Local History: Addicts & Addiction Pt. 1

The past few years, drugs and addiction have been in the headlines. Stories about opiates, the legalization of marijuana, and criminal justice reform have all made drug use and addiction the subject of a national conversation. Just as the civil rights and women's rights movements had historical roots in time periods when those issues were not the focus of public debate, American society has been dealing with addicts and addiction since the 18th century. Here's a look at some resources in the White Plains Collection that you can consult to see how people used to think about these issues. You might discover our contemporary focus on drugs and addiction is not novel, even if the ways we confront the issues are new.

In the 19th century, attitudes about drugs and ways of treating people who suffered as a result of using them changed in revolutionary ways. The industrialization of drug production made a greater amount of intoxicating or addictive substances widely available and created new ones. Patent medicines that included ingredients like heroin and cocaine were aggressively marketed, often with little understanding (and even less warning) of their addictive potential. Pharmaceutical companies like Merck, Eli Lilly & Co., and many others were founded in the 1800s and continue to dominate the industry today. Consumers for mass produced drugs were found in urban populations that grew quickly. Social tension that resulted from concentrating large numbers of people in new places contributed to the often racialized or gendered stigma put on drug and alcohol users, many of whom brought along cultural traditions of substance use. As levels of drug use (alcohol included) increased among Americans, institutions developed to treat people. What exactly they were treating, however, was never totally clear.

New York Hospital, Bloomingdale, White Plains

As described in William L. Russell's The New York Hospital, A History of the Psychiatric Service, 1771-1936, Bloomingdale Asylum grew out of the New York Hospital, which was established in 1771. The first site for Bloomingdale Asylum was purchased in 1815. It was located in what is now Morningside Heights, between 114th and 120th Streets. For decades after its opening, it was one of a handful of places in New York State that offered treatment for people with mental illness. From the beginning, however, there was debate about whether it was the right place for addicts and alcoholics.

Even though the “right” place for addicts and alcoholics to receive treatment has long been a subject of debate, there has never been debate about the deleterious effects of drug and alcohol use on mental health. Even the workers who built the original Bloomingdale Asylum in Manhattan were prohibited from drinking after their imbibing “contributed to encrease [sic] the number of patients” in the very asylum they were building! Although many hospitals established to treat mental illness accepted people struggling with substance use, medical professionals and social advocates felt there was a mismatch, that addicts or alcoholics were distinct from people with mental illness. One doctor used his 1833 annual report to the leadership of the hospital to explain that because there was “no other place for the reception and reformation of the intemperate this institution has been necessarily perverted to the purpose.” In the 1840s, one half of the people admitted to the asylum were there due to the “effects of Intemperance from the use of spiritous liquors.”

By 1885, the sprawl of New York City began to conflict with the growing needs of Bloomingdale Asylum to expand. In 1868, a property in White Plains was purchased, and it was to this property “in the country outside the limits of the City of New York” that the asylum moved. Most construction was done by the summer of 1894 and the Bloomingdale Asylum was reopened with a new name: “Society of the New York Hospital, Bloomingdale, White Plains.” Treating addicts and alcoholics would continue to be a struggle for the institution. As the physiological roots of mental illness were beginning to be acknowledged by medical professionals, there was an increase in the use of the very substances that troubled some to treat others. “Beer and wine rose,” stimulants, and even opium were used to treat some patients. While nearly all people in the field recognized these chemical treatments were only effective in limited, controlled dosages and that they were not a long term solution, their use indicates a problematic state of affairs for those seeking relief from addiction.

In the early 20th century, laws governing commitment to mental health institutions liberalized, allowing for higher levels of voluntary admissions. A corresponding softening of public attitudes toward mental illness caused an increase in the number of people seeking treatment at Bloomingdale. “Inebriates and drug habitues” were admitted in larger numbers after a 1913 law established procedures for their commitment for up to a year. The institution began producing statistical records around this time to comply with standards established by the federal government, which itself was under the sway of the National Committee for Mental Hygiene (see our post on Rosa Kittrell and Clifford Beers). Even with progressive momentum changing how people believed those affected by mental illness and addiction deserved to be treated, Bloomingdale continued to try and limit the number of alcoholics or addicts admitted to their care. Into the 1920s, alcoholics and drug addicts made up only a very small percentage of admissions. Luckily, another institution had opened in White Plains to meet this need.

The Keeley Institute

Advertisement from the 1891-1892 Turner's New York & Harlem Railroad Directory


The Keeley Institute was founded by Leslie Keeley in Dwight, Illinois in 1879 for “the special medical treatment of alcohol and opium inebriates.” Keeley's “cure” consisted of injections of a “double chloride of gold.” Contemporary investigations did not find gold or chlorides in his formula, though they did find a good amount of alcohol in it. While it wasn't unusual for medicines to use alcohol as an ingredient, combining Keeley's formula with the daily rations of whiskey patients received definitely eased the pain of withdrawal for some and, if current understandings are correct, probably inhibited their recovery.


When it opened in March 1891, the Keeley Institute in White Plains was the first branch of the organization on the east coast. It remained open for 28 years and, occupying the old Martine mansion on Post Road, contributed quite a lot the character of the village during those years. Patients boarded at the institute or were directed to local hotels and boarding houses. If the picture below is any indication of the number of patients, it's hard to believe the Keeley Institute in White Plains eventually had to close in 1919.

Undated photograph of people standing in front of the Keeley Institute

Presumably many interesting people passed through the Keeley Institute, but few publicized their visit like the famous reporter Nellie Bly. The June 10, 1894 edition of the New York World included Bly's story, “Nellie Bly Takes The Keeley Cure.” A subheadline described the story as Bly's account of “A Week's Experience and Odd Talks with the Queer Little Family of Hopeful Inebriates.”

Part One of Bly's story in the June 10, 1894 New York World


Bly noted that for some, the Keeley Institute was “not a welcome addition to the pretty little town.” Apparently, people taking the cure or recently discharged from the institute constituted a public nuisance in the minds of certain villagers. Stories of vagrancy and, naturally, drunkenness were told to Bly to illustrate their claims. The Keeley Institute drew lots of people to White Plains, some of them from far away or famous beyond the village. Bly avoided the institute for a few days after her first attempt to be admitted because a “a man and woman from Pittsburgh” who would recognize her and blow her cover were taking the cure. During a tour of a women's boarding house across the street, she met “a woman whose self and husband are well-known in the theatrical profession.” The same woman gave Bly an inadvertently problematic endorsement of the Keeley cure, saying, “You can't imagine how nice it is. It stimulates you, takes the place of a drink and you long for it and need it just as you wanted a drink before.”


Part Two of Bly's story in the June 10, 1894 New York World


The Keeley Institute's cure required upfront payment of $100 and a commitment to four weeks of treatment. The man who was processing Bly's admission explained that it was not unusual for patients to return multiple times, for the cure only “puts people back where they were before began to drink.” It was necessary for patients to have a “desire” not to drink to remain sober, he said. One patient she met told her that a doctor had “never knew a man to be cured,” but figured the Keeley Institute would do her no harm. Bly offered her view of the enterprise to another patient as if she were an alcoholic who was reluctant to get treated and wanted someone to co-sign the holes she poked in the program. Bly asked the woman, “Don't you think the gold cure is really nothing more than working upon the imagination?” Bly thought it was easy to stop drinking when you were at the institute. People there led “quiet, country lives.” They were, “early to bed” and had “plenty of sleep and fresh air, plain food.” “Naturally,” Bly concluded, “they feel less the need” for alcohol or other drugs.


Like so many other treatments of the time, the Keeley Institute was likely popular due to its combination of removing the environmental triggers that drove people to drink or use and its forceful marketing of what some might call snake oil. Luckily, treatment for addicts and alcoholics continued to evolve, and a second blog post will continue to chart the course of treatment for addicts and alcoholics in White Plains during the 20th century.

Categories: Local History.

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