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story.lead_photo.caption This ad for Vin Hepatica appeared in the July 16, 1918, Arkansas Gazette.

Woohoo! It's Vin Hepatica centennial week -- 100 years to the week since Grandma's ru-matiz medicine made its debut in Little Rock and all our stomach worries were ended.

How excited we all must be.

Whatever was it? It was a "patent medicine," an over-the-counter nostrum made from a formula. It came from Nashville, Tenn., and it landed behind the counters at three pharmacies in Little Rock with a flurry of advertising.

If I were a historian and not just a newspaperwoman reading old newspapers, I might not have spent as much time as I did trying to find the U.S. patent filing for Vin Hepatica. Eventually, I stumbled into the Smithsonian Institution's online exhibit "Balm of America." There I learned that the "patent" in the term derives from "letters patent," a type of legal document published by European heads of state (for instance, a queen of England) to establish corporations, titles, monopolies and other rights or honors.

Letters patent are open letters to the world, as opposed to "letters close," which only the recipient is supposed to read.

In the 17th century, English inventors of remedies could ask the crown for one of these open letters granting monopoly over sales of their formula. In time the term "patent medicine" extended to any pre-packaged remedy sold without prescription. According to the Smithsonian exhibit, very few of these preparations were ever actually patented. (See

Here's what one of the many large ads placed in the Arkansas Gazette in summer 1918 claimed Vin Hepatica contained:

In the first place, it is a real prescription of eight of the finest all-vegetable remedies known to medical science for weak and run-down condition, catarrh, indigestion, biliousness and other ailments arising from a disordered stomach, liver, kidneys or bowels.

To wit:

• Hepatica Americana (Liverwort). For acting on the liver, kidneys, bladder and mucous membrane.

• Triticum Repens (Couch Grass). For acting on the kidneys, bladder and liver.

• Collinsonia Canadensis (Stone Root). For the same purpose.

• Cassia Augustifolia (Senna). For acting on the liver.

• Cachorium Intybus (Chicory). For congestion of the liver.

• Larix Americana (Tamarack). For acting on bladder and kidneys.

• Citrus Amara. For freeing the stomach and bowels of gases and toning up the tissues.

• Hydrastis Canadensis (Golden Seal). For catarrhal and dyspepsia conditions.

Vin Hepatica also contained 19.64 percent alcohol by volume.

Meanwhile, Arkansas was a "bone dry" state, having banned as much of the commerce, possession and transport of beer, wine and liquors as its loophole-prone legislators had been able to ban. One loophole was to exempt patent medicines from the ban.

Alcohol, you'll remember, also acts on the stomach, kidneys, liver, bladder, and it does indeed make a -- at least temporary -- difference in how the afflicted might feel about rheumatism, backache, headache, general breakdown, upset stomach, weight loss (taken in combination with food it's great against weight loss), despondency, anxiety, gas, diarrhea, constipation, cramps, pain in the side or back or shoulders, restlessness at night, catarrh ... and something called "water brash," which involves excessive saliva and maybe gastroesophageal reflux.

Ads for Vin Hepatica appear to drop out of the Gazette in December 1918. In 1919, an ad in the Chattanooga News in that Tennessee city announced that the "celebrated" formula would be sold at auction in a bankruptcy case, but the bankrupt party wasn't named. The ad does suggest the sale included deals with more than 500 businesses authorized to sell the stuff.

Vin Hepatica was by no means the most alcoholic of the patent medicines. "Jamaica Ginger" tested as high as 93.5 percent. We know this because the U.S. Treasury Department assessed almost 750 patent medicines in 1914 while deciding they were "insufficiently medicated to render them unfit for use as a beverage," meaning they would be assessed a special tax.

Treasury statistics wound up reprinted in the Congressional Record of June 29, 1917, thanks to the ardent efforts of Rep. Jacob Edwin Meeker, R-Mo. Meeker was a Congregationalist minister who became a lawyer. He represented a state where breweries were large employers (think Anheuser-Busch), and so it's unsurprising that he argued against prohibition -- a rising legislative trend.

But in particular he argued against the hypocrisy of banning beer, which the federal government rated as containing about 5.95 percent ABV, or wines, with 10 percent to 11 percent, but allowed the sale of Jamaica Ginger -- and allowed the medicine dealer to urge mothers to put a bottle on the shelf at home, with instructions on how much to give her baby every day:

I ask the reader if he, in all candor, believes that we are aiding the cause of temperance by striking down the pure beers, wines, and liquors and giving a free right of way to these concoctions, which are but combinations of alcohol, drugs, and dopes?

Meeker would die of influenza in October 1918, six days after visiting soldiers quarantined at Jefferson Barracks Hospital in St. Louis. He was 40.

The last ads I've seen for Vin Hepatica appeared in Indiana papers in 1922. Meanwhile other nostrums sailed on. I especially like the ads for Aspironal, proclaimed to be "better than whiskey for colds and flu." Helpful Reader might find more information about it; I have run out of time to educate myself.


Here's another anniversary for you: A century ago today, Pvt. Howard (or Howell) McDonald, 28, formerly employed as a bookkeeper for the S.R. Thomas Automobile Co., was returned to the Army. He was charged with grand larceny, but his trial was suspended on condition that he behave in the military.

So we can guess he was a likable guy.

Reporting his arrest July 6, 1918, the Gazette said McDonald had spent the early part of the night of April 24 playing poker with friends, "vainly endeavoring to make two pairs beat three of a kind."

After his last chip had vanished, it is charged that he went to the company's office, took $350 and a large revolver from the safe and departed, remarking: "I've been in a crooked game. I'm going back with this money and this gun and clean them out."

So far as it can be learned, McDonald didn't succeed in his laudable ambition, for he disappeared immediately afterward and his employers did not see him again until yesterday.

He had gone to Idabel, Okla., where his wife and child lived, and enlisted in the Army, which sent him to Texas where he was being trained for service in Europe.

McDonald's arrest, the Gazette said, was due to his "cheerful friendly disposition." Assuming that his sister had replaced the $350, he had sent a postcard to a "fellow toiler" at the auto company.

It was a pretty postcard embossed with flowers and birds and things and bore the legend: "Best Wishes."

More importantly, it gave his return address. His arrest followed promptly.

The July 16 Gazette reported that not only had the missing $350 been repaid, McDonald had paid what it cost the court to send Deputy Sheriff J.J. Hawkins to Camp Bowie in Texas to fetch him. But he'd refused to talk about the poker game with Hawkins, the newspaper noted, adding, "maybe he was ashamed of his lack of skill."


Vin Hepatica became available in Little Rock the week of July 10, 1918, as this three-quarter-page ad in the Arkansas Gazette announced.

ActiveStyle on 07/16/2018

Print Headline: 'Medicine' was patently alcohol

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