Born in 1844, Felix was the second son of Ceran St. Vrain, among the most influential traders in the West. Felix was named after his uncle, an Indian agent killed during the Black Hawk War in 1832.
Despite being raised in a wealthy and influential family, Felix had problems. He was addicted to aguardiente, a generic term for alcoholic beverages that generally rated between 76 and 108 proof. Aguardiente was distilled from sugar cane, beets, millet, potatoes, rice, manioc, barley and even bamboo. The Spanish terms agua and ardiente translate “water” and “fiery” in English, hence firewater.
Felix’s family knew about his problem, and family members and employees, such as Hiram Vasquez, were charged with watching over Felix while he was traveling or otherwise occupied. “Cantankerous” was a label Felix wore, and when he was in his cups, he often became violent.
Being on the trail, away from towns and under the watchful eye of Vasquez improved the health of the boy. Accordingly, Felix’s family found tasks to keep him moving. Assignments such as flour deliveries and buffalo hunting filled Felix’s days.
Vasquez recorded a crisis in Felix’s life during the early 1860s. In Mora, New Mexico, Felix, brother Vicente and Vasquez were unloading stores that had arrived on a wagon train. Vasquez and Vicente noticed Felix had slipped away, and they immediately began a search. When they found the youth, he had consumed large quantities of the final run of the Guadalupita distillery and was “crazy, blind-drunk.”
The teenager had shot himself in the chest, and he was raving and flailing like a lunatic. The two restrained Felix. Vicente created a straightjacket of grain sacks and used laudanum to calm Felix sufficiently for a doctor to treat the wound.
Vicente realized the wound was no accident. In Felix’s pocket, Vicente had found a suicide note that read, “No one is to blame. I die by my own hand.”
Felix recovered from his gunshot wound under the watchful eyes of his family. He subsequently attempted to overdose on laudanum, but was saved by Vasquez. Felix tried again to kill himself by trying to grab a straight razor from Vasquez while he was shaving the youth.
On one occasion, Felix snatched Vasquez’s pistol and made a desperate threat. If Vasquez would not shoot Felix, then Felix would murder him. Vasquez boldly told the troubled youth to shoot, but Felix did not.
With Vasquez’s and the family’s care, Felix eventually overcame the demons that haunted him. Felix lived into the early 20th century, a survivor of potential death by his own hand.
Survival Tip: Whiskey On the Wound
Does the cowboy trick “whiskey on the wound” work? Technically, yes, but you will feel a burn that will give “firewater” new meaning, and you will be killing healthy cells at the same time. Instead, you should pour clean water on the wound to remove any debris or dirt, so your body can take over the healing process. If you have mild soap on hand, then use that to clean out the wound as well. If all you have is field water and no other source of disinfectant, pouring liquor on the wound may be your best option. Keep in mind that only higher-proof alcohols work as a disinfectant; whiskey, which is at least 80 proof, fits, while moonshine, usually at least 160 proof, is even better. In any case, drinking some whiskey may help blunt any pain you feel. Whatever you do, don’t believe the “air it out” theory. You want to keep your wound clean and dry, so be sure to cover it with a bandage or at least wrap a cloth around it.
History in Art
By Illustrator Andy Thomas
Sitting on a rock inside the abandoned distillery, Felix St. Vrain is haunted by demons that have risen up after having drunk copious amounts of alcohol. He has laid his cap-and-ball Colt beside him while he contemplates his future.