Honored during his lifetime as the “Prairie Troubador,” and for a brief time one of America’s best-known poets, Vachel Lindsay had so little financial success that he was forced to wander the countryside, trading his poems for food and lodging, and was finally so discouraged that he ended his life by drinking a bottle of Lysol.
Born November 10, 1879, in Springfield, Illinois, to a physician and his wife, who were devout Campbellites, Vachel was reared as a member of the non-denominational sect founded in 1830 and dedicated to the restoration of early Christianity. After a sketchy education culminating at the Campbellite Hiram College in Ohio, where he failed to take a degree, Lindsay began to paint, draw, and write poetry. He worked in various jobs: as a clerk in the toy department of Marshall Field’s department store in Chicago; as a guide at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York; as a laborer in the Nicholls Gas Tubing Works in New York; as a lecturer on racial relations, motion pictures, morality, and other topics, for the Springfield YMCA, the Anti-Saloon League, Columbia University and the University of Chicago; and as a journalist in Spokane, Washington. At one point in life, he wandered like a vagabond around the country, from Florida to New Mexico, hawking his poems on the streets or bartering them door-to-door for food and lodging.
His notable poems include “Abraham Lincoln Walks at Midnight,” “General Willliam Booth Enters Into Heaven,” “The Kallyope Yell,” and his most famous—“The Congo: A Study of the Negro Race,” which often finds its way into school anthologies. Although his poems never sold well enough to support him, they brought him much fame, and he was the first American Poet invited to lecture at Oxford University, in 1920.
Lindsay remained influenced by his Campbellite upbringing throughout his life. He had visions of Christ and the Old Testament prophets, and he wrote many mystical poems laying out his view of heaven, hell, and the moral universe.
Lindsay was a friend of the poet Sara Teasdale, whom he asked to marry him. She turned him down and instead chose a rich shoe manufacturer for her husband. Lindsay moved to Spokane, where he met Elizabeth Conner, a schoolteacher whom he married in 1925. They eventually settled with their two children in Lindsay’s childhood home in Springfield.
Constantly on tour, lecturing and reading poems, in an effort to scrape together enough money to support them, Lindsay became discouraged at his lack of success. After years of this hand-to-mouth existence, his health suffered, and he fell into a deep depression. He had been earlier diagnosed with epilepsy and he also suffered from paranoid delusions, resulting in public outbursts of rage and threats of violence to his family.
On the night of December 5, 1931, his wife heard him get out of bed around midnight. She followed him downstairs and found him arranging family pictures. She asked if he was all right, and he replied, “Yes, dear, I’m quite all right. I’ll be up in a moment.” Mrs. Lindsay returned to bed and fell asleep. About fifteen minutes later, she heard a crash, jumped up, and discovered Lindsay crawling up the stairs on his hands and knees. His face was ashen. When he reached the top of the stairs, he got up and ran down the corridor, waving his hands in the air. Mrs. Lindsay screamed, and Lindsay collapsed. She put him to bed, and he asked for water, saying, “I took Lysol.”
A doctor was summoned, but Lindsay was already dying, in the room above the room where he had been born. His last words were, “They tried to get me, but I got them first.” When the doctor arrived, he pronounced Lindsay dead of “heart failure.” He was fifty-one.
Downstairs, Mrs. Lindsay found her picture and those of their children propped up on a table with two candles burning. In the bathroom was a glass with remnants of Lysol in it and a large empty Lysol bottle. Lysol is the trade name of a disinfectant that was introduced in 1889. It may contain a variety of ingredients that are toxic when swallowed. In 1911 Lysol was the most common means of suicide in Australia, according to newspaper reports.
Lindsay's funeral at Springfield’s First Christian Church was attended by hundreds of mourners, and he was laid to rest in Oak Ridge Cemetery, not far from the grave of Abraham Lincoln. On his tombstone are carved his name and one word: “Poet.”