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100 years before Alcoholics Anonymous, the Washington Temperance Society began in a Baltimore tavern

100 years before Alcoholics Anonymous, the Washington Temperance Society began in a Baltimore tavern
Visitors to a Baltimore nightclub dance and toast until the early hours of Dec. 6, 1933, as Prohibition was repealed. Some 90 years earlier, the city was home to one of the 19th century’s most popular temperance societies, Washington Temperance Society. (Baltimore Sun Staff)

Baltimore is often remembered for its resistance to Prohibition. Ironically, the city also was home to one of the 19th century’s most popular temperance societies, which began nearly 100 years before the founding of Alcoholics Anonymous.

On April 5, 1840, six friends met at Alexander Chase’s Tavern on Liberty Street and vowed never again to drink any “spirituous or malt liquors, wine or cider." They held weekly meetings to share their experience as ex-drinkers with each other and friends.

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A few key elements distinguished the group that would go on to call themselves the Washington Temperance Society. Unlike other temperance societies of the day, they avowed only personal abstinence from alcohol, and refused to endorse legislation to make drinking illegal for all. They even allowed distillers and barkeeps to join their ranks, so long as they promised not to drink themselves. And, while other temperance societies denounced alcoholics for their wickedness, the Washington Temperance Society preached the possibility of reform, speaking to each other as ex-problem drinkers.

“A reformed man has the best access to a drunkard’s mind and heart, because he best knows, and can enter into all a drunkard’s feelings,” reads a passage in the 1842 book, “The Washington Temperance Society,” available at the Maryland Historical Society.

Membership quickly numbered into the thousands, and chapters developed in New York City and elsewhere. By 1842, John Zug, a spokesman for the group, wrote, “Many of the best men in the city of Baltimore belong to the society.” Initiation fees were 25 cents; dues were 12.5 cents per month.

But within a few years, the society had foundered. The Baltimore Sun reported, “the original society of the Washingtonians had been partially broken up, and the spirit which animated them departed.”

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