Historic “Gold Cure” for Addiction

March 18, 2016

In the latter nineteenth century, as temperance and prohibitionist sentiment flourished, quack cures for alcoholism began to be offered, beginning with the Keeley Double Gold Cure in 1890.

Dr. Leslie Keeley (1836–1900) was a graduate of Chicago’s Rush Medical College who served as a surgeon in the Union Army during the Civil War. With a chemist and town mayor as partners, he opened a sanitarium at Dwight, Illinois, in 1880 for the treatment of those addicted to alcohol or opium. He offered a proprietary tonic whose secret formula supposedly included bichloride of gold. He also gave hypodermic injections. Ten years later he began to sell franchises that eventually numbered over 200 in North America and also expanded into Europe (“Leslie Keeley” 2016; Fike 2006, 100–101, 208).

As it happened, however, early analysis showed Dr. Keeley’s products contained no gold (Boles 2013, 3–7). Instead, the tonic was nearly 28% alcohol, and contained ammonium chloride, tincture of cinchona (the bark from which quinine is derived), and aloin (a compound obtained from the aloe plant). The injections contained strychnine and boric acid (both otherwise used as insecticides) and atropine (another poison) (“Leslie Keeley” 2016; Boles 2013, 1–11).

Not surprisingly, the result of Dr Keeley’s medicines was to make patients experience fear, confusion, vomiting, and dizziness, among other ill effects. Since treatments were provided as the patient continued to imbibe—albeit in successively diminished amounts—the result may have been to provide the alcoholic with added incentive to cease his bad habits (Boles 2013, 3). Keeley claimed a ninety-five percent cure rate, and he rationalized that those who returned to drinking did so by choice (“Leslie Keeley” 2016).

Whether Dr. Keeley was an outright quack or simply misguided has been debated—though I would remind readers that the false claim that his medicines contained gold does not enhance his reputation. Nevertheless, his focus on alcohol and other addictions as diseases rather than moral failings, and the use of both group therapy and support groups, made his approach a forerunner to such associations as Alcoholics Anonymous and Secular Organizations for Sobriety (founded in 1985 by CFI’s James Christopher).

An early imitator of Dr. Keeley’s was the McMichael Institute of Niagara Falls, NY, which opened in 1892. Dr. George H. McMichael offered “Double Chloride of Gold Remedies for the Liquor, Morphine & Tobacco Habits” and “Sanitarium Treatment,” the institute was located in the former Dexter Jerauld Mansion near the world-famous falls. (Now attached to the rear of the Niagara Club at 24 Buffalo Avenue at the intersection of First Street, it is largely hidden from view. However, my wife Diana and I visited the site to take the accompanying photograph.) The McMichael Institute vacated the mansion in 1894, consolidating with its headquarters in Buffalo (Boles 2013, 1–3, 13–22; “McMichael Institute” 1893).

There were two other such enterprises in the Falls. One was The Niagara Gold Cure Institute which opened in 1895 in the former luxury hotel, the Prospect Park House. Its physician was Dr. Bill English from Marion, Iowa. The sixty-bed facility accepted women as well as men. The other was the Reliable Gold Cure Institute, located in the Falls Hotel at 312 Main Street). It was a low-budget operation whose ad promised, in Keeley fashion, “Ninety-five percent cured” (Boles 2013, 13–14).

The Niagara Falls gold-cure businesses were relatively short-lived. The Keeley enterprise evolved over the years. The “medicine” drew criticism from some medical practitioners, and the formulas apparently changed over time. So did the “cure” which eventually turned into more of a supportive program. Nevertheless, Keeley died a wealthy man in 1900, and his business survived in a restructured and smaller form until the 1960s (Boles 2013, 47).

References

Boles, James M. 2013. The Gold Cure Institute of Niagara Falls, NY, 1890s. Buffalo, NY: Museum of Disability History.

Fike, Richard E. 2006. The Bottle Book: A Comprehensive Guide to Historic, Embossed Medicine Bottles. Caldwell, NJ: The Blackburn Press.

Leslie Keeley. 2015. Online at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leslie_Keeley; accessed March 9, 2016.

McMichael Institute. 1893. Ad in Illustrated Buffalo Express, reproduced in Boles 2013, 18.

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