In one ad, worm syrup was touted as a safe and effective "old-time remedy" priced at 25 cents a bottle. (Photos courtesy of Sea Isle City Historical Society & Museum)


Is your bladder misbehaving? Dr. Kilmer’s Swamp Root will fix you right up.

Have a touch of dyspepsia? Try a dose of Burdock’s Blood Bitters.

In the late 19th century, there weren’t a lot of real doctors around, let alone things like MRIs, antibiotics, or Medicare.

But people still got sick, or at least “felt poorly.” The local druggist could help, but his supply of effective medication was limited. Enter the Entrepreneurs of Cure, via the only contemporary medium of communication – the local newspaper.

It was 1886 in Sea Isle City. Mayor Thomas E. Ludlam had just begun publishing the Cape May County Times. He proceeded to fill it with advertisements for all sorts of must-have items, ranging from bone grinders, to false teeth, to the latest in corset design.

But the most prolific were those ads which guaranteed the well-being of the citizenry – patent medicines with their secret formulas designed to cure just about everything. One may assume that these products were purchased and applied by at least some of the ailing locals. To what effect, there’s no way of knowing. Substantial alcohol content usually helped a lot.

We suspect that medical credentials were stretched a bit in some of the ads – as was the potency of the products. (Few, if any, were designed to appease just a single malady). But they were certainly creative – and some may even have worked.

This product claimed to cure “nerve affections” and “fits.”

The Sea Isle City Historical Museum is fortunate to have a full year of Mr. Ludlam’s Times beginning with Number 1, issued March 11, 1886. Each of the ads appeared more than once, some at least a dozen times, just in case the suffering public had trouble getting the message. All the advertisements were packed together on a single page in each issue.

Every week the ailing reader was offered about 20 remedies for everything from the common cold to blindness, guaranteed. They were aimed at anyone who could put a dollar bill in an envelope.

The ads were pretty straight to the point, if a bit over-the-top. There were others, however, where the seller chose to be more delicate. These products were usually directed specifically toward women, or toward men – all with discreetly worded messages. In some cases, it was hard to discover just what the remedy was supposed to do.

The ladies were invited to try Lydia Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound for delicate complaints (20 percent alcohol) or Chichester’s English Pennyroyal Pills. The latter, although the ads didn’t mention it, was believed to encourage pregnancy and, at the same time, to be an early abortion pill.

On a disappointing note, Lydia Pinkham’s, although still available from Amazon and Walmart, is now alcohol-free.

Male “problems” were also addressed in the ads. They seem directed toward restoring “lost manhood” to the afflicted and unfortunate, but none say exactly what they’re going to do about it. Dr. Henry Lobb, who even wrote a treatise on the subject, offered to treat the sufferer by mail.

Dr. Kilmer’s “Swamp Root” was a purported remedy for an array of ills.

The Amazing Dr. Kilmer

It was said that his face was more recognizable in parts of the country than the president’s. He claimed to be able to cure pretty much everything. His ads appeared all over the pages of the Cape May County Times.

Dr. Sylvester Andral Kilmer was the epitome of the cure-all salesman. Yet he wasn’t really a quack. He was a real doctor and an early practitioner of homeopathic medicine on a large scale. His cures were a mix of roots and herbs, with more than a dash of spirits thrown in. He truly believed his remedies could cure people, and maybe they could.

The newspaper ads were intended to demonstrate the reach of Kilmer’s remedies to all parts of the human anatomy. They included: Indian Cough Cure Consumption Oil, Ocean Weed Heart Remedy, Swamp Root Kidney Liver and Bladder Cure, and Complete Female Remedy. There were a few more but they apparently couldn’t fit in the space.

The good doctor’s most popular product was his Swamp Root, which was said to aim at everything related to the patient’s midsection. It was 24-proof and sold for as little as a quarter a bottle. One ad stated that it could serve as a “most Wonderful Appetizer.”

Miracle Hardware

Remedies weren’t always limited to liquids and pills. Two strange devices appeared as competing ads in the Times. They seemed to promise the same curative magic.

Dr. Fulton’s invention seems to be lost to history, even though it was proclaimed to “make the Blind to see, the Deaf to hear.”

William Wilson’s Actina, however, lives on in the annals of fakery. The Actina Pocket Electrical Battery was three inches long, with one end for eye ailments and the other for ear troubles, with the two meshing together to cure a variety of debilitating conditions including hay fever and headaches.

The middle cylinder housed ingredients such as oil of sassafras and belladonna extract to help things along. These were what “charged” the battery.

The Actina Pocket Electrical Battery device was a blatant fraud.

Actina cost $10 (about the price of a man’s suit). Periodic refills of sassafras and the like were an additional dollar. Professor Wilson, who wasn’t a real professor, had a good thing going.

But sad to relate, Actina was eventually found to have absolutely no electric properties and zero therapeutic value. The professor was put out of business in 1915 at the urging of the American Medical Association.

All Good Things Must End

And so it went. It was a pharmaceutical free-for-all in the 19th century. But the brakes were applied beginning in 1906 by the passage of a series of Pure Food and Drug Acts.

Purveyors of secret patent medicines could no longer foist wild claims on the public. And they were forced to list their active ingredients, including “dangerous drugs” such as opium, heroin, cannabis – and alcohol.

Some of these special additives were later banned, which deprived many of the “cures” of all their potency. People were to be hoodwinked no longer, until the next time.

“Spotlight on History” was written by Sea Isle City Historical Society Volunteer Bob Thibault.

To enjoy a collection of photos, literature and artifacts, visit the Sea Isle City Historical Museum at 48th Street and Central Avenue. Access the website at or call (609) 263-2992. Current hours are 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Monday, Tuesday and Thursday, and 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. on Friday. Admission is free.