The recent news of Josh Gordon’s suspension from the National Football League broke the hearts of New England Patriots fans and sparked widespread debate on social media about the issue of addiction and rehabilitation.
Of course, we’ve seen this story play out before. Professional athletes and celebrities fighting addiction in the media spotlight isn’t anything new. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s Elizabeth Taylor, Liza Minnelli, Darryl Strawberry, and Mickey Mantle all sought treatment at the Betty Ford Center. Lindsay Lohan later went there, too. There’s no question that the media attention they received at Betty Ford’s namesake clinic raised public awareness about the perils of addiction and helped erase some of the stigma associated with substance abuse treatment.
But long before the Betty Ford Center opened its doors in 1982, there was another place where athletes, addicts, and alcoholics went to get healthy and better themselves. It was called Bellows Farm, and it was located in Acton, Mass.
Bellows Farm was a sanitarium that was owned and operated by John “Dropkick” Murphy, a professional wrestler who devoted his life to helping alcoholics get sober. He first began helping alcoholic men detox in the 1940s, and made a career out of it after he retired from wrestling.
Decades before the Betty Ford Center became a household name — and long before the band Dropkick Murphys named themselves in his honor — the phrase “going to Dropkick’s” meant a person struggling with alcoholism was seeking help and would soon receive some respite.
In many respects Bellows Farm was an early forerunner to celebrity detox centers of today. But what made Dropkick Murphy’s sanitarium unique is that it wasn’t just a detox center — it was also a top-notch training facility for elite athletes. Murphy built a state-of-the-art gymnasium and boxing ring on his property, and professional athletes would come and work out there. Murphy also opened his gym to the public, and offered supervised weight-lifting and fitness sessions to folks who wanted to get into shape.
It was this interesting setup that made Bellows Farm stand out, and created an atmosphere where alcoholic patients didn’t have to undergo detox in isolation. At Bellows Farm, they were able to dry out in the presence of athletes, visitors, and members of Dropkick Murphy’s own family.
Amid our rocky transition, today, to a more professionalized standard of care — amid sharp debates over which anti-addiction drugs are effective and which are not, which detox centers are legitimate and which are shams — Bellows Farm offers a window into a wilder, more free-wheeling era.
An era which may still have some lessons to teach.
* * *
Bellows Farm was a place where men detoxing from alcohol could relax, play cards, watch television, read the newspaper, and chat with one another. They could get a haircut and shave from the resident barber, get rubbed down by the masseuse, and get treated to hearty, home-cooked meals prepared by Dropkick Murphy’s wife or the resident chef.
Many high-profile people battling alcoholism — from politicians to newspaper editors to lawyers to Catholic priests to business executives — sought refuge there. They would check themselves in and stay for as long as they needed.
As a result, Bellows Farm was always populated by a revolving cast of colorful characters, many of whom were extremely creative in their pursuits of a good, stiff drink. Some would try to hide their own secret stash of liquor outside before checking themselves in: in the trees, in the shrubs, and even in the stone wall along Davis Road, which led to Bellows Farm.
“It was a madhouse,” Murphy said in a 1971 interview with the Boston Sunday Herald Traveler newspaper. “They were hiding booze in trees, in shrubbery, behind telephone poles. They filled hot water bottles with the stuff, they dug holes and buried it.”
Dropkick would often dispatch his sons to try to find the bottles hidden around the farm. Malcolm H. Houck, whose father used to work as the attending physician at Bellows Farm, recalled how the Murphy brothers 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 tell-tale ‘clink’ would locate a bottle of whiskey.”
Dropkick Murphy’s farm was anchored by a big red barn. That’s where the men gathered to receive their medication, which was typically a dose of paraldehyde. The guys called it “prackie” or “parackie,” and essentially it was a sedative to calm their nerves and ease the symptoms of withdrawal. The stench of the stuff was unforgettable, and sizzled your nostrils. (“It was horrendous,” recalled Murphy’s son, John.)
Men came from all over to stay at Bellows Farm. They traveled from Las Vegas, Miami, Canada, Montana, and the West Coast to spend time there.
One day, a regular client of Dropkick’s showed up unannounced at Bellows Farm. The man ambled in the door, reeking of booze, and asked Murphy to do him a favor.
“Pay the cabbie, will you Dropkick?”
“Okay,” said Murphy.
Murphy got up and went outside, and walked to the taxi idling in the driveway.
He leaned over and peered inside the driver’s window.
“What’s the tab?” said Murphy.
“Two hundred and ninety bucks,” said the cabbie.
Murphy’s eyes widened in disbelief.
“Where in hell did you pick him up?”
“Charlottetown,” replied the cabbie. “Prince Edward Island.”
Bellows Farm had a staff of 20 people, which included doctors, nurses, and dieticians. There were usually about 30 patients at the farm at any given time. Whenever alcoholics checked into Bellows Farm, they would be handed a red sweatshirt and red pajama pants — that was the standard issue uniform for all patients at the sanatorium. Those red outfits also served a practical purpose, because they allowed cops in town to easily identify anyone who happened to wander away from the farm.
But the brightly colored uniforms didn’t deter some from venturing off the property.
Murphy recalled one time a patient took his red pajama pants off, sauntered down to the stable where Dropkick 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 package 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 pantless patient on horseback, managed to corral him right then and there, and brought him back to Bellows Farm.
Years later, Murphy would laugh as he told the tale of how that infamous patient, wearing only a pajama top, “did a ‘Hi-Ho Silver’ down the road.”
Dropkick Murphy’s sanitarium became something of a beloved institution in Acton, and Murphy hosted many well-to-do clients and famous guests. According to the Murphy family, Jackie Gleason loved Bellows Farm so much that he asked to lease the farm for six months so he could have the place to himself (Dropkick politely turned down Gleason’s offer).
Other visitors included sports luminaries such as Boston Marathon legend Johnny Kelley, world welterweight boxing champion Tony DeMarco, Rocky Marciano, Dynamite Joe Rindone, and Tommy Collins, a charismatic young prizefighter from Murphy’s hometown of Medford.
There typically wasn’t much interaction between the professional athletes and the alcoholics at Bellows Farm, except when patients would occasionally go inside the gymnasium and watch boxers work out and spar in the ring.
But perhaps, having the gymnasium there, and having pro athletes visit the property so often, provided inspiration to some patients at Bellows Farm. It’s also possible that the patients taught the athletes something, too; about the dangers of addiction and alcohol abuse, and its ability to ravage the mind, body, and soul.
One thing is for sure: Murphy’s sports-centric approach to health and wellness drew many followers, and perhaps there are lessons that can be learned from him today. Business was brisk at Dropkick Murphy’s sanitarium for many years.
William L. White, author of the book “Slaying the Dragon: The History of Addiction Treatment and Recovery in America,” said Bellows Farm, like some other private institutions of that era, was more of place to dry out than an active treatment program. But Bellows Farm clearly filled a need and played a role in helping people.
“It is important to remember how few resources existed between 1940 and 1970,” said White, in an email.
White noted that it wasn’t until 1970 that federal legislation provided the foundation for the community-based treatment programs that exist today, and it took another decade for changes in insurance policies to spur the rapid growth of private and hospital-based addiction treatment programs.
“While some early programs like Bellows Farm provided more respite (safe shelter between drinking sprees), some individuals used these respites to change their lives on a more permanent basis,” he said. “A sober living environment and exposure to recovery role models (via [Alcoholics Anonymous] or other mutual aid groups) remain active ingredients within many of today’s addiction treatment programs.”
* * *
How many patients at Bellows Farm stayed sober? That was a question that Murphy could never answer. He provided the setting for alcoholics to detox safely, and gave them the opportunity to attend Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. The rest was up to them. He never promised to rehabilitate anyone.
In his 1971 interview with the Sunday Herald Traveler, Murphy reflected on his career at Bellows Farm, and pondered how his patients fared. “They were not all hopeless. I don’t think any of them were hopeless,” he said, “just a lot of men sick and tired of being sick and tired.”
But Murphy was also realistic. After seeing so many familiar faces return to Bellows Farm, year in, and year out, he knew the power that alcohol could have over a person.
“Maybe it was a dead end for some, I don’t know. Maybe some of them left here and never drank again. This place is pretty and healthful and everything like that,” said Murphy, “but booze is a terrible equalizer.”
Dropkick Murphy understood the stigma associated with alcoholism and addiction, and he did everything he could to fight it.
“I guess every family has a booze problem — somewhere there’s an aunt, uncle, a sister or brother, or even a mother or father, someone, somewhere,” he said.
To Murphy, they were sick.
“The only disease you can get arrested for,” Murphy once quipped.
Dropkick Murphy stopped admitting patients in 1971. In the years since, his detox center has occasionally been mentioned in books and articles. But as time went by, people’s memories faded, and Dropkick’s rural retreat for alcoholics became a piece of forgotten history.
Few traces of Bellows Farm remain today, but they are there, if you know where to look. The big red barn that served as the headquarters for Dropkick Murphy’s operation still stands. It’s now an office building that houses several local businesses, including a law office, a physician’s office, and a French language school. But most people who enter the big red barn have no idea that it was once home to one of the most famous detox centers around.
Emily Sweeney is writing a book titled “The Legendary Life of Dropkick Murphy.” For more information, photos, and updates, visit: www.facebook.com/DropkickMurphyBook