The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana

by Jess Nevins

The Golden Bottle, or, The Story of Ephraim Benezet, of Kansas (1892)

copyright © Jess Nevins 2022

The Golden Bottle, or, The Story of Ephraim Benezet, of Kansas was written by Ignatius Donnelly. Donnelly (1831-1901) was an American writer and politician. He is best-known for his reactionary populist fiction, including The Golden Bottle, and his Atlantis: The Antediluvian World (1882), which was largely responsible for the nineteenth century revival of interest in Atlantis.

The Golden Bottle is the story of Ephraim Benezet of Butler County, Kansas. A simple farmer's son, Ephraim despairs of his family’s poverty, and when the family mortgage is going to be foreclosed he prays for help. An old man with a “benevolent and noble”1 appearance shows up, claiming to be “The Pity of God.”2 He gives Ephraim a “curious looking embossed gold flask or bottle.”3 The “clear, amber colored liquid”4 inside the bottle turns whatever it touches into gold. Ephraim, whose fiscal beliefs duplicate Donnelly’s, uses the gold to become rich and then take over the world–all in the name of the working man and Christianity, of course. Ephraim begins by helping bankrupt farmers pay off their mortgages and loans. He then moves to New York City and begins trying to loan every poor person in America money at two percent interest. He becomes popular, and everywhere he goes, he attracts worshipful supporters, except from the cowardly and craven upper-class and bankers. Ephraim rescues his childhood sweetheart from poverty, marries her, and while she sets up a communal house for poor women he runs for President. The bankers are against this, for obvious reasons, and they buy off the newspapers to oppose Benezet's candidacy. Benezet, at the prompting of his wife, then pays off the newspapers and wins the election. 

This appalls the European countries, who they declare war on the United States. Ephraim quickly mobilizes the American army and conquers first Canada, then Ireland, then England, then Europe and finally Russia, always being met by adoring crowds and always freeing the poor from the evil upper classes. With that done–and in Ephraim’s mind Europe and Russia are the only places that count–he returns home, only to find that it was all a dream.

To paraphrase Dorothy Parker, The Golden Bottle is a book that should not be put down but instead be flung aside with great force. It is a manifestation of the uglier sentiments of the American Populist movement. American Populism grew out of the concern of reformers, farmers, and workers at the inequities of American life, including collapsing agricultural prices on the domestic and international market, the rising cost of operating farms, and high interest rates for agricultural credit. Furious American wheat and cotton farmers rebelled and formed the National Farmers’ Alliances, which led to the 1892 formation of the People’s Party of the U.S.A., informally known as the Populist Party. The Populists privileged the role of the yeoman farmer in American society and were hostilely opposed to bankers and what the Populists saw as the oppressive upper classes. The Populists saw civilization as corrupt, with Europe being a source of evil and rural America being close to a state of nature and therefore correspondingly sacred.

This is the context in which Donnelly was writing and from which he came. Technically Donnelly is not a bad writer, and The Golden Bottle is certainly readable. But Donnelly loads the moral and symbolic deck in support of Ephraim and against those he dislikes to a truly stomach-turning degree. There is speechifying instead of dialogue, Donnelly’s ideas (though sympathetic to modern readers) are morally and intellectually simplistic, and Ephraim is unpleasantly self-righteous. And the and-then-I-woke-up-and-it-was-all-a-dream ending is simply inexcusable in fiction intended for an audience over the age of four.

The Golden Bottle will take two hours from the readers’ life that they won’t get back.

Recommended Edition

Print: Ignatius Donnelly, The Golden Bottle, or, the Story of Ephraim Benezet of Kansas. Los Angeles: Hardpress Publishing, 2012. 



1 Ignatius Donnelly, The Golden Bottle, or, the Story of Ephraim Benezet of Kansas (New York: D.D. Merrill, 1892), 15.

2 Donnelly, The Golden Bottle, 15.

3 Donnelly, The Golden Bottle, 15.

4 Donnelly, The Golden Bottle, 16.