by Richard Ewell Brown
Copyright © The A.A. Grapevine, Inc., December 1948
IT was Friday evening, April 3rd, 1840. Six men, tipplers all, were gathered about a table at Chase’s Tavern on Liberty Street in Baltimore. To the casual passerby, there was nothing unusual about them; just another bunch of harmless drunks. From the way they talked, one might gather that they were old friends, that this was no casual meeting but one made familiar through long repetition. Among them were two blacksmiths, a tailor, a carpenter, a coach-maker and a silversmith. At least that’s what they were when they set down. But when they left the bar that night, they were pioneers in a new field; the originators of an idea for the scientific rehabilitation of chronic alcoholics that was destined to sweep the country.
WITH the founding of the first temperance society at Litchfield, CT, in 1789, the early Nineteenth Century found the United States enjoying (or enduring, depending on the viewpoint) a wave of temperance reform. Baltimore was no exception. On the evening of which we speak, a well known temperance lecturer was scheduled to hold forth at a church not far from Chase’s Tavern. One of our six drinkers suggested they send a delegation to hear what he had to say – just for the record, of course. Four of their number blearily volunteered, and when these intrepid adventurers returned, quite a dispassion ensued as to the value of temperance. At that moment, the landlord came in with another round.
“What’s all this about temperance?” he asked jovially.
“It’s not such a bad idea,” said John F. Hoss, the carpenter, thickly.
“Temperance speakers are all fools and hypocrites,” angrily replied the landlord.
“Of course, it’s to your interest to cry them down,” argued William K. Mitchell, the tailor, and soberest member of the party.
“That’s absolutely right,” cried McCurley, the coach-maker. “Think of all the money we spend here, while our poor families-” For the moment emotion got the best of him, and he sought relief from his glass.
“I know what we ought to do,” shouted Anderson. “We oughta form our own temperance society.” Everyone except the landlord burst into roars of inebriated approval.
But the next day, after they’d sobered up, the idea somehow stayed with them. Realizing they were no longer able to drink in moderation, they made up their minds “to drink no more of the poisonous draft, forever.”
BEFORE taking this drastic step, they met again two nights later at the tavern for their last bout. It was agreed that Mitchell should draw up a total abstinence pledge, and they would all sign it. Just before closing time on that same evening, one of them held up his glass.
“This,” he said, “will be our last drink.” Believe it or not, it was. They decided to convene nightly at their various homes and each man promised to bring a friend with him to the next meeting. By recounting their experiences as reformed drunkards, they hoped to induce the new members to join them in signing the pledge. Thus started the Washington Total Abstinence Society.
The movement spread like wildfire, and branches were soon set up in various parts of the city. In March 1841, a delegation was sent to New York where thousands flocked to the meetings. A Boston chapter was organized in April. And by the end of the year the organization had a total membership of something like two hundred thousand. Reformed men, as they were called, like John B. Gough and John Hawkins, were in demand all over the country as speakers for the various groups.
IN Baltimore, a grand procession was held with “six or eight thousand” in the ranks, led by John Hoss and fifty mounted marshals “with their various insignia. Speakers and other dignitaries rode in open barouches drawn each by four grey horses”, while bands and banners added gaiety and color to the occasion.
In the meantime, in Dedham, Mass., a Mr. Thompson proved himself such an eloquent speaker that the entire town joined the Washington movement. The leading liquor merchant gave up his business, signed the pledge and was made President of the village society. “Amid the cheering and rejoicing of the populace,” the newly elected Washingtonian official supervised the disposal of his entire stock of liquor “by pouring it upon the ground.”
(To he continued)