The One Dollar Miracles of Battle Creek


 by Jim Middleton

     For those readers who wistfully yearn for the Good Old Days of deregulation, let us examine the patent medicine industry as it existed before 1906, and let us further focus our historic microscope on the role that these medical miracles played in the midwestern hamlet of Battle Creek, Michigan. 

There was a video based on this bit of typing, too! One Dollar Miracles of Battle Creek

     The nineteenth century was a boom period for the production of patent medicines.  Morphine, cocaine, and opium were quite freely available, and if mixed with a good dose of alcohol, the resulting product could fill the general coffers of an ambitious entrepreneur before he could say "Perry Davis' Vegetable Pain Killer."  The term "cure" was liberally used.  For example, the patent medicine industry reasoned that if (a) morphine reduced the body's natural desire to cough, and (b) alcohol induced a state of euphoria, then the potential customer worried about his tuberculosis would, in effect, be "cured" by the combination of the two ingredients...or at least be dead from the disease before he could register a complaint.  There was a toxin for practically any occasion: arsenic could kill toothache pain and produce a glowing complexion while cyanide was sure-fire Pick-Me-Up in nerve tonics.
     This is not to say that the established medical community offered better choices.  Physicians understood just as well as the patent medicine industry that 80% of all diseases cured themselves.  If one actually turned to a doctor for his ills in those days, he could be placing himself in the hands of a person who had completed the State-Of-The-Art two year program at the University of Michigan...if he was lucky.  Even ethical drug companies were more concerned with the purity of their product line than they were with the vaguely understood effects that their drugs had on the human body.  At the birth of the twentieth century, research and development was little more than an accidental sideline of the chemical industry; for the patent medicine companies, it meant no more than an advertising department.

     For advertising to be effective, it needs a quickly identifiable symbol.  Few things better symbolized The Cure at the turn of the century than Battle Creek, Michigan.  Dr. John Harvey Kellogg and his "biologic living" had given the city and his Sanitarium international recognition with his emphasis on proper hygiene, exercise, and a vegetarian diet.  His meat and coffee substitutes caught the eye of one of his long term patients, C.W. Post, who set about mass producing his own versions of the cereals and beverages available at Dr. Kellogg's Sanitarium.  W.K. Kellogg, the doctor's brother, countered with his mass marketing methods, and before long, the first health food fight was on.  

     C.W. Post took out ads promoting his Postum as a cure for "coffee neuralgia" and "coffee heart," as a preventative for "the blindness possible by drinking coffee," and assured the reader that his beverage could "make blood red."  Not bad for a combination of bran and molasses.  Grape Nuts was a specific for appendicitis, he claimed in 1898, and could quickly dispatch malaria and tuberculosis, even feeding the brain directly through some mysterious passageway not found in any edition of Gray's Anatomy.
     Such advertising bestowed quite a reputation upon Battle Creek, and this fact wasn't missed by enterprising souls who saw  "The Road to Wellville" as a potential road to wealth.

     Not everybody bothered setting up an office at first.  Wa-Hoo Bitters were supposedly produced at the Old Indian Medicine Company of Battle Creek and Toledo, who even offered the locals a bargain price of 25 cents per bottle.  It is doubtful whether the board of directors of the Old Indian Medicine Company ever set foot in Battle Creek.  The same can be said for CMC of Battle Creek, whose Lung Balsam therapy treated tuberculosis with 9% alcohol.
     Miss Janes of Battle Creek actually gave a suburban address for her "laboratory."  Your complexion was her specialty, and her crushed rose petals would "not perspire off" as they reproduced "a natural tint of perfection that does not betray even the slightest trace of artificiality."  No structure appears at her advertised site today, and only empty bottles remain to recall her secret methods of removing wrinkles, freckles, and that "so-embarrassing tan."
     Some local talent moved into town to set up shop.  Dr. Edward R. Jebb, of nearby Climax, arrived in 1901.  While practicing in Climax, he sold various experimental cures through a pharmacy he also owned.  Thus began Jebb's Rheumatic Cure, Eczema Cure, Pile Cure, and Catarrh Cure.  His board of directors and his advertising circulars claimed a working capital of $300,000; the local papers reported it as $50,000.  His marketing technique was to offer a free consultation from either his downtown offices in Battle Creek, or by mail, with "satisfaction guaranteed" for his cures.  Free trials of Jebb's Rheumatic Cure were offered, each containing 10% alcohol.  "What it has done for others it will do for you," was his slogan, and there were "unsolicited testimonials" from Chesaning and Pentwater to satisfy even the most skeptical disbeliever.

     By 1901, there were 21 colleges of Homeopathic Medicine in the United States.  They shared the philosophy that "like cures like," and that the symptoms of the disease were more important than the disease itself, which was thus reduced to various "psora," or "itches."  Once you had the symptoms defined, you treated the body with substances that caused symptoms similar to those "itches" and, in no time--well, actually, in 30 to 60 days--the body was cured!  Further, if you diluted these substances, say to one part in ten million, then the symptoms of the disease, coupled with the symptoms of the cure, would worsen the patient's condition only by the smallest of fractions, making the curative power even greater!
     Humphrey's Homeopathic Remedies certainly couldn't fill the needs of such a philosophy on its own, so in 1904, Winfield Ensign, a Union City printer, moved to Battle Creek to set up both a print shop and a market for his Ensign Remedies.  He billed the products "Biochemic Preparations and Tissue Foods" and sold the pellet sized tablets by mail for $1 per vial.
     The advertisements for the remedies offered treatments for "deafness, barber's itch, goiter, gray hair, bunions, cancer, bow legs, lockjaw, ingrowing toenails, toothache, tuberculosis, smallpox, warts, worms, rheumatism, paralysis, rupture, mumps, tobacco habit, epilepsy, crossed eyes, cataract, emaciation and corpulency."  Bashful?  There was remedy 186A.  Delusions?  If they were animals, then 187A and B could cure you; if the apparitions were human, substitution with 187E and F did the trick.  If you were feeling "lost and damned" you ordered 187L and M, and for "despair of your soul's salvation" you sampled remedies 188E and F.
     "Whatever is sufficient to build a human body is sufficient to keep it in repair," was the Ensign motto, adding, "the Ensign Remedies are composed of foodstuffs and substances necessary to every human body. These Remedies are to be relied on in the most dangerous aliments.  The appropriate remedy will relieve pain more quickly and certainly than the most powerful drug."
     If you had doubts after that, you were instructed to "remember, you are not taking medicine, but absolutely essential material, which will be used if needed and thrown off as waste if not."  Even in an election year, that would be a pretty safe statement to make.

     The advertising columns of the 1901 issues of Collier's magazine asked the question, "WHY BE FAT?" when "There is a New Home Treatment that Quickly Reduces Weight to Normal Without Diet or Medicine and is Absolutely Safe."  Thus the publishing world was introduced to the self-proclaimed "Professor" Frank J. Kellogg of Battle Creek, Michigan.  The Professor had both the names of Kellogg and Battle Creek working for him, although his affiliation with the Kellogg cereal company amounted only to a year's work as a factory foreman.  Until he began reducing the overweight American, he had been a toiletries salesman, with no relation to either of the more famous Kellogg brothers.  The "perfectly safe" and "remarkable" treatment was never specified in his ads, but went by the various names of Sanitone Wafers, Malto-Fructo, and Rengo.  If the weight loss proved too dramatic, he even offered a "patented flesh builder," Protone, to reverse the process.  When someone wrote to request the advertised free sample, it soon arrived in an actual plain brown wrapper, along with an additional unsolicited month's supply and a bill for $5.  If this approach didn't loosen one's purse strings, subsequent letters appeared from the nonexistent "Protone Building" that requested lesser payments.  Enough people responded to the approach, however, to move Professor Kellogg from his relatively modest dwelling on Green Street to a fashionable Maple Street address and land him on the board of directors of Battle Creek's City Bank.  The city directories, however, always listed his address as being in his older neighborhood.

     Even with the unique personalities of the assorted Kelloggs, the arcane medical philosophies, and the unsolicited testimonials from Chesaning, there was little to prepare Battle Creek for the arrival of two incredibly unique individuals--Dr. James Peebles and his manager, Dr. W. Thompson Bobo.  The combined efforts of the two had assorted mail order cures pouring from their variously named clinics for over 30 years.
     Dr. James Peebles was born in 1822, vigorously worked for the abolition of slavery, served under President Grant as consul to the Turkish city of Trebizonde, pamphleteered against vivisectionism, lectured as a universalist minister, promoted vegetarianism and women's suffrage, communicated with 3000 spiritualists, and claimed to have psychic powers.  He wrote books against vaccination, on how to keep young, and about spiritual unity.  With the rallying cry, "Calvinism causes biliousness," he began the Peeble's Institute of Health on the third floor above Minty's Cigar Store in 1901.  His institute did "not care for local practice," but chose instead to sell mail-order epilepsy cures, the most popular being "Dr. Peebles' Brain Restorative for Epilepsy and All Diseases of the Brain and Nervous System" and "Nerv-Tonic for the Blood and Nerves."
     Dr. W. Thompson Bobo was educated in Missouri and met Dr. Peebles in Texas, where the anti-vivisectionist ran a sanitorium that burned to the ground a decade before their move to Michigan.  He promoted the new clinic in Battle Creek with the same zeal he took to his investments in the local cereal industries, Florida orange groves, and golf.  Soon, over two dozen assistants were helping distribute the Brain Restorative and Nerv-Tonic across the land.

     There were other companies, other treatments, other cures.  In  1902, articles of association were filed to create the Kellogg Blood and Food Company, promising to produce a medicine of "unusual curative and healing powers."  Again, the Kellogg involvement was incidental.  This time, the project was the brainchild of Frank Mitchell, a local pharmacist, and his tailor, Alexander Calder.  Claude Kellogg, of the Staines-Houghtaling Advertising Agency, loaned his name to the project and became secretary of the venture.  Nothing was ever produced but an initial capital of $5000, and there's no record of whatever became of that.
     The Brooks Drug Company sold a Burdock Tonic Compound, with the advertisement that "Burdock Tonic makes Blue Blooded People's Blood a Bright Blood Red."  It promised to cure "rheumatism, catarrh, kidney disease, stomach troubles, liver complaints, malaria, constipation and skin disorders," for only a dollar!  With a basic alcohol content of 10%, its tongue-tied slogan must have been a challenge to its frequent users.
     Truesdale Gorham offered to treat your asthma by mail, although no one is exactly sure how. His "office" was at the Michigan Central Railroad depot, now the site of Clara's restaurant.
     There were still others: the Battle Creek Laboratory offered urinalysis by mail "for the busy man," Watson Remedies treated rheumatism with paper discs and bread pellets that had "magnetic properties," and uterine tonics appeared from undefined locations.  In fact, with the combination of biologic living, cereal, clinics, and cures churning like a tank of piranha in downtown Battle Creek, it seems remarkable that any disease would have a fighting chance in this part of the midwest.  But other eyes were watching this unregulated feeding frenzy.

     Ironically, the exposure of the patent medicine industry came from the magazines that stood, through advertising, to benefit the most from their continued success.  The Ladies' Home Journal commissioned Dr. A. J. Reed of Battle Creek's own Sanitarium to conduct a test comparing the alcohol content of patent medicines with that of standard barroom fare.  The flame burned brightly for the three largest selling patent medicines of 1905, while lager beer came in a distant fourth.
     Later that year, Collier's began a celebrated exposé of the entire patent medicine industry.  A series of articles by Samuel Hopkins Adams entitled "The Great American Fraud" caught the industry off guard with actual interviews of the dying users of the assorted "cures," a follow-up on the writers of "unsolicited testimonials", and laboratory analyses of the ingredients in the assorted treatments.  Adams went for the throats of the industry leaders by simply telling the truth.  Within a year, Congress passed the first federal laws regulating the drug industry.

     While regarded as ground breaking legislation, the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 was not initially regarded as a major threat to the patent medicine industry.  Pressures by lobbyists saw that this first attempt at regulation was diluted to a mere stipulation that the ingredients for patent medicines must be listed on the label.  In fact, many companies used it as an advertising gimmick with the addition of the phrase, "approved by the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906" to the reprinted label.
     As might be expected, the results in Battle Creek were hardly immediate.
     Interest in Jebb Remedies was already fading when Dr. Edward Jebb suffered a fatal fall at his home on October 3, 1907.  His remedies were still distributed out of his home for a few years, with business affairs managed by his wife and daughter.  While "Jebb's Remedies" appears as an afterthought in the city directories until the early 1930s, it was essentially a memory by the end of World War I.
     Ensign's Remedies came under analysis by the Michigan State Dairy and Food Commissioner, James Helme, in 1913.  His assistants sent for the appendicitis, hay fever, and pneumonia treatments and found them all not only to be 100% sugar, but 100% sugar at $59 a pound.  In a singular bit of bureaucratic humor, Helme penned in Special Bulletin #23, "We doubt the efficacy of sugar as a cure for love sickness when the system is already over-cloyed with sweetness.  Perhaps it might do for jealousy or irritable dispositions."
     The Ensigns were undeterred by this momentary setback.  In 1916, Winfield Ensign began using the publishing end of the company to print "The Truth Teller," a voice for the underappreciated world of alternative medicine.  The company continued to make and sell its remedies for another generation of the Ensign family.  When Thomas Ensign died in 1939, the remedies portion of the company faded with him.
     "Professor" Kellogg probably thought calling his weight loss products harmless "foods" would keep him away from careful scrutiny.  However, his claims were singled out by the Adams articles as "ridiculous" and were further examined by Dr. Keebler of the AMA in his 1912 publication, Nostrums and Quackery.  Rengo, supposedly "dried from a luscious tropical fruit which grows in clusters similar to grapes," was shown to be a combination of thyroid, poke root, cascara, acacia, and toasted bread.  This was not only a violation of labelling under the new law, but since it was promoted as a food, it was also considered a misbranded edible.  The unflappable professor chose to merely remove the thyroid and remarket his product as "Casca Bean," an overnight laxative.  By this time, he had other things to worry about.
     While continuing to list his home as the unpresupposing dwelling on Green Street, Frank Kellogg had been actually living in Detroit with his eventual fourth wife.  His attempts to end his previous  relationship in exchange for a bit of farmland near Climax took divorce proceedings to the State Supreme Court.  In the highly publicized case that followed, the Chief Justice found both parties guilty, annulled a decree granted in a lower court, and condemned them to a life with each other for another two years.  When that 1912 ruling expired, Frank was able to legally commit to his Detroit “landlady.”  When Frank Kellogg himself expired in 1916, the one-time millionaire's estate was valued at $40,000, including the bit of farmland near Climax.  His fashionable Maple Street home briefly became a Bed and Breakfast and now houses an optometry office.

     On June 1, 1912, Dr. James Peebles was called into Detroit's U.S. District Court to answer charges of fraudulent claims regarding his mailorder epilepsy cures.  Although in his late 80's by this time, he appeared, dressed "like King Lear in a Brooks Brothers' suit," with a dazzling woman on his arm.  Newspaper accounts state that he claimed to possess the healing powers of Jesus Christ at this trial and, when asked to prove his claim, he arched back, gesturing to the heavens, and directed everyone's gaze to his provocative traveling companion.  Testimony revealed that his "Brain Restorative" was an alcoholic preparation of valerian, flavored with bitter almonds...the polite term for cyanide.  His institute's "Nerv-Tonic" was a sweetened, alcoholic solution of vegetable products, "containing no material having distinctive, active characteristics."  Dr. James Peebles eventually pleaded nolo contendere to judgement #1079 and was fined.
     Five dollars.
     Having tired of the midwest, the good doctor moved to Los Angeles, where some of his ideas doubtless live to this day.  He blamed "The War to End All Wars" on evil spirits, singling out soldiers of the Napoleonic wars, and eventually entered the spirit world himself, just days short of his 100th birthday.  On his centennial, a séance was held, and his alleged spirit was asked how he was able to live such a long life.
     "I behaved myself," came the reply.
     Back on planet Earth, it was left to Dr. Bobo to pay the five dollar fine and repair the damage done to the clinic's reputation in Battle Creek.  He chose to drop the troublesome promotion for epilepsy and settled on goiter as his disease of choice.  He also merged the clinic with "The Easy Truss Company" and alternated the name of his offices between "Battle Creek Appliance Company" and "The Physician's Advisory and Treatment Company."  His goiter cure was relatively harmless, consisting of standard iodine solutions and massage.  However, he got into trouble when he became involved with the Sanborn clinic to treat diabetes.  The clinic was using diuretics to mask the symptoms of diabetes and give the illusion of treatment.  In late 1933, he and his clinic were taken to task for suspected fraud through public hearings in Washington.   On a cold January morning in 1934, following a sleepless two weeks, Dr. Bobo took his own life with a .32 calibre revolver in his apartments at 166 Capital Avenue.  His wife, by now a Christian Scientist, was in Florida at the time, visiting their orange groves.  None of the obituaries made mention of his business dealings, but chose instead to concentrate on what the good doctor had considered to be his crowning achievement: the layout and construction of Battle Creek's first 18 hole golf course.  Not that everyone was so diplomatic:  a contemporary observer quipped that, on that evening in January, Dr. Bobo had merely "joined his advertising agent in the seventh circle of hell."

     There came some half-hearted attempts to make the medical community a bit more interesting during the 1930s:  Bon Kora tried to streamline the bulky silhouette with a little drug-induced bulimia as part of its "Battle Creek Treatment."  The addition of a naked lady on the label, while a nice touch, seemed a bit like desperation.  The Great Depression was taking its toll.  By World War II, any medical miracles coming from Battle Creek were pretty much sugar frosted.  Battle Creek became known as "The Cereal City," and if it lost some of its colorful notoriety, its Dr. Kellogg, or even the first established Sanitarium in the process, it could find comfort in the fact that the average American consumed ten pounds of breakfast cereal every year, and that most of it came from this small midwestern town.


Adams, Samuel H., The Great American Fraud, Collier Press, 1906

Boyle, T.C., The Road to Wellville, Viking Press, 1993

Carson, Gerald, One for a Man, Two for a Horse, Doubleday and Co., 1961

Contemporary newspaper clippings, Battle Creek Moon Journal and Evening News, Michigan Room, Willard Library

Deutsch, Ronald M., The New Nuts Among the Berries, Bull Publishing, 1977

Goodman and Gilman, The Pharmacological Basis of Therapeutics, 8th Edition, Pergamon Press, 1985

Hechtlinger, Adelaide, The Great Patent Medicine Era, Madison Square Press, Grosset and Dunlap, Inc, 1970

Holbrook, Stewart,  The Golden Age of Quackery, Macmillan Co., 1959

Keebler, et al, Nostrums and Quackery, second edition, AMA press, 1912

Middleton, James, and the Michigan Radio Players, "The Battle Creek Idea," (radio production) 1992

Young, James H., The Medical Messiahs, Princeton University Press, 1967

Young, James H., The Toadstool Millionaires, Princeton University Press, 1961

No comments: