King Charles of New York City

1) Introduction

Who was Mr. Charles Barnes Towns?  As a means of introduction, here are some descriptions of the man according those who either knew him personally or who have studied him closely.

“Of all the cure proclaimers there was an undisputed king, or perhaps emperor, so magnificent were his accomplishments and so influential his lobbying: Mr. Charles B. Towns.  He worked at such a high level of national and international efforts to control narcotism that he appeared to many to be above mercenary considerations.”[1]

            ”And it would not surprise me, for one, if the world sooner or later should discover that it must listen to Towns.  I believe the fact is now established that with reasonable intelligence and care the treatment can be applied anywhere, particularly with the advice and aid of Towns himself.”[2]

            “The story of the Charles B. Towns Hospital is the story of a most fascinating institution

by a most fascinating man.  He was so personally persuasive and dominating that some observers even questioned whether the results of his treatment for addiction might be more attributed to the power of his personality than to the medical protocol used at his hospital.  As one physician noted, ‘The Towns treatment would be all right if you could mix in about a grain of Towns with every capsule of the specific.’”[3]

            “He will be, as he is, simply the experienced, enthusiastic leader of what is perhaps the first really intelligent crusade against these most insinuating and baffling enemies to the human character – alcohol and drugs.  Excepting perhaps those few open-minded physicians who had worked close to him, it transpired that nobody in the world knew quite so much about these matters as Towns.  Above all this, he had happened, through one of the chances that Nature seems sometimes to arrange, to be the right man in the right place. The problem had stirred the genius within him and found an answer there.”[4]

            “Here’s an odd story of an odd man with odd adventures, whose virile personality backed a nationwide campaign in which not one individual in America was without a personal interest.”[5]

            “Any one who knows Mr. Towns knows one of the most persuasive and dominating personalities in the world . . . “[6]

            “No one could possibly talk with Charles B. Towns for the briefest period without being impressed with the sincerity of purpose that has made him a benefactor to humanity, or without noticing the combativeness that has led him, singlehanded, to wage relentless warfare against alcohol, tobacco, and all habit-forming drugs.”[7]

            “Towns rose in the esteem of the medical profession’s elite and in the opinion of the political powerwielders who were under pressure to do something about opium addiction in the Philippines, China, and the United States. Towns achieved a national and even international role.  His techniques as a salesman and his imposing personality took him far, and he was eventually accepted as one of the most knowledgeable and altruistic addiction experts in the United States.”[8]

            The praise for Charles Barnes Towns, once literally King Charles of New York City narcotic treatment, and pioneer of what was believed to be the only proven solution for addiction and alcoholism in the world, gathered national attention as if he were P.T Barnum.   Towns was a Harold Hill, who many decades ahead of The Music Man sounded a warning about the game of pool not because of the game itself, but because cigarettes were often smoked there to corrupt young men!  He was an Elmer Gantry, who preached with equivalent passion. One easily could become convinced Towns’ only wish was for humanity to be clean of drugs, alcohol, tobacco, caffeine, and any other substance that might interfere with the joy of living clean and sober.  The preceding praise was but a sample of the nature of his accolades at one time.  But as of this writing, when we are experiencing the one-hundredth anniversary of the Federal Legislation advocated by Charles Towns, which led to nationwide narcotic prohibition, his name has been all but entirely forgotten.  Of the relatively few that do recognize his name, he is remembered as the proprietor of the “drunk tank,”[9] named Towns Hospital, where Bill Wilson, co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, dried out after his fourth visit.  Wilson had his “white light experience” there in late 1934 that led to thirty-six years of continuous sobriety until his death.  Otherwise, Towns’ name has been all but lost to history. If his name is mentioned at all, he is often dismissed as a quack that persecuted drunks with a remedy for addiction worse than the affliction it was meant to treat.

            It may seem very strange to a reader of today that in the United States of America, in the latter half of the nineteenth century, people could go to their local druggist to purchase as much morphine or opium as they could afford for themselves or anybody else of any age. In the years that followed prior to the beginning of the twentieth century, cocaine and heroin were added to that list after they were discovered and publicized. In the book Drug War Politics, narcotic drugs and cocaine were described at the beginning of the twentieth century in this manner.


In 1900 opium and its derivatives morphine and heroin, cocaine, and cannabis (marijuana) were all legal substances, readily available to anyone that wanted to acquire them.  Not only were they prescribed by doctors to relieve pain and sleeplessness, but they could be purchased in grocery and general stores as well as by mail order.  They were found in numerous unregulated patent medicines, claiming to cure everything from stomach aches to head colds to corns.[10]


If someone did not feel well and simply decided to go the druggist for any of the prolific numbers of patent medicines that were being sold, the medicine could have contained any combination of those four drugs and alcohol too!  Up until 1906 when the Pure Food and Drug Act became national law,[11] there was no requirement for the label of any patent medicine to list any of its ingredients, so the purchaser may have “felt better” through the use of a  “medicine” without having any idea why. Of course, the “medicine” had little to do with treating the actual symptoms of the malady, but if the patient “felt better,” was not that a fair deal?  Such reasoning seemed to dominate the times. As the authors of Drug War Politics observed, “Addicts were not stigmatized.  They were not thought of as degenerates and certainly not as criminals.  The idea that a national policy was needed to handle problems of addiction—let alone that such addicts should be punished under federal law—was nowhere in evidence.”[12]

            Today there can also be very much of a mistaken conception of what the title “doctor”  meant back around the beginning of the twentieth century.  Many could designate themselves as a “doctor” How better to compete with druggists and their patent medicines for the medical dollar when the “medicines” could be concocted for almost nothing and sold with large profits?  While the American Medical Association was founded in 1847, it was not incorporated until 1897, and it did not achieve publication of standards for national medical schools until 1910.[13]  David F. Musto referred to the AMA by 1913 as a “relatively small group centered mostly in the eastern states” that had a membership of only 8,500 doctors in 1900.[14]  Charles Towns was to accuse doctors of being the primary creators of drug addiction in the United States as well as asserting that some of them were addicts themselves, the latter assertion of which was proven to be undeniably true for a minority of them.[15]  Clearly the people of United States of one hundred and ten years ago had a widely different conception of the “drug problem” if they had ever heard of it. A much larger concern around the beginning of the twentieth century than drugs was alcohol and the various temperance movements associated with that perceived curse.  Charles Towns reigned supreme mainly during the second decade of the twentieth century, when the American way of dealing with drugs took form through legislation that he either supported or helped originate.

            Nevertheless, as influential as Charles Barnes Towns once was, his name seems to have been forgotten almost entirely.  History has not been very kind to the medical model of addiction and alcohol treatment that Towns believed to be his miraculous and invaluable contribution to mankind, and a methodology he thought should have been taught in medical schools as part of their standard curriculum.  Towns Hospital simply became one more “drunk tank” for the affluent, and the medication popularized there was discredited and eventually discarded.

            However, the story behind the story becomes how such an influential personality, “one of the most persuasive and dominating personalities in the world” of his times, could ever have been so entirely forgotten by so many that actually may be in his debt.  After all, without Charles Towns, most likely the doctor that loved drunks, Dr. William D. Silkworth, may have never met the co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous (A.A.) Bill Wilson and become the right doctor at the right time to assist Wilson benefit from his “white light” experience.  Without Charles Barnes Towns, most likely the book Alcoholics Anonymous would not have been published in April of 1939, because Towns provided as much as fifty percent of the funding that financed the book when loans were hard to come by.  Without Towns, the book may have never attracted the publicity as early as it did that first led to the September 30, 1939 Liberty Magazine article, which was followed a year and a half later by the much more famous March, 1941 Saturday Evening Post feature by Jack Alexander that made A.A. nationally prominent.

            The second decade of the twentieth century ended, however, as a very bad decade for kings and royalty.  Kings of those times paid dearly for promises they could not deliver and practices contrary to their country’s best interests.  The decade of World War I brought these flaws to the attention of their populations. Revolution or abdication was a common result.  During that decade, Towns rose to heights of medical authority and prestige, a King Charles of New York City, far beyond any qualifications of an eighth-grade education from Georgia. But after 1920, he was no longer considered worthy of any throne.  He was just one more fellow that owned a hospital where the well-to-do could dry out.  No longer was he to be contemplated as “Charles Barnes Towns.”  No, towards the end of his life, he was called “Charlie” if he was remembered at all.


Chapter 1 – Introduction

[1] The American Disease, Origins of Narcotic Control, David F. Musto, M.D., Oxford University Press, 200 Madison Ave., NY, NY, 10016, @1973, page 79

[1] The American Magazine, Samuel Merwin, “Fighting The Deadly Habits, The Story of Charles B. Towns,” October, 1912, p. 717

[1] Slaying The Dragon, William L. White, Chestnut Health Systems, Lighthouse Institute, Bloomington, Illinois, 61701 @1998, p. 84 (All page numbers are from the 1998 edition).

[1] The American Magazine, Samuel Merwin, “Fighting The Deadly Habits,” p. 708, 714

[1] “The “White Hope” of Drug Victims,” Collliers, The National Weekly, Peter Clark MacFarlane, November 29, 1913, p 16

[1] Boston Medical and Surgical Journal, “The Towns-Lambert Treatment for Morphinism and Alcoholism,” Massachusetts Medical Society, New England Surgical Society, Vol. CLXIV, May 11, 1911, Dr. Richard C. Cabot, M..D., p.676

[1] CASQ, Culture Alcohol & Society Quarterly, Vol III, no 7, April, May, June 2008, page 4.

[1] The American Disease, David F. Musto, page 82

[1] Bill Wilson talk, 1951, Atlanta, GA

[1] Drug War Politics: The Price of Denial; Bertram, Blackman, Sharpe & Andreas; U of Cal Press, Berkeley & LA, CA, p. 61

[1] http://www.encyclopedia.com/topic/Food_and_Drug_Act_of_1906.aspx Encyclopedia.com, Food and Drug act of 1906: “It would not stretch matters to say that the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 (P.L. 59-384, 34 Stat. 768), also known as the Wiley Act, stands as the most consequential regulatory statute in the history of the United States. The act not only gave unprecedented new regulatory powers to the federal government, it also empowered a bureau that evolved into today’s Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The legacy of the 1906 act includes federal regulatory authority over one-quarter of gross domestic product, and includes market gatekeeping power over human and animal drugs, foods and preservatives, medical devices, biologics and vaccines. Other statutes (such as the Interstate Commerce Act of 1887, the Sherman and Clayton antitrust laws, and the Federal Trade Commission Act of 1914) have received more study, but the Pure Food and Drug Act has had the longest-lasting and most widespread economic, political, and institutional impact. . . .  At the time, the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 was the most daunting intrusion by federal authorities into interstate commerce. Although other federal agencies could regulate prices and occupational safety, the USDA was now engaged in the regulation of the very manufacture and sale of products, in addition to advertising.”

[1] Ibid., p. 62

[1] www.ama-assn.org/ama/pub/about-ama/our-history/ama-history-timeline.page?

[1] The American Disease, David Musto, p. 56

[1] The American Disease, David F. Musto, M.D., p 62: “The number of physician-addicts was high. Medicine was (and is) the leading profession in the rate of addiction, about 2 percent according to Wright’s survey. The profession was commonly believed to be one of the causes of most of the other addicts in the nation, and evidence, nowhere contradicted before Congress, revealed that physicians were the principal offenders.”