By Bob K.
December 11, 1934
Bill Wilson should have been desperate, depressed, and beyond all optimism, when he arrived at Towns Hospital to undergo a fourth and final detox. Following his Armistice Day relapse, “Bill settled hopelessly and without heart into a sort of bottomless bingeing. He no longer made any pretense of going out, save to replenish his supply. He could barely eat; he was forty pounds underweight.” (Pass It On, p. 111) Some months earlier, he had left the same hospital terror-stricken, having heard the kind and gentle Dr. Silkworth tell Lois, “I’m fearful for his sanity if he goes on drinking… He can’t go on this way another year possibly.” (Pass It On, p. 108)
Yet, Bill arrived in high spirits. Buoyed by the tenacity of the human spirit, the newfound sobriety of his old friend, and the three beers consumed along the way, he waved around the fourth bottle and boldly announced that he had “found something.” “Silkworth remembered that Bill was carrying two books on philosophy, from which he hoped to a new inspiration.” (Pass It On, p. 120) Following the then-current treatment of sedatives and belladonna, the effects of the alcohol wore away and “he fell into deep depression and rebellion. He wanted the sobriety Ebby had found, but he couldn’t believe in the God Ebby had talked about.” (Pass It On, p. 120)
Nonetheless, Bill Wilson never had another drink. Over the years, much credit has been graciously offered to “the little doctor who loved drunks,” viewed as a medical saint by the AA community. But it is unlikely that Wilson and Silkworth would have ever met, had it not been for the hospital’s founder, Charles Towns.
The Movement Toward Prohibition
As the twentieth Century dawned on the United States of America, there was much to celebrate, but in the eyes of a significant portion of the population, the most egregious of enemies needed to be met, battled, and vanquished lest the very fabric of God-loving American families be destroyed.
That adversary was alcohol.
“The Anti-Saloon League emerged toward the end of the nineteenth century: it was to be the last and most effective of the prohibition-temperance movements. Their strategy was to make saloons the target of their efforts.” (The Roots Of Alcoholics Anonymous, Bill Pittman, p. 82) Carrie Nation and others led hatchet-wielding hordes, convinced of the righteousness of their cause.
The view of these reformers was typically expressed:
The saloon is the storm center; the devil’s headquarters on earth; the school-master of a broken decalogue; the defiler of youth; the enemy of the home; the foe of peace; the deceiver of nations; the beast of sensuality; the past master of intrigue; the vagabond of poverty; the social vulture; the rendezvous of demagogues; the enlisting officer of sin; the serpent of Eden; a ponderous second edition of hell, revised, enlarged, and illuminated. (Pressure Politics, P.H. Odegard, 1928, p. 150)
All of these “anti-alcohol” forces were coming together in moving toward an ultimate solution of the total prohibition, that was to come in only a few short years. Individually, problem drinkers were seeking remedies of their own. Violent or impoverished intemperate drinkers had no options, and were incarcerated. In the higher classes, consultations with physicians rarely produced lasting change. Religion had some very occasional successes with rich and poor, while the pleadings and remonstrances of wives, parents, and children garnered pledges and promises quickly broken. Magazine ads offering remedies for alcoholic dissipation were as commonplace as those offering cures for baldness , and about equally effective. Some provided invigorating “tonics,” as strong as Jamaican rum!
Such were the conditions in the turbulent times at which the Towns Hospital was founded, variously reported to be either 1909 or 1901.
Entrepreneur, Salesman Extraordinaire
Charles B. Towns was born in Georgia, during the early part of the American Civil War, a conflict that was to shatter the fortune of Colonel Oliver Towns, his father. Limited means prevented the Colonel from providing his elder children the benefits of an education, other than what was to be obtained from the common country schools, which were at that time, very inadequate. Forced to leave school in order to assist his father, Young Charlie embraced the challenge. His extraordinary competitiveness and ambition were in evidence early on as he won several ranching and farming contests in his county.
Whatever the challenge, the teenager embraced it, striving to be the best. His ambition is evocative of young Bill Wilson’s quest to be a “Number One man.” “During his youth he (Towns) broke horses and mules and steers that no other person could conquer.” (Roots Of AA, p. 84) At twenty, he moved to Florida where he worked in the railroad industry. Starting as a clerk, he advanced rapidly to management, and his company flourished. During this “railwayman” phase, “he used his spare time to study arithmetic and grammar.” (Roots Of AA, p. 84) His bosses were sorry to see him go.
At twenty-seven, he found far greater success as a pioneer in the sale of insurance, and “in 1892 he wrote more insurance than was ever written before by any other company in the history of the state, second in the nation only to the general agent in Boston whose territory was all of New England.” (Duval County Gen Web) “Towns, with his threatening index finger, with his hypnotic eye and prehensile jaw, could convince a granite gatepost that it stood in immediate need of life insurance!” (Roots of AA, p. 84)
New York and a Rare Failure
“He had set a record for selling more life insurance than any other man had ever written south of the Mason-Dixon Line up to that time (1901). Soon after, he went to New York to seek a larger arena for his talents. There he found something that excited him even more – the stock market. From 1901 to 1904 he was a partner in a brokerage firm that eventually failed.” (Roots Of AA, p. 4)
A Whispered “Cure”
Around this time Towns was approached by a mysterious man who whispered to him, “I have got a cure for drug habits, morphine, opium, heroin, codeine, alcohol – any of ‘em. We can make a lot of money out of it.” (Colliers Magazine, The “White Hope” for Drug Victims, P.C. MacFarlane, Nov. 29, 1913, p. 17) Although his own physician viewed the idea as ridiculous, Towns was intrigued and placed ads seeking “drug fiends” who wanted to be cured. Finding a “patient,” he took the “Whisperer,” the “fiend,” and himself to the Abingdon Square Hotel, along with a few vials of medicine.
The “fiend” seems to have experienced a change of heart and “wanted to leave, but Towns restrained him and gave him a strong sedative. A doctor and a stomach pump were sent for, as the patient became violently ill. After forty-eight hours, the patient was able to leave. Towns and his accomplice decided the “cure” needed additional refinement, so Towns began reading all the known literature on drug addiction and alcoholism. Unable to find any more willing patients, he kidnapped a racetrack agent and forced him through the treatment, which was successful. His reputation soon spread through New York’s criminal underworld and he treated many addicted gangsters. During this time, he eliminated the distressing features of the original formula.” (Roots Of AA, p. 85)
We have no way of knowing precisely what constituted the earliest formula. We do know that in later years the Towns-Lambert “cure” involved two full days of hourly doses of a combination of the deliriant Atropa Belladonna (aka Deadly Nightshade), henbane (also a deliriant), and prickly ash, which helped with intestinal cramps. The belladonna produced delirium and hallucinations. Delirium tremens also produces hallucinations that “tend to be transmogrifications of things the alcoholic is actually seeing or experiencing.” (An Alcoholic’s Savior, New York Times Health, April 20, 2010)
Presumably, an open window could produce “the great clean wind of a mountain top,” and a “blinding light” could be the result of staring at an overhead bulb. Patients also received cathartics and mercury pills, an all-purpose purgative with a variety of other claimed benefits. Castor oil was also administered. Patients routinely did a lot of vomiting while undergoing the therapy, which was idiomatically referred to as “puke and purge.” A number of the listed ingredients prompted purging.
Theoretically, at least, the treatment “successfully and completely removes the poison from the system and obliterates the craving for drugs and alcohol.” (Alcoholic’s Savior)
It was a very expensive detox. At Bill Wilson’s fourth visit to Towns, “Silkworth sedated him with chloral hydrate and paraldehyde, two agents guaranteed to help an agitated drunk to sleep.” In later years, Towns alleged that he had obtained the original formula from a “country doctor.”
The “Towns Cure” Goes To China
Believing the formula to be now ready for more widespread use, he had interested Dr. Alexander Lambert, professor of clinical medicine at Cornell University Medical College, in his therapy. Lambert, one of then-President Theodore Roosevelt’s physicians, began telling government officials about the “Towns Cure.” He was sent to China where the drug addiction problem was enormous, and in 1908, claimed to have cured 4,000 opium addicts by his method. The distinguished physician gave Towns credibility among the many naysayers, who viewed him as a complete fraud.
Charles B. Towns had arrived!
He was heralded as “an everyday American fighter. Between 1910 and 1920, he helped to frame the Boylan Bill and testified before Congress in favor of the Harrison Narcotics Tax Act (to regulate the distribution of opiates and cocaine). At the same time he operated a very lucrative hospital, located on fashionable Central Park West, which catered to New York’s social elite. It was no more than a fancy, very expensive detoxification facility; Towns would not admit anyone unless the fee was paid upon admission or a “backer” guaranteed to pay the fee, which was $200. to $350. for a five-day stay.” (Roots of AA, p. 86)
(Bill Wilson’s four trips to Towns Hospital were of course, not financed by his own, or Lois’ meager resources, but were paid for by Dr. Leonard Strong, husband of Bill’s younger sister, Dorothy. Setting out on December 11, 1934, for a fourth trip to the “high-end” detox, “he had only six cents, and that left a penny after the subway fare. Along the way, he managed to obtain four bottles of beer from a grocery store where he had a little credit. (Pass It On, p. 120))
Stats? We Got Stats!
No doubt playing on the association with the esteemed one-time physician to a President of the United States, the treatment had become known as the “Towns-Lambert Cure.” Towns claimed a cure rate at 75-90% “based on the (rather clever) reasoning that if you never heard from a patient again, HE NO LONGER NEEDED YOUR SERVICES.” (Roots of AA, p. 86)
In his own words, “We have never had a negative result in any case, free from disability, or from an incurable painful condition which enforced the continued use of an addictive drug – such as gall stones, cancer, etc. A little less than ten percent returned to us for a second treatment, a reasonable presumption being that ninety percent from whom we have never heard further after they left our care had no need to consult with us a second time.” (Drug And Alcohol Sickness, C.B. Towns, 1932)
“After 1920, Towns standing in the medical community fell while his claims became more and more extravagant. The substances he claimed he could help people with included tobacco, coffee, tea, bromides, marijuana, cocaine, and paraldehyde in addition to opiates and alcohol. The Towns Cure appears to border on quackery…” (Roots Of AA, p. 87) His lasting contribution may be that in encouraging directors of large corporations to help save alcoholics, while still on the job, he was one of the precursors of Employee Assistance Programs (EAP), which have found ubiquity in the modern workplace.
From the perspective of Alcoholics Anonymous, Towns’ more significant contribution was in providing William D. Silkworth M.D. an almost endless parade of the helpless and hopeless alcoholics he was so desperate to help, and a venue in which to do his research. The serendipitous meeting of the absolutely right patient with the absolutely right physician, led to the passing on of the absolutely vital information about the inevitable consequences, fatality or insanity, of the malady.
Charles Towns was enthusiastic about AA, and loaned a considerable sum of money to the fledgling group so that they get their book published. In 1937, he offered Bill Wilson “an office, a decent drawing account , and a very healthy slice of the profits… Some day this bunch of ex-drunks of yours will fill Madison Square Gardens, and I don’t see why you should starve meanwhile… You can become a lay therapist, and more successful than anybody in the business.” (12 + 12, p. 136) Various Traditions reflect the lessons learned in this. Bill’s “the laborer is worthy of his hire” thought was overridden by the greater wisdom of the collective whole. “Don’t you realize… that you can never become a professional?… we can’t tie this thing up with his hospital or any other.” (12 + 12, p. 137)
Even prior to Charles Towns offer to employ Bill Wilson, which would have made him the “de facto” proprietor of what would become AA, Towns allowed Bill to speak to alcoholic patients at his hospital. Two of the more noteworthy recruits were Hank Parkhurst and Fitz Mayo, his earliest “successes,” following abundant failures during which “the work” kept Wilson himself sober.
Towns wrote three books on alcoholism, and possibly influenced by Richard Peabody, he felt strongly that idleness was a great producer of relapse in alcoholics, thus rendering the rich and the poor more vulnerable than the middle class. He urged employers to NOT dismiss their wayward workers. Years later, the physician, Alexander Lambert, who had brought credibility to Towns’ outrageous claims, distanced himself from Towns and his treatment. The toxic ingredients of the “cure” may have posed a greater risk to the patient than the original malady. There were fatalities.
Charles B. Towns certainly had far more than his fifteen minutes of fame. Somewhere along the way he had acquired a fictitious PhD. He was a daunting presence, both in personality and physicality. Well into his seventies, the onetime bronco buster worked out daily at the gymnasium. He was a “super salesman,” but ultimately his wares were “snake oil.”
In 1965, the Towns Hospital, a five story yellow brick building with 50 beds, where alcoholics and addicts had been treated for more than fifty years, closed its doors.
Charles B. Towns, history would suggest, was far more L. Ron Hubbard and P.T. Barnum, than Walter Reed or William Worrell Mayo.