Bottle of Dr. Cooper’s nostrum [images provided by Michael J. Nighan]
In On Abraham Lincoln in Rochester, Michael J. Nighan offered a comprehensive review of Abraham Lincoln’s visits to Rochester: several times before the 1860 election, en route to Washington, D.C. for the 1861 Inauguration and, posthumously, during Lincoln’s 1865 funeral procession back to Illinois.
In celebration of President’s Day, Nighan offers another — if attenuated and perhaps stomach churning — Rochester connection.
June 1861 was a trying and tiring time for Abraham Lincoln. Just three months in office, he was spending every waking hour working to put together a presidential administration with one hand while endeavoring to keep the country from falling further apart with the other. A civil war can really take it out of you!
Then there arrived at the White House a letter that offered relief, of a kind:
June 27, 1861
Hon. A. Lincoln
Having been engaged the last three years in the sale of medicines from Pierpont & Co of Rochester N. Y. and having witnessed the instant relief, and permanent cure of many of the various ailments for which Dr. E.Cooper’s Universal Magnetic Balm is recommended – such as Paralysis, Cramps, Colics, Burns Bruises Wounds Fevers, Cholera Morbus, Camp Disease &c. &c. &c. I have thought it might be well to send “Our President” a small supply of the Mag. Balm; and therefore sent it, a few days since, via Pierpont & co.
Please accept the same and do not fear to trust it as you would a true friend – administer to your own family and friends (especially to Gen. Scott) note its effects and write to me giving the result, and you
will much oblige
P. Miller Jr.
On receipt of this please write and let me know if the med. is received.
Unfortunately, no record exists as to whether Lincoln availed himself of this wondrous elixir, whether Mr. Miller’s try for the ultimate celebrity product endorsement was even acknowledged, or whether Lincoln forwarded the medicine to the aged and infirm commander of the army, Gen. Winfield Scott.¹
Patent medicines like Dr. E. Cooper’s Universal Magnetic Balm, and related quack cures and nostrums had been all the rage in America for decades and would remain so well into the 20th. Century.²
As to Dr. E. Stewart Cooper, little seems to be known about him other than that he had an office on State Street in the late 1850s and that his product appeared in advertisements in 1857, with a 24 page pamphlet extolling its curative properties being published the next year. Mr. Miller’s employer, Pierpont & Co., dealers in patent medicines, operated just up State Street from Dr. Cooper’s office, and made only a brief appearance in the Rochester business directories before fading away.
Like many patent medicines, “Dr. E. Cooper’s Universal Magnetic Balm” was franchised, with the concoction eventually being manufactured and distributed by companies and agents as far away as California. The ingredients also varied over time and distance, with one bottle listing the contents as:
Ginger, Benzoin, Camphor, Eucalyptus, Cajaput, Sassafras, Pennyroyal,
…and 59% alcohol, alcohol being an almost ubiquitous component of patent medicines, and the one that accounted in large part for their popularity and perceived beneficial aspects.³
The “Magnetic” properties of Dr. Cooper’s balm were of course non-existent and were simply an example of how snake oil manufactures of the day latched onto whatever scientific terminology was popular at the time. Thus, over time there were “Magnetic” medicines, “Electric” medicines “Violet Ray” medicines, “Radio” medicines, and even “Radium” and “Radioactive” medicines.
Eventually manufacturing of Dr. Cooper’s panacea centered in Buffalo, with the product being touted as
A sovereign remedy for diphtheria and no other compound in the
world can equal it for curing diarrhea, cholera, fever and ague,
rheumatism and pains of all kinds.
By the early 20th. Century, with the federal government finally passing legislation to protect public health and safety by regulating the manufacturing and production of foodstuffs and medicine, patent medicine companies were required to start listing ingredients and to stop advertising non-existent properties for their cure-alls. As a result, the “Magnetic” was dropped and “Dr. E. Cooper’s Universal Balm” continued to be sold until WWII.
¹ At 75, Winfield Scott had been Commanding General of the United States Army since 1841 and was in poor health. As Mr. Miller’s reference indicates, Scott’s numerous physical aliments were public knowledge.
² Survivors of the patent medicine craze, albeit in a more benign form, exist today in the likes of Luden’s cough drops, Lydia E. Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound, and, most famously, Coca-Cola, introduced in 1886 as an “energy rejuvenator” due to its high percentages of caffeine and an estimated nine milligrams of cocaine (but no alcohol !) per bottle.
³ Not to be outdone, Rochester’s patent medicine King, H. H. Warner manufactured a “Safe Liver and Kidney Cure” which contained 90% alcohol.
So successful was he at advertising and promoting his “Safe Cure” line of products that by the 1880s he was shipping 7,000 gallons of his nostrums PER DAY out of his plant in the still-extent Warner Building on St. Paul Street.
ON LINCOLN’S STATUE IN WASHINGTON SQUARE PARK
A ROCHESTERIAN WHO WAS TWENTY FEET FROM LINCOLN WHEN HE WAS ASSASSINATED