Ebby Thacher – An Unhappy Life

Late November 1934 seemed to be the worst of times for Bill Wilson, an unemployed and completely discredited stockbroker living in Brooklyn, New York. He had fallen from a lofty place in life. Less than six years earlier, everything had been going his way: a luxury apartment, fat profits in a booming stock market, expensive vacations in resorts areas, and a host of superficial Wall Street friends who, as he later recalled, “spent in thousands and chattered in millions.”

But something else in Bill’s world had been soaring with the stock market—a savage drinking problem that was already well out of control even before the Great Crash of 1929 left him shocked and virtually penniless . . .he was now a broken man, totally dependent on his wife’s meager earnings as a department store clerk, and fearful that he would soon be locked up. Then he received a telephone call from an old friend—a call that would change his life and through an amazing chain process, the lives of millions of others . . .

The caller was Ebby Thacher, a friend from Bill’s childhood years. 

—  Ebby – The Man Who Sponsored Bill W., Mel B, p. 3

The Thachers of Albany, New York

 The story of Ebby Thacher is one of large promise and poor performance. 

Generations of Thachers had succeeded in business, and Ebby grew up in luxury in Albany, New York. The Thachers wanted for nothing—their expansive  home was maintained by servants. The Thachers were respected for their activities in society, church, and politics. The already prominent family’s circumstances rose when Ebby’s paternal grandfather started a railroad wheel manufacturing company in 1852. A great fortune was rapidly amassed.

George Thacher Sr., the principal supplier of wheels for the New York Central Railroad, was elected mayor of Albany in the early 1860s.”The company continued to grow under the leadership of Ebby’s father, George H. Thacher Jr. (1851-1929). and his uncle John Boyd Thacher (1847-1909). Their company, The Thacher Car Wheel Works became known as George H. Thacher & Company until 1919 . . .” (Ebby, Mel B. p. 17)

Edward Throckmorton Thacher, Ebby, was born on April 29, 1896, making him about 5 months younger that his then future school chum, Bill Wilson. Ebby was the youngest of five brothers, and his sense of entitlement was most likely to have been shaped at an early age. His father and brothers seem to have had some issues of their own, but all fared better in education and in business. “Ebby’s father and three of his brothers became heavy drinkers, but none would hit the depths that Ebby did in later years.” (Ebby, Mel B., p. 21)

Ebby, an archetypal black sheep, was a slacker, a floater who never quite embraced adulthood. Ebby’s older brother “John Boyd Thacher II, was named for his illustrious uncle. He would prove to be a political and business superstar in the same mold . . . Not surprisingly, Jack Thacher was the family’s outstanding student at Albany Academy, a private school (which is locally referred to as AA!) Though (brothers) George and Thomas also did well. Jack was the secretary of the Beck Literary Society and played baseball, football, and hockey . . . Three of Ebby’s brothers attended Princeton, and Jack went on to earn a law degree at Albany Law School.” (Ebby, Mel B., pp. 19-20)

Bill Wilson and Ebby Thacher met in Manchester, Vermont in 1910 or 1911. The Thachers had a large summer home there, and played golf at the private club, Ekwonak, founded by Robert Todd Lincoln, and George Thacher Sr.  Lois’s father, Dr. Clark Burnham, was one of the top players at the club.

Contrarily, Bill Wilson lived in the humble village of East Dorset populated mainly by marble workers and their families. The population was perhaps 300. Excelling at baseball drew Bill into the circle of the sophisticated.

Ebby followed his brothers’ footsteps to the Albany Academy, but poor academic performance led to his parents’ decision to install him at the Burr & Burton Seminary in 1912. Bill Wilson had been a student there since 1909. The developing friendship between the two boys gained Bill some access into the society of the rich and famous, the very group with whom he aspired to rub elbows.

Ebby was back in Albany after a year, but he neither graduated nor went on to college. His disappointed father took him into the family business, had given him a menial job undoubtedly meant to teach him responsibility, discipline, and possibly gratitude. It was all too late, and in spite of some short-lived diligence, the prodigal son only learned to drink with his older fellow workers.

The Thacher company closed in 1922. The business had suffered some severe losses as the result of some ill-advised government contracts during WW I. Patriotism may have gotten the best of George Thacher Jr., and his corporation. The CEO had considerable assets apart from the failed company, and when George died in 1929, each son was left about $150,000, about 3 million in today’s money.

Ebby can be forgiven for losing about half of that in the stock market crash later that year. The remainder was frittered away in about 4 years of drunken extravagance. Ebby got sober through the Oxford Group, and carried the message of salvation through religious conversion to his old friend, Bill.

Falling Off The Wagon

One of the saddest days in Bill’s life and mine was the day Ebby got drunk after two years of sobriety. It seemed as if the bottom had fallen out of everything. Our first reaction was to wonder: since Ebby had faltered, can any alcoholic live a sober life to the end? But then we thought of Ebby’s recent behavior. He had begun to feel sorry for himself because he hadn’t a girl or a job. Although he went to Oxford Group meetings regularly, he was not enthusiastic about digging up new alcoholic prospects to work on . . . From then on Ebby had a most erratic career: periods of sobriety mixed with long periods of maudlin drunkenness. —  Lois Remembers, p. 117

Ebby’s own account of the relapse, as he described it in an AA talk in 1954, is relayed to us by Mel B.: “I returned to Albany in the summer of 1936. After casting about for a time, I secured a job with the Ford Motor Company . . . This was the fall of 1936, November. I stayed with this Ford Company until the last part of April 1937, went on a trip to New York, and I fell off the wagon. That was after two years and approximately seven months of sobriety and work with the Oxford Group. I returned to Albany and the old merry-go-round started, and I was drinking heavily and continuously for a long time.” (Ebby, Mel B., p.77)

Mel B. sees a clue in the use of the term “on the wagon,” a phrase not used by AA members because it implies a temporary venture into dry living that will be eventually replaced by drinking. Even in 1954, he referred to his slip as a sort of accident—“I fell off the wagon.”

Lois offers her assessment of Ebby’s inconsistent sobriety: “Perhaps it was a difference in the degree of wanting sobriety. Bill wanted it with his whole soul. Ebby may have wanted it to simply stay out of trouble . . . Ebby seemed to do very little about helping others. He never really appeared to be a member of AA. After his first slip many harmful thoughts seemed to take possession of him, and he appeared jealous of Bill and critical of the Oxford Group and AA.” (Lois Remembers, p. 118)

Michael Fitzpatrick has put together an interesting book Dr. Bob and Bill Speak, in which he brings us the direct words of the founders. He also supplies us with a lengthy composite of eight recordings of Ebby speaking that includes the following:

” . . . I slowly started pulling away from the things that were keeping me on track. I began to feel lonely and sorry for myself, blaming God for not giving me the one thing I really wanted—a romantic relationship with someone I could love. Somehow I felt I’d been mistreated. One day a friend from work commented that I hadn’t been myself and described me as ‘a piece of steel wire.’ I headed to New York that weekend and checked into the Lexington Hotel. It was April of 1937 . . . ” (p. 25)

Ebby went on a dinner date with a woman he knew. She ordered a drink, and so did he, much to his friend’s surprise as they had been out several times during his sobriety, and knew his story. By midnight, he was “roaring drunk.” A second drinking incident, that cost him his job, followed almost immediately.

Ebby’s AA talks reveal a great deal. When describing their drinking days, many AA’s tell comical stories—tragic and near-tragic events can be related humorously, twenty or thirty years removed. With Ebby, it was different. Very clearly, he looked upon his drinking era as “the good old days,” or, with apologies to Bruce Springstein, his “glory days.” Listening to a tape of Ebby’s “pitch,” one can imagine his face lighting up, his eyes sparkling. There is no similar enthusiasm when he speaks of sobriety. There is a real sense of “I was bad, so I ended up here,” in Ebby’s story.

It’s not a stretch to conclude that he viewed sobriety as some sort of punishment for having too much fun, or for running out of money.

Ebby talks of being arrested, and twenty years after the fact, there remains the desire to air a couple of resentments. Ebby was in serious trouble in the late summer of 1934. His most recent episode—shooting at pigeons perched on the newly painted roof of the family’s Manchester home—had put him in violation of a “three strike” law. Convicted of public drunkenness for the third time in a year was going to get him locked up for six months.

Twenty years later, he considered one of the charges as unfair. Regarding the third arrest, he was both bewildered and bitter that the arresting constable did not let him off, being as how they had been acquainted at Burr and Burton Academy. The arresting officer obviously had no regard for the “code of the old boys network.

In his speculations about the relapsing, biographer Mel B. is kinder than Lois.

What happened in Ebby’s life that caused sobriety to lose its luster for him? It is well established that he was a person who suffered from nameless fears and frequent periods of depression. But thousands of AA’s have similar problems without returning to drinking. He was bedeviled by regrets and resentments. —  Ebby, p. 78

The mention of “regrets and resentments” will tell the tale for many AA members who have been plagued with a proneness to such negative emotions. In their effort to recover, many AA’s go to great lengths to get over self-pity, and bitterness over events long past. That process begins with self-examination. In the kindest view, perhaps that soul-searching was simply too painful for Ebby to endure. The inner struggles of others are hard to evaluate.

Denouement

Ebby Thacher grew up in a family blessed with wealth and privilege. He grew up in a household with servants, and there is little doubt that the youngest of five brothers was spoiled by his mother. That he was undisciplined was no great surprise.

As mentioned earlier, when Ebby dropped out, or was kicked out of school, his father tried to teach him a lesson by giving him a lowly, manual labor job in the family business—no well-appointed corner office, or attractive secretary. It was all probably a bit too late, although Ebby performed well for a while. The greats of early psychology have reported that the fundamental personality is formed at a very early age. The personality formed at an early age may have left poor Ebby without the capacity to do what was necessary to overcome the personality that was formed at an early age.

“I worked very hard every day, getting up at 6:00 am to be there early. On Saturday nights I liked to drink and at that time most of my drinking was confined to Saturdays. However, when the holidays came around with all the festivities I couldn’t contain myself. Saturday night drinking turned into drinking at parties, dances, and every other opportunity. The drinking really seemed to help me socialize, especially with girls.” (Fitzpatrick, p. 17)

Ebby’s father and his brothers were heavy drinkers. Eventually, he gleaned an explanation of why his family members’ drinking contrasted with his own from Richard Peabody’s book, The Common Sense of Drinking.

One particular section really stuck with me. It was an explanation of the difference between a “hard drinker” and an “alcoholic.” Even though both people might drink the same amount on a given night, the “hard drinker” would awaken the next morning to just another day and immediately focus on his responsibilities for the days ahead. The “alcoholic” awoke to thoughts of the night before and how he could get the next drink to bring the party back. —  Fitzpatrick, p. 18

The best years of Ebby’s adult life were most likely the ones spent with Searcy W. at his Texas clinic. In rough shape when he arrived, the 58 year-old was experiencing auditory hallucinations. “At one point he even thought opera music was coming from the air conditioner.” (Ebby, p. 111) It took a long time for him to get well, but his longest period of sobriety came in the 1950s. Ranch life agreed with Ebby.

At the Fort Worth state conference, Ebby met Ralph and Mary Lee. The Texas AA pioneer invited Ebby to come and stay at their ranch, the visit lasting the full summer of 1954. Ralph and Mary Lee’s daughter, Jan, “accepted the AA belief that alcoholics can never return to controlled drinking. She clearly recalls, even to this day, that Ebby did not accept that for himself. She says he really believed he could become a controlled drinker . . . Ebby had another bout with drinking in late 1954, his last for about seven years.” (Ebby, pp. 117-119)

In 1957, Ebby started dating Chloe K., “a nurse at Searcy’s clinic when Ebby met her. Searcy had been forced to fire her, he said, because of her pill habit . . . Ebby thought Chloe was the great love of his life . . . Tom B., his employer, thought that this kind of helping (caring for Chloe when she became ill) may even have been good for Ebby, and helped him to stay sober . . . ‘Ebby was always a taker, never a giver.’ But helping Chloe, Tom thought, was the first time in his life he tried to help somebody. ‘He became a giver.'” (Ebby, pp. 127-128)

Bill Wilson would have disagreed, but barring that one exception, the assessment seems accurate enough. Some of Ebby’s friends were convinced that Ebby’s “great love” was not reciprocated, that his girlfriend was using him. Ebby’s own health was deteriorating—he suffered from “a lung condition.” When Chloe died in September of 1961, Ebby got drunk the next day. “Tom also felt that Ebby had a pill problem.” (Ebby, p. 131)

Ebby’s final years were spent in a pleasant, small alcoholism treatment center—McPike’s Farm, near Saratoga Springs, New York. He arrived on May 30, 1964, and died at a nearby hospital on March 21, 1966. The McPikes cared for him, but “rightly saw him as a troubled man.” (Ebby, p.135) The scourge of emphysema saw Ebby’s weight drop from 170 to 122 pounds.

For whatever reason, it is important to pass on the “good news” that Ebby died sober. That is true, but the untold part of the tale is that he was not attending AA. He may have simply become too sick to desire liquor.

The man who wanted so badly to be seen as a “founder” of AA, did too little AA work, and too much drinking for that dream to have been realized. Nevertheless, Ebby’s carrying of the Oxford Group’s message to Bill Wilson is the second of AA’s “four founding moments.” Ernie Kurtz assessment of those is hard to debate.


About the Author

Bob K. lives in the Metropolitan Toronto area, and has been a sober member of Alcoholics Anonymous since 1991, and an out-of-the-closet atheist for that entire time. He has been a regular contributor to the AA Agnostica website for almost 5 years, and in January, 2015, published Key Players in AA History In 2013, he co-founded the Whitby Freethinkers meeting.

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  1. monica March 12, 2019 at 7:08 pm - Reply

    Thank you

  2. Mona Terry March 9, 2019 at 3:29 pm - Reply

    It is my opinion that there are many things we do not know about AA, Bill E and all the others involved. There is no one to ask who had first hand knowledge. AA has helped millions and continues to do so however the time has come to understand the medical aspects of this disease and what treatment medical science has or can develop.

     

    • bob k March 9, 2019 at 10:00 pm Reply

      We know a lot about AA.  Although Bill W. and all of the key players involved in the formative years of Alcoholics Anonymous are deceased, there is much that we can examine. We can look at letters from the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s, for example.  There are volumes of those.Robert Thomsen worked as a assistant to Bill W. from 1959-1970. He was in a position to know a great deal about the AA founder, and in the 1970s, he wrote a biography. We have Bill’s own memoir—“My First Forty Years.” There is a biography of Bob Smith written by his children, and a biography of Clarence Snyder penned by his sponsee, Mitchell K. There are some unanswered, perhaps unanswerable questions, of course, but there are tremendous resources to look at.

      If the study of history required 2019 interviews of the participants, we’d be in real trouble understanding all but recent events. Fortunately, that is not the case.

  3. Scott J February 10, 2019 at 4:23 pm - Reply

    Very interesting history!  Thanks Bob.

  4. Tom L February 7, 2019 at 8:00 am - Reply

    What a great story with many lessons. I particular locked on to “Bill wanted it with his whole soul. Ebby may have wanted it to simply stay out of trouble . . . Ebby seemed to do very little about helping others.”  As a reminder, I continue to focus on Giving as one of many reminders that my recovery is for my whole soul!

    Thank you.

  5. Steven Vincent February 5, 2019 at 9:14 am - Reply

    Always so enjoyable reading your stuff Bob – I’ve learned so much about early AA and people like Bill, Dr. Bob, Ebby etc. through you. Keep on keeping on Bob!

  6. Joe C February 4, 2019 at 6:55 pm - Reply

    Really enjoyable; in a train wreck kind of enjoyable. I ditto others who found this essay thoughtful.

    It would be nice to see you at Symposium on AA History sometime. It’s your kinda’ crowd.

    Best,

  7. marty nieski February 4, 2019 at 10:42 am - Reply

    It’s easy for me to see how Bill would have thought he had a “spiritual ” event.  With his eyes dilated coming off belladonna and his head full of  Ebby’s religious  stuff I can understand what he thought was happening with the white light and all.  I have been talking to AA members for 38 years and have yet to find anyone who has had that experience, although the second appendix says it’s a common event.  Beats me.

     

     

    • Steven Vincent February 5, 2019 at 9:24 am Reply

      Well said Marty. I had several of those types of “experiences” prior to coming to AA – not while clean and sober though. Lol.

  8. Dan L February 3, 2019 at 9:47 pm - Reply

    Another great historical essay Bob.  Thanks.

    I have long been put off by “fairytale AA”.  Not only is it glurgey and untrue but the reality is so much more interesting.  I like the story of flawed heroes and ordinary people with ordinary issues as well as addiction struggling to ultimately bring the recovery movement into being.  People who had been hopelessly caught in addiction gaining freedom to live.  People who swindled their business partner out of a share in the book for $200.  I think the truth is so much stronger and I do not know when it went out of fashion in AA… but it did.

  9. life-j February 3, 2019 at 9:06 pm - Reply

    Now, I’m aware this is mostly about Ebby’s own life, and thanks Bob, well written, but it is interesting to note, when one reads the big book closely and literally, that Ebby  to Bill was the convincing sample of one that showed to bill beyond a doubt that a religious approach was where it is at for everyone. If Ebby had gotten sober because he had “gotten religion”, then it had to be true for everyone. This convincing case for god’s involvement however, didn’t seem to fall apart for Bill once Ebby went back out drinking. That’s certainly got to be the ultimate case of confirmation bias ever: If it happens to one person, that proves that it is true for everyone, and even if that one person fails, and there’s no-one it is true for, then somehow it is still true.

    We need to get back to basics, and I’m not talking about “Back to Basics”, I’m talking about one alcoholic talking with another alcoholic.

  10. Thomas Brinson February 3, 2019 at 12:09 pm - Reply

    Indeed, Bob, an excellent essay. Thanks John for sharing it with us.

    When I lived in Albany, NY during the early ’80s, I was privileged to know Margaret McPike with whom I began collaborating on a book about Ebby. Life got in the way, and after she died in 1982, the project lay fallow until Mel B. shortly thereafter contacted me; I was gratefully glad to gave him the materials we had developed, which he incorporated into his book about Ebby.

  11. John S February 3, 2019 at 10:01 am - Reply

    Thank you for the well crafted essay. It seems that Ebby’s story is a lesson for us all. Lois Wilson’s recollection that Ebby never seemed to be part of AA strikes me as an important lesson. I’m fortunate in that I enjoyed AA almost from the start and looking back, I believe that it was the connections and friendships that I made with people in AA that really helped me. I felt part of something greater than myself that I cared about.

    Ebby may have had a sad life, but he played an important role in history. I don’t think AA would have ever happened had he not visited Bill in his kitchen in 1934.

    Thanks again, Bob. I enjoyed reading this.

  12. John L. February 3, 2019 at 9:07 am - Reply

    Good, balanced article, shows the danger of the “controlled drinking” delusion.  Also, the dangers of cigarettes.  Both Bill and Ebby died largely from the harmful effects of cigarettes.

     

  13. Don February 3, 2019 at 9:05 am - Reply

    Thank you for the essay, Bob. informative.

    isn’t interesting: AA’s celebration of Ebby as the guy that got Bill sober, yet AA’s desperate efforts to overlook Ebby’s inability to remain sober. (sort of shady, in my opinion. too much PR in the world, with everything)

    the one word that stuck in my mind reading this, and I don’t recall being used: Reservation.

    Reservations dwell deeply, in so many “recovered” alkys. most sponsees relapses, fruit of them.

    I had reservations for 10 years of in and out, 1000 white chips. I lived through that process, and it all changed, when the real desperation of my condition, broke through the reservations. Just the same, I still must nurture that desperation to avoid drinking, or it will fade, and I will drink again. god – gift of desperation. not a magical or supernatural “gift”, but that old moment of clarity, my reason overcame my denial.

    • bob k February 3, 2019 at 10:44 am Reply

      We have to lay the overly kind treatment of Ebby at the feet of Bill Wilson, who qualifies somewhat for our forgiveness in that he was admirably loyal to his old friend. Beyond bringing Bill the message of salvation through religious conversion, I think that Ebby, back in high school, accepted the rube from the mining village, while other sons of the wealthy teased or snubbed him.

      Of course, AA members want the classic happy ending proving AA works—“He died sober!” He did die sober but otherwise, the facts don’t support the desired happy ending.

      Some of us are sympathetic because we identify with Ebby, perhaps more than we’d like. Edwin Thacher was  f$&@-up. Yup. I can relate.

  14. John M. February 3, 2019 at 7:25 am - Reply

    A perfect opening sentence to your essay, Bob! 

    For me, your phrase that Ebby “never quite embraced adulthood” reflected my own always-present suspicion of myself before I got sober at 54. Much of his story as you relate it, Bob, makes me feel so grateful to the counsellors (all themselves in recovery) at the Renascent Treatment Centre in Toronto who really stressed how juvenile we clients were for all those years after taking our first drink: as many of us in recovery will acknowledge, we stopped maturing at that point — or at least I did!

    Loved your piece, Bob. I never really knew the details of Ebby’s sad life and you don’t just present the details — you narrate all this with compassion and insight into why he just couldn’t quite overcome his alcoholism.

     
    Thank you.

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