Dr. Leslie Keeley: Drunkenness is a disease and I can cure it
Special to the Nevada Appeal
It is unclear from historical records whether the Keeley Institute came to Carson City in 1892 out of need, or because of greed. One thing is clear, however, and that is that Virginia City and Carson City had a problem and Irish born Dr. Leslie Keeley was the man to fix it.
Dr. Keeley was a Civil War surgeon who found a treatment that he believed would be a cure for drug addiction, alcoholism and tobacco addiction. Based in Dwight, Ill., Keeley’s Institute became famous after a series of newspaper articles highlighted a cure that worked. Keeley would go on to found more than 100 Institutes in the United States and Europe. By his death in 1900, he had amassed a fortune of more than $1 million treating addiction, He claimed more than 400,000 took the treatment with more than 17,000 doctors getting sober. The Bi-Chloride of Gold treatment also was used nationwide in veteran’s hospitals. In 1892, Keeley claimed a 95 percent cure rate over eight years.
The Keeley treatment was a two-to four-week program where the patient was given injections four times a day of a concoction that when revealed in 1895, consisted of various things, depending on the source. The most apparent concerns in historical texts was with the use of strychnine and arsenic in highly diluted forms. By injecting the potion, one poison (the addictive chemical) was substituted for another (the cure) over time. Of course, Keeley being patriotic, the potions were colored in red, white and blue. Patients weren’t jailed, but came to the institute, in the Arlington Hotel on Main Street, at first to get injections.Then they would be boarded at homes locally. Graduates wore shiny gold buttons and preached exciting confessional sermons to women’s temperance societies. In larger cities, graduates attended Keeley clubs for mutual support.
Alf Doten’s Journals from the period highlight a presentation at the Virginia City Opera House where hundreds attended the presentation on the Keeley treatment where his motto was, “drunkenness is a disease and I can cure it.” Schools were given presentation on the cure. Carson City adopted an ordinance, No. 96, which made it a misdemeanor to furnish alcohol to anyone under treatment under punishment of a $50 fine, 25 days in jail or both. The only waiver was if alcohol was allowed for those in treatment under prescription.
The first graduate of the Keeley Institute in Carson City was J.W. Haines. In an article on the front page of the Morning Appeal on Aug. 8, 1893, Haines felt he was “born again” and his brain was no longer befuddled.
On Aug. 17, 1893, James G. Fair Jr., died on his way back from the east coast. His father, Sen. James G. Fair is quick to announce that his son did not die from receiving the treatment, but from heart failure in San Francisco. The elder Fair is recognized as part of the silver cartel in Virginia City and one of the richest men then alive. His daughters later built the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco to honor their father.
In a book stored on the Internet Archive from the Bancroft Library, some 36 local residents are listed as stockholders in the Institute, including Sam Davis, the editor of the Appeal, H.M. Yerington, as well as a who’s who of Carson City’s movers and shakers.
The Keeley Institute slowly passed into history. There is little mention of the Institute in Carson after 1900. The remaining model Institute in Dwight, Ill., which helped fund electric lights and made the village state of the art for it’s time, was passed on to commercial and city interests. The main building now serves as a restaurant.