Keeley Gold Cure for alcoholism brought thousands to Illinois

The Keeley Cure initially had gold in it, but the real gold was in the number of satisfied customers who said they were cured of addictions amid the social support system of the community of Dwight.

Thousands flocked to the town 80 miles southwest of Chicago from 1879 to 1965 to be cured of alcoholism with the help of the Double Chloride of Gold Cure For Addictions at the Keeley Institute.

Dr. Leslie E. Keeley, the son of a country doctor, was born in 1832 in New York. He headed West as a young man, graduating from Rush Presbyterian Medical College in Chicago. In 1864, he enlisted and served in the Union Army during the Civil War.

"As an assistant field surgeon, he knew opiates were used as anesthesia, as well as alcohol, and the opiates, alcohol and tobacco were also often used in excess by the soldiers ... and they became addicted," said Lynn Neville, who brought the history of the Keeley Institute to life for those attending a recent meeting of the Dwight Historical Society at the Prairie Creek Public Library in Dwight.

The location was appropriate because the building itself is the former clubhouse used by patients at the Keeley Institute, located adjacent to the Country Mansion restaurant, also a former Keeley building.

Keeley's theory was that drunkenness is a disease.

"Keeley suspected that the alcohol, opiates and tobacco contained 'toxic germs' that - taken in large and repeated quantities - poisoned the brain, altered the cells and resulted in a disease," Neville said.

Keeley came to Dwight in 1866, working as a traveling doctor on a 400-mile circuit.

While doing his house-call medical duties, he also worked on a cure for drunkenness. Major Curtis Judd, a prominent businessman in Dwight, became Dr. Keeley's brother-in-law in 1888 and was a major financial backer for Keeley.

Keeley and Judd were two of the institute's founding members. The third founding member was an Irish chemist, John Oughton, who joined Keeley in search of a cure.

"In 1879, after years of research and experiments and with Oughton's help, Keeley was able to proclaim, 'Drunkenness is a disease … and I can cure it,'" Neville said.

He created the Double Chloride of Gold Cure For Addictions. The cure was also sold through mail order. It was, however, never patented because then the formula would have to be disclosed.

From 1888 to 1895, the mail-order cure cost $5 for tobacco (about $140 in today's dollars), $9 for alcohol ($250 today) and $10 for opium ($280 today).

From 1879 to 1890, more than 10,000 took the Keeley cure.

"As the Dwight Institute location started to be overwhelmed with patients, Keeley, with a vision of serving the world, decided in 1890 to 1891 to begin to open franchises. Between 1891 and 1965, the Keeley Institute had more than 126 Keeley franchises in operation."

With the prosperous enterprise, "Keeley had visions of bringing thousands more people to Dwight for the Keeley Cure, but the Dwight infrastructure was lacking with no electricity, poor roads, poor sidewalks, and the need for water and sewer line improvements," Neville said.

Because Dwight officials knew other cities were courting Keeley to relocate his headquarters, talks were conducted in 1891 between Dwight officials and the Keeley Co. to work together to improve the village and keep the Keeley Institute in Dwight.

Among the improvements was the construction of the Chicago and Alton Railroad depot (now the home of the Dwight Historical Society).

At the peak of the Keeley years, 17 trains per day were stopping in Dwight, serving 700 new patients arriving each week. New arrivals were greeted by townspeople and staff at the train stop.

"Keeley patients were free to shop and walk the streets of Dwight, returning to the Institute for the lectures and counseling sessions, meals, and for the gold cure injections and tonics," Neville said.

Townspeople knew the rules: no gambling, no driving cars, no fraternizing between male and female patients, and absolutely no sodas or alcohol.

"Tavern owners would watch out for Keeley patients and report a patient who tried to buy alcohol."

By the 1890s, the Keeley was reporting that at least 300,000 people had been treated.

But along with success came copycats. Because there is nothing proprietary about the cure and it wasn't patented, by 1900 there were 800 other "gold cures." The number of Keeley franchises dropped to 70.

In 1900, Keeley changed the formula to eliminate the gold in the cure. He died that same year at age 68. Major Judd retired and John Oughton lived in the Manse (now the Country Mansion) and by 1916 was the sole owner of the business.

Oughton's oldest son, Dr. James H. Oughton Sr., was the medical director at the Keeley.

But with prohibition around the corner, business continued to slow.

In 1892, the annual gross revenue for the Keeley was $727,000 in 1892 dollars. By 1920, after Prohibition went into effect, revenue fell to $75,000.

Dr. James Oughton was named president of the Keeley in 1925 after the death of his father, and the formula was changed again, with the term used as "tonic medicines."

Prohibition was repealed in 1933, and income spiked to more than $180,000 with 900 treated that year.

Throughout the history of the institute, which closed in 1966, the cure included many of the same supports, such as mutual sharing of difficulties, Alcoholics Anonymous roundups, church attendance, vitamin therapy, and nutrition and exercise.

"The Keeley Institute was good to and for Dwight," Neville said, "and Dwight was good to the Keeley."

• Illinois 200 is produced as a project of the Illinois Press Association and the Illinois Associated Press Media Editors. Myke Feinman can be reached at (815) 584-1901.

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Founders of the Keeley Institute are, from left, Leslie E. Keeley, John R. Oughton and Curtis J. Judd. This plaque was installed in 1939 on the grounds of the Country Mansion restaurant in Dwight. Courtesy of The Paper (Dwight, Illinois)
During a Dwight Historical Society Keeley Day bus tour, from left, Don Ahearn, Ryan Beier, Marc Rosales and John Krischel portray Keeley Institute patients waiting for the train to take them home. Courtesy of The Paper (Dwight, Illinois)
Women from Dwight, Illinois, portray temperance union members who cheered on graduates of the Keeley program. The women are, from left, Shirley Holzhauer, Delores Slattery, Betty Pfeifer, Elaine Mortensen and Dee Hanner. Courtesy of The Paper (Dwight, Illinois)

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