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.
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.