Sunday, February 10, 2013

Men behind the miraculous pills

There is nothing new in the search for miracle cures for ailments or diseases nor in the number of individuals keen to exploit the vulnerability and desperation of others.
As mass communication grew during the Victorian age there were countless advertisements in newspapers and periodicals for pills, ointments, tonics, and devices for curing everything from gout and gastric upsets to hair loss and even cancer. Despite some attempts to regulate the medicinal trade, quackery abounded. 
Curious about the people who were behind these products, I decided to investigate some of the advertisers in just one column taken at random for the 1880s [The Sporting Times].  I conducted various searches, including the 1881 Census Returns, in an attempt to discover which products appeared to have been made by respectable individuals or companies, and which were spurious. Here is the column:

(1)       The Red Cross Pills 
From the 1881 Census, M. Leon Schouver stated he was born France abt. 1846, occupation Chemist, and wife Norah, born Spain abt. 1852, and they lived in a lodging house at 14 Little Titchfield Street, Marylebone.
Obviously they were transient and no fortune had (as yet) been made from their cure-all. Other residents included a dress-cutter, cheese-monger, upholsterer, tailor and a porter. The couple do not appear again in any later UK census returns, or at least not under that name or variations thereof, although there is a death of a Leon Schouver in West Derby, Lancashire, in 1916.
Curiously, Leon Schouver’s name comes up at the Old Bailey as a witness in a counterfeit case involving a young man using dodgy half-crowns to buy seidlitz powders from a number of chemists around the city. Other than that, it would appear Leon disappeared along with his pills.

(2)       Clarke’s B 41 Pills
The London and Midland Counties Drug Company of Lincoln was a substantial and respected pharmaceutical business and “Clarke’s World-Famed Blood Mixture” had been around for quite a number of years. According to its advertising blurbs and testimonials it cured everything you could think of, including gout, rheumatism, dropsy, ulceration, ringworm, itchy skin eruptions, sluggish and obstructed veins, etc. etc.
Clarke’s B 41 pills became a staple as well, but whether they did you any good is another matter. What was the significance of the 41? The number of ingredients, or the birth year of Clarke perhaps, as the entry in the 1881 Census shows: Francis J. Clarke, Chemist, aged 40, and his wife Betsy Ann, aged 38. They lived at Bracebridge Hall, Lincoln, had four children at home and a staff of seven. They had done all right for themselves. Clarke was four times Mayor of Lincoln but it seems his various potions didn’t benefit him personally as he was dead by age 46. 
The impressive Bracebridge Hall can be read about here and some images of the famous ointment seen hereAlso the Aboretum Lion presented by F.J. Clarke to the city of Lincoln.
Clarke’s Blood Mixture Bottles (

(3)        The Book of Positive Special ...
This is some kind of self-help medical publication. Other more detailed advertisements used a lot of big block letters describing it as a self-cure for both men and women. SIXTY THOUSAND INVALIDS CURED ... FOUR THOUSAND TESTIMONIALS GIVEN … [which means fifty-six thousand individuals didn’t feel it warranted a testimonial]. 
With the aid of this book - written by a retired doctor of course - presumably H. Smith, the same name as the publisher - you can CURE DISEASES PECULIAR TO MEN - CONSTITUTIONAL OR ACQUIRED and FEMALES can cure themselves of their PECULIAR MALADIES WITHOUT THE AID OF A MEDICAL MAN. And so on.
As this booklet is stated to have run to thousands of copies, it is strange that I have been unable to find a single one available for inspection. 
Also, there is nothing to be found on what exactly was the “Protodyne Laboratory”, but there were many other products connected with H. Smith & Co. of 26 Southampton Row, including more miracle pills and ointments. At least in their favour, H. Smith only seems to be charging for the postage and not for the booklet itself, although it probably includes plenty of advice to buy lots of Smith’s Ointment to keep yourself healthy.
Finding the correct doctor with the surname Smith in the Census 1881 is impossible and he is  most probably an invention in any case.

(4)        Nervous and Physical Debility
And what to make of the mysterious J. T. Sewell, Esq. of Brook Villa, Hammersmith? Is he a gentleman prepared to part with his method of curing nervousness just out of the kindness of his heart and for the price of a stamp, or is there more it – a scheme of some kind to suck in customers in a marketing scam 19th Century style? 
He splashed blanket advertisements for about four years in many newspapers, but then abruptly disappeared. Searches for a “Brook Villa” at Hammersmith and with the surname Sewell have no results in the 1881 Census. Although it might be worth noting that both a large prison and a lunatic asylum were in this vicinity.

(5)      Jockeys, pedestrians and athletes
Please see (2) above re Clarke.

(6)       Nevill’s Miraculous Pills
Again, many miraculous cures are promoted by Nevill, the inventor of “Pepsanator”.
No entry exists for a William S. Nevill in Croydon in the 1881 Census, although there are a number of men of the same name in the Surrey area, including a labourer, plasterer and a bricklayer serving time for Her Majesty. 
Could it be this was a sideline for a certain Mr. William Nevill, aged 38, who lived at 150 East Street, Epsom with wife, Bertha, and two children? His occupation is Turf Correspondent (Reporter) - not one that held much respectability but may have equipped him with the capacity for colourful hyperbole when it came to advertising.
Here is a letter written by him to The Sporting Life ten years earlier in relation to his Pepsanator. [There is no convincing match for W.S. Nevill to be found in the 1871 Census for Surrey either.]

If the Pepsanator name was trade-marked as stated, there could be more records to be found in official archives. The wholesalers all seem to be genuine companies (one was a publisher) but the advertisements cease by the end of the 1880s and nothing further can be found on this particular William S. Nevill.
There was an aristocrat with this same name who was involved in various frauds during this period and served time in prison and perhaps our Pepsanator Nevill changed his name as a result or simply moved on to other enterprises. 

For the serious student of this topic, this book on pharmaceutical historical records might be useful. But in a lighter vein, there is more to be discovered at these websites and blogs: