By Bob K.
Part One (Prequel to a Prequel)
War fever ran high in the New England town to which we new, young officers from Plattsburg were assigned, and we were flattered when the first citizens took us to their homes, making us feel heroic. Here was love, applause, war; moments sublime with intervals hilarious. I was part of life at last, and in the midst of the excitement I discovered liquor. I forgot the strong warnings and the prejudices of my people concerning drink. In time we sailed for “Over There”. I was very lonely and again turned to alcohol.
Thus begins the book – the “big” book – that has affected the lives of millions of people. From a writer’s perspective, it is a strong opening. As a frightened twenty-one year old soldier faces the most uncertain of futures, “Bill’s Story” begins with the discovery of alcohol, and its mystical power to transform. In fact, Bill’s story starts some twenty years earlier, and in a very real sense, a good deal earlier than that.
Nineteenth Century America
The events described in this essay take place in the nineteenth century, amid circumstances that were stupendously different from the world as we experience it today. Bill Wilson was born in 1895, almost exactly 118 years ago. The main means of transportation were the horse and the railroad. The Wright brothers were mere bicycle shop proprietors, five years away from their very first testing of gliders. The earliest automobiles were seen broken down on the sides of roads, and mocked by those passing in carriages drawn by trusty steeds. The rambunctious Teddy Roosevelt was not yet a “Roughrider,” and five years away from becoming America’s youngest ever President at forty-two. The sitting President was Grover Cleveland.
The world of 1895 was a dangerous place. Minor infections often spread through the body unchecked – a cut on the hand could lead to a crudely executed amputation, or even a fatality. This America of the late nineteenth century was particularly harsh for women, thousands dying in childbirth, and a distressingly large number of children failed to reach adulthood.
Bill Wilson’s parents were born only five years after the end of the American Civil War, and eleven years prior to the Earp brothers’ legendary gunfight at the OK Corral. Bill’s grandparents, the males only, of course, may have voted for (or against) Abraham Lincoln. Emily Griffith Wilson, Bill’s mother, was a highly intelligent woman who became a medical doctor, an osteopath, but she got to vote in no Presidential elections until she was fifty years of age.
The volume of alcoholic beverage consumption had risen explosively earlier in the century, as had the consequences. The forces of temperance were vocal, and in ascension. Drinkers of the time were shamed, much as are cigarette smokers in current times. Dr. Bob’s recollection of the same era was that “men who had liquor shipped in from Boston or New York by express were looked upon with great distrust and disfavor by most of the good townspeople.” (Doctor Bob’s Nightmare, p. 171) National Prohibition was as yet some time away, but the “anti-alcohol” forces were moving forward with a growing momentum.
Divorce was almost unheard of and carried a ferocious stigma, especially in America’s heartland. Young Bill Wilson would be teased relentlessly by other children for having no parents after his father fled across the continent when he was nine, and less than a year later his mother dumped him onto her parents in order to attend school in Boston. Some people suffer the misfortune of having one parent dreadfully unsuited to the role. The adolescent Vermonter seems to have had two.
The Vermont “Ethos”
The Green Mountains of Vermont… were the cradle of the taciturn New England virtues - thrift, honesty, industry. Of course, an undercurrent of New England vices thrived there as well – tobacco, homemade cider, illegal whiskey from Canada, and hotheadedness often legitimized by the euphemism ‘rugged individualism.” Ethan Allen, from a Dorsett family, was the leader of the Green Mountain Boys during the Revolution. A young man who might in another state and another time be classified as a juvenile delinquent, Allen used his hatred of authority and his willingness to take insane risks, to become a great American hero and the epitome of Vermont values. (My Name is Bill, Susan Cheever, P.9)
Vermont was a “dry state” when Bill Wilson was growing up, “a state where self-righteousness about not drinking lived side by side with self-righteousness about drinking anyway.” (Cheever, p. 13) In the late nineteenth century, the Temperance Movement in America was strong.
Dorset and East Dorset
Even today, Dorset is a very small town with a population of about 2,000. Mount Aeolus divides the town into three distinct hamlets. Bill’s sister Dorothy recalled the East Dorset of her youth as “a small village of about twenty homes on two main streets… There were two general stores, two marble mills, a cheese factory, a blacksmith shop, and a cobbler shop; also a public school and two churches.” (Pass It On, p. 18) “East Dorset… was a gritty, blue-collar town. The marble quarry owners lived in Dorsett, the workers in East Dorset.” (My First Forty Years, Bill Wilson, P. vii)
East Dorset, even today, is extremely rural, ethnically homogenous, and possessed of a strange mixture of conservatism and rebelliousness. Quarrying was the main industry in the Dorset area, eventually slowing at the turn of the twentieth century, and nearly extinct by 1920. The marble mined in the East Dorset area was considered among the world’s finest, and the local industry was booming around the turn of the century, fueled by contracts to supply major projects such as the New York Public Library.
Cool Wind and Blinding Light
Bill’s paternal grandfather, William C. Wilson, a quarryman, and the son of a quarryman, in 1865 “married Helen Barrows, one of whose ancestors had built the largest house in East Dorset, a great rambling structure… For years this house had been run as an inn called the Old Barrows House, but soon after the wedding William discovered that, along with working in the marble quarries, he enjoyed managing the inn and the name was changed to Wilson House.” (Bill W., Robert Thomsen, p. 14) The property was directly across the street from the railroad station, which had opened in East Dorset in 1851.
Grandfather Wilson, enthusiastic innkeeper, had had his good friend, alcohol, turn against him. “One Sunday morning in despair he climbed to the top of Mount Aeolus and beseeched God to help him. He saw a blinding light and felt a great wind, and rushed down to interrupt the service at the Congregational Church. Demanding that the minister leave the pulpit, Wilson described his experience to the congregation… Emily loved this story about her husband’s father, and she told it to her son and husband as often as they would listen. In the eight years that he lived after that experience, the elder Wilson never had another drink.” (Cheever, p. 17)
Fifty-seven years later, the extremely desperate future AA founder was a very frightened patient at Towns Hospital. It was his fourth visit. Perhaps the oft told tale of his grandfather came to mind. Bill’s 1934 “spiritual experience” was remarkably similar to that of the old innkeeper near the summit of a windy mountain in 1877. Perhaps a nurse inadvertently contributed to the grand event by leaving a window open.
Gilman and Family
Following the death of her husband in 1885, Helen Wilson was assisted in the day-to-day business of innkeeping by her two teenaged son, one of whom was Bill’s father, Gilman, called “Gilly” by some, and “Jolly” by others. William C. Wilson’s son, Gilman Barrows Wilson followed his father’s footsteps into three family enterprises – quarry work, hotel management, and drinking. Gilman “was an immensely likable man, known as an excellent storyteller with a fine voice that got even better with a few drinks… He managed a marble quarry near East Dorset, and he was so highly regarded as a leader that later, when he went off to work in British Columbia, a number of old East Dorset quarrymen pulled up stakes to follow him.” (Pass It On, p. 14)
“Gilly” may have been, what some would term today, a “functioning alcoholic.” For this or other reasons, throughout his life Bill remained reluctant to brand his father an alcoholic, all the while acknowledging a history of alcohol abuse among the Wilsons.
“Emily taught school before she married… She had intelligence, determination, ambition and immense courage. She would later become successful in a profession, long before most career fields were open to women.” (Pass It On, p. 15) One may wonder what the gregarious Gilly saw in the bookish and reserved Emily Griffith? “Emily was a tall, extremely handsome young woman with masses of dark chestnut hair and deep-set thoughtful eyes.” (Thomsen, p. 15) Physical attraction and a lack of other options in the tiny village may have driven their decision to marry. At twenty-four, Emily may have felt some social pressure to stave off “spinsterhood.”
“True to her Griffith heritage, Emily was a proud woman… also… a high-strung, hard, and unforgiving one, who increasingly soured on her husband’s free and easy ways.” Early on, it was evident that “these two were of extremely dissimilar temperaments.” (Thomsen, p. 13) Of course, as is often the case, “Emily had hoped that marriage would turn him into a responsible man.” (Cheever, p. 7)
“Emily found herself in love with a fellow she never truly understood. If, during their brief engagement, certain things troubled her, she was quite able to rationalize them… And whatever worries might have presented themselves, they were all ignored in the beautiful spring of 1894… and in September they were married in the white Congregational church.” (Thomsen, pp. 15-16) Marriage failed to tame the gregarious quarryman. The thought that fatherhood would render “Jolly” Wilson more domesticated doubtlessly crossed Emily’s mind, and she became pregnant early in 1894.
A Difficult Birth
It was the night before Thanksgiving, when the pains of child labor drove Emily Griffiths Wilson from preparations for the next day’s meal. “Emily’s pains drove her from out of the kitchen into the north parlor. She lay on a couch there, trying to breathe, doubling over as the contractions wracked her body… In and out of consciousness, she screamed and cried out as midnight passed. Inside the house, the midwife and her mother tried to comfort her. Outside, Bill’s friend-to-be, Mark Whalon, remembered a crowd of local boys gathered on the porch listening to Emily Wilson’s screams as evidence of the strangeness of the adult world. Later, Emily was fond of saying that Bill’s birth had almost killed her.” (Cheever, p. 18)
The future founder of Alcoholics Anonymous entered the world on November 26th, 1895, “in a little room in back of a bar.”
TO BE CONTINUED
(Part Two will examine the rather dramatic events of Bill Wilson’s childhood, leading up to the beginning of “Bill’s Story.”)