GUEST POST: Fighting Addiction with Stone Soup

Guest Post by:  Stephen Bitsoli

While reading up on Leslie Keeley’s Gold Cure for alcoholism, it sounds a little like the folk tale, “Stone Soup.”  In one version of the tale, a hungry wanderer comes to a village that does not wish to share its meager food stores with a stranger. So the wanderer tricks them into feeding him by pretending he has a magic soup stone: just place it in a pot, add water and it becomes a delicious soup.

The passing villagers, intrigued, are conned into providing extra ingredients to make it even better: vegetables, seasonings, a little meat. In the end, the wanderer and the villagers happily share the now hearty soup. When he leaves, the wanderer gifts them with the magic soup stone.

Likewise, the Gold Cure probably worked about as well at fighting drug addiction as the soup stone did at fighting hunger. It just wasn’t the only thing in the pot.

The Keeley Institute, opened in 1879 or 1880 in Dwight, Illinois, was one of the first treatment centers for alcoholism (later expanded to include “Narcotic Addictions, the Tobacco Habit and Neurasthenia,” the latter a vague sort of nervous disorder associated with the stress of modern life) that viewed it as a medical problem, not a moral failing. Prior to Keeley, drunkards were often confined to inhospitable and inhumane inebriate asylums or mental hospitals (although Native American sobriety circles that were similar to the later Alcoholics Anonymous and other Twelve Step Programs had existed for around 100 years already).

Keeley’s approach was purportedly scientific – his slogan was “Drunkenness is a disease and I can cure it” – and also humane. “The atmosphere was informal and friendly at the clinics, with a marked absence of the bars and restraints that were typical in most inebriate asylums of the period,” wrote William L. White in Slaying the Dragon, The History of Addiction Treatment and Recovery in America. Unlike later Twelve Steps programs, religion wasn’t a part of the program.

That claim of a cure was only one thing that separated Keeley’s treatment from later ones. Nowadays it’s pretty much universally accepted that there is no cure for alcoholism, drug or other substance abuse. Keeley claimed a 95 percent success rate, and he explained away former patients who resumed drinking by claiming they chose to drink, but weren’t compelled to by an addiction.

His treatment wasn’t a government-regulated and tested patent medicine, available to all for fighting drug addiction, but rather a proprietary tonic only he could sell. Beyond a claim that it contained what he called “double chloride of gold,” he revealed nothing about what was in the mixture. Most attempts at analysis found little or no gold (some found gold salts), but rather a range of different ingredients – including alcohol, coca leaf extract, strychnine, willow bark, ammonia, arsenic, atropine (a component of deadly nightshade, mandrake and Jimson weed), morphine and apomorphine (a morphine derivative), cannabis or aloe – in colored water.

atropine, a component of nightshade was used in Keeley’s concoction.

It sounds more like snake oil than medicine, but it worked or seemed to work well enough to make Keeley rich before he died in 1900, and to sell 200 franchises throughout the U.S. and in Europe. Although the Institute declined after his death, the last branch didn’t close until 1965.

What made the Keeley Institute treatment work probably wasn’t the Gold Cure itself but rather the other parts of the treatment. First, the patients were weaned off alcohol over several days. Then they were treated as patients needing treatment, not as sinners or criminals needing reform, with “healthy food, exercise and fresh air,” plus “mutual sharing, and alternative diversions … to improve the patient’s physical and psychological health.” There were no counselors per se, just doctors, most of them former addicts themselves, but, White wrote, “There were enough doctors on staff to go around.”

Keeley probably was a quack or charlatan, YET, he treated his patients as ill rather than evil, afflicted but not weak. Maybe he just thought that would attract more suckers, or maybe he really wanted to help people. It wouldn’t be the first time a con man did something good in spite of himself.

The U.S Surgeon General has recently released it’s first-ever Report on Alcohol, Drugs, and Health, stating clearly that “Addiction to alcohol or drugs is a chronic but treatable brain disease that requires medical intervention, not moral judgment.”

Today we know a lot more about fighting drug addiction and other substance abuse, as well as their causes, but in some ways as a society we’re still re-learning the same lessons.


Writer Bio:

Stephen Bitsoli writes articles about addiction and related topics. A journalist for more than 20 years, and a lifelong avid reader, Stephen loves learning and sharing what he’s learned.