When the first airplane landed in Manchester, Vt., in 1929, two drunks tumbled out of the cockpit and lay on the ground. The pretty Vermont town would within five years become the center of the coincidences that led to the founding of Alcoholics Anonymous.
Bill W., the cofounder of Alcoholics Anonymous, grew up seven miles away and attended high school in Manchester. His wife, who founded Al-Anon and Alateen, summered in Manchester. So did Ebby T., who sponsored Bill W. So did Rowland H., who sponsored Ebby T.
Bob S., the co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, is usually described as an Akron doctor, but he grew up in St. Johnsbury, Vt., 100 miles north of Manchester.
So it’s unsurprising that Alcoholics Anonymous preaches that there are no coincidences – they are simply God’s way of staying invisible.
Before Alcoholics Anonymous
Rowland Hazard III was a scion of a prominent Rhode Island family that included a founder of Brown University, founders of textile fortunes, a philosopher, a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and Matthew and Oliver Hazard Perry. His Aunt Caroline Hazard was president of Wellesley University. His family ran the Peace Dale Manufacturing Company and the Solvay Process Co.
Rowland was born in 1881 in Peace Dale, R.I., the village founded by his family, now on the National Register of Historic Places.
He was a drunk through middle age. To cure his alcoholism, he went to Switzerland to consult famed psychiatrist Carl Jung. Jung told him he was beyond a medical cure and needed a ‘vital spiritual experience.’
In 1931, Hazard went to a meeting in New York of the Oxford Group, a Christian fellowship group dedicated to the four absolutes: honesty, purity, unselfishness and love. The group preached personal change through confidence, confession, conviction, conversion, and continuance.
It helped him quit drinking.
Rowland bought a ranch in New Mexico, and from 1932 to 1936 he divided his time between New Mexico and Shaftsbury, Vt., near his family’s summer home in Manchester.
Rowland had a friend who was the son of a judge and a member of the Oxford Group. He told Rowland about a mutual friend who’d been arrested for drunkenness in Bennington, Vt., and faced six months in jail.
Edward Throckmorton “Ebby” Thacher was descended from a family that arrived in America in 1635. Thomas Thacher was the first pastor of the Old South Meeting House in Boston. James Thacher was a Revolutionary War surgeon and historian.
Ebby’s grandfather made the family fortune in the railroad car business in Albany, N.Y. His father played golf in Manchester with Robert Todd Lincoln.
Ebby was kicked out of high school and went to work at the family foundry. Ebby lost his job when the foundry closed. The family fortune didn’t disappear, though, until he was in his 40s, so he had no problem finding money to support his habit.
By January 1929, 33-year-old Ebby was living in Albany and drinking with barnstorming pilots. He ran into his high school friend Bill Wilson at a party, and they decided to fly to Manchester the next day. Word spread that the first-ever plane would land in Manchester, and half the town came out to watch.
“All three of us had been pulling on a bottle of liquor,” recalled Bill. They landed on a bumpy meadow. “The delegation charged forward. It was up to Ebby and me to do something, but we could do absolutely nothing. We somehow slid out of the cockpit, fell on the ground, and there we lay, immobile. Such was the history-making episode of the first airplane ever to light at Manchester, Vermont.”
Three years later, Ebby had become the town drunk in Albany and an embarrassment to his brother, the city’s mayor. Ebby moved to the Battenkill Inn in Manchester, Vt., where he spent the next two years becoming that town’s drunk.
He was awaiting trial for drunkenness in Bennington when Rowland Hazard arrived. He asked the judge to bound Ebby over to him rather than send him to jail. The judge agreed. Rowland took Ebby to New York. In November of 1934, Ebby surrendered his life to God at the Calvary Episcopal Church mission. He sometimes fell of the wagon but died sober in 1960.
Bill Wilson was born in East Dorset, Vt., in 1895, the son of tavern owners. His mother and father both deserted him, and he was raised by his maternal grandparents.
His grandfather, Fayette Griffith, was a successful small businessman; a cousin became Vermont’s first millionaire. He doted on Bill but pressured him to excel at everything he did. Bill grew up tall, gawky, shy and insecure.
He went to high school in Manchester, where he met Ebby Thacher in 1911. Thacher lived across the street from the Burnhams, a well-to-do family summering from Brooklyn. Bill met Dr. Clark Burnham’s daughter Lois while sailing on Emerald Lake.
Two years later they were married. “She had social graces of which I knew nothing,” he said. “People still ate with their knives around me, the back door step was still a lavatory.”
Bill spent three years at Norwich University and then officers training school. He was called up and took his first drink while stationed in New Bedford, Mass.
He moved to New York, where he became a successful stock speculator on Wall Street. During the 1920s, he drank heavily – sometimes with Ebby.
Bill’s drinking ruined his career. By 1932 he was a hopeless drunk, though Lois stood by him.
Ebby, newly dry, visited him and told him about the Oxford Group. It didn’t help. In 1933, Bill was admitted to the Charles B. Towns Hospital for Drug and Alcohol Addictions – for the fourth time — with delirium tremens. He expected to die or go insane.
Ebby visited him and told him to put himself in the hands of God – or some kind of higher power.
As Bill tells the story, he was lying in his hospital bed and shouted, “I’ll do anything! Anything at all! If there be a God, let Him show Himself!”
Suddenly he saw a white light and felt ecstasy, then serenity. His doctor said, “Something has happened to you I don’t understand. But you had better hang on to it.”
He never drank again.
On May 13, 1935, Bill Wilson took a business trip to Akron, Ohio. It didn’t go well, and he realized he was in danger of relapsing. He called a leader of the local Oxford Group, who put him in touch with a doctor named Bob Smith. Smith invited Bill to stay at his house and quit drinking for a month.
Smith grew up in St. Johnsbury, Vt., to an old New England family. His very religious parents took him to church four times a week. He vowed he’d never go to church when he grew up.
He began drinking at Dartmouth College and continued during medical school at the University of Michigan. He barely graduated. He drank while running a surgical practice in Akron, Ohio.
His wife got him interested in Oxford Group meetings, but they didn’t help. He checked himself into hospitals and sanitariums more than a dozen times, but couldn’t stop – until Bill Wilson rolled into town.
After a month of sobriety, Bob Smith went to a convention in Atlantic City. There he hit the booze hard. He returned to Akron on June 9, and Bill gave him a few drinks to prevent delirium tremens.
The next morning he drank a beer to steady his nerves for an operation. It was June 10, 1935, the day Bob S. had his last drink. It is celebrated as the anniversary of the founding of Alcoholics Anonymous.
Why Alcoholics Anonymous?
The identities of Bob S. and Bill W. were only revealed after their deaths, in 1960 and 1971, respectively.
Bill W. explained why anonymity was important to the group. “Anonymity isn’t just something to save us from alcoholic shame and stigma,” he said. “Its deeper purpose is to keep those fool egos of ours from running hog wild after money and fame at AA’s expense.”
When he died on Jan. 24, 1971, he left 475,000 admitted alcoholics, 15,000 Alcoholics Anonymous groups in the United States and 88 countries.
To see Bill discuss alcoholism, click here.
Photos: Bob Smith By Source (WP:NFCC#4), Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=37884612