The Great American Fraud by Samuel Hopkins Adams, 1905

From Collier's. 36:2 (October 7, 1905). 14-15, 29.

      Gullible America will spend this year some seventy-five millions of dollars in the purchase of patent medicines. In consideration of this sum it will swallow huge quantities of alcohol, an appalling amount of opiates and narcotics, a wide assortment of varied drugs ranging from powerful and dangerous heart depressants to insidious liver stimulants; and far in excess of all other ingredients, undiluted fraud. For fraud, exploited by the skilfulest of advertising bunco men, is the basis of the trade. Should the newspapers, the magazines, and the medical journals refuse their pages to this class of advertisements, the patent medicine business in five years would be as scandalously historic as the South Sea Bubble, and the nation would be the richer no only in lives and money, but in drunkards and drug-fiends saved. . . .

Drugs that Make Victims

      When one comes to the internal remedies, the proprietary medicines proper, they all belong to the tribe of Capricorn, under one of two heads, harmless frauds or deleterious drugs. For instance, the laxatives perform what they promise; but taken regularly, as thousands of people take them (and indeed, as advertisements urge), they become an increasingly baneful necessity. Acetanilid will undoubtedly relieve headache of certain kinds; but acetanilid, as the basis of headache powders, is prone to remove the cause of the symptom permanently by putting a complete stop to the heart action. Invariably, when taken steadily it produces constitutional disturbances of insidious development which result fatally if the drug be not discontinued, and often it enslaves the devotee to its use. Cocaine and opium stop pain; but the narcotics are not the safest drugs to put in the hands of the ignorant, particularly when their presence is concealed in the "cough remedies," "soothing syrups," and "catarrhal powders" of which they are the basis. Few outside of the rabid temperance advocates will deny a place in medical practice to alcohol. But alcohol, fed daily and in increasing doses to women and children, makes not for health, but for drunkenness. Far better whiskey or gin unequivocally labeled than the alcohol-laden "bitters," "sarsaparillas," and "tonics" which exhilarate fatuous temperance advocates to the point of enthusiastic testimonials. . . .

As to Testimonials

      The ignorant drug-taker, returning to health from some disease which he has overcome by the natural resistant powers of his body, dips his pen in gratitude and writes his testimonial. The man who dies in spite of the patent medicine-or perhaps because of it-doesn't bear witness to what it did for him. We see recorded only the favorable results; the unfavorable lie silent. How could it be otherwise when the only avenues of publicity are controlled by the heavy advertisers? So, while many of the printed testimonials are genuine enough, they represent not the average evidence, but the most glowing opinions which the nostrum vender can obtain, and generally they are the expression of a low order of intelligence. Read in this light, they are unconvincing enough. But the innocent public regards them as the type, not the exception. "If that cured Mrs. Smith of Oshkosh it may cure me," says the woman whose symptoms, real or imagined, are so feelingly described under the picture. Lend ear to expert testimony from a certain prominent cure-all: "They see my advertising. They read the testimonials. They are convinced. They have faith in Peruna. It gives them a gentle stimulant, and so they get well."

      There it is in a nutshell; the faith cure. Not the stimulant, but the faith inspired by the advertisement and encouraged by the stimulant does the work-or seems to do it. If the public drugger can convince his patron that she is well, she is well-for his purposes. In the case of such diseases as naturally tend to cure themselves, no greater harm is done than the parting of a fool and his money. With rheumatism, sciatica, and that ilk, it means added pings, with consumption, Bright's disease and other serious disorders, perhaps needless death. No onus of homicide is borne by the nostrum seller; probably the patient would have died anyway; there is no proof that the patent bottle was in any way responsible. Even if there were-and rare cases do occur where the responsibility can be brought home-there is no warning to others, because the newspapers are too considerate of their advertisers to publish such injurious items. . . .

What One Druggist is Doing

      Largely for trade reasons a few druggists have been fighting the nostrums, but without any considerable effect. Indeed, it is surprising to see that people are so deeply impressed with the advertising claims put forth daily as to be impervious to warnings even from experts. A cut-rate store, the Economical Drug Company of Chicago, started upon a campaign and displayed a sign in the window reading:

      "Please do not ask us what is any old patent medicine worth? For you embarrass us, as our honest answer must be that it is worthless. If you mean to ask what price we sell it, that is an entirely different proposition. When sick, consult a good physician. It is the only proper course. And you will find it cheaper in the end than self-medication with worthless 'patent' nostrums."

      This was followed by the salesmen informing all applicants for the prominent nostrums that they were wasting money. Yet with all this that store was unable to get rid of its patent medicine trade, and today nostrums comprise one-third of its entire business. They comprise about two thirds of that of the average store. . . .

      It is impossible, even in a series of articles, to attempt more than an exemplary treatment of the patent medicine frauds. The most degraded and degrading, the "lost vitality" and "blood disease" cures, reeking of terrorization and blackmail, can not from their very nature be treated on in a lay journal. Many dangerous and health-destroying compounds will escape through sheer inconspicuousness. I can touch upon only a few of those which may be regarded as typical: the alcohol stimulators, as represented by Peruna, Paine's Celery Compound, and Duffy's Pure Malt Whiskey (advertised as an exclusively medical preparation); the catarrh powders, which breed cocaine slaves, and the opium-containing soothing syrups, which stunt or kill helpless infants; the consumption cures, perhaps the most devilish of all, in that, they destroy the hope where hope is struggling against bitter odds for existence; the headache powders, which enslave so insidiously that the victim is ignorant of his own fate; the comparatively harmless fake as typified by that marvelous product of advertising and effrontery, Liquizone, and finally, the system of exploitation and testimonials upon which the whole vast system of bunco rests, as upon a flimsy but cunningly constructed foundation.

Houghton Mifflin Company