200 Years of Illinois: Home of the Keeley Cure

keeley instituteJune 10 marks the birthday of Leslie E. Keeley, founder of the Keeley Institute in Dwight.

A historical curiosity today, Keeley was world famous in his own time as the tireless proponent of his so-called Gold Cure, a snake oil credited with saving thousands of people from alcoholism.

Keeley’s genius for promotion and entrepreneurial acumen led him to open franchised centers for the treatment of addiction across North America and in Europe. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, the average American recognized the term Keeley hospital as a place to escape the clutches of drink, nicotine, and narcotics, and used the phrase even with centers not associated with Keeley.

Keeley’s works and centers were also synonymous with one of the era’s growth industries: medical quackery.

Unlike many of his snake oiling peers, Keeley earned a legitimate medical degree and served as a Union Army surgeon before starting in private practice. He opened that practice in Dwight and soon made headlines with his prophetic claim that alcoholism was a disease rather than a moral failing. Keeley also proposed that he had the cure: the famous bichloride of gold. The Keeley Institute, a sanatorium that opened in Dwight in 1880, built its cure for alcoholism around this Gold Cure (or Keeley Cure) and a strict regimen that weaned patients off of drink.

Ads for the Institute proliferated in newspapers. Pamphlets spread the word. Demand encouraged Keeley to franchise his name and methods to clinics across the United States, Canada, and Mexico. As the propaganda for the Keeley hospital in Blair, Nebraska put it:

The remedies used by us mingle with and disinfect the blood, and totally destroy every vestige of the effects of dissipation, leaving the patient sound and healthy, giving a remarkable increase in nerve, power, vigor and strength. We give references of thousands who have been cured. Communications strictly confidential.

leslie keeleyKeeley also kept the formula for his cure a secret. Conjured with the help of a Dwight pharmacist, the magic elixir supposedly came from Keeley’s studies of old texts, with the Renaissance physician Paracelsus an important source. Keeley, whatever his deceits, made it clear the cure included twenty percent alcohol—the information appeared on the label of the bottles of the Keeley Treatment for Inebriety that he sold via mail order (a complete cure cost $22.50).

Chemical tests by skeptics and rivals turned up other ingredients like ginger, willow bark, a tincture of cinchona (source of the antimalarial drug quinine), and hops—along with coca, a sulfate of strychnine, and apomorphine.

No one could find gold in there, however. Historians have suggested Keeley enlisted the metal for marketing rather than medicinal purposes. Others believe that if Keeley did initially use gold, he soon removed it from the formula due to adverse side effects or cost.

Those taking the cure in Dwight received it via hypodermic. Male patients lined up to take their medicine four times per day. Women, a minority of the patrons, received the shot in the privacy of their rooms. Institute rules allowed patients all of the whiskey they wanted. But rules forbade them from drinking outside the clinic’s walls. Anyone who did so received an immediate discharge without a refund. Skeptics often criticized this aspect of Keeley’s cure while historians today note the injected contained drugs that, when mixed with alcohol, created severe nausea.

The State of Illinois stripped Keeley of his medical license in 1881. That only improved business. Howls from the medical establishment failed to stop him. So did critics upset that he unapologetically profited from his business. The U.S. Army sent its alcoholics to him for rehabilitation. Groups across the land invited him to speak. Believers in Keeley’s methods attended national conventions organized by 370 chapters of the Keeley League.

If many swore by Keeley’s methods—Keeley himself boldly claimed a success rate of ninety-five percent—not everyone benefited. Of course, Keeley had an answer. “I cannot paralyze the arm that would raise the fatal glass to the lips,” he declared.

As with a lot of businesses, too-fast expansion and ruthless greed undermined Keeley’s franchise model. Lawsuits proliferated, as did complaints about the profit-first nature of the treatment. Not surprisingly, a sizable number of Keeley alums fell off the wagon. Keeley retired to California with his millions. His death in 1900 blunted the growth of the Keeley League and the expansion of his corporation. Still, the Keeley Cure remained available at the Institute in Dwight until 1966.