Fact Check: How Bill Wilson, Co-Founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, Nearly Caved to His Addiction on His Deathbed

Wikipedia, Getty Images
Wikipedia, Getty Images


Alcoholics Anonymous co-founder Bill Wilson requested shots of whiskey on his deathbed but was denied them.


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Various social media platforms, including Reddit and X, have long circulated the claim that Bill Wilson, one of the co-founders of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), was denied shots of whiskey on his deathbed.

One Reddit user posting on the Today I Learned subreddit back in 2013 alleged that "Bill Wilson, the well known co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, demanded whiskey in the last days of his life and became belligerent when he was denied":


The allegation spread to Instagram in 2023, with the additional claim that he "took lsd."

Historical accounts and credible sources corroborate the online claim that Wilson, who was a New York stockbroker prior to getting sober and co-launching AA, did ask for whiskey but was denied his requests on several occasions in the final days of his life.

Commonly known as Bill W. (as part of AA's tradition of anonymity), Wilson co-founded the abstinence-based recovery fellowship alongside Dr. Bob Smith in 1935. Having struggled with alcoholism until 1934, Wilson maintained his sobriety until his death in 1971 from pneumonia and emphysema caused by his decades-long smoking habit.

According to a profile of author Susan Cheever in the The Washington Post in 2004, she was given access to the archives of Wilson's historic home, Stepping Stones, while researching her biography "My Name is Bill: Bill Wilson." The nursing records kept by the medical attendants who looked after Wilson prior to his death hid among the artifacts. These logs recounted that Wilson did request whiskey on his deathbed, but the medical staff denied him, as The Washington Post reported:

Cheever came to the pages covering Christmas 1970. On the eve of the holiday, Bill Wilson passed a fitful night. A lifelong smoker, he had been fighting emphysema for years, and now he was losing the battle. Nurse James Dannenberg was on duty in the last hour before dawn. At 6:10 a.m. on Christmas morning, according to Dannenberg's notes, the man who sobered up millions "asked for three shots of whiskey."

He was quite upset when he didn't get them, Cheever writes.

Wilson asked for booze again about a week later, on Jan. 2, 1971.

And on Jan. 8.

And on Jan. 14.

Cheever addressed this in her biography on Wilson, writing on page 249 that in his final days he asked Dannenberg for whiskey but "instead of complying, Dannenberg sat down and asked Bill if he wanted to talk." In another passage, Cheever noted that according to Dannenberg's log, "Wilson was quite upset when he couldn't have what he asked for" as there was "no whiskey at Stepping Stones," adding that "a few days later [Wilson] became belligerent and tried to punch the nurse." Cheever noted in her biography:

By the fourteenth of January, Bill Wilson, a man who hadn't had a drink in almost thirty-seven years, a man who had discovered what is still the only successful way to treat alcoholism, was asking for whiskey again. He was an alcoholic. Alcoholics drink, they love to drink, and for a long time drinking works for them. Some discover, as Bill had, that it is almost impossible for them to stop drinking. Many never stopped wanting to drink. It's a measure of the power of alcohol that even in his last days alive, Bill Wilson still wanted a whiskey.

Journalist Don Lattin also touched on this incident in his 2012 book "Distilled Spirits":

Two male nurses cared for him at his home. On Christmas Day, one of the nurses noted in his log that Wilson "asked for three shots of whiskey" and became belligerent when told there was no liquor in the house. He continued to make this demand over the final couple of weeks of his life — a testament to the enduring power of alcohol.

Moreover, the recovery community has widely discussed the story of Wilson's deathbed request for whiskey, with posts on forums such as SoberRecovery.com and Medium's Illumination reflecting individuals' discussions about Wilson's final days and the significance of his request.

Despite maintaining his sobriety for 36 years, we should note that Wilson experimented with LSD in his recovery. In 2012, The Guardian reported on his experiences with the potent psychedelic LSD, citing letters and documents that Lattin obtained for "Distilled Spirits."

Beginning in the 1950s, about 20 years after getting sober and establishing AA, Wilson explored the idea that LSD could aid "cynical alcoholics" in finding spiritual enlightenment and overcoming addiction. He initially considered the substance as a means for individuals to understand the hallucinations induced by alcoholism, possibly motivating them to change their behavior.

However, after his first LSD experience in 1956, Wilson shifted perspective, believing that LSD-induced insights could align with the spiritual principles of the Twelve Steps program. Although some within the recovery community acknowledged the potential spiritual benefits of LSD, many AA members opposed Wilson's experiments, leading to his eventual withdrawal from the AA governing body to pursue his psychedelics research freely.

In sum, evidence presented from credible historical accounts and various books written about him supports the claim that despite his lifelong struggle with alcoholism, Wilson did indeed request whiskey several times on his deathbed, but was ultimately denied it. (While it's well-documented that he believed LSD had potential in treating alcoholism and achieving spiritual awakening, historical records do not indicate that he was high on psychedelics leading up to his death.)

Snopes has previously written about alcohol and addiction, including how the federal government poisoned alcohol to curb consumption during Prohibition, and a false claim that booze is illegal in the U.S. unless it's radioactive.


Cheever, Susan. "BILL W. : The Healer." Time, 14 June 1999. content.time.com, https://content.time.com/time/subscriber/article/0,33009,991266-1,00.html.

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---. My Name Is Bill: Bill Wilson—His Life and the Creation of Alcoholics Anonymous. Simon and Schuster, 2015.

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Hill, Amelia. "LSD Could Help Alcoholics Stop Drinking, AA Founder Believed." The Guardian, 23 Aug. 2012. The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/science/2012/aug/23/lsd-help-alcoholics-theory.

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https://www.cato.org/commentary/bill-wilson-drug-war#:~:text=In%20Drehle's%20article%2C%20we%20learn,He%20was%20never%20given%20one. Accessed 16 May 2024.