Not Just The Washingtonians

Part One

By bob k

There exists a mythology which has been perpetrated and perpetuated by those who take pleasure in perpetrating and perpetuating mythologies – Regarding the treatment of alcoholism, the pre-AA world was one of darkness, total blackness, a vacuum, a void. Not only had human power efforts done poorly, they had failed completely. In rare cases, through the direct intervention of the Loving Creator, here and there, an odd individual had been redeemed. “God could, and would, if He were sought,” whereas “probably no human power could relieve our alcoholism.”

That’s the story line in this oft-repeated tale. In reality, there have been a great many instances in which individuals and groups have developed successful treatments for alcoholism, most commonly involving the gathering and bonding of alcoholics. Through the effort to help others, the problem drinkers were able to help themselves. In the current era, we hear much about the Baltimore Washingtonian Society, but they were but one of several such groups, which were able to bring sobriety to substantial numbers of alcoholics.

“Founded in 1935, Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) has had a tremendous influence on the framework that underlies many of our current approaches to treating alcoholism. But AA wasn’t the first society of this type; a century before AA, self-help clubs were springing up among Americans looking for support in maintaining sobriety. The 19th Century saw the establishment of reform clubs, also known as businessmen’s abstinence clubs, as a vehicle for American men who were looking for an effective way to stay sober.” (

The earliest of these mutual aid groups were the recovery “circles” among Native American tribes. These gatherings, existing for the reformation and support of alcoholic drinkers, predate the American Revolution. Other “temperance societies composed exclusively of reformed drunkards began to appear as early as 1831. Typical of these early groups was the Reformers Benevolent Society of Schenectady, New York.” (Slaying The Dragon, William L. White, P. 9) There were MANY other groups, some having a religious component; others entirely secular.

The disappearance of these diverse societies came almost invariably as the result of political squabbling over “outside issues,” not because their sobriety generating and sustaining strategies were without merit. As it is now, so was it then – recovery and political debate do not blend well.

The Sons of Temperance

Founded in 1842 by a group of 16 alcoholic men, the Sons grew to 250,000 members in the next decade, and had chapters in every state. Forty years after its start, the Sons of Temperance still had a membership of 73,000, in spite of the decimation of its ranks, and the memberships of similar groups, by controversies over divisive issues such as the admission of women, the admission of Blacks, and lobbying for a complete prohibition of beverage alcohol.

“The Sons… provided a rich variety of social diversions to help members avoid the siren call of the saloon. These diversions included plays, picnics, bands, small vocal groups, and organized sports… The Sons ran what today would be called ‘closed’ meetings and were criticized by… mainstream temperance leaders… because they would not allow non-members to attend their meetings.” (Dragon, P. 23)

The Good Templars

Founded in 1851, the Templars were committed to total abstinence and support for prohibition. “By 1876, the Templars had initiated more than 2.9 million members. A former Templar leader estimated that more than 400,000 recovered drunkards were among that membership — and that more than half of them had kept their pledge.

“Groups like the Good Templars believed that the only way the reformed alcoholic could strengthen his own resolve was to pass encouragement and strength on to other alcoholics.” (Dragon, P. 24) The Templars are unique among the various 19th century organizations in that they are still to be found in the 21st century.


“Some of the fraternal temperance organizations had smaller numbers but were composed exclusively of reformed alcoholics.” (Dragon, P.) The New York based Order of Good Samaritans had only 14,000 members, but nearly all were reformed alcoholics. The Samaratans were racially integrated, and banned all political discussion.

Ribbon Reform Clubs

“The Ribbon Reform Clubs were a group of abstinence based societies that provided mutual aid for men who were heavy drinkers… Ribbon Reform Clubs could boast of millions taking the pledge by the mid-1880s, but by the end of the decade they were overtaken within the temperance movement by prohibition forces.” (Addiction: A reference encyclopedia, Padua & Cunningham, P. 263)

J.K. Osgood

“Joshua Knox Osgood (1816-1895), who had lost his business and fortune from problem drinking, became interested in rescue work for the sake of other alcoholics…” (Alcohol & Drugs in North America, David M. Fahey, Jon S. Miller, P.64) In August of 1871, Osgood had returned to his home in Gardiner, Maine following yet another of a great many drunken sprees. Sobered by the disconsolate look on the face of his despairing wife, Osgood resolved to never again touch a drop of whiskey. After suffering through a difficult detox, he sought out a lawyer friend whose drinking resembled his own, and enlisted the attorney’s participation in a vow to stop drinking.

“On January 19, 1872, they called a meeting and eight drinking companions signed a pledge to not drink. The Gardiner Reform Club had several hundred members within a few months. Osgood then organized numerous clubs… Men who signed the pledge began to wear blue ribbons in their lapels. Within months, Osgood’s reform clubs had spread through much of New Hampshire, Vermont, and Massachusetts, and had enlisted the involvement of more than 20,000 heavy drinkers.” (Dragon, P. 25)

Red Ribbon Clubs

redribbon “Henry A. Reynolds (1839-1922) was a Harvard educated physician who had lost his medical practice on account of drinking.” (Alcohol & Temperance in Modern History, Blocker, Fahey, Tyrel, 2003, P. 516) “I am one of the unfortunate men who inherited an appetite for strong drink. I love liquor the way a baby loves milk.” Years later, another physician in Akron, Ohio suffered from a similar thirst, and described his failing in much the same terms – “I just loved my grog.”

Reynolds signed a temperance pledge in 1873 and “immediately sought a source through which he could support his own commitment to sobriety, and help others as well.” (Dragon, P. 25) Following some months of haphazard attempts, he resolved that something more organized was needed. An ad in the newspaper led to the formation of the Bangor Reform Club, in September of 1874. Reynolds visited and gave speeches at other communities and clubs were started all over Maine.

Not a compelling speaker, the emotional power of his personal story and the prestige of his medical degree gave weight to his words. “Reynolds’ club held meetings that resembled those of the blue ribbon clubs in their emphasis on mutual support, and a male camraderie to replace the saloon experience…” (Alcohol & Temperance, P. 264) Reynolds’ groups were religious in nature, and promoted members to follow Christian practices.

The members’ practice of wearing a red ribbon on their clothing led to the name “Red Ribbon Reform Clubs.” Within two years, there were 70 clubs across the state. Several of Maine’s larger cities grew within a short time to over 1,000 members each.

“Dr. Reynolds’ tactics… differed from those of his Washingtonian predecessors. He focused on organizing small groups of alcoholics who wanted recovery rather than on filling auditoriums. and newspaper headlines.” (Dragon, P.) “Everywhere he went, the doctor was cordially aided by the pastors of the Churches, more especially the Methodists, Congregationalists, and the Baptists… {In Reynolds’ words however} ‘My sympathies are with the poor men in this temperance work and to reach as many people as possible… I wish to carry on this work, not in connection with aristocratic churches, but in non-sectarian, non-political public halls.'” (

The Red Ribbon Clubs peaked at 46,000 members.

Francis Murphy

Francis Murphy Francis Murphy (1836-1907) migrated to the United States form Ireland, at the age of 16. He “was a hard-drinking, Irish Catholic-born hotel keeper living in Portland (Maine) who found himself in jail in 1870 for violating state liquor laws.” (Padua, Cunningham, P. 263) It is elsewhere reported that “he accidentally killed a customer when, in the midst of a drunken brawl, the two tumbled down a stairway. Murphy was acquitted of murder, but his drinking continued to escalate.” (Dragon, P. 27) Following a jailhouse religious conversion to Protestantism, Murphy took the pledge, and founded the Portland Reform Club, open to all people, women as well as men.

“With malice toward none, with charity for all, I hereby pledge my sacred honor that, God helping me, I will abstain from the use of all intoxicating liquors as a beverage, and that I will encourage others to abstain.” (

“After I was saved I thought of my drinking friends and companions, of their sufferings, and of the sufferings of their loved ones… Many of these signed the pledge with me and kept it.” (Ten Days with Francis Murphy, Charles Dennis, 1889, P. 6) Murphy was a gifted orator, and took to the road as an evangelist, a motivator, a pledge-proferrer, a recruiter. In his wake, the more serious of the newly sober folk gathered together in societies of mutual support, much like the AA groups of 60 or 70 years later.

The moment someone made a commitment to reform, he or she was put into service helping others.

There’s an idea with some staying power. In 1939, we see: “During those first few days of convalescence, this (helping others) will do more to insure his sobriety than anything else.” (BB, P. 129)

“Murphy effectively took over New England’s Reform Club and Blue Ribbon Association. He then proceeded to make Evangelical Protestantism a central feature… Murphy used evangelical techniques to focus specifically on drunkards.” (Alcohol & Temperance, P. 108) The religious alliance provided his traveling evangelical show with allies and organizational support. The clergy in every city and town became allies in the soul-saving. Osgood had moved to Massachusetts, and became active with a local temperance group there.

Francis Murphy was an eloquent speaker and an effective organizer. He took on the role of traveling evangelical speaker, motivator, solicitor of pledges, recruiter. The more serious of the newly sober folks gathered in “reform clubs” supporting each other in their commitment to continuing abstinence.

Murphy traveled not only throughout the eastern U.S., but to Chicago, California, Hawaii, Australia, and Canada. A four year trek through Europe resulted in 5 million pledges. In all of these localities, alcoholic pledge-takers assembled in reform clubs for follow-up support.”It is estimated that since he started out on his work, Mr. Murphy induced 16,000,000 persons to sign his pledge.” (N.Y. Times) Doubtless, a significant percentage of these people were nonalcoholic, and others were drinking by dinnertime the same day. Some were likely drunk at the time of signing, and benefited no more than that they had an amusing anecdote to pass on to their saloon mates. On the other hand, many got sober, and many stayed sober, especially those who sought out the company and support of like-minded others.

We have neither total numbers nor statistics. Those familiar with the broad range of recovery rates cited for AA’s current effectiveness will be sympathetic to the lack of record-keeping a century and a half ago. The temperance movement was somewhat fluid, supporters moving from group to group. The demise of the Washingtonian Society did not result in every member getting drunk. Many sought support elsewhere, thousands of former Washingtonians flooding the ranks of the Sons of Temperance, and any other groups with branches in their localities.

In Part 2, we will look at a Boston club remarkably similar to Alcoholics Anonymous. They even had sponsorship. When AA came to Boston in 1940, newly sober alcoholics participated in BOTH organizations.

About the Author, Bob K

Key-Players-Front-Cover1-e1422583040318Bob K. lives in the Metropolitan Toronto area, and has been a sober member of Alcoholics Anonymous for 24 years, and an out-of-the-closet atheist for that entire time. He has been a regular contributor to the AAAgnostica website for almost 5 years, and in January, 2015, published “Key Players in AA History” In 2013, he cofounded the Whitby Freethinkers meeting.

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Lech Lesiak
Lech Lesiak
5 years ago

Good article.

Among the many myths one hears repeated in AA (Alcoholics are more sensitive, more intelligent, yadda, yadda) is that no recovery movements existed before the 1930’s.  Anyone with a modicum of historical knowledge should realize that was not the case.  Prohibition in various jurisdictions, strict control of liquor sale and distribution,  and the temperance movement did not arise in a social vacuum.  There are still dry areas in North America.

‘Taking the pledge’ was a pretty common phenomenon is past days.

Lyn Clarke
Lyn Clarke
5 years ago

Very interesting stuff!

Even in the 1970s our Catholic school put much pressure on the boys to sign the pledge and many did wearing their badges with pride. Thankfully, they never bothered with the girls. I was so glad I would have hated to have turned them down, I was already drinking, getting in trouble, hating myself often but not ready to quit.

Tom C
Tom C
5 years ago

I had read about these groups before but not as eloquent as you have.  Amazing read Bob.

Benn B
Benn B
5 years ago

Very great stuff Bob K. You continue to add ongoing validity to what’s going on here!

Bob K.
Bob K.
5 years ago
Reply to  Benn B

Many thanks Benn B. Those are kind words.


5 years ago

Thanks Bob,

I was aware of the Washingtonians but had no idea of all these other movements.  Knowing that others were on a similar path is something we should happily acknowledge and learn what worked for them.

I wouldn’t be surprised that the presence of support groups goes much further back in history.