Not Just The Washingtonians Part II

By bob k. 

Part 2 – The Jacoby Club

The Jacoby Club began in 1909 as an offshoot of the Emmanuel Movement, first as an informal auxiliary meeting for people who were affected by drinking problems to meet and help each other. Ernest Jacoby, a parishioner and rubber merchant, began the group as an adjunct to the social service work of Emmanuel Church. The group stated its purpose in various ways, ranging from men helping each other, to a place where men ‘who lost their grip’ could get together, to a place for ‘down and outers’ to gather and reconstitute themselves . . . There is no doubt that the main purpose of the group was to provide self-help among the newly abstinent patients of the Emmanuel program who had alcoholism as one of their most important problems.                                                                                                        

The Road To Fellowship, Richard M. Dubiel, PP. 81-82

Throughout pre-AA history, the unique power of one alcoholic helping another has been repeatedly demonstrated, as drunks have gathered together for mutual support in the effort to stay sober. Some of these groups have been religious or spiritual, others, not. 

In all cases, the ongoing interaction with other alcoholics was a critical ingredient in ensuring sustained sobriety, perhaps THE essential factor. Of all the various groups and movements, the Jacoby Club of Boston seems to have been the one most resembling Alcoholics Anonymous. In fact, AA’s secretary, Ruth Hock, referred early inquiries from Boston to the Jacobies.

In 1940, the remaining alcoholic portion of the club merged with a newly founded AA group being developed by Paddy K.

The progressive ministers of Boston’s Emmanuel Church had, in 1906, established an outreach clinic to assist the victims of tuberculosis and their families. Among the patients that were treated, they encountered large numbers of the mentally ill, and a substantial population of alcoholics, some of whom they were able to help to get sober. Churchman Ernest Jacoby, separated the reformed drunkards from the others being assisted by the clinic, and provided them with a gathering place in the basement of the church.

In May 1910, Reverend Elwood Worcester acknowledged Jacoby’s “unassuming, but truly Christian work” in helping “men and women who are struggling to escape from the slavery of drunkenness.” Worcester further praised the group’s effort to “remind men of their good resolution, surround them with good influences and to supply them with good motives.” (Parish News) 

“The Jacoby Club split with the Emmanuel Movement in 1913, and set up its own clubhouse. 

“Its motto was, ‘A club for men to help themselves by helping other men.’ 

“There were no membership dues and the only requirement for membership was an expressed desire to lead an honorable life and a willingness to aid other men less fortunate. The Jacoby Club provided social services to alcoholics and indigent older men. Its Saturday night meetings included food, entertainment, and lectures on topics of current interest.” (Jacoby Club Records)

“Perhaps the key aspect of the club was seen as a manifestation of ‘personal religion’: ‘that every man who is cured shall undertake the reformation of one other person.’ This was regarded as a critical function in creating ‘a spirit of service,’ which would later become the twelfth step of the AA program . . . The ministering of physicians and clergy became secondary to the philosophy and operating of the program, with self-help and fellowship looming larger. Perhaps herein lies the cause of the eventual split with the Emmanuel Church.” (Dubiel, P. 83)


The club started with 6 members in 1909. William L. White has the start date as 1910, while the Jacoby Papers suggest a 1908 beginning. A Boston Globe article in July, 1913, claimed that to that point, 500 men had been helped. By 1913, the club was ready for new quarters. The Boston Globe had this as merely being a need for more space as numbers continued to rise. If there was a schism of some sort, it was glossed over in the press which stressed the continuing affiliation of the two groups.

The EXACT reasons for the split are perhaps never to be known.

“Perhaps the nondenominational nature of the Jacoby Club rankled Worcester and his associates, but this remains a hypothesis only . . . The fact is that an ineffable something occurred that is likely linked to the nondenominational aspects of the group . . . The full impact of the ‘disease concept’ was a long way off . . . Many still viewed those afflicted by alcoholism as abhorrent, tainted, moral failures. Worcester and his associates probably did not wish to stretch the generosity of the Emmanuel Church’s parishioners too far toward the morally suspect.” (Dubiel, P. 85)

The 1915-16 annual report claimed 1,400 helped since the inception of the group in the Emmanuel Church basement. Summer quarters were the Riverside Recreation grounds where the Saturday and Sunday morning gatherings offered opportunities for a variety of sports and games.

The group moved again in 1917, to 249 Newbury Street.

Key Features

It must be noted that not all members were alcoholics. In fact, the alcohol connection was somewhat veiled in the beginning, perhaps in order to not inordinately distress the parishioners. The stats for 1913 showed 114 alcoholics of 183 total “helped by the club,” something over 60%. A key feature was the emphasis on helping oneself by being of service to others, perhaps the core element of the Alcoholics Anonymous program which would come along some two decades later. 

“Practical experience shows that nothing will so much insure immunity from drinking as intensive work with other alcoholics.” (AA Big Book, P. 89) “ . . . I soon found that when all other measures failed, work with another alcoholic would save the day.” (BB, P. 15)

In helping others, Jacoby Club members helped themselves.

Special Brother

“A third feature was related to the second, that of taking personal responsibility for at least one other person. This adaptation of the ‘buddy system’ was referred to as having a ‘Special Brother.’ . . . This special relationship was described as one in which the member would ‘win the confidence of his new charge, look after him in man to man fashion and without any air of patronage, in a word be his chum and helper.'” (Dubiel, P. 87)

Each man received individual attention even beyond that of the Special Brother mentoring. Rather than the strict application of any institutional system, code, or dogma, each case was treated as unique. Each received personal care. Besides supplying the companionship that was thought necessary for regeneration, the club provided assistance that might come in the form of medical care, family counseling, or aid in securing employment.

“The sympathy and compassion of the Jacoby Club never diminished its Progressive era optimism and confidence in eventual success. A Horatio Alger spirit lay just below the surface of the Jacoby Club.” (Dubiel, P. 88) The group’s fellowship included a wide range of social and recreational activities, from baseball to playing the piano.


The Jacoby Club “had thirty years of impressive success in treating alcoholics. Like Alcoholics Anonymous, they were also based on fellowship . . . and involved in a synthesis between lay psychological counseling and spirituality.” (

“In 1940, Paddy Keagan came to Boston to start the first AA group in that city, and linked his Boston work with the Jacoby Club. The weekly AA meeting was at first held at the Jacoby Club’s 115 Newbury Street address . . . Ruth Hock at the New York AA office put Boston alcoholics in contact with Lawrence Hatlestad, the man running the Jacoby Club program for alcoholics . . . It was not until the next year, 1940, when the AA group moved four blocks further west to 306 Newbury Street, that they began to totally distance themselves from the Jacoby Club.” (

The Jacoby Club, as a vehicle for the reformation of alcoholics, came undone in the early 1940s in a sea of political wrangling, a description of which is beyond the scope of this essay. Fans of Alcoholics Anonymous, prompted by an enthusiasm for touting their own program, tend to mistakenly label groups such as the Jacobies as failed efforts. In actuality, they seem to have been quite successful in the reformation of alcoholics. Their failure was in avoiding the divisiveness that led to an eventual undoing.

Also lacking was an ambition to grow the group beyond its local boundaries. They had no entrepreneurial visionary such as Bill Wilson to spur a worldwide movement. 

“In 1987 the Jacoby Club terminated its programs and turned over its funds to the Boston Foundation, an organization that continues to support the same type of services.” (Jacoby Club Records)

Similarity to AA

We know little of Ernest Jacoby. When he founded, and funded, the club that would come to bear his name, he was a young man in his late 20s. Jacoby was a parishioner at the Emmanuel Church, and a successful rubber merchant. We do not know the motivations behind his specific interest in helping alcoholics. He was a non-drinker himself. It’s possible the brothers he left behind in England were drinkers, or his father, or a beloved uncle. We simply do not know.

The Jacoby Club and Alcoholics Anonymous sprouted from broader religious movements, and in both cases chose to separate from the religious parent organization. As did Bill Wilson 25 years later, Ernest Jacoby saw the healing of alcoholics as a calling higher than adherence to specific Christian dogma. The core spiritual element of both groups is a very human one, resting in ongoing efforts to help others. Detachment from the parent religious organization, in each case, allowed a single-minded focus on the very earthly problems that surround the disease of alcoholism.

The Jacoby Club, of course, had no 12 steps. They did have fellowship, identification, meetings, sponsors, sober recreational activities, and a desire to lead more upstanding lives. 

Common problems among alcoholics are purposelessness and low self-esteem. Both of these troubles are enormously improved by helping others. The core value of “helping others” is shared with AA.

“PRACTICAL EXPERIENCE shows that nothing will so much insure immunity from drinking as intensive work with other alcoholics. It works when other activities fail.” (BB, P. 89)

AA gets a lot right. It matters not that these things have been done before.

About the Author, Bob K

Bob 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.

Audio Story

The audio version of this story was recorded by Len R. from Jasper, Georgia. Len is interested in starting a secular AA meeting in his area. If you would like to join him, please send an email to

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3 years ago

POD’s correction. Wilson/Jacoby meeting in Boston was may 26, 1941 (not 1948).


Patrick O
Patrick O'Donnell
3 years ago

Excellent read. I reviewed the Jacoby archives at the Mass Historical Society a number of years ago. Included are letters  from Ruth Hock to Rev. L. Halstead (LH) of the Jacoby Club in mid 1940 asking him to be the AA contact and passing on names in the Boston area who had written AA/NYC for help/info. The non alcoholic Halstead contacted with many (evidenced by check marks next to names). Halstead offered counseling, etc. but there was no “official’ AA contact until a Paddy K returned to Boston in fall of 1940 and looked up Halstead per Hock’s instructions. About… Read more »

Margaret C
Margaret C
4 years ago

I appreciate the history of recovery. The first time I heard that AA was not unique in its approach of one alcoholic helping another, I was disappointed that AA was not unique in this. Kind of the reverse of when I thought I was alone in my alcoholic life which led to a dread. Thinking AA was the first was thrilling.(We a get thrills from different sources.) Then, the reverse reaction happened learning I was not alone but then neither was AA. Discovering I was not alone as a drunk was a great relief. Finding out AA was not alone… Read more »

Anton Duerard
Anton Duerard
4 years ago

Many thanks, Bob, on this informative and well researched article.  One of the reasons I greatly appreciate AAagnostica, is that it provides information about AA that one would rarely, if ever, hear in conventional meetings.  Instead, the emphasis is on dogma and “sticking to the ESH script”.  I don’t know how others feel, but for me, that peer-pressure restriction very quickly became repetitive, and made me suspicious of the “everything about AA is moonbeams and unicorn farts” point of view.  It’s clear to me that if newcomers are restricted exclusively to “conference approved literature”, and the “booster cheer” shares from most meetings,… Read more »

Carol Gano
Carol Gano
3 years ago
Reply to  Anton Duerard

Relax Anton!

Love and tolerance is our code

Ted W.
Ted W.
4 years ago

Thanks for the history Bob K. As an atheist U am always more influenced by the “whys” of what I am investigating than the dogmas.  Knowing that the origins of cognitive behavioral therapy-directed alcoholism recovery programs started out in churches is not surprising.  What is surprising is that AA itself cannot fully disengage itself from this unnecessary and impeding relationship after 77 years.  Bill Wilson gave some strong hints and equivocal statements as to his desire that AA act as a secular organization but they keep being muted by the religiosity of the language of the Big Book itself.  Maybe… Read more »