Short-lived medicine business

Claims were many in industry that knew no regulation

In the spring of 1883, two Negaunee residents went into partnership to manufacture and sell a medicine.

Before passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, anyone could put anything into a bottle or pillbox and make unlimited claims for the curative powers of the contents.

There was no legal requirement to list ingredients on the label. Pharmacies sold several brands of “soothing syrups” for fretful babies.

These syrups were very effective, in that a few drops put an infant to sleep, but mothers didn’t realize that sleep was induced by hefty doses of opium or morphine not mentioned on the label.

There were many niches in the proprietary medicine business; registered names often reveal what the medicines were supposed to cure: Swamp Root Kidney & Liver Cure, Dr. King’s New Cure for Consumption, One Minute Cough Cure, Matt J. Johnson’s Great Blood & Rheumatism Cure No. 6088, Hall’s Catarrh Cure. There were thousands of them.

From among the multitude of choices available to them, the Negaunee duo decided to manufacture a “bitters,” which was in the cure-all category.

They may well have chosen to make this particular kind of medicine because it was common knowledge that a Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, physician had become a multi-millionaire and celebrity by manufacturing Dr. Hostetter’s Stomach Bitters.

He had gotten his start experimenting with herbs in his kitchen. Within a few years his medicine was selling in carload lots.

Given the absence of legal restraints and perhaps encouraged by Dr. Hostetter’s success story, the Negaunee entrepreneurs bought a kettle, some bottles and corks, and had some labels printed.

There was, however, a potentially embarrassing obstacle. One of the partners was a veterinarian and the other was a bartender.

It would have been better for marketing purposes if both were physicians. This problem was easily resolved. They simply added the prefix “Doctor” to their names. This was not illegal. Fake doctors were as common as Kentucky colonels.

The self-proclaimed doctors selected an elegant name for their concoction: LAKE & WIGDAHL’S FRENCH TONIC BITTERS.

Bartender (Dr.) Wigdahl’s job was to sell the product. The recipe was provided by the veterinarian, (Dr.) Lake. Several years later when public outrage was building over the excesses of patent medicine promoters, chemists analyzed the contents of many nostrums. Bitters, in general, were found to be heavy on water and alcohol and light on the herbs.

Hostetter’s, for example contained 64 percent water, 32 percent alcohol and a measly four percent herbal extracts. The analysis of Lake and Wigdahl’s bitters was presumably in the same general range.

The herbs were not identified, but were, by definition, bitter to the taste. There was a public perception that medicines had to be bitter, sour or otherwise nasty-tasting, to combat diseases and pain.

This was nonsense, but marketers know that people decide to buy things on the basis of perceptions, whether they coincide with the facts or not.

The Marquette Mining Journal periodically fired editorial barrages at medicine vendors whose activities the editor thought were especially obnoxious. Lake and Wigdahl fell into this category.

An article in the Negaunee column of the March 17, 1883 edition of The Mining Journal began by stating, “Probably the most heartless scheme of quackery ever sought to be perpetrated is just now seeking to force itself into prominence among the more gullible people of this city.”

The reporter continued by sarcastically describing Lake and Wigdahl’s bitters as “equally effective in cases of warts, bunions, piles, itch, consumption, neuralgia, cancer, impaired eyesight and defective hearing.”

In the reporter’s estimation, Lake was probably capable of ministering to the medical needs of Negaunee’s horse population, “but that he is a quack in the treatment of human diseases is apparent.”

As for bartender-turned-physician Wigdahl, he was dismissed as “a slick talker, robust liar and effervescent windbag.”

The impact of this article lambasting the two local bitters peddlers may have been lessened in the minds of observant readers who noticed a paid advertisement on the same page of the newspaper.

The ad extolled the virtues of Parker’s Ginger Tonic, purported cure for consumption, dyspepsia, rheumatism, kidney complaints or any disorder of the lungs, stomach, bowels or nerves.

Lake and Wigdahl’s bitters business failed almost as quickly as it had begun. The partnership, formed in March, was dissolved in June. Reasons for failure were not specified, but negative newspaper publicity was surely a contributing factor.

Lake went back to treating spavined horses, and Wigdahl put his hyperactive jaws to work selling accident insurance.

MRHC will be featuring a special exhibit titled “The Changing Face of Medicine” in September. If you have information, artifacts or photographs on this subject and would like to share that with us for the exhibition, please contact Jo at the history center.