Emily Sweeney’s newest book, “Dropkick Murphy: A Legendary Life,” chronicles the life of Dr. John “Dropkick” Murphy, a professional wrestler who ran a detox center for alcoholics in Acton (and has a band named after him). This excerpt is reprinted by permission of the publisher.
Men came from all over — Nevada, Florida, Montana, and even Canada — to spend time at Bellows Farm Sanitarium. At least once a day a car would appear in the driveway to drop off a new patient.
“The full moon is always good for business,” Murphy would say.
People would get dropped off by relatives. Sometimes they arrived in taxis. On at least one occasion, a patient got a ride in a police squad car. It happened on a Wednesday morning, just after 6 a.m., when a gentleman who was making his way to Bellows Farm on foot decided he was too tired to continue. He stopped at Monument Square in Acton Center, ambled up beside a fire alarm box, and pulled the alarm. Police arrived on the scene first and found there was no fire — just a man standing beside the alarm, asking “rather dazedly” for a ride to Dropkick’s. The patrol car promptly took the weary traveler to his destination. The very next day, the Assabet Valley Beacon newspaper ran an item on the incident on the front page. It was, according to the paper, the first time in Acton’s history that the town’s fire alarm system was rung and used as a taxi service.
Real cab drivers did get a lot of business out of Bellows Farm. Any taxi that traveled west on Route 2 beyond the Concord prison was almost certainly going to Murphy’s farm, according to Malcolm Houck. Cabs would come all the way from Somerville, Charlestown, and South Boston, and if they appeared to be empty, it was usually because a passenger was lying down in the back seat “passed out or sleeping one off,” he said.
When Robert Rhodes joined the Acton Police Department in 1961, the police station was located inside Town Hall. Cab drivers who lost their way would occasionally end up there.
“Once in a while a taxi would come by the station, at two or three in the morning, and come in and ask for directions,” said Rhodes. “We’d know they were looking for Dropkick Murphy’s.”
Over the years, Dropkick Murphy paid his share of cab fares. One day a man who Murphy liked showed up in a taxi at Bellows Farm, asking for a favor.
“Pay the cabbie, will you Dropkick?”
“Okay,” said Murphy.
Murphy went outside and walked over to the taxi idling in the driveway. He leaned his large frame over and looked inside the driver’s window. The cabbie must have looked tired.
“What’s the tab?”
“Two hundred and ninety bucks,” said the cabbie.
Murphy’s eyes widened in disbelief.
“Where in hell did you pick him up?”
“Charlottetown,” said the cabbie. “Prince Edward Island.”
Murphy shook his head and paid the driver. He then made a note of the unexpected expense, so he could bill his friend later.
One day a woman drove up Davis Road and parked her car. She had driven her husband all the way from Somerville. He was groggy and didn’t know where he was. When he realized he was in Acton, at Bellows Farm of all places, he got out of the car, slamming the door with a heavy thud. He grimaced angrily and slapped his wife. She gasped. Murphy jumped up and tried to restrain him, but the man started to fight back. Then the woman took her pocketbook like a lasso and started swinging it, whacking Murphy in the head and back. “Leave my husband alone, you big bully!” she shrieked. All the men paused what they were doing and looked out at the commotion unfolding in the driveway. She pushed her husband back into the car and drove away.
Murphy never saw them again.
Over the years, Dropkick had his share of politicians saunter — and sometimes stumble — into his establishment.
On one particular day, a limousine pulled up abruptly to Bellows Farm. The doors opened, and out tumbled a well-dressed politician, drunk out of his mind. He was a familiar face, a big-time politician. Everyone knew him, including Murphy. His handlers explained the situation: He had been playing golf in Dublin, Ireland. One too many drinks, he began getting drunk. His aide frantically placed a called to the State House seeking advice and was told curtly: “Bring him back — immediately.”
The avid and inebriated golfer boarded a plane and flew across the Atlantic, landed at Logan Airport, and traveled in a limo to Dropkick Murphys.
The golfer was out cold. Twelve hours ticked by and his eyes fluttered open. He stretched his arms, yawned, looking for his clubs. “Who am I playing today?”
He thought he was still in Ireland.
Some patients wouldn’t show up in Acton; they would get picked up. In those cases, Murphy would dispatch a driver — usually a staff member, or sometimes one of his sons — to go fetch a fellow perched on a stool at a darkened tavern.
These passengers sometimes had something to share with their chauffeurs. Murphy’s sons recall them saying things like, “Your father is the greatest guy” or the ever-popular question, “Hey, can we stop?”
Sometimes, clients would ask to stop at Howard Johnson’s restaurant in Concord, as it was the last establishment before Bellows Farm, and they served cocktails there. According to local lore, some men would be driven out that far, and then, after having their last hurrah at HoJo’s, they would instruct the staff of the restaurant to call Dropkick if they passed out so they could get picked up.
Of course, Murphy’s sons would not stop. Occasionally, when they said no, the passenger would get angry and say: “You’re just like your goddamn old man!” or “I hate you and your whole family!”
Enduring such verbal assaults was part of the job.
You never knew who might be arriving, what they would act like, or how long they’d be staying. One thing was consistent though — men tried sneaking in liquor all the time.
Dropkick Murphy couldn’t believe all the different ways that men attempted to smuggle booze into Bellows Farm.
“Some were bigger schemers than Ponzi,” he once said.
But as much as Murphy despised this, he couldn’t stay angry with the men, even if he tried.
He loved the guys. He just didn’t want them to put their health at risk.
Murphy recalled one particular time that an older gentleman stumbled out of a cab and staggered up the walkway in a crooked line, zigzagging in the direction of Marie Murphy. He stood before her, swaying slightly, and presented her with a bouquet of flowers.
While performing this gentlemanly gesture of chivalry, something unexpected happened. He bent over and took off his hat.
A half-pint bottle fell out of his hat and crashed down on the walkway.
Patients got creative in their games of hide-and-seek. They hid booze in trees and shrubs. They dug holes and buried bottles in the dirt. They tucked them into nooks and crannies of stone walls. One patient tried to hide hooch in hot-water bottles.
One lawyer who checked himself into Bellows Farm had a sports car that he parked nearby. A couple days into his stay, Murphy and his staff noticed that the lawyer was having difficulty responding to treatment; he seemed buzzed all the time, and it became clear that he’d been drinking. But where was he getting the booze? Murphy searched everywhere and couldn’t figure it out.
One day, Murphy noticed a saucepan underneath the lawyer’s sports car. He opened the petcock and alcohol started gushing out, splattering into the saucepan. The enterprising attorney had drained the radiator of his sports car and was using it as a personal storage tank for bourbon.
Murphy was always on the lookout for any contraband that might be hidden around his property. He also enlisted the help of his children to search the farm for liquor bottles that patients may have tried to stash away.
Malcolm Houck, whose father served as the attending physician at Bellows Farm, recalled how Murphy’s sons would conduct a regular sweep of the property, “swishing through the tall grass with long sticks with a nail on the end,” he said. “Every so often a telltale ‘clink’ would locate a bottle of whiskey.”
Murphy’s nephew, Jeff Allmon, remembers hunting for bottles with his cousin David Murphy. Their young eyes would sweep the grounds, looking in all the hollows of the ancient stone walls, searching for bottles hidden among rocks or stashed behind the wall, out of sight from the road. There was money to be made in this endeavor, too, as Murphy usually paid them for each bottle they recovered.
“We sort of knew, after a while, which patients coming in, if they had a bottle or not,” he said.
In the morning, they would pay close attention to the patients checking in. “We’d see the new arrivals, and knew where to look,” he said.
Every week they’d find two or three bottles. Each time they’d run back to Murphy and present their latest find, exchanging the bottles for some pennies, nickels, or a quarter.
As soon as he spotted a bottle, Allmon instantly thought, “a quarter!” Most of the time, after the patients sobered up, said Allmon, “they didn’t even know they hid it.”
Some men tried a different tactic. If they didn’t smuggle in actual alcohol, they would try to keep some cash on them. “All the time, men were arriving, some with $10 bills glued to their mouths under dental plates,” said Murphy, “so that maybe they could sneak out and buy a bottle when no one was looking.”
Murphy recalled one time a patient took his red pajama pants off, sauntered down to the stable where Murphy kept his horses, opened the stable door, climbed on top of a horse, half-naked, and galloped away down Davis Road.
Dropkick Murphy had no idea this was happening, until the telephone rang.
Murphy picked up the phone. The voice at the other end was the owner of a local liquor store.
“Dropkick, you’re not going to believe this, but a guy just came in, in his birthday suit, practically, and he bought two fifths, and he jumped on a horse outside and tore away. I think he’s one of your guys.”
Dropkick quickly hung up the phone, rushed outside and jumped into his car, and started driving. He hoped to cut the half-naked horseman off at the corner of Strawberry Hill and Davis Road. Sure enough, he spotted the pants-less patient on horseback, managed to corral him right then and there, and brought him back to Bellows Farm.
Years later, Murphy would tell the tale of how that infamous patient, wearing only a pajama top, “did a ‘Hi-Ho Silver’ down the road.”
Emily Sweeney’s latest book, “Dropkick Murphy: A Legendary Life,” is out now and available for purchase wherever books are sold. On Sept. 17, Sweeney will give presentation about the book at the Bull Run Restaurant at 215 Great Road in Shirley. Tickets cost $25 and proceeds from the event directly benefit the Ayer Library and the Hazen Memorial Library in Shirley. To order tickets, visit the Bull Run website.