HISTORY IMAGINED: Hank Dempsey, Villain

HISTORY IMAGINED: Hank Dempsey, Villain

Hank Dempsey (Villain)

The antagonist featured in Indigo Sky pens the driving force of his addictions

After realizing his need for drugs, alcohol and money was all he cared about, Hank Dempsey tried to run, but trouble met him at each juncture. His birth, life and death reveal his path of destruction. Addictions controlled his life. Part of my book is loosely based on the real life of Fitz Hugh Ludlow, syndicated columnist, lawyer, art critic and addict.

GI: Where did you grow up and who loved you?

HD: Dubbed Hank Dempsey when I was born on September 11, 1836, in New York City, I was the pride and joy of my father, Reverend Henry Dempsey, abolitionist and my mother Abbey Wells Dempsey. At six-years old, father considered me a bright boy because I had learned to read almost without help.

GI: What influence did your birth family have on you?

 HD: My father was an outspoken abolitionist minister at a time when anti-slavery enthusiasm was not popular, even in the urban North. Father was also a ticket-agent on the Underground Railroad where escaped slaves were safely transported to safe cities. The moral lessons learned at home were principles hard to maintain among my peers, especially when expressed with my father’s exuberance.

GI: How do you feel about your family, and your father who defies most of societies attitudes about slavery?

HD: I tried my hand at haranguing a multitude upon the subject of Freedom, with as little success as most apostles, and with only less than their crowd of martyrdom, because, though small boys are more malicious than men, they cannot hit so hard. These experiences inspired me to write about the ‘truth’ of freedom. Mother was ill for years and died when a few months after my twelfth birthday. My mother’s suffering may have brought out in me an obsession with mortality. She seemed to have an indescribable dread of death, as of the dying itself. Mother had an appalling sense of the fearful struggle, which separates the soul from the body. 

GI: Where did you get schooled?

My literary skills followed me into the Poughkeepsie Collegiate School where I had my debut as editor of the College Hill Mercury, a student publication that showed my creative literary bent at the age of fourteen. I was expelled for insubordination and eventually ended up in Union College, Schenectady, New York. I took some intensive courses in medicine. And in 1857, I had been an anesthesiologist during minor surgery and remember being asked by surgeons for my opinions on the actions of various courses of anesthesia. There, having been asked by the University President, Rev. Nott, to write a song for the commencement ceremony of the 1856 class, I wrote the Song to Old Union. I understand they still sing that song.

GI: What is your favorite occupation?

HD: Writing. I am known as an American author, journalist, and explorer; best known for my autobiographical book that I wrote in 1857, The Hasheesh Eater. I was also the author of many works of short fiction, essays, science reporting and art criticism.

GI: How did you meet your wife?

Leila Osborn Dempsey

HD: Leila and I met at the Catskill Mountain House, in the New York Mountains, when she was only seventeen. In the woods one day, she passed by my group and stopped to listen to the stories I was telling. I said that this was only for children, but the kids hollered to let her stay. Afterwards, I walked her back to the hotel, and found her charming. I pursued a relationship. When I discovered that she had a dowry, and that her father would give her an allowance a husband would handle, I asked her to marry me. I thought my love for her was real, but after thinking it through, it was the money motivation that drew me in, not her beauty. Although I made a good living with my syndicated column, her allowance gave me more luxuries than I could afford on my salary. I depended on that extra money for my busy life and excesses.

What are your excesses?

HD: Already plagued by a history of frailty and ill health, I self-administered one or another treatment of drugs regularly used for relief of pain and various other symptoms. My curiosity, if not my health, was nurtured by these treatments.  It was my friendship with Mr. Anderson of the Poughkeepsie Apothecary that opened the door to active experimentation with a variety of drugs, not for cure but for exploration. But he warned me of the dangers, and to prove it, he showed me one bottle with a skull and cross-bones. He emphasized not to play around with these poisons, that they could kill me. With a disregard to my own safety, I made upon myself the trial of the effects of every strange drug and chemical that the laboratory could produce. Mr. Anderson had no idea of my obsessive behavior. Drugs and alcohol lured me. Time seemed endless, when it was only a fleeting thirty-seconds. I sensed the knowing nods of my audience, who judged that I had merely underestimated the lure. The memory wooed me continually like an irresistible sorceress, as did the occasional drink of alcohol with women of the night. Then with the ingestion of the drugs all became habitual. I shared with my school buddies by supplying them with these horrendous so-called medicines. My friends unwittingly migrated to me like swans to water.

 GI: Who are your best friends?

HD: I thought my best friend was Rork Millburn. He invited me to join him to go across the country to Yosemite. The plan was for me to journal our adventures while he gathered resource material to create paintings when back home in his studio. We were vacationing at the Catskill Mountain House, in the mountains of New York, to rest up for the trip. When we got to the Mountain House, Leila went out for a walk alone. Rork was out painting and heard her scream. He ran to her aid, and saved her from drowning. From that moment on he was infatuated with her. He had no idea who she was.

GI: What did Rork do once he discovered Leila was your wife?

HD: I introduced Rork and Leila before dinner that evening. Then I found out that Rork apologized to Leila if he had done anything offensive when he pulled her from the water. Rork knew I had a drug and drinking problem, and also knew of my relationship with my lady friend, Sissy Lanweihr. Unknown to Leila and Rork, I invited her to the Mountain House. At dinner, Rork was appalled at my blatant flirting with Sissy. His final stamp of disapproval came when I was verbally abusive to Leila. As drugs and drinking took an increasing toll on my life, Leila turned to Rork for comfort. Rork encouraged Leila to divorce me.

GI: When and where were you happiest?

HD: I can’t remember when I was ever happy. Maybe when I was a boy, but I was always in trouble at school. The only friends I had were the druggies, and crazy like me. Maybe when Leila and I married, I could have been happy, but alas, unfortunately for me, I could not give up my habits and addictions.

GI: Do you pay someone back for hurting you, or getting in your way?

HD: I did just that. I shot Rork when he was out for a morning stroll on our visit in New York City, and left him for dead. But he lived. Leila then had compassion for him. It didn’t do much good to shoot him and commit a crime that would destroy my marriage and perhaps even get me hung. That’s when Leila put an ad in the paper requesting a divorce. My lady friend, Sissy, was waiting for me at the St Nicolas Hotel. I sent for her, and we ran. On our way to St Joseph for supplies, we bumped into Rork and Leila at the home of Rork’s friend, Alex Major, who was an acquaintance of mine. When Rork and I argued and got into a scuttle, I pulled out my gun. Alex shot me. As I lay on the ground, Alex said, “It’s only a shoulder wound, we’ll get it fixed up.” Leila had asked me to sign the divorce papers. I begged Leila not to divorce me and screamed at Sissy, who had began to whine and holler about my getting shot, to get out of my life. I said that I first loved Leila and if I could make a choice today, I would choose Leila. Sissy shot me in the face . . . dead.

Author’s Notes:

My book, Indigo Sky, is a story loosely based on the love affair of 19th century Hudson River artist, Albert Bierstadt & debutante Rosalie Osborn Ludlow, wife of syndicated journalist, lawyer, critic, womanizer, alcohol and drug addict, Fitz Hugh Ludlow, who died at the age of thirty-four from drug abuse and tuberculosis. Albert & Rosalie married, they never had children. Rosalie died a few years later from tuberculosis.

Albert Bierstadt worked on immense paintings of the landscapes he had sketched in the new West. One of his masterpieces is his “Domes of Yosemite.” 10 feet high by 15 feet wide. Originally commissioned for $25,000 by LeGrand Lockwood for his country home in Norwalk, CT. The painting was sold when Mr. Lockwood died and his home was mortgaged, his wife sold the painting to a New York Auction gallery for $5100, then sold to Horace Fairbanks for $5000 who trucked the painting to his home and business (Platform Scale) and built a gallery for the work. The painting was hung in the gallery of the St Johnsbury Athenaeum, Vermont in the rear of the building of the library.

Domes of Yosemite Oil by 19th century Hudson River painter, Albert Bierstadt (who is known as Rork Millburn in Indigo Sky) 10feet x15 feet wide

Domes of Yosemite 4×5 feet oil






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