THE BALTIMORE ORIGINS
One Thursday evening, April 2, 1840, six friends were drinking, as they were wont to do almost every evening, in Chasels Tavern, on Liberty Street, in Baltimore. They were William K. Mitchell, a tailor; John F. Hoss, a carpenter; David Anderson and George Steers, both blacksmiths; James McCurley, a coach maker; and Archibald Campbell, a silversmith (7). Their conversation turned to the temperance lecture which was to be given that evening by a visiting lecturer, the Rev. Matthew Hale Smith. In a spirit of fun it was proposed that some of them go to hear the lecture and report back. Four of them went and, after their return, all discussed the lecture.
… One of their company remarked that, “after all, temperance is a good thing.” “0,” said the host, “they’re all a parcel of hypocrites.” “O yes,” replied McCurley, “I’ll be bound for you; it’s your interest to cry them down, anyhow.” “I’ll tell you what, boys,” says Steers, “Let’s form a society and make Bill Mitchell president.”… The idea seemed to take wonderfully; and the more they laughed and talked it over, the more they were pleased with it (8).
On Sunday, April 5, while the six were strolling and drinking, the suggestion crystallized into a decision to quit drinking and to organize a total abstinence society. It was agreed that Mitchell should be the president; Campbell the vice-president; Hoss, the secretary; McCurley, the treasurer; and Steers and Anderson, the standing committee. The membership fee was to be twenty-five cents; the monthly dues, 12½ cents. The proposal that they name the society in honour of Thomas Jefferson was finally rejected and it was decided that the president and the secretary, since they were to be the committee to draft the constitution, should also decide upon the name. It was agreed that each man should bring a man to the next meeting. And it was left to the president to compose the pledge which they would all sign the next day. The pledge was formulated by Mitchell as follows:
“We whose names are annexed, desirous of forming a society for our mutual benefit, and to guard against a pernicious practice which is injurious to our health, standing, and families, do pledge ourselves as gentlemen that we will not drink any spirituous or malt liquors, wine or cider.”
He went with it, about nine o’clock, to Anderson’s house and found him still in bed, sick from the effects of his Sunday adventure. He rose, however, dressed himself, and after hearing the pledge read, went down to his shop for pen and ink, and there did himself the honour of being the first man who signed the Washington pledge. After obtaining the names of the other four, the worthy president finished this noble achievement by adding his own (8).
The name, “Washington Temperance Society, 11 was selected in honour of George Washington. Two new members were brought to the second meeting. Strangely enough, they continued to meet for a number of weeks at their accustomed place in Chase’s Tavern. When the tavern owner’s wife objected to the increasing loss of their best customers, Mitchell’s wife suggested that they meet in their home. This they did until the group grew too large, whereupon they moved to a carpenter’s shop on Little Sharp Street. Eventually, they rented a hall of their own.
As they grew in membership they faced the problem of making their weekly meetings interesting. Their resourceful president made the suggestion that each member relate his own experience. He started off with his story of 15 years of excessive drinking, adding his reactions to his newly gained freedom. Others followed suit. This procedure proved to be so interesting and effective that it became a permanent feature of their programs. Interest and membership mounted.
In November the society resolved to try a public meeting in which Mitchell and others would tell their personal experiences. The first such meeting, held on November 19, 1840, in the Masonic Hall on St. Paul Street, was a decided success. Not only did it bring in additional members but it also called the movement to the interested attention of the people of Baltimore. It was decided to repeat these public meetings about once a month in addition to the regular weekly meetings of the society.
John Zug, a citizen of Baltimore who probably had his interest aroused by the first public meeting, made further inquiry and, on December 12, 1840, wrote a letter to the Rev. John Marsh, executive secretary of the American Temperance Union, in New York City, informing him of the new society in Baltimore. In it he told about the growth of the group:
These half a dozen men immediately interested themselves to persuade their old bottle-companions to unite with them, and they in a short time numbered nearly one hundred members, a majority of whom were reformed drunkards. By their unprecedented exertions from the beginning, they have been growing in numbers, extending their influence, and increasing in interest, until now they number about three hundred members, upwards of two hundred of whom are reformed drunkards – reformed, too, within the last eight months. Many of these had been drunkards of many years’ standing, – notorious for their dissipation. Indeed, the society has done wonders in the reformation of scores whose friends and the community had despaired of long since (9).
So rapidly did the society grow during the following months that on the first anniversary of the society, April 5, 1841, there were about 1,000 reformed drunkards and 5,000 other members and friends in the parade to celebrate the occasion. This demonstration made a deep impression upon the 40,000 or so Baltimoreans who witnessed the event.
Additional information on the pattern of activities which made this growth possible and on the components of the therapeutic program which made the reformation of alcoholics possible in the first place, is given in the writings of contemporary observers. John Zug, in his first letter to John Marsh, included the following description:
The interest connected with this society is maintained by the continued active exertions of its members, the peculiar character of their operations and the frequency of their meetings. The whole society is considered a “grand committee of the whole,” each member exerting himself, from week to week, and from day to day, as far as possible, to persuade his friends to adopt the only safe course, total abstinence; or at least to accompany him to the next meeting of the “Washington Temperance Society.” It is a motto of their energetic and worthy President, in urging the attendance of the members at the stated meetings, “Let every man be present, and every man bring with him a man.”
They have rented a public hall in which they meet every Monday night. At these weekly meetings, after their regular business is transacted, the several members rise promiscuously and state their temperance experience for each other’ a warning, instruction, and encouragement. After this, any persons present wishing to unite with them are invited forward to sign the Constitution and Pledge (9).
Christian Keener, the editor of the Maryland Herald, made these further first-hand observations:
These men spared neither their money nor their time in carrying out the principles which they had espoused. Many a poor fellow who from the effect of liquor had become a burden to his family and himself was fed and clothed by them, and won by kindness to reform his life; even more than this, they have supported the families of those who they had induced to join with them, until the husband and father had procured work, and was able to support them with his own hands.
The peculiar characteristics of this great reform are first, a total abstinence pledge…. Secondly, the telling of others what they know from experience of the evils of intemperance, and the good which they feel to result from entire abstinence (9).
John W. Hawkins, an early member, had this to say in one of his Boston speeches:
Drunkard! Come up here! You can reform. I met a gentleman this morning who reformed four weeks ago, rejoicing in his reformation; he brought a man with him who took the pledge and this man brought two others. This is the way we do the business up in Baltimore. We reformed drunkards are a Committee of the Whole on the State of the Union. We are all missionaries. We don’t slight the drunkard; we love him, we nurse him, as a mother does her infant learning to walk (10).
Christian Keener, in another communication, summed up the work as follows, making at the same time a comparison with the operations of the regular temperance societies:
The great advantage of the Washington Temperance Society has been this; they have reached hundreds of men that would not come out to our churches, nor even temperance meetings; they go to their old companions and drag them, not by force, but by friendly consideration of duty, and a sense of self-respect, into their ranks, and watch over them with the solicitude of friends and brothers… (9).
Such was the character of the original Baltimore “Washington Temperance Society.”