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Sweet Extract Of Hokum
Patent medicines were usually neither patented nor medicinal, which is not to say they didn’t (and don’t) have any effect
June 1971 | Volume 22, Issue 4
Lydia didn’t have long to enjoy her success. She died in 1883, but her fame went marching on. For years the Ladies Home Journal tried in exasperation to explain to its readers that Lydia had gone to her reward and that when suffering women wrote to her, the reply came from a corps of ten-dollar-a-week clerks. Edward Bok, the editor of the Journal , even printed a photograph of Lydia’s tombstone. It made no difference. His readers preferred old error to new truth and steadfastly clung to the belief that their medical friend was still slaving away for them in her laboratory in Lynn, Massachusetts. Thousands of sufferers continued to write about their troubles. They took the medicine. They felt better. Who can say flatly that they were absolutely cheated? The Vegetable Compound did, after all, provide the customers with psychological sedation and the geniality of a cocktail.
Many of the secret remedies were, however, cruelly vicious, especially that category containing habitforming drugs. Dr. Sway me’s Wild Cherry Tonic, for example, which “cured” tuberculosis, depended for its analgesic effect upon morphine, “the draught … that bids Consumption fly.” The usage of opium derivatives, such as codeine or cocaine, was so general during and after the Civil War that addiction was commonly described by the euphemism “the Army disease.” Especially insidious were the catarrh powders and the soothing syrups whose content of morphine sulphate made it certain that teething children would not fret. Even more brutal, if one can make a very fine distinction, were the mail-order drug-habit “cures” that followed the “hair of the dog” theory. “Practically all of these advertised remedies are simply the drug itself in concealed form,” wrote Samuel Hopkins Adams in his exposé, The Great American Fraud (1906). No wonder, then, that the “Gradual Reduction Treatment” was so gradual that the victims were under treatment for up to twenty years.
The contact between those who were doctoring and the picturesque characters who supplied the necessary merchandise was even more intimate when the medicineshow artists came to town; for example, such a remarkable individual as “Doc,” or sometimes “Colonel,” John E. Healy. Healy travelled the eastern parts of the United States in a big, brightly painted wagon in the interest of the Healy Liver Pad Concert Company. After a free show by the three performers who made up the cast there was a subtle change of mood. The Doctor-Colonel came forward and gravely began his pitch: “These pads, ladies and gentlemen, contain no harmful chemicals …” This was a true statement. According to competing professors the pads were stuffed with sawdust that had been doped to “smell like a drugstore.”
Later Healy, in an inspired moment, thought of peddling Indian herb medicines through the Indians themselves, thus capitalizing on curiosity about the Old West. The Indians would arrive in a town like Colebrook, New Hampshire, and set up their tepees with their medicinal herbs bubbling in a pot right in front of the tents. Out of this imaginative concept came the Kickapoo Indian Medicine Company. In its great days this firm sent out from seventy-five to a hundred complete carnival companies in a single season, known as the Kicks in the circus world. Each one was under the guidance of a long-haired “grinder,” or “Indian Agent,” who gave the medical lecture decked out in a yellow buckskin costume and looking like General G’fcster in Cassily Adams’ gory but fascinating color lithograph, Custer’s Last Fight .
The scenario for the Kicks, which originally called for cooking up the medicines in front of the wigwams, proved cumbersome. So Healy and his partner, “Texas Charley” Bigelow, settled for having the Indians out on the western plains ship the dry botanicals to New Haven, Connecticut, where they were processed in a factory at 521 Grand Avenue. It was known in company nomenclature as the Principal Wigwam.