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Dr. J. H. Mclean’s Peace Makers

May 2024
6min read

Sixty-five years before the bomb destroyed Hiroshima, a medicine man from Sf. Louis dreamed up a weapons system “so terrible and devastating” as to banish war forever. He would be, he modestly admitted, the savior of mankind

At almost any moment during the decade that began in 1870 a thoughtful man could be forgiven for thinking the world was going up the spout. On this side of the Atlantic carpetbaggers and scalawags swarmed over a beaten South; other enlightened Americans were liberating the Great Plains by exterminating the resident Indians and buffalo. Across the water an older civilization verged on the abyss. Statesmen pondered what Bismarck, the German strong man, would do next. The Balkan cauldron bubbled angrily; there were dark hints of secret pacts; Austria and Russia were squabbling over the Near East; fighting broke out between Russia and Turkey; and a British fleet sailed to support the Turks while the music halls resounded to: “ We don’t want to fight, but by jingo, if we do, We’ve got the men, we’ve got the ships, we’ve got the money too .” Day after day, month upon month, tension mounted. If ever a great man was needed, it was now.

Help, fortunately, was on the way … as conveniently announced in the pages of a thin but imperative volume published in 1880. (Its title page is reproduced in part above.) In every previous crisis, an introduction observed, a MAN had been at hand, waiting in the wings, as it were. France had had her Napoleon, England her Wellington, America her Washington and Grant. And now an eager, anxious world was “peering through the mists of the future, waiting and watching for another coming man, who, by the power of his great intellect, the force of his determined purpose, may stay the onrushing tide of tyranny and bloodshed, and prove to be A SAVIOR AND LIBERATOR OF HIS RACE . Such a man is … DR. JAMES HENRY MC LEAN , of St. Louis, Mo., whose name will soon be heralded from one end of the earth to the other.”

This shrink-proof violet, who would cause swords to be beaten into plowshares, whose motto was “Save the Lives of the People,” had begun life in Scotland in 1829. Later he had moved with his parents to Nova Scotia, to whose invigorating climate he owed the “great vital strength” which sustained the demands on his powerful brain. In 1849 ne arrived in St. Louis—at the same time as a cholera epidemic. A young man of “snap” and “push,” he was so little daunted by the plague that he bought and sold a piece of real estate at a profit on his first day in town. Sometime later he went into partnership with Dr. Addison G. Bragg, known far and wide for his Mexican Mustang Liniment, his Volcanic Oil Liniment, and his Indian Queen Vegetable Anti-Bilious Tonic Pills. The alliance was short-lived, however, for McLean soon struck out on his own, opened a store, and sent agents travelling through the countryside to peddle such products as McLean’s Volcanic Oil Liniment, McLean’s Strengthening Cordial and Blood Purifier, and McLean’s paper, The Spirit of the Times . The little store expanded into Dr. J. H. McLean’s Grand Tower Block, and the prosperous doctor became steward of the First Methodist Church. He held other high offices, but for all his conquest of disease, for all his successes, the doctor’s “great heart burned to go on—go on to do more for his fellow men.” He would attack mankind’s sole remaining enemy—War.




“This work is more than opportune—it is imperative.”


The doctor Thought Big, as the opening words of his book suggest. His idea, put very simply, was to “develop such terribly destructive weapons of war, arms, torpedoes, and fortresses, and such perfect defenses, as would compel all nations to keep peace towards each other.” And although his was a naturally inventive mind (he had dreamed up an elevator for raising sand from river bottoms, and had proposed an elevated railway which would run along the St. Louis levee), he sought outside help on his ambitious, humanitarian project. He turned to a man named Myron Coloney, spiritualist, newspaperman, and author ( Wolf Ledge: A Tale of Trials and Triumphs in the West ), who possessed, the doctor said, a “profoundly reflective mind and great inventive power.” Nothing less would have produced the instruments of war they devised.


If the doctor had concocted nothing more useful in the course of his busy life than these Iron Forms, the book modestly suggested, “he would still be entitled to the thanks and gratitude of mankind.” Stood on edge, the Iron Forms became a handy bulwark; folded to form hollow cubes, they became feed boxes for horses; laid flat, they made a cooking range. Had they been used in the Indian country (“A few wagon loads of Dr. J. H. McLean’s Iron Forms, hauled along …”) both life and property could have been spared; had the Russians had the Forms, to be made quickly into forts, the slaughter in the Crimea need not have occurred.


Turning his agile mind to nautical matters, the doctor proposed a swift fighting ship constructed entirely of thin iron, invulnerable to shot, carrying only four guns of the largest and most perfect accuracy (Dr. J. H. McLean’s ioo-ton gun Hercules), and capable of speeding through the water at thirty miles per hour. He had “mentally constructed” such a vessel, he stated, and had “caused a new style of engines and boilers to be invented.” But for “obvious reasons,” they could not be described fully in the book. By way of warning, however, he asked if Americans realized that the Spanish navy was superior to their own, that the United States was at the mercy of Spain’s big guns. “We present a pitiable spectacle to the world,” the anguished doctor cried. “Let the United States spend three hundred millions in the next five years!”

Concluding his naval section on a positive, upbeat note, he described a “fitting coronal to his other magnificent achievements”—Dr. J. H. McLean’s Wonderful Hydrophone. Fastened to the bows of ships, so sensitive that it would pick up the roar of breakers, the splash of oars, the grunt of porpoises, or the noise of an iceberg, this marvelous invention would make the world “bless the day that DR. JAMES HENRY MC LEAN first saw the light.”

Seventy-six pages—over one third of the book- McLean devoted to the subject of cannon. In tones dripping with sarcasm, he attacked worn-out theories of gunnery and scoffed at those who derided his “new fangled ordnance.”


he announced; he would organize “a colossal company,” capitalized at $20,000,000, for the purpose of building his great Peace-Makers. Soon, if all went well, it would be turning out his “surf-fighting ships, his impregnable fortresses, his iron forms, his magnetic torpedoes, his terrible shells and the entire range of his magazine arms, battery guns and monster breech-loading cannon.” Capitalists of all nations were advised to write the doctor in St. Louis, for there were


Vividly described were his Annihilator, General Grant, Pulverizer, and other revolutionary weapons, but these were only prelude to the pièce de rèsistance —the perfection of modern ordnance—the Lady McLean, named for his wife. This horrendous gun, it was said, could fire up to 2,000 shots a minute, cutting down long ranks of men at one sweep. And just to prove the point, the doctor included a drawing that showed a handful of artillerists coolly manning a line of Lady McLean guns, shattering a charge by the Light Brigade (which made it once too often for the six hundred).

Equally diabolical was a weapon he had contrived for naval warfare—the Octopus or Devil Fish Torpedo. Observing saselv that “a torpedo must be made to go to the ship, instead of expecting the ship to come to the torpedo,” the doctor explained how his device would fasten itself to an enemy vessel by means of powerful horseshoe magnets and explode when the timing mechanism went off. Offensive weapons were not the only tricks in Dr. McLean’s bulging bag. Having seen how inferior fortifications failed to keep the Germans out of Paris in 1871 (he carefully calculated France’s financial losses in that war at fifteen billion dollars, including five billion for “national humiliation”), he set himself the task of inventing a proper fort. The result was predictable:


Touching only briefly on the dimensions of these bastions, noting that they would be plated with armor backed by broken granite, and filled with watertight compartments, the doctor considered it unnecessary to give full details regarding construction. “It is sufficient to state in a general way that Dr. McLean is fully posted as to the best means of building them, their cost, the best means for ventilating, lighting and storing them for a siege … the main thing is to prevail upon the various governments of the world to adopt them.” To that end, copies of the book were mailed to all the crowned heads of Europe. From Turkey, at least, came a heartening reply:

“His Majesty the Sultan congratulates you on the success of your inventions. Send, exclusively for the Sultan, one gun for cavalry, one for infantry, and two pistols, with one thousand cartridges each …”


For all his concentration on huge, powerful weapons, Dr. McLean had not neglected the foot soldier’s needs. Repeating rifles—of which the 128-shot “James Gordon Bennett” was his prize example—had been invented, as had a MagazinePistol. The picture below “shows what a hunted and desperate dragoon armed with a brace of Dr. J. H. McLean’s repeating pistols can be expected to do. These pistols carry 48 shots each, hence this resolute man has possibly the lives of 96 of his would-be captors at will … he might prove a very usrly customer.”

The records do not show whether McLean’s Colossal Company was far enough along to make delivery of the somewhat meager order to the Turkish Sultan (or, indeed, if any of his Peace-Makers got off the drawing board before his death in 1886). We do know, however, that the doctor soon received an otter to become director of the Sultan’s artillery works. “Deeply sensible of the honor,” the medicine-man-turned-peacemaker declined. Perhaps, after all, he really did want to “Save the Lives of the People.”

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