By bob k
The story of Ebby Thacher is one of large privilege and poor performance, the tale of a classic underachiever. Iconic television character, Al Bundy, peaked at seventeen years of age by scoring four touchdowns in one game – all downhill after that! By seventeen, Ebby Thacher was already mired in mediocrity, a problem exacerbated by his being surrounded by a family of achievers. Generations of Thachers experienced successes in business, politics, society and church. Ebby, an archetypal black sheep, was a slacker, a floater, who never quite embraced adulthood. His journey through Alcoholics Anonymous is essentially an illustration of what not to do.
Near the end of that bleak November, I sat drinking in my kitchen. With a certain satisfaction I reflected there was enough gin concealed about the house to carry me through that night and the next day. My wife was at work. I wondered whether I dared hide a full bottle of gin near the head of our bed. I would need it before daylight.
My musing was interrupted by the telephone. The cheery voice of an old school friend asked if he might come over. He was sober. It was years since he had come to New York in that condition. I was amazed. Rumor had it that he had been committed for alcoholic insanity. I wondered how he had escaped. Of course he would have dinner, and then I could drink openly with him. Unmindful of his welfare, I thought only of recapturing the spirit of other days.
That “bleak November” was in 1934. The old school friend was Edwin Throckmorton Thacher, known better then and since, as Ebby. “Fresh-skinned and glowing,” sober a mere seven weeks, “he was inexplicably different.” Although he did not at the time realize it, Bill Wilson was only a few short (but well-lubricated) weeks away from his very last drink. More importantly, this simple reunion of old chums, though it did not, in fact, recapture the spirit of other days, would set in motion a series of events that would dramatically affect the lives of millions of alcoholics, and change the world of addiction treatment.
The Thachers of Albany, New York
The Thacher family had a history in America dating back to pre-revolution times. Family prominence took a sharp upward rise when Ebby’s paternal grandfather started a railroad wheel manufacturing business in 1852. A great fortune was rapidly amassed as the entrepreneur became the principal supplier of wheels for the New York Central Railroad. Social recognition that was greater still came with his election to the Albany mayoralty, around the time of the American Civil War. The Thachers were to provide Albany with two more mayors, including Ebby’s older brother Jack.
Edwin Throckmorton Thacher, Ebby, was born into fortunate circumstances, on the 29th of April, 1896. The youngest of five brothers, Ebby’s sense of entitlement, so much in evidence throughout his life, was probably formed very early in his life. The best of everything, servants galore, and the instant recognition and respect that the Thacher name produced outside of the home may have fore-ordained some future difficulties. Father and the brothers appear to have had their own issues, but fared better in the business and working world than the baby of the family, all managing to be”self-supporting through their own contributions.”
The well-to-do Thachers spent their summers in the resort town of Manchester, Vermount about six miles from Bill Wilson’s family home in East Dorset. Ebby’s father was a founding member of the Ewanok Golf & Country Club where he frequently partnered with wealthy industrialist Robert Todd Lincoln, son of the Great Emancipator. Within the social circle of the “summer people” were the Burnhams, whose daughter Lois would one day marry Bill Wilson.
Meeting Bill Wilson
After a humiliating, inauspicious debut into the world of baseball, Bill Wilson, through relentless determination and hours of practice had become a local hero as a star ballplayer. It is likely that he and Ebby first met through baseball, in either 1910 or 1911. Ebby, who had been attending the Albany Academy as had his older brothers, disappointed his parents with his lackluster academic performance. In 1912, they placed him in residence at Burr and Burton Seminary, a onetime training school for ministers which was by then a co-educational institution for general education. This was Bill Wilson’s school, and had been since 1909. The developing friendship of the two teen-aged boys brought Bill some access to the society of the rich and famous, the very group he aspired to rub elbows with.
Only one school year was spent at Burr and Burton before Ebby was returned to his former school. Students at the Albany Academy were expected to graduate and go on to college. Ebby Thacher did neither. He was, by all accounts, a slacker. Frustrated at the failure of all efforts to motivate their youngest son to any acceptable level of scholastic diligence, Ebby was given a low-level job in the family foundry. Based on the history which was to unfold, the senior Thacher’s dramatic attempt to fracture his son’s “sense of entitlement” seems to have come too late. Manhood, in the form of his new full-time employment, opened the door to Saturday night drinking. By his own description, Ebby was “not a successful drinker from the start.” From the outset, results of drinking were unpredictable.
World War I was a godsend for drinkers, as patriotic citizens were delighted to stand one for the boys in uniform. Weekday drinking became more acceptable than ever before, owing to the great uncertainty of what was to come in a world embroiled in conflict. Throughout the war, Ebby never had to leave the States, but as indulgence increased dramatically, so did the consequences. Armistice brought a cessation of fighting but not drinking, and the distinguished Thacher family was repeatedly embarrassed by the escapades of the youngest son. Ebby was pretty cut up in an incident involving a wrecked taxi-cab, and was kicked out of the house.
By 1922, the family business folded. In the late twenties, both of Ebby’s parents died, and half of a significant inheritance was lost instantly in the stock market crash. The other half, he frittered away. Ebby held a succession of jobs, including one with a brokerage firm’s Albany office, but he wasn’t much of a producer. From time to time he ran into his childhood friend, Bill Wilson. The very first time that they drank together resulted in a spectacular 1929 binge which gets a brief mention in Bill’s Story – “There was that time we had chartered an airplane to complete a jag.” This one involved Bill and Ebby being the first to land at Manchester’s new airport. Before a band and a receiving delegation led by Mrs. Orvis, “a rather stately and dignified lady,” and owner of Equinox House, the tony resort town’s most elite hotel, the two inebriates and their tipsy pilot followed up the historic landing, with a face plant onto the tarmac.
Older brother, John Boyd Thacher II (Jack) had become Albany mayor in 1926, and Ebby’s drunken escapades had become an increasing embarrassment to his distinguished family. In his own words, “My brother was a prominent man in town and I wasn’t doing him any good. So in the fall of 1932, I took off for Manchester and lived in the Battenkill Inn for about two years. And of course, the drinking went on up there just the same.” A trip into the mountains, and some physical labour led to a period of sobriety of some months, but in his own terms he “fell off the wagon.”
He then moved in to the once spectacular, but now dilapidated family summer home. This led to two iconic drunken Ebby stories. In the first, a very intoxicated Ebby drove his father’s Packard through the side of a neighbor’s dwelling smashing into the kitchen. With the panache of a true drunk, he asked his “hostess” for a cup of coffee. The second incident involved another brief period of “being on the wagon,” during which time he and a local handyman repainted the house. The completion of the project led to a protracted celebration which was ruined by some inconsiderate roosting pigeons spoiling the paint job. Ebby unleashed some gunfire, bringing him once more to the attention of the local constabulary.
The cavalry rides in
Between the two episodes above, in July or August, Ebby had been visited by Oxford Groupers, Cebra Graves and Shep Cornell. The house painting incident that followed not long thereafter indicates that the mission was not an immediate success, but they had planted the seed. Facing some very serious consequences from this latest fiasco, the Oxford Groupers got a remorseful Mr. Thacher off the hook as the judge released him to the care and supervision of the eminent and newly sober businessman, Rowland Hazard. Ebby spent some time with Hazard, and a few weeks at the home of Shep Cornell, and he spoke at two Oxford Group meetings. Pushed to evangelise, he contacted Bill Wilson. It was November, 1934. At this point, the two men had not seen each other for about a year.
A telephone call to Lois gave him the opportunity to briefly tell his story and arrange the now historical get together which took place two nights later. The fresh-skinned and glowing Ebby was particularly impactful for Bill because he knew Ebby was his “type of drinker” – the chartered airpane debacle had created a special bond. Bill’s current state of desperation opened his mind somewhat to the “I’ve got religion” solution. Wilson, who is sometimes portrayed as atheist, was not. “I had always believed in a Power greater than myself. I had often pondered these things. I was not an atheist.” The author of “We Agnostics” also seems, from his own story, to have not been an agnostic as well, instead believing in “a Spirit of the Universe, who knew neither time nor limitation.” He shared his maternal grandfather’s “contempt of some church folk and their doings… his denial of the preacher’s right to tell him how he must listen (to the ‘music of the spheres’).”
Why don’t you choose your own conception of God?
This is a phrase that, without doubt, “widened the gateway” for hundreds and hundreds of thousands of AA’s yet to come, and it is attributed to Ebby. It’s right there in BILL’S STORY – “My friend suggested what then seemed a novel idea. He said, ‘Why don’t you choose your own conception of God?’” But did Ebby actually say this? Probably not.
Bill Wilson was a salesman and a promoter. In the early days, prospects were called “pigeons,” and an open meeting talk was known as a “pitch.” The entire book Alcoholics Anonymous was carefully crafted to sell certain ideas. There exists, of course, a cult of book worshippers who think Bill’s Story is a documentary. Some are quick to point to all twelve steps in the narrative, the very twelve steps which did not exist until four years later! Interviewed years later, Ebby had no recollection of having made the “choose your own conception of God” suggestion. Such a proposal would have represented a MAJOR deviation from the Oxford Group message, the philosophy into which Ebby had been staunchly indoctrinated during the previous seven weeks. As to Bill’s own recollection of the evening’s events, he was not only quite drunk, but teetering on the very edge of alcoholic insanity.
Regarding the comprehension of alcoholism, and even more so, the understanding of the mind and emotions of drunks, Bill Wilson likely remains without peer. Between Ebby’s first visit, and the time the book was written, our founder had formulated some clear-cut ideas of what alcoholics would and would not sign onto. The Akronites were having tremendous success with a very Christian approach and seemed content to maintain their ties with the Oxford Fellowship. Wilson, the visionary, knew better, and was committed to a non-Christian book and a more open-ended, “choose for yourself” spirituality. His quest to sell these ideas was aided by the burgeoning membership in Cleveland, a city with many Roman Catholics. Catholics of the time were prohibited from participating in non-Catholic religious services, and thus Cleveland sobriety csar Clarence Snyder strongly supported the split from the Protestant Oxford Group.
The gate-widening suggestion – “Why don’t you choose your own conception of God” – almost certainly came from the mind of Bill Wilson, and not the mouth of Ebby Thacher.
Sporadic sobriety, resentment, freeloading, and a lack of Steps
At various times during the thirty years that Ebby survived past his initial carrying the message to Bill, he was deeply resentful about not being granted a co-founder status in AA. He held bitterness toward the “usurper” Bob Smith, and he was aggrieved by Hank Parkhurst’s partnership in the book publication. All evidence indicates that Ebby as an Oxford Grouper did as little as he could get away with, and showed virtually no interest in working AA’s 12 Step programme. Mrs. Wilson was NOT in the Ebby Fan Club, writing in “Lois Remembers” that “Bill wanted sobriety with his whole soul – Ebby wanted enough to stay out of trouble.”
In AA’s formative years, Ebby often lived with the Wilson’s for months at a time, nourished by Lois’ modest pay cheque and some handouts from his older brothers. A return to Albany and some modest success in the work world led, at 31 months, to the first of many slips. The best period of Ebby’s adult life occurred in the 1950s when he was taken under the wing of Searcy W. who ran a Texas hospital for alcoholics. After a brief relapse in 1954, he was able to accumulate seven years of continuous sobriety.
About four years into his Texas sobriety, Ebby was asked to speak at an AA convention in Memphis. It is fascinating to hear the voice of the man who played a small but critical role in what eventually evolved into Alcoholics Anonymous. He is quite articulate, and his memory of the events of 1934 are different from Bill’s in more ways than one. Of course, Ebby was sober and Bill was not, at the time of the fateful meeting. He talks a lot about “falling off the wagon,” and seems to justify several of the relapses as being attributable to the actions of others. Twenty-five years after the fact, he is arguing that the behaviour leading to one of the three arrests for drunkeness which propelled him into the Oxford group and sobriety, was “not that bad.” He is astonished that the arresting officer, an old Burr and Burton school chum, did not let him off on another. At four years sober, it is evident that he still very much misses the glory days of drinking and sustains a strong fantasy of re-capturing old times.
At the core of the AA recovery process, alcoholics must at some point take personal responsibility, let go of old resentments, and move from some form of arrested adolescence into adulthood. Edwin Throckmorton Thacher never accomplished those things, and his periods of abstinence were prompted more from necessity than any “real” desire to immerse himself in a new lifestyle. In 1961 his girlfriend died and he got drunk the next day. He moved back to New York, living in several places. The twin scourges of alcoholism and emphysema dropped his weight from 170 to 122 pounds. His last two years were spent sober at Margaret and Micky McPike’s farm outside Ballston Spa in New York state. He did not attend AA during this time. His expenses were covered by a small government pension and by his old pal, Bill Wilson.
On March 21st of 1966, the sad tale concluded.
A paperback version of Key Players in AA History is available at Amazon USA.