The Washington Group, 1936-41
Table of Contents
The compilation of this history was possible because of documents and oral history interviews collected for the archives of the Washington Area Intergroup Association (WAIA). Most of the documentation came from three sources: the AA General Services Archives in New York; the WAIA Office in Washington; and oral history interviews with early members of the group. Many of the old-timers interviewed by the author had saved documents from their early years in AA, and donated the historically valuable materials to the WAIA Archives project.
All the stories mentioned below have come from reliable sources; members who were a part of the Group at the time, contemporary AA correspondence and publications, and newspaper articles. Some of the stories were, however, remembered or written many years after the event -- memories fade and exact dates, even years, tend to merge over time. In this history, however, only events that were documented at the time they happened are treated as hard facts. Everything else, including after-the-fact accounts, is cited here as "stories". The reader may decide their validity.
Many people who were part of the group, and some who were central to the events described here do not appear in this story. That is because their names did not appear in the correspondence or publications available for research. Additional documentation may be discovered to provide the missing information. Oral history may eventually fill in some of these gaps, but as the events recede into the past, fewer first-hand witnesses remain alive.
This is the second printing of this work. Most of the information contained in the first edition is included here, but major revisions have been made.
An inventory of the holdings of the WAIA Archives is appended to this history. Most of the documentation supporting the history can be found in the archives.
Experience indicates that many "old-timers" preserved memorabilia and documents from their early days in AA. Their memories and the documents they preserved are an invaluable source of the history of bygone days. The WAIA Archives Project has thus far only contacted a small portion of these valuable people. There still remains much work to be done. I would like to thank Penny W., who assisted in typing and editing this second printing.
Charles E. Schamel
Riverdale Park, Maryland
A Note on the Internet Version
This internet edition of The Washington Group consists of the same text as the revised and expanded edition printed in 1995. The footnotes that are included in the paper edition have not been included in this web version. Anyone wishing to examine the source material should contact the WAIA office to obtain a paper copy or access to the WAIA Archives.
The web document is in two files: Part 1 - the cover to chapter 8; and Part 2 - chapter 9 to the end. To print the entire document open and print the first part, then go to chapter 9 and print the second part.
At this time the five appendices are not included in the web version. We expect to include the appendices soon. However, until that is done, anyone wishing to examine these appendices should contact the WAIA office.
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THE ENVIRONMENT AND THE CHALLENGE
It is difficult to imagine the world the alcoholic faced before Alcoholics Anonymous. Today alcoholics live in a world shaped by the work, experience, and wisdom of the members of Alcoholics Anonymous over the years. Today hospitalization and a wide range of professional counseling are available to the alcoholic. There is still a stigma attached to alcoholism, but it has become recognized as one of the most common diseases in the modern world. Most important, the fellowship of Alcoholics Anonymous is available to almost anyone anywhere who has a desire to stop drinking.
The great contribution of Alcoholics Anonymous is that it provides a systematic program whereby alcoholics can stop drinking and achieve and maintain sobriety. It is the first and only treatment or therapy program that can truthfully say, "Rarely have we seen a person fail who has thoroughly followed our path."
In the world before A.A., the victim of alcoholism was a hopeless case. No doctor, priest, or psychiatrist could treat the illness. Neither love, money, faith, nor hope could save the alcoholic once he had become addicted. This is reflected in the great psychiatrist Carl Jung's prognosis for an alcoholic patient. Dr. Jung said, "You have the mind of a chronic alcoholic. I have never seen one single case recover, where that state of mind existed to the extent that it does in you." But, he continued,"Exceptions to cases such as yours have been occurring since early times. Here and there, once in a while, alcoholics have had what are called vital spiritual experiences." But, he explained that he had never been able to induce such a "vital spiritual experience" in an alcoholic.
What is so important about Alcoholics Anonymous is that it works every time the person follows the prescribed steps. Indeed, it is possible that in some way the A.A. fellowship has been able to help hopeless drunks to become open to what many call a spiritual experience.
This story is about the people and events surrounding the founding of the A.A. group in Washington, DC. Only by examining the history can we become aware of how profoundly their efforts have affected our lives today. Their work not only contributed to the growth and development of A.A., but it played a major role in changing the political and social attitudes toward alcoholism.
Alcohol and drunkenness have had an important place in American history from the early daysand have been the subject of numerous books and scholarly articles. One author even described nineteenth-century America as "a nation of drunks." But, during that century America became more civilized and more urban. Even though drunkenness had been overlooked on the frontier, it became more visible, more disruptive, and less acceptable in the more complex and civilized society.
With the coming of the industrial revolution, workers were required to function according to the rhythm of production lines and to work according to timetables. Industrialization meant working with powerful machines and dangerous tools that required a steady hand and clarity of mind on production lines that could not easily be stopped. Drunkenness on the job meant injuries, lost time, and lost revenue. In this atmosphere, drunkenness began to be recognized as a burden on society rather than a purely personal issue.
The earliest attempts to combat the problems created by excessive drinking centered around the prevention of alcoholism. There was little anyone could do about a drunk once he had become an alcoholic, so the best solution seemed to be to reach people before they became caught in the grip of alcohol. Moral persuasion was the tool used to innoculate the young.
Prevention was embodied in the temperance-prohibition movement that developed in the United States during the nineteenth century. The temperance crusade was conducted by churches and social service organizations such as the Anti-Saloon League, which was dedicated to suppressing "the evils of drinking." As early as 1865 thirteen states had passed prohibition laws, and by 1917 twenty-three states were considered prohibitionist.
In 1919 the prevention strategy became the national law of the land with the adoption of prohibition in the Eighteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution which outlawed the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating beverages.
As a national public policy, prohibition was a failure and the Eighteenth Amendment was repealed in 1933 by the Twenty-First Amendment. When prohibition failed, there was no alternative policy to replace it. In many ways, the government's attempt to enforce prohibition left the nation in worse shape than it had been before prohibition. Probably the most obvious damage done by prohibition was the increase in organized crime due to the illegal traffic in alcohol. Less obvious was the depletion of resources for treating alcoholics that occurred during the period of prohibition. Most of the hospitals and sanitariums that had treated alcoholics before prohibition had closed when it became illegal to become an alcoholic. By 1933 the opportunities for obtaining medical treatment for the alcoholic were worse than they had been before prohibition.
Religious and civic-minded citizens continued to work toward prevention, attempting to use moral persuasion to save young people from becoming alcoholics. But the plight of the person who had already become an alcoholic remained the same--he was written off as an incurable drunk, a burden on his family and on society until his death. The sad truth is that in 1933 alcoholics really were incurable by any methods known at the time.
Most doctors and hospitals turned drunks away from their doors, refusing to treat them at all. The situation was the same with most psychiatrists. Their attitudes were understandable. Drunks made miserable patients: they broke appointments, they refused to do as they were told; they were dirty, angry, ungrateful, and untrustworthy; and they did not pay their bills.
Furthermore, alcoholism was not considered a health problem. The terms "alcoholism" and "alcoholic" were rarely used to describe the hopeless drunk. Most members of the medical profession, along with the rest of society, considered alcoholism to be a moral or character problem and not a proper subject for medical treatment.
In 1933 the concept of addiction was new to the medical profession. Only during the last century had addiction been discovered, and its implications had not yet been fully explored. Most medical practicioners were not even aware of the new concept of alcoholism.
While the medical and psychiatric communities did little to treat the problem of alcoholism, the legal system addressed the affects of the behavior of drunks. Disruptive drunkenness was considered a problem of morality and was dealt with by the courts and jails.
The life history of a drunk, once he had crossed the line to alcoholism, could be summed up by the "revolving door" metaphor; the doors of the public jails and insane asylums became revolving doors to the alcoholic as his life became a series of incarcerations and releases, until finally, toward the end, he became hopelessly insane or irreversibly physically broken. For the alcoholic, release from the institutional revolving doors came only when he was permanently committed to an insane asylum, prison, or graveyard.
It was under these grim circumstances that Bill Wilson and Dr. Bob Smith founded the fellowship of Alcoholics Anonymous. Among the earliest people to attain sobriety with them were three of the A.A.s who brought the program to the Washington, D.C. area. Less than two years after Bill and Bob had their initial meeting, the first A.A.s came to Washington carrying the message.
The capital city was an ideal location to establish an A.A. outpost. Washington had probably always had more than its share of alcoholics. Since its founding as the nation's capital in the 1790s, it has attracted people with high energy, intelligence, and well-developed egos--people driven to be successful, to do good deeds, or just to make themselves rich or famous or powerful. Alcohol was the universal lubricant; it greased the pathways to the halls of power, and it eased the passage of difficult legislation. It relieved fears and inhibitions, removed doubt, and bestowed eloquence. Alcohol was always present at cocktail parties, in executive offices, and on the floor of Congress.
In the year 1935 Washington was an unusually drunk town. That year the Census Bureau reported that the District of Columbia had the second-highest death rate due to alcoholism in the United States. The Washington Star reported that the District ranked first in the nation in per capita consumption of alcoholic beverages.
Police Commissioner Melvin C. Hazen recognized that the penal system in the District was not sufficient to deal with the alcohol problem. He noted that sending drunks through repeated confinement at the workhouse was ineffective because, ". . . the present system was 'an endless chain' in which a man drunk, was arrested, convicted, sentenced, served time, was released - and then went right back to drink again." He compared the alcoholic to people with other diseases and noted that few resources were going toward their treatment, when he stated, "The habitual drunk is a sick man and needs care just the same as a tuberculosis victim for whom the District was building a new $1,500,000 hospital. . ."
The Commissioner suggested the idea of creating an "alcoholic farm" where alcoholics could be sent to dry out and regain their health. The alcoholic farm idea received a lot of attention and was periodically popular with public officials and later with some A.A.s. The idea was supported by the Catholic Charities, the Superintendent of Police, and the newly formed Public Welfare Association of the District. For years public officials were attracted to it every time the tremendous costs and ludicrous ineffectiveness of sending habitual drunks through the prison system became apparent. The idea was, however, never put into action on a large scale.
Part of the reason for the failure of the alcoholic farm concept was that while the idea was supported by many sensitive, influential friends, it was stoutly opposed by the local temperance societies, most notably the Rechabites. At a large public meeting in 1936, the leader of the Rechabites announced that he objected, as a taxpayer, to the commissioner's proposal for a farm to take care of drunks. The temperance groups asked questions such as, "Why help alcoholics who are old enough to help themselves?" More responsible groups like the Washington Committee for Education on Alcoholism answered, "An alcoholic is like a man going over Niagra Falls; he is old enough to know better, but he is already in the rapids."
By 1939 there were over 400 package stores in the District of Columbia and the problems of drunkenness had become evident even in children. In the first five years after the repeal of prohibition, 1,685 children had been arrested for drunkenness. Congressman Morris Sheppard declared, "I am incensed . . . the children of Washington apparently are able to procure liquor by ordering it over the telephone from a licensed dealer."
A few years later the Washington Committee for Education on Alcoholism published a pamphlet outlining the alcohol problems in the District. During the twelve years between 1934 and 1946, there had been 318,000 arrests for drunkenness and 137,000 commitments to the DC Jail. Gallingers Hospital (later named DC General Hospital) admitted an average of 4,000 patients annually for alcoholism. And although only 5% of all St. Elizabeth's patients were diagnosed as suffering primarily from alcoholic psychosis, at least one-third of all patients admitted reported a history of alcohol abuse. It was estimated that alcohol problems cost the D.C. government between 5 and 8 million dollars annually.
The pamphlet published by the Committee also provided personal statistics to illustrate how the revolving door syndrome worked in an alcoholic's life. One distinguished Washingtonian had been arrested over 250 times and had served 197 jail sentences for drunkenness. Several others could count well over 100 of each. The numbers showed that throwing alcoholics into the drunk-tanks--even a great many times--did not solve the problem.
As the war effort brought increasing numbers of workers to the Nation's capital and subjected many of them to unusual pressures, the problem increased. Fitz M., one of the founders of the Washington Group of Alcoholics Anonymous, described Washington, DC, in 1940 as a city with more than its share of alcoholics:
. . . 5% of the plastered in this burg seem always to be committing suicide. Of course, we blame it on the administration. Not enough relief - or bonus - or too much relief - wives shouldn't work or shouldn't marry if they can only allow their husband a quart a day, which causes them to drink smoke - wives have all the jobs and the men can't do the housework properly. . ."
In a letter dated March 15, 1940, Fitz suggested that the offices of the federal government in Washington also had their share of drunks.
Some of these days, everyone that works for the government are going to get drunk all at one time and then you are going to see the Northern lights over Washington. At present, they stagger their drinking spells, so that somebody is always sober to carry on.
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THERE IS A SOLUTION
The decade of the 1930s may have been one of the bleakest times for alcoholics in modern history. Little had ever been known about how to treat alcoholism, but part of the knowledge that had been accumulated over time was lost during the prohibition experiment that led society to believe that it would no longer be needed. By the time the experiment had failed, the few professionals and sanitoriums that had attempted to treat alcoholics before prohibition had become even fewer.
It was during these years that the fellowship of Alcoholics Anonymous first saw the light of day. At this low point Bill Wilson, Dr. Bob Smith, and the early members of the new fellowship worked out the program that would become the solution to the age-old dilemma of the alcoholic. During these years they designed the program, created the organization and learned the principles needed to carry the message across the continent.
The years between 1935 and 1939 were some of the most important years in the growth of A.A.. Membership in the fellowship grew from just two men to over one hundred. The members were aware that they had been given a gift and a responsibility to carry the message to other suffering alcoholics. Two of the earliest members made contributions to general A.A. history in New York and Akron and also came to Washington to try to establish an A.A. outpost. The first A.A.s who came to Washington were Fitz M. and Florence R.
Their activities are documented in the books Alcoholics Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age and in unpublished documents in the A.A. Archives in New York and WAIA Archives in Washington. One of the most useful documents is a "Fact Sheet" that Bill Wilson wrote while preparing to write Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age. Bill's summary of the state of affairs at the end of 1936 mentioned Fitz.
By the close of 1936 a small but strong nucleus had been established in Akron and New York. We had isolated out of towners like Fitz M--- and Don Mc---, a banker who lived in Cohoes, New York. Scores, and I think hundreds were exposed to us. The failure rate was immense. Nevertheless, the two little groups and a few outlying people held on. This was the state of affairs at the close of 1936.
In 1937 two things were becoming clear: first, A.A. worked; and second, there were too few A.A.s to carry the message to all the people who needed to hear it. Bill's visit to Dr. Bob in Akron provided revelations that shaped the A.A. agenda for the next year.
This [trip] gave me a chance to compare notes with Dr. Bob. In his living room one afternoon after the score had been added up we realized for the first time there was no doubt whatever of the success of our little society. Enough time had elapsed on enough desperate cases to prove the point. I think we were able to top something like 40 cases in both groups with enough [time] elapsed to mean something. Our joy was unbounded as their realization fell upon us.
In the talk that afternoon we began to ask ourselves how this thing should spread. Could we rely simply on the word-of-mouth program which by now had broken down to the following simple essentials: A) admitted we were powerless over alcohol, B) got honest with ourselves, C) got honest with other people about our defects, D) made restitution to those we'd harmed, E) tried to carry the message to other alcoholics, F) prayed to whatever God we thought there was. This was the substance of the word-of-mouth program. But wouldn't this get garbled?
We realized to that hospitals didn't have too much use for us. We thought we needed money to carry on the work. Bob's practice hadn't revived, and I was without any financial roots at all. Didn't we need money to establish hospitals, the profits of which could carry on the work? Didn't we need to subsidize members from the existing groups to go out and start fresh groups. Didn't we need a book of some sort that would set forth our technique so it couldn't be garbled. These were the realizations that were to lead to the formation of the Alcoholic Foundation in New York.
By the end of 1937, the fellowship was actively seeking solutions to these questions. One of the promising leads was Mr. John D. Rockefeller, Jr. In December of 1937 Bill Wilson, along with a few other alcoholics, managed to obtain a meeting with the rich gentleman. This meeting did not solve the financial problems as the A.A.s had hoped, but it provided moral support and a valuable lesson that would become the foundation for the seventh tradition of self-support.
The central issue became how to carry the message to the vast numbers of drunks spread out over the continent. Getting the message to those on the west coast was a special problem because all the current members were in the east or midwest. Although the program was simple, transmitting it by word of mouth would allow it to get distorted as it was passed second and third and fourth hand. The publication of a book seemed to be the solution.
In order to publish a book, the A.A.s had to solve some tough problems. They had to agree on the contents the style and title of the book, and then someone had to write it. They needed money not only to publish the book but also simply to survive while writing and publishing the book. To insure that the book would be accepted and would reach the alcoholics who needed it, they had to cultivate the goodwill of the community, especially the professionals who worked with alcoholics.
As members of the New York group before they came to Washington, Fitz M. and Florence R. made contributions in all these areas. The tribulations and debates that filled these formative years in New York and Akron and surrounded the publication of the book Alcoholics Anonymous have been recorded elsewhere and do not need to be recounted here. The parts played by the Washington Group founders will be more meaningful when the reader becomes more familiar with the history of each of them.
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THE LONERS: FITZ AND FLORENCE
Fitz M. and Florence R. were among the earliest members of Alcoholics Anonymous. Separately and alone, they each came to Washington to try to establish an outpost of Alcoholics Anonymous in the city. They were loners operating in the city; their only A.A. contact was correspondence with the A.A.s in New York and Akron. Florence may have brought the A.A. message to Washington as early as 1937, although she was unable to establish a permanent group here. That same year Fitz came to Washington from his home on Maryland's Chesapeake shore, searching for suffering alcoholics to work with.
Although they had both sobered up in the small fellowship in New York, there is no evidence that Fitz and Florence ever met. In fact, a letter Fitz wrote upon arriving in Washington in the fall of 1939 indicates that he had been told to look out for Florence, but that he did not know what she would look like.
Both Fitz's and Florence's stories appeared in the first edition of the book Alcoholics Anonymous. Fitz's story is "Our Southern Friend" and Florence's story is "A Feminine Victory." Although Florence's story appeared in the first edition, it was removed from later editions because she was unable to remain sober. Her story is reprinted in the appendix of this volume.
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FITZ M., 1897 – 1943
John Henry Fitzhugh M. was one of the earliest members of Alcoholics Anonymous -- probably the fourth member after Bill, Dr. Bob and Hank P. -- dating from the fall and winter of 1935 when he sobered up with the help of Bill Wilson. He was important to the early years of A.A. in New York and made contributions to the writing of the Big Book. He has long been regarded as the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous in the Washington area. During the closing weeks of 1939, after many months of vain attempts, he found the people who would help him create a permanent A.A. group in the nation's capital.
His early history reveals his roots in the Maryland countryside and the events that shaped his character as a spiritual man and a teacher. In 1902 when Fitz was four years old, his family moved to the quiet parish rectory of Christ Church in Owensville, Maryland, on the Chesapeake Bay south of Annapolis. His father was the Rector of the Episcopal Church.
During his early childhood, he developed close and lasting friendships that would serve him well throughout the rest of his life. Along with his best friends, he went away to an Episcopal high school for boys in Alexandria. One of these friends, Jimmy B., became his lifelong companion and together they made important contributions to the spread of Alcoholics Anonymous on the east coast. The other friend, E. Churchill Murray, who also remained a friend for life, gave Fitz a house to live in during the worst of his alcoholism and preserved letters from Fitz that show his spiritual nature as early as his tenth birthday.
Just before the first World War, Fitz graduated from Washington and Lee College, where he had his first experience with alcohol. With the coming of the First World War, he and Jimmy B. joined the Army together, although the war ended before they completed training.
After the war, Fitz taught school in Norfolk, Virginia, to support his wife Elizabeth and three young children. When he lost the job in Norfolk, E. Churchill Murray, gave him a piece of land on Cumberstone Road, next to his farm in Owensville, Maryland, to live on. At Cumberstone Fitz was close to his family and childhood friends. By this time he was powerless over the alcohol he consumed. His condition was well known to those close to him, and his friends recall that his drinking bouts often ended in neighborhood searches that located him passed out in the loft of a nearby barn.
In the fall of 1935 Fitz found his way to Town's Hospital where he met Bill Wilson. His story in Alcoholics Anonymous tells how he came to the A.A. way of life and how he tried to stay sober in the small rural bayside setting. He describes periods of depression, doubt in God, and bouts with an overpowering compulsion to drink. He tells of unbearable isolation and the need to work with others, "I am blue again. I want to sell the place and move away. I want to get where I can find some alcoholics to help and where I can find some fellowship."
He tells about traveling to distant cities and of spiritual lessons to be learned during these years, "I am on a train headed for a city, and later pick up my bags and leave. I stay with understanding friends." A man asks him to work with a young alcoholic, and he writes, "Soon I have others who are alcoholics and some who have other problems. I begin to play God. I feel that I can fix them all. I do not fix anyone but I am getting part of a tremendous education and I have made some new friends." He does not name the city. It could very possibly have been Washington and the friends those at Gatewood House.
Jimmy B's story in Alcoholics Anonymous also indicates that Fitz had worked as a loner in Washington as early as 1937 and that he had at least one sober A.A. friend, a man named Jackie. Jimmy's story, "The Vicious Circle," documents one of the first successful twelve-step calls in Washington. The hope and tragedy of these early days are recorded in Jimmy's story:
January 8, 1938 - that was my D-Day; the place Washington, D.C. This last real Merry-go-round had started the day before Christmas and I had really accomplished a lot in those fourteen days. First, my new wife had walked out, bag, baggage, and furniture; then the apartment landlord had thrown me out of the empty apartment and the finish was the loss of another job. After a couple of days in dollar hotels and one night in the poky, I finally landed on my mother's doorstep shaking apart, with several days' beard.... This is the way Jackie found me, lying in a cot in my skivvies, with hot and cold all over. I had not asked for help and seriously doubt that I would have, but Fitz, an old school friend of mine, had persuaded Jackie to call on me. Had he come two or three days later I think I would have thrown him out, but he hit when I was open for anything.
Jimmy's story goes on to describe how he found sobriety, but it also tells of the fate of his first sponsor, Jackie, who did not make it.
All of us in A.A. know the tremendous happiness that is in our sobriety, but there are also tragedies. My sponsor, Jackie, was one of these. He brought in many of our original members, yet he himself could not make it and died of alcoholism.
Fitz's twelve-step work in Washington during these early years is further substantiated by Bill Wilson's Fact Sheet. Bill recalls that in 1936, There was much visiting back and forth between ourselves, the Parkers [sic] and
Fitz, who lived at Cumberstone, Maryland, not far from Baltimore. Fitz was trying to start a group in Washington and Baltimore without success.
During these years Fitz's visits with Bill and the A.A.s in New York and Akron were an important part of his life. The history of those early years shows that Fitz was a member whose presence profoundly affected the fellowship in many ways.
Among the contributions Fitz made were his contacts among the professional community. Bill W. recalls that in the early years the acceptance of the fellowship by the public depended, in part, upon good endorsements from medical and religious professionals. As early as 1938, Fitz was able to obtain a letter of support from a friend at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.
His pursuit of acceptance by the local community, including the doctors and judges, is evident throughout the rest of his life. He used endorsements from those familiar with A.A. successes to introduce new professionals to the program, and when they became convinced of its effectiveness, he asked them for their own endorsements. In a letter dated November 25, 1939, Fitz requested copies of endorsements of A.A. to show his new friends, two ministers and a priest. In his letter to Ruth Hock, secretary of the Alcoholic Foundation, he asks for lots of ammunition, "Can you get me a copy of Harry Emerson Fosdick's letter about the A.A.s? Also just a few of Dr. Silkworth's articles? Has any Catholic ever written any kind of endorsement of A.A.?"
And, although Fitz was never financially secure himself, it was through him that funds were acquired to carry the Foundation through a financial crisis in 1938. His sister Agnes lived in Washington, and when Fitz went to the city to work with drunks, he slept at her apartment on S. Street. Agnes had seen how A.A. had changed Fitz's life, and when the Foundation desperately needed financial support, she provided a $1,000 loan.
No doubt, his greatest contributions to the fellowship, however, were in the area of spirituality. In Fitz's explorations of spirituality, he often had his friend Jimmy B. as a counterpoint.
Jimmy B. was a traveling salesman who, in his sobriety, carried the A.A. message with him as he canvassed the east coast. He is credited with founding the Philadelphia Group, and, along with Fitz influencing the establishment of A.A. groups in, at least, Washington, Baltimore, and Richmond.
These two friends greatly influenced the shape of the new fellowship. Their conflicting spiritual attitudes - Fitz was deeply religious and Jimmy agnostic - contributed to the adoption of the phrase "God as we understand him," which has saved so many lives. In Alcoholics, Anonymous Comes of Age Bill W. described a debate that took place during the writing of the book Alcoholics Anonymous that produced the phrase.
Fitz M., one of the most lovable people that A.A. will ever know,...fell at once into hot argument with Henry [F.] about the religious content of the coming volume. A newcomer named Jimmy B., who like Henry was an ex-salesman and former atheist, also got into the hassles. Fitz wanted a powerfully religious document. Henry and Jimmy would have none of it. They wanted a psychological book that would lure the reader in; when he finally arrived among us, there would be enough time to tip him off about the spiritual character of our society. As he worked feverishly on this project Fitz made trip after trip to New York from his Maryland home to insist on raising the spiritual pitch of the A.A. book. Out of this debate came the spiritual form and substance of the document, notably the expression, "God as we understand Him," which proved to be a ten strike. As spiritual rather than religious or entirely psychological terms.
When the content of the book had been decided, there was still the issue of what to name the book. The naming of the book Alcoholics Anonymous is a story in itself, and the earliest Washington A.A.s both played a role in determining what that name would be. Bill remembered that,
. . . voting on what the title of the new book should become one of our major occupations, both in Akron and New York. The more we tried the more difficult it seemed. Some wanted a novel-type title, others wanted a title like a textbook. Perhaps a couple of hundred were suggested.
There were three front runners for the title: "One Hundred Men," "The Way Out," and "Alcoholics Anonymous." "One Hundred Men" seemed appropriate because there were nearly one hundred A.A.s sober in the fellowship. But, as Jimmy B. pointed out, "We . . . found our name 'One Hundred Men' inadequate for we had forgotten the ladies and we already had one girl, Florence R. on the ball." So because of Florence, the name "One Hundred Men" was rejected. That left the decision between the titles "The Way Out" and "Alcoholics Anonymous." Quoted below is Bill's description of Fitz's contribution to the final title choice.
As the day of publication approached we racked our brains to find a suitable name for the volume. We must have considered at least two hundred titles. Thinking up titles and voting upon them at meetings became one of our main activities. A great welter of discussion and argument finally narrowed our choice to a single pair of names. Should we call our new book "The Way Out" or should we call it "Alcoholics Anonymous"? That was the final question. A last-minute vote was taken by the Akron and New York Groups. By a narrow majority the verdict was for naming our book "The Way Out." Just before we went to print somebody suggested there might be other books having the same title. One of our early lone members (dear old Fitz M., who then lived in Washington) went over to the Library of Congress to investigate. He found exactly twelve books already titled "The Way Out." When this information was passed around, we shivered at the possibility of being the "Thirteenth Way Out." So "Alcoholics Anonymous" became the first choice. That's how we got a name for our book of experience, a name for our movement, and, as we are now beginning to see, a tradition of the greatest spiritual import. God does move in mysterious ways, His wonders to perform!
After 1938 A.A. work came to dominate Fitz's life, often taking him to Washington, New York, or Akron. In the fall of 1939, he left his family at Cumberstone and took up permanent residence in Washington, living with his sister Agnes sometimes and with friends other times. By December of that year the charter members of the first permanent A.A. group in Washington had come together. During the spring of 1940, Fitz met Ruth J., the woman he would marry in 1943. (Ruth was also known by the name Arabella.) At this point Fitz's life became intertwined with the Washington Group of Alcoholics Anonymous. Our story will turn to the Washington Group and then discuss the final years of Fitz M's life in the PostScript.
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FLORENCE R., 1895 – 1943
During these same years, another figure was fighting to maintain sobriety and learning hard lessons in twelve-step work. Florence R. occupies an important place in the story of how A.A. came to the Washington area. But her story does not have a happy ending.
She was the first woman to get sober in A.A., and her story, "A Feminine Victory," is the only story of a woman in the first edition of Alcoholics Anonymous. Its opening paragraph is especially poignant, for although she was unable to sustain sobriety, her story has served as an inspiration for countless other women.
To my lot falls the rather doubtful distinction of being the only "lady" alcoholic in our particular section. Perhaps it is because of a desire for a "supporting cast" of my own sex that I am praying for inspiration to tell my story in a manner that may give other women who have this problem the courage to see it in its true light and seek the help that has given me a new lease on life.
In addition to being the first woman sober in Alcoholics Anonymous, she was the first A.A. to reside permanently in Washington. Between 1936 and late 1939 Fitz had been living in Cumberstone and periodically visiting Washington to work with drunks. During these same years Florence had taken up permanent residence in the District and was attempting to establish an A.A. foothold.
Bill Wilson's description of her years in Washington tell her story.
. . . along about 1936 or 1937, Florence dug a lot of people out of Gallinger (Hospital) and they finally overwhelmed her and she got drunk and by this time (1939), I think she was washing around in the background down there. Poor girl, she had been sober a year or two. She came from New York to start a group - I remember finding the records at the Foundation now, about 1936 or maybe 1937, we granted her $50 to go to Washington and start an A.A. group. But I think - she kind of got in the background, but I imagine there were still some of the people washing around - practically nobody staying sober at this period [1939 Washington] . . ."
Even though Florence was unsuccessful at establishing a group in Washington, she played an important part in A.A. history. One of the legacies she left the fellowship was the contribution she made to the naming of the book Alcoholics Anonymous. It was because of her that the book was titled "Alcoholics Anonymous" rather than "One Hundred Men." That was in 1938.
By the fall of 1939, both Florence's sobriety and her A.A. work were over. In the first letter Fitz wrote to the Alcoholic Foundation upon arriving in Washington in November of 1939, he relayed the sad news to Ruth Hock.
One woman . . . Florence R. is not in evidence. She is in love with a hellion 15 years younger than she who feeds her beer - so says her landlady. He and she put Shirley on the train the other day and Florence did not return to the boarding house. I am hoping she boarded the train with Shirley - she owes the landlady $36.00 I am told. Poor woman - I hope she finds the way out - I don't think she will here. You know how the people chatter, especially the gals about the leader who slips.
After her slip in late 1939, little is known of Florence. She eventually married a carpenter named Krouse. She had some further contact with the program, but it is not known if she ever sobered up again. A copy of Alcoholics Anonymous in the General Service Archives contains her signature dated April 9, 1940, which may indicate that she was still trying at that date.
There is evidence in the records of the Washington Group that she called on her A.A. friends for help at least one more time. The Twelve Step call cards from the Washington Group for 1941 show that Florence R. called, but do not record any follow up.
Apparently Florence never really recovered from her slip in 1939. She died of pneumonia on April 19, 1943, just six months before Fitz passed away. She was apparently alone in the world. Her death certificate does not show her husband's name. Two Washington Group A.A.s were called to the coroner's office to identify her body.
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THE BOYS OF ’39
The term "Boys of 39" first appears in the records of the Washington Group in the spring of 1948, when Henry S., a member of the Chevy Chase Group, became interested in writing a history of A.A. in Washington. According to Henry S. and Hardin C., both of whom were present during the final months of 1939, the "Boys of '39" were Fitz M., Ned F., George S., Bill E., Steve M., and Hardin C.
The unfolding history of the Washington Group reveals how closely the history of the group parallels the history of the larger A.A. fellowship.
The year 1939 was a very important year for Alcoholics Anonymous both nationally and locally in Washington, D.C. In 1939, the book Alcoholics Anonymous was published, the Alcoholic Foundation was incorporated, and the Foundation office in New York became a central clearinghouse and referral point for information from and about alcoholics all over the country. In Washington, D.C, 1939 was the year of the founding of the Washington Group.
Throughout 1939 the fellowship got important national attention through articles in several magazines and newspapers. With the new recognition came letters and telephone calls from drunks and relatives of drunks in cities and towns across the country, seeking information about the fellowship and A.A. contacts in their area. The Alcoholic Foundation received hundreds of requests for the new book, Alcoholics Anonymous.
Members of the Foundation staff answered letters, filled book orders, and referred inquiries to the A.A. member or group nearest the caller. They carefully filed away the correspondence of the Foundation, preserving an accurate record of the business transacted during these formative years. The foresight of the early Foundation staff to keep careful records made it possible to accurately reconstruct the history of the early years of Alcoholics Anonymous, and the foundations of the fellowship in Washington, D.C., and other communities across the country.
The earliest documented evidence of A.A. in the Washington area is preserved in the correspondence files of the General Services Archives. A letter dated October 26, 1939, from the Alcoholic Foundation to Fitz M. at the Gatewood House, 2107 S. Street, begins a dialogue between Washington area A.A. members and the Foundation that established many personal ties over the coming years. It is a simple and businesslike letter that begins, "glad to hear that you are back in the Washington area," and refers four inquiries from drunks in the Washington area.
When Fitz moved to Washington, he became the southernmost representative of Alcoholics Anonymous, and he was therefore responsible for the territory south of the Mason-Dixon Line. Two of the four inquiries that were referred to him came from Washington, one came from lower Virginia, and one from North Carolina. One of the Washington drunks referred to Fitz by this letter was Hardin C. The first contact between Fitz and Hardin C. marks the beginning of the Washington Group. From this meeting of two men, the Washington Group grew and continued to expand over the decades.
The date of the meeting was two or three days after Fitz received the letter from New York dated October 26, 1939. If the mail took two days to arrive from New York, then the date of the founding of the Washington Group was October 28, 1939.
Fitz's reply to the Alcoholic Foundation's letter of October 26, 1939, implies that he had already established personal relationships in Washington where there were people staying sober - even before 1939. But his correspondence also indicates that the people he knew before Hardin C. did not become part of the original A.A. group.
His letter begins by reporting that Hardin C., "the fine fellow referred to him in the October 26 letter," had contacted him and offered his home as a meeting place. This was an answer to a prayer, for the little group of alkies could hold their Tuesday night meeting there.
In the letter, he also mentioned that he met a retired Navy Commander living in D.C. who had gotten his A.A. in California two years earlier and who was now working with alkies in the city. He goes on to say, "We are getting sort of solid now with Comdr. C., Goldsmith, Dillard and myself getting together. Then we have Hardin C., the Magills, the Waters, the Andrews all very interested. Also George E."
This is a curious letter because it contains the names of many people that we never hear about again. Furthermore, it is difficult to distinguish between those who are alcoholics and those who are non-alcoholic friends. Who, for example, is Commander C., and where could he have gotten his A.A. in California in 1937? Who are the Magills, the Waters, the Andrews, or Goldsmith or Dillard? Fitz writes as though these people form a group, and yet only Fitz and Hardin were among the original members of the Washington Group. The most likely explanation is that some of these people were members of the local Oxford Group and some of them may have been alcoholics.
Nevertheless, the meeting of Fitz and Hardin was the beginning of the new group; during the next few months four more men joined them to form the beginnings of a fellowship. According to Hardin C., these six men were Fitz M., Ned F., Bill E., George S., Hardin C., and Steve M.
As a long-time member of A.A., Fitz brought his experience, strength, and hope from the established groups in New York and Akron. But, Fitz would not be the only experienced A.A. to contribute to the founding of the Washington Group. When Ned F. arrived from New York in December of 1939 with about six months A.A. sobriety behind him, he became an invaluable member of the group during its first year.
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Ned became a member of Alcoholics Anonymous in New York during the spring of 1939. A lawyer by profession, but unemployed because of his drinking problems, he had survived the year on $22.50 a week supplied by his mother who lived in Cleveland.
Before finding the New York A.A. group, Ned had tried all the known treatments for his alcoholism. He spent the summer of 1938 in the expensive Bloomingdale Institute, only to end up drunk and in trouble two weeks after his release. His next stop was the Westchester Hospital for the Insane, where he met the man who introduced him to Alcoholics Anonymous and took him to his first meeting.
At that meeting, in which Bill Wilson and Dr. Bob Smith spoke, two things that Ned heard stuck in his mind. Dr. Bob described how he had been drunk from 1898 until he met Bill in 1934, and Bill W. said that hope was the spiritual base of the fellowship. Bill asked those afflicted with the incurable disease, "Can you admit to the barest possibility of a power greater than your-self?"
Later, as he approached a neighborhood bar, Ned contemplated the threatening reality implied by Bob's experience. Bob had been a young man like himself 40 years ago, and he had lived in the anguish of alcoholism all those years, not a fate that Ned relished. But, in Bill's message was hope of salvation for even the worst alky. Ned decided to give A.A. a try.
During that summer and fall, he remained in New York where he attended A.A. meetings and worked with other drunks.
A happy coincidence occurred for Ned when a man from Washington, D.C. visited his friend, Dr. Sam Crocker, who had been treating Ned's alcoholism. The friend had come to New York to interview a patient of Dr. Corcker's for a job at the Civil Aeronautics Authority. But, the man was an alcoholic and unable to accept the position because he was an inmate at a mental institution. Dr. Crocker had been impressed by Ned's recovery in A.A. and recommended him to fill the legal assistant position.
Ned accepted the job and moved to the nation's capital. When he arrived in Washington, his first A.A. assignment was a referral from Bill W., who suggested that he talk to an ex-Army Sergeant who needed and might even want the A.A. program. Ruth Hock, the secretary of the Alcoholic Foundation, wrote to Ned, "Bill Wilson advised me that you are now in Washington and would be glad to do what you could," and she adds, "I have a few inquiries which I will send along shortly. Meanwhile, we have an urgent and sincere letter from Mr. Louis M. of Baltimore. . ." Ruth's letter constituted Ned's official initiation into the Washington A.A. community.
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THE INDIGENOUS DRUNKS
In addition to the two experienced A.A.s from the New York group, the "Boys of '39" included four local drunks. Little is known of the native Washingtonians. One of them, Hardin C., had contacted the Foundation office in New York (or someone, perhaps his wife, had contacted the office for him) and his case was referred to Fitz. Hardin and his wife offered their home as a meeting place for the newly forming group.
When Fitz found George S., the second Washington native, he was in the Greenhill Institute undergoing "Samaritan Treatment" for his alcoholism. This was probably early in November of 1939. Shortly after his release from Greenhill, George became an active member of the new A.A. group and returned to his prestigious job with one of the New Deal agencies. Fitz described him in glowing terms in his letter of March 15, 1940.
With the same zest that he landed in Gallinger Hospital under the influence of gin and five policemen, he is now out to give the message of Alkies Anon to Washington in a big way. Having been put in charge of all the Federal projects in the District, with 29 supervisors and 3800 men under him, he has gotten himself into a vital position so to speak, where a lot of people have to listen to him. Anyway, he says, "to hell with the opposition, this city needs meetings" and forthwith three halls are offered. The one chosen is Veterans of Foreign Wars Hall (appropriate for alkies, I think, don't you?).
The third man from Washington was Steve M., an ex-Army Sergeant and probably the man Bill W. had sent Ned to contact. While he was a member of the group, he worked in one of the area correctional institutions. Joining the group in late 1939, he remained a member until the summer of 1941, when he moved to Atlanta and played a key role in founding the A.A. group there.
The forth man was Bill E., a well-to-do Washingtonian who worked in the publishing business. Before finding the Washington Group, he had remained sober by attending the meetings of a local Oxford Group. Although he was an active member of the Washington Group and in later years worked toward the opening of a Washington office of the National Council on Alcoholism, very little is recorded about him during the first year.
As 1939 drew to a close, events for the Washington Group began to occur rapidly. The publication of the Big Book increased the calls for help from all over the country and those from the Washington area increased proportionately. The steady stream of referrals from New York produced new recruits and the small group's twelve-step work added to the number. As soon as the new recruits were sober, they began twelve-step work. One of the first products of this work was Dick T., a man who tried to pan-handle Fitz in a downtown park and ended up getting twelve stepped into the program.
Most of the information about the A.A. work in Washington from November and December of 1939 is from Fitz's correspondence with New York. His reports of great progress were filled with buoyancy and enthusiasm that seemed to reflect his faith that God was in Heaven and the world was unfolding as it should. He talked about his new contacts -- Dr. Klein of the Green Hill Institute, someone at St. Elizabeths Hospital, and George S., the new recruit. He reflected on his unhappy financial condition, but was not dismayed by his troubles.
After trying various expedients to get what man calls a 'job', I find that nothing has happened. But I find that there is plenty to do here - so to hell with that other stuff - I may have to sleep in the dog house...but it's O.K. with me... If I'm supposed to have that kind I'll get it. I find plenty to do as is... I am paid up at Gatewood until Sunday.
By Monday Fitz had moved in with George E., a fellow alky. As he had done before, Fitz used his sister Agnes' apartment as an office. His main concern was getting the Washington A.A. group firmly established and making it highly visible in the community -- visible enough that even the sickest alcoholics would know about it and could find it.
The first thing needed for A.A. in the District of Columbia was a general headquarters, or as Fitz described it, "a room with a phone as headquarters. And get some permanency in it, we are rather nebulous to the general public. . . When we get the G.H.Q. I will get some publicity on it."
By the end of 1939 Washington, DC, had an Alcoholics Anonymous Group of its own. As the members rang in the New Year of 1940, the Washington Group was less than two months old, but it established a permanent beachhead. The nation's capital would never again be without an A.A. group.
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A.A. GROWTH IN 1940
As the Washington Group was getting established in 1939, the national A.A. fellowship was also reaching a stage of escalating growth. According to statistics prepared by Dr. Harry Tiebolt, approximately 400 people sobered up in A.A. during 1939 bringing the total membership to around 600. At the end of 1939, the Washington Group had 6 or possibly 7 members. In 1940 another 2000 sobered up nationally including about 70 members from the Washington Group. Another 8000 came into the program in 1941 increasing A.A. membership to over 10,000 nationwide, and by September of 1941, the Washington Group had grown to more than 300 members.
No central record has been kept of the founding dates of the various A.A. groups. A good approximation of the national A.A. scene in 1940 has been provided, however, in correspondence between Margaret B., secretary for the Foundation in 1948, and Henry S., of the Chevy Chase Group.
Henry S., who had a longtime interest in the history of A.A., intended to write a history of the Washington Group. In August of 1940 and again in 1948 Henry wrote to the Alcoholic Foundation to ask, "Just where does the Washington Group stand in the order of A.A. group beginnings?"
His 1940 letter to the Foundation requested a complete list of A.A. membership and mailing addresses. The Foundation staff, who was at that time learning to work with the concept of anonymity, refused this request, but sent instead a list of cities in which "A.A. activity goes on." The list sent to Henry included the following 14 cities and the name of an A.A. contact in each city. The Washington Group is not included because the list was written for Washingtonian Henry S., who didn't need to be informed of its existence.
|San Francisco, California
|Little Rock, Arkansas
|Los Angeles, California
||New York, New York
This was not a comprehensive list of A.A. groups in early 1940. Instead, it was a list of cities in which there was an A.A. contact. The list included cities with established groups; cities in which a few meetings occurred, but the group failed to survive; and cities in which alone alcoholic maintained contact with the New York Group.
When Henry wrote her again eight years later, Margaret could provide a clearer impression of the state of A.A. across the country in the summer of 1940. She said that only about six of the fourteen cities listed in the 1940 letter actually had A.A. groups and the remaining eight probably were A.A. loners or contacts. She describes the groups in these eight cities as follows:
The Richmond Group which was represented by McGhee B., did not really get off the ground until a few years later. Dayton did not appear until much later and it is questionable whether the A.A. contact listed in 1940 remained in the program. Larry J. was in Houston, but there wasn't much of a group there in 1940. The same goes for Los Angeles and San Francisco, which had a couple of members each and plenty of headaches before any established group could be recognized. Coldwater and Evansville were simply listed for contacts and the Little Rock entry is questionable.
Margaret also provided a description of the groups that did exist at that time, as she reminisced about her first six months in the program:
I first saw the light of day in A.A. early in 1940, and that summer Ruth [H.], another member, and I decided we would visit the established A.A. groups. So we set out to visit the first one which was holding regular meetings and had more than a handful of members. This was Cleveland. We next went to Chicago, where about 100 members gathered in a downtown building each Tuesday night. Then we cut back to Detroit, where I guess there were about 25 or 50 members. Jackson, Michigan also boasted of 20 members, and we stopped there. In order to make a big showing, they had their wives, husbands, sweethearts, friends, and anyone who had been dry five minutes come to the meeting. This was in the good old days when we had to show the world a large membership, and anyone who could sit still for 2 hours was counted in. At that time, I believe Fitz had gone to Washington, and there were a few scattered members there, but not what we then called a large group. The same might be said for Philadelphia and a couple of other places.
It's awfully hard to specify dates of founding and ages of groups, for so many personal factors enter. I imagine that Washington dates their founding from the time Fitz went there. I know Philadelphia bases theirs from the date Jimmy [B.] stepped on their ground.
The fellowship was growing at an amazing speed in 1940. By the fall of the year the number of groups had grown to twenty-two according to a Bulletin prepared by Ruth Hock at the Alcoholic Foundation on November 14, 1940. The bulletin listed sixteen towns where lone A.A.s had recovered through the book alone or from brief contact with established groups, five cities where groups were "in a get together stage," and the following list of communities where A.A. work was well established and weekly meetings were being held:
|New York City, N.Y.
|South Orange, N.J.
||Little Rock, Arkansas
|Los Angeles, Calif.
|San Francisco, Calif.
Although the two lists appear to conflict--Ruth's letter says there were no more than six groups in the summer, and the bulletin lists twenty-two in November -- it is possible that the numbers were both correct, reflecting the tremendous growth of the fellowship during 1940, just after the Big Book was published.
All over the country alcoholics and their loved ones had tried everything available, and many were willing to go to any length to find a cure or relief from their addiction. When Alcoholics Anonymous was published, word spread through newspapers, magazines, and by word of mouth. The Alcoholic Foundation was awash with calls and letters from all over the country asking for copies of the book. Because the way to stay sober described in the book was to work with other alcoholics, twelve-step work proliferated.
One only has to witness the amazing growth of the Washington Group during the first months after it was formed in order for the nationwide numbers to become more believable.
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THE NEBULOUS GROUP
As the New Year of 1940 opened, the small Washington Group met on Tuesday nights, probably at the home of Hardin C., because they had not yet found a location to hold open public meetings. They answered referrals from the Alcoholic Foundation, twelve stepped local drunks, and helped each other stay sober. But to Fitz and Ned, it was clear that in order for the group to flourish and to carry the message to all the drunks that needed it, they had a long way to go.
Although Alcoholics Anonymous had finally attracted national attention, the small group of A.A.s in Washington was still new and unknown. Few people knew enough about alcoholism or the A.A. program to search out the fellowship.
In order to accomplish their goals, the group had to make themselves better known in the community. They had to convince doctors, police, and other professionals that their program was both responsible and service to the whole community as well as to sick individuals. They had to demonstrate that they were not boisterous drunks, self-righteously preaching during short periods of sobriety. Above all, they had to convince the local alcoholics and their loved ones that they offered a real and lasting solution, not just another short-lived quick-fix.
Twelve-step work and staying sober were the principal tasks of the members during the first months of 1940, but word spread rapidly that an Alcoholics Anonymous group was in Washington. During that year the group made many new friends in medical, religious, and civic organizations and brought in new members through an active twelve-step program. But not all of the early contacts were friendly.
Just after the New Year, Ned was approached by a member of the Women's Christian Temperance Union who asked him to speak to her group. His letter of January 8, 1940, indicates that Ned expected a controversial evening at the Temperance Union, "Also have talked to the W.C.T.U. lady and am licking my chops in anticipation of a riotous evening later this week."
The Temperance Union people wanted to outlaw alcoholic beverages entirely, and the "belligerent drunken slob" was their best advertisement. They believed that the work of Alcoholics Anonymous was intended to help the alcoholic, to relieve him of the compulsion to drink and help him become a useful member of society, and that it would make the temperance movement's proselytizing chore more difficult.
One temperance writer described members of Alcoholics Anonymous as "missionaries of the liquor business" because they demonstrated that all alcoholics were not skidded row bums, but that they could become productive, respectable members of the community. Dr. Haggard, of the Yale Center for Alcohol Studies, commented that, ". . . this attitude makes sense, but it does not make humanitarianism."
Ned did not seem threatened by the temperance people, and his later letters do not refer to the outcome of the meeting. According to Fitz's second wife, Arabella, however, some W.C.T.U. members tried a different strategy later that summer. The 1940 series of newspaper stories by Washington Star journalist Bob Erwin were a great success, informing the suffering alcoholics and their families, and public officials of the existence of the group. The stories also informed the members of the temperance societies of the presence of the group, and, according to Arabella, required Fitz to explain the A.A. position.
It (the articles) brought in a great many people. It also brought in the W.C.T.U! Three very nice women came in, matronly looking women, and they were very much impressed with A.A. and one of them got up and spoke and told how happy they were that they had found an organization to work with. They knew that we were all going to get along beautifully together and we would really put Prohibition back on the map again! It was at the time when this W.C.T.U. lady stopped speaking that Fitz ankled up to the platform and in his drawling voice, announced very abruptly as well as positively, that Alcoholics Anonymous had nothing to do with people who could drink and needed no help. They were not out to save the world from liquor, they were out to help those who had trouble with liquor and a lot of other things he said in a very nice way but very positive and these three dear ladies never showed up again!
By 1940 the temperance societies had already lost the battle to control alcohol consumption in America; prohibition had failed. Two powerful new movements that were changing the public's conception of alcoholism had begun in the mid-1930s: Alcoholics Anonymous provided a practical program of abstinence and daily living for alcoholics and the Yale Center for Alcohol Studies provided the first systematic scientific study of alcohol problems. The heyday of the temperance societies was over.
Most of the Washington Group's contacts in the community were positive. The hard work in the winter and spring paid off by the end of the summer with a strong, well organized fellowship that was well known and respected in the community.
The first task, as Fitz pointed out, was to establish a permanent headquarters so that people attempting to find the group could easily locate or contact the group. Renting a post office box and establishing a permanent mailing address filled this need. Henry S., who had joined the group in its first months, worked at his father's printing business, and by mid-February had designed and printed a simple but elegant letterhead for the Washington Group stationary. Part of a letter written on Washington
Group stationery is shown here:
:: image missing::
The next important task was to obtain a public meeting place to replace meeting in members' homes. George S., the Brigadier General who was in charge of federal projects in the District, obtained the Veterans of Foreign Wars Hall at 1700 L. Street Northwest. The first meeting in the VFW Hall was held on Thursday, March 21st, at 8:00, and thereafter the regular meetings were scheduled on Tuesday night. George S., it should be noted, had been sober about four months at this time, having been twelve stepped by Fitz in the fall.
The Washington group met at the V.F.W. Hall for several months, probably from March 21st through sometime in June, and then met briefly at the Burlington Hotel on Vermont Avenue. Next, they moved to the Hamilton Hotel on the corner of 14th and K Streets, NW, where they met until September when they opened their first clubhouse at 1310 Massachusetts Avenue.
It was the nature of the fellowship that as it grew in numbers and recognition it also increased ineffectiveness. More members meant more twelve-step calls producing still more new members. Regular meetings in public locations made the meetings predictable and easy to find. The opening of the clubhouse in September provided a regular meeting place, a dedicated telephone number, and a place for new members to dry out and hang out until they got steady.
And time itself was their ally. With every day that passed each sober member had grown through another day of sobriety, had learned a little more, and had more experience, strength, and hope to pass on to the new members. It is interesting to note that on January 1, 1940, the cumulative sobriety of the group was about four and a half years (Fitz had four years, Ned had six months), but by the end of the year the accumulated sobriety had grown to several decades with many members approaching first anniversaries.
One of the first new members of 1940, and the first woman member of the Group, was Dorothy H. Dorothy was fortunate to have an intelligent and sensitive friend in her Aunt Frances, a non-alcoholic who worked for the Womens' Bureau. Frances knew about Dorothy's drinking problem when she heard about the presence of Alcoholics Anonymous in the District. She convinced her niece that the fellowship might be able to help her with her drinking problem.
The members of the Washington Group readily accepted Dorothy, and elected her group secretary to ease her discomfort as the only woman in the group and to help make her feel useful. The tradition of giving new-comers a "trusted servant" position to help them become part of the group had already been established at this early date.
During the same months that Dorothy's Aunt Frances was searching for a way to help her niece, another woman was searching for a way to help her suffering husband and having a difficult time finding the fellowship.
In the fall of 1939 when Liz E. heard about Alcoholics Anonymous, there was no A.A. group in Washington; the nearest established group was in New York. As the new year began the newly formed group was meeting in Hardin C's house. Their existence was known only to a few friends and the Alcoholic Foundation in New York. It was difficult for a sober, intelligent, and resourceful person to find the group, and for the drunk himself, it would have been almost impossible. The story of Liz and Bob E. illustrates how hard it was to locate the new group.
During the fall of 1939, while her husband, Bob, was out of work and suffering repeated alcoholic binges, Liz heard about a group of people who could help people with drinking problems like Bob. But she did not know the name of the group nor how to contact it. None of her friends had even heard of the group.
After exhausting all the sources she knew, Liz wrote to Homer Haskin, an Evening Star columnist, asking for information about a group called Anonymous Inc. Neither Mr. Haskin nor anyone else at the Star had heard of the group, but on January 6, 1940, Mr. Haskin wrote to the Federal Council of Churches of Christ of America, asking if they knew anything about Anonymous Inc. The letter from the Council of Churches dated January 13, 1940, provided the needed information:
|January 13, 1940
My Dear Mr. Haskin:
In reply to your inquiry of January 6 I am sorry to have to say that I do not know anything about the organization called "Anonymous, Inc." I wonder, however, whether your inquirer may not have confused this with the movement known as "Alcoholics Anonymous." This is a group of former alcoholics who meet in New York to strengthen one another's resolution and to help alcoholics to reform. This is a very informal organization, so informal that perhaps it can hardly be called an organization. Those interested meet, I believe, in Steinway Hall, New York. They have recently published a volume entitled "Alcoholics Anonymous" which comes from the press of the Works Publishing Company, Church Street Annex, P.O. Box 657, New York City.
Mr. Haskin forwarded the reply to Liz, who then wrote to the address given for the Works Publishing Company. On February 28, 1940, she received the following reply from Ruth Hock, secretary of the Alcoholic Foundation:
|Dear Mrs. E---,
Thank you for your recent letter. We know you realize how similar are some of the stories in the book Alcoholics Anonymous and what you tell us of your husband. It is difficult for any of our members to be helpful to other alcoholics unless they themselves sincerely desire to stop. You stated in your letter that usually toward the latter part of his sprees he begs you to get someone to help him and we are wondering if that would not be a good time to tell him of Alcoholics Anonymous, what they have accomplished and what they are trying to do. You, of course, would more easily recognize the opportune time to present him with this idea than we at this distance, however, it would undoubtedly help.
We have a small membership in Washington, D.C. and we would like you to get in touch with Mr. Edward F---, c/o University Club, Washington, D.C. We assure you that you will find Mr. F--- interesting and understanding for he has gone through the difficulties of alcoholism himself and will appreciate an opportunity to discuss the matter with you. Perhaps such a personal talk will prove more helpful.
Please let us hear from you again at any time if we can be of further assistance.
After receiving the letter, Liz contacted Ned, who described the program to her and invited her to the next meeting at the V.F.W. hall, where they could discuss her problem. Liz took her girlfriend along and together they attended meetings until Bob's binge had run its course. Then she brought Ned home to make the twelve-step call. The twelve-step call was successful, and Bob had become an active member of the group by the end of the summer. Liz continued to attend meetings as she had before Bob joined the group, and she remained a member of the group until her death in 1988.
Both Bob and Dorothy were fortunate because there was someone in each of their lives who loved them enough to search for help and who was diligent enough and competent enough, or lucky enough, to find the A.A. group in Washington. But, making A.A. accessible to everyone who needed it was a problem for the members of the Washington Group just as it was for the larger fellowship nationwide.
The A.A.s used whatever means were available to bring A.A. to the attention of the public. Experienced A.A.s traveled from group to group, crisscrossing the country, to share their experience, strength, and hope, sometimes gaining valuable publicity for local groups or the overall fellowship. One of the best known members of A.A. during that period was Marty Mann, who was also probably the most influential woman in the alcohol treatment community.
Marty Mann is cited by a number of sources as an organizer of A.A. in Washington. She may have spoken at a meeting in the fall of 1939, but there is no real evidence to prove that she did. There are, however, indications that she was in Washington in the spring of 1940. Bill W's letter to Ned F. dated April 4 said, ". . . he [Fitz M.], along with Marty Mann, can't say enough complimentary things about the way everything is working out down there." Fitz's letter to Bill said, "Bring Marty along. Another trip this way will do her good. Tell her I had a nice chat with Betty, who seems all pepped up from her visit."
During that first spring and summer, Fitz and some of the others worked on developing contacts and furthering the cause of the suffering alcoholic in as many ways as possible. While a surprising number of the ideas and personal contacts were highly productive, not all of them worked out. The alcoholic farm idea, for example, received support from many quarters, but was not publicly implemented.
Fitz's May 22 letter told how he and Jimmy were working on the alcoholic farm idea. He says, ".. . someone should get busy on this alcoholic farm business and keep interest stirred up - Jimmy B. has Preston lined up (he is the head of the State Hospitals in Md) for a conference at 3 P.M. on Monday next. Jim wants me to come to Baltimore to sit in."
The alcoholic farm concept remained with Fitz through the summer and in an August letter to Bill he wrote, "Ray Huff, the superintendent of the Penal institutions of the District, is a man who is very interested in the A.A.s and is out to cooperate with us 100%. We have quite a fine alumni association from Occaquan, the work house, already, and some action going on inside." He goes on to explain that in addition to Mr. Huff, he has been working with two of the Commissioners of the District of Columbia government to get the alcoholic farm plan rolling. He asked Bill for advice on how to proceed with this work, and Bill replied with a well thought out four page analysis of the alcoholic farm issue.
As the summer of 1940 came to a close the group had already grown considerably. The original "boys of ,39", Fitz M., Ned F., Bill E., George S., Steve M., and Hardin C. were central. Dorothy H. became the first woman member of the group.
Among the members who joined the group during its first months was, Henry S., who worked at his father's printing business. By mid-February he had designed and printed business stationary for the Washington Group correspondence.
Bill A., a well known Virginia businessman, joined the Group very early and made frequent trips to New York to learn from the established group there. He later financed the church in Rosslyn, Virginia, known as St. Exon's.
Paul H., a Rhodes Scholar who was employed at the 1940 equivalent of today's Goodwill Industries, came into the fellowship during these early months. Bill V., a recovering New Jersey alky, began spending time in the Washington area. He later made his home in this area after coming to work for a government agency, and served as an officer of the club. Bob and his wife, Liz E., who helped him stay sober through the next 48 years, became active members.
Other very active members during that first year included Eddie K., Kev S., and Len H., and a Dutch plumber named Paul K., but little is known about them because their names do not appear in the documentation of that period.
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THE BOB ERWIN ARTICLES
Probably the biggest boost the Washington Group got during that first year was a series of articles in the Evening Star written by Bob Erwin, a non-alcoholic journalist. The series alerted the suffering drunks of the District to the presence of the A.A. group in town. The seven articles in the series described the fellowship in a straightforward and honest way and helped the community to accept the new fellowship.
At the time these articles were written, Alcoholics Anonymous had received little attention in the press. Seven months earlier, in September of 1939, an important article was published in Liberty magazine, but at that time A.A. had no central office or staff to answer calls or inquiries. Many people who read the Liberty article sought further information about the fellowship, but they were forced to write directly to the author, who forwarded their letters to Dr. Bob at Towns Hospital. A few months later, an article in a Houston newspaper provided good exposure for the fellowship. In his letter of April 4, one month before the Erwin article appeared, Bill W. told of the impact of the Houston articles.
I don't know whether you have ever heard of our Houston delegation so I'll tell you the story briefly. One of the Cleveland, Ohio men with everal ribs and one lung missing and a very bad case of alcoholism besides, went to Houston, Texas for his health. Within two weeks he had a job on the Houston newspaper and several days later appeared in it's columns with six daily articles on A.A. Many people here think its the best publicity we've had yet. Anyway, it was so well thought of we added a few things like the Silkwood article, etc. and had it printed in the form of a small booklet.
The Bob Erwin articles were important to the general A.A. fellowship, but they were particularly significant to the Washington contingent. The first article, "Victims of Alcohol Hold Weekly Meetings to Aid One Another in Overcoming Weakness of Drink," which appeared in the May 5 Sunday Star, stretched across seven columns of print and contained a picture of an A.A. member making a twelve step call at the bedside of a drunk. The article began this way:
Alcoholics Anonymous, the nationwide brotherhood of alcoholics who have banded together to help one another lick their common illness - alcoholism, has established itself in Washington.
This movement, and such it has become, reaches the Nation's capital after five years of a successful trial in other cities, trial that helps prove the contention that an alcoholic understands the problems of an alcoholic better than anybody else.
The article described the program and gave the address of the Alcoholic Foundation in New York. It noted that the founder of the organization said that the recovery rate was 50% to 60% and that there were then 600 recovering alcoholics in the fellowship.
The original article also reported that a "colored group" had started meeting in Arlington on Thursdays. The group was founded by an area businessman who recognized that some of his employees were in need of the program. The founder referred to in this passage is Bill A., who owned a lumber business in Arlington, Virginia.
A paragraph at the very end of the article, caused some concern for both Fitz and Bill W. because as Bill wrote, ". . . the job-getting paragraph may bring you a lot of headaches." The offending paragraph read as follows:
Something new comes out each meeting. At the end, however, the spirit of brotherly love stands out even more strongly when some A.A. brother stands up on a chair and announces that Mr. So and So, a brother on the way back, needs a job. The others rise to the occasion. If they have no job open, in the case of members who are employers, if the do not know of a job somewhere, they collectively go to work to find one for the man.
In spite of this troublesome paragraph, the article was a great boost for the Washington Group. During the week after its publication, the New York office received twenty letters from the D.C. area, many of them citing the article. Erwin got approval from his boss to begin a five or six-part series about the Washington A.A. group. The rest of the articles in the series, Fitz wrote, "...will clear up the idea that this outfit is in the job-getting business."
Yet, in reality, the job-getting paragraph was not entirely in error. Some people found work through A.A. contacts, and two Washington area organizations, the Washington Federation of Churches and the Life Adjustment Center on Columbia Road, worked together specifically to secure work for some of the alkies.
The original Erwin article along with the six-part series were reprinted twice for distribution by the Washington Group and the Alcoholic Foundation. Several changes were made in the original article. The title was changed to "Experience Elsewhere Indicates Success of 'Alcoholics Anonymous'," and the paragraphs on "colored group founded" and "jobs" were omitted. Comparison of the two reprints shows how the group grew during the year between them: the 1940 edition lists membership of the Washington Group at 50, and the 1941 reprint shows it to be 200.
During these summer months, A.A. in Washington was booming. Publicity, twelve-step calls, and contacts with influential members of the community were making the group a highly visible presence in the federal city. The day after the first Erwin article was published, Fitz wrote, "I missed the Tuesday meeting but understand there was a full house and it was the best yet... We have lots of boys in action throwing their alky brothers into Gallinger and what-not. I've been answering the telephone all day. . ."
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EARLY WASHINGTON GROUP MEETINGS
As the summer of 1940 wore on, the Washington Group continued to hold only one meeting aweek. The meetings were mostly speakers meetings in which two to four members told their stories and discussed the principles of the program. There were neither step meetings nor discussion meetings. Although the twelve steps appeared in the book Alcoholics Anonymous, the book Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, which was the first A.A. literature to discuss the twelve steps in-depth, had not yet been written. There were no old-timers; Fitz had the longest sobriety in the Washington Group, with five years, and the second-longest was Ned who had been sober about one year. The concept of sponsors had not yet been developed, and new members learned the program by listening and identifying with the experiences of others, and by doing what they were doing to stay sober.
The A.A. speakers meeting, however, was firmly established by 1940, and it has retained the form developed in the early years to the present day. The articles written by Bob Erwin during the summer of 1940 describe A.A. meetings that could have occurred in the 1990s as easily as the 1940s. The articles preserved the essence of several meetings over the summer and confirm the unchanging quality of the speaker meeting.
In an article entitled "Honesty With One's Self A Prime Requirement," Erwin recorded the message of a young attorney in a federal bureau whom he called Mr. X. This anonymous person was Ned F., one of the two A.A.s who had over one year of sobriety and the only one of the two who worked for a federal agency.
Ned emphasized the principles of honesty and humility as he told his story and discussed the eighth and ninth steps. It is clear from this transcript that the format of speakers meetings has remained relatively unchanged over the years.
"It's false pride," he affirmed, "if you don't admit that Old John Barleycorn has you licked. Not until I admitted that did I stop drinking. A friend gave me a copy of the book, Alcoholics Anonymous, at the time I had been drinking for a month, but I was not very happy. I had just spent two months in a 'gooney roost'. That's one of our names for an institution for alcoholics. Then I started drinking again.
"Anything that smacked of religion sounded like rules to me, " Mr. X. continued, "and if you don't follow them you're out of the club. The first meetings I attended someone walked up and said 'Hello rummy.' That appealed to my sense of humor. As f religion, I found I could suit myself about that. Now I am convinced that religion is the cornerstone of the whole thing.
"You have got to want not to drink," he said. "With me, it was a gradual process. Some of us, of course, have got all fired up with this thing right away and have stayed quit. As for religion, I have a simple faith, and as you know, we have no connections with any particular group.
"At this point, Mr. X. took up two points in the 12 steps that a confirmed drunkard follows to become a working member of Alcoholics Anonymous. They are, "To make a list of all persons we had harmed and become willing to make amends to them all" and "To make direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others."
"If you go to a chap who you have wronged when he thinks you are a heel," Mr. X. pointed out, "and if he still thinks so when you leave, you've lost nothing. You can't quit alcohol or anything else if something is biting you. I admitted my wrongs and it was like a spring house cleaning. In other words, I got the beer bottles out of the way and put away the dice. When you do that, though, you can't sit back and do nothing or the house will get dirty again. This thing is a continuous proposition."
"I had the wrong idea of what religion was," he concluded, "There is some Power in this world to help you if you want to lead the right kind of life."
In another article later that summer, Erwin described a meeting in which Jimmy B. told about recent A.A. developments in Philadelphia. The theme of Jimmy's talk was the cooperation between the A.A. group in Philadelphia and the members of the medical profession in that city to help alcoholics.
"The keystone to the Philadelphia system is the Philadelphia General Hospital where many confirmed drunkards eventually wind up. The hospital's doctors became interested in Alcoholics Anonymous about a year ago and the group has been holding its weekly sessions at the hospital in recent months...Mr. B. related, 'We are allowed access to the hospital any time, day or night, we are welcomed there, and we frequently take in alcoholic victims or take them home when they are discharged. Two of the doctors have relatives in our group, and in this way they came to know us well."
Jimmy's talk that night may have influenced thinking in the Washington area, for the Washington A.A. group developed a close working relationship with the staff of Gallingers Hospital during the coming year that was similar to the Philadelphia relationship described by Jimmy. In the months after this talk, Gallingers began to issue special cards to assist A.A. members who brought drunks to their doors.
Image of a [Gallinger Card]
These unique relationships between local A.A. groups and the hospitals that served the area were especially important because most of the hospitals in the country were still turning alcoholics away from their doors. These hospitals not only accepted alcoholics, but they also went to extraordinary lengths to assist the A.A.s who were helping the alkies.
After the Erwin articles, the local A.A. group remained a newsworthy item. Nothing special occurred to warrant the story below; it was primarily a public service of the newspaper, keeping the new group before the public. Although the date was cut off this article, it was undoubtedly from the summer of 1940, when the group's Tuesday night meetings were held in a hotel instead of a clubhouse. The article also gives insight into one of the group's efforts to attract attention to its presence.
The Washington Chapter in recent weeks has varied its routine toward the social side, at the same time keeping up its Tuesday night sessions. A second luncheon be held tomorrow noon at a restaurant downtown, while on Sunday afternoon, a member will again play host to the A.A.s with an open house at his home in Chevy Chase.
The article contained a bit of A.A. social history under the subtitle, "Refreshments Served." The speaker was probably Jimmy B. again, giving a lesson on how to nurture a group of people who might not have been inclined to stick around after meetings.
"Another feature in Philadelphia", he explained, "is our refreshments. We serve doughnuts and coffee every evening. It costs little and keeps the group sitting around and talking after the meeting is over."
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THE WASHINGTON GROUP COMES OF AGE
Throughout the spring and summer the group continued to grow. An active twelve step program brought in new members, problems were solved, and lives were salvaged. Little documentation exists describing the personal stories of the individuals in the group. Fortunately, there is significant documentation describing the growth of the group and the founding of the first clubhouse.
As the summer drew to a close, the initial crisis of organization had passed; the group had grown to sufficient size, and its members were gaining solid sobriety. Since the end of May, the group's Tuesday night meetings at the Hamilton Hotel had averaged over forty people, three-quarters of which were alcoholics. By September the membership of the group had grown to over seventy. In nine short months the Washington Group was founded, formed, grew, and had come of age. And, almost as if they knew that someday a history would be written, the early members left a wonderful record of their feelings on the occasion of coming of age.
In late August, Bob V. informed the Alcoholic Foundation that Ned had declared, "the Washington Group is done organized," and he described the organization in these words:
". . . 3 committees as follows: Contact Committee (new cases) - Henry S., chairman; Instructions Committee - Ned F., chairman; and Visiting Committee (old members, slippers, ect.) - Don S., chairman. The organizer was Bill A. & committees are large with rotating chairmen and membership. Everyone seems very serious d about the whole thing & a real effort is being made so that everyone finds something to do."
The same drama that had played out at the national level was being repeated in Washington. Just as the A.A. founders struggled to establish the fellowship and obtain recognition, the individual groups in each new city struggled for local recognition and respect. In order to function effectively, the groups needed a permanent location with a telephone and an address where the A.A.s could receive mail and respond to calls for help. As autumn approached, the Washington Group searched for a suitable location for a permanent clubhouse -- a general headquarters in which to continue their work.
Probably no amount of historical research could describe the founding of the new clubhouse as well as the letter written by Martin F.
As you no doubt know, we are getting a club house - move into it tomorrow night, in fact, and will hold our first meeting there immediately after taking possession.
The place is a former studio on the ground floor of an apartment house at 1310 Massachusetts Ave., NW. It consists of three rooms - one large room to which another somewhat smaller room is connected by large folding doors. Off the smaller room is a little bedroom which will do for the caretaker, when we find him. There are two baths, which solves that problem, and a sort of enlarged slot that will be ample for storage of folding chairs, etc.
It has been estimated that 125 people can be accommodated without too much crowding. All considered, it would appear that the place will do admirably.
We are starting cold, of course, no furniture except for 100 folding chairs, fifty of which were promoted by the indefatigable Henry S., for free.
The other necessary items will come through. The entire membership has responded magnificently, both financially and otherwise. It took some time for the idea to germinate, but once the snowball started it picked up speed at a great rate.
Ned F--- was literally drafted to run the place, at least until it is on a going basis. We all felt that job demanded a person with more than a year of sobriety in back of him plus a knowledge of how the N.Y. house has been handled. These two qualifications are possessed by Ned with an adequate amount of toughness tempered by tolerance, he damn well got the job. Of course, we all pitched in and helped him and will continue to do so, with the result that a minimum of his time is required for the actual performance of the necessary tasks.
from Best Regards. Martin F.
And so the Group was formed - one week shy of a year after the Alcoholic Foundation had welcomed Fitz to Washington and sent him his first referral.
The group held three formal meetings at the clubhouse each week and the doors were kept open every day. The club became known to the general public through a series of newspaper articles that listed the address and the times and places of meetings.
At the end of the first year, there was a single well-established A.A. group in Washington. There would be only one group in the city until 1945, when five new A.A. groups were formed, one of them designated a colored group in the world before integration. At that time, the traditions had not been formally established, and there were many lessons to learn. Many lessons were learned during that first year, but there were more to come.
In a letter dated Nov. 23, 1940, Fitz discussed a variety of topics, including travels, gossip and new developments in the fellowship. He then gave a description of the new committee system that must have developed after the group moved into the clubhouse:
We have at last gotten organized after the usual wave of pros and antis, and with the usual intolerance. Nothing like it to bring consolidation and harmony. God created the world out of chaos.
Committees galore and nobody going to have their feelings hurt for being left out because there are enough committees to take care of them all. When there are not, we'll create some more. The Control Committee of the outfit is likened unto the Supreme Court. It rotates and rotates, by seniority chooses the heads of the other committees. The Program Committee and the leader of the next meeting get together and go to town putting on a good show. (See enclosed card for sample -- The judge happens to be our friend, Casey. He will probably see a lot of very familiar faces. Slippees, who have seen the card will no doubt be conspicuous by their absence). The Membership Committee considers the status of applicants for membership (we intend to make it an honor to be an A.A., so tied up with the liquor interests when things get so then things get so that the normal (?) drinkers can serve. The House Committee, make the Club House and does the bouncing. Also has charge of The Hospitality and Membership Committee the waterfront. Now that all this is organized, everybody seems to be happy and active. The Committees have yet to be chosen, but are functioning anyway under the wise administration of the chairmen who seem to pick on anyone at any time.
I have an idea that the time is nearly ripe for us to draft a book of suggestions for the use of new groups. I see no reason why they should not have the opportunity to profit by what has already been learned.
In this letter he also suggested that some attention should be paid to the wives of alcoholics and that a pamphlet "To Wives of Alcoholics" might be helpful.
Fitz said that "the Thanksgiving feed and frolic at the Washington Clubhouse was a grand success," but he did not fill in the details. It is, however, clear that the members of the new group had a lot to be thankful for.
During the first year the membership grew from six in the winter of 1939 to seventy-eight in the fall of 1940. The group contacted and gained the respect of professionals in the medical, social, and legal institutions that dealt with alcohol problems in the area. One of the major hospitals in the area, Gallingers, even issued special privilege cards to A.A. members to facilitate twelve-step work around the clock.
Ruth Hock, the Alcoholic Foundation secretary, commented on the growth of the fellowship and attested to the coming of age of the Washington Group.
I won't go into much detail about how things are going nationally. It is amazing though, and this thing is certainly a rolling stone that gathers no moss, for the larger it grows the faster it rolls, and vice versa. I've been getting together as complete and accurate a list as possible under the circumstances, and out of it arises the amazing figure of 1400 A.A. members coast to coast, with new developments everyday.
She wrote that she was sending along "a mere two inquiries" and that she had received no real calls for help from the Washington area.
She continued, "It looks to me as though you are either catching them all locally, or else you cleaned the city of D.C. all sanitary by this time - all the alkies in the fold so to speak."
Today, as one walks the same streets of Washington, DC, especially the blocks northeast of Farragut Square, it is difficult to imagine the world the founders of the Washington Group lived in. It was a world in which the alcoholic was out of control and hopeless, and in which little help was available anywhere. But, for the founders of the Washington Group of Alcoholics Anonymous, the world was their oyster.
Their world was filled with the elements of excitement, hope, and fellowship that have always bound together members of A.A. They were pioneers struggling to create a fellowship where none had been and to work the program where it had not worked before. The world they lived in and their mission supplied the components that define true fellowship. Bernard Smith, a past General Service Board Chairman, quoted a noted religious leader's description of this fellowship.
Three conditions are necessary for true fellowship: The possession of common ideal involving a complete release from selfishness and division. The discharge of a common task big enough to capture the imagination and give expression to loyalty. And the comradeship, the "togetherness", thus involved as we find out the joy and power of belonging to an orga society and engaging in a whole-time service. We can find it at its fullest extent where the task extends and integrates every element of our being, where comradeship is so solid and deep that we respond one to another without conscious effort, realize the unspoken need, and react to it spontaneously and at once.
Under such conditions, all vitality that we usually waste upon our jealousies and our vanities - upon keeping up appearances and putting other people in their proper place - becomes available for creative use.
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POST SCRIPT: FITZ AFTER 1940
Much of the story of the early years of A.A. in Washington is told through the eyes of Fitz M., mainly because he was the central figure in the story and because he was a prolific letter writer.
Fitz's entire life changed in the winter of 1939-40 and he never returned to the life he led before. That winter he left his family in rural Maryland, moved to Washington, DC, founded the A.A. group that would occupy much of his time, and met the woman who became his second wife.
When Fitz met Ruth J., she was the wife of an alcoholic named Norman. In the fall of 1939 she had read the Liberty Magazine article about Alcoholics Anonymous and realized that perhaps the fellowship could help her husband. In response to a letter she wrote to the Alcoholic Foundation, Ruth Hock told her that Fitz M. would be in Washington in the near future and that he could be contacted at his sister Agnes' apartment. When Ruth met him, Fitz had "more or less a temporary home at a boarding house near Florida and Connecticut Avenues. He was always welcome, they tucked him in whenever he happened to be in town."
The story of Fitz and Ruth's relationship provides some enlightening insights into his character and also into A.A. life during this formative year. Many years later, Arabella M. (Ruth) told how she was introduced to the A.A. fellowship and how she came to attend her first meeting.
Then, my husband, Norman, got interested in A.A. and called Bill A., the big lumberman, and rather a political figure in Arlington County. . . . Bill A. invited him to come and said he was coming by for him, which he did, but N.T. [Norman] had never shown up - he had gone off on a binge in the meantime that afternoon. . . So Bill went on to the meeting and Steve M.s' wife called and told me about the medicine to give - to put N.T. out of the picture temporarily, and she came out in the car and took me to the meeting. . . .
In May Ruth J. threw her drunken husband out of the house and made a decision to take in several of the A.A.s who were staying sober and needed a place to sleep. Four of the members, including Fitz, moved into Ruth's house, apparently on the condition that they get jobs and helped to pay the rent. After a few weeks, though, none of the alkies were working and Ruth's goodwill wore thin.
In a letter dated May 22, Fitz told Bill that he was completely broke financially and was thinking of going to Cumberstone to stay with his old friend E. Churchill Murray. Three days later, Ned's letter to New York told Bill that Ruth evicted all four of her alcoholic tenants.
In August Fitz was hired by the W.P.A. to work on the Historical Records Survey where, as we saw above, he was earning $82.50 per month.
By this time Fitz's wife Elizabeth was thoroughly disgusted with him. His sister Agnes reported that Elizabeth confided to a mutual friend that Fitz had caused her great hardships and that he would not leave her alone. She said that he continued to make her life unhappy and that his children were afraid of him.
According to Ruth, during most of 1940, Fitz was in and out of the Washington area, staying with friends, and that his vagabond lifestyle was part of his way of spreading the A.A. message.
Well, he'd be invited someplace and then he'd stay a day or two. If the situation became a little difficult, any wrangling or fussing among the people he was with, he'd say, "Well, God doesn't want me in this irritating situation." So he would just take off, he'd grab his hat, bag and off he went.
He did that practically all up and down the coast, and he never seemed to get a job, every time he thought he had one, right in the palm of his hand, somehow it would slip through his fingers and I believe that God had a lot to do with that. Because Fitz - it brought him into all manner of homes, the poor and the wealthy and where he was one of the family because he had no funds of his own.
As I remember, all he had was one little worn-out bag that he used to carry an extra shirt in and a couple of pairs of no funds of his own and in that way he really spread the A.A. gospel and plus, the plus was really spiritual.
Fitz had been a strongly spiritual man all of his life, and he believed that one must live his beliefs rather than just talk about them. In an oral history interview, Arabella remembered a little exercise she and Fitz did to learn what God's will for them was at that particular time.
. . . I remember how we figured it out - that it didn't matter where we sat in a train or a bus, that we weren't to pick out or chose the ones that we would want to sit by, we were to go on and leave it up to God to set us down where ever we were supposed to. And invariably we would sit down beside - I did that myself, too, a good many years, someone that was very unattractive physically, many times educationally, none of our own choosing, but in the end by sending up a little prayer for this person, God seemed to open up the conversation and shortly we would begin to talk and it was surprising how many, in fact, almost 100% of these instances, the other people were in great need, and through us, God was able to give the help they needed.
Fitz's deeply spiritual nature was remembered by those who knew him, and it permeated his correspondence with A.A. members and other friends. If two themes ran throughout his life, they were spirituality and financial insecurity. Indeed, it seemed that his spiritual side precluded his involvement in such worldly activities as working for money and the accumulation of material possessions -- almost as if he had taken an unspoken vow of poverty. Throughout his A.A. career, Fitz was motivated to do good works, but when it came to "what men call a job," he was not interested. Fitz was a man with a mission, and he was a dreamer.
In his Big Book story, he was able to examine his financial situation and his troubled mental state and find salvation in a higher principle, "Nothing is right." He wrote, "Finances are in bad shape. I must find a way to make some money." He was tempted to drink over his problems and wrote, "I cannot see the cause of this temptation now. But I am later to learn that it began with my desire for material success becoming greater than my interest in my fellow man."
One of his letters to Bill W., a letter Bill referred to as the "long letter," provides an opportunity to experience Fitz's character and also to see that A.A. has not changed much over the years. In many ways, the letter could have been written by a member of A.A. in the 1990s. The letter also shows Fitz's interest in A.A. history.
I received your letter of Oct. 30th and appreciate your thoughts. When you were here I was in a state of mental darkness, which condition had been prevalent for some time and which would have prevented any exchange of constructive ideas by the meeting of our minds. I have just recently begun to snap out of it, after reaching a point where I accepted conditions, including failure to understand the darkness, as a part of my education and development of both patience and faith. As you know I am on W.P.A. with the Historical Records Survey. I used to orate about how I would never work for the government, and the idea of being W.P.A. was about as nauseating as they come. On the other hand, I had a great desire to get some income which would enable me to eat and be "off the hook" and pass on to the others who are seeking what I have been finding myself. Your old saying of "being willing to walk up Fifth Ave. in a sheet" is easy to subscribe to usually, but quite different when it appears in another form. I was quite thankful for the W.P.A. job with its $82.50 per month when I started on it. My prayer had been answered for I could now live fairly comfortably, eat regularly, sleep in a bed other than somewhere on somebody's studio couch, and still have time to be in circulation as we are only allowed to work 60 hours per month. I have seen much dizzy thinking in the past three months, and have contemplated a Book of Revelations on the experiences. I can see now that the experience for me has been excellent. First, I have had some of my own thinking verified by observing and analyzing the procedures and thinking (or lack of it) of people with wrong, mixed or no motives; secondly, I have been given an opportunity to exercise my mind which needed an easy beginning along the line of continuity of activity to accomplish little things. I have been practically my own boss so that I've had to hold myself in line in regularity which brings one to the point of accepting things as they are without being disturbed or in a state of wishful thinking. Everything rolled along swell for a while and I stayed on the thankful came ambition to 'make something of myself', 'to be a success and with that came dissatisfaction and a multiplicity of devils that beset me.
I began taking myself very seriously - conceived the idea that I would do some research work in the libraries and write a book, signed up for a course (night) at the National Archives which requires study, contemplated divorce and remarriage, and became so busy that I was annoyed by A.A.'s and all its works tho' I still forced myself to appear interested when I was braced up by the boys - The net result of this was just what we know it leads to and I just got more confused and unhappy. Yet like the 'alkie' who don't know why he drinks, I was unable to see at the time, why the "blackout". . . .
So Tuesday night I decided that I was a dry cow with no milk so to hell with the meeting - However, about 7:45 PM as I lay on my bed oozing self-pity and blind to its source, I thought of some of the fellows who would be there and suddenly realized they were my friends and that I wanted to see them - As there was only one way to do that, I put my hat on and shoved off and the closer I got to the meeting, the brighter my spirits became. So then Howard C. saw fit to pay me the great tribute which though undeserved was the means of getting me out in the open and I had to come clean with the truth which seems to mean something to some of them. I don't know what others got, but that meeting surely fixed me up. Wednesday I went witsome others to Baltimore and we struck up with Ed, Posey, Bill W., Dr. Hammer, and another man from Philly which was a joy to me. Thursday night I led the meeting for men alcoholics only - and the clouds are certainly lifting. I expect to leave here Saturday and drive with Don S. to his home in Franklin, Pa. and go on with him to Cleveland for a meeting, returning on Tuesday.
Now about the report to the Foundation - I can truthfully say that reviewing the history of the foundation situation, that I have no ideas concerning it at all and have ceased to have for some time. Maybe we are blocked from seeing a new course holding on to any ideas that the Foundation plays any real part in the real growth of this fellowship - The process is the vital thing, not any particular accomplishments that we feel should be achieved . . . . Because the A.A. is a process rather than achievement, many things that look all cock-eyed and wrong are simply a part of growth . . . I think someday we shall wake up and see that a great deal more has happened than we could possibly conceive is in making.
I woke up at 12:30 and have been going along pretty steady and it is now 3:00 AM. So I shall flop back in bed, thankful that tomorrow is Sunday. Recently, I have begun to see things that lie ahead. Just remember, Bill, out of chaos comes order. Whatever is going to be is going to be. . . .
My best to Lois, Fitz
IIn the fall of 1941 Fitz landed a job that he enjoyed and was good at, only to find it interrupted by the entry of the United States into World War II. He was again working as a school teacher, this time at the Landon School for Boys in Chevy Chase. This clearly worked that Fitz put his heart into and work that he was good at. Arabella recalled the events that cut short this job.
I The owner, the one who had this school, told him that he had never had things run so smoothly before Fitz came and was anxious for him to stay on permanently and wanted to give him a lot better job and any salary that he would stipulate himself. Also, a cottage that they had out there for some of the teachers.
IThe war interrupted that - he was about 45 then, and he knew he would be called, so in the fall of 1942, he decided that rather than start school, it would be better for him to go ahead and enlist and get himself into the service and get it over with, rather than have school interrupted by having to get another teacher to replace him. Which he did, and they took him on and sent him to Florida and various other places and finally, he landed out in Biloxi.
IIn the Army Air Corps, he lost weight, developed severe health problems, and was discharged early to work in war industry. On January 17, 1943, he and Arabella were married. On April 4, 1943, his old A.A. friend, Dr. Bob, did exploratory surgery and discovered the cancer of the rectum that would take his life. Fitz's final letter to his lifelong friend E. Churchill Murray gives the best summary of the events in the last months of his life:
|Hines Veterans Hospital,
April 20th, 9AMDear Deacon:
'Tis snowing hard and has been doing so all night - Strange to spend a winter among flowers and birds and then see so many snow storms in April. Your letter of April 6th took quite a trip, first to Biloxi, then forwarded to Akron, then to Washington, DC and finally to me. So now I's sending a few lines to tell you a little about myself tho' I believe Arabella has had something to say on the subject of my being here.
I developed rear-end trouble while in the Army about November, it got worse - was to have been operated on at station hospital but an epidemic of something prevented. Was to have gone back to hospital but got a discharge to go into an essential war industry after having been refused it. In the meantime Arabella came on from California and we got married.
I might have stayed in army and demanded medical attention, but I was not impressed with the kind I might get a Keesler Field. Application to Veterans Bureau failed to get me in Vets Hospital at Biloxi so after Arabella got over flu we lit out for Akron, Ohio where a good A.A. friend of mine is a renal doctor. I applied again for admittance to Vets hospital near Cleveland, but couldn't get in even tho the President had signed a bill making Veterans hospital facilities available for the disabled of World War II
My doctor friend was dubious about my working, but I got a job with Goodyear Aircraft and survived 12 hours a day (including to and from work) for 10 days - then went to a private hospital where the doctor, Bob Smith, cut into me and discovered cancer. - That created a new situation with Arabella really out on a limb. Fortunately, she had worked at the Veterans Administration and knew General Hines, the head of it. She phoned him and asked him to get me in Walter Reed. He said yes, then phoned her back that I should come here as its supposed to be one of the greatest cancer hospitals in the country (other troubles also).
As I lost 31 pounds while in the Army, they were trying to fatten me up and get me built up. I believe they intend to operate on me next week. I am very thankful to have gotten in here, believe me, as it answers several problems especially concerning Arabella. I am quite comfortable now tho' my disintegrating chassis was giving me hell. I am enjoying relaxing and reading and rest and can say that I am unconcerned and at peace within.
The tough experiences are simply part of a great adventure and part of a great education. Why separate in our minds the continuity of the life of the soul just because the body in which it is housed for awhile becomes no longer fitting for it? If we could see everything ahead there would be no adventure. Maybe they will patch my chassis up, maybe not. What of it? I am not the master of my destiny, but there is One who is and He loves each one of us tho' ofttimes we would doubt that because we cannot see the whole, the finished plan of the great Builder. Would people feel a need for God were there not trials and tribulations?
These things needs must be, for man has been his own God with his own aims and purposes and he cannot find the realities of eternal life until he seeks them - To do that he must cast out beliefs he has held to and with the mind of a child accept without questioning and with trust the circumstances whatever they appear to be.
I shall close - wish I could get hold of that gill net with you and Bro.
Love to all, As always,
PS. Agnes only one who knows about this cancer.
Less than six months later, on October 4, 1943, Fitz died. He is buried at the Cemetery at Christ Church near his home at Cumberstone. He rests only a few feet from where Jimmy B. was later buried.
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Endnotes and Appendices
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