How a British Spy Drank His Way Across the Americas—and Missed the Civil War

Richard Francis Burton was one of the great adventurers of the Victorian era, and a spy. But several weeks just before the Civil War are curiously missing from his life's account.

Photo Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast

PARIS—At the center of a momentous mystery from the middle of the 19th century—one that involves British explorers and spies, the trans-Atlantic slave trade, and the secession of the South—there lies a tale of cocktails.

But to savor the nuances, one must have a broad sense of the times and of the specific eccentric personalities of those involved. So we will begin our rather epic story, which is based on original documents in the British National Archives and other collections, in northern England in 1859:

At Fryston Hall, a windblown estate in the rude, rolling countryside of Yorkshire, Richard Monckton Milnes kept one of the most extraordinary personal libraries, and wine cellars, to be found anywhere in England. About the wines, unfortunately, we have no records. But we know the books reflected his love of freedom in almost every form: artistic, poetic, social, political, and, yes, sexual. Three collections in particular stood out: those about the French Revolution; those about the American Republic; and a vast and eventually infamous library of pornography.

The books reflected his love of freedom in almost every form: artistic, poetic, social, political, and, yes, sexual.

Milnes had many of the books about France and the United States covered in special bindings: the French in the tricolor blue, white, and red; the American in gold stars and stripes. The erotica required more imagination, and Milnes had a friend in Paris, an Englishman appropriately named Mr. Hankey, whose imagination, it seemed, knew no limits. He supplied Milnes with beautifully illustrated works in gorgeous bindings, smuggling them past British customs officials using diplomatic pouches or a trusted courier who strapped them to his back.

Whatever Monckton Milnes’ private predilections he was, as a public figure and a member of parliament, one of the few members of his class who steadfastly opposed slavery wherever and however it was practiced, and especially in the United States, which was a country he had always loved from afar. The big, complex, sometimes frustrating, often astounding union of peoples described by his good friend Alexis de Tocqueville in the classic Democracy in America amazed and delighted Milnes, and he saw slavery for the corrosive and divisive institution that it was.

In his own country, Milnes probably could have been a great progressive politician: he was handsome in his youth, with a patrician nose and strong jaw that gave him a look of firm determination as he grew older. He was confident, soft-spoken, and eloquent enough to be persuasive. He was also closely identified with Lord Palmerston, the dominant political figure of the time, and frequently visited Broadlands, the Palmerston estate near Southampton. But Milnes did not much care for the circus in Parliament. The paradox of aristocratic populism was too hard to sustain.

Milnes liked to work quietly among his vast network of friends at his breakfasts on Upper Brook Street. Or he would invite them for more extended stays at Fryston in the company of his beautiful, artistic wife, Annabel Crewe, whom he’d wed when they were both in their forties.

From his days at Cambridge, Milnes’ circle had included Edward Fitzgerald, famous for his translations of Omar Khayyam, the poet Alfred Tennyson and the novelist William Makepiece Thackeray. Indeed, after Thackeray traveled in the United States he used material he’d gathered on his trips to Charleston and other cities to write The Virginians. But much of the novel is actually set on an English country estate generally thought to be modeled on Fryston Hall, “grey with many gables and buttresses and backed by a darkling wood.” For years the Milnes country house was so run down and so drafty that Tennyson called it Freezeton.

In the last dog days of the summer of 1859, when the windows of Fryston were thrown wide and the air was rich with the smell of new-mown hay, Milnes invited the polyglot soldier-adventurer-author-explorer Richard Francis Burton to come for a visit. Burton was in almost every sense larger than life, “a wider soul than the world was wide, who rode life’s lists as a god might ride,” wrote another Fryston guest, the poet Charles Algernon Swinburne.

Burton stood well over six feet tall and had a powerful build; his dark, thick hair grew low on his forehead; his cruel mouth was half hidden by “long drooping moustachios.” Burton first made his fame when he took leave from his work as a soldier and spy for the East India Company and traveled to the Muslim holy cities of Mecca and Medina disguised as a Pashtun merchant on the annual pilgrimage, the Haj. But his grandest project and greatest passion was the search for the source of the White Nile.

From late 1856 to early 1859 he traveled to Africa and deep into the Lake Regions. He suffered from debilitating parasites, ferocious fevers and “a sensation of wretchedness.” And now that he was back, his personal life was falling apart. His traveling companion on the Nile expedition, John Hanning Speke, betrayed him and claimed credit for a discovery—the source of the Nile itself—that Burton did not believe they had made or, more to the point, did not believe that Speke could prove. Isabel Arundell, Burton’s admiring and obsessive fiancée, told him that her parents had forbidden her to marry him. Meanwhile he was buried in the avalanche of notes and sketches he’d gathered in the Lake Regions, trying desperately to write a book that would somehow set it all straight.

Come with me and eat and drink through America, hmm?

By the time he got to Fryston, Burton’s ashen face showed in bold relief the scars where a Somali spear once ripped through his cheeks. He had come, he told Milnes, maybe only half in jest, to see the famous volumes by the Marquis de Sade and others. “The prospect of a book which can produce horripilation is refreshing,” he said.

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The guest list at Fryston that week included then-legendary names from the height of the Empire, each one of them identified with the places that had made him famous: Parkins of Abyssinia; Curzon of The Monasteries; Petherick of Khartoum—the sort of men who knew precisely where Burton had been and could imagine exactly what he’d suffered. But they couldn’t help him shake his depression. For that, he’d need some new adventure that would take him away from talk of Speke and thoughts of Isabel.

Whether at Fryston that August or a little later—they saw each other often over the course of the winter—Milnes probably nudged Burton in the direction of the United States. And so did Burton’s close friend from his days in India, and collaborator on translations of the Thousand And One Nights, a Swiss physician named John Steinhauser.

And that brings us to the question of cocktails, which were seen at the time as a new and delectable invention of that innovative “democracy in America.”

As Burton noted in his diary, bottles, flasks and flagons of alcoholic libations were attracted to Steinhausers lip’s in great quantity, with much the same powerful impulse, Burton wrote, as the “Magnetic Mount had upon the nails of Sindbad’s ship.” Then one night in the winter of 1859-1860 at a bistro in the French resort of Boulogne-sur-mer, the good doctor Steinhauser had an idea he thought might shake Burton out of his melancholy.

“I’ll tell you what it is I have in mind,” said Steinhauser with “a look of inspiration,” spreading his hands as if he’d had a revelation. “I’ll go to America! Yes, I’ll go to America. I’ll radically change my meat and my drink.” He would eat canvasback ducks and other “provocations of thirst,” then quench it with “the mint family, mint juleps, brandy smashes, whiskey skins, gin slings, cock-tails, sherry cobblers, rum salads, streaks of lightning, morning glory. It’ll be a most interesting experiment. I want to see what the diet is like after three or four months, so I can drink and eat myself to to the level of the aborigines—like you. Come with me and eat and drink through America, hmm?”

There was, as far as we know, no mention of the coming apocalypse—the American Civil War—although British diplomats like the envoy in Washington, Lord Lyons, and the consul in Charleston, Robert Bunch, certainly saw it coming.

The veteran soldiers and spies Richard Francis Burton and his good friend Dr. John “Styggins” Steinhauser landed in Halifax, Nova Scotia, on May 2, the day the Democratic Party convention were coming to an end, and the party had torn itself apart.

When Burton and Steinhauser went ashore in Nova Scotia they found a friend: a big, brown-eyed, slobbering, black-coated, white-toothed Newfoundland puppy to be their new traveling companion as they meandered south to Boston and then to New York for a little business.

Burton’s book, The Lake Regions of Central Africa, a Picture of Exploration, was to be published by Harper and Brothers, and excerpted by Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, in the fall. So Burton dropped by the Editorial Room of Harper’s on Pearl Street not far from the Manhattan docks.

As it happened, he arrived there just about the same time as Paul Du Chaillu, a French-American explorer of West Africa who was amazing the editors with horrifying stories about “hunts of the gorilla and adventures among the ghoul-like tribes of the Western Interior, who eat their dead, and have even disinterred the buried and putrid corpses of their neighbors to convert them into food.”

Those were just the sort of tall tales that sold books, but that Burton found it hard to write. His life and adventures were amazing, but his prose was pedestrian and his books were filled with technical data. He tried to enliven them with glib erudition, but generally failed, and when it was finally published, the Harper’s article based on Lake Regions was written entirely by one of the magazine’s editors. “It is not good to be a white man in Africa,” wrote Harper’s, because “all men are liars and thieves” there. “Moreover, they are lazy, they are grumblers, and they live in fear of their own shadows. This is Captain Burton’s verdict,” or so Harper’s Magazine reported.

Burton wanted—needed—to write a big commercial success, which Lake Regions was never likely to be, and the American frontier seemed to have possibilities as a subject. Burton’s “migratory instinct,” according to Harper’s, was “urging him westward to hunt the grizzly bear of our own Rocky Mountains.” Burton even spent some time before he left England trying to learn how to forge a Bowie knife, a skill he seemed to think would prove useful as he crossed the American continent.

The so-called Indian Wars interested Burton. So did the Mormons and their new faith that was so violently oppressed and so violent in its response. It seemed to bear a bowdlerized resemblance to the faith of Islam that Burton knew so well: the revelation of the definitive holy text to a single prophet; the persecution of the believers; the migration to a new home for the faithful; and polygamy, of course, or “plural marriage” as the Mormons liked to say. In any case, the popular press portrayed the Mormons as monstrous terrorists, and much of the tiny standing arming of the United States in 1860––about 16,000 men––was deployed to keep them and the Indians in line. So Burton went to Washington and paid a visit to Secretary of War John B. Floyd to get passes to U.S. military outposts.

Floyd, whose sallow skin seemed to hang off the bones of his face, did not cut an impressive figure, but he came from an interesting background. He was raised in Arkansas, graduated from South Carolina College and made his political career in Virginia, where he served as governor in the early 1830s at the time of the Nat Turner slave rebellion. Floyd’s predecessor as secretary of war, Jefferson Davis, had been an imperious but impressive administrator, but Floyd quickly made a reputation as a corrupt bungler.

He sent troops to fight the quasi-war, devoid of major battles, with the Mormons in Utah. He was suspected of serious graft and eventually forced to resign because of it. And historians still debate whether this deeply rooted Southerner intentionally tried to arm the slave states with Federal weapons merely for their defense after the John Brown uproar in 1859, or for offense against the Union in the cause of secession, which came at the end of 1860.

What is certain is that in January 1860, Floyd sent 115,000 muskets and rifles to the South and he also sent heavy artillery to Texas. As the Union commander Ulysses S. Grant later wrote in his memoir, “Floyd, the Secretary of War, scattered the army so that much of it could be captured when hostilities should commence, and distributed the cannon and small arms from Northern arsenals throughout the South so as to be on hand when treason wanted them.”

All this was rumored while Burton was traveling in the United States, and indeed while he was in Floyd’s office in Washington. On his way West, he did notice that the U.S. military was dangerously strung out. But otherwise he seems to have taken no notice. Burton’s purpose, he said, was to add the Mormon capital to the list of holy cities he’d visited, and see if the people there were as terrifying as they’d been portrayed in the popular press, which he sincerely doubted. He also wanted to check out one of the planned routes for the transcontinental railroad, which would be of interest to global commerce, especially now that Japan and the rest of Asia seemed to be opening up. (The first Japanese mission to the United States arrived while Burton was there.) And he wanted to see “a little skirmishing with the savages.”

The book Burton wrote about that journey, The City of the Saints, and Across the Rocky Mountains to California was dedicated, tellingly, to none other than Richard Monckton Milnes: “a linguist, traveler, poet, and, above all, a man of intelligent insight into the thoughts and feelings of his brother men.”

Yet Burton appears to have paid no attention whatsoever to questions of cotton, slavery, secession and impending war between the states, which were the most pressing matters of the day for the Americans, for the mills of Lancashire and, increasingly, for Richard Monckton Milnes.

It may be that, in fact, Burton was sick or just very damn drunk, or both.

The future of South’s cotton fields was absolutely vital to the United Kingdom. They produced 80 percent of the raw fiber turned to thread and cloth in the British mills that were at the very heart of the British industrial economy. The Crown made its peace with the fact the South used slaves to grow the cotton, but could not accept the gruesome traffic with Africa. Already, Consul Bunch in Charleston was reporting to the Foreign Office that Southern secessionists would re-open the slave trade with Africa, which Great Britain had spent almost 50 years and huge resources, including the deployment of naval squadrons, trying to stop. This was the kind of thing that interested Milnes, Prime Minister Palmerston, Queen Victoria, and Prince Albert enormously. And in that sweltering summer of 1860, Burton was traveling through the South in a unique position to gather intelligence.

But we have no record of any of it. We don’t know who he saw, or even where he was.

This lacuna in Burton’s otherwise densely detailed narrative of his own life is both puzzling and suggestive. His many books give an almost day-by-day, sometimes hour-by-hour account of his travels. Yet for several weeks in the summer of 1860, right on the eve of secession and the American Civil War, he seems to have disappeared.

After Burton left Washington, presumably in late May, we know that at some point he landed in New Orleans. In City of the Saints he mentions a conversation there with a Mr. M-----, who warns him against “going among the Mormons.” (Perhaps William Mure, the veteran British consul in New Orleans.) Somewhere Burton parted ways with Steinhauser, who died later that year of “apoplexy” in his native Switzerland. Somewhere the dog from Halifax disappeared as well. And we don’t have another clear fix on Burton until early August, when he was about to leave St. Joseph, Missouri, on the long trail to Utah and California.

This two-month gap in the Burton record has always fascinated and frustrated his biographers. Maybe he found an American woman (or, less likely, but still possible, an American man) to his liking, and years later his jealous and protective wife destroyed the relevant correspondence. That wouldn’t have been out of character. After his death in 1890 she made a bonfire of some other writings that she thought would offend his memory, or hers.

Some scholars suggest another possibility. Just as it was difficult to distinguish a diplomat or detective from a spy in the 19th century, so it was hard to define the differences between an explorer’s work and a secret agent’s.

“It might be assumed that Burton was on a secret mission arranged by influential friends in London to certain Southern leaders,” wrote Edward Rice in his 1990 biography of Burton. “Milnes, who was to favor the North when war broke out, still might have played a role in backing the mission. That so many of Burton’s trips had multiple purposes rarely became apparent until years later. Whom Burton saw during his weeks in the Deep South, where he stayed, or what he did remain even more obscure than certain vacant periods in Sind.” (Decades earlier in that province in colonial India, among other things, he reported secretly on boy brothels that might have been frequented by British officers.)

I do not think Burton would have been much good as an envoy to “certain Southern leaders.” He was a terrible diplomatist. He was a better observer of places than of people, practices than the thinking behind them, and when he wrote about any of his travels did so in exhaustive and sometimes exasperating detail about the topography, agriculture, morals and (Burton being Burton) sexual practices in the land of King Cotton.

Which brings us back to the cocktails. It may be that, in fact, Burton was sick or just very damn drunk, or both, through that summer of 1860 in the South––on a world class binge in the hot, humid lands of white cotton, long-grain rice, and yellow fever.

In her well researched biography of Burton, A Rage to Live, Mary Lovell notes that as he traveled West after resurfacing in Missouri, there was “heavy drinking throughout the trip.” But she suggests, improbably, that “the fact that he wrote about it so openly [in City of the Saints] probably discounts any unhealthy dependence on alcohol.”

Lovell quotes Burton comparing the refreshing air of St. Jo with Champagne: “briskly chilled Veuve Clicquot.” But that’s not what he was knocking back. The day before he set out in a coach on the heels of the newly founded Pony Express, Burton was saying goodbye to recent acquaintances and “lamenting over our ‘morning glory’ the necessity of parting.”

That was one of the cocktails Steinhauser had hoped to be drinking when he first suggested the America binge, and it is quite a concoction. When the famous 19th century barman Jerry Thomas included the morning glory in his revised 1887 edition of his Bartender’s Guide, he mixed it from three dashes of sugar syrup, two of Curaçao, two of bitters, one of absinthe, an ounce of brandy, an ounce of whiskey, a twist of lemon peel, and two small pieces of ice.

(“In those days the drinks were pretty rough and pretty tough,” says Laurent Giraud, the redoubtable mixologist at Harry’s New York Bar in Paris, France, which preserves many of the old traditions.)

After some weeks among the abstemious Mormons in Salt Lake City, Burton made his way to San Francisco, hitting various watering holes, including the Boomerang Saloon, run by a fellow Briton in the mining town of Diamond Springs, California. In San Francisco in November 1860, he thoroughly enjoyed himself at the Union Club and observed, without much comment, the election of Abraham Lincoln in “a system which has been facetiously called ‘universal suffering and vote by bullet,’” but he firmly refused to lecture on his earlier travels, American politics, or cotton grown in India, which was viewed as—and became—the alternative to fiber from the South.

On Burton’s way home by steamer to Panama, then by rail across the isthmus, and then again by steamer back to Britain, he continued listing the libations that amused him. At an overnight in Acapulco, frustrated by the impossibility of exploring the hinterland, he “found philosophical consolation in various experiments touching the influence of Mezcal brandy, the Mexican national drink, upon the human mind and body.” In Colon, on the Caribbean coast, the railroad superintendent introduced Burton to Italia, “a certain muscatel cognac that has yet to reach Great Britain.”

By the time Burton himself reached England in late December, South Carolina had declared “the Union is dissolved,” announcing its undying defense of slavery and its independence from the United States. The rush to war had begun. Yet Burton’s reports of drinking are more detailed than anything we know him to have written about the causes of the conflict or the costs to the British Empire.


From the Jerry Thomas guides of 1862 and 1887.

Mint Julep

1 table-spoonful of white pulverized sugar

2 ½ do. water, mix well with a spoon

Take three or four sprigs of fresh mint, and press them well in the sugar and water, until the flavor of the mint is extracted; add one and a half wine-glass of Cognac brandy, and fill the glass with fine shaved ice, them draw out the sprigs of the mint and insert them in the ice with the stems downward, so that the leaves will be above, in the shape of a bouquet; arrange berries, and small pieces of slice orange on top in a tasty manner, dash with Jamaica rum, and sprinkle white sugar on top. Place a straw … and you have julep that is fit for an emperor.

Brandy Smash

(This beverage is simply a julep on a small plan.)

½ table-spoonful of white sugar

1 do. water

1 wine-glass of brandy

Fill two-thirds full of shaved ice, use two sprigs of mint, the same as in the recipe for a mint julep. Lay two small pieces of orange on top, and ornament with berries in season.

Gin Sling

(Use small bar glass)

The gin sling is made with the same ingredients as the gin toddy, except you grate a little nutmeg on top.

[Gin toddy:

1 teaspoonful sugar

½ wine-glass of water

1 do. gin

1 small lump of ice

Stir with a spoon]

Brandy Cocktail

(Use small bar glass)

3 or 4 dashes of gum syrup

2 do. bitters (Bogart’s)

1 or 2 dashes of Curaçao

Squeeze lemon peel; fill one-third full of ice, and stir with a spoon.

(Can also be strained into a fancy wine glass with a piece of lemon peel thrown on top and the edge of the glass moistened with lemon.)

Sherry Cobbler

(Use large bar glass.)

2 wine-glasses of sherry

1 table-spoonful of sugar

2 or 3 slices of orange

Fill a tumbler with shaved ice, shake well, and ornament with berries in season. Place a straw.

Post Script: Less than a year after his trip to the United States, the Crown appointed Burton Her Majesty’s Consul in Fernando Po, an island in the Bight of Benin that was right in the middle of the African slave traffic. Burton hated it there—and later wrote he felt “uncommonly suicidal” through his first night on its shores. His letters to Milnes are full of ironic commentary. He’d been “generally disappointed” in the lack of bloodshed, he ironized, chuckling about the lurid stories in the British press about the savage potentates of the coast.

“Not a man killed nor a fellow tortured,” he wrote. “The canoe floating in blood is a myth of myths. Poor Hankey must still wait for his peau de femme.” But the slave trade was every bit as real and horrible as anyone could imagine, and Consul Burton reported on it in exact detail.

“The slave coast offers peculiar facilities for shipping cargoes,” Burton wrote in one of several books he churned out while serving in pestilent Fernando Po. “Low, marshy and malarious, it could hardly be held by foreign garrisons. … The bush and jungle conceal the movements of those on land, and the succession of lagoons forming natural canals along the seaboard, enables the trader in human flesh and blood to ship his cargo where and when least expected. The French and English, Spaniards, Portuguese, and Brazilians established themselves there in old times, and by rich presents persuaded the ‘tyrant’ of Dahomey to supply them with the fruits of his annual raids. In 1842, Captain Broadhead saw ‘thirteen vessels lying in the roads of Whydah at one time.’ Of late years the vigilance of the cruisers [the British and to a lesser extent the American squadron] has tended materially to check the traffic, and nothing now can be done openly. Still shipments take place. But lately a large vessel, the ‘African,’ carrying 500 to 700 negroes, ran the gauntlet of the coast-guard.”

At one point, Burton reported, the captain of another ship tipped his hat to the slave-trading agent on the African as it sailed by and the agent was so chuffed, and so delighted at the profits he planned to make, that he offered to buy the captain and his men champagne.

Such were the gallantries of the slave trade, and such were the profits. Burton included in his book a ledger of the expenses a slaver might incur and the revenues he could expect:

Cost of vessel and provisions ….    $ 25,000

Cost of 500 negroes at $50 …    $ 25,000

   Ten per cent mortality    …    $   2,500

   Wages and presents to master and crew . . .    $ 30,000

   Expenses of landing 450 slaves, at $120 each    $ 54,000


   Total    $136,000

   Add one year’s interest, ten per cent    $  13,650


   Total expenditure    $150,150

   Sale of 450 slaves, at $1200 a head    $540,000


   Profit on the adventure    $389,850

In today’s dollars, by the most conservative calculation, the profit would amount to about $11 million. By that same measure, using Burton’s numbers, the loss of an empty slaver would only be $27,500 (about $783,000 today), and if there were Negroes on board the loss would be $55,000 (about $1.57 million), which would be, still, only a very small fraction of the likely profits with a successful run.

“These figures perfectly account for the continuance and persistency of the traffic,” wrote Burton, and thus the frustrations of Her Majesty’s Navy. “It is said that Great Britain is never without her little war. As far as West Africa is concerned, this dictum is certainly true.”

As for Richard Monckton Milnes, Lord Houghton, he lost his beloved library and wine cellar at Fryston in 1876, and much of the correspondence that might have cleared up the Burton mystery may have gone up in smoke. The house was well enough restored for Henry James to spend New Year’s Eve there in 1878, but has since been torn down.