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W. W. Gavitt Medical Co.

W. W. Gavitt Medical Co., Manufacturer

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GavittWW-2-RB23a     GavittWW-2-RB28

W. W. GAVITT MEDICAL CO. CANCELS

Hard as this writer tries to anchor this particular alphabetical perusal of battleship revenue cancels to those most commonly seen and available to potential collectors, he is forever beguiled and distracted by stories of companies that illuminate particular and distinct features of the patent medicine business. The W. W. Gavitt Medical Co. stands apart from other patent medicine manufacturers because it marketed its product, Gavitt’s System Regulator, directly to the public through regional retail sales representatives. One did not buy Gavitt’s System Regulator from a drugstore or even a modern department store; one bought it from one’s neighbor. Each Gavitt salesperson communicated directly with Gavitt headquarters in Topeka, Kansas on a periodic basis requesting shipments of the Regulator and remitting payment for orders sold. What philatelists commonly see now of Gavitt material are the envelopes transmitting all this correspondence. Apparently bundled and warehoused for decades by the company as its transaction records, these envelopes and their accompanying forms were dispersed publicly when the company was dissolved. Several Gavitt covers appear for sale on eBay weekly. While revenue cancel collectors cautiously eye such drab, uniform envelopes as collateral material to the cancels themselves, these covers used to quicken the pulse of that sector of cover collectors who meticulously collected post office cancels by states or regions, one obscure discontinued rural post office at a time. Since stamp collecting has fallen from grace as a past time for our youth, how many such collectors remain now is hard to gauge, but at one time this form of cover collecting was so popular that dealers often arrange their cover stock by location to appeal to such marauding collectors.

GAVITT REPORTS FROM RURAL POST OFFICES

GavittWW-3a-1909-1(TorahMN)     GavittWW-3a-1929-2

TORAH, MN                             POLKADOTTE, OH

GavittWW-3a-1907-1(IT)     GavittWW-3a-1909-2

BOLEY, I. T.                              ZEANDALE, KS

GavittWW-3z-Coll1a     GavittWW-3z-Coll1b

GAVITT COVERS RETAILED IN BUNCHES

*****

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The Gavitt company was an American enterprise. Its founder, William Wellington Gavitt, was born in 1840 near Ashley, in Delaware County, Ohio, which lies north of Columbus in the center of the state. His father, Ezekiel, was a well-known Methodist minister in that region of Ohio for many years during the mid 1800s, and there appear to be other Gavitt names interspersed among the prominent ministers of Ohio. As listed later in the records of the Sons and Daughters of the American Revolution, his grandfather, William, born in Westerly, Rhode Island, was a privateer on the brig “Favorite” and a sailor on the sloop “Randolph” and the schooner “De Grass” during the Revolutionary War.

Gavitt-Coupon-2      Gavitt-Coupon-1

GAVITT COUPONS

In 1862, W. W. Gavitt graduated Wesleyan University. By 1867, he had imbibed the philosophy of Manifest Destiny and anticipated Horace Greeley’s 1871 advice to “go west.” He settled in Topeka, KS and began to build the town around himself. He dived into the local real estate and banking industries, married a woman from Indiana in 1873, and in the 1880 Census listed himself as a banker. Over time, he became a founding investor in the regional coal company, a creamery, the electric utility company and the local opera house. In 1882, he and a partner erected a prominent office building block in downtown Topeka.

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GAVITT COVER SHOWING GAVITT OFFICE BLOCK

Gavitt apparently entered the patent medicine business as the mid-western agent and supplier for the Dr. Perkins Medical Co. of Washington, D.C. which manufactured a remedy called Our Native Herbs, an elixir of 21 different herbs. When Dr. Perkins sold his business to Alonzo O. Bliss, around 1892, Gavitt sent a letter to the sales representatives for the Perkins Co. offering them his own System Regulator instead. Whether these agents jumped to Gavitt in droves or stayed with Bliss (which remained in business and also used battleship revenues, as a future article will explore), Gavitt found himself with enough contacts to begin assembling his own sales network. For his sales agents, Gavitt particularly concentrated on soliciting Civil War veterans and ministers, and there was a huge stir in 1901 when it was revealed that one of his agent was Boston Corbett, the man who had shot Lincoln’s assassin, John Wilkes Booth.

Gavitt-JWBPortrait     Gavitt-BostonCorbettPortrait

JOHN WILKES BOOTH     BOSTON CORBETT

Corbett is something of a historical curiosity. He was born Thomas Corbett in 1832. He grew up to become a hatter by trade, and his encounters with mercury while making felt hats may have accounted for his later eccentricities. In the 1850s, after his wife died in childbirth, he moved to Boston, became a reborn Evangelical Christian, wore his hair long to emulate Jesus and castrated himself to avoid the temptation of prostitutes. He also changed his name to Boston. During the Civil War, he enlisted several times, rose to the rank of sergeant in a New York Cavalry unit, and briefly was held as a prisoner of war at the Confederate hell-hole in Andersonville, GA. His role in Booth’s death immediately landed him in a controversy over whether his shooting of Booth was necessary or exceeded his orders. His official statement was that he fired on Booth when he saw Booth about to fire one of his weapons, although others present contradicted his account. Secretary of War Stanton squelched the dispute by endorsing Corbett’s account and exonerating him.   After his moment of fame, Corbett returned to work as a hatter, caused a stir at a G.A.R. re-union in 1875 by threatening some men with a gun, moved to Kansas and lived in a hole in a hill, and finally was confined in an insane asylum in 1887 after again brandishing a gun, this time in the Kansas House of Representatives, where he was employed as assistant door keeper. In 1888, he escaped from the facility and briefly visited a fellow survivor of Andersonville whom he told he was going to Mexico. He was not seen again until a newspaper story spread during the summer of 1901 that he had been working as a Gavitt sales representative for several years. Gavitt reveled in the splash of publicity the story attracted and immediately vouched that Corbett was “an excellent salesman who always made money for himself and the firm.”

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CORBETT LATER IN LIFE

Eventually this Corbett attempted to again collect his Civil War disability pension which had been accruing since his 1888 disappearance. In the course of investing this claim, it was revealed that the claimant was not Boston Corbett, but a younger, taller man named John Corbit. Convicted of attempted pension fraud, he wound up serving time in the federal penitentiary at Atlanta before dropping out of sight. Some people suspect that Gavitt fed the false Corbit information about the real man to make the story better, but the 120 page record of the correspondence between Corbit and Gavitt and the proceeding against Corbit, available on the Kansas Historical Society website, does not suggest active collusion between Gavitt and Corbit.

GavittWW-10-2a     Gavitt-HerbTablets

GAVITT PRODUCTS: SYSTEM REGULATOR

AND HERB TABLETS

Gavitt understood the value of publicity. To make sure he always had enough advertising material on hand and to control his costs, he ran his own printing business as well. Gavitt was hardly the only manufacturer who owned a printing business. It always made sense for patent medicine owners to own their own printing plants to produce their own advertising materials because of the sheer volume of material they needed. What set Gavitt apart, however, was that he apparently also took in other printing jobs and ran his printing company as profitable side business.

Gavitt-SolicitationForAgents     Gavitt-SolicitationForAgents2

GAVITT AGENT SOLICITATION FORM AND ORDER BLANK

Gavitt became the wealthiest citizen of Topeka, and when he died at age 81 in 1922, he was president of W. W. Gavitt & Co., bankers and brokers, the Gavitt Loan and Investment Co., the W. W. Gavitt Medical Co., and the W. W. Gavitt Printing and Publishing Co.

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W. W. Gavitt’s first son, Harry Ezekiel, was born on January 1, 1875, and attended Topeka Business College and Washburn University Law School in Topeka. He started working in the family business before he had finished his education, since Washburn Law School did not open until 1903, and he appears as the author of some of the medicine company’s pamphlets as early as the 1890s. He took charge of the operation of the medicine and printing business for his father and is credited with the great jump in the growth of sales for Gavitt’s System Regulator, perhaps spurred by his invention in 1902 of a machine that could stuff and seal 15,000 envelopes per hour. Getting out the advertising message was every bit as important as the remedy itself.

GavittWW-3-1899-1

GAVITT AGENT’S COVER

What was Gavitt’s System Regulator? One agent, Edward Trow, printed this description on his own advertising envelopes: “Positively will cure all diseases of the Blood, Stomach, Kidneys and Liver. It is a Mild Laxative. A Good Tonic. A Great Blood Purifier. A Powerful Kidney and Liver Regulator. No Steaming. No Boiling. No Mineral. No Alcohol. No Poison. TWENTY-TWO MEDICAL HERBS, ROOTS AND BARKS in one combination. The most wonderful compound known to Medical Science. It is Natures own Remedy. Hurts Nobody. Cures Everybody. Builds up the Broken Down system after all other remedies fail. It has cured Thousands. IT WILL CURE YOU BY ERADICATING disease from the System.(Not sold in Drug Stores).” What more need one say?

  Gavitt-SEGame1RV     Gavitt-SEGame2RV

H. E. GAVITT’S STOCK EXCHANGE GAME

H. E. Gavitt proved himself clever in a completely different field in 1903 when he invented a game called Stock Market Exchange, which offered a model of such exchanges through a card game. Players compete to corner the market in a commodity by exchanging cards representing various commodities until one player obtains a full suit of a commodity. Originally conceived as another form of advertising for the Regulator, Gavitt had his printing company prepare some games and then started them in circulation by having his medicine agents give samples away with the medicine. The demand was so great for the game that Gavitt stepped up production by his own printing company and began charging separately for them. Parker Brothers, a game making company, reviewed the idea and began selling a very similar game called “Pit” beginning in 1904. Eventually, Pit eclipsed Gavitt’s Stock Market Exchange game, and it disappeared until it was revived in 2003 by enthusiasts looking for new and challenging competitive games.

GavittWW-6-5a     GavittWW-6-5b

GAVITT LETTERHEAD

In its heyday under H. E. Gavitt, the Medicine Co. produced and marketed two hundred different medicines, toiletries, soaps and flavorings including Herbal Tablets, Pile Driver for Piles, Lighting Pain Extractor, Cough Balsam and Herbal Ointment. H. E.’s own interests were as diversified as the products his company made. He was a magician who always entertained his friends with new tricks. Among his other and earliest inventions was a Folding Exhibition Chicken Coop, one of the first such collapsible coop models. In the 1930s, he pursued the notion that wild fish could be tamed. He built an artificial lake on a farm west of Topeka that he had stocked with fish fed by hand until they were so tame that they would jump a foot out of the water to reach the proffered food. Some accounts claimed his method could be applied to other wild fish and, when demonstrated, much amazed traditional fishermen. Gavitt was prominent in the Sons of the American Revolution, active in the local country club, where he was chairman of the handicap committee, and headed the section of the local War Resources Board regulating chemicals, oils and paint during World War I. After a long and colorful career, he died in 1954, and apparently has been largely forgotten until quite recently.

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GAVITT BROTHERS HEADSTONE

The Gavitt companies continued after H. E.’s death under his brother Corrington until 1967, when at age 83, Corrington closed them. While some other accounts suggest that he sold the product lines, unlike those made by Dunn or Fleer which survive today as confections, new Gavitt products do not appear to be on sale on the internet. Gavitt’s System Regulator now seems to belong to another age.

© Malcolm A. Goldstein 2014

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L. O. Gale

Mitchell, South Dakota is a town of under 15,000 inhabitants which today lies just off Interstate 90 virtually 300 miles due east across the Great Plains from Mount Rushmore. It originated in 1880 as a whistle stop in the vast Dakota Territory on the Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul Railroad, and took its name from the railroad’s president, Alexander Mitchell. Its great tourist attraction is its Corn Palace, now advertised as the only such building in the world dedicated to, and decorated each summer with, corn. Corn murals adorn its exterior and interior, and the structure features exhibits recounting the story of agriculture in South Dakota, in particular corn’s premier place in the region’s economy. Since 1937, the two story palace edifice has sported bulbous towers which give it a distinctly Moorish appearance. To this author, who happened upon the Corn Palace largely by chance in the summer of 2000, its drama, then and in memory, lies in its sheer incongruity with the flat, dusty, sleepy western town surrounding it.

Indirectly, when the author visited the Corn Palace, he also unknowingly touched upon the key fact of L. O. Gale’s existence as well. Lawrence O Gale now exists only as a product of “objective” records. The 1860 Federal Census lists him as age 9, living in Winhall, Vermont, making his birth year 1851. Even these “objective” records are blurred, for in the 1900 Federal Census, he himself listed his birth date as February, 1852, and other records show the date as 1853 or even 1854. In 1870, again according to the Federal Census (the only one to list Gale as a member of a family group), he, his mother and two sisters were living in Iowa, perhaps near Anamosa. From the 1880s into the 1900s, Gale was a retail druggist and jeweler in Mitchell, South Dakota. While there are cyclic reports in various publications of fires and monetary troubles, his ads for various stock patent medicines, in the style of the day, appear as neat, short paragraphs in the news columns of the local newspaper. Perhaps because Mitchell was quite small, he is also mentioned as a bookseller, sometimes alderman, land agent, builder, publisher of a poultry journal (and sponsor of a poultry trophy) and even local manager of its theater. His only extant newspaper quote speaks of his enthusiasm for Republican prospects in South Dakota in 1893. The rest of the “objective” record is even more spotty and eclectic. In 1908, a building he had constructed on Main Street in Mitchell burned down, and the site was taken over by someone else in 1910 apparently after he filed for bankruptcy. While in the 1900 Federal Census, he is listed as a widower, by the 1910 Census, he is listed as married – name of spouse unlisted – and living in Hennepin, MN, and in 1920, at age 68 (or 69) he is still in Hennepin, but now divorced. He appears to have died in Hennepin on September 3, 1931. Mitchell’s town website, although not specific, seems to indicate that he is buried in Mitchell.

If one trait of Gale’s does emerge from the sparse biographical data available, it is his flare for the dramatic. He is uniformly credited with introducing the idea of a “Corn Palace” to Mitchell in 1892. The real story is a little more complicated, but no less striking. In 1887, Sioux City, South Dakota, built the first Corn Palace, which was an immediate success, drawing 100,000 visitors including President Cleveland. However, Sioux City’s subsequent attempts to duplicate that triumph faltered, and in 1892, it abandoned the project. On an evening in July, 1892, Gale took an after dinner stroll with a fellow merchant, Louis Beckwith, who mentioned Sioux City’s abandonment of its troubled fair. Gale said: “why not build one here?” Historical accounts offer three variations on the reason for the bold proposal. First, Mitchell was then competing for preeminence as a community in South Dakota. Most accounts state the rivalry was with the town of Plankinton, 22 miles to the west, which was about to construct its own “Grain Palace.” (Other accounts claim the rivalry was really with Pierre to become the capital of South Dakota, but that contest actually occurred about ten years later and Mitchell lost). Second, Mitchell needed to attract farmers to come to the region to continue to grow and prosper. Third, Mitchell’s climate, then as now, is harsh. (In 1888, a blizzard left snow sixteen feet deep and temperatures hovered for a spell at 45 below, decimating the livestock population.) In short, as a raw frontier town in a hostile environment, Mitchell needed a gimmick to attract visitors’ attention as well as residents. Gale’s enthusiastic and unstinting devotion to the cause sparked a concerted expenditure of effort and cash by the townspeople.

He brought the Lawrence, Kansas artist Adam Rohe, who had designed the unique corn surface for Sioux City, to Mitchell. A breathless fifty-nine days later, the first Mitchell Corn Belt Exposition opened on September 28, 1892. The local newspaper touted that “Sixteen of Mitchell’s loveliest ladies attired in bewitching costumes will circle about and surround the living personification of Ceres, the goddess of grain.” The building and festival were denominated an “exposition” to differentiate it from the earlier Sioux City effort. The celebration in 1892 was an unqualified success, and – with significant gaps and hiccups caused by drought and poverty – the Corn Belt Exposition thereafter grew year by year. The building and event officially became the Corn Palace in 1905, and Gale and Rohe continued to be associated with the festival well into the 1900s. Perhaps one tale captures Gale’s audacity best. In 1904, when John Philip Souza brought his renowned band to play at the Exposition for six days, he reportedly refused to disembark from the train until he received his entire contract payment of $7,000 per day in cash, commenting: “What you gentlemen lack in judgement, you make up in nerve.” Gale’s flash of nerve may well account for Mitchell’s continued existence today.

© Malcolm A. Goldstein 2012
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Gilbert Bros. & Company

It is a cold early February, 1903 day in Superior Court of the City of Baltimore, MD.  The plaintiff, a Dr. (!!?) George Brehm of Rolandville, MD has alleged in his complaint that he went blind on July 27, 1898 two days after drinking three bottles of Jamaica ginger, a popular tonic, manufactured by the Baltimore drug wholesaler and manufacturer, Gilbert Brothers & Co. He states that he bought the bottles from a storekeeper on Elliot’s Island, Dorchester County, where he then lived. He seeks $30,000 damages.

Brehm’s is but one of five such claims, in aggregate seeking over $100,000 damages, pending against Gilbert Brothers & Co., owned by defendants, the brothers John J. and William E. Gilbert. A year earlier, another plaintiff, one Henry W. Jackson, of Keswick, Albemarle County, Virginia, had commenced trial in the same Superior Court of his $25,000 claim of blindness caused by drinking in 1899 the same Jamaica ginger manufactured by Gilbert Brothers & Co. Suddenly, at the opening of the third day of trial on Saturday, May 17, 1902 (a municipal service available on Saturday – how different the world really was!), Jackson withdrew his lawsuit and immediately filed a new one seeking $50,000, alleging an even broader basis for the wrongs committed by the Gilberts. In this trial, both Brehm’s attempt to introduce Jackson’s testimony from the earlier trial and his attempt to introduce his own expert chemist’s analysis of Gilbert’s Jamaica ginger done two years after Brehm’s blindness occurred have been thwarted by the trial judge. Yet that judge has not made the Gilberts’ victory a certainty, for he has also rejected the Gilberts’ motion to have him dismiss the case as a matter of law at the close of Brehm’s evidence (which would have had the effect of denying the jury the opportunity to make findings of fact). He has ruled against the Gilberts and in favor of Brehm that the facts alleged, if found true by the jury, might constitute a tort, or legal wrong, rather than accepting the Gilberts’ claim that Brehm’s facts, even if accepted as true, in no way constitute a legal wrong. (If the meaning of the prior sentence doesn’t immediately register, read it again, and it will gradually make sense. Such distinctions were, and remain, the essence of legal maneuvering, which ever warms the stony cold cockles of lawyers’ hearts.)

The so called “Wood Alcohol” cases have “excited great interest” throughout the drug, medical and ophthalmic worlds, which been watching and commenting in the trade journals on their progress for several years now. As the matter swiftly draws to a jury determination of liability, the facts have been fully marshaled. One journal reports a former employee has testified on Brehm’s behalf that the formula for the Gilberts’ Jamaica ginger during the period between 1897 and 1900 contained 30 percent wood alcohol, as well as 50 percent grain alcohol and 20 percent water. All articles agree that Brehm’s ophthalmologist and druggist have testified that wood alcohol – in pure form called “Columbian spirits” – is far more poisonous than grain alcohol, is never intended for human consumption and, in fact, is the only cause of plaintiff’s blindness.

And yet, another account indicates that the Gilberts have not only conceded Brehm’s percentage makeup of the mixture, but have also crowed that 65,376 bottles of that very product had been sold during the same period. The medical experts employed by the Gilberts have contradicted Brehm’s, arguing that “Columbian spirits” are no more poisonous than grain alcohol. One testified that he had consumed an ounce twice a day, as well as feeding a teaspoon to his cat every day for a month, and neither he nor the cat had suffered harm. Another testified that he had consumed one and one-half ounces within a span of three hours without any difficulty. To cinch the defense’s argument, William E. Gilbert himself takes the stand. He testifies both he and his family tried the formula before it was sold to the public and, moreover, that the concoction is intended to be a medicine not a beverage. To contradict his statement, Brehm then introduces into evidence, over the angry objection of the Gilberts, the Gilberts’ Jamaica ginger tonic bottle itself, whose label asserts that the preparation is a “delightful beverage in the hot summer months.”

Now the Gilberts make a final dramatic gesture to confirm their Jamaica ginger is not poisonous. With jurors and spectators watching, William coolly drinks an ounce of “Columbian spirits” and, again, repeats his performance one and one half hours later. All are aghast. Commentators report that while the Jamaica ginger “was freely diluted with water,” “no ill effects were experienced.” (The court journal officially records that two ounces of water were added to the “Columbian spirits” in each instance.) The evidence closes, and after the judge’s inevitable drone about the law it must apply to the facts it will determine, the jury retires to deliberate whether the Gilberts have blinded Brehm with their Jamaica ginger tonic made from wood alcohol.

As they deliberate, let us examine the rest of the history of Gilbert Brothers & Co. The 1903 trial was probably the most striking event in the jumbled detritus of recorded coincidences and happenings from which we now attempt to reconstruct its history. Actually, a recent posting on this blog, spotlighting a check sent to Gilbert Brothers & Co in 1899, served to call this article into existence. As the cancels displayed (courtesy of Robert Mustacich) demonstrate, at the turn of the Twentieth Century, Gilbert Brothers & Co. was among a number of large and thriving drug businesses located in Baltimore. While the roots of several of today’s largest pharmaceutical companies, can be traced to its local competitors, such as Sharp & Dohme and Merck & Co. (both possible future subjects of this column), Gilbert Brothers & Co. and its owners left no comparable mark.

With respect to the Gilberts themselves, possibly because of such events as the “Wood Alcohol” trial, they were not profiled in the local “who’s who” compilations of Baltimore’s cherished and influential sons. Oddly enough, lists of awarded municipal contracts published in contemporaneous building trades journals, do indicate that William E. Gilbert was mayor of Laurel, Maryland around 1907. John J. Gilbert entirely lacks even that present definition, but his furniture collection – including illustrations and vivid descriptions of scrutoires (combination bookcase and foldout desk), looking glasses and a scalloped dressing table, all obviously selected at much expense with great discrimination – was prominently featured in a compendium called Colonial Furniture In America published by one Luke Vincent Lockwood in 1913. The scalloped dressing table again drew comment in “The Architectural Record” magazine, on the occasion of the Lockwood book’s being enlarged and updated in 1921. For the rest, all that can be said is that John J. Gilbert died in 1923 and left a considerable fortune, $25,000 of which went to William.

The remainder of the corporate history of Gilbert Brothers & Co. can be inferred from oblique references found in various records currently available. The earliest extant almanacs are dated 1870, which roughly indicates the time of the company’s establishment. In 1892, the minutes of the National Wholesale Druggists’ Association reveal that the company participated on the “Box and Cartage” Committee that recommended wholesale druggists break out and list separately an additional charge for packing and handling of goods instead of building the cost into the price of the drugs themselves. In 1889 or 1895, the company registered its trademark for what appears to have been its most popular product, Yager’s Cream Chloroform Liniment. In 1895, it trademarked a headache remedy called “Anti-Fag.” Alfred E. Mealy, another officer of Gilbert Brothers & Co., is listed as the holder of a patent, also issued in 1895, for the display box for “Anti-Fag.” Mealy, now as similarly anonymous as the Gilberts, later became president of the company, and also died in 1923, after forty years of faithful service.

Through the years, the references to Gilbert Brothers & Co. are scattershot. One trade journal mentions fire damage to the company’s plant in 1899, and another a 1904 suit by a retailer against Gilbert Brothers & Co. and other local wholesalers accusing them of price fixing (although the journal confidently predicted that the suit would never come to trial). In 1906, the U.S. government counted Gilbert Brothers & Co. large and important enough to name it as a defendant in its industry-wide price fixing suit against both the wholesale and retail druggists and their associations. This suit, settled without a trial by entry of a consent decree in 1907, certainly made illegal (and perhaps ended once and for all) the “drug cartel’s” many direct and indirect schemes to set and maintain retail drug and patent medicine prices by barring trade with wholesalers and retailers who wanted to sell these products at a discount. Another extant document reveals that on June 1, 1909, the Treasury Department issued one of its periodic circulars – with the strict admonition to its revenue collectors to place a copy in the hands of each druggist in their districts – ruling that Gilbert Brothers & Co.’s Rejuvenating Iron and Herb Juice was “insufficiently medicated” to permit its sale as a beverage without a special additional tax, even if sold as a medicine – one tonic among many on a very long list of such “alcoholic medicinal preparations” similarly treated in the Department’s bulletin. In other words, if a druggist wanted to sell that “Juice,” even as medicine, he had to have a liquor license above and beyond his druggist’s certificate.

Over the years, ads for products of Gilbert Brothers & Co. seem to have been most regularly published in the Southern Planter, a farming journal. The remedy most often featured was Yager’s Cream Chloroform Liniment, described as a “soothing external remedy for man or beast,” although in its many ads the company also recommended its Sarsaparilla with Celery for such conditions as eczema and baldness, and its Honey-Tolu for coughs. Standards must have gradually tightened over the years after the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act, but even in the early 1930s, the company – as many other wholesalers and manufacturers also did at the time – still forfeited to the Food and Drug Administration at least one shipment of patent medicines which was seized as misbranded after it shipped “in interstate commerce” from Maryland to New York. After that last record of official action against it, Gilbert Brothers & Co. seems to vanish from currently available sources.

However, even without Gilbert Brothers & Co., Yager’s Liniment (now sans “Cream Chloroform”) can still be obtained on-line, apparently now manufactured by one Oakhurst Company of Levittown, NY, which has gathered to itself a number of famous old patent medicines (or at least the rights to the use of their names). There are no ambiguities about the current incarnation of the liniment: camphor and turpentine oil are disclosed as the active ingredients. Such old-fashioned “external remedies” seem to have the greatest lasting power, since they don’t raise questions of internal poisoning such as the one presented in the “Wood Alcohol” cases.

And those jury deliberations, too, ultimately proved to be inconclusive. After fourteen days, the jury, confused and conflicted by the discrepancies between Brehm’s and the Gilberts’ expert witnesses, and, no doubt, impressed by William E. Gilbert’s sweeping gulp of a gesture, remained hung. The judge discharged it without its reaching a verdict. Shortly thereafter, a drug trade journal succinctly reported that all five cases were settled privately out of court. The amounts of the settlements, like so much else about Gilbert Brothers & Co., were not reported.

Two digressions, in the nature of footnotes, add current relevance to the story of Gilbert Brothers & Co. First, on the question of what quantity of wood alcohol makes it dangerous for human consumption, no less august and hoary an authority than Wikipedia itself today declares flatly that “[o]ne sip [of wood alcohol] (as little as 10 ml) can cause permanent blindness by destruction of the optic nerve and 30 ml is potentially fatal” (referencing a 2007 scientific article). Makes one wonder what William E. Gilbert was drinking that cold February day in 1903, and whether John J. was trying to repay him all those many years later with the $25,000 bequest! Second, the 1930s scandal caused by the plague of paralysis visited upon impoverished drinkers quaffing Jamaica ginger tonic tainted with a different chemical in their quest for a cheap whiskey substitute, is a major subplot of the book, and current movie, Water For Elephants by Sarah Gruen. History class for this period dismissed!

© Malcolm A. Goldstein 2011
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