Research Rabbit Hole – Just Your Average, Everyday Drugstore Poison

So how many over the counter “medicines” could have killed you in the early 20th Century? A lot. I found this amazing ad for Hook’s Pharmacy in Muncie, Indiana (1921) while researching. Take a gander. Recognize any of the products listed?

Not a lot, right? For the most part, I had no clue what these items were. Bombastically vague product names seemed to be in vogue at the time. I looked them all up (because, of course I did) and found that most of those listed are what we consider patent medicines, and they fall into four major categories (potentially deadly ones have an asterisk after the name):

  1. All Purpose Pep and Vigor Restorers:
    1. Botanic Blood Balm – Promised positive and permanent relief from “blood poison,” and to quickly cure “old ulcers, scrofula, eczema, itching skin and blood humors, cancer, festering sores, boils, carbuncles, pimples or offensive eruptions, pains in bones or joints, rheumatism, catarrh, or any blood or skin trouble,” as well as “female weakness” and “hereditary taint.”
    2. Gude’s Peptomangan – To provide a direct supply of minerals; to help build hemoglobin in the blood and stimulate the appetite so that more iron is absorbed from food
    3. Make Man Tablets* – For those who are “nervous, tired, irritable, don’t sleep good, wake up every morning with a bad taste in your mouth and a dull, hot, tired feeling in your head”. Splendid tonic, blood purifier, and nerve strengthener. (the main ingredients were arsenic and strychnine – yay!).
    4. Morse’s Indian Root Pills – Its manufacturer claimed the pills contained herbal ingredients that would help “cleanse the blood,” as “impurity of the blood” was believed to be the cause of all disease.
    5. Wampole’s Phospho Lecithin* – for Nervous Prostration, Nerve Exhaustion, Nervous Excitement, Hysteria, etc. (with strychnine – yay!)
    6. William’s Pink Pills for Pale People –  Claimed to cure chorea, referenced frequently in newspaper headlines as “St. Vitus’ Dance,” as well as “locomotor ataxia, partial paralyxia, seistica, neuralgia rheumatism, nervous headache, the after-effects of la grippe, palpitation of the heart, pale and sallow complexions, [and] all forms of weakness in male or female.”
    7. Youth Gland – “Cured” extra strain on the gland tissues brought on by sickness, age, worry or overwork.
  1. Laxatives and Digestives
    1. Carlsbad Sprudel Salts – Mineral salts used for gastric irrigation taken by mouth and through enemas
    2. Cascaroyal Pills –  Blackburn’s Casca Royal Pills treat the bowels wisely and well, a rational physic and stomachic relieve constipation
    3. Eatonic – For flatulence and bloating
    4. Edward’s Dandelion Pills – “Purely vegetable tonic and cathartic” “For constipation, liver and kidney diseases, scrofulous affections and all diseases of the stomach and bowels”.
    5. Green’s August Flower – Dyspepsia
    6. Pluto Water – strongly laxative natural water product which was very popular in the United States in the early 20th century.
    7. Sal Hepatica – mineral salt laxative that was produced and marketed by Bristol-Myers from its inception in 1887, becoming its first nationally recognized product in 1903, until 1958. When dissolved in water, it was said to reproduce the taste and effect of the natural mineral waters of Bohemia.
  1. Vanity
    1. Albolene Solid – Facial Cleanser
    2. Canthrox – a granular shampoo marketed to prevent dandruff, falling hair, and graying.
    3. Charles Flesh Food – Beautifier ointment that “builds firm healthy flesh”
    4. Westphal’s Auxiliator – Hair tonic (with a terrible name)
    5. Wyeth’s Sage and Sulphur – Hair tonic that contained sulphur, lead acetate, glycerine, and cayenne pepper (but not sage).
  1. General Weirdness and Outright Quackery
    1. Alkalithia*-Trade name of an effervescent mixture containing lithium (yay!); employed in the rheumatic and gouty
    2. Death Dust – Insecticide (This wins for best name, imo. Surprisingly, it wasn’t deadly to humans since it likely only contained borax and pyrethrum – made from dried chrysanthemums).
    3. Ozomulsion – “Cure” for consumption (tuberculosis) (Right…)
    4. Schiffman’s Asthmador* –To relieve the distress of bronchial asthmatic paroxysms (with belladonna – yay!)
    5. Philadelphia Bird Bitters – Medicine for sick birds – just like it says (???)
    6. Trypsogen Tablets – Diabetes remedy said to contain “the enzyme of the islands of Langerhans with the tryptic and amylolystic ferments of the pancreas” (???)
    7. Vapo Cresoline – Vaporizing lamp supposed to cure “Whooping Cough, Spasmodic Croup, Nasal Catarrh, Colds, Bronchitis, Coughs, Sore Throat, Broncho [sic] Pneumonia, The Paroxysms of Asthma and Hay Fever, The Bronchial Complications of Scarlet Fever and Measles and as an aid in the treatment of Diphtheria and Certain Inflammatory Throat Diseases.” (Of course, it did none of those things.)

If you’re tempted to think of the past as some sort of glorious “simpler” time, chew on this – the first two categories of patent drugs above had flourishing sales due to the poor diet of the time – lots of iron deficiency, anemia, and constipation among the general population. Fun! And several of those “medicines” could outright kill you while they claimed to solve such problems. One in the ad just might kill a character in the 3rd book in my Viv and Charlie Mystery Series. (Of course, I’m not going to tell you which medicine. Where’s the fun in that?)

Patent medicines went the way of the dodo in the late 1930s due to more stringent food and drug acts passed by the US government. It’s for the best, but I still think it’s fascinating all the potentially deadly stuff you could’ve purchased at the local drugstore in 1921. And if you’re like me, it certainly makes knocking off that troublesome character in your latest book a lot easier…

Research Rabbit Hole – Could You Contact Someone on a Moving Train in 1939?

In Book #3 in the Viv & Charlie Mystery Series, I had to have a way for a person to be able to contact another person while that second person is on a train traveling cross country. Was that even possible in 1939? The answer, surprisingly, is yes.

Telegraphy was a completely wire-dependent method of communication (just like telephones were once upon a time). Wires were strung from telegraph office to telegraph office. Those wires carried the signals that were then translated into words on telegrams. No wire, no office/telegraph operator = no telegram. Ah, but train stations did have telegraph offices. In 1939, you could send a telegram to a train station and have that telegram delivered to a person on a train that stopped at that station as it was making its way cross country. But in order to do that, you not only needed the name and number of the train, the direction of travel, the stop, the time the train stopped at that station, but also the name, and car number of the person traveling that you wanted to reach. Logistically sticky, but possible, yes, and possible is all I need to include in the story.

 

This a still of a telegram being delivered to a passenger on the famous Santa Fe Super Chief from the 1954 movie, 3 for Bedroom C. (The Super Chief is in my Book #3!)

Most people these days associate telegrams with tragedy – since the only way we’ve seen them represented is in war movies where they have the scene of the mother receiving news of her son’s death by special delivery telegram.

But before WWII, telegrams were commonly used for any cheap long distance communication (good, bad, and neutral news included). Long distance telephone service existed then, but it was crazy expensive. In 1950, a 5-minute call between New York and LA cost $3.70 (That’s $38.07 in 2017 dollars!)


Western Union was the most popular company and they charged the sender by the word, so writing a telegram was an art unto itself. Here’s a whole Telegram writing guideline from 1928 if you really want to get into the weeds.

And here’s an extra video of a telegram delivery man doing tricks on his route just for fun. Enjoy.

Research Rabbit Hole – Poor Little Rich Girls

If you’ve read The Darkness Knows you’ll know that Vivian is a daughter of privilege. You’ll see even more evidence of that in the second book in the series, Homicide for the Holidays. You’ll also learn that Vivian’s mother, Julia Witchell, is the youngest daughter of a Chicago meatpacking scion (and what could be more late 19th/early 20th century Chicago than a meatpacking dynasty? (But that’s another rabbit hole topic).

Vivian’s mother had wanted her to “come out” on her 18th birthday just as she had. However, times had changed since Julia’s 18th birthday in 1907 and Vivian’s in 1932. Times had changed drastically.

WWI (or The Great War as they called it at the time) happened ushering in the flapper era of the 1920s. Women coming of age in the 1920s (like Vivian) experienced a good deal more freedom than their mothers had. It became acceptable for women to smoke and drink in public, for example, and for single women to have jobs outside the home. Then the stock market crashed in October 1929 throwing the country and world into The Great Depression. There were still wealthy families in the US (the Witchells remained well off during this period), but the vast majority were struggling. Overt expressions of wealth displayed in lavish coming out parties were viewed as more than a little tone deaf – as young Woolworth heiress, Barbara Hutton, found out when she came out in November of 1930.

Her party was held at the Ritz Carlton, and she was skewered in the press for spending $50,000 on flowers alone. Invitees included stars Maurice Chevalier and Rudy Vallee. Other guests included society bigshots with names like Vanderbilt, Astor, and Rockefeller.

She looks ecstatic, doesn’t she?

Barbara Hutton became known as “The Poor Little Rich Girl” (and “Rich Bitch” to some) and went on to marry 7 times – all unhappily. Among her husbands were a Danish count, a Russian prince, and Cary Grant. Yes, that Cary Grant (and there’s another rabbit hole…)

All of this to say, that Vivian was staunchly against having her own coming out party. I found this Chicago Tribune article from 1974 that articulates Vivian’s feelings on the matter perfectly. Vivian never did have one – and to find out why you’ll have to read Homicide for the Holidays.

P.S. Coming out parties still happen, by the way.

It all started with Merrie Melodies

Hollywood Steps Out

Clockwise from the upper left: Groucho Marx and Clark Gable, Bing Crosby, James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart, Tyrone Power and Sonja Henie, Cary Grant, Jimmy Stewart and Dorothy Lamour

I’ve been asked where my interest in the 1930s comes from, and I’ve always been pressed for a concrete answer – until today when it came to me as I was browsing antiques (and agonizing over whether I really had room for that gorgeous floor model Philco radio I found). I can trace almost everything back to the Merrie Melodies cartoon called “Hollywood Steps Out”. I watched hour upon hour of Looney Tunes cartoons as a kid, and I’d probably seen this particular cartoon a dozen times by the time I was ten. I loved it even then. I don’t know why exactly… I didn’t know any of the people being spoofed yet (especially not Sally Rand). But there was something about it that led me to wanting to know who every person in this cartoon was (and if you want to know they’re all listed in this Wikipedia entry). That lead to an interest in 1930s/40s movies and then to 1930s/40s culture, radio, and on and on… ad finitum.

I also loved the cartoon starring Jack Benny, his wife Mary Livingstone, and his sidekick Rochester as mice. It’s not on Youtube, but you can watch “The Mouse that Jack Built” here.

 

Research Rabbit Hole – Streetcars

One of the things that surprised me when I started researching Chicago in the 1930s was the ubiquity of streetcars They’ve disappeared from the city entirely since – gradually phased out by buses during the 1950s.

StateStreetStreetcarsAtXmas
That’s a photo of streetcars operating on State Street at Christmastime in the late 1930s/early 1940s. You can see that the passengers waited and boarded from that island-like space in the middle of the north and southbound lanes. Seems awfully dangerous to me and judging from this silent safety film from the early 1930s… it was.

Vivian rides the streetcar several times in the first two books in the series – mostly in book two. A one-way trip cost 7 cents in 1938. Oncoming passengers entered from the back and paid cash to ride – the conductor at the back wore a change belt. The seats inside were rattan and the interior was sparsely heated and I imagine it was terribly drafty in the winter and incredibly stuffy in the summer. The driver often shoved papers between the bell and the clacker above his head to mute the constant dinging on the inside of the car (and save his sanity, I assume). I found a great first-hand account of riding a Chicago streetcar of this period in an old edition of Nostalgia Digest. You can read it here if you like: Streetcar Info.

Here are several restored Chicago streetcars from this period in motion in a “trolley pageant” at a transportation show.

Late 1930s Chicago in Home Movies

I just found this home movie that shows Chicago in 1937 and had to share. It starts at a train station (possibly Dearborn Station?) then shows State Street. Roman Navarro was appearing in person at the State Lake Theater? What I wouldn’t give to see that. 🙂 I was especially excited to see the bustling street scene that starts at 1:50 that showcases the marquee of the Chicago Theater and the L rumbling behind it. I have a scene in Homicide for the Holidays that happens in that very spot. After that, it moves on to Michigan Avenue (at the 2:53 mark) and the camera pans down the street to the Art Institute. Charlie and Viv drive this very route in The Darkness Knows!

Here’s some home movie footage of Wrigley Field in 1938 – also mentioned in The Darkness Knows.

Winter scenes from 1937 – those kids are so darn cute.

This is a Pathé Newsreel – so not a home movie, but it’s too fun not to share. It’s the “Windy City” at its literal finest in 1938. This appears to be about the time Homicide for the Holidays is set – December 1938.

Research Rabbit Hole – All Aboard the Millionaires’ Special

FortyMillionairesOnOneTrain_Tribune1907

I spent the weekend in Lake Geneva, WI, and happened to pass the spot where the original train station stood. The location is the most depressing of suburban bank branches now (the railroad ended service to Lake Geneva in the 1960s), but there’s a historical marker out front that mentioned the “Millionaires’ Special”, and I did a little jig of joy. That train appears in the 3rd book in the Viv and Charlie Mystery Series! (Vivian’s grandfather was a titan of the meatpacking industry (on par with Armour and Swift) and took the famous train on summer weekends from Chicago up to his estate on Lake Geneva.)

I found a Chicago Tribune article from July 21, 1907 in which an average man (he says he has 45 cents to his name) takes the Millionaires’ Special and describes what he sees. It’s a strange article – most of spent dropping names and tallying the collective worth of the men on board the train. You can read the PDF version of the full article by clicking this link: Forty Millionaires on One Train. But beware, the Chicago Tribune editorial department of 1907 seemed to have quite a tolerance for run-on sentences.

“The 3:45 train to Lake Geneva is a popular one, even on ordinary days, but on Fridays the crush is so great that the road decided upon a train which has been nicknamed the “millionaires’ special.” The regular train, for “common folks” who are not worth more than $100,000 or so, is made up as usual, but it is run as the second section, while a gorgeously equipped train, with one of the fastest racing engines on the road and six parlor cars, is sent out in the lead.
On ordinary days the 3:45 train stops at half a dozen stations, but on Fridays the millionaires’ special is destined for Lake Geneva, and, from its first rush out of the Wells street train shed until it flashes into Lake Geneva it never even hesitates -but flies through towns and cities and hamlets at sixty miles or more an hour. At Lake Geneva, at the head of the lake, a great part of the millionaires alight, and then the millionaires’ special whirls on around to Williams Bay to unload the remainder of its precious human freight.”

I got curious about where exactly (estate-wise) all of the important millionaire’s name dropped in this article were going, so I got out my trusty Lake Geneva: Newport of the West 1870-1920 book and looked them up.

Four of the men mentioned have estates that are still standing:
1. Edward Swift – He was the son of Gustavus Swift founder of Swift meatpacking of “everything but the squeal” fame. He built Villa Hortensia which looks almost the same as it did when built in 1906.

VillaHortensia
2. N. W. Harris – He was a banker and founder of what would become Harris Bank. He owned Wadsworth Hall – which is now the Driehaus Estate and has been restored to look as it did when built in 1906.

WadsworthHall
3. A. C. Bartlett – He had House in the Woods built through the winter of 1904/1905 under a 3-ring circus tent so it would be ready as a gift for his wife in the spring. It’s still standing and restored to look as it did when built.

HouseInTheWoods
4. Charles Wacker – He was a Chicago brewer and the director of the 1893 Columbian Exposition held in Chicago. You may recognize his name from Wacker Drive. He built Fairlawn in 1894. It still exists as a private residence and looks as it did when built.

Fairlawn
Two that are gone, but still interesting:
1. John J. Mitchell – He was the dean of Chicago Bankers. He owned Ceylon Court in 1907. Ceylon Court is also mentioned in Book 3. It was actually the Ceylon Pavilion from the 1893 Colombian Exposition – disassembled and reassembled in Lake Geneva and converted to a private residence. It was torn down in the 1950s.

CeylonCourt1933
2. Harry G. Selfridge – He was a retail magnate and founder of Selfridge’s department store in London. You may know him from the fictionalized portrayal of him in the PBS show, Mr. Selfridge. He built Harrose Hall in mock Tudor style complete with large greenhouses and extensive rose gardens. Unfortunately, it was razed in 1975.

Harrose Hall Lake Geneva

The Millionaires’ Special may be long gone, but lest you think Lake Geneva’s days of pricy estates are long past – I saw listing in the window of a realtor this weekend for a lakefront property going for a cool $18.5 million.

What Do the Characters in The Darkness Knows Look Like? (To Me Anyway)

I thought I’d share with you what I pictured when writing The Darkness Knows. I had actual reference images for the major characters (below). You’ll notice they’re all actors/actresses of the late 1930s. I think because writing the book was like writing a 1930s era movie for me. It’s still difficult for me to imagine present day actors playing these parts.

Viv

Vivian is definitely Priscilla Lane for me (except with strawberry blonde hair). She has a sort of wholesome glamour. You may know Priscilla from Arsenic and Old Lace – her biggest hit co-starring opposite Cary Grant.

Charlie (Randolph Scott)

Charlie is a mixture of two actors for me: Randolph Scott (he had a huge career in cowboy movies well into the 1950s. Vivian even tells Charlie he looks like Randolph Scott when they’re dressed up as cowboys for the masquerade.)

Charlie (Douglas Fairbanks Jr)

and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. – do I need to elaborate on this one?

Graham (Robert Taylor)

Graham is Robert Taylor to me – dark and suavely handsome – almost pretty. That hair! That cleft!

Imogene (Una Merkel)

Imogene is the sassy movie sidekick Una Merkel. She’s cute as a button and smart as a whip.

MrHart (John Barrymore)2

Mr. Hart is John Barrymore. Still handsome in his late 50s, but on the downward slide– a bit like Mr. Hart.

I do not have an actress in mind for Vivian’s mother, Julia Witchell. I really just picture her as an older, more rigid Vivian.

Who did you picture when you read the book? Any present day actors?

Research Rabbit Hole – I Remember Prohibition

prohibition4

How could a mystery series that takes place in 1930s Chicago not at least make one reference (or ten) to that town’s infamous reputation from Prohibition? Prohibition and you-know-who* do come into play in Book #2 of the Viv and Charlie Mystery Series, and as usual, I found myself spending a lot of time trolling the archives of The Chicago Tribune for research.

I ran across a series of retrospective articles that ran in early 1951 written by veteran reporter Jim Doherty**. He was a reporter with The Tribune during Prohibition, and in 1951 was reminiscing about events only about 20 years in the past for him. That’s a veritable gold mine for a historical fiction author (or just a history nerd that enjoys squinting at old newspapers, like myself). I thought I’d share them here, because these articles don’t seem to exist in a collected form (or anywhere else for that matter).

prohibtion2

Booze, Bootleggers, and Bullets (Feb 4, 1951)

The First Dry Law Raids (Feb 11, 1951)

The $100,000 Hi-Jacking (Feb 18, 1951)

The Shooting of Dion O’Banion (Feb 25, 1951)

Texas Guinan Queen of Whoopee (March 4, 1951)

Portrait of a Gangster Ted Newberry (March 11, 1951)

Life for a Pint (March 18, 1951)

“Here’s How!” in the Goats’ Nest! (March 25, 1951)

*Al Capone King of the Hoodlums (April 1, 1951)

*How Capone Ruled Chicago (April 8, 1951)

*Curtains for Capone! (April 15, 1951)

Big Bill Thompson (April 29, 1951)

End of an Era: The Last Days of Big Bill (May 6, 1951)

**About the Author – From the very first article in the series (Feb 4, 1951)
James Doherty became a newspaper reporter in 1919, shortly after he left the army. Following an apprenticeship of six weeks as a reporter for the City News bureau, he joined the staff of The Tribune. He was soon in the midst of a fabulous reportorial career, which he will describe in this series of articles. Before entering the army, “Jim” Doherty had been deputy clerk of the Juvenile court and deputy clerk of the Criminal court and he had been an aldermanic candidate. His father was a police lieutenant and acting captain. Jim has five brothers, all newspapermen. Jim Doherty has specialized on reporting crime and politics for The Tribune. He helped to form the Crime Prevention bureau, a cooperative unit of several law enforcement group. He is a bachelor.
(He died in 1961.)