Leslie Keeley’s Double Chloride of Gold Cure
We have seen cures for the evils of the demon drink before but one which took America by storm in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was Leslie Keeley’s Double Chloride of Gold Cure.
Keeley opened the first Keeley Institute in 1879 in the Illinois town of Dwight, south of Chicago, with the bold and ambitious claim; “drunkenness is a disease and I can cure it.” He claimed that he had devised a formula which, if injected four times a day, would lead to a miraculous recovery, although he was circumspect in revealing what it contained save that one of the ingredients was gold.
His advertising campaign fuelled by the desire of many to kick alcohol, together with his claim of a 95% success rate, saw business boom. Between 1892 and 1900 his company’s revenues almost topped $3m and there was even a Keeley Day at Chicago’s World Fair in 1893. Those who completed the course were called Keeley graduates and were given a pamphlet by way of a certificate which told the recipient; “You are now numbered among thousands of men and women who have broken the shackles of alcohol and drug addictions by the Keeley method of treatment. Your cure will be as permanent as your life, you will never have any craving for alcohol or other sedative drugs as long as you live, unless you create it by returning to their use, thus re-poisoning your nerve cells.”
Ardent supporters of the Keeley method formed Bi-Chloride of Gold Clubs, later known as Keeley Leagues, which were sort of alcohol support groups. Centres sprang up around the country, the last closing down as recently as 1965, and some half a million alcoholics and addicts are said to have taken the Keeley Cure. Often Keeley would employ doctors who were cured alcoholics and the staff to patient ratio at each centre was reassuringly high.
If you signed up for a course of treatment, as well as the injections four times a day, you would drink a liquid cordial every two hours. The rest of your day was spent in a variety of ways, designed to improve your physical and psychological well-being through rest, controlled diets and group discussions. The atmosphere was described as warm and friendly, far removed from the austere asylums to which alcoholics were normally consigned.
Keeley’s apparent success provoked two reactions – imitation and investigation. Dr Haines’ Golden Remedy, the Geneva Gold Cure, and the Boston Biochloride of Gold Company were among the many imitators who sought to cash in on the craze for golden remedies to alcoholism. More worryingly for Keeley, his success provoked the medical profession to take a closer look into what was in the cure. They used a variety of methods to get hold of the samples, using the handy mail order service or checking into the centres masquerading as alcoholics.
What was surprising is that the constituents of Keeley’s miracle cure seemed to vary – sometimes traces of alcohol, sometimes coca extract and sometimes a combination of strychnine, willow bark, ammonia and aloe. What wasn’t present was gold – indeed, one director was reported to say that the only time they used gold, the patient nearly died.
But the main ingredient was probably atropine, an active ingredient found in deadly nightshade and possessing hallucinogenic properties, which in ancient times was used as an ersatz anaesthetic. It is also poisonous. It may be that drug acted as some form of sedative in the majority of cases but in certain circumstances could induce psychological reactions that would force the patient to see the errors of their ways. It is unlikely to have been the major contributor to the success that Keely claimed.
What was more likely to have helped is the serene atmosphere of the centres, the ability of the patients to get rest, to talk about their problems and share their experiences with others. This is a feature of the treatment of alcoholics today and Keeley in this respect was ahead of his time.
It was just a pity he focused on filling them up with an unproven drug.