The creative life of Robert Louis Stevenson was relatively brief. In fact, Stevenson was already in his thirties by the time he first achieved literary success with his epic novel, Treasure Island. He would then go on to enjoy popular acclaim with another work that is still highly revered today - the cautionary tale of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
Many of the Robert Louis Stevenson biographies that have been written focus on the various ailments that plagued the writer from a young age, reducing him to an emaciated, sickly individual who wrote much of his material while bedridden. An adventurous wanderer and seeker his entire life, Stevenson would eventually make his way to the South Pacific island of Samoa where he lived with his wife before his untimely death on December 4, 1894, at the age of 44.
He Was On A Cocaine Binge When He Wrote The Strange Case Of Dr. Jekyll And Mr. HydePhoto: Public Domain / wikimedia commons
Whether he used narcotics to assuage his innumerable health issues or merely because he enjoyed their effects, Robert Lewis Stevenson was a regular user of cocaine. In 1885, Stevenson's wife suddenly awoke him from a drug-addled nightmare, which he then went on to transcribe at length the next day. Within three days, the nightmare was turned into a full-length novella. When Stevenson asked for his wife's opinion, she was highly critical and claimed it would not be commercial enough to address their high level of debt, so he burned the manuscript.
In just three more days, he had re-composed the manuscript into The Strange Case Of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. In less than one week, Stevenson had written over 60,000 words - including the manuscript that was destroyed. And while the work did not include the sex and violence found in subsequent dramatizations, it does include substantial depictions of the duality of the human personality. Despite the initial refusal of booksellers to carry the book, positive reviews quickly spurred the public to purchase 40,000 copies in less than six months, making it one of Stevenson's most popular literary works.
Stevenson Idolized "Deacon" Brodie, A Scottish Criminal With A Dual, Psychopathic PersonalityPhoto: Public Domain / wikimedia commons
At a young age, Stevenson became fascinated by the legendary Scottish criminal, William "Deacon" Brodie. Brodie seemed to live the respectable life of an 18th century Edinburgh furniture maker, politician, and deacon. However, because his work sometimes involved installing locks and keys, Brodie also lived a secret life as a burglar while engaged in profligate sex, gambling, and alcoholism - for which he was eventually caught, condemned, and hanged.
As a student, Stevenson took to dressing like Brodie and even emulated his abuse of alcohol until an eventual collapse forced Stevenson to return to his father's home. Bedridden, he was medicated with a combination of alcohol, morphine, and opium, which only served to increase his appetite for narcotics. Stevenson's knowledge of Brodie's twisted life became the genesis for Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
Robert Louis Stevenson Was In Poor Health For Most Of His Life
Stevenson is known to have acquired just about every disease that was prevalent in the 19th century, most notably tuberculosis, which he contracted at a young age. As a result, his eventual 6,000 mile trip to California to win the hand of his love interest quickly became a battle to merely survive. Stevenson's frequent journeys to some of the world's most exotic locales also exposed him to pneumonia, bronchitis, malaria, typhus, and cholera.
In the end, he died quite suddenly, probably of a stroke stemming from his chronic smoking, alcohol and coffee consumption, poor diet, and drug abuse exacerbated by the effects of meningitis on his brain. Predictably, some historians have even attempted to connect his demise to syphilis contracted in the brothels he frequented in his youth.
Stevenson's "The Body Snatcher" Stemmed From An Actual Criminal CasePhoto: pinterest
Stevenson's 1884 short story "The Body Snatcher," describes the process of corpses being stolen for use by doctors and anatomists in Edinburgh in the early 1820s. The story was loosely based on the case of an actual surgeon, Robert Knox, who paid two criminals for cadavers, but never inquired as to the source of the bodies. Knox's suppliers were two murderers, William Hare and William Burke who were implicated in the deliberate killings of sixteen individuals that were then sold to Knox. Although he escaped prosecution, Knox's reputation was ruined by the uproar over the incident and he was forced to leave Scotland. Stevenson's short story appeared in the Pall Mall Gazette newspaper and was eventually adapted into a 1945 film starring Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi.