Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Septicide - Part II - "The Most Shameless Quackery"

"Dear Sir: Here is a proposition which we hope will interest you - We will pay you $1.00 for sending us the name of any person to whom we can sell a trial order of Septicide..."

In Part II of this two-part blog post (Part I here) on the quack/patent medicine "Septicide," I share an 1899 letter in my collection and its part in the testimonial racket/schemes in which the manufacturer of the "medicine" took part.

As I have written about before on this blog, testimonials were an important part of patent medicine advertising; they are, in fact, an important part of advertising to this day.

Perhaps what set the patent medicine makers apart were the lengths to which they went to secure testimonials; and - if they could not secure them - would even invent them out of whole cloth.

The letter is below:

1899 Septicide Letter - Jim Schmidt Collection
At first glance it may seem to be your garden variety patent medicine appeal.

Why, though, should they be writing Mr. Riley? And, why, should they say "We have learned of your affliction..."?

The reason is that Septicide - like other patent medicine makers - engaged in various testimonial schemes. One racket - "testimonial brokers" - brought the vendors much-wanted testimonials from politicians and other highly visible people, including war heroes for a fee ($75 for a senator; $40 for a representative; etc)

Another scheme - used by Septicide - was to secure the names of the "afflicted" by buying them from friends, neighbors, and relatives.  The scheme was used for years before it was exposed in the October 1906 issue of The Medical Council. The journal published the following letter from the Septicide Manufacturing Co.: 

"Dear Sir:

Here is a proposition which we hope will interest you - We will pay you $1.00 for sending us the name of any person to whom we can sell a trial order of Septicide.

You send us the name of every person you know who suffers from cancer or any other severe sore, ulcer or abscess, and we will write each one and send each one a sample bottle of Septicide.

A record of each will be kept, and for every one we can induce to order on our Special Trial Offer, we will send you our check for $1.00.

It will cost you nothing to send the names, and we know you will be paid well for the five minutes' work of writing the letter."

With the names, they could then send letters - such as the one in my collection - to potential customers, sometimes with enclosed testimonials or literature, an offer for a discounted supply of the medicine, or a free bottle.

Perhaps, if the customer was satisfied, he'd volunteer his own testimonial.

If not, that did not stop the makers of Septicide!

In the excellent Edward G. Atwater Collection of American Popular Medicine, held by the Edward G. Miner Library of the University of Rochester Medical Center, is a letter that hints that the makers of Septicide would sometimes publish a testimonial without the knowledge of the testee...at least this fellow was a good sport about it:

Catalog Record:

"[Letter], 1910 April 4, Waukesha, WI, [to] Louis P. Cole, Prospect Harbor, Me. Howard, a seventy year old male, writes of the cure of his chronic dyspepsia using the patent medicine Septicide. Cole apparently wrote Howard after seeing his testimonial in an advertisement for the remedy. Howard writes: "After I found I was a cured man, I gave the Septicide Co. the privlage [sic] to use my name."

The aforementioned Medical Council article, though, included examples of people who were not pleased.  They sent the names of people who had purportedly offered testimonials to subscribers in the same cities and asked them to follow up.  Here is one example:

The testimonial:

Rev. H. M. Green, Crookston, Minn: "A short time ago I wrote you for a bottle of Septicide, and commenced using it as you directed. The result has been most gratifying, for it has entirely removed the tumorous growth on my neck. I have refrained from writing you until the merits of your remedy have been fully proven. I have made this known to many of my friends, and it will always be a great pleasure to me to extol the curative value of Septicide."

The truth(!):

Dr. A. H. Dunlap, of Crookston, Miss., writes as follows:

Dear Dr. Taylor: Called on Rev. Green of this city in regard to the enclosed clipping. He stated that he had not even heard of the people who published the article and was quite indignant over the matter.—Alex. Dunlap.

In short, studying the nature of patent medicine appeals is every bit as interesting and important as collecting their bottles or learning about their contents.

1 comment:

Mark said...

"Quackery"...I love the term. Lots of good terms come out of this era. You should do an article on the Shoddy Company, it would be neat:)