Floggings, Strychnine, Leeches, and Worse

By bob k

New World immigrants brought over European alcoholic beverages, drinking customs, and social attitudes. Many early settlers assumed that people got drunk because they wanted to, not because they had to; also, that drunkenness was a natural, harmless consequence of drinking. In 1673, Increase Mather published his sermon ‘Woe to Drunkards,’ deploring the frequency of excessive drinking in the Colonies. By 1712, the problem was even more widespread, and Increase’s son, Cotton, preached to members of his congregation about drunkenness. By the 1760s, John Adams was so concerned about the level of drunkenness that he proposed limiting the number of taverns and Benjamin Franklin labeled taverns ‘ a pest to society.

Despite such complaints, however, and despite regulations on the amount of time one could spend in a tavern, how much one could drink there, and penalties for drunkenness, including public whippings and stocks, Americans continued to drink and get drunk. (AA, The Way It Began, Bill Pittman, P. 5)

It’s quite easy to spew criticisms at Alcoholics Anonymous. The misogyny, the religiosity, the rigidity, and the horrible coffee provide easy targets. However, the truth remains that alcoholism has been notoriously resistant to treatment and that AA and the Twelve Steps have brought recovery to an enormous number of problem drinkers.

In the generations prior to AA, there had been some successes, but in most cases the treatments did not spread beyond local boundaries, and/or were restricted to a limited upper-class clientele having the wherewithal to pay the necessary fees. In other cases, such as with the Baltimore Washingtonian Society, explosive growth was followed by an almost total collapse, in a sea of organizational difficulties.

Stories of alcohol abuse date back about as far as the tales of alcohol use. Egyptians and ancient Greeks report indulgence and over-indulgence. “The Bible records divine commands to abstain: to Aaron and his sons, to John the Baptist, to Samson, to the Rechabites, and so on. It teaches that abstinence is in accordance with health, as in the case of Daniel, and contains warnings against habitual drinking and even drinking at all. This aspect of how the Bible views the use of spirits was to have a great impact on the temperance movement in America.” (Pittman, P.3)

Leeches, Alive, Alive-O

Benjamin Rush was a prominent citizen in colonial America–a signer of the Declaration of Independence, and Physician-General of the Continental Army. Reacting to the high level of drunkenness among soldiers during the Revolutionary War, Rush began writing tracts and magazine pieces opposing the use of distilled spirits.

“Rush first suggested that chronic drunkenness was a progressive medical condition … a ‘disease of the will.’ Rush further recognized that the tendency toward drunkenness was transmitted intergenerationally within families…(he) suggested alcoholism should be viewed as a self-contained disease, (and) broke from the traditional view that excessive drinking was either a reflection of moral depravity or a cause or symptom of mental illness.” (Slaying the Dragon, William L. White, P. 3)

road-to Rush’s insights into alcoholism stemmed from personal as well as professional experience. His father was alcoholic and that had led to his parents’ divorce. His mother’s second husband was a distiller who abused her.

The Colonial physician was not so wise in his choices of potential cures. To those seeking to drown their sorrows in distilled spirits, he recommended wine, beer, and opium as alternatives. In an era seeing all manner of disease as stemming from an imbalance of the body’s “humors”–blood, phlegm, black bile and yellow bile–Rush advocated prodigious amounts of bleeding and poisonous purges. He may have harmed many more than he helped.

Hospitalization was not an option as a scarcity of beds led to access being limited to the “morally worthy,” which didn’t include unwed mothers, those suffering from venereal disease, or drunkards.

“Rush laid out …12 remedies that he had known to produce sobriety in the confirmed drunkard. These included: Christian conversion, acute guilt or shame, the linking of drink with some painful impression, vegetarianism, cold baths, acute disease, blistering the ankles, witnessing the death of a drunkard, and swearing an oath of abstinence.” (Dragon, P. 5)

In the end, his medical practice in tatters, an appointment as Treasurer of the U.S. Mint saved him from bankruptcy.

America’s Great Binge

The cautions and concerns of Dr. Rush and others were not unfounded. Between 1790 and 1830, alcohol consumption in the United States skyrocketed! Of course, this brought a corresponding increase in related social problems such as public drunkenness, disorder, and family troubles.

There was a shift in consumption from beer and wine to distilled spirits. “The drink of choice was whiskey, and Americans were consuming it in unprecedented quantities. It was potent, cheap, and highly portable … The saloon–associated with violence, crime, vice, and political corruption–now emerged as a threat to community life. The growing visibility of public drunkenness and other alcohol-related problems … forced a re-evaluation of alcohol and its role in American society. The “Good Creature of God” was about to be rechristened “Demon Rum.” (Dragon, P. 5-6)

The Rise of Temperance

The initial goal of temperance was the replacement of excessive drinking with moderate. Another common practice, eventually abandoned, was to encourage the drunkard to substitute beer and wine for distilled spirits. The early temperance people had no concept of addiction. “Efforts to convert whiskey-drinking drunkards into temperate beer-drinkers failed, as did other efforts to convince drunkards simply to consume less alcohol.” (Dragon, P. 7)

temperance “We are more disposed to press the necessity of entire abstinence because there seems to be no safe line of distinction between the moderate and the immoderate use of intoxicating drinks; the transition from the moderate to the immoderate use of them is almost as certain as it is insensible; indeed, it is with a question of moral interest whether a man can indulge in their use at all and be considered temperate.” (General Conference, Methodist Episcopal Church, 1826)

At one point, early in the 19th Century temperance movement in America, Dr. Justin Edwards enunciated a plan that demonstrated the frustration of the campaigners in their efforts to get habitual drunkards to moderate or stop. He set forth this new position: “Our main object is not to reform inebriates, but to induce all temperate to continue temperate by practicing total abstinence … The drunkards, if not reformed, will die, and the land be free.” (Dragon, P. 7)

That doesn’t seem to have worked out.

“By the mid-1830s, drunkards were being drawn into the temperance movement … One could construct a social world and a daily lifestyle within the burgeoning temperance movement. Many desperate alcoholics sought shelter in the temperance meetings, temperance coffee houses, temperance reading rooms, and temperance hotels.” (Dragon, P. 8)

J.P. Coffin, in the 1830s, went on the temperance circuit as a paid agent and was surely among the first recovered alcoholics to work professionally to reclaim others. Luther Benson penned a tale of his battle with alcoholism, describing the ticking time bomb that “quitting on will power” is for most. “During the period that I abstained … my agony was unbearable. I dreamed that I was drinking and … drunk. Day by day my appetite grew fierce and more unbearable … I would have torn the veins from my arms open, if I could have drawn whiskey from them. … I was burning up for liquor.” (Fifteen Years in Hell, Luther Benson)

Benson interspersed temperance lectures with highly intemperate drinking binges, ultimately ending in commitment to an insane asylum, where he penned his memoir. Benson’s search for a power in the universe that might give him hope went unrealized, though he certainly was gifted in a deep understanding of the obsessive condition.

“Depraved and wretched is he who has practiced vice so long that he curses it while he clings to it.” (Benson, P. 134)

“What the Luther Bensons of the early 20th Century desperately needed was a fellowship of kindred spirits whose shared suffering and collective strength would enable them to achieve together what they had so hopelessly to achieve alone.” (Dragon, P. 11)

Mutual Support Groups

The support from like-minded fellows that was found in temperance gathering places, where available, was doubtless of value. But, “many 19th Century alcoholics waged–as many do today–individual battles for recovery without professional assistance or the mutual support of other alcoholics. They made private promises and signed public pledges … And they often sought the medium of religious conversion. But most important … they did all this in virtual isolation from other alcoholics.” (Dragon, P. 8)

As early as the 18th Century, Native American Tribes had gathered to form “recovery circles,” the leaders using their own recoveries from alcoholism to launch abstinence-based movements. Some promoted a return to ancestral traditions, while others lobbied for Christian conversion. “Outside of Native America, temperance societies composed exclusively of reformed drunkards began to appear as early as 1831 in Norwich, New York.” (Dragon, P.9)

The greatest of the mutual aid societies of the 19th Century was the Washingtonian Movement whose tale is beyond the scope of this essay. (see AAAgnostic.org “The Washingtonian Society”)

“I am the sworn, eternal and uncompromising enemy of the liquor traffic. I have been, and will go on, fighting that damnable, dirty, rotten business with all the power at my command. I shall ask no quarter from that gang, and they shall get none from me. After all is said that can be said on the liquor traffic, its influence is degrading on the individual, the family, politics and business and upon everything that you touch in this old world. For the time has long gone by when there is any ground for arguments of its ill effects. All are agreed on that point. There is just one prime reason why the saloon has not been knocked into hell, and that is the false statement “that the saloons are needed to help lighten the taxes.” (billysunday.org)

“Whiskey and beer are all right in their place, but their place is in hell.” (billysunday.org)

(The growing hatred of the entire alcohol culture, and alcoholic drinkers, led to even harsher measures. The campaign to eradicate alcoholism by sterilizing alcoholics will be addressed in Part II.)

About the Author, Bob K

Key-Players-Front-Cover1-e1422583040318This essay is from the manuscript of a new book on the pre-AA treatments of alcoholism, expected to be out in early 2017, and tentatively titled “The Road to Prohibition; The Road to AA.” The author is a long sober atheist alcoholic living to the east of Toronto, Canada, who, in 2015, published “Key Players in AA History,”

 Audio Version

Narrated by Len R of Jasper, GA. Len is looking to start a secular AA meeting in his area.  If you are interested, please contact him at lenr.secularsobriety@gmail.com
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Bob K.
Bob K.
5 years ago

Just now noticed and am listening to the audio version. What a BRILLIANT job, Len R.!!

John S
5 years ago
Reply to  Bob K.

Len is absolutely amazing. I can’t get over it. He’s done a number of these for us and is working his way back sot that maybe eventually we will have an audio recording for all of our stories. It’s really nice to see so many people getting involved with this site and putting so much time and energy into it. I’m in awe of this entire experience.

Ian M
Ian M
5 years ago

Currently reading Key Players in AA History. Very fascinating, and informative read.
Great essay here, Bob. Look forward to hopefully another book….and soon!

Garth Rogers
Garth Rogers
5 years ago

I love the old language that was used, particularly the idea that I might be a “reclaimed alcoholic”, among others. Thanks Bob.


Kit G
Kit G
5 years ago

Thanks, Bob. Always a few tidbits of new info from you.

Have you seen the 3 dvd documentary by Ken Burns for PBS on Prohibition?

Kit G
Kit G
5 years ago
Reply to  Bob K

I have a copy if you’d like me to loan it to you.

Jim S.
Jim S.
5 years ago

Interesting piece Bob. One of the things that struck me was this bit of history: “As early as the 18th Century, Native American Tribes had gathered to form “recovery circles,” the leaders using their own recoveries from alcoholism to launch abstinence-based movements.” It brought to my mind Tenskwatawa the Shawnee Prophet and brother of the great warrior chief Tecumseh. As a youth he was a terrible drunk only to sober up after a sudden traumatic visionary experience and consequently went on to proselytize sobriety to his people. Well, Tenskwatawa also did crazy shit like burn witches but at least he… Read more »