The roots of today’s stigmatization of people who use drugs—and of paternalistic, exploitative, often cruel approaches to what we now call substance use disorder—run through the history of addiction treatment in the United States.
Not all of that history was bad. Even ideas as outlandish-sounding as a strychnine “cure” were sometimes developed with a sincere belief in the efficacy of the treatment. Yet greed, and the willingness to disempower and punish people with addictions, have been key drivers of the story. Sound familiar?
Those themes are prominent in Sanitariums, Hospitals and the Belladonna Cure, by Kenneth Anderson. It’s the third volume of his Untold History of Addiction Treatment in America. Filter previously interviewed him about the first two: Strychnine & Gold (2021, in two parts) and From Inebriate Asylums to Narcotics Farms (2022).
Anderson is the founder and executive director of HAMS (Harm Reduction, Abstinence and Moderation Support), a group of 20,000 members worldwide who are changing their drinking through harm reduction methods. He’s also the author of How to Change Your Drinking (2010), and he and I co-authored Better is Better: Stories of Alcohol Harm Reduction (2022).
I caught up with him to ask what he discovered in researching and writing Sanitariums, Hospitals and the Belladonna Cure.
April Wilson Smith: What do you think might most catch people’s attention out of the material in your latest book?
Kenneth Anderson: Your readers might be most interested in the belladonna cure at the Towns Hospital in New York City. The Charles B. Towns Hospital and his belladonna cure became famous because Alcoholics Anonymous founder Bill Wilson had his vision of God while under the influence of the belladonna there.
What is belladonna?
Belladonna is another name for the deadly nightshade plant. However, some helpful medications still in use today are extracted from belladonna. One of these is scopolamine, a medication for motion sickness. Another is atropine, which is what your eye doctor puts in your eyes to dilate them. In higher doses, such as those used in the “belladonna cure,” it is a hallucinogen.
So I’m not going to get my eyes dilated and think I see God?
Not quite. It’s all in the dosage.
“The formula was given with heavy doses of mercury-based cathartics, until the ‘characteristic liquid green stool composed of mucus and bile’ appeared, which Towns said was a sign the patient was cured.”
What’s the story of how the Towns Hospital was founded?
It was founded by Charles B. Towns, who was an insurance salesman from Georgia. Towns was a very successful, high-pressure insurance salesman. He had an eighth-grade education and never studied science or medicine. In 1899, he moved to New York City and went into the stock brokering business. Shortly afterwards, he was convicted of embezzling funds from his clients and given a suspended sentence.
After that Towns disappears until 1905, when he shows up advertising a cure for the “opium habit,” using a secret formula. Towns partnered with a physician named Dr. Mariette McGinnis for a couple of years, operating an opium cure business in New York City. Then, from spring of 1908 to 1909, he moved to China to operate an opium cure business, because he thought he would find many people addicted to opium there. Towns told a lot of tall tales about facing down warlords with his trusty six-gun while in China.
Although later promotional materials state that the Towns Hospital was founded in 1901, there is no evidence that it was in operation prior to a January 29, 1905 ad in the New York Times. At this point the Towns family was sharing an apartment with Dr. McGinnis, and the Towns Cure was operating out of her private office. In late 1905, the Towns Cure moved to 119 West 81st Street; in 1914, it moved to 292-293 Central Park West, which had 50 rooms.
After he got back to the US in 1909, Towns decided he could make more money with his hospital if he made his secret formula public.
How did he do that?
He enlisted the aid of Alexander Lambert, who would later serve as president of the American Medical Association, to help him publish the formula in the Journal of the American Medical Association.
Lambert was an interesting fellow. He favored universal health care and health insurance on the European model, and he’d read a lot of medical articles in French and German. Unfortunately, Lambert was also very gullible and not familiar with the addiction literature in the US. Thus he published Towns’ questionable cure.
The formula was two parts tincture of belladonna leaves, one part fluid extract of prickly ash, and one part fluid extract of henbane. This was given together with heavy doses of mercury-based cathartics for several days, until the “characteristic liquid green stool composed of mucus and bile” appeared, which Towns said was a sign the patient was cured.
What happened next?
Immediately after the Towns formula was published, a doctor named Jacob Albright came forward to say that he had published that formula in a book in 1900, years before Towns and Lambert published in 1909. There’s nothing new here, Albright said. In fact, Albright admitted that he didn’t invent it either; another doctor gave it to him.
Next, a Dr. George Pettey also objected, writing, “I have been using scopolamine which is extracted from belladonna since 1901 to treat the opium habit and the Towns formula that uses belladonna is inferior because you can’t give exact doses the way you can with the alkaloid extracts that I use.”
“Bill Wilson went there due to its reputation. Its reputation was not backed up by the evidence, however.”
How did Towns say that he got the formula?
At first Towns claimed that he had invented the cure himself. But later he said that he had bought the formula from a mysterious stranger he later identified as Robert Steele, and that he had spent years painstakingly perfecting it.
This is contradicted by the fact that the final published formula, published in 1909, was nearly identical to the formula published by Albright in 1900. It seems equally likely that Towns got the formula from Dr. McGinnis, but would never admit to being indebted to a woman for anything.
Despite all this, Lambert continued to endorse Towns, and the Towns Hospital continued to be in operation until 1965. Although details are scarce, the hospital appears to have phased out the belladonna cure and switched to more modern methods around 1950. Throughout its history, it specialized solely in addiction treatment.
How did the Towns Hospital get so famous?
Due to endorsements by people like Lambert, who was not only a president of the AMA but also Teddy Roosevelt’s personal physician, the Towns Hospital became quite respectable among the general populace. Most of the medical world, however, did not respect it and viewed its founder with contempt. But Towns’ high-level endorsements gave it good standing in the eyes of the general public.
So that’s why Bill Wilson went there to detox? Was the Towns Hospital actually effective in curing people’s addiction problems?
Bill Wilson went there due to its reputation. Its reputation was not backed up by the evidence, however. In 1920, the New York City Commission on Addiction reported a follow up of 200 opiate-addicted patients treated with the Towns cure and found that only 5 percent were abstinent during the intervening 11 years since taking the cure. Moreover, most physicians said that belladonna was contraindicated for alcohol withdrawal.
Eventually the Towns Hospital closed, because by 1965 there were a number of facilities offering free treatment and it couldn’t keep making money.
“He literally advocated for exterminating people—that ‘these people’ should be put out of their misery.”
What else should we know about Charles B. Towns?
In an article titled “How to Eliminate the Alcoholic as an Insane Problem,” published in the 1917 Proceedings of Sixth Annual Meeting of the Alienists and Neurologists of America, Towns advocated for the creation of death camps for people who resumed use after undergoing his addiction treatment. He called these hypothetical camps “the pound.” He literally advocated for exterminating people in this category—he did not specify how, just suggested the camps, and that “these people” should be put out of their misery.
Towns also helped to draft the 1914 Boylan Act in New York City that criminalized syringes and opiates. It was sometimes known as the Towns-Boylan Act. This was before the federal Harrison Narcotics Tax Act, which took effect in 1915 and effectively outlawed opiates and coca products, and it was something of a model for that national legislation.
The Boylan Act had a mandatory treatment provision and allowed the state to pay for treatment at private treatment centers—such as the one that Towns owned.
Another character you introduce in the book is Harry Hubbell Kane. Who was he, and why was he important to the history of addiction treatment?
Harry Hubbell Kane opened the De Quincey Home, which offered addiction cures, in 1881, in Washington Heights, New York City. Kane was very well known as the author of a number of books about opium. These included: The Hypodermic Injection of Morphia (1880), Drugs that Enslave (1881) and Opium Smoking in America and China (1882). The De Quincey Home was named after Thomas De Quincey, author of Confessions of an English Opium Eater (1821). It was not in business for very long, only about two years.
Kane liked to live high. He was involved in horse racing and owned his own race horse. He soon needed another source of cash. After the home closed down, he started selling a patent medicine of his own devising, called “Scotch Oats Essence.”
“Kane was arrested because his business was a scam: His patients had taken the medicine to be analyzed, and found that it contained no radium!”
Soon, this concoction was exposed in the Druggists’ Circular and Chemical Gazette. It was one-third alcohol, and each ounce contained half a grain of morphine. Kane advertised it as “safe for everyone from infants to octogenarians.” He claimed that it cured everything from paralysis to impotence to insanity to the morphine habit. After Scotch Oats Essence was exposed, Kane filed for bankruptcy.
But he then started a business operating a radium cure, which was very popular because in 1903 Marie Curie won the Nobel Prize for her pioneering work in radioactivity, and for a time radium was considered a cure-all. In 1905 Kane was arrested because his business was a scam: His patients had taken the medicine to be analyzed, and found that it contained no radium!
Kane and his business partner, William Henry Hale, pleaded guilty to swindling a patient, John McCallum, out of his life savings. They had told him he was dying of kidney disease, although there was nothing wrong with him. They sold McCallum medication which they said contained extremely expensive radium, but he sent it for analysis, which showed no such thing. Kane was sentenced to four months in prison and Hale to eight—their sentences were lighter because they returned the money.
Kane died in 1906. Hale was last reported as being the personal physician to Francisco “Pancho” Villa, the leading figure in the Mexican Revolution.
These are fascinating stories. But what do you think they tell us about addiction treatment today?
What they tell us is that nothing has really changed: It’s still a crooked and corrupt business, the same as always.
Photograph of Atropa belladonna (“deadly nightshade”) by GT1976 via Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons 4.0