Charles B. Towns

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”

Towns Hospital

Charles B. Towns Hospital
Alcoholism and Drug Addiction

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!

Charles B. Towns

In 1919 Charles B. Towns wrote the first of three books:
Habits That Handicap:
The Remedy for Narcotic, Alcohol, Tobacco and Other Drug Addictions

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)

In Decline

“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)

Recruiting Ground

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.


19 Responses

  1. John M. says:


    So well researched, so well written, and very, very interesting. You do a great service to all of us by filling us in on the history of the early roots of Alcoholics Anonymous. Thanks, again!

  2. Joe C says:

    Knowing a little about the hours that grow into days and weeks of reading and deciphering that it takes to produce such an enjoyable 20 minutes of reading, I am grateful to you for your efforts. I often wondered when Bill W. described his mountain top vision from Towns Hospital as being touched by God, what other possible explanation there could be for his hallucination. Was it the DTs? This little ditty offers some other reasonable alternatives.

    Thanks Bob.

  3. Ernie Kurtz says:

    Was it Towns or Lambert who went to China? You use Pittman’s Roots; did you also consult Way It Began?
    Ernie Kurtz

    • bob k says:

      Mr. Kurtz,

      It is an honor to communicate with you, although I feel right now like a young student who’s been summoned to the principal’s office. My understanding is that Towns went to China, and I have no knowledge of Dr. Lambert travelling there. I am a great admirer of Mr. Pittman’s “The Roots of Alcoholics Anonymous,” and I confess that I have cribbed the core ideas for a few essays from this fascinating little book.
      I have Pittman’s “Courage to Change,” but have not read “The Way It Began.”
      Among the general recovery population, I strongly suspect that most know almost nothing about Mr. Towns, who I found to be a compelling character who led an interesting life.
      I am an enormous fan of your “NOT-GOD” work, the definitive AA history. I hope your health is good.
      Oh MY NOT-GOD, I’m talking with Ernest Freaking KURTZ!!!!!!!!!!

      • bob k says:

        Ah, I now see that I did not make it at all clear that it was Towns who went to China. A sloppily written paragraph on my part. Thanks for your sharp eye.

  4. John K. says:

    I really enjoyed that essay. Back in the 1980s I went to a hospital in Seattle Washington called Silk Shade. The alcohol/drug treatment offered by them was called aversion therapy. I was an alcoholic and was also addicted to cocaine. The patient/Me was injected with a concoction called ipecac. This substance caused severe vomiting and I had to drink warm beer, or what ever my alcohol of choice was. Man was that a nasty experiment. The psychology was to induce an immediate body/brain correlation making alcohol similar to an allergic response. The cocaine aversion was by simulating the snorting and at the same time being given a mild shock to the wrist. Also there was a relaxant called sodium pentothal, an anesthetic used in psychotherapy at that time. I am like Bill – always interested in helping myself and other’s through any and all modalities of treatment.

  5. Frank M. says:

    Bob, well written, thoughtful, and oddly handsome, this piece. Takes after its author. Seriously, wonderful as usual. Thanks for all the research and hard work.

    By the way, the “fresh clean wind of a mountaintop blowing through and through” stuff has a third possible explanation alongside: 1)God Himself stopped in for a visit; and 2) Bill was high as a kite on various deliriants when he hallucinated it.

    And that is–

    3) Bill might have just made that part up.

    The supposed event has elements suspiciously identical to his grandfather’s conversion experience as Bill elsewhere relates it. Also in another version of his story Bill describes this exact same experience as having happened while sitting in his own kitchen, drinking gin across the table from Ebbie.

    See line #943 from Bill’s 1938 original draft of his own story. Something’s a little fishy here.

    • bob k says:

      Should there be a heaven, Frank, and you and I end up dining together, please don’t embarrass me by asking if the pork chops are REAL! (He’s from L.A., folks, Land of Cynicism.) I saw two early drafts of “BILL’S STORY,” and was so shocked by the terrible spelling that I thought Bill’s educational credentials MUST have been fraudulent. Turns out the culprit was secretary and dictation-taker, Ruth Hock.

      Re: Grandpa William C. Wilson, whose mountain top experience was atop a mountain (if nothing else), will have a place of prominence in “YOUNG BILL WILSON,” an upcoming prequel to Bill’s Big Book tale, which begins at age 21. The essay examines our co-founder’s childhood, and his rather fascinating cast of ancestors.

      Roger, load up on red ink – this one is coming in LLLOOOOOONNNNGGGG!!

      • bob k says:

        Bill kind of takes a trip to the confessional in the Robert Thomsen biography, AND in “AA Comes of Age.”

        He was so lost he was willing to believe ANYTHING… IT WAS AS THOUGH he were standing high on a mountain top…

        In the Ernest Kurtz masterwork, “NOT-GOD” we get “It SEEMED to me, IN THE MIND’S EYE, that I was on a mountain…” Perhaps the nurse left the window open!

      • Frank M. says:

        Now you have me wondering did Bill, in his mind’s eye, imagine himself on that mountaintop twice within the space of a few days? Why not. With God (and with storytelling) all things are possible.

        And no, Bob, I won’t comment on the heavenly pork chops. There are no pork chops in Heaven, as God is quite obviously Jewish. Or a third of Him is anyway.

  6. Jim S. says:

    The more I read about the founders of AA the weirder the story seems! Anyone know if there really was “The Belladonna Whisperer” and if so whatever happened to this character?

  7. Glenna R. says:

    Thanks for this postinG; it was an enjoyable read even if it made this alcoholic a little nauseous. There are a number of significant points made here that answer many questions I’ve wondered about. There’s a lot of snake oil and hocus pocus involved which only needed to be added to religion at a time when William James’ book, the Varities of Religious Experience seemed to be very popular. This is all about a concept I recently learned called, “citizen science”. There is out there for all who are too lazy to check and re-check so much that is hocus pocus and anecdotal that I have given up on talking to people about certain topics like addiction, the food we eat, the medecines we take, whether we trust medical science or not,whether prayer would be better. For me, I’ve decided people will believe whatever they choose to believe, no matter what evidence they have. A belief is not a truth and it woild be good to keep them separate.

  8. Hillary G says:

    Beautifully done..

  9. Jay P. says:

    Very interesting. Thanks Bob, excellent work.

  10. Thomas B. says:

    Thanks Bob for an informative look at some of our early, mostly forgotten history. I’ve always suspected that Bill’s “white light” experience was mostly a result of the deliriants he took in Towns hospital coupled with the influence of his grandfather’s “mountaintop experience.” It also offers a rationale why Bill was interested in investigating the use of LSD and other psychedelics to try and induce a “white light/mountaintop experience” in alcoholics who couldn’t stay sober otherwise, perhaps many such as us who have such difficulty with organized religion.

    I read today about a memoir published last year by Don Lattin entitled, Distilled Spirits: Getting High, Then Sober, with a Famous Writer, a Forgotten Philosopher, and a Hopeless Drunk. In it, he discusses his own recovery as it correlates to Aldous Huxley, Gerald Heard and Bill Wilson. Both Huxley and Heard were instrumental to Bill’s investigation of the use of LSD to induce a “white light/mountaintop experience” in alcoholics. I have it on my short list to read it soon.

    As well, Bob, I look forward to your next article on Bill’s family heritage, including his grandpa, William C. Wilson.

  11. Denis K says:

    Thank you Bob for this wonderful piece; I greatly enjoy your posts.
    My take on the exchange between Dr. Silkworth and Bill when Bill described his perceived spiritual experience is that Silkworth being the compassionate man he was simply told Bill that whatever it was he experienced he should hang onto it rather than tell Bill he in fact had hallucinated from the treatment drugs.
    Silkworth apparently was both compassionate and insightfully practical.

  12. Jimmy C. says:

    Thank you so very much for a wonderful essay. I know a fair amount of AA’s history but there is information here that I have never seen or heard of in the past. It is so marvelous to see history unfold and come together. Without Charlie Towns, also a Georgian, would I be alive today? Very unlikely. Thank you again.

    • bob k. says:

      Thanks for the kind words. The internet is a marvelous thing. An outstanding source of basic information on AA pre-history is Bill Pittman’s “The Roots of Alcoholics Anonymous.” LOVE that little treasure trove!!

      • Jimmy C. says:

        Thank you Bob. The more I learn, the more I realize how much more I want to know. I am going on a search for this book today! I discovered this site pretty much by accident yesterday. Have a great day.

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