the devils in hell, was a favorite oath with John Stubbs, for the man was awfully profane, and so in general were those who frequented his shop, and drank his liquor. Something had now roused the devil within him very fearfully; for, laying hold of the woman's arm, he pushed her violently out into the street, and cursed the time he had ever seen either her or her husband. Well nigh dead with grief, she tottered home, and threw herself on the body of her dead child. There her brute of a husband found her, only to tell her that if her friends would not help her to a coffin and bury the child, it must lay there all winter, for he had no money to do it. In God's mercy friends were found; and Sabbath day, while John Stubbs was selling rum by lamp-light, that little boy was put in the grave beneath the cold snow, and the clods of frozen ground sounded to the mother's ears like pieces of sharp iron, as they fell upon the coffin.

That same night John Stubbs' retribution commenced. By what instrumentality it was effected, I will not undertake to determine; but even the drunkards dimly noted a fearful connection between his oaths the night preceding, and the things that happened. Late in the evening, just as, with trembling hand, for John Stubbs' hand had begun at length to tremble, he was drawing a glass of liquor for a parting customer, his eyes were almost started from their sockets by the sight of a grinning, snaky figure, in flames, right before him. Presently the air began to be full of them, and each one threw, direct at John Stubbs, balls of fire, with sharp curling snakes protruding out of them. Then one clutched him by the hair, then they all retreated to the wall, and began crawling along and hissing in such horrible shapes, that Stubbs cried out that he was in hell, and the fiends were burning him. So it continued for near an hour, till every inmate of the shop ran out of it in terror at his shrieks and language. Apparently he recovered, for he was seen shortly by the watch putting up a bar outside one of the windows, after which he entered, closed his door, and did not again open it.

About two o'clock the watchmen were alarmed by the sudden appearance of a bright light streaming through I every crevice into the street, and on bursting open the door ! the shop was all of a fierce blaze, and there lay, blackened i and crisped like a cinder, but on the floor, where the fire was not blazing, though the air itself seemed all flame, the body of John Stubbs. From the position and appearance of the body, and the horrible stench that with the flames poured out of the shop, there was no doubt that Stubbs had somehow or other inadvertently brought the flame of the lamp in contact with his breath, and had been consumed, even before the shop itself got on fire, by spontaneous combustion. Be that as it may, the flames increased so furiously, by the casks of liquor bursting one after another, and running in so many streams of fire all over the shop, that, before assistance could be got, it was no longer possible to reach the body; and as to putting out the flames, the water of the engines was of no more use than if it had been oil. Blue and red torrents of fire shot up into the sky, and some averred that they saw, as plain as ever they beheld anything in their life, the body of John Stubbs held between two demons in the vast flickering blaze, and a boy piercing his heart with a spear of red hot iron. Whether this was mere imagination or not, perhaps it was very natural to think so; and certainly all the figures of torture that the spouting and roaring flames could form, would be nothing to the torment of a damned soul in hell, that in this world, as it is to be feared is the case with all rum-selling grocers, was engaged in the business of preparing the bodies and souls of men for everlasting damnation. It is fearful even to use the words, but if so, what shall be said of the business?