Jerry McAuley – The Water Street Mission

By bob k

Salvation from alcoholic dissipation through religious conversion is not unprecedented.  The tale of Jerry McAuley is a classic one, as he was able to achieve sobriety via a spiritual experience, and then to maintain this new lifestyle by means of service to his fellow man. His story is in William James Varieties of Religious Experience, a book given to Bill Wilson in Towns Hospital by his new evangelistic friends.  Bill Wilson went on to found AA.

Sixty years earlier, McAuley had gone on to establish “the world’s first rescue mission – where the drunkard was more welcome than the sober man, the thief preferred to the honest man, the harlot favored over the beautiful woman”. (The Roots of Alcoholics Anonymous, Bill Pittman, p. 80)  This took place in New York City on October 8th, 1872.

A Misspent Youth

JerryMcauley -His Life and WorkThe future founder of the McAuley Water Street Mission was born in Ireland, circa 1839. He had no recollection of a father who had fled from the law which sought to arrest him for counterfeiting. His mother either could not, or would not raise him, so he was deposited with a grandmother while he was still a very young child. The grandmother, “a devout Romanist”, could not instill those values into a rebellious young Jerry who threw clumps of dirt at the old woman when she was prostrate in rosary-reciting devotions.

As a youth, he never went to school. Instead, he would “roam about in idleness, doing mischief continually, and suffering from the cruel and harsh treatment of those who had the care of me”. (Jerry McAuley: His life and Work, Robert M. Offord, 1885, p. 10) At the age of thirteen, the youthful miscreant was sent to live with relatives in New York City.

A “River Thief” Gets Framed

In America, teen-aged Jerry McAuley continued his apprenticeship as a minor criminal and a “street tough”.  He became a “river thief”, pillaging whatever he could from boats and waterfront warehouses.  “In the daytime we went up into the city and sold our ill-gotten goods, and with the proceeds dressed up, then spent our time, as long as the money lasted, in the vice dens of Water Street practising all sorts of wickedness.”(JM, p. 11)

The young thug became highly skilled as a fighter and became hated not only by the “straight” citizens but by his confreres in the underworld. At the age of nineteen, he was accused of highway robbery, convicted, and sentenced to fifteen years of hard labor. Thus he was off to Sing Sing, for a crime he forever claimed he did not commit.

“Awful” Gardner

Orville Gardner who had converted to Christianity, leaving behind a life of crime, was allowed to come to Sing Sing to preach. Jerry McAuley was about five years into his sentence when one Sunday he listened to “Awful” Gardner’s tearful tale of reformation. Convinced of the sincerity of the former criminal, McAuley began to read the Bible. No immediate transformation was wrought, and for several weeks he was conflicted.

Then one day in his tiny cell, an inner voice directed him, “Pray”.  A spiritual experience ensued leaving him with a conviction that his sins were forgiven and that life had become “new”.  “I was happy, for Jesus was my friend; my sins were washed away and my heart was full of love.” (JM, p. 20) Feeling the call to evangelize, he had some success in converting others. When mocked by the other inmates, he prayed to forgive them. This reformation impressed the Governor, and a pardon was issued. On March 8th, 1864, the twenty-six year old convict was set free, the latter half of his sentence commuted.

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Salvation

Released from prison, McAuley set out to associate with Christians. Unfortunately, he had a chance encounter with an old friend who persuaded him to try the new and “harmless” lager beer.  “I drank it, and thus began my downfall… The old appetite was awakened. From that time, I drank every day… Satan got completely the upper hand of me.” (JM, p. 23) In a short time, lager beer was replaced with stronger liquors.

For a time, McAuley worked as a bounty hunter, getting young men very drunk and enlisted into the Union army. Smuggling and counterfeiting were added to his resume. A boat was acquired and, with a partner, the old river thievery was resumed. One night, a fire aboard the “Idaho”, a ferry, provided a great opportunity for looting, but McAuley instead was inspired to rescue passengers from the river after they had abandoned the flaming craft.

Possibly already reconsidering his life of crime, one night he was very nearly shot by a ship’s captain while trying to steal from his vessel a part that would fetch less than two dollars. However, the “devil-may-care” criminals had no rainy day reserve of funds, and were propelled by need to a continuation of the pilfering. One night while too drunk to assist his cohort, McAuley fell into the water and knowing he was about to drown, a voice told him to call out to God, which he did. “I seemed to be lifted right up to the surface of the water and the boat… was brought right to me, so that I could get a hold of it… It always seemed to me a miracle.” (p. 26)

A sobering experience!  Or possibly not.

A Pledge and a Coat

“I drank, and drank, and drank. But no amount of liquor could drown that inward voice.” (JM, p. 27) At the Howard Mission, he signed a temperance pledge. Recounting this to his partner only an hour later, the man laughed at him and proffered a glass of gin. Perhaps conflicted once again, McAuley downed the spirits but declared that it was his last drink. Nonetheless, financial destitution was compelling him back to his familiar means of “earning” a dishonest living, when a missionary offered to sell his coat so that Jerry would not go out on the river to steal.

He was moved.

The good man went away and returned with fifty cents, which he turned over with the words, “Pray for yourself, and God will save you”. This elicited a second spiritual experience, this one “more calm and peaceful”. (JM, p. 31)  McAuley stayed sober under the close ministrations of his new friend. After a few months, the mentor went away and “the devil made me drink again”. (JM, p. 32)

There’s a Train A’comin’

Plagued with guilt, the fallen sinner found a church where he was unrelieved by his prayers and came up with a plan to kill himself. Saved by the conductor from a very slow-moving train, McAuley found a meeting and confessed his sins, seeking God’s forgiveness. “I fell once after that, but God lifted me up again”. (JM, p. 33)

Alfrederick Hatch

Jerry McAuley had gone straight, and a fellow Christian from the opposite end of the social spectrum was impressed, and became his “confidant”.  Businessman, Alfrederick Hatch was a Wall Street banker who had been president of the New York Stock Exchange. In October of 1872, Hatch donated a house at 316 Water St., and funds were raised to repair the property. The McAuley Water Street Mission was founded, America’s first ever “Rescue Mission”.  (There are over 300 today in North America.)

A very shaky post Civil War economy, as well as a giant wave of European immigration to New York, made this a time of exceptional hardship and poverty. The Water Street Mission provided food and shelter for the body and an offer of Christ for the soul. “They were the first to open the doors of a religious institution every night of the year to the outcasts of society.” (NYC Rescue Mission Website)


Among those assisted by the operation were a number of drunkards, some number of which were led to sobriety through the channel of Christian surrender, but also under the very practical mentoring of Jerry McAuley. Some sixty-five years later, Dr. Bob Smith would write of Bill Wilson and the impact of their first meeting, “…he was the first human being with whom I had ever talked, who knew what he was talking about in regard to alcoholism from actual experience. In other words, he talked my language”.  (Big Book, p. 180)  Jerry McAuley also spoke that language.

The Mission motto was “Helping Hand For Men”.  The sobered drunks were encouraged to “pass it on” to others.  The “helped” became helpers.

Times Square and Time’s Up

In 1882, McAuley left Water St. in the care of others and moved on to start the Cremorne Mission near Times Square. Similar works were done there. In 1884, tuberculosis ended the life of a still young Jerry McAuley, but had he continued drinking he very likely would have gone far sooner.


One Wednesday evening in 1882, Jerry McAuley helped convert a drunkard by the name of Samuel Hopkins Hadley. After Hadley’s conversion, he became an active and successful member of McAuley’s Water St. Mission. He even lured his drunkard brother, Colonel Henry Harrison Hadley, down to Water Street one night in July, 1886 and helped to convert him… From the 1890s until his death in 1906, Samuel Hadley traveled to Winona to participate in the annual Great Bible Conference, as did representatives from missions across the nation… Whenever it was known that S.H. Hadley was to speak the people with one accord rushed to hear him…

Hadley’s son was converted three days after his father’s death. Henry Harrison Hadley II became a missionary like his father and traveled throughout the United States doing Christian work. In 1926 he helped open Calvary Mission in New York City with Rev. Sam Shoemaker. Over the years, many drunkards were converted at this mission… On December 7, 1934, Calvary Mission had a first-time visitor, William Griffith Wilson. This visit helped precipitate Wilson’s last debauche and four days later on December 11, 1934, he entered Towns Hospital which was to become his final detoxification.  (Pittman, pp. 80-81)


It remains, and will continue to be, a matter of debate as to what were the exact causative factors, in these “religious” redemptions. For some, these transformations lie beyond the scope of human manipulation, and are wrought only through unmerited grace bestowed by some Ultimate Power. Perhaps this is so.

Perhaps not.

Others lacking belief in the Power, readily acknowledge the power of belief.

It is fascinating that surrender to the divine produced in Jerry McAuley spiritual experiences that had no lasting effect until he had, what AA would call, a “practical program of action”.  For the secularist, helping others may have been the definitive factor in his long term success. As McAuley shared with others, the role of identification is difficult to deny. Within the Mission, and its broader purposes, a small aggregation of alcoholics was able to gather and develop a community of like-minded fellows, a formula previously proven highly effective with the Washingtonians. Early in the twentieth century, the Jacoby Club in Boston followed their slogan of “Men Helping Themselves By Helping Others” to significant number of reclamations.

Other groups in other locales did likewise, and forged a path for the most efficacious and enduring of them all, Alcoholics Anonymous.  How does it all work?

Who’s to say?

Key-Players-Front-Cover1-e1422583040318About the Author, Bob K

Bob K. lives in the Metropolitan Toronto area, and has been a sober member of Alcoholics Anonymous for 24 years, and an out-of-the-closet atheist for that entire time. He has been a regular contributor to the AAAgnostica website for almost 5 years, and in January, 2015, published “Key Players in AA History” In 2013, he cofounded the Whitby Freethinkers meeting.

This Post Has 4 Comments

  1. Dave B

    Who’s to say how the idea of a supernatural protector seems to be pre-programmed into many of us. I would not deny them the comfort it gives them. For me, however, the world seems to unfold a whole lot like no one’s looking.

    Dave B

  2. Thomas B

    Thanks so much, John, for sharing this story from Bob K. I especially appreciate, Bob, how you tell the story, detailing just the facts, without concluding that MacAuley’s conversion was due to intercession from a divine entity — maybe it was, but likewise you assert maybe it wasn’t. You do, however, identify what I have become convinced is the primary healing dynamic in play — the human power of sharing our stories, one drunkard with another, through which together both can stay sober.

    My wife Jill and I were at the Gatehouse of the Sieberling estate in Akron a couple of days ago. We sat in the small library of the main entrance hall where Bill had his first encounter with Dr. Bob, who was only going to stay 15 minutes max due to his still raging hangover for being drunk the day before. Bill hooked him by leaning across a small table and proclaiming he wasn’t there to get Dr. Bob sober, but that he needed Dr. Bob so that he, Bill, would stay sober. They talked for over four hours and began the grand adventure that AA today, especially secular AA, still unfolds today.

    One of the panels explicating the story of Bill and Dr. Bob’s initial fortuitous encounter in the Gatehouse mirrors the questioning, Bob, you have about the cause of McAuley’s sobriety. The headline on the panel describing the encounter reads: “Coincidence, Luck or God’s Will? Stumbling Onto Each Other in Akron”

  3. John S

    This was very interesting. I enjoy history and I find AA history particularly fascinating. It’s helpful to understand from where these ideas arose. I never knew the story of Jerry McAuley and that it was documented in William James “Varieties of Religious Experiences”, but I can see how this story would have influenced Bill W .

    1. bob k

      Most of the characters in my book, and a few NOT in it (Sister Ignatia, as an example) had a more direct involvement with Bill Wilson, and the birth and/or development of AA. I fought for inclusion of the McAuley tale, and similarly, that of Dr. Benjamin Rush, because I found their stories fascinating.

      My book brings the view of the secularist to AA history, a history that is rich with instances of human power successes in the battle against alcoholism. McAuley’s story is fun due to his continual relapse to drinking AFTER divine intervention, UNTIL he adopted the AA-like practice of attempting to help others. Some see such actions at the very core of AA’s effectiveness, may the Lord forgive us.

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