Police Raid at Alcoholic Hospital

Local history: Police raid at alcoholic hospital makes headlines in 1950s

 
By Mark J. Price
Beacon Journal staff writer
Published: April 7, 2013

Investigators spent months of surveillance at the building, quietly observing the arrival and departure of guests, noting every vehicle that parked in the lot and using binoculars to peer into windows at night.

When the police raid inevitably came, it made front-page news in Akron.

The Serenity Prayer, adopted by Alcoholics Anonymous, reads: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.”

The Silver Maple Alcoholic Hospital sometimes didn’t know the difference.

The 25-bed institution opened in the mid-1940s in an aging, two-story frame house at 1453 S. Arlington St. near the Hillwood Homes development. Its superintendent was Samuel S. Cummings, who gave up a factory job at Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. in an effort to rehabilitate men and women suffering from alcoholism.

Silver Maple, a for-profit facility, charged patients a $60 fee, payable in advance, for a five-day stay. Despite its cramped conditions, the home still filled a need in Akron.

In the 1940s, when police arrested alcoholic offenders, they were sent to the Summit County Jail to “dry out.” The probate court reviewed the patients’ cases to determine if they had a psychosis, and if so, transported them to the Summit County Receiving Hospital in Cuyahoga Falls, later known as Fallsview Psychiatric Hospital. The problem with this procedure was that the county jail and receiving hospital often were filled to capacity. Patients were forced to go elsewhere.

The treatment of alcoholism was still evolving.

Dr. Robert Smith, an Akron physician, co-founded Alcoholics Anonymous in June 1935 in Akron with New York stockbroker Bill Wilson. Sister Ignatia Gavin agreed to admit Wilson to St. Thomas Hospital under the guise of “acute gastritis.” A year later, the Akron hospital opened the country’s first ward dedicated to treatment of alcoholic patients.

Silver Maple was a decidedly low-rent operation in a rickety home that could have used a good cleaning. Its patients were hard-luck cases who needed a place to stay while battling their demons. Pale, sweaty, agitated and sick, they often suffered convulsions and delirium while tossing about on less-than-sterile cots.

“I have been devoting my time to rehabilitating men and women in Akron from this alcoholic problem, and have been active in helping judges care for men who had become a nuisance to the courts and had been neglecting their families,” Cummings explained to the Beacon Journal.

He posted “Quiet Please!” signs throughout the home and supplied old magazines and comic books for patients who felt well enough to read.

A native of Scotland, Cummings was a cigar-smoking, bespectacled man who wore nice suits to the office. He maintained a locked medicine cabinet and kept an oxygen tank in case patients needed to be resuscitated.

The superintendent’s assistants routinely gave patients injections to quiet them and make them sleep. This became a point of controversy because the staff often didn’t know what it was dispensing. The shots, which sold for $1, were logged as “Vitamin B1.”

Cummings later acknowledged that the injections were a hyoscine-morphine-cactoid compound of habit-forming drugs that produced “anesthetic somnolence” and were intended for minor surgery.

At least five people died at Silver Maple during its first years of operation. According to the county coroner, causes of death ranged from heart disease, bronchial pneumonia, barbiturate poisoning and acute alcoholism.

In the early 1950s, Akron police received a tip from the distraught wife of a former patient who questioned his treatment at the hospital. Sgt. Paul Wein, leader of the narcotics squad, ordered an investigation into the distribution of drugs.

Detectives Florian Smole, David Wise and Thomas Brown pored over thousands of prescriptions for narcotics and barbiturates. They learned that the hospital’s Ohio Department of Health certificate hadn’t been renewed in five years.

They also learned that the nurses’ training ranged from an advanced first-aid class to a correspondence course.

Peering through binoculars at night, investigators saw motorists park outside Silver Maple, enter the building and disappear behind closed doors in Cummings’ office.

A patient told police that he had not been seen by a physician during three days at the home, “at least not while I was sober enough to remember it.”

Investigators found there was no doctor: Cummings did not have a medical degree. Despite its name, Silver Maple was not truly a hospital.

City, state and federal agents raided the office in 1952, seizing hypodermic needles and vials of phenobarbital, pentobarbital and tuinal — drugs that carried a high risk of dependency and overdose.

Cummings, 52, was charged with practicing medicine without a license, but insisted he had done nothing wrong. He told agents that he was “under the impression” that the state had authorized his staff to carry out “the regular routine of the hospitals.”

“To the best of my knowledge, all this publicity and trouble is due to the jealousy of others connected with this work,” he said. “My records and general setup has been open for inspection at all times. Regardless of this scandal, I’m not going to stop my work.”

The Akron Health Department ordered that a registered nurse be kept on duty at Silver Maple to care for the patients, but gave Cummings “a reasonable time” to find one. The hospital continued to accept alcoholic patients.

The case took nearly a year to resolve. In 1953, Cummings decided to plead guilty before Akron Municipal Judge William H. Victor on a charge of illegal practice of medicine.

“I didn’t know I was doing anything wrong,” he told the judge.

In a surprising turn, Prosecutor Richard M. Stewart urged leniency, saying Cummings was doing “humanitarian work” and “some consideration should be given.”

The proprietor was fined $100 plus court costs.

Despite the guilty plea, Cummings remained in business, operating the facility until his death in 1957 at age 58 after a long illness.

New owner Frank Hadveck renamed it Akron Alcoholic Rest Home and reduced its occupancy to eight beds. In April 1959, the city shut it down.

Chief Sanitation Inspector Floyd Rees revoked the home’s license, citing a “serious situation” involving barbiturates and a “lack of proper care of patients.” At any rate, improvements in treatment were making such homes obsolete.

In the 1960s, the property served as a storage area for unclaimed freight. Today, it’s the address of a fast-food restaurant near Arlington Plaza Shopping Center.

Motorists who order at the drive-through window probably have no idea of the pain and suffering that once occupied that space, and it’s probably just as well that they don’t know.

Mark J. Price is the author of The Rest Is History: True Tales From Akron’s Vibrant Past, a book from the University of Akron Press. He can be reached at 330-996-3850 or [email protected]


By Jim Carney

© Beacon Journal


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