Collier's for December 2 1905

The Great American Fraud


IV-The Subtle Poisons

This article deals with the dangerous powders and other preparations which are sold in large quantities as cures for headache, depression, and similar ailments. It is the fourth article in this series which aims to explain and expose the harm done to the public by the Patent Medicine industry. The next article "Preying on the Incurables," will be published in COLLIER'S for December 23


This list of fatalities is made up from statements published in the newspapers. In every case the person who died had taken to relieve a headache or as a bracer a patent medicine containing acetanilid, without a doctor's prescription. This list does not include the case of a dog in Altoona, Pennsylvania, which died immediately after eating some sample headache powders. The dog did not know any better.

Mrs. Minnie Bishop, Louisville, Ky.; Oct. 16, 1903
Mrs. Mary Cusick and Mrs. Julia Ward,
of 172 Perry Street, New York City; Nov. 27, 1903
Frank P. Stock, Scranton, Pa.; Dec. 7, 1903
C. Frank Henderson, Toledo, O.; Dec. 13, 1903
Jacob E. Staley, St. Paul, Mich.; Feb. 18, 1904
Charles M. Scott, New Albany, Ind.; March 13, 1904
Oscar McKinley, Pittsburg, Pa.; April 13, 1904
Otis Staines, student at Wabash College; April 13, 1904
Mrs. Florence Rumsey, Clinton, Ia.; April 23, 1904
Jenny McGee, Philadelphia, Pa.; May 26, 1904
Mrs. William Mabee, Leoni, Mich.; Sept. 9, 1904
Mrs. Jacob Friedman, of Southbend, Ind.; Oct. 19. 1904
Miss Libbie North, Rockdale, N. Y.; Oct. 26, 1904
Margaret Hanshan, Dayton, O.; October 29, 1804
Samuel Williamson, New York City; Nov. 21, 1904
George Kublisch, St. Louis, Mo.; Nov. 24, 1904
Robert Breck, St. Louis, Mo., Nov. 27, 1904
Mrs. Harvey Haven, Oriskany Falls, N.Y.; Jan. 17, 1905
Mrs. Jennie Whyler, Akron, O.; April 3, 1905
Mrs. Augusta Strothmann, St. Louis, Mo.; June 20, 1905
Mrs. Mary Bispels, Philadelphia, Pa.; July 2, 1905
Mrs. Thos. Patterson, Huntington, W. Va.; Aug 15, 1905

Some of these victims died from alleged overdose; others from the prescribed dose. In almost every instance the local papers suppressed the name of the fatal remedy.

IGNORANCE and credulous hope make the market for most proprietary remedies. Intelligent people are not given largely to the use of the glaringly advertised cure-alls, such as liquezone or Peruna. Nostrums there are, however, which reach the thinking classes as well as the readily gulled. Depending, as they do, for their success upon the lure of some subtle drug concealed under a trade-mark name, or some opiate not readily obtainable under its own label, these are the most dangerous of all quack medicines, not only in their immediate effect, but because they create enslaving appetites, sometimes obscure and difficult of reatment, most often tragically obvious. Of these concealed drugs the headache powders are the most widely used, and of the headache powders, rangeine is the most conspicuous.

Orangeine prints its formula. It is therefore, its proprietors claim, not a secret remedy. But to all intents and purposes it is secret, because to the uninformed public the vitally important word "acetanilid" in the formula means little or nothing. Worse than its secrecy is its policy of careful and dangerous deception. Orangeine, like practically all the headache powders, is simply a mixture of acetanilid with less potent drugs. Of course, there is no orange in it, except the orange hue of the boxes and wrappers which is its advertising symbol. But this is an unimportant deception. The wickedness of the fraud lies in this: That whereas the nostrum, by virtue of its acetanilid content, thins the blood, depresses the heart, and finally undermines the whole system, it clams to strengthen the heart and to produce better blood, Thus far in the patent medicine field I have not encountered so direct and specific an inversion of the true facts.

Recent years have added to the mortality records of our cities a surprising and alarming number of sudden deaths from heart failure. In the year 1902 New York City alone reported a death rate from this cause of 1.34 per thousand of population; that is, about six times as great as the typhoid fever death record. It was about that time that the headache powders were being widely advertised and there is every reason to believe that the increased mortality, which is still in evidence, is due largely to the secret weakening of the heart by acetanilid. Occasionally, a death occurs so definitely traceable to this poison that there is no room for doubt, as in the following report by Dr. J. L. Miller of Chicago, in the "Journal of the American Medical Association," upon the death of Miss Frances Robson:

"I was first called to see the patient, a young lady, physically sound, who had been taking Orangeine powders for a number of weeks for insomnia. The rest of the family noticed that she was very blue, and for this reason I was called. When I saw the patient shoe complained of a sense of faintness and inability to keep warm. At this time she had taken a box of six Orangeine powders within about eight hours. She was warned of the danger of continuing the indiscriminate use of the remedy, but insisted that many of her friends had used it and claimed that it was harmless. The family promised to see that she did not obtain any more of the remedy. Three days later, however, I was called to the house and found the patient dead. The family said that she had gone to her room the evening before in her usual health. The next morning, the patient not appearing, they investigated and found her dead. The case was reported to the coroner, and the coroner's verdict was "Death was from the effect of an overdose of Orangeine powders administered by her own hand, whether accidentally or otherwise, unknown to the jury.'"

Last July an eighteen-year-old Philadelphia girl got a box of Orangeine powders at a drub store, having been told that they would cure headache. There was nothing on the label or in the printed matter inclosed with the preparation warning her of the dangerous character of the nostrum. Following the printed advice, she took two powders. In three hours she was dead. Coroner Dugan's verdict follows:

"Mary A. Bispels came to her death from kidney and heart disease, aggravated by poisoning by acetanilid taken in Orangeine headache powders."


Prescribing Without Authority

Yet this poison is being recommended every day by people who know nothing of it and nothing of the susceptibility of the friends to whom they advocate it. For example, here is a testimonial from the Orangeine booklet:

"Miss A. A. Phillips, 66 Powers Street, Brooklyn, writes: 'I always keep Orangeine in my desk at school, and through its request applications to the sick, I am called both "doctor and magician."'"

If the school herein referred to is a public frequent, the matter is one for the Board of Education; if a private school, for the Health Department of the County Medical Society. That a school teacher should be allowed to continue giving, however well-meaning her foolhardiness may be, a harmful and possibly fatal dose to the children intrusted to her care, seems rather a significant commentary on the quality of watchfulness in certain institutions.

Obscurity as to the real nature of the drug, fostered by careful deception, is the safeguard of the acetanilid vender. Were its perilous quality known, the headache powder would hardly be so widely used. And were the even more important fact that the use of these powders becomes a habit, akin to the opium or cocaine habits, understood by the public, the repeated sales which are the basis of Orangeine's prosperity would undoubtedly be greatly cut down. Orangeine fulfils the prime requisite of a patent medicine in being a good "repeater." Did it not foster its own demand in the form of a persistent craving, it would hardly be profitable. Its advertising invites to the formation of an addiction to the drug. "Get the habit," it might logically advertise, in imitation of a certain prominent exploitation along legitimate lines. Not only is its value as a cure for nervousness and headaches insisted upon, but its prospective dupes are advised to take this powerful drug as a bracer.

"When, as often, you reach home, tired in body and mind...take an Orangeine powder-lie down for thirty-minutes nap-if possible-anyway, relax, then take another."

"To induce sleep, take an Orangeine powder immediately before retiring. When wakeful, an Orangeine powder will have a normalizing, quieting effect."

It is also recommended as a good thing to begin the day the day's work on in the morning-that is take Orangeine night, morning and between meals!

The powders pretend to cure asthma, biliousness, headaches, colds, catarrh, and grip (dose: powder every four hours during the day for a week! - a pretty fair start on the Orangeine habit). diarrhea, hay fever, insomnia, influenza, neuralgia, seasickness, and sciatica.

Of course, they do not cure any of these; they do practically nothing but give temporary relief by depressing the heart. With the return to normal conditions of blood circulation comes a recurrence of the nervousness, headache, or whatnot, and the incentive to more of the drug until it becomes a necessity In my own acquaintance, I know half a dozen persons who have come to depend on one or another of these headache preparations to keep them going. One young woman whom I have in mind told me quite innocently that she had been taking five or six Orangeine powders a say for several months, having changed from Koehler's Powders when someone told her they were dangerous! Because of her growing paleness her husband had called in their physician, but neither of them had mentioned the little matter of the nostrum, having accepted with a childlike faith the asseverations of its beneficent qualities. Yet they were of an order of intelligence that would scoff at the idea of drinking Swamp Root or Peruna. That particular victim had the beginning of the typical blue skin, pictured in the street-car advertisements of Orangeine (the advertisements are a little mixed, as they put the blue hue on the "before-taking," whereas it should go on the "after-taking"). And, by the way, I can conscientiously recommend Orangeine, Koehler's Powders, Royal Pain Powders, and others of that class to women who wish for a complexion of a dead, pasty white, verging to a puffy blueness under the eyes and about the lips. Patient use of these drugs will even produce an interesting and picturesque, if not intrinsically beautiful, purplish-gray hue of the face and neck. (top)

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Next:  "Drugs that Deprave" and the "Dangers of Antikamnia"

Overview and Related Links
Editorial:  "This Week" by Norman Hapgood
  The Great American Fraud, October 7, 1905

Ephemera Table of Contents


Great American Fraud: The Subtle Poisons, Dec. 2 1905, Part I
updated 4/13/2013