Ebby Thacher: messenger, twelve stepper, sponsor, relapser

Edwin Throckmorton Thacher (1896-1966), more commonly known as “Ebby” is credited as Bill Wilson’s sponsor (1998).  Certainly that is the way that Bill Wilson himself referred to Ebby on numerous occasions (1957).  Ebby was the scion of a wealthy and powerful Albany, NY family and one of the Manchester, VT “summer people,” who along with Lois Burnham (Wilson) was so admired by the youthful Bill Wilson.  

Within Alcoholics Anonymous (A.A.) circles Ebby, sober at that time as a result of Oxford Group involvement, calling on Bill in 1934, is the prototypical “Twelfth Stepper.” This is, of course, before there were the Twelve Steps.  Bill was still drinking but his friend’s obvious sobriety and happiness, despite the fact he had achieved it through “religious experience,” anathema to Bill at the time, was a powerful attraction to Bill who was deeply unhappy.  

Subsequently, Bill spent time with Ebby discussing the Oxford Group and its teaching, meeting other Oxford Group members and going to Calvary Episcopal Church with Lois, meeting Rev. Sam Shoemaker, and attending the separate Calvary Mission meetings which ministered to the homeless and where Bill, drunk, “stepped forward” and “testified.”  This really was his first spiritual experience and Bill noted that it had an effect on him, at least in the short run.  

When soon thereafter in December of 1934 Bill was hospitalized again in Towns Hospital and had his dramatic spiritual experience it appears to have been Ebby who gave him a copy of William James’ Varieties of Religious Experience, one source for the development of A.A. (2010).   Ebby, then exits center stage and is a minimal presence in most A.A. discussions as first William Duncan Silkworth,M.D., then Robert Smith, M.D., and the other cast of early A.A. founders and members step forward.  For most interested in A.A., that’s an end to Ebby.  He was the messenger from the Oxford Group, the man who showed Bill sobriety was a possibility, the man who introduced him to Sam Shoemaker and William James.

But in reality Ebby, who Bill did regard as his sponsor, was a looming presence until his death in 1966, an exemplar of something that many appear to wish to forget: that alcoholism is a chronic illness characterized by relapse and that many people have periods of sobriety and active illness despite being exposed to the A.A. message.  Further, that although the explanation for relapse within A.A. is that the relapsing person “Did not follow instructions.” or “Did not work the Steps properly,” the facts are that relapse is an exacerbation in a chronic illness and needs individual clinical assessment and an individual treatment response.

Multiple relapses were the course of Ebby’s alcoholism and it’s easy to see why the “rest of his story” has aspects of scandal and anxiety within A.A. circles.  First within A.A. there are individuals who believe that they “know the answer” about staying sober, this “answer” is often associated with a strongly orthodox religious viewpoint despite A.A.’s best institutional efforts to rebut this approach.  These dogmatists strongly suggest that if only people did A.A. this or that way, they would never drink again.  Thus relapse is a result of not “doing” A.A. the way that these individuals demand.  Ebby is then a prime example of this.  

Alternatively, relapse is a frightening thing for recovering alcoholics.  If a person who appears to be following an A.A. way of life can drink again then no one is really “safe” and I too, despite my best efforts might get sick again and suffer the terror and degradation of active alcoholism.  This line of thinking characterizes all individuals who have chronic illness and become aware of other individuals who become ill again.

Third, many individuals in early A.A. who knew both Bill and Ebby took a dim view of Bill’s repetitive attempts to help Ebby.  As Ebby’s biographer (1998) describes, Bill contributed to Ebby’s financial support and encouraged other’s to do so even when Ebby was drinking.  This is regarded as “enabling.”  Bill reached out to friends and colleagues in A.A. to try and help Ebby in other ways, with employment, or placement in various rehabilitation programs.  These interventions too, would be viewed as counter-therapeutic by many.  Bill invited Ebby to speak at several A.A. conventions during periods when Ebby was sober but many saw this as scandalous because of the pattern of remission and relapse Ebby demonstrated.  Further like many alcoholics Ebby was a great guy when he was sober but an irritating and emotionally troublesome person when he was drinking.  Thus like a member of the family who is an active alcoholic he was the object of intense negative emotions.

While Ebby Thacher is important for helping Bill become sober, his complete story is also important because it elaborates the complete story of alcoholism.  Many people who follow an A.A. program are able to establish permanent sobriety.  Some others are not so fortunate.  Ebby’s life story shows that continued efforts to openly discuss and understand relapse are desirable and should be encouraged.  They also remind us that sobriety is a daily affair not always measured in permanent abstinence.

Ebby died in 1966.  He was living, with Bill Wilson’s support, at a small A.A. rehabilitation program, McPhee Farm, in Vermont.  He was apparently sober when he died.


Anonymous. (1957) Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age. New York: Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc.

B., Mel. (1998) Ebby: The Man Who Sponsored Bill W. Center City, MN: Hazelden.

James, W. (2002) The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature. New York: Modern Library.

McPeake, J.D. (2010) William James, Bill Wilson, and the Origin of Alcoholics Anonymous.  Dublin, N.H. 03444:The Dublin Group, Inc., www.dubgrp.com
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