AA is a Cult, part 2

Newspaper ad for Towns Hospital, via New York Times

Prior to the groundbreaking psychoanalyst work of Sigmund Freud, the American solution to addiction and other forms of mental illness was to remove such people from sight. Insane asylums, mental institutions, and jails housed hundreds of thousands of people. With Freud’s new “talking cure” it was said previously incurable people could make strides towards recovery. 

But Freud’s method took a long time and didn’t seem to work for everyone. Now that the notion addiction might be curable was introduced, people began seeking more instant ways to go about it. Very few ethical restrictions on human experiments had been legislated and it was a time of cowboys in the laboratory. Electroshock therapy, lobotomy, insulin induced coma, and intentional malaria infection were all tested. 

It was in this pre-Fraud context that an insurance salesman named Charlie Towns met a mysterious stranger in a bar, who gave Charlie what he claimed was a money making certainty, a recipe to cure opium addiction. The concoction called for liberal quantities of lethal hallucinogens, including belladonna, a derivative of deadly nightshade, and henbane, also from the very poisonous nightshade family. 

Charlie solicited an addict to try out his cure, then physically restrained and sedated him when he tried to leave. The treatment made him horribly ill and he needed his stomach pumped. When no one was eager to be lab rat #2, Charlie Towns kidnapped a man from a racetrack and forced the treatment on him. He continued working to reduce the worst side effects, possibly with more kidnappings. 

Once he was confident his tincture was an effective cure for opium addiction, Charlie recruited two doctors to vouch for and implement it. The more respected of them was Dr. Alexander Lambert, a professor at Cornell Medical, visiting physician at Bellevue, and later personal physician to President Theodore Roosevelt. As Charlie began promoting his belladonna regimen as a panacea for all compulsive behaviors, Lambert distanced himself and disassociated. 

The other physician Charlie recruited was Dr. William D. Silkworth. They opened the Charles B. Towns Hospital for Alcoholism and Drug Addiction in 1901, an addiction treatment facility using the belladonna cure. It was at this facility 33 years later, under the care of Dr. Silkworth, where Bill W. had an intense psychedelic experience and religious conversion. 

Next up: tripping in Towns Hospital

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