HISTORY of the COMSTOCK PATENT MEDICINE BUSINESS and Dr. Morse's Indian Root Pills
by Robert B. Shaw Associate Professor, Accounting and History Clarkson College of Technology Potsdam, N.Y.
SMITHSONIAN STUDIES IN HISTORY AND TECHNOLOGY NUMBER 22
COVER: Changing methods of packaging Comstock remedies over the years.—Lower left: Original packaging of the Indian Root Pills in oval veneer boxes. Lower center: The glass bottles and cardboard and tin boxes. Lower right: The modern packaging during the final years of domestic manufacture. Upper left: The Indian Root Pills as they are still being packaged and distributed in Australia. Upper center: Dr. Howard's Electric Blood Builder Pills. Upper right: Comstock's Dead Shot Worm Pellets.
Library of Congress Cataloging in Publication Data
Shaw, Robert B., 1916—
History of the Comstock patent medicine business and of Dr. Morse's Indian Root Pills. (Smithsonian studies in history and technology, no. 22)
1. Comstock (W.H.) Company. I. Title. II. Series: Smithsonian Institution. Smithsonian studies in history and technology, no. 22.
HD9666.9.C62S46 338.7'6'615886 76 39864
Official publication date is handstamped in a limited number of initial copies and is recorded in the Institution's annual report, Smithsonian Year.
For sale by the Superintendent of Documents, U.S. Government Printing Office Washington, D.C. 20402—Price 65 cents (paper cover) Stock Number 4700-0204
*History of the Comstock Patent Medicine Business and of Dr. Morse's Indian Root Pills*
For nearly a century a conspicuous feature of the small riverside village of Morristown, in northern New York State, was the W.H. Comstock factory, better known as the home of the celebrated Dr. Morse's Indian Root Pills. This business never grew to be more than a modest undertaking in modern industrial terms, and amid the congestion of any large city its few buildings straddling a branch railroad and its work force of several dozens at most would have been little noticed, but in its rural setting the enterprise occupied a prominent role in the economic life of the community for over ninety years. Aside from the omnipresent forest and dairy industries, it represented the only manufacturing activity for miles around and was easily the largest single employer in its village, as well as the chief recipient and shipper of freight at the adjacent railroad station. For some years, early in the present century, the company supplied a primitive electric service to the community, and the Comstock Hotel, until it was destroyed by fire, served as the principal village hostelry.
But the influence of this business was by no means strictly local. For decades thousands of boxes of pills and bottles of elixir, together with advertising circulars and almanacs in the millions, flowed out of this remote village to druggists in thousands of communities in the United States and Canada, in Latin America, and in the Orient. And Dr. Morse's Indian Root Pills and the other remedies must have been household names wherever people suffered aches and infirmities. Thus Morristown, notwithstanding its placid appearance, played an active role in commerce and industry throughout the colorful patent-medicine era.
Today, the Indian Root Pill factory stands abandoned and forlorn—its decline and demise brought on by an age of more precise medical diagnoses and the more stringent enforcement of various food and drug acts. After abandonment, the factory was ransacked by vandals; and records, documents, wrappers, advertising circulars, pills awaiting packaging, and other effects were thrown down from the shelves and scattered over the floors. This made it impossible to recover and examine the records systematically. The former proprietors of the business, however, had for some reason—perhaps sheer inertia—apparently preserved all of their records for over a century, storing them in the loft-like attic over the packaging building. Despite their careless treatment, enough records were recovered to reconstruct most of the history of the Comstock enterprise and to cast new light upon the patent-medicine industry of the United States during its heyday.
The Comstock business, of course, was far from unique. Hundreds of manufacturers of proprietary remedies flourished during the 1880s and 1890s the Druggists' Directory for 1895 lists approximately 1,500. The great majority of these factories were much smaller than Comstock; one suspects, in fact, that most of them were no more than backroom enterprises conducted by untrained, but ambitious, druggists who, with parttime help, mixed up some mysterious concoctions and contrived imaginative advertising schemes. A few of these businesses were considerably larger than Comstock.
However, the Comstock company would seem to be typical of the more strongly established patent-medicine manufacturers, and therefore a closer examination of this particular enterprise should also illuminate its entire industry.
*The Origin of the Business*
The Indian Root Pill business was carried on during most of its existence by two members of the Comstock family—father and son—and because of unusual longevity, this control by two generations extended for over a century. The plant was also located in Morristown for approximately ninety years. The Indian Root Pills, however, were not actually originated by the Comstock family, nor were they discovered in Morristown. Rather, the business had its genesis in New York City, at a time when the city still consisted primarily of two-or three-story buildings and did not extend beyond the present 42nd Street.
According to an affidavit written in 1851—and much of the history of the business is derived from documents prepared in connection with numerous lawsuits—the founder of the Comstock drug venture was Edwin Comstock, sometime in or before 1833. Edwin, along with the numerous other brothers who will shortly enter the picture, was a son of Samuel Comstock, of Butternuts, Otsego County, New York. Samuel, a fifth-generation descendant of William Comstock, one of the pioneer settlers of New London, Connecticut, and ancestor of most of the Comstocks in America, was born in East Lyme, Connecticut, a few years before the Revolution, but sometime after the birth of Edwin in 1794 he moved to Otsego County, New York.
Edwin, in 1828, moved to Batavia, New York, where his son, William Henry Comstock, was born on August 1, 1830. Within four or five years, however, Edwin repaired to New York City, where he established the extensive drug and medicine business that was to be carried on by members of his family for over a century. Just why Edwin performed this brief sojourn in Batavia, or where he made his initial entry into the drug trade, is not clear, although the rapid growth of his firm in New York City suggests that he had had previous experience in that field. It is a plausible surmise that he may have worked in Batavia in the drug store of Dr. Levant B. Cotes, which was destroyed in the village-wide fire of April 19, 1833; the termination of Edwin's career in Batavia might have been associated either with that disaster or with the death of his wife in 1831.
The Comstocks also obviously had some medical tradition in their family. Samuel's younger brother, John Lee Comstock, was trained as a physician and served in that capacity during the War of 1812—although he was to gain greater prominence as a historian and natural philosopher. All five of Samuel's sons participated at least briefly in the drug trade, while two of them also had careers as medical doctors. A cousin of Edwin, Thomas Griswold Comstock (born 1829), also became a prominent homeopathic physician and gynecologist in St. Louis. It might also be significant that the original home of the Comstock family, in Connecticut, was within a few miles of the scene of the discovery of the first patent medicine in America—Lee's "Bilious Pills"—by Dr. Samuel Lee (1744-1805), of Windham, sometime prior to 1796. This medicine enjoyed such a rapid success that it was soon being widely imitated, and the Comstocks could not have been unaware of its popularity.
So it seems almost certain that Edwin was no longer a novice when he established his own drug business in New York City. Between 1833 and 1837 he employed his brother, Lucius S. Comstock (born in 1806), as a clerk, and for the next fifteen years Lucius will figure very conspicuously in this story. He not merely appended the designation "M.D." to his name and claimed membership in the Medical Society of the City of New York, but also described himself as a Counsellor-at-Law.
Edwin, the founder of the business, did not live long to enjoy its prosperity—or perhaps we should say that he was fortunate enough to pass away before it experienced its most severe vicissitudes and trials. After Edwin's death in 1837, Lucius continued the business in partnership with another brother, Albert Lee, under the style of Comstock & Co. Two more brothers, John Carlton (born 1819) and George Wells (born 1820), were employed as clerks.
[Footnote 1: National Cyclopedia of American Biography, VII: 280.]
[Footnote 2: The Comstock brothers' grandmother, Esther Lee, was apparently unrelated to Dr. Samuel Lee, the inventor of the Bilious Pills.]
The partnership of Comstock & Co. between Lucius and Albert was terminated by a dispute between the two brothers in 1841, and Albert went his own way, taking up a career as a physician and living until 1876. Lucius next went into business with his mother-in-law, Anne Moore, from 1841 to 1846; after the dissolution of this firm, he formed a new partnership, also under the name of Comstock & Co., with his brother John (generally known as J. Carlton). This firm again employed as clerks George Wells Comstock and a nephew, William Henry, a son of Edwin. William Henry was to eventually become the founder of the business at Morristown.
In March of 1849, still a new partnership was formed, comprising Lucius, J. Carlton, and George Wells, under the name of Comstock & Co. Brothers, although the existing partnership of Comstock & Co. was not formally terminated. Assets, inventories, and receivables in the process of collection were assigned by Comstock & Co. to Comstock & Co. Brothers. But before the end of 1849 the partners quarreled, Lucius fell out with his brothers, and after a period of dissension, the firm of Comstock & Co. Brothers was dissolved as of August 1, 1850. On or about the same date J. Carlton and George Wells formed a new partnership, under the name of Comstock & Brother, doing business at 9 John Street in New York City, also taking their nephew, William Henry, as a clerk. Lucius continued in business at the old address of 57 John Street. As early as June 30, 1851, the new firm of Comstock & Brother registered the following trade names with the Smithsonian Institution: Carlton's Liniment, a certain remedy for the Piles; Carlton's Celebrated Nerve and Bone Liniment for Horses; Carlton's Condition Powder for Horses and Cattle; Judson's Chemical Extract of Cherry and Lungwort.
The repetition of his name suggests that J. Carlton was the principal inventor of his firm's remedies.
Suits and Countersuits
All of the foregoing changes in name and business organization must have been highly confusing to the wide array of agents and retail druggists over many states and the provinces of Canada with whom these several firms had been doing business. And when George Wells and J. Carlton split off from Lucius and established their own office down the street, it was not at all clear who really represented the original Comstock business, who had a right to collect the numerous accounts and notes still outstanding, and who owned the existing trade names and formulas. Dispute was inevitable under such circumstances, and it was aggravated by Lucius' irascible temper. Unfortunately for family harmony, these business difficulties also coincided with differences among the brothers over their father's will. Samuel had died in 1840, but his will was not probated until 1846; for some reason Lucius contested its terms. There had also been litigation over the estate of Edwin, the elder brother.
With the inability of the two parties to reach friendly agreement, a lawsuit was initiated in June 1850 between Lucius on the one hand and J. Carlton and George Wells on the other for the apportionment of the property of Comstock & Co. Brothers, which was valued at about $25,000 or $30,000. Subsequently, while this litigation was dragging on, Lucius found a more satisfying opportunity to press his quarrel against his brothers. This arose out of his belief that they were taking his mail out of the post office.
On May 26, 1851, one of the New York newspapers, the Day Book, carried the following item:
United States Marshal's Office—Complaint was made against J. Carlton Comstock and Geo. Wells Comstock, of No. 9 John Street, and a clerk in their employ, for taking letters from the Post Office, belonging to Dr. L.S. Comstock, of 57 in the same street.
Dr. Comstock having missed a large number of letters, on inquiry at the Post Office it was suspected that they had been taken to No. 9 John Street.
By an arrangement with the Postmaster and his assistants, several letters were then put in the Post Office, containing orders addressed to Dr. Comstock, at 57 John Street, for goods to be sent to various places in the city to be forwarded to the country. The letters were taken by the accused or their clerk, opened at No. 9, the money taken out and the articles sent as directed, accompanied by bills in the handwriting of Geo. Wells Comstock. Warrants were then issued by the U.S. Commissioner and Recorder Talmadge, and two of the accused found at home were arrested and a large number of letters belonging to Dr. C. found on the premises. J.C. Comstock has not yet been arrested. It is said he is out of the city.
These two young men have for some months been trading sometimes under the name of "Comstock & Brother", and sometimes as "Judson & Co." at No. 9 John Street.
The same episode was also mentioned in the Express, the Commercial Advertiser, and the Tribune. In fact, a spirited debate in the "affair of the letters" was carried on in the pages of the press for a week. The brothers defended themselves in the following notice printed in the Morning Express for May 31:
Painful as it is, we are again compelled to appear before the public in defense of our character as citizens and business men. The two letters referred to by L.S. Comstock (one of which contained One Dollar only) were both directed "Comstock & Co." which letters we claim; and we repeat what we have before said, and what we shall prove that no letter or letters from any source directed to L.S. Comstock or Lucius S. Comstock have been taken or obtained by either of us or any one in our employ.
The public can judge whether a sense of "duty to the Post Office Department and the community", induced our brother to make this charge against us (which if proved would consign us to the Penitentiary) and under the pretence of searching for letters, which perhaps never existed; to send Police Officers to invade not only our store, but our dwelling house, where not even the presence of our aged Mother could protect from intrusion. These are the means by which he has put himself
[Footnote 3: Receipts for these registrations were signed by the prominent librarian, Charles Coffin Jewett, later to be superintendent of the Boston Public Library for many years.]
in possession of the names of our customers; of our correspondence; and our private and business papers.
J.C. & GEO. WELLS COMSTOCK, firm of Comstock & Brother, No. 9 John Street
Lucius, for his part, never deigned to recognize his opponents as brothers but merely described them as "two young men who claim relationship to me."
It was the position of J. Carlton and George that as they, equally with Lucius, were heirs of the dissolved firm of Comstock & Co. Brothers, they had as much right as Lucius to receive and open letters so addressed. Moreover, since the predecessor firm of Comstock & Co. had never been dissolved, J. Carlton also shared in any rights, claims, or property of this firm. In a more personal vein, the brothers also asserted in their brief that Lucius "is not on speaking terms with his aged mother nor any one of his brothers or sisters, Nephews or Nieces, or even of his Uncles or Aunts, embracing quite a large circle all of whom have been estranged from him, either by personal difficulties with him, or his improper conduct towards his brothers." Lucius, in turn, had copies of his charges against his brothers, together with aspersions against their character and their medicines, printed as circulars and widely distributed to all present or former customers in the United States and Canada.
Meanwhile the civil litigation respecting the division of the assets of the old partnership, broken down into a welter of complaints and countercomplaints, dragged on until 1852. No document reporting the precise terms of the final settlement was discovered, although the affair was obviously compromised on some basis, as the surviving records do speak of a division of the stock in New York City and at St. Louis. The original premises at 57 John Street were left in the possession of Lucius. In this extensive litigation, J. Carlton and George were represented by the law firm of Allen, Hudson & Campbell, whose bill for $2,132 they refused to pay in full, so that they were, in turn, sued by the Allen firm. Some of the lengthy evidence presented in this collection suit enlightened further the previous contest with Lucius. He was described as an extremely difficult person: "at one time the parties came to blows—and G.W. gave the Dr. a black eye." The action by the law firm to recover its fee was finally compromised by the payment of $1,200 in January 1854.
The settlement of the affairs of Comstock & Co. Brothers failed to bring peace between Lucius and the others. The rival successor firms continued to bicker over sales territory and carried the battle out into the countryside, each contending for the loyalty of former customers. Letters and circulars attacking their opponents were widely distributed by both parties. As late as December 1855, more than four years after the event, Lucius was still complaining, in a series of printed circulars, about the "robbery" of his mail from the post office, although the case had been dismissed by the court.
But somehow the new firm of Comstock & Brother triumphed over Comstock & Co., for in the summer of 1853 Lucius found it necessary to make an assignment of all of his assets to his creditors. Thereafter he removed his business from John Street to 45 Vesey Street, in the rear of St. Paul's Churchyard, but although he put out impressive new handbills describing his firm as "Wholesale Chemists, Druggists and Perfumers," he apparently no longer prospered in the drug trade, for old New York City directories show that he shortly turned his main energies to the practice of law. Versatile as he was, Lucius entered the Union Army as a surgeon during the Civil War, and upon his return he resumed his legal career, continuing to his death in 1876. Aside from his role in the Comstock medicine business, Lucius also rates a footnote in United States political history as the foreman of the grand jury that indicted Boss Tweed in 1872.
*A New Partnership Formed*
The two proprietors of Comstock & Brother at 9 John Street were the brothers George Wells and J. Carlton Comstock. At the time of the events just related, their nephew, William Henry Comstock, was an employee, but not a partner, of the firm (he was the "clerk" who had removed the controversial letters from the post office). This partnership was terminated by the death on September 17, 1853, of J. Carlton Comstock, the inventor of the veterinary medicines.
To continue the business, a new partnership, also under the name of Comstock & Brother, comprising George Wells Comstock, William Henry Comstock, and Baldwin L. Judson, was formed on October 1, 1853. Judson was the husband of Eliza, a sister of Lucius and his brothers. George contributed one half of the capital of the new firm and the other two, one quarter each; however, exclusive possession of all trademarks, recipes, and rights to the medicines was reserved to George. It is not clear precisely when Judson entered the drug business or first became associated with the Comstocks; there is some evidence that he had previously been in business for himself, as several remedies were registered by him prior to this time. Judson's Chemical Extract was registered with the Smithsonian by the Comstock firm in 1851, but Dr. Larzetti's Juno Cordial or Procreative Elixir had previously been entered by Judson & Co. in 1844. A variant of the Juno Cordial label also mentions Levi Judson (a father?) as Dr. Larzetti's only agent in America.
Besides the "new" remedies, the Comstock firm—both Comstock firms—was also selling all of the "old" patent medicines, most of them of British origin. These included such items as Godfrey's Cordial, Bateman's Pectoral Drops, Turlington's Balsam of Life, British Oil, and others. The only strictly American product that could claim a venerability somewhat approaching these was Samuel Lee's Bilious Pills, patented on April 30, 1796.
Most of the more recent remedies probably had been originated by local doctors or druggists, either upon experimentation or following old folk remedies, and after enjoying some apparent success were adopted by drug manufacturers. With rare exceptions, however, the names of the discoverers never seem to have made their way into medical history.
*Entrance of Dr. Morse's Indian Root Pills*
During the summer of 1855 the Comstock firm, now located at 50 Leonard Street, was approached by one Andrew J. White, who represented himself as the sole proprietor of Dr. Morse's Indian Root Pills and who had previously manufactured them in his own business, conducted under the name of A.B. Moore, at 225 Main Street, in Buffalo. Actually, White's main connection with this business had been as a clerk, and he had been taken in as a partner only recently. Nevertheless, the Comstocks accepted his claims—carelessly, one must believe—and on August 10, 1855, signed a contract with White for the manufacture and distribution of these pills.
The originator of these pills was Andrew B. Moore. This is clear from several legal documents, including an injunction proceeding in behalf of White and Moore in 1859, which reads in part as follows:
The defendant Moore always had an equal right with White to manufacture the pills—and by the agreement of 21st June, 1858 Moore is (illegible) to his original right and the defendants are manufacturing under Moore's original right....
The plaintiffs (the Comstocks) by their acts have disenabled Moore from using his own name.... (emphasis in original).
In an undated form of contract, between Moore on the one part and George Comstock, William H. Comstock, Judson, and White on the other part, the parties agree, at Moore's option, either to sell all rights and interest in Dr. Morse's Indian Root Pills to him, or to buy them from him, but in the latter event he must covenant that "he will forever refrain from the manufacture or sale of any medicine called Dr. Morse's Root Pills, Moore's Indian Root Pills, or Morse's Pills, or Moore's Pills, or any other name or designation similar to or resembling in any way either thereof...."
In brief, there never was a Dr. Morse—other than Andrew B. Moore. And the Comstocks never claimed any origin of the pills in legal documents, other than their purchase from White. Subsequently, the company fabricated a lengthy history of the discovery of the pills and even pictured Dr. Morse with his "healthy, blooming family." This story was printed in almanacs and in a wrapper accompanying every box of pills. According to this version, "the famous and celebrated Dr. Morse," after completing his education in medical science, traveled widely in Asia, Africa, Europe, and North America, and spent three years among the Indians of our western country, where he discovered the secret of the Indian Root Pills. Returning from one of these journeys after a long absence, he found his father apparently on his death bed. But let us quote the story directly:
A number of years ago this good man was very sick. He had eight of the most celebrated doctors to attend him both night and day. With all their skill this good and pious gentleman grew worse, and finally they gave him up, saying that it was impossible to cure him and he would soon die ... In the afternoon he was taken with shortness of breath and supposed to be dying. The neighbors were sent for, the room soon filled, and many prayers were offered up from the very hearts of these dear Christian people, that some relief might be obtained for this good and pious man.
While these prayers were ascending like sweet incense to the throne above, and every eye was bathed in tears, a rumbling noise was heard in the distance, like a mighty chariot winding its way near, when all at once a fine span of horses, before a beautiful coach, stood before the door, out of which alighted a noble and elegant-looking man. In a moment's time he entered the room, and embraced the hand of his dear father and mother. She clasped her arms around his neck and fainted away.
The Doctor, surprised to see his father so nearly gone, immediately went to his coach, taking therefrom various plants and roots, which he had learned from the Red Men of the forest as being good for all diseases, and gave them to his father, and in about two hours afterwards he was much relieved.... Two days afterwards he was much better, and the third day he could walk about the room ...and now we behold him a strong, active man, and in the bloom of health, and at the age of ninety-five able to ride in one day thirty-five miles, in order to spend his birthday with this celebrated Doctor, his son.
The foregoing event was supposed to have occurred some years before 1847, as the elder Mr. Morse's ninety-fifth birthday referred to was celebrated on November 20, 1847, when he was still hale and hearty. The old gentleman was also said to be enormously wealthy, "with an income of about five hundred thousand dollars annually, and the owner of a number of fine, elegant ships, which sailed in different directions to every part of the world." Dr. Morse, who was the first man to establish that all diseases arise from the impurity of the blood, subsequently discarded his regular practice of medicine and, as a boon to mankind, devoted his entire energy to the manufacture of Dr. Morse's Indian Root Pills.
This story, which was first disseminated as early as the late 1850s, was an entire fabrication. Throughout the patent-medicine era it was the common practice to ascribe an Indian, or at least some geographically remote, origin to all of these nostrums and panaceas. In the words of James Harvey Young, in his book on the Social History of Patent Medicines:
From the 1820's onward the Indian strode nobly through the American patent-medicine wilderness. Hiawatha helped a hair restorative and Pocahontas blessed a bitters. Dr. Fall spent twelve years with the Creeks to discover why no Indian had ever perished of consumption. Edwin Eastman found a blood syrup among the Comanches. Texas Charlie discovered a Kickapoo cure-all, and Frank Cushing pried the secret of a stomach renovator from the Zuni. (Frank, a famous ethnologist, had gone West on a Smithsonian expedition.) Besides these notable accretions to pharmacy, there were Modoc Oil, Seminole Cough Balsam, Nez Perce Catarrh Snuff, and scores more, all doubtless won for the use of white men by dint of great cunning and valor.
[Footnote 4: Young, James Harvey, The Toadstool Millionaires, A Social History of Patent Medicines in America before Federal Regulation. Princeton University Press. 1961.]
Judson's Mountain Herb Pills, a companion product of the Indian Root Pills, had an even more romantic origin—so remarkable, in fact, that the story was embodied in a full-scale paperback novel published by B.L. Judson & Co. in 1859. According to this book, the remedy was discovered—or at least revealed to the world—by a famous adventurer, Dr. Cunard. Dr. Cunard's career somehow bore a remarkable similarity to that of Dr. Morse. He was also the scion of a wealthy family who spent much time traveling throughout the world, and in this process becoming fluent in no less than thirty languages. Eventually he encountered an Aztec princess about to be tortured and sacrificed by Navajo Indians; he interrupted this ceremony only to be captured himself, but by virtue of successfully foretelling an eclipse (happily he had his almanac with him) he won release for himself and the princess. Thereafter he led her back to her home, in some remote part of Mexico, and lived among her people for a year. As a boon for having saved the princess, he was given possession of the ancient healing formula of the Aztecs. Upon returning home Dr. Cunard, in an experience very similar to Dr. Morse's, found his mother on her death bed, but he effected an instant cure by the use of the miraculous herbs he had brought with him. The news spread, soon a wide circle of neighbors was clamoring for this medicine, and in order that all mankind might share in these benefits, Dr. Cunard graciously conveyed the secret to B.L. Judson & Co.
These stories were told entirely straightforwardly, with the intention of being believed. How widely they were actually accepted is difficult to say. In retrospect it seems extremely curious that persons as prominent, as successful, as wealthy as Dr. Morse and Dr. Cunard were never seen or heard by the public, were never mentioned in the newspapers, never ran for public office, their names never listed in any directories, biographies or encyclopedias, and in fact they were not noticed anywhere—except in the advertising material of Comstock & Co. and B.L. Judson. Perhaps such credulity was not unusual in the 1850s, before the advent of widely distributed newspapers and other means of communication, but more than fifty years later, in the early years of the present century, essentially the same version of the history of Dr. Morse was still being printed in the Comstock almanacs.
*The Struggle for Control of the Indian Root Pills*
The agreement of August 10, 1855, between Andrew J. White and the Comstocks established a partnership "for the purpose of manufacturing and selling Dr. Morse's Indian Root Pills and for no other purpose," the partners thereof being A.J. White as an individual and Comstock & Brother as a firm. The new partnership was named A.J. White & Co., but White contributed no money or property—nothing but the right to Dr. Morse's Indian Root Pills. The Comstock firm supplied all of the tangible assets, together with the use of their existing business premises. In turn, Comstock was to receive three fourths and White one fourth of the profits. In brief, the new firm, although bearing White's name, was controlled by the Comstocks.
It is not clear why Moore, the originator of the pills, was not taken into the new business or otherwise recognized in the agreement. As we have seen, White claimed absolute ownership of Dr. Morse's Indian Root Pills, but Moore evidently did not agree, for he continued to manufacture and peddle his own pills, at the same time denouncing those prepared by A.J. White & Co. under Comstock control as forgeries. Moore had previously been in business in Buffalo, at 225 Main Street, under his own name; an announcement in the 1854 Buffalo City Directory (the Commercial Advertiser) describes his firm as successor both to C.C. Bristol and to Moore, Liebetrut & Co. The same directory shows White as merely a clerk at Moore's place of business, although he was made a partner sometime during 1854.
Cyrenius C. Bristol, whose business Moore took over, had entered the drug trade in 1832, initially in partnership with a Dr. G.E. Hayes. In the drug field his best known preparation was Bristol's renowned sarsaparilla, and he is credited with having originated the patent-medicine almanac, along with other advertising innovations. The patent-medicine business, however, represented merely one of his wide-ranging interests; he was also a co-owner of vessels plying the Great Lakes, a publisher, and a dabbler in such occult arts as Mesmerism, Phrenology, and Morse's theory of the electric telegraph. In 1855 he appeared as the proprietor of the Daily Republic, and it was perhaps his growing involvement in publishing that led him to turn his drug business over to Moore.
While we know this much about Moore's antecedents, a very considerable mystery remains. If Moore was the proprietor of his own apparently prosperous drug and medicine business in Buffalo in 1854, with White as one of his clerks, how did it happen that in the following year White represented himself to the Comstocks as the sole owner of Dr. Morse's (Moore's) Indian Root Pills? And Moore, although he initially disputed this claim, left his own business in Buffalo and ultimately joined White and the Comstocks, not even in the capacity of a partner, but merely as an employee.
These events would seem, however, to date the origin of the Indian Root Pills fairly closely. Moore was already manufacturing them in Buffalo prior to White's initial agreement with the Comstocks, but as he did not mention them by name in his Commercial Advertiser announcement in 1854, it is a fair presumption that the pills were new at this time. But they must have caught on very rapidly to induce the Comstocks to enter a partnership with White, under his name, when he contributed only the Indian Root Pills but no cash or other tangible assets.
[Illustration: FIGURE 8.—Indian Root Pill labels: a, original used by Moore, the originator of the pills; b, initial label used by A.J. White & Co. under Comstock ownership, 1855-1857; c, revised label adopted by Comstocks in June 1857 after Moore changed the color of his label to blue; d, label adopted by Moore and White for selling in competition with the Comstocks, 1859. Obviously printed from the same plate as c, but with an additional signature just above the Indian on horseback; e, new label adopted by the Comstocks after the departure of Moore and White; f, label used in the final years of the business; g, label, in Spanish, used in final years for export trade to Latin America.]
While manufacturing the pills in Buffalo, Moore had been packaging them under a yellow label bearing a pictorial representation of the British coat-of-arms, flanked on one side by an Indian and on the other by a figure probably supposed to represent a merchant or a sea captain. The labels also described Moore as the proprietor, "without whose signature none can be genuine." And after the formation of A.J. White & Co. and the purported transfer of Dr. Morse's pills to it, Moore still continued to sell the same medicine and to denounce the White-Comstock product as spurious. The latter was packaged under a white label showing an Indian warrior riding horseback and was signed "A.J. White & Co." While the color was shortly changed to blue and the name of the proprietor several times amended through the ensuing vicissitudes, the label otherwise remained substantially unchanged for as long as the pills continued to be manufactured, or for over 100 years.
The nuisance of Moore's independent manufacture of the pills was temporarily eliminated when, on June 21, 1858, Moore was hired by A.J. White & Co. and abandoned competition with them. The Comstocks, in employing him, insisted upon a formal, written agreement whereunder Moore agreed to discontinue any manufacture or sale of the pills and to assign all rights and title therein, together with any related engravings, cuts, or designs, to A.J. White & Co. As previously stated, the two Comstock brothers, Judson, and White had offered either to sell the Indian Root Pill business in its entirety to Moore, or to buy it from him. Moore's employment by A.J. White & Co. presumably followed his election not to purchase and operate the business himself.
So far so good. The Comstocks' claim to the Indian Root Pills through the 75 percent controlled A.J. White & Co. now seemed absolutely secure and the disparagement of their products at an end. But new dissension must have occurred, for on New Year's Day of 1859, without prior notice, Moore and White absented themselves from the Comstock office, taking with them as many of the books, accounts, records, and other assets of A.J. White & Co. as they could carry. Forthwith they established a business of their own, also under the name of A.J. White & Co., at 10 Courtlandt Street, where they resumed the manufacture and distribution of Dr. Morse's Indian Root Pills, under a close facsimile of the label already being used by the A.J. White-Comstock firm.
These events left the Comstocks in an embarrassing position. For over three years they had been promoting the A.J. White trade name, but now they could hardly keep a competitor from operating under his own name. Their official attitude was that the old firm of A.J. White & Co. was still in existence and controlled by the Comstocks. But shortly they conceded this point tacitly when they introduced new labels for the Indian Root Pills, under the name and signature of B. Lake Judson, and advised that any accounts or correspondence with A.J. White & Co. still outstanding should be directed to the new firm of Judson.
Obviously, this state of affairs was extremely confusing to all of the customers. Judson traveled widely through the Canadian maritime provinces and prevailed upon many merchants to disavow orders previously given to the new A.J. White firm at 10 Courtlandt Street. On April 28, 1859, White and Moore, for their part, appointed one James Blakely of Napanee, Canada West, to represent them in the territory between Kingston and Hamilton "including all the back settlements," where he should engage in the collection of all notes and receipts for the Indian Root Pills and distribute new supplies to the merchants. On all collections he was to receive 25 percent; new medicines were to be given out without charge except for freight. In his letter accepting the appointment, Blakely advised that:
I think the pills should be entered here so as to avoid part of the enormous duty. 30% is too much to pay. I think there might be an understanding so that it might be done with safety. Goods coming to me should come by Oswego and from thence by Steamer to Millport. By this route they would save the delay they would be subject to coming by Kingston and avoid the scrutiny they would give them there at the customhouse.
[Footnote 5: Moore claimed later (his affidavit of November 22, 1859) that he thought he was hired only by White personally, and did not realize that A.J. White & Co. was controlled by the Comstocks.]
The great bulk of the notes and accounts which were assigned to Blakely for collection were undoubtedly accounts originally established with the old A.J. White & Co. and therefore in dispute with the Comstocks. But in any case, Blakely went vigorously up and down his territory, frequently crossing the paths of agents of the Comstocks, pushing the pills and attempting to collect outstanding bills owed to A.J. White & Co. by persuasion and threats. On July 2, 1860, he wrote that:
My sales have been pretty good. Comstock Pills are put in almost every place, generally on commission at a low figure, but I get them put aside in most cases and make actual sales so they will be likely to get them back.
Meanwhile, back in New York City, the fight between the erstwhile partners went on, mostly in the legal arena. On April 14, 1859, the sheriff, at the instigation of the Comstocks, raided White's premises at 10 Courtlandt Street and seized the books, accounts, and correspondence carried away by White and Moore on January 1. Simultaneously, the Comstocks succeeded in having White and Moore arrested on a charge of larceny "for stealing on last New Year's Day a large number of notes and receipts," and in September White was arrested on a charge of forgery. Since the alleged offense took place in Pennsylvania, he was extradited back to that state. Neither the circumstances nor the disposition of this case is known, but since White claimed the right to collect notes issued by the old A.J. White & Co., it is probable that the charge arose merely out of his endorsement of some disputed note. On this occasion the Comstocks printed and distributed circulars which were headed: "Andrew J. White, the pill man indicted for forgery," and thereunder they printed the requisition of the governor of New York in response to the request for extradition from Pennsylvania, in such a way as to suggest that their side of the dispute had official sanction.
The Comstocks must also have discovered White's and Blakely's arrangement for avoiding "scrutiny" of their goods shipped into Canada, for on July 29 there was an acknowledgment by the Collector of Customs of the Port of Queenston of certain information supplied by George Wells Comstock, William Henry Comstock, and Baldwin L. Judson on goods being "smuggled into this province."
While the principal case between the Comstocks and White and Moore was scheduled for trial in December 1860, no documents which report its outcome were discovered. However, it is a fair surmise that the rival parties finally realized that they were spending a great deal of energy and money to little avail, injuring each other's business in the process and tarnishing the reputation of the Indian Root Pills regardless of ownership. In any case, a final settlement of this protracted controversy was announced on March 26, 1861, when White and Moore relinquished all claims and demands arising out of the sale of Dr. Morse's Indian Root Pills prior to January 1, 1859.
Since no copy of this agreement was found, we do not know what inducement was offered to Moore and White. However, hundreds of announcements of the settlement, directed "To the debtors of the late firm of A.J. WHITE & CO." were printed, advising that
The controversy and the difficulties between the members of the old firm of A.J. White & Co. of No. 50 Leonard Street, New York, being ended, we hereby notify all parties to whom MORSE'S INDIAN ROOT PILLS were sent or delivered prior to January 1, 1859, and all parties holding for collection or otherwise, any of said claims or demands for said Pills, that we the undersigned have forever relinquished, and have now no claim, right, title or interest in said debts or claims, and authorize the use of the names of said firm whenever necessary in recovering, collecting and settling such debts and claims.
The announcement was signed by Andrew J. White and Andrew B. Moore.
This should have been the end of this wearisome affair, but it was not. It soon appeared that Moore had violated this agreement by concealing a number of accounts, together with a quantity of pills, circulars, labels, and a set of plates, and, in the words of Comstock's complaint, transferred them "to James Blakely, an irresponsible person in Canada West." And Blakely evidently continued to collect such accounts for the benefit of himself and Moore. However, the Comstocks also entered the scene of strife, and sometime during the summer of 1862 William Henry Comstock, then traveling in Ontario, collected a note in the amount of $7.50 in favor of A.J. White & Co., as he had every right to do, but endorsed it "James Blakely for A.J. White & Co." Blakely, when he learned of this, charged Comstock with forgery; Comstock in turn charged Blakely with libel. Comstock probably defended his somewhat questionable endorsement by the agreement of March 26 of the previous year; in any event the case was dismissed by a Justice of the Peace in Ottawa without comment. In New York City, on November 25, the Comstocks had Moore arrested again, with White at this time testifying in their support. There was also an attempt to prosecute Blakely in Canada; his defense was that he had bought the disputed accounts and notes from Moore on March 11, 1861—a few days before the agreement with the Comstocks—and that his ownership of these notes was thereafter absolute and he was no longer working as an agent for Moore.
This controversy was still in the courts as late as April of 1864, and its final outcome is not known. But in any case, aside only from Moore's and Blakely's attempts to collect certain outstanding accounts and to dispose of stock still in their hands, the agreement of March 26, 1861, left the Comstocks in full and undisputed possession of Dr. Morse's Indian Root Pills. White thereafter continued in the patent-medicine business in New York City on his own; his firm was still active as recently as 1914. The subsequent history of Moore is unknown.
*The Brothers Part Company*
One would imagine that the three partners of Comstock & Brother would have been exhausted by litigation and would be eager to work amicably together for years. But such was not to be the case. The recovered records give notice of a lawsuit (1866) between George Comstock on the one hand and William H. Comstock and Judson on the other. No other documents relating to this case were found, and thus the precise issue is not known, or how it was finally settled. However, it was obviously a prelude to the dissolution of the old firm.
Letters and documents from the several years preceding this event suggest that Judson had become more prominent in the business, and that he and William H. Comstock had gradually been drawing closer together, perhaps in opposition to George. Judson, although a partner of Comstock & Brother, also operated under his own name at 50 Leonard Street and had originated several of the medicines himself. It is not clear whether the old firm of Comstock & Brother was formally dissolved, but after 1864 insurance policies and other documents referred to the premises as "Comstock & Judson." In 1863 the federal internal revenue license in connection with the new "temporary" Civil War tax on the manufacturing of drugs was issued simply to B.L. Judson & Co., now located, with the Comstocks, at 106 Franklin Street.
[Footnote 6: The "temporary" tax placed upon drug manufacture as a revenue measure during the Civil War remained in effect until 1883.]
During this period Judson and William Henry Comstock became interested in a coffee-roasting and spice-grinding business, operated under the name of Central Mills, and located in the Harlem Railroad Building at the corner of Centre and White Streets. Possibly George objected to his partners spreading their energies over a second business; in any case, dissension must have arisen over some matter. On April 1, 1866, balance sheets were drawn up separately for B.L. Judson & Co. and Comstock & Judson; the former showed a net worth of $48,527.56 against only $5,066.70 for the latter. Both of these firms had a common bookkeeper, E. Kingsland, but the relationship between the firms is not known.
On April 25, Judson and William H. Comstock sold their coffee-roasting business to one Alexander Chegwidden, taking a mortgage on the specific assets, which included, besides roasters and other machinery, a horse and wagon. But if this had been a factor in the controversy among the partners, the sale failed to end it, for we find that on December 21, 1866, George W. obtained an injunction against William Henry and Judson restraining them from collecting or receiving any accounts due the partnership of B.L. Judson & Co., transferring or disposing of any of its assets, and continuing business under that name or using any of its trademarks. Unfortunately, we have no information as to the details of this case or the terms of settlement, but we do find that on February 1, 1867, the law firm of Townsend, Dyett & Morrison rendered a bill for $538.85 to B.L. Judson and William H. Comstock for "Supervising and engrossing two copies of agreement with George W. Comstock on settlement" and for representing the two parties named in several actions and cross actions with George.
This settlement, whatever its precise character may have been, obviously marked the termination of the old partnership—or, more properly, the series of successor partnerships—that had been carried on by various of the Comstock brothers for over thirty years. William Henry, the former clerk and junior partner—although also the son of the founder—was now going it alone. Before this time he had already transferred the main center of his activities to Canada, and he must have been contemplating the removal of the business out of New York City.
After this parting of the ways, George W. Comstock was associated with several machinery businesses in New York City, up until his death in 1889. During the Draft Riots of 1863 he had played an active role in protecting refugees from the Colored orphanage on 43rd Street, who sought asylum in his house at 136 West 34th Street.
*Dr. Morse's Pills Move to Morristown*
In April 1867, the home of Dr. Morse's Indian Root Pills and of the other proprietary remedies was transferred from New York City to Morristown, a village of 300 inhabitants on the bank of the St. Lawrence River in northern New York State. This was not, however, the initial move into this area; three or four years earlier William H. Comstock had taken over an existing business in Brockville, Ontario, directly across the river. No specific information as to why the business was established here has been found, but the surrounding circumstances provide some very good presumptions.
The bulk of the Comstocks' business was always carried on in rural areas—in "the back-woods." Specifically, the best sales territory consisted of the Middle West—what was then regarded as "The West"—of the United States and of Canada West, i.e., the present province of Ontario. A surviving ledger of all of the customers of Comstock & Brother in 1857 supplies a complete geographic distribution. Although New Jersey and Pennsylvania were fairly well represented, accounts in New York State were sparse, and those in New England negligible. And despite considerable travel by the partners or agents in the Maritime Provinces, no very substantial business was ever developed there. The real lively sales territory consisted of the six states of Ohio, Indiana,
[Footnote 7: National Cyclopedia of American Biography, IV:500.]
Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Iowa, which accounted for over two thirds of all domestic sales, while Canada West contributed over 90 percent of Canadian sales. More regular customers were to be found in Canada West—a relatively compact territory—than any other single state or province. The number of customers of Comstock & Brother in 1857 by states and provinces follows:
Alabama 12 Arkansas 1 Connecticut 3 Delaware 5 D.C. 1 Florida 5 Georgia 15 Illinois 415 Indiana 298 Iowa 179 Kansas Ter. 1 Kentucky 21 Louisiana 7 Maine 2 Maryland 21 Massachusetts 5 Minnesota Ter. 6 Mississippi 8 Missouri 32 Michigan 194 New York State 88 New York City 3 New Jersey 212 New Hampshire 1 North Carolina 9 Ohio 179 Pennsylvania 192 Rhode Island 2 South Carolina 5 Tennessee 21 Texas 1 Virginia 30 Wisconsin 303 New Brunswick 15 Nova Scotia 19 Canada East (Quebec) 7 Canada West 434
Total United States 2,277 Total Canada 475
The concentration of this market and its considerable distance from New York City at a time when transportation conditions were still relatively primitive must have created many problems in distribution. Moreover, the serious threat to the important Canadian market imposed by White and Moore, although eventually settled by compromise, must have emphasized the vulnerability of this territory to competition.
It was also probable that the office in lower Manhattan—at 106 Franklin Street after May 20, 1862—was found to be increasingly congested and inconvenient as a site for mixing pills and tonics, bottling, labeling, packaging and shipping them, and keeping all of the records for a large number of individual small accounts. A removal of the manufacturing part of the business to more commodious quarters, adjacent to transportation routes, must have been urgent.
But why move to as remote a place as Morristown, New York, beyond the then still wild Adirondacks? It is obvious that this location was selected because the company already had an office and some facilities in Brockville, Canada West.
William H. Comstock must have first become established at Brockville, after extensive peregrinations through Canada West, around 1859 or 1860. During the dispute between A.J. White and Comstock & Judson, Blakely, the aggressive Canadian agent, had written to White, on September 1, 1859, that he had heard from "Mr. Allen Turner of Brockville" that the Comstocks were already manufacturing Dr. Morse's Indian Root Pills at St. Catherines. Evidently the Comstocks thought of several possible locations, for on July 2 of the following year Blakely advised his principals that the Comstocks were now manufacturing their pills in Brockville. Two years later, in November 1862, when Blakely sued William H. Comstock for the forgery of a note, the defendant was then described in the legal papers as "one Wm. Henry Comstock of the town of Brockville Druggist." And in July 1865, Comstock was writing from Brockville to E. Kingsland, the bookkeeper in New York City, telling him to put Brenner—the bearer of the letter—"in the mill." Comstock had apparently taken over an existing business in Brockville, as receipts for medicines delivered by him describe him as "Successor to A.N. M'Donald & Co." Dr. McKenzie's Worm Tablets also seem to have come into the Comstock business with this acquisition.
This did not mean a final move to Brockville for William H. Comstock; for several years he must have gone back and forth and was still active in New York City as a partner of his brother and of Judson. We have seen that he subsequently went into partnership with Judson in the purchase of the coffee-roasting business. In December 1866, he was a defendant in the lawsuit initiated by his brother George, when he was still apparently active in the New York City business. Nevertheless, he apparently shifted the center of his activities to the Brockville area about 1860, relinquishing primary responsibility for affairs in New York City to his brother and to Judson.
We now find the Comstock business established at Brockville. Exactly why a second plant was built at Morristown, right across the river, is again a matter for conjecture. It is a fair assumption, however, that customs duties or other restraints may have interfered with the ability of the Canadian plant to supply the United States market. Thus, facilities on the other side of the border, but still close enough to be under common management, must have become essential. In an era of water transportation, Morristown was a convenient place from which to supply the important middle western territory. Ogdensburg was the eastern terminus of lake boats, and several lines provided daily service between that point and Buffalo. The railroad had already reached Ogdensburg (although not yet Morristown) so that rail transportation was also convenient. And the farms of St. Lawrence County could certainly be counted upon to supply such labor as was necessary for the rather simple tasks of mixing pills and elixirs and packaging them. Finally, the two plants were directly across the river from each other—connection was made by a ferry which on the New York side docked almost on the Comstock property—so that both could easily be supervised by a single manager. In fact, if it had not been for the unusual circumstance that they were located in two different countries, they could really have been considered as no more than separate buildings constituting a single plant.
Surviving receipts for various goods and services show that the move to Morristown was carried out in March or April of 1867. Although the Morristown undertaking was obviously regarded as a continuation of the New York business, it was operated by William Henry Comstock as the sole proprietor for many years, and the terms of any settlement or subsequent relationship with Judson are unknown. A "Judson Pill Co." was subsequently established at Morristown, but this was no more than a mailing address for one department of the Comstock business. What happened to Judson as an individual is a mystery; like Moore, he quietly disappears from our story.
It is also puzzling that no record of the transfer of land to Mr. Comstock upon the first establishment of the pill factory in Morristown in 1867 can be found. The earliest deed discovered in the St. Lawrence County records shows the transfer of waterfront property to William Henry Comstock "of Brockville, Ontario," from members of the Chapman family, in March 1876. Additional adjoining land was also acquired in 1877 and 1882.
*The Golden Era*
With the establishment of the Comstock patent-medicine business at Morristown in 1867, this enterprise may be said to have reached maturity. Over thirty years had passed since William Henry's father had established its earliest predecessor in lower Manhattan. Possession of Dr. Morse's Indian Root Pills was now unchallenged, and this and the other leading brand names were recognized widely in country drug stores and farmhouses over one third of a continent. No longer did the medicines have to be mixed, bottled, and packaged in cramped and dingy quarters above a city shop; spacious buildings in an uncongested country village were now being used. No further relocations would be necessary, as operations exceeded their capacity, or as landlords might elect to raise rents; the pill factory was to remain on the same site for the following ninety years. And the bitter struggles for control, perhaps acerbated because of the family relationship among the partners, were now a thing of the past. William H. Comstock was in exclusive control, and he was to retain this position, first as sole proprietor and later as president, for the remainder of his long life.
The patent-medicine business as a whole was also entering, just at this time, upon its golden era—the fifty-year span between the Civil War and World War I. Improved transportation, wider circulation of newspapers and periodicals, and cheaper and better bottles all enabled the manufacturers of the proprietary remedies to expand distribution—the enactment and enforcement of federal drug laws was still more than a generation in the future. So patent medicines flourished; in hundreds of cities and villages over the land enterprising self-proclaimed druggists devised a livelihood for themselves by mixing some powders into pills or bottling some secret elixir—normally containing a high alcoholic content or some other habit-forming element—created some kind of a legend about this concoction, and sold the nostrum as the infallible cure for a wide variety of human (and animal) ailments. And many conservative old ladies, each one of them a pillar of the church and an uncompromising foe of liquor, cherished their favorite remedies to provide comfort during the long winter evenings. But of these myriads of patent-medicine manufacturers, only a scant few achieved the size, the recognition, and wide distribution of Dr. Morse's Indian Root Pills and the other leading Comstock remedies.
Of course, the continued growth of the business was a gradual process; it did not come all at once with the move to Morristown. Even in 1878, after eleven years in this village, the Comstock factory was not yet important enough to obtain mention in Everts' comprehensive History of St. Lawrence County. But, as we have seen, additional land was purchased in 1877 and 1882, obviously bespeaking an expansion of the enterprise. In 1885, according to a time book, the pill factory regularly employed about thirty persons, plus a few others on an occasional basis.
Mr. Comstock, from his residence across the river in Brockville, was the manager of the business; however, the operations were under the immediate charge of E. Kingsland, former chief clerk of the Judson and Comstock offices in New York City, who was brought up to Morristown as superintendent of the factory. E. Kingsland was a cousin of Edward A. Kingsland, one of the leading stationers in New York City, and presumably because of this relationship, Kingsland supplied a large part of Comstock's stationery requirements for many years. Kingsland in Morristown retired from the plant in 1885 and was succeeded by Robert G. Nicolson, who had been a foreman for a number of years. Nicolson, a native of Glasgow, Scotland, was brought to America as a child, first lived at Brockville, and then came to Morristown as foreman in the pill factory shortly after it was established. He was succeeded as superintendent by his own son, Robert Jr., early in the present century.
The great majority of the employees of the pill factory were women—or, more properly, girls—in an era when it was not yet common-place for members of the fair sex to leave the shelter of their homes for paid employment. The wage rates during the 1870s, 1880s and 1890s were $3 to $5 a week for girls and $7 to $12 a week for men; the last-named amount was an acceptable rate at that time for a permanent and experienced adult man. The factory management of this era was joyously unaware of minimum wages, fair employment laws, social security, antidiscrimination requirements, fair trade, food and drug acts, income taxes, and the remaining panoply of legal restrictions that harass the modern businessman. Since only a few scattered payroll records have been recovered, Comstock's maximum employment during the Morristown period is not known, or just when it was reached. In a brief sketch of the Indian Root Pill business, however, Mrs. Doris Planty, former Morristown town historian, mentions a work force of from "40 to 50" around the turn of the century.
In 1875, twenty years after its original projection, the Utica & Black River Railroad finally came through the village, bisecting the Comstock property with a right-of-way thirty-six feet wide and dividing it thereafter into a "lower shop," where the pills and tonics were made, and the "upper shop," where the medicines were packaged and clerical duties performed. The superintendent and his family lived above the upper shop in an apartment; it was in the spacious attic above this apartment that the records of the business, in a scattered and ransacked condition, were found. Inasmuch as the first recorded sale of land to Comstock occurred in March 1876, almost simultaneously with the arrival of the railroad, it is a fair surmise that the second building was put up about this time.
The coming of the railroad also put a station almost at the doorstep of the factory, and thereafter many shipments came and went by rail. The company's huge volume of mailings, often ten or fifteen bags a day, was also delivered directly to the trains, without going through the local post office. For some years, however, heavy shipments, including coal for the factory's boilers, continued to come by ship. The Brockville ferry also operated from a dock immediately adjacent to the railroad station; one end of the station was occupied by the United States Customs House.
Almost from the time of its arrival in Morristown, the Black River Railroad operated a daily through Wagner Palace Sleeping Car from New York City via Utica and Carthage, and service over the same route was continued by the New York Central after it took over the North Country railroads in 1891. This meant that Mr. Comstock, when he had business in New York City, could linger in his factory until the evening train paused at the station to load the afternoon's outpouring of pills and almanacs, swing aboard the waiting Pullman, and ensconce himself comfortably in his berth, to awaken in the morning within the cavernous precincts of Grand Central Station—an ease and convenience of travel which residents of the North Country in the 1970s cannot help but envy. The daily sleeping car through Morristown to and from New York City survived as long as the railroad itself, into the early 1960s, thus outlasting both of the Comstocks—father and son.
[Footnotes 8: Or perhaps Mr. Comstock merely failed to pay for an engraved plate and to order a book; these county histories were apparently very largely written and edited with an eye to their subscribers.]
The pills were originally mixed by hand. In the summer of 1880 the factory installed a steam engine and belt-driven pill-mixing machinery. At least one rotary pill machine was purchased from England, from J.W. Pindar, and delivered to Comstock at a total cost (including ocean freight) of L19-10-9—about $100. One minor unsolved mystery is that a bill for a second, identical machine made out to A.J. White—with whom Comstock had not been associated for twenty years—is filed among the Comstock records; it can only be surmised that at this time Comstock and White were again on good terms, the memories of lawsuits, arrests, and prosecutions long since forgotten, and Comstock either ordered a machine in behalf of White or perhaps agreed to take one off his hands. At the time of this expansion, certain outbuildings and a dock for the unloading of coal were erected adjoining the lower building. During 1881 an underwater telegraph cable was laid between Morristown and Brockville, allowing immediate communication between the two Comstock factories.
With the advent of the electrical age, around the turn of the century, the Comstock factory also installed a generator to supply lighting, the first in the locality to introduce this amenity. The wires were also extended to the four or five company-owned houses in the village, and then to other houses, so that the company functioned as a miniature public utility. Its electric lines in the village were eventually sold to the Central New York Power Corporation and incorporated into that system. Steam heat was also supplied to the railroad station and the customs house, and the company pumped water out of the river to the water tower on the hill above Pine Hill Cemetery, following the installation of the public water system.
In 1908, Comstock built a large hotel across the street from the upper factory; sitting part way up the hill and surrounded by a wide veranda, it represented a conspicuous feature in the village and dominated the waterfront scene until its destruction by fire in 1925. The Comstock family, in 1910, also built a town hall and social center for the village. Adjacent to the lower shop a large boathouse was erected to shelter Mr. Comstock's yacht, the Maga Doma, a familiar sight on the river for many years.
In any large city, of course, a factory employing, at most, forty or fifty workers would have passed unnoticed, and its owner could hardly expect to wield any great social or political influence. In a remote village like Morristown, things are quite different; a regular employer of forty persons creates a considerable economic impact. For two generations the Indian Root Pill factory supplied jobs, in an area where they were always scarce, and at a time when the old forest and dairy industries were already beginning to decline. But the recital of its close associations with the village makes it clear that the pill factory was more than a mere employer; for ninety years it provided a spirit that animated Morristown, pioneered in the introduction of utilities and certain social services, linked the village directly with the great outside world of drug stores and hypochondriacs, and distinguished it sharply from other, languishing St. Lawrence County villages. One may wonder whether Dr. Morse's Indian Root Pills really did anyone any good. They certainly did heap many benefits upon all citizens of Morristown.
While there was only a single Comstock medicine business, operated as a sole proprietorship until 1902, Comstock found it convenient to maintain several dummy companies—really no more than mailing addresses—for some years after the move to the North. Thus, in Morristown was to be found, at least in business and postal directories, besides the Comstock company itself, two other proprietary manufacturers: Judson Pill Co. and E. Kingsland & Co.
The Judson Pill Co. preserved the name of Comstock's former partner, while use of the name E. Kingsland perhaps flattered the vanity of the former chief clerk and later plant superintendent. The major Kingsland product was Chlorinated Tablets, a sure cure for coughs, colds, hoarseness, bronchial irritation, influenza, diphtheria, croup, sore throat and all throat diseases; these were especially recommended by Dr. MacKenzie, Senior Physician in the Hospital for Diseases of the Throat (was there any such hospital?) in London, England. The Kingsland pills were also popularized under the name of Little Pink Granules.
Over on the Canadian side of the river, where another plant approximately the same size as the Morristown facilities was in operation, the Comstock Company had assimilated the Dr. Howard Medicine Co. Dr. Howard's leading remedies were his Seven Spices for all Digestive Disorders and the Blood Builder for Brain and Body. The latter, in the form of pills, was prescribed as a positive cure for a wide array of ailments, but like many other patent medicines of the era, it was hinted that it had a particularly beneficial effect upon sexual vitality.
They have an especial action (through the blood) upon the SEXUAL ORGANS of both Men and Women. It is a well recognized fact that upon the healthy activity of the sexual apparatus depend the mental and physical well-being of every person come to adult years. It is that which gives the rosy blush to the cheek, and the soft light to the eye of the maiden. The elastic step, the ringing laugh, and the strong right arm of the youth, own the same mainspring. How soon do irregularities rob the face of color, the eye of brightness! Everyone knows this. The blood becomes impoverished, the victim PALE. This pallor of the skin is often the outward mark of the trouble within. But to the sufferer there arise a host of symptoms, chiefest among which are loss of physical and nervous energy. Then Dr. Howard's BLOOD BUILDER steps into the breach and holds the fort. The impoverished Blood is enriched. The shattered nervous forces are restored. Vigor returns. Youth is recalled. Decay routed. The bloom of health again mantles the faded cheek. Improvement follows a few days' use of the pills; while permanent benefit and cure can only reasonably be expected when sufficient have been taken to enrich the Blood.
Before the Blood Builder pills were taken, all their users were advised to have their bowels thoroughly cleansed by a laxative medicine and, happily, the company also made an excellent preparation for this purpose—Dr. Howard's Golden Grains. While the good doctor was modern enough—the circular quoted from was printed in the 1890s—to recognize the importance of the healthy activity of the sexual apparatus, such a suggestion should not be carried too far—so we find that the pills were also unrivaled for building up systems shattered by debauchery, excesses, self-abuse or disease. Along with the pills themselves was recommended a somewhat hardy regimen, including fresh air, adequate sleep, avoidance of lascivious thoughts, and bathing the private parts and buttocks twice daily in ice-cold water.
A few years after their initial introduction, Dr. Howard's Blood Builder Pills somehow became "electric"—this word surrounded by jagged arrows prominently featured on the outer wrapper—although the character of the improvement which added this new quality was not explained anywhere. The literature accompanying these remedies explained that "in the evening of an active, earnest and successful life, and in order that the public at large might participate in the benefit of his discoveries," Dr. Howard graciously imparted to the proprietors the composition, methods of preparation, and modes of using these medicines. In other words, he was obviously a public benefactor of the same stamp as Dr. Morse and Dr. Cunard—although by the final years of the century, the old story about the long absence from home, the extended travels in remote lands, and the sudden discovery of some remarkable native remedy would probably have sounded a trifle implausible.
*Putting the Pills Through*
Given the characteristics of the patent-medicine business, its most difficult and essential function was selling—or what the Comstocks and their representatives frequently described in their letters as "putting the pills through." During the full century within which Dr. Morse's Indian Root Pills and their companion remedies were distributed widely over North America and, later, over the entire world, almost every form of advertising and publicity was utilized. And it is a strong presumption that the total costs of printing and publicity were much larger than those of manufacture and packaging.
Initially, the selling was done largely by "travelers" calling directly upon druggists and merchants, especially those in rural communities. All of the Comstock brothers, with the exception perhaps of Lucius, seem to have traveled a large part of their time, covering the country from the Maritime Provinces to the Mississippi Valley, and from Ontario—or Canada West—to the Gulf. Their letters to the "home office" show that they were frequently absent for extended periods, visiting points which at the very dawn of the railroad era, in the 1840s and 1850s, must have been remote indeed. In the surviving letters we find occasional references to lame horses and other vicissitudes of travel, and one can also imagine the rigors of primitive trains, lake and river steamers, stagecoaches, and rented carriages, not to mention ill-prepared meals and dingy hotel rooms.
Judson seems to have handled Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. J. Carlton Comstock, who died in 1853, covered the South and in fact maintained a residence in New Orleans; prior to the opening of the railroads, this city was also a point of entry for much of the West. George Wells Comstock made several extensive tours of the West, while William Henry spent much of his time in Canada West and, as we have seen, lived in Brockville after 1860. Andrew J. White spent most of his time traveling after he joined the firm in 1855; Moore also covered Canada West intensively, briefly for the Comstocks and then in opposition to them.
Besides the partners themselves, the several successor Comstock firms had numerous agents and representatives. As early as 1851, during the dispute between Lucius and his brothers, it was stated in a legal brief that the partnership included, besides its manufacturing house in New York City, several hundred agencies and depots throughout every state and county in the Union. This assertion may have stretched the truth a bit, as most of the agents must have handled other products as well, but the distribution system for the pills was undoubtedly well organized and widely extended. Several full-time agents did work exclusively for the Comstocks; these included Henry S. Grew of St. John's, Canada East, who said he had traveled 20,000 miles in three years prior to 1853, and Willard P. Morse in the Middle West, whose signature is still extant on numerous shipping documents.
While personal salemanship always must have been most effective in pushing the pills—and also useful in the allied task of collecting delinquent accounts—as the business grew the territory was far too vast to be covered by travelers, and so advertising was also used heavily. Hardly any method was neglected, but emphasis was always placed upon two media: almanacs and country newspapers.
Millions of the almanacs poured out of the small Morristown railroad station. In the early years of the present century, for which the record has been found, from July until the following April shipments of almanacs usually ran well in excess of one million per month. At various times they were also printed in Spanish and in German; the Spanish version was for export, but the German was intended primarily for our own "native" Germans in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and elsewhere throughout the Middle West.
Around the turn of the century, the patent-medicine almanac was so common that one could walk into any drug store and pick up three or four of them. Credit for the origination of the free patent-medicine almanac has been ascribed to Cyrenius C. Bristol, founder of the firm which Moore later took over and therefore an indirect predecessor of the Indian Root Pills. Whether or not this is strictly accurate, it is known that Bristol's Sarsaparilla Almanac was being printed as early as 1843 and by 1848 had expanded into an edition of 64 pages.
The Comstocks were almost as early. The first date they printed almanacs is not known, but by 1853 it was a regular practice, for the order book of that year shows that large batches of almanacs, frequently 500 copies, were routinely enclosed with every substantial order. Over their entire history it is quite reasonable that somewhere in the vicinity of one billion almanacs must have been distributed by the Comstock Company and its predecessors. As a matter of fact, back in the 1850s there was not merely a Comstock but also a Judson almanac. One version of the latter was the "Rescue of Tula," which recounted Dr. Cunard's rescue of the Aztec princess and his reward in the form of the secret of the Mountain Herb Pills. In the 1880s, Morse's Indian Root Pill almanac was a 34-page pamphlet, about two thirds filled with advertising and testimonials—including the familiar story of the illness of Dr. Morse's father and the dramatic return of his son with the life-saving herbs—but also containing calendars, astronomical data, and some homely good advice. Odd corners were filled with jokes, of which the following was a typical specimen:
"Pa," said a lad to his father, "I have often read of people poor but honest; why don't they sometimes say, 'rich but honest'"?
"Tut, tut, my son, nobody would believe them," answered the father.
Before 1900 the detailed story of the discovery of Dr. Morse's pills was abridged to a brief summary, and during the 1920s this tale was abandoned altogether, although until the end the principal ingredients were still identified as natural herbs and roots used as a remedy by the Indians. In more recent years the character and purpose of Dr. Morse's pills also changed substantially. As recently as 1918, years after the passage of the Federal Food and Drug Act of 1906, they were still being recommended as a cure for:
Biliousness Dyspepsia Constipation Sick Headache Scrofula Kidney Disease Liver Complaint Jaundice Piles Dysentery Colds Boils Malarial Fever Flatulency Foul Breath Eczema Gravel Worms Female Complaints Rheumatism Neuralgia La Grippe Palpitation Nervousness
Further, two entire pages were taken in the almanac to explain how, on the authority of "the celebrated Prof. La Roche of Paris," appendicitis could be cured by the pills without resort to the surgeon's knife.
Besides the almanacs, almost every known form of advertising in the preradio era was employed. Announcements were inserted in newspapers—apparently mostly rural newspapers—all over the country; the two remedies pushed most intensively were the Indian Root Pills and Judson's Mountain Herb Worm Tea. The latter always bore a true likeness of Tezuco, the Aztec chief who had originally conferred the secret of the medicine upon Dr. Cunard. Besides the Mountain Herb Worm Tea, there were also Mountain Herb Pills; it is not clear how the pills differed from the tea, but they were recommended primarily as a remedy for
Diarrhoea Dropsy Debility Fever and Ague Female Complaints Headaches Indigestion Influenza Inflammation Inward Weakness Liver Complaints Lowness of Spirits Piles Stone and Gravel Secondary Symptoms
with particular stress upon their value as a "great female medicine." Besides the major advertisement of the pills, consisting of an eight-inch column to be printed in each issue of the paper, smaller announcements were provided, to be inserted according to a specified monthly schedule among the editorial matter on the inside pages. Sample monthly announcements from the Judson Mountain Herb Pills contract used in 1860 were:
THE GREAT FEMALE MEDICINE
The functional irregularities peculiar to the weaker sex, are invariably corrected without pain or inconvenience by the use of Judson's Mountain Herb Pills. They are the safest and surest medicine for all the diseases incidental to females of all ages, and more especially so in this climate.
Ladies who wish to enjoy health should always have these Pills. No one who ever uses them once will ever allow herself to be without them. They remove all obstructions, purify the blood and give to the skin that beautiful, clear and healthful look so greatly admired in a beautiful and healthy woman. At certain periods these Pills are an indispensable companion. From one to four should be taken each day, until relief is obtained. A few doses occasionally, will keep the system healthy, and the blood so pure, that diseases cannot enter the body.
DISEASES OF THE CHEST AND LUNGS
These diseases are too well known to require any description. How many thousands are every year carried to the silent grave by that dread scourge Consumption, which always commences with a slight cough. Keep the blood pure and healthy by taking a few doses of JUDSON'S MOUNTAIN HERB PILLS each week, and disease of any kind is impossible. Consumption and lung difficulties always arise from particles of corrupt matter deposited in the air cells by bad blood. Purify that stream of life and it will soon carry off and destroy the poisonous matter; and like a crystal river flowing through a desert, will bring with it and leave throughout the body the elements of health and strength. As the river leaving the elements of fertility in its course, causes the before barren waste to bloom with flowers and fruit, so pure blood causes the frame to rejoice in strength and health, and bloom with unfading beauty.
Any person who read the notices for both medicines carefully might have noticed with some surprise that the Mountain Herb Pills and the Indian Root Pills were somehow often recommended for many of the same diseases. In fact, the Mountain Herb Pills and the Indian Root Pills used identical text in explaining their effect upon several disagreeable conditions. Always prominent in this advertising were reminders of our fragile mortality and warnings, if proper medication were neglected, of an untimely consignment to the silent grave.
Unfortunately, newspapers in the South had been utilized extensively just on the eve of the Civil War, and it undoubtedly proved impossible to supply customers in that region during the ensuing conflict. However, other advertising was given a military flavor and tied in with the war, as witness the following (for 1865):
GENERAL ORDERS—No. 1
Department of this Continent and adjacent Islands
Pursuant to Division and Brigade orders issued by 8,000 Field Officers, "On the Spot", where they are stationed. All Skedadlers, Deserters, Skulkers, and all others—sick, wounded and cripples—who have foresaken the cause of General Health, shall immediately report to one of the aforesaid officers nearest the point where the delinquent may be at the time this order is made known to him, and purchase one box of
JUDSON'S MOUNTAIN HERB PILLS
and pay the regulation price therefor. All who comply with the terms of this order, will receive a free pardon for past offences, and be restored to the Grand Army of General Health. A. GOOD HEALTH Lieutenant-General
By order Dr. Judson, Adjutant-General
Sold by all dealers.
Twenty years later, when the Civil War had passed out of recent memory and Confederate currency was presumably becoming a curiosity, Comstock printed facsimiles of $20 Confederate bills, with testimonials and advertisements upon the reverse side; it can be assumed that these had enough historical interest to circulate widely and attract attention, although each possessor must have felt a twinge of disappointment upon realizing that his bill was not genuine but merely an advertising gimmick.
[Footnote 9: These facsimile bills were registered as a trademark at the United States Patent Office. In his registration application, Mr. Comstock described himself as a citizen of the United States, residing at Morristown, N.Y.—although he had served three terms as mayor of Brockville, Ontario, prior to this time.]
Back in the 1850s, the Comstock Company in lower Manhattan had an advertising agent, one Silas B. Force, whose correspondence by some unexplained happenstance was also deposited in the loft of the Indian Root Pill building in Morristown, even though he was not an exclusive agent and served other clients besides the Comstocks. One of these was Dr. Uncas Brant, for whom Force had the following announcement printed in numerous papers:
AN OLD INDIAN DOCTOR WHO HAD made his fortune and retired from business, will spend the remainder of his days in curing that dreadful disease—CONSUMPTION—FREE OF CHARGE: his earnest desire being to communicate to the world his remedies that have proved successful in more than 3,000 cases. He requires each applicant to send him a minute description of the symptoms, with two Stamps (6 cts) to pay the return letter, in which he will return his advice prescription, with directions for preparing the medicines &c.
The Old Doctor hopes that those afflicted will not, on account of delicacy, refrain from consulting him because he makes No Charge. His sole object in advertising is to do all the good he can, before he dies. He feels that he is justly celebrated for cure of Consumption, Asthma, Bronchitis, Nervous Affections, Coughs, Colds, &c. Address