Sunday, May 12, 2013

Not a Mother's Day story

The sellers of patent medicines in the 19th and very early 20th century did not seem to be overly troubled with ethical concerns.  They were out to make a profit.  But most of them had a little more sense of propriety than the guys running the Hurlbutt Chemical Company.  On admittedly circumstantial evidence I have come to the conclusion that they were selling venereal disease nostrums using their mother's name!  Ick.

The starting point for this patent medicine detective story is this rather drab little bottle:

Embossing on the flip side indicates that it came from Eau Claire, Wisconsin.  Now Eau Claire was not at that time a particularly large city, so there were only a few folks in the City Directories with the odd last name of Hurlbutt.  And none of them were listed as being in any line of work even close to medicine manufacturing.

So you scan the short list of chemists, druggists and pharmacists to see who might have been putting up medicines under this name.

I came up with the Gadsby brothers.

Fred and Thomas Gadsby were local boys.  Fred graduated the University of Wisconsin School of Pharmacy in 1885, probably in the fashion of the day apprenticed a couple of years, then opened his own pharmacy in Eau Claire in 1889.  His brother Tom joined him a few years later and they did well enough to open a second store in Eau Claire and another in an outlying community.

Fred Gadsby certainly dabbled in patent medicines, he registered a trade mark in 1898 for a medicine called "Anti-Gon".  Even in the euphemistic Victorian era you could not mistake this for anything other than a gonorrhea medicine.  He seems to have done well enough in this side line to have erected a building specifically for the manufacture of patent medicines in 1904.

So where does the name Hurlbutt come into the story?  Well I mentioned that they were local boys.  Their father John was a tailor who moved to Eau Claire in 1871.  The occupation of their mother Helen is not recorded but I did find a reference to her maiden name.


Ah, just coincidence maybe.  Surely pharmacists in the era of mutton chop sideburns and high collars were upstanding members of their community, right?

Consider a few other bits of historical detritus that came my way.

February 1906.  Martin Brandon, a former clerk attempted to shoot F.H. Gadsby. Although the assailant was said to be an "eccentric character" who had been drinking, there is also veiled reference to a personal grievance being involved.

An undated reference mentions that their branch in Cornell, Wisconsin had a brush with the law.  Specifically they were cited for selling "intoxicating liquors to a minor".

1919.  Thomas Gadsby goes on trial for selling a newspaper with obscene language. Specifically this was an issue of the "Twin City Reporter" that contained an article about a Chinese citizen of Eau Claire and his involvement with "white girls".  A fine of $200 was imposed but later overturned on appeal.

1920.  Fred Gadsby is charged with selling adulterated food.

1922.  Tom Gadsby is charged with selling moonshine from the Cornell pharmacy branch.

Fred Gadsby eventually decided to set out for climes more in tune with his moral fiber.  He moved to Los Angeles and made a pile of money as a real estate speculator.

So, could I imagine these characters borrowing their mother's maiden name for a slightly disreputable business sideline?

Why, yes.  Yes I could.

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