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5 crazy cures sold by con artists – Dr. Williams’ Pink Pills for Pale People

Ian Harvey

Due to the lack of medical understanding and proper regulation, 18th and 19th century saw a surge in quack doctors and other so called medicinal experts who conned millions of people posing as experts of human health and welfare. There was a consistency among the seemingly multi flavoured doctors found in Europe but mostly in North America, which then spread all over the world. To this day in some parts of the world these fakes and cons are active especially in India and African countries; however one can hardly find these quacks in developed countries these days. Some suggest the industry has evolved and the modern manifestation of vintage cons artists is the rampant ‘spiritual’ leaders who present themselves as experts of human soul and consciousness.

Dr. Williams’ Pink Pills for Pale People



Dr. Williams’ Pink Pills for Pale People was a late 19th to early 20th-century patent medicine containing iron oxide and magnesium sulfate. It was produced by Dr. Williams Medicine Company, the trading arm of G. T. Fulford & Company. It was claimed to cure chorea, referenced frequently in newspaper headlines as “St. Vitus’ Dance,” as well as “locomotor ataxia, partial paralyxia, seistica, neuralgia rheumatism, nervous headache, the after-effects of la grippe, palpitation of the heart, pale and sallow complexions, [and] all forms of weakness in male or female.”

In 1890, G. T. Fulford & Company obtained the rights to produce Dr. Williams’ Pink Pills for Pale People, and began marketing it through Dr. Williams Medicine Company. Reverend Enoch Hill of M.E. Church of Grand Junction in Iowa, endorsed the product in many 1900s advertisements, saying that it energized him and cured his chronic headaches. Eventually, the product came to be advertised around the world in 82 countries, including its native Canada, the United States, and the United Kingdom. In the late 19th century, the pills were marketed in the UK by the American businessman John Morgan Richards.

The Pink Pills were widely used across the British Empire and, as the historian of Southeast Asia, Mary Kilcline Cody, puts it, “If the invulnerability magic of the sola topi, the spine pad and the cholera belt failed, Europeans could always rely on the Pink Pills to alleviate the pressures of bearing the white man’s burden”. ”

In the early 1890s, the publicity for the product was written by John MacKenzie. In 1892, he was made manager of the medicine company, and held that position until his retirement in 1929. When George Taylor Fulford, Sr., the Canadian senator that founded G. T. Fulford & Company, died in 1905 in an automobile accident, George Taylor Fulford II became involved in the family business.

Today, the home of George Taylor Fulford, Sr. in Brockville, Ontario, Fulford Place, is a tourist attraction that showcases the success of patent medicine products. It was acquired by the Ontario Heritage Foundation in 1991. In 2001 they formally put a plaque outside his home with a brief biography.

Stanley’s Snake Oil

Exploiting the reputation of the real snake oil, Clark Stanley claimed to have his hands on the most unique and exquisite recipe of the Snake Oil bestowed to him by a Chinese labourer who brought the knowledge to United States. Stanley claimed his oil had anti inflammatory omega-3 acids extracted from the Chinese water snakes that supposedly ate fish. Stanley’s most famous feat was an oil preparation show that he conducted up and down the country in which he would take out the snake form a jar and then boil it in front of the cheering crowds. He would later present the freshly ‘brewed’ snake oil to the lucky members of his audience. The introduction of the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 put a massive dent on the businesses of many con Artists and pseudo doctors with strict law around the truthfulness of medicines and treatments. Stanley Clark’s famous product was seized by FDA in 1916 after it was tested to contain no special ingredients rather it was found to have mineral oil, fats and red pepper along with some amounts of turpentine. However Stanley made a fortune selling his snake oil and was only fined a mere $20 for violating federal law.

Revigator – Radium ore and other radiated water products

With the discovery of radiation in 19th century a whole new form of pseudo medicine emerged that took the world by storm. The idea quickly spread among the masses that radiated water was essential for human health curing some of the very deadly diseases, claiming to fully cure other 150 common diseases. Very much like the modern advertisements, the companies in the 19th century created a myth and then claimed to have the solution around that myth. It was proposed the water somehow got denatured due to contamination and radiated water provides the missing elements from the water essentially curing human body of many ills, which were the product of contaminated water. A number of products quickly started surfacing but most famous of all were Radithor and Revigator, which quickly became an essential component of 19th century households. The Revigator was essentially a water dispenser with the lining of uranium ore. The users were encouraged to leave the water overnight in the container to let the radiation seep into the water purifying it off any impurities and contaminations. The idea surrounding such products was a false claim that water occurring in natural habitats contained radon and that it was the most integral part of pure water, absence of which causes disease and degeneration of bones and muscles. The industry flourished all through 20’s and 30’s, making people drink 8 to 10 glasses of lead and arsenic infused water significantly damaging health of millions. Later researchers revealed the real extent of stupidity and falsehood in the radiation claims, now we all know how dangerous the exposure to the radiation is for human health; however there still are some people who believe on this preposterous myth of radiation cure.


Indian Sagwa of Kickapoo tribe

From 1881 all the way to 1906 Kickapoo’s sagwa was sold in America supposedly containing an ancient Indian medicinal remedy told by Kickapoo Indian tribes. This particular Sagwa was one of many miracle healing products sold in North America in 18th and 19th century with links to ancient Indian traditions. Existence of an actual Kickapoo tribe inhabiting the regions around Illinois and Indiana made the claims of cons authentic in the eyes of their clients. The twist was that the Indian tribe was never involved in the making of any medicines whatsoever. This did not stop from the sellers of the Sagwa to claim that the product could miraculously cure users of chronic heartburn, depression, Jaundice, fevers and many more common ailments; in reality it only cured the disease of having too much money to spend on pretty much anything stupid.

Vitality Injections

Some perhaps believe that treatments with coloured water is some sort of medieval practice, however it was quiet rampant in not very distant times in our backyards. Famous for his goat gland cure, Dr. John Brinkley claimed to find a vitality element for men who he injected into men as coloured water. Brinkley was a born marketer and took every opportunity to sell his products without any remorse over his preposterous claims. A significant number of people paid ridiculous amount of money, something like $750 for goat gland implant. Brinkley’s next project was to convince such ‘gullible’ folks to buy another additive that could enhance the effects of goat land implants. Brinkley cleverly used the power of radio communication to serve his cause by setting up a radio station and running ads solidifying his claims in the minds of his existing clients and in hope of new preys. The demise of the one of the most successful medicinal cons started in 1923 when a scandal surfaced citing that Brinkley was not a doctor after all and that he had actually bought a fake degree and lacked any surgical training. After being exposed of his fakery, Brinkley was quickly stripped off his medical and radio licenses in 1930. He even ran for the governor’s office in Kansas, which he terribly lost. All this was not enough to stop the ambitious con, Brinkley continued his practise and opened another clinic and continued pumping his clients with dyed water. The knockout blow to the colour water doctor came in 1939 when a judge officially declared Brinkley a quack and his famous ‘Formula 1020’ to be fake coloured water. A number of lawsuits engulfed Brinkley who lost most of his 20 million fortunes that he made all through his career. Lawsuits never ceased to haunt Brinkley all through his later years, he eventually died bankrupt.

Ian Harvey

Ian Harvey is one of the authors writing for The Vintage News