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Patent Medicines of Yesteryear

Before the FDA, meds boasting an eye-popping array of psychoactive substances were marketed to a population largely ignorant of the addictive potential. Take a look at some of the more spectacular examples.

  • Mrs. Winslow's Soothing Syrup

    Ah yes, Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup was indeed a godsend to mothers dealing with fussy, teething infants. And there can be little doubt that since this infamous patent medicine—which was first marketed in 1849—contained a whopping 65 mg of morphine per fluid ounce, even the most colicky of babies were “soothed” by a healthy dose. The problem was, of course, that this potent concoction often did too good a job when it came to quieting fussy babies. As the American Medical Times put it in 1860, many mothers were sadly “relieved of all further care of their infants” thanks to this deceptively potent elixir. The American Medical Associated listed the syrup as a “baby killer” in a 1911 publication, effectively dealing a deathblow to the medicine as a commercial proposition in the USA. Yet its sale continued in the UK up until 1930.

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  • Dr. J. Collis Browne’s “Chlorodyne”

    Dr. John Collis Browne’s Chlorodyne was marketed as a cure for coughs, colds, asthma, migraines and bronchitis, as well as for the treatment of cholera symptoms. One of the more famous patent medicines, it was a mixture of laudanum (an alcoholic solution of opium), cannabis tincture and chloroform and was a huge hit, inspiring a series of imitators to churn out their own versions of Chlorodyne. Many of the knock-offs replaced laudanum with morphine hydrochloride and soon Chlorodyne dependence was a big problem. Over the years, the tincture of cannabis was removed from the formulation and the morphine content gradually lowered. While these days Chlorodyne is confined to the history books, in the UK you can still buy Dr J. Collis Browne’s Mixture, a cure for coughs and upset stomachs, which contains morphine and peppermint oil.

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  • Buckfast Tonic Wine

    The Benedictine monks of Buckfast Abbey first produced their “tonic wine” in the 1880’s and marketed it as a cure-all with the slogan, “Three small glasses a day, for good health and lively blood." When the Abbey lost its license to sell wine in 1927, the Abbott allowed merchants to distribute the wine. During this period, the ingredients were altered to make it more palatable to consumers and the product exploded in popularity. Flash-forward to modern days and Buckfast is no longer sold as a medicine (the label states “the label tonic wine does not imply health giving or medicinal properties”) and Buckfast, “buckie” or “Commotion Lotion”—as it is colloquially called—has gained a rep as a scourge of the working classes of Scotland. The wine is cheap, sweet and highly potent; one 750 ml bottle also contains the same amount of caffeine as you would fine in eight cans of cola. Buckfast became so associated with public drunkenness and anti-social behavior among those under 18 in Scotland that more than one Scottish MP has called for it to be banned.

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  • Green's August Flower

    The story of Green’s August Flower and Dr. Borschee’s German Syrup is really the story of one George Gill Green, who made his millions selling patent medicines that were little more than laudanum. He bought the patent for both medicines from his father, Lewis M. Green, who was a butcher by trade. For someone who made his money in the medicines game, George Green didn’t have much of a medical background: he attended the University of Pennsylvania medical school for two years before dropping out and enlisting in the 142nd Regiment during the Civil War. After the war, he discovered his genius for marketing by creating a campaign that involved mass mailings of free samples of his medicines and the distribution of thousands of his almanacs—which may well make him the pioneer of the whole “the first hit is free” approach to selling narcotics. He was successful enough that he built the Woodbury Opera House in 1880 and the historic Hotel Green in 1903. Yet the bottom fell out of the patent medicine business after 1906, and by 1916, both Green’s August Flower and German Syrup had been discontinued.

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  • Hadacol

    Hadacol was the brainchild of Dudley J. LeBlanc, a one-time Democratic member of the Louisiana State Senate, prospective Governor of Louisiana and all-around huckster extraordinaire. In the midst of his political career, LeBlanc made millions flogging Hadacol, a “vitamin supplement” that was heavily laden with alcohol and grew quite popular in the dry counties of the South. The tonic contained 12% alcohol as well as multivitamins and a heavily diluted form of hydrochloric acid that worked to open the arteries, which allowed the body to absorb the alcohol more quickly. In other words, it helped you get smashed…fast. In dry counties, some pharmacies were known to sell Hadacol by the shot glass and in some New Orleans bars, it was a key ingredient in a concoction known as the Tassel Cocktail. Something of a marketing genius, LeBlanc even went as far as to write a ditty called “The Hadacol Boogie” which was later recorded by good old boy hell-raiser Jerry Lee Lewis. In the end, it wasn’t the presence of dangerous ingredients that brought the attention of the FDA down upon Hadacol but the outlandish claims LeBlanc made about its effectiveness in curing cancer, epilepsy and many other diseases. While Hadacol was on the market, LeBlanc sold more than $3.6 million worth of the tonic and then sold the company to a group of investors for $8.2 million.

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  • Tilden's Extract

    Tilden’s Extract was a powerful medicinal cannabis extract first formulated by Scottish botanist James Edward Smith, which was sold and manufactured by the Tilden Company of New York as a cure for “hysteria, chorea, gout, neuralgia, acute and sub-acute rheumatism, tetanus, hydrophobia and the like.” Oh yes, and it got you really, really stoned. In fact, it got a fellow called Fitz Hugh Ludlow so enjoyably stoned that he decided to write a book about his experiences, which was published as The Hasheesh Eater in 1857. In that, he described the marijuana user as one who is searching for “the soul’s capacity for a broader being, deeper insight, grander views of Beauty, Truth and Good than she now gains through the chinks of her cell.” And just how much “hasheesh” was Ludlow consuming while he chugged those bottles of Tilden’s Extract?  The equivalent of about an ounce of cannabis resin at a time, according to O.J. Kalant’s article, “Ludlow on Cannabis: A Modern Look at a Nineteenth Century Drug Experience, which was published in the June 1971 International Journal of the Addictions—that is, well into the range where the drug would have a definite psychedelic effect.

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  • Vin Mariani

    The French chemist Angelo Mariani came up with Vin Mariani back in 1863 and soon this cocaine-infused wine was one of the most popular medicinal wines of all time. It was actually a Bordeaux wine treated with coco leaves: the ethanol in the wine extracted the cocaine from the coco leaves, leaving the tonic with a considerable 7.2 mg hit of cocaine per ounce. Ads claimed the wine would restore “health, strength, energy, and vitality.” This mixture of booze and coke proved incredibly popular: Queen Victoria was a fan, as were Popes Leo XIII and Pius X. Pope Leo even went as far as to award a Vatican gold medal to the wine and to appear in advertisements endorsing it. Others who enjoyed the, uh, special properties of Vin Mariani included Thomas Edison (who endorsed it with the claim that it helped him to stay awake for longer hours while he was inventing) and Ulysses S. Grant, who wrote his memoirs while high on the stuff. The success of Vin Mariani inspired a number of imitators, the most famous of them being Palmerton’s French Wine Coca—which is best known for being a direct precursor to Coca Cola. 

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  • Dr. Haines' Golden Specific

    Dr. James Wilkins Haines M.D. of Waynesville, Ohio was certainly a colorful character. A Quaker with a deep (and controversial) belief in spiritualism, he was a serious campaigner for the temperance movement. His contribution to the wild world of patent medicines was Dr. Haines’ Golden Specific, which purported to be a cure for alcoholism. “DRUNKENNESS, LIQUOR HABIT" claimed one typical ad in the The Bristol Mercury and Daily Post in 1891. “In all the World there is but one Cure. Dr. Haine’s GOLDEN SPECIFIC. It can be given in a cup of coffee or tea, or in articles of food, without the knowledge of the patient, if necessary. It is absolutely harmless, and will effect a permanent and speedy cure, whether the patient is a moderate drinker or an alcoholic wreck. IT NEVER FAILS…” Preying on the desperate families of alcoholics, the “cure” was denounced as a “cruel humbug” by the American Medical Association in 1917 when they analyzed it and found it contained little more than “milk sugar, starch, capsicum and a minute amount of ipecac.” Still, as far as quick cures go, it sure beats the hell out of Rapid Opiate Detox.

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  • McMunn's Elixir of Opium

    McMunn’s Elixir of Opium did exactly what it said on the box—it got you extremely high on opium extract. But, according to the hype, it was safer than standard opium or morphine because it had been “denarcotised"—a process where the opium was treated with sulfuric acid to remove the alkaloid narcotine, which supposedly removed the drug’s ill effects. Of course the idea of “denarcotising” opium was bunk since narcotine contained no narcotic properties and the elixir was just as addictive and deadly as any other opium-based patent medicine when used carelessly. The product became extremely popular in the United States once the A. B. & D. Sands drug company bought the recipe in 1841 and then flooded newspapers with claims that it was “non-habit forming." McMunn’s Elixir of Opium was touted as a cure for “convulsions and spasmodic action,” as well as “pain and irritation, nervous excitement and morbid irritability of body and mind.” It was also prescribed to children—“To a child a month old, or younger, give from half a drop to two drops; to a child 6 months old, from 3 to 10 drops…”—which led to a rash of infant deaths. An infamous case from New York in 1875 described a young child who had worms being dosed with “15-20 drops every hour” in an effort to “cause the worms which were supposed to be in the child’s stomach, to have a good sleep.” Instead, as a local newspaper reported, “The little fellow was at play in the morning as ever and at 11 at night was a corpse.”

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  • Habitina

    “An Infallible Cure For Drug habits of All Kinds!” claimed the ads for Habitina. For $2, one could order this amazing remedy, which contained 16 grains of morphine and 8 grains of heroin per fluid ounce. Between 1906 and 1912, the Delta Chemical Company made a fortune flogging its own brand of smack to addicts, marketing it as a cure for addiction. Addicts were advised to “discontinue the use of all narcotic drugs and take sufficient HABITINA to support the system without any of the old drug.” Then, in a premise that will sound familiar to anyone who has seen the inside of a methadone clinic, patients were instructed to gradually reduce their dose until—BINGO!—they were cured. But it didn’t tend to happen like that. In later court cases, former Habitina users testified against the company’s founders. “Mr. W. J. H., Missouri testified that he purchased Habitina to cure himself of the morphine habit," read the notes from one of these cases. "He increased from a bottle a week to a bottle a day, and at last ordered six bottles at a time, which the company always sent without question." A 26-year-old woman supposedly spent $2,300 on the drug over the course of five years—a staggering sum at the time—and even went without shoes to afford her habit. In the end, the makers of Habitina were convicted of sending poison through the mail, which resulted in a sentence of five years hard labor. On appeal, the conviction was overturned but the bad press proved to be the death knell for Habitina—much to the disappointment of dope fiends all over the US.

    Tony O'Neill is the author of Digging the Vein and Down and Out on Murder Mile and Sick City, the co-author of the New York Times bestseller Hero of the Underground and the Los Angeles Times bestseller Neon Angel. He's a regular contributor to The Fix who has covered many topics, including Jerry Stahl and abstinence.

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By Tony O'Neil 12/09/12

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