Bad Medicines: Mercury and Self-Medication in the Civil War

During the Civil War, George Washington’s Ferry Farm was the site of Union Army encampments that included some defensive works like a trench dug into the crest of the ridge overlooking the river.  In that trench and throughout Ferry Farm’s landscape, Union soldiers lost and threw away a wide array of military gear and personal belongings, which our archaeologists frequently excavate.

Civil War Trench

Excavated area containing the footprint of the 18th century Washington house at Ferry Farm and showing a 19th century Civil War trench running the length of the house and beyond.

This blog post highlights an intriguing artifact excavated from the trench: a diminutive glass bottle.  This bottle is not so much interesting because of what it is – it’s a very common medicine style bottle for the mid-19th century– but rather what’s inside.  Clearly visible within the bottle is a hard black substance and for years we’ve wondered what the substance may be.

Medicine bottle containing mercury residue

Medicine bottle excavated by archaeologists at George Washington’s Ferry Farm and containing an mystery residue.

Enter Ruth Ann Armitage, our amazing chemist friend from Eastern Michigan University.  Over the years, she and her colleagues have generously used their extremely fancy equipment to analyze many of the residues we’ve recovered archaeologically. So we chipped off a little fragment of the substance in the bottle and sent it to her lab.

The sample was analyzed using scanning electron microscopy (SEM).  SEM works by shooting a beam of electrons at the sample, which gives you an image of its surface topography.  Backscattered electrons (BSE), collected in a different detector, tell you about the elemental composition.  In a BSE image, the contrast in the image is related to the atomic number of the material, with brighter areas showing high number elements (usually metals) and darker areas representing low number elements (like carbon). X-rays are also produced when the electron beam hits the sample, so an x-ray detector allows the chemist to do energy dispersive x-ray spectroscopy (EDS) to map out specifically what elements are present in the sample.  To put it simply, all of these techniques are good at alerting the chemist to the elements within a residue.

Our sample was also run through DART (direct in real time) mass spectrometry.  This technique is good at detecting organic components within a substance.  It’s important to note here that this is not an episode of CSI and a reading does not automatically tell you what is in the bottle.

Mercury residue analysis 1

A magnified image BED of sample, which is clearly stratified with darker low atomic number elements such as carbon at the top. The brighter areas represent higher atomic number elements, in this case, mercury.

That being said, almost immediately, Ruth Ann responded and we weren’t disappointed: “Did you know there’s mercury in this?”  Nope, we did not.

However, this discovery was not too surprising given the use of mercury in many medicines for thousands of years.  Now a days it’s common knowledge that you shouldn’t drink mercury…or touch it…or inhale it.  Believe it or not many people did not accept mercury’s dangers until well into the 20th century.  Some people born in the 1980s and before might even remember playing with the little balls of mercury from a broken thermometer, am I right?  As weird as it seems this wasn’t that dangerous because mercury is not toxic in such small concentrations.  However, if you were born a little further back you may remember a substance called calomel (mercury chloride), which was marketed as a cure all. Perhaps most tragically, it was as a common teething medication for children until the 1950s.  For a long time, mercury was seen as a potent healing metal and it was readily rubbed on skin, consumed, and vaporized for immediate effect on the lungs.

And while all of these treatments using mercury did little to address the body’s medical problem, mercury still caused an immediate bodily response, which convinced people it was working to cure their ailments.  When applied topically, it burned. When introduced into the body, it caused a person to sweat, salivate, and have diarrhea. The mucous membranes also went into overdrive, leading many to believe that the bad stuff in your system making you sick was being purged by the mercury.   The reality, of course, was that the body was trying desperately to rid itself of poison, the mercury.  That being said, mercury does actually have a place in the medical world and can be useful, it just took a little while for people to learn how to properly utilize it.

So, if the residue inside our bottle was medicine, what medicine was it?  Initially our archaeology lab thought it was calomel but the chemical analysis didn’t show any chlorine.  The most interesting components were mercury and sulfur, which could possibly indicate cinnabar, the ore from which mercury is obtained.  The image below is a close up of the mercury and shows the sulfur (dark circles) surrounded by the brighter mercury.

Mercury residue analysis 2

Other elements detected include carbon, oxygen, and trace amounts of iron, silica, and aluminum.  A closer look at the DART analysis suggests that the mercury compound might be in the dried remains of a fat or oil based on the presence of substances that form when fats decompose over time.

What does all this mean?  Unfortunately, without more research, it’s hard to say what was in the bottle other than the basic components already detected.  Because it’s a medicine bottle, our assumption is that the residue it contains was a treatment of some sort in which case we’re dealing with a soldier who had an ailment.  Common Civil War-era uses for mercury-based medicines were treating skin sores and lacerations, internal and external parasite infections, syphilis, and constipation, to name but a few.

What is even more interesting is that a nearly identical bottle which also contained a hefty amount of mercury was recovered across the river just a few years ago by Dovetail Cultural Resource Group from another Civil War context.  Read more about their discovery here.

Soldiers throughout history are known to have carried their own medicines with them so it’s very cool to see actual physical evidence of that.  As to the exact medicine, perhaps we’ll know someday but for now let’s just say it was definitely bad medicine.

Mara Kaktins, Archaeologist
Archaeology Lab Supervisor

Bad Medicines: Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup

It’s hard to believe that there was once a time when products weren’t covered in labels listing all their ingredients in great detail. We are used to labels promising the absence of unhealthy chemicals. We are accustomed to labels warning when a product was packaged in the same facility as an allergen. Product safety is serious concern of manufacturers and customers. We, as a society, are growing increasingly aware of what is going into our bodies.

Label with an allergen warning

Before the creation of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 1906, products did not carry ingredient labels. Regulations on medicines were especially lax, compared to today. In this blog, we begin exploring historic cases of “bad medicines” that were used by someone living or working either at Ferry Farm and Kenmore long before federal regulations came into play. Medical history is a profound example of how even well-intentioned people can make lasting and deadly mistakes.

People have lived at or worked on Ferry Farm for over 300 years. We have archaeologically excavated hundreds of thousands of artifacts from the 18th and 19th centuries. Among these artifacts are fragments of glass in all shapes and sizes. Many are bottle fragments- 47,926 of them to be exact. We can’t always determine the function of a bottle from the fragments found, but when we do find enough pieces to identify the bottle’s function, we excitedly begin research into its use.

One such artifact is a larger piece of a patent medicine bottle, one that was large enough to make out the embossed lettering on the side and identify its former ingredients. The bottle contained Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup, first marketed in 1849. Its basic contents were morphine and alcohol so, I suppose, the soothing part of the name was indeed correct.

Fragment of Mrs. Winslow's Soothing Syrup bottle

Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup bottle fragment excavated at George Washington’s Ferry farm.

Complete Mrs. Winslow's Soothing Syrup bottle

Complete Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup bottle. Credit: P0mbal / Wikipedia

Today, Avinza® is a common morphine sulfate medication prescribed to patients suffering chronic pain. The FDA has covered its bases on the use of this medication, thoroughly describing how to take this medication without dying. One section very forcibly states:

“Swallow AVINZA whole. Do not cut, break, chew, crush, dissolve, snort, or inject AVINZA because this may cause you to overdose and die.” [1]

What is the recommended dosage for this medication, you ask? Around 60 mg of this morphine sulfate PER DAY for an adult. [2] Mrs. Winslow’s soothing syrup contained a whopping 65 mg of morphine PER OUNCE with slack rules on exactly how many drops to give to a teething infant.

You read that correctly folks – a teething infant.

Mrs. Winslow's Soothing Syrup advertisement 1

Advertisement for Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup. Credit: Museum of Health Care at Kingston

Mrs. Winslow's Soothing Syrup advertisement 2

Advertisement for Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup. Credit: The British Library

Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrups and other such 19th century medications led to the deaths of thousands of infants. Several children died from withdrawal symptoms after having taking the medication for an extended period of time, but most simply fell asleep never to wake up. Knowing little about drug reactions at the time, and due to the higher infant mortality rates in the 19th century, the cause of the deaths were often blamed on “crib death” (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome or SIDS) or whatever ailment that was causing the child to be fussy enough to drug in the first place.

It wasn’t until 1905 when investigative journalist Samuel Hopkins Adams exposed the unregulated world of patent medicines in The Great American Fraud.

This publication attacked every type of patent medicine with testimonies from doctors and patients as well as scientific reports from trusted sources. In the section aptly titled “Baby Killers”, Adams detailed how various “soothing syrups” led to infant deaths from the mid-1850s to 1905.

Shockingly, Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup wasn’t the most deadly such syrup in terms of morphine content. Irreparable damage had been caused by all of the different morphine cocktails available on the market in the 1800s. As grieving parents began to realize what had actually happened to their children, these products were taken off the market.

With an enraged public and 509 pages of proof from Samuel Hopkins Adams, Congress enacted the Pure Food and Drug Act in 1906, creating the FDA to ensure the safety of American food and medicines.  Still, reports of child death caused by soothing syrups persisted until 1910.

[1] https://www.fda.gov/media/116920/download

[2] https://www.rxlist.com/avinza-drug.htm#dosage

Summer Vacation, 18th Century Style

Despite issues of poor roads, lack of transportation, financial considerations and simply an absence of places to go, colonial Virginians fancied a summer vacation just as much as we do today.  In fact, getting out of the city, or away from hot, steamy climates and hordes of mosquitoes in the summer months was actually necessary for health.  In the late 1760s and right through the Revolution, Fielding Lewis and his brother-in-law George Washington joined a number of other Fredericksburg locals in making regular summer visits to one of the few getaways locales in existence at the time – the warm springs in (at the time) Frederick County.

Now known as Berkeley Springs in present-day West Virginia, the bubbling natural springs and their reputed medicinal powers have attracted visitors since long before Europeans came across them.  Native Americans visited the springs to take advantage of its healing waters, and told settlers about the spot, as well.  The site is labeled as “Medicinal spring” on the famed 1747 Fry-Jefferson map.

A map of the most inhabited part of Virginia containing the whole province of Maryland with part of Pensilvania, New Jersey and North Carolina, 1747

“A map of the most inhabited part of Virginia containing the whole province of Maryland with part of Pensilvania, New Jersey and North Carolina”, 1747 (the Fry-Jefferson map) by Joshua Fry & Peter Jefferson. Credit: Library of Congress.

Enlargement of Fry-Jefferson Map showing Medicinal Spring

Enlargement of the Fry-Jefferson map showing the location of the Medicinal Spring frequented by the Washington and Lewis families. Credit: Library of Congress.

Sixteen-year-old George Washington made his first visit the following year, as part of Lord Fairfax’s wilderness surveying crew.  At that very early date, a visit to the springs really was purely for medicinal purposes, as there certainly were no other amenities to attract vacationers, and getting there was a feat in itself, being tucked away in the remote mountains.  To say that conditions were primitive would be an understatement, and young George was…unimpressed. In his diary, which he began on this trip and would continue for nearly the rest of his life, George wrote, “We this day call’d to see y. Fam’d Warm Springs. We camped out in y. field this night. Nothing remarkable happen’d…”[1]

Indeed, early reports about the situation at the “fam’d Warm Springs” conjur some interesting mental images.  Native Americans “took the waters” by simply hollowing out shallow pools in the sandy ground and squatting in them, allowing the natural spring water to bubble up around them.  They also built temporary saunas to steam in, and apparently allowed ailing white visitors to share.  Although, the shallow pits were eventually lined with stones found nearby to make them more or less permanent, one still pictures fully-clothed, wig-wearing colonists sitting miserably in tepid water, hoping their fever, cold or rheumatism would be cured.  As there were no structures built on the site, visitors hauled their own provisions, tents and even household staffs with them in wagons and camped out on the steep hillsides.[2]

And apparently, this state of affairs went on for quite a while, perhaps testifying to the desperation of the sick and injured in the 18th century for some sort of relief.  On a return trip to the springs in August of 1761, George Washington described a similar situation to what he had witnessed more than a decade earlier.  “We found of both sexes about 250 people at this place, full of all manner of diseases and complaints…They are situated very badly on the east side of a steep mountain and enclosed by hills on all sides, so that the afternoon’s sun is hid by 4 o’clock and the fog hangs over us till 9 or 10…I am of the opinion that numbers get more hurt by their manner of lying, than the waters can do them good. Had we not succeeded in getting a tent and marquee from Winchester, we should have been in a most miserable situation here.”[3]

Yet, despite the less than ideal accommodations, George did return to the warm springs.  And so did many other members of the Virginia gentry, including Fielding Lewis.  They did seem to believe that the waters there had a positive effect, and so the trip was worthwhile…but, gee, it sure would be great if they could have a bit more fun while doing it!  And so they set about turning the place into a more comfortable spot, a resort really, where they could not only take the waters but enjoy entertainments, visit with friends, have good food and drink, and generally have a good time for a few weeks every summer.  By all accounts, they succeeded.

George Washington's Bathtub

“George Washington’s Bath Tub”, a monument constructed to represent bathing conditions in Washington’s time in present-day Berkeley Springs State Park. Credit: Warfieldian / Wikipedia

The first effort to civilize the warm springs was by Fredericksburg resident James Mercer, a good friend of both Fielding Lewis and Charles Dick.  He apparently was given permission by Lord Fairfax to build a rather large summer cottage at the site, and it quickly became the center of Fredericksburg’s summer social scene.  The group of Fredericksburg friends, all young men in their 30s and early 40s, along with wives and children, journeyed to Mercer’s cottage for vacation.  In 1769, George Washington brought Martha and Patsy to stay for several weeks, and described the many visitors in and out of the cottage, including Lord Fairfax himself and his family members, and several former military friends from Pennsylvania.[4]

With the building of a new road to the area in 1772, James Mercer got some neighbors.  Inns and taverns sprang up (including Washington’s favorite, Throgmorton’s Sign of the Liberty Pole and Flag) other houses were built (although still mostly cabins and one room shanties) and the influx of vacationers increased.  It was a kind of hodge-podge, though, with no systematic plan for building or improvement.  The Fredericksburg friends (and associated relatives) saw an opportunity, though, and in 1775 they convinced Lord Fairfax to allow the laying out of a proper town, and Samuel and Warner Washington were put in charge of it.  Town lots were quickly bought up, mostly by the Fredericksburg contingent, and the building of cottages commenced.  The group decided to give their new town the rather aspirational name of Bath, after the popular spa resort in England.

The Comforts of Bath

“King Bladud’s Bath” from The Comforts of Bath series (1798) by satirist Thomas Rowlandson. Credit: Wikigallery.

So what was daily life like for a colonial Virginian on summer vacation? By the 1770s, life in Bath had changed drastically from the early days of squatting in shallow pits.  In addition to sampling the local mineral water, vacationers could enjoy public balls that happened twice a week, tavern nightlife, gambling, horse racing, daily teas at 5:00 and a number of options for food and drink.  By 1784, an advertisement in the Maryland Gazette describes the town as having five bathhouses, each with their own dressing rooms, an assembly room, and even a theater, where the travelling performance group The American Company of Comedians was expected to perform that summer.[5]

Noted early Virginia diarist Philip Vickers Fithian wrote of his visit to the springs in 1775, “In our dining Room Companies at Cards, Five & forty, Whist, Alfours, Callico-Betty &c. I walked out among the Bushes here also was—Amusements in all Shapes, & in high Degrees, are constantly taking Place among so promiscuous Company.” Fithian also goes on to describe the gentlemen of the village serenading the ladies from outside their lodgings until 4:00 in the morning, following a large ball.[6]

Fielding’s eldest son, John Lewis, and his cousin Warner Washington, who were in their 20s, were among the young gentry who suddenly found the springs interesting as entertainment opportunities increased.  The cousins eventually bought lots and built cottages, although it’s probably safe to say they weren’t there for the waters.  The little village had become so raucous in the summer months, a Methodist minister referred to it as an “overflowing tide of immorality.”[7]

But the curative properties of the springs were still the primary focus of visitors’ time.  Depending on the ailment that visitors were seeking to cure, they might “take the waters” up to three times a day at one of several actual bathhouses that had been built over the natural springs.  We have some description of these bathhouses from a French traveler, who vacationed at the springs in 1791, “…a plain and large frame structure, divided into eight small rooms made of badly joined boards where the bathers go in the morning. There is a staircase in each small room so that when the bather wishes he can gradually change the water line.”[8]  Both men and women used the bathhouses, but they did so at separate times of day.  At European spas of the day, men generally went swimming in the nude, while women wore bathing gowns, so that was perhaps the convention used at the American Bath, as well.

Fielding Lewis made an annual visit to the springs every August for several weeks, as early as 1772 and possibly much earlier.  When the town lots were laid out, he purchased #45 which fronted on Liberty Street.  His next door neighbor was Charles Dick, and James Mercer’s big cottage was just a few doors down.  Fielding’s mentions of his visits are few.  We don’t know whether the entire Lewis family travelled with him, although due to mentions in Philip Fithian’s journal, we know that in 1775 son George was with his father (George had attended the College of New Jersey with Fithian years earlier and Fithian enjoyed the chance to catch up with an old friend).  Most likely Fielding was among the springs vacationers who was there almost entirely for medicinal reasons, as his health had begun its long decline, and already the stresses of wartime were weighing heavily on him.

So there you have it.  It was cold, muddy and filled with hordes of sick and injured people, but the company was good and the party never ended – it was summer vacation, 18th century style!

Meghan Budinger
Aldrich Director of Curatorial Operations

 

[1] “A Journal of my Journey over the Mountains began Fryday the 11th. of March 1747/8,” Founders Online, National Archives, accessed June 4, 2019, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/01-01-02-0001-0002.

[2] Mozier, Jeanne. The Early Days of Bath.  Accessed June 4, 2019, http://berkeleysprings.com/history-berkeley-springs/early-days-bath

[3] The Papers of George Washington, Colonial Series, vol. 7, 1 January 1761 – 15 June 1767, ed. W. W. Abbot and Dorothy Twohig. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1990, pp. 68–70.

[4] Felder, Paula.  Fielding Lewis and the Washington Family.  The American History Company, 1998, pp. 186.

[5] Flexner, James Thomas.  Steamboats Come True: American Inventors in Action. Fordham University Press, 1992, pg. 67.

[6] Fithian, Philip Vickers. Journal, 1775-1776: Written on the Virginia-Pennsylvania frontier and in the army around New York. Robert Greenhalgh Albion and Leonidas Dodson, eds. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1934.

[7] Mozier.

[8] Bayard, Ferdinand M. Voyage dans l’intérieur des États-Unis: à Bath, Winchester, dans la vallée de Shenandoah, etc., etc., pendant l’été de 1791. As quoted in Mozier, ibid.

‘Now With No Morphine!’:  A Look at Patent Medicine Bottles Donated to Ferry Farm

Recently, George Washington’s Ferry Farm received a generous donation of bottles from the Mary Ball Washington Museum and Library.  For the most part they date from the late 19th to early 20th century and therefore have no connection to the Washingtons.  However, our Archaeology Department can certainly use them for a type collection.  A type collection is a teaching tool that will employ these bottles, known as an assemblage, to compare with bottle sherds we excavate from the field.  As such, we needed to do a thorough analysis of these bottles and it turns out a sizable portion of them are what we would call ‘patent medicines’.

Patent Medicine Bottles

Patent medicines have been around for a long time but reached the height of their popularity in the 19th century.  The term is a bit of a misnomer because it wasn’t the formula of the medicine that was patented but rather just the medicine’s name.  By doing this the manufacturer was not obligated to disclose the ingredients of their potions and as such could mix anything together and call it ‘medicine’.  Subsequently, many of these concoctions included ingredients designed to make you feel better, even if they did not actual cure any of your ailments.  This included, but was not limited to, copious quantities of alcohol, laudanum, cocaine, heroin, morphine, ether, chloroform, opium, etc.  In some cases, the medicines, particularly creams and ointments, contained zero active ingredients but also included a substance to make you feel a physical healing sensation. For example, capsaicin, eucalyptus, camphor, or menthol in these medicines could make your skin feel hot, cold, or tingly.

Patent medicine manufacturers emphasized the consumer’s ability to take their health into their own hands since their products could be purchased without a prescription.  Their advertisements vilified traditional doctors, who they portrayed as agents of death.  Often marketed as cure alls, some purported to treat dozens of ailments ranging from headaches to warts.  The patent medicine propaganda machine was strong, often trumpeting false testimonials from people miraculously cured by them and millions of bottles of quack medicine were sold in the 19th century.  Eventually, concern mounted over the addictive quality of many of these medicines, bolstered by a mounting death count attributed to the unregulated concoctions. Many of the deaths were unfortunately children.

One good example of a highly dangerous patent medicine was Porter’s Pain King.  It claimed to relieve colds, nervous and sick headache, rheumatic and neuralgic pains, toothache, backache, sprains, bruises and burns.  Containing a whopping 63 percent alcohol (much more than tequila) mixed with ether (a powerful anesthetic which is even more intoxicating than alcohol), it had dosages for adults, children, and animals.  The manufacturer also recommended bathing in it, which was potentially an even worse idea than ingesting this toxic brew.  Ether is really good at rendering people unconscious when inhaled and the fumes are more potent and unstable when heated by hot water.  Although, you wouldn’t feel any pain after taking Porter’s Pain King, it probably wasn’t worth the risk of addiction and death.  To combat the rampant patent medicine industry the 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act was passed, which eventually led to the creation of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).  The act forced patent medicine makers to reveal their active ingredients and ensure that they actually contained what was advertised. It proved the downfall of many and we can all be grateful for that.

BUT back to our own bottles!  We selected a few of the most interesting ones and have described them below along with a brief history of each.[1]

 Sharp and Dohme White Pine Compound Syrup

Upon looking at this bottle, you may notice the reassuring words “without morphine”. Though today we might hope this would go without saying, by the time of the Civil War, morphine was an extremely popular pain-killer. Unfortunately, morphine was as addictive as it was effective and morphine addictions were common. Said one writer, “As an allayer of pain it is king, but as a destroyer of men, mentally, morally, and physically, it is as the traitor, pretending to be friendly, but at the same time slowly dragging its victim to death.”[2]

Sharp and Dohme White Pine Compound Syrup

The morphine epidemic, or morphinism, as it was called at the time, was a growing problem in the early 20th century. Recognizing the dangers of morphine, pharmaceutical companies, like Sharp and Dohme, began turning to other alternatives, like chloroform and heroin.[3] These were just as effective at numbing pain, but supposedly less habit forming than morphine (they weren’t).[4] Like in this bottle, the mixing of herbs, alcohol, and opiates or chloroform was fairly common in patent medicines.  As a side note, ingesting chloroform is an absolutely awful idea and you should never do it.

Wine of Cardui

Medicines advertising the treatment of ‘female complaints’ became their own sub-category of patent medicine. In the late 19th and early 20th century, women’s tonics, such as Wine of Cardui and Lydia Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound were extremely popular solutions to all manner of ‘womanly troubles’. At this time, discussion of women’s health issues such as menstruation and childbirth were fairly taboo so many women turned to patent medicines for help.[5] These tonics advertised curing everything from menstrual pain to acting as a general restorative for ‘delicate’ women.[6] Discussions of rampant sexism of the marketing aside, Wine of Cardui was over 50% potassium carbonate, 16% salt, and 20% alcohol,[7] with alcohol being its most potent active ingredient. Women’s tonics and medicines were also a socially acceptable way for women to consume alcohol. At the time, there was a significant stigma associated with women drinking alcohol recreationally, but there was no stigma with drinking alcoholic tonics to aid her womanly issues.[8] Unfortunately, many of these remedies also contained powerful opiates which led many to become unknowingly addicted.

Mount Vernon Whiskey

During Prohibition, patent medicines experienced a revival of sorts. One of the only legal ways to obtain alcohol during Prohibition was through a prescription. During this time, the government permitted limited production of spirits for medicinal purposes and wine for religious sacraments. Though the efficacy of medicinal alcohol was debated and, at times, discouraged, the practice continued.[9] Medicinal alcohol could be prescribed to treat a wide variety of ailments, from cancer to depression and could be prescribed to anyone willing to pay the hefty price tag. In fact, prescribing alcohol became a pretty lucrative business for doctors and pharmacists. Obtaining and filling a prescription could cost around $6 for a pint at the time, which is upwards of $70 in today’s money.[10] Upon obtaining this prescription, patients could receive one pint of their drink of choice every ten days. The practice proved extremely popular and doctors prescribed an estimated 64 million pints of medicinal alcohol in the first year of Prohibition.  Eventually, the Willis-Campbell Act of 1921 tightened the restrictions of these prescriptions limiting doctors to 100 prescriptions every 90 days and patients to a half-pint of alcohol. These restrictions did little to lessen the frequency of prescriptions, and physicians wrote millions of prescription a year throughout the 1920s.[11] Mount Vernon Whiskey is a classic example of ‘medicinal alcohol’, and it clearly states on the back label that it is only to be ingested for medical purposes (yeah right!).  And at a whopping 100% proof, it would surely make you feel better, at least initially.

Conclusion

Although most patent medicines have disappeared, a few held on because they actually did cure certain ailments.  These include Bayer aspirin, Doan’s pills, Luden’s cough drops, and Vick’s VapoRub, to name a few, although now these medicines are regulated by the government.  However, that is not to say that unregulated medicines do not still exist in our country.  ‘Supplements’, often taken for medical purposes, were ruled to be a category of food in 1994 and as such are not required to do rigorous testing by the FDA.  Drugs have to be proven safe before they can be sold but supplements are assumed to be safe until proven otherwise and have no obligation to show that they actually work in the manner advertised.  Additionally, they do not have to disclose all ingredients or demonstrate they contain the concentration of ingredients advertised, making them the patent medicines of our modern era.

Carolyn Currin, UMW Student
Spring 2019 Fleming Smith Scholar

Mara Kaktins, Archaeologist
Archaeology Lab Supervisor

 

[1] Fike, Richard, The Bottle Book: A Comprehensive Guide to Historic, Embossed medicine Bottles. The Blackburn Press, New Jersey, 1987; Carson, Gerald, One for a Man, Two for a Horse: A Pictoral History, Grave & Comic, of Patent Medicines. Bramhall House, New York, 1961.

[2] L.L. Stanley, “Morphinism” Journal of the American Institute of Criminal Law and Criminology 6, no. 4 (1915): 586-93, https://www.jstor.org/stable/1132738?sid=primo&origin=crossref&seq=3#metadata_info_tab_contents [accessed April 8, 2019].

[3] Joe McKendry, “Sears Once Sold Heroin.” The Atlantic, March 2019, https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2019/03/sears-roebuck-bayer-heroin/580441/ [accessed April 8,, 2019].

[4] “Ether and Chloroform” History.com, April 21, 2018, https://www.history.com/topics/inventions/ether-and-chloroform [accessed April 8, 2019].

[5] “Quack Cures and Self-Remedies: Patent Medicine” Digital Public Library of America. https://dp.la/exhibitions/patent-medicine/women-health-household-hints/?item=1303 [accessed April 8, 2019].

[6] “Black Draught and Cardui Promise Quick Relief” The History Engine, 2015 https://historyengine.richmond.edu/episodes/view/4650 [accessed April 8, 2019].

[7] Ibid; Cramp, Arthur J. “Nostrums and Quackery: Articles on the Nostrum Evil, Quackery and Allied Matters Affecting the Public Health” American Medical Association, vol. 2 (1921). https://books.google.com/books?id=8AVEAAAAIAAJ&pg=PA171&lpg=PA171&dq=wine+of+cardui&source=bl&ots=Uj6v9dWCFj&sig=ACfU3U2BbKfuBig1nwqlbX1WzoNZkQdBLA&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwi16Jjw7MDhAhVEqlkKHThZBV04ChDoATAOegQICBAB#v=onepage&q=wine%20of%20cardui&f=false [accessed April 8. 2019].

[8] Becky M. Nicolaides, “The State’s ‘Sharp Line Between the Sexes: Women, alcohol, and the law in the United States, 1850-1908” Addiction 8, no. 91 (1996): 1211-1230, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/8828248 [accessed April 8, 2019].

[9] Megan Gambino, “During Prohibition, You Doctor Could Write You A Prescription for Booze,” Smithsonian.com, October 7, 2013, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/during-prohibition-your-doctor-could-write-you-prescription-booze-180947940/ [accessed April 8, 2019].

[10] Paula Mejia, “The Lucrative Business of Prescribing Booze During Prohibition” Atlas Obscura, March 15, 2017, https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/doctors-booze-notes-prohibition [accessed April 8, 2019]; “Medicinal Alcohol” The Ohio State University, 2019. https://prohibition.osu.edu/american-prohibition-1920/medicinal-alcohol [accessed April 8, 2019].

[11] Ibid.

The President’s Cough

“The day being Rainy & Stormy – myself much disordered by a cold and inflammation in the left eye, I was prevented from visiting Lexington (where the first blood in the dispute with Great Britain) was drawn.” – George Washington, October 26, 1789

The sounds of sniffling, hacking, and sneezing, are everywhere, whether at a social events, shopping, or dining out. Here in the midst of our current cold and flu season, I thought readers might enjoy hearing about a historic, 1789-1790 respiratory malady that plagued many Americans and was referred to by contemporaries as “Washington’s influenza” or “the President’s Cough.[1]” So how did this widespread illness become associated with our first president? Read on!

In the fall of 1789 President Washington took advantage of a Congressional recess to embark on a tour of the nation over which he now presided. Capitalizing on his widespread popularity, Washington journeyed to diverse parts of the Atlantic states, in order to assess its industries, its potential, and to gauge the temperament of its diverse citizenry. In part an effort to validate the fragile new administration, Washington hoped the sojourn might demonstrate to Americans everywhere the promise of their new representative government: one in which all voters could participate.* The new administration was untested, and Washington realized its success could not be taken for granted. He appreciated that his own popularity would significantly contribute to its initial success and long term stability.

This particular trip focused upon the New England states. Everywhere that Washington traveled, he was greeted by throngs of enthusiastic well-wishers, and he quickly found crowds craved the opportunity to cheer their victorious general. Americans were especially exuberant when they witnessed the president, not in a suit (the attire of a politician), but rather in his splendid, buff-and-blue Revolutionary War general’s uniform. Washington exuded confidence in this familiar regalia, but his role as a political leader of a democratic republic was less familiar and did not ‘fit’ as well.

Washington's inauguration at philadelphia

“Washington’s Inauguration at Philadelphia” by J.L.G. Ferris from a postcard published by The Foundation Press, Inc. in 1932, which itself was a reproduction of oil painting from the series: “The Pageant of a Nation.” This scene imagines George Washington arriving to be inaugurated at Congress Hall in Philadelphia on March 4, 1793. Credit: Library of Congress

From a young age, Washington was sensitive to the fact that his appropriate attire, deportment, expressions, and manners made good impressions that paved the way toward success. Elegant appearance and grace were personified by the self-conscious Washington, who first practiced these talents under his parent’s roof. Throughout this trip, if Washington was not in uniform, he often elected to wear black velvet mourning clothes, worn in honor of his late mother, who had recently passed away, losing her battle with breast cancer on August 25, 1789.

While Washington and the crowds who met him throughout his journey presented a stirring spectacle to the eye, the laudatory ceremonies were peppered by the sounds of wheezing and constant hacking from attending throngs and orators alike. The widespread disorder afflicting the new Americans originated in the southern states and Middle Atlantic region. In November, the American Mercury newspaper of Hartford, Connecticut reported that symptoms included “great languor, lowness, …anxiety, frequent sighing, sickness, and violent headache,” muscle aches and difficulty breathing (American Mercury November 9 1789:2). Children and the elderly appeared to escape the worst of the illness. The widespread illness was noted in letters and diaries across the nation. Newspapers recorded the spread of the pervasive illness.

Mere respiratory distress did not dissuade the hacking citizenry from catching a glimpse of their new president and showing their support for their republican government, however. Americans greeted Washington with pageantry and elaborate ceremonies. While well-intended, such rites made the first president – and many Americans – uncomfortable, as these formalities were too similar to the monarchical adulation from which the newly-established nation sought to distance itself. Adoring citizens cheers were interrupted by fits of coughing. Washington referred to it as an “epidemical cold.” The illness, sometimes referred to by contemporaries as an “epidemic catarrh”[2] proved fatal to a few of those so afflicted, which was especially vicious to those in the prime of life.

As he traveled, Washington maintained his correspondence. In a mid-October letter to his beloved – and only – sister Betty Lewis, George noted that he had thus far escaped falling victim to the highly contagious flu that gripped the nation. Two weeks after he wrote this letter, Washington admitted in his October 26 diary entry that he, too, suffered from the popular contagion. Despite the physical discomfort that his illness brought to him, Washington maintained his schedule, allowing each community through which his procession entered, to honor him with various events and dinners.

Despite the hardship of his illness, Washington’s exertions during his travels were an important contributor to the unification of a diverse assembly of states experimenting with democracy.

Laura Galke, Archaeologist
Small Finds Analyst

 

Further Reading

Breen, T. H.
2016 George Washington’s Journey: The President Forges a New Nation. Simon & Schuster, New York.

Twohig, Dorothy (editor)
1999 George Washington’s Diaries: An Abridgment. University of Virginia Press, Charlottesville.

 

[1] Dorothy Twohig, editor, 1999 George Washington’s Diaries, An Abridgement, p. 351.

* Voting rights varied by state and were generally restricted to free men who owned land.

[2] American Mercury 9 November 1789:2, Pennsylvania Packet 18 November 1789:2

Lecture – Betty Washington Lewis and Women’s Health [Video]

On Tuesday, May 1, 2018, Dr. Kelly Brennan Arehart, Manager of Interpretation & Visitor Services at The George Washington Foundation, presented a lecture titled “Betty Washington Lewis and Women’s Health.” Betty Washington Lewis gave birth to 11 children; a feat almost unheard of today.  Kelly explored Betty’s  journey from childhood to womanhood, from maiden to mother, and medical challenges that 18th century women faced.  A cradle to grave examination of women’s heath tells us of the strength and resilience of Betty Washington Lewis and other women who endured at time without anesthetics or knowledge of germs.

Join us at the library on Tuesday, May 8, 2018 for “Coinage and Credit: The Economy of Colonial Virginia,” a lecture about the business and trade of Fredericksburg merchant Fielding Lewis presented by David Arehart, a site supervisor at Colonial Williamsburg.  Talk begins at 7:00 p.m. The lecture is FREE and hosted at the Central Rappahannock Regional Library at 1201 Caroline Street, Fredericksburg, Virginia. To learn more, visit http://www.kenmore.org or livesandlegaciesblog.org.

Finding a Boyd’s Battery: An “Electrifying” Ferry Farm Story

“THE BLOOD IS THE LIFE!” ACCOMPLISHED AT LAST! THE EFFICACY OF ELECTRICITY!! Nearly all Diseases Effectually Cured by BOYD’S MINIATURE GALVANIC BATTERY!

This is the opening pitch of an 1879 advertising circular for a popular medical medallion called a Boyd’s Battery.  The battery was a disc, about 1¼ inch in diameter, meant to hang from one’s neck on a cord and that used the “soft and gentle” galvanic action of electricity to purportedly cure a host of diseases.

The medallion consisted of a flower-shaped central disc of copper and brass, surrounded by twelve smaller discs of various metals, all encased within another metallic band. These adjoining metals, using the humidity of the wearer’s skin, would supposedly produce a gentle electrical charge that was transferred to the wearer’s bloodstream. “By electrifying the blood, it stimulates the entire system, so that it enables nature to throw off nearly all diseases, and causes the blood to become youthful and vigorous in its action,” the advertisement claimed.

Boyd's Batteries

A complete Boyd’s Battery (left) next to a portion of one (right) excavated at George Washington’s Ferry Farm.

Boyd's Battery Reverse

Reverse of a Boyd’s Battery showing it’s patent date as Jan. 17, 1878.

Part of a Boyd’s Battery was excavated in 2006 at George Washington’s Ferry Farm during the summer excavations around the site of the 18th century era Washington home.  The only surviving part of the battery found was the rosette-shaped innermost disc, stamped with “BOYD’S BATTERY.” Jane and John Corson, who bought the property in 1872, owned Ferry Farm during the late 19th century during the height of popularity for Boyd’s Batteries. John Corson’s death notice in the April 1, 1887 Fredericksburg Free Lance mentioned that he suffered a shock of paralysis a couple of years before his death from a stroke.[1] We’ll never know for sure but perhaps Mr. Corson was trying to relieve or cure his symptoms of paralysis by wearing a Boyd’s Battery?

“Professor” James C. Boyd, a man of dubious legitimacy in the real academic world, patented Boyd’s Batteries in 1878. Each medallion cost just 50 cents and results were guaranteed or your money back. The instructions specified a battery should be worn day and night directly on the skin, though it was recommended that children under six should wear a battery only at night. In certain extreme cases, two batteries could be worn at the same time, one on the chest and the other between the shoulder blades.  The batteries lasted a lifetime but the ad circular cautioned that “under no circumstances should the same Battery be used by two different persons, as the disease from one would be conveyed to the other.”

The list of diseases and conditions that allegedly could be cured by wearing this medallion was impressive and wide-ranging.  Patients suffering from the following conditions were encouraged to wear it: paralysis, restless nights, gout, sciatica, fainting spells, disordered conditions of the liver, blood and kidneys, loss of confidence, loss of manhood, female complaints, asthma, deafness, ulcers and tumors, chills, vertigo, and the list goes on.  Boyd did add a disclaimer to his product that also listed diseases or conditions the battery could not cure, such as yellow fever, cholera, congestion of the brain, gleet, influenza, worms, whooping cough and consumption.

Advertising circulars and testimonial books extolled the merits of the product. One book, titled “Boyd’s Battery” listed numerous testimonials from satisfied patients that were meant to sway unconvinced customers.  Boyd also used the circulars in his search for agents to sell his products.  Boyd’s Batteries were sold to the public either door to door, by mail order, or through businesses such as druggists.

Electricity has a long history of being used for the treatment of pain and disease.  Roman, Greek, and Egyptian doctors treated patients with arthritis, epilepsy, and migraines by touching or attaching electric eels or fish to the affected areas.  In one case a live torpedo fish, also known as a “narce”, was placed on the head of a patient suffering from migraines and left there until the area was numb.

The use of electricity as a therapeutic procedure gained momentum during the late 18th century after scientist Luigi Galvani observed twitches in the legs of dead frogs when they were touched by an electrical current. Further electrical experimentation by fellow scientists followed and by the early 19th century a small number of hospitals had organized their own electrical therapy departments.

By the 1870s, there were numerous self-help products sold to the general public touting the healing effects of electricity and Boyd’s Battery was not the only medical medallion to capitalize on this trend.  There were a number of direct battery knock offs produced under the names of Sagendorph, Elias, Richardson, Flanigan, and Downing, differing only in their battery design.

J.C. Boyd went into the battery business in 1878 with his partner, Ellis H. Elias. Boyd supplied the startup money and Elias ran the daily business.  Interestingly, Elias, and his brothers William, Henry, and Richard, were well-known con men of the time, running a number of different scams and swindles in New York City and Cincinnati during the 1870s and 1880s.  They were constantly being hounded by the authorities who were trying to shut down their many illegal schemes. Even Ellis Elias’ death notice in the New York Times [PDF] noted “his connection with various enterprises of a doubtful character” and referred to him as “the chief of the gang of sawdust swindlers.”

Boyd’s Batteries clearly fell into the category of a “scheme or swindle.” In fact, there was some question as to exactly who was the original inventor of “Boyd’s” Battery.  In a case before the New York Supreme Court, Boyd testified that he wasn’t sure who invented the battery but that it wasn’t him.  In fact, Richard Elias testified that his brother Ellis initially used George Sagendorph’s name in the battery business before using Boyd’s name in 1878. The circulars for the Sagendorph and Boyd Batteries were practically identical and it was a common practice at that time to simply slap a new name onto a previous business and continue on with the swindle.[2] Even though journalists at the time exposed such schemes as frauds, they were still surprised that “people will believe that the wearing of the thing does them good.”[3]

People today are still looking for self-help treatments that don’t involve doctors or medically-approved medicines and treatments and there are a multitude of dubious products out there right now to fill this need.  Surprisingly, even George Washington placed his trust in a similar product of his time called Perkins Metallic Tractors.

Perkins Metallic Tractors

Perkins Metallic Tractors, c. 1800. Credit: Hugh Talman / National Museum of American History

The Tractors were patented by Elisha Perkins in 1797 and consisted of two metal pins, one brass and one steel, that when rubbed together over an affected area would supposedly cure rheumatism, gout, burns, boils, cramps, and even cancer. Even though the efficacy of this product was promptly debunked by scientists, Perkin’s Metallic Tractors like the later Boyd’s Battery continued to be a popular product.

Judy Jobrack, Archaeologist
Assistant Archaeology Lab Supervisor

[1] Fredericksburg Free Lance, April 1, 1887, page 3. Death notice of Mr. John D. Corson.

[2] John C. Boyd vs. Richard H. Elias and Jennie C. Elias. 329. Supreme Court of New York. 1882. https://books.google.com/books?id=87qtRL2WrTAC

[3] American Agriculturalist, Volume 39, page 133. 1880.  Google Books. Retrieved 4/3/2018.  https://books.google.com/books?id=RRhOAAAAYAAJ