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