Sunday, November 4, 2012

On Beyond Holcombe: Dr. Taft Brothers Medicine Company

On Beyond Holcombe, by Malcolm A. Goldstein, appears Sundays at 1898 Revenues:

The Drs Taft, who owned the Dr Taft Bros Medicine Company, based their patent medicine business in the upstate, western New York city of Rochester.  The company’s principal product  was Asthmalene, which was meant to cure asthma, hay fever and other bronchial disorders, but the it also sold Sure Relief, Balm of Gilead and other remedies. One of its principal boosters was the Rev. Dr. Morris Wechsler, rabbi of Congregation Bnai Israel in New York City.  His testimonial letter is featured second only to a minister’s in virtually all of the Asthmalene ads the company ever ran, and he vouches that “after having it carefully analyzed, we can state that Asthmalene contains no opium, morphine, chloroform or ether.”  No information is provided as to how or why the company chose a rabbi as so prominent  a proponent, nor under what circumstances, the rabbi had the product analyzed before endorsing it.  Note also that alcohol is not included in the list of excluded substances.  Perhaps the rabbi was a closet tippler.

The Taft brothers were Albert S and Gilbert T.  They  were children of Lewis and Sarah (Brown) Taft, born in Windon [Windham?], VT, Albert in 1824 and Gilbert in 1826.  Albert later moved to Bristol, NY, just south of Rochester, to study medicine with a Dr. Daniel Durgan. There is strong evidence to suggest that in 1866, Gilbert, also a physician, was selling Rosenberger’s German Magnetic Oil and Balm of Gilead at Seneca Falls, NY, another small town southeast of Rochester,  under the name of G T Taft & Co.  After they apparently purchased the Rosenberger brands and renamed them, both he and Albert settled in Rochester in 1868, where they formed their medicine company in joint name.  Gilbert died in 1885 and his body was solemnly transported from Rochester to Auburn, NY, as the local paper noted, with all the accompanying honors of a high degree mason, to be buried near his in-laws.  In 1885, the name of Dr Henry D. Taft, Gilbert and Albert’s younger brother, was also associated with the company, but Henry died in 1890 at age 57.  For all of its Western New York connections, by 1890 the company had a Canadian office, and, in 1892, an ad for Asthmalene appeared in the local paper in North Otago, New Zealand!  By 1899, the company had incorporated with Albert as president.  That year, its annual report showed capitalization of $50,000, all in issued stock,  assets of $3,171.31 and debts of $400. Albert continued to hold the title of president until his sudden death in 1900. 
Almost immediately after Albert’s death, the company moved its offices from Rochester to New York City.  Control of the corporation appears to have passed to Gilbert’s son, William B. Taft,  and he must have engendered this sudden transition. In 1901, from its newly acquired New York City address, the company authorized placement of its ad for Asthmalene featuring the minister, the Rev Dr Wechsler, and a few more stalwarts, in publications as varied as the International Railway Journal, the Yale University literary magazine, the Rosary (the magazine of the Dominicans), the Coopers [barrel makers] Journal, and the Menorah (the magazine of the Jewish Chautauqua Society), among others.

In 1905, Asthmalene was re-registered as a trademark, now of the Taft’s Asthmalene Company of New York City, and, by 1909, the name of one B S McKean  “as sole agent,” located at the same New York City address as Taft’s company,  replaced its name on the Asthmalene box and wrapper.  While the younger Taft still owned both the company and the product’s  name in the banner on the box, he must have decided to interpose McKean’s name between himself and the increasingly more wary public.
Bernard Slagle McKean (1863-1914) seems to have been a character in his own right, and to have traveled in fast circles, beyond the patent medicine industry.  He was an attorney, who, in 1900, issued a circular to a large number of companies alleging that they were paying their corporate taxes incorrectly based upon his study of the tax returns they had filed with the State Controller.  After a number of companies grumbled loudly and angrily about how and why the Controller was permitting someone to study their confidential tax returns, and the Controller had denied that any such review had taken place, a New York Times reporter tracked McKean down at the local Republican club where he cooly asserted that his opinion was based purely on the State Controller’s public reports and his letter was merely a offer to save them money by correcting the returns.  In 1898, he had acted as receiver of the assets of the huge, failed United Life Assurance Company, whose members included some of New York City’s most important people, including Mayor Van Wyck and Teddy Roosevelt’s successor as police commissioner. In 1904, his office - at the same address as the Taft company - was the venue for several meetings with witnesses and press conferences held in connection with one of the most sensational shootings of that year (or, perhaps, of any year, prior to Harry Thaw’s 1906 shooting of the architect Sanford White in the rooftop restaurant at his own Madison Square Garden building over the showgirl Evelyn Nesbit Thaw - the timeless beauty immortalized as the “girl on the velvet swing,” - the entire story of which is unfolded again in the pages of E L Doctorow’s book Ragtime). 

McKean was involved in the Patterson matter because it was his brother-in-law, Francis “Caesar” Young, a notorious gambler and bookie, who was punctured by a fatal pistol bullet while riding in a cab on his way to board the S.S. Germanic bound for Europe with his wife.  Almost as great as the public’s frisson at Young’s abrupt demise, was its surprise at the identity of the person in the cab with him, the “Floradora” actresses Nan Patterson, with whom, it was revealed, he had been carrying on a torrid clandestine affair for two years.  Ms. Patterson was arrested and indicted for murder, but claimed Young shot himself because he was distraught over the prospect of parting from her.  Despite strong evidence that Ms. Patterson had brought the pistol to the rendezvous (although it was recovered from the dead man’s pocket!), after two trials and two hung juries, Patterson was finally released in 1905 despite the District Attorney’s howls that the press had whitewashed the beautiful young woman’s case in the newspapers.  One modern writer has even speculated that Ms. Patterson’s story was so flimsy that Sherlock Holmes must have assisted the defense team during his absence from England after disappearing at Reichenbach Falls while fighting with Moriarty. 

McKean was not entirely unacquainted with nostrums even before his stewardship of the Taft company.  He had been a founding director of the American Carlsbad Mineral Sprudel Bath Company of New York in 1894, a mineral water concern.  This industry gradually must have drawn more of his attention, and by 1909 he was the “sole agent” of Taft’s Asthmalene. When, in 1913, a doctor in Florida sought guidance from a medical publication as to the bona fides of Asthmalene, that publication forwarded the inquiry to the “Propaganda for Reform” Department of the Journal of the American Medical Association, then in full tilt as this country’s primary chasers and exposers of quack medicine.  The doctors there conducted laboratory tests on patent medicines, published their findings in the Journal of the AMA and passed the results on to the fledgling federal FDA. The department answered that while it had not fully analyzed the compound, so long as McKean’s label disclosed its alcohol content (10%), and the modified language on the box did not guarantee sure cures, it was “the old story of a ‘lie direct’ being replaced with the ‘lie with circumstances’.” It concluded that since the labeling did not violate current regulations, the reformers could do nothing to bar Asthmalene’s sale, no matter how ineffectual the concoction otherwise might be.  In fact, no formal denunciation of the product ever appeared in the AMA’s Nostrums and Quackery, the 25 year, three volume compilation of the articles on dangerous patent medicines that the “Propaganda for Reform” Department published between 1911 and 1936. While the third and last volume leads with a section reproducing the articles exposing the misleading asthma and hay fever cures identified between 1921 and 1936, Asthmalene ultimately escaped the AMA’s rigorous scrutiny.  That alcohol was a major ingredient of Asthmalene and the company’s other advertised medicinal preparations cannot be doubted, for in 1913 the Assistant Secretary of the Treasury authorized the Customs Collector in New York to make a routine refund of import duty to the company in connection with the export of its medicines, up to the amount of tax previously paid by the company on the imported alcohol now contained in its medicine.  In 1916, the Dr Taft Bros Medicine Co was still listed in the Druggist’s Index as a patent medicine manufacturer.  Soon, thereafter, the Asthmalene wrapper showed the manufacturer as the B S McKean Co of Mamaroneck, New York. In 1941, that company was still advertising Asthmalene, and tracing its founding to 1868. In 1946 that McKean company “re-renewed” the 1906 Asthmalene trademark in its own name. However, by that time, that company was also registering trademarks other than Dr Taft’s and Asthmalene to advertise its products, and the Taft name eventually faded away.  Asthmalene now lists as an “expired” trademark.