PART TWO of "Ralph Pfau (Father John Doe) and the Golden Books," talk given by Glenn F. Chesnut at the 6th National Archives Workshop, September 29, 2001, held across the river from Louisville, Kentucky, in Clarksville, Indiana.

St. Augustine’s in Jeffersonville:
1935-37 and the great flood

  Apparently the bishop felt that Ralph had settled down now, and that it was safe to let him out of his direct view, so in July 1935, he appointed him assistant pastor at St. Augustine’s in Jeffersonville, Indiana. Back in the old riverboat days, some of the great paddlewheelers were built in Jeffersonville, and the Howard Steamboat Museum there reminds us that, prior to the Civil War, it was in fact Jeffersonville, not Louisville, which seemed destined to become the great city at the falls of the Ohio.

In the late 1800's, large paddlewheel steamboats
took cargo and passengers down the Ohio river to
the Mississippi, and on to New Orleans. This boat
was built in Jeffersonville, which is on the north
bank of the Ohio river, opposite Louisville.

But by Ralph’s time, Louisville had become the big city, and Ralph often crossed the bridge to visit there. His ties to certain parts of Kentucky were strong during much of his adult life -- not as important as his Indiana connections, but important nevertheless.

Jeffersonville, Indiana as seen from the Louisville,
Kentucky side of the Ohio river. The river is still
an important freight route for long trains of
low barges carrying coal and other goods.

St. Augustine’s was in the 300 block of Locust Street in Jeffersonville. Once he took up his post as assistant pastor there, Ralph again took on the athletic program, coaching football, basketball, and baseball all three. Ralph organized the first Indiana state parochial school basketball tournament ever conducted, held on March 12-13, 1936. He brags about how his St. Augustine boys won 24 of their 26 games, and won the state title. He loved to organize, and he loved to compete and win, and sports gave him an outlet for this energy.

The greatest natural catastrophe ever to hit the area where we are having our workshop today, was the Great 1937 Flood. Older people were still talking about it when I was a child in Louisville later on. The rain started on Thursday, Jan. 14, 1937, and by Thursday, Jan. 21 the river had risen over 48 feet, and was still rising. People began to worry about whether the Jeffersonville dike would hold.

Their fears were justified. The next morning, Ralph heard a roar, and looked out the window of the parish house and saw huge torrents of water pouring through the ruptured dike. “The waters hit the side of the parish house like a tidal wave,” Ralph said. “We were ankle-deep before we realized what had happened.” As they scrambled up the stairs to the second floor, the waters rose to five feet deep down on the first floor -- and the church and parish house were on some of the highest ground in Jeffersonville.

Boats finally came and got them out. Ralph ended up at the Tyler Hotel, on the corner of Main and Third Streets in Louisville (one of the places they were putting the refugees). The U.S. Army was called in to patrol downtown Louisville, with orders to shoot and kill looters on sight. Ralph and the others stood in line every morning for their day’s ration of bread, and they lived on just bread and coffee for the last three days in that refugee center. Finally, nine days after arriving in Louisville, Ralph was able to get a bus to Cincinnati, cross the Ohio river there, and make his way back to Indianapolis.

The good bishop promptly ordered him right back to the flood area. He was to take up residence at St. Edward’s Hospital in New Albany, Indiana (which is the adjoining town immediately to the west of Clarksville and Jeffersonville), where he was to say masses for the flood refugees and the clean-up workers. The heartbreaking part of a flood like that is cleaning up the stinking mud and soggy debris afterwards. Ralph reacted like any alcoholic would to that kind of stress. That night, he started drinking again. He and Father Bryan, the chief pastor, said masses in both New Albany and Jeffersonville, administered the last rites, and donned work clothes to clean up the church property. Ralph kept going by drinking through large parts of every day. He kept a bottle in the car, and would down a slug straight from the bottle as he drove along, and chase it with a Coke.

By early Fall of 1937, Ralph was drinking whenever he felt like it -- which was often -- every day, and had ceased to think or care about what he was doing. In spite of that, or because of that, Ralph was appointed to his first independent pastorate, where he would be the one in charge.

St. Bernard’s in Snake Run: 1937-1939

  At any rate, for whatever motive on the bishop’s part, on November 13, 1937, Ralph was appointed pastor of St. Bernard’s Church at Snake Run, in Gibson County, Indiana. That county is located where the White River flows into the Wabash, over in the extreme southwestern corner of Indiana. To get there, they drove a little over two hours almost due west from Jeffersonville along a main highway, presumably state highway 64, then turned off onto a smaller blacktop road, then after three or four miles, made another turn onto what was only an extremely bumpy gravel road. After jouncing for six miles over the narrow gravel farm road, they came to  

  "a typical country church, a white square building, with a spire in front .... There was an ancient house beside it. It had once been white, but now was sadly in need of a coat of paint."  

  Ralph, a city boy, was appalled. There was no electricity (the priest was expected to use kerosene lamps) and no running water. You went out the side door to draw water from a well, and went around back to use the outhouse. There was supposed to be a coal furnace for heating. The priest who was leaving took Ralph to the barn out back, and explained that you could  

  "'raise just about anything you want here -- corn, peas, beans, wheat, lettuce, cabbage -- and you’ll find that it pays . . . . I keep what I need myself, and go into town every Saturday to sell the rest. This is a poor parish. The money comes in mighty handy. I don’t know what I’d do without it.'"  

  The parish consisted of the farmers (mostly of German background) from the farmland that stretched for many miles around, about fifty families in all. The nearest real city was Evansville, Indiana, twenty-three miles southwest, built right on the banks of the Ohio river at a point where the huge, wide river makes one of its sharpest bends and almost curves back on itself.

He began going to Evansville a night or two every week, and then sometimes would stay overnight with friends there. Then he started going across the river to Louisville, and spending two or three days there. His drinking habits had also changed: instead of mechanically drinking two or three highballs every evening, when he drank he was now taking bourbon straight, and then chasing it with beer, and working up a real drunk.

Then he had an experience that truly frightened him. One afternoon he went down to Evansville, Indiana, down on the Ohio river, and drank nonstop from 5:00 p.m. to midnight. He then went into his first blackout -- ten hours when he could not remember anything he had done -- and came out of the blackout at 10:00 a.m. the next day, passed out in his car, on a macadam road twenty miles north of Snake Run.

That frightened him to death, but of course he did not stop drinking after that experience! -- having frightening blackouts never seems to stop alcoholics from drinking again -- and he began to have other really unpleasant experiences. In October 1938, he had a lot of bourbon one evening, and then woke up in the middle of the night with the shakes. It took him two hours to get back into a partial, fitful sleep, and in the morning he said, “every nerve in my body was screaming. My stomach was jumping and my head throbbing. My knees felt wobbly.” He tried to get through the morning on cigarettes and coffee, because he could not make himself eat anything. From 10:30 till noon, he watched the kitchen clock, and started taking the bromide pills in his bottle, one by one. He took the last pill at three minutes to twelve, and at twelve on the dot, tossed down half a water glass of bourbon, followed by a bottle of beer as a chaser. The one clear thought in his crazed mind as he calmed down was, “I didn’t drink before noon, so I’m not an alcoholic.”

Between October 1938 and the summer of 1939, these mornings began to come more and more frequently. He was suffering from blackouts of an hour or two here and there, but did not think much about that any longer. He developed trenchmouth with bleeding gums from not eating right. Finally in June of 1939, some of his parishioners complained about his drinking to the bishop. The one thing the Church did not want was public scandal involving one of its priests, so the bishop of Indianapolis removed Ralph from his parish on the spot, and ordered him to report as assistant pastor at Holy Rosary Church in Indianapolis as soon as he had returned to health.

The third total breakdown: 1939

  In the summer of 1939, the same year the Big Book was published, and the A.A. message began to be carried to the larger world, Ralph had his third total breakdown and his second institutionalization. He had been put in St. Vincent’s hospital, the big hospital in Indianapolis, simply for medical treatment, but he talked them into sending him off to the Sacred Heart Sanitarium in Milwaukee. On the rail journey there, he got suicidal and thought about jumping from the fast-moving train. At the sanitarium the admitting doctor asked him if he drank, and again, like alcoholics in general do in those situations, he lied massively. Down deep inside, he knew that he drank shamefully, and was so filled with that shame that he could not admit it to anyone else, even (literally) to save his life. He looked the doctor in the eye and said, “Oh, no, I don’t drink much at all.”

The doctor was totally baffled by this, and finally misdiagnosed Ralph as a manic depressive (what psychiatrists now call being bipolar). He told Ralph sadly that he would try to help him, but that he could not give him much hope. He was probably irretrievably insane. They tried what they called the cold water treatment on him for a number of mornings: he was forced to lie naked for a long period of time, covered in sheets and blankets soaked in ice water. His body would finally go into cold shock, and then his mind could relax.

Holy Rosary in Indianapolis: 1939-1942

  By the winter of 1939-40, somewhere in December or January, they finally released him, and he headed back to Indianapolis, where he reported as assistant pastor at Holy Rosary. He only managed to stay away from alcohol for ten months this time.  

St. Anne’s in Indianapolis: 1942-1943

  Nevertheless, in February of 1942, Ralph was appointed pastor of St. Anne’s, which was a small church, “but one of the nicest parishes in town,” he commented in his autobiography. It was over in the Mars Hill section of Indianapolis.  

The fourth total breakdown: 1943

  By December of 1942, only ten months after starting his job at St. Anne’s, Ralph was taking bromides each morning, followed by bourbon and beer from noon to midnight. Ralph’s drinking finally got so much out of hand that word once again got back to diocesan headquarters, and in May of 1943, Ralph was removed from yet another parish by orders of his bishop, and ordered to go this time to the Alexian Brothers Sanitarium in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. The next morning he put a dozen fifths of bourbon in a bag on the front seat of his car and drove off, drinking and driving until he went into a blackout. On Friday he finally came out of the blackout in a small, bare room in the Alexian Brothers Sanitarium. He had driven there from Indianapolis, via Milwaukee (where one of his nephews had seen him), but had no memory at all of what else he had done during those three days.

He also must have decided to replenish his supply of booze right before checking into the sanitarium and then smuggle that in during check-in, so he would not have to stop drinking while he was in the mental institution. This was the kind of place where you needed a good stiff drink every once in a while, you know! Unfortunately, one of the first things they noticed as they helped him get moved into his room there, were the twelve full bottles of liquor in his suitcase. Dr. Bernard Hughes noted their presence and asked him, “Father .... do you drink much?” Ralph smiled right back at him and answered, “Not much .... a little beer now and then.” Then, seeing that the doctor was looking a bit puzzled, he went on to explain that he never drank hard liquor, and that he had bought it to give as presents to friends.

Now at this point, I am not sure who should get our vote for the slowest-witted member of this pair: Father Ralph, who tried to smuggle a whole suitcase full of bourbon into a mental institution and then gave that lame explanation, or Dr. Hughes, who seems to have actually believed it. It was Ralph’s third institutionalization, and each time he lied through his teeth about how much he drank, which in turn caused the psychiatrists each time to totally misdiagnose his real problems. Here in Oshkosh, Dr. Hughes decided that Ralph was schizophrenic.

The people at the Alexian Brothers sanitarium in Oshkosh were determined to try their best to help Ralph, however, so for the next three weeks or so, every two or three days he was put in a car and driven over to the Winnebago State Hospital for the Insane for a shock treatment, and then driven back to the Alexian Brothers again. In those days, psychiatrists used massive electrical currents for these shock treatments. In Ralph’s case, they ran 1,000 milliamps of 110-volt AC current through his brain each time. The electricity they ran through his brain would have lit up a 100-watt light bulb quite brightly.

A retired psychiatrist who remembered those days told me that he had once, back in Vienna, set a woman’s hair on fire by running that kind of current through her head. It really alarmed his nurse, he remembered, but the woman appeared much calmer afterwards, and since she never asked him why some of her hair was singed, he thought it best not to tell her how it had happened.

St. Joan of Arc’s in Indianapolis: 1943-45

  He was released from the sanitarium in late October of 1943 and the bishop of Indianapolis sent Ralph to be one of the assistant pastors at St. Joan of Arc parish in Indianapolis, where the head pastor was Monsignor Clement Bosler. Ralph’s alcoholism had progressed so far by this point, that once he walked outside the walls of the sanitarium, he was almost instantly plunged back into the same horror once again.

It seemed to start up again so innocently. After he had been at St. Joan of Arc’s a week or so, a friend offered him a drink, and he accepted. He promptly drank himself into a total blackout. For the first time, the thought occurred to Ralph: maybe I have a problem with alcohol!

Truly frightened now, he went to see a doctor who gave him such a large dose of Benzedrine that he was out of his mind for two hours. Then he went to another doctor, who gave him barbital instead, which produced L.S.D.-like hallucinations of brightly colored pictures of imaginary scenes. The drugs were now driving him out of his mind, but he did not drink, because he was even more frightened of another alcoholic blackout than he was of the drug effects.