Seth Arnold’s Cough Killer was a patent medicine manufactured in Woonsocket, Rhode Island that was popular in the latter half of the 19th century.
It’s name alone touted it as a cure for just about all chest and lung related diseases but, by the time you were finished reading the fine print in this 1865 advertisement, you’d think it also cured everything from a headache to urinary tract issues. The advertisement appeared in the 1865 Woonsocket city directory.
Described as “A Pleasantly Flavored Syrup for Children or Adults,” the ad made no mention of the fact that the medicine contained the addictive drug morphine along with ethyl alcohol and chloroform. As you’d expect, this resulted in unintended and sometimes drastic consequences, an example of which was poignantly documented in the May 3, 1878 edition of the (Darlington, Wisconsin) Republican-Journal.
On Thursday of last week Elsie, youngest daughter of T. J. Law, aged 17 months, met her death under the following sad circumstances: Her parents had procured a bottle of Arnold’s Cough Killer and, after administering the proper dose, put it away; the little child, unnoticed by her parents, got a chair, and, reaching the bottle, drank about three ounces of the mixture. The doctors were called and did all in their power to save her life, but in less than four hours after taking the medicine, the little child was a corpse.
Unfortunately individual stories like this were completely obscured by the plethora of “Cough Killer” advertisements, chock full of testimonials, found in newspapers and reputable magazines like Good Housekeeping (top) and Lippincott’s (bottom).
Not to mention artistically done trading cards .
The back of this card described the “Cough Killer” as a family medicine.
Every family should keep some reliable cough medicine in their house, and for this special purpose we have prepared and confidently recommend Dr. Seth Arnold’s Cough Killer. The constantly increasing sale and the satisfaction it gives demonstrates its absolute merit. A single trial is sufficient to secure for it your commendation. Buy and keep a bottle on hand. We are all liable to catch a cold at any moment.
So it’s no surprise the medicine remained popular up through the turn of the century.
Originally I was skeptical that a Dr. Seth Arnold actually existed, figuring that, like many patent medicines back in the day, he was simply a fictional character under whose name the product was manufactured and sold. As it turns out, not only did he exist, but his family was intimately involved with the founding of Woonsocket, Rhode Island and, in fact, their presence in that State dated back to the days of Roger Williams. According to the Biographical Cyclopedia of Representative Men of Rhode Island, published in 1881:
Arnold, Dr. Seth, son of Nathan and Esther (Darling) Arnold, was born in Cumberland, Rhode Island, February 26, 1799, and is a descendant of William Arnold, who came in a canoe with Roger Williams to Providence. William Arnold’s son Thomas settled in Smithfield, Rhode Island, and had several children, one of whom, Richard, was the first settler of Woonsocket, and an officer in the English government most of his life. His son John built the first frame house in Woonsocket in 1711…
A 6th generation Rhode Islander, Seth Arnold spent his early years occupied in a wide variety of endeavors that included cotton mill worker and hotel keeper. His youth even included a five year stint as a traveling showman, described like this in the Biographical Cyclopedia of Rhode Island:
He travelled in various states with an exhibition of natural and artificial curiosities.
With this background it’s no surprise that his medical qualifications, as listed in the 1878/1879 New England Official Directory and Handbook, were quite thin by today’s standards.
…attending two courses of medical lectures at Woonsocket, R. I., in 1842; one course in Worcester, Mass., in 1843; and two entire courses in New York City during the year 1844.
Exactly when Arnold began manufacturing and selling patent medicines is not clear, however an early advertisement for Dr S. Arnold’s Balsam that appeared in several June/July, 1851 editions of the Hartford Courant suggested that it occurred approximately six years prior to the ad being published, making it sometime in the mid 1840’s.
This balsam has been sold in Rhode Island, Massachusetts and Connecticut for six years and is now sold in almost every village of these states.
The advertisement went on to describe what were likely Arnold’s first two concoctions, his Balsam and another called “Compound Vegetable Sudorific Physical Pills.”
DR. S. ARNOLD’S BALSAM
A SURE and safe remedy, and is warranted to cure in less than ONE HOUR, in their first stages, and in a short time after all other remedies have failed, if the patient has not mortified, or the money will be refunded, Cholera Morbus, Asiatic or Spasmodic Cholera, Dysentery and Diarrhea. My agents stand ready at all times to make good these assertions. It is also used with entire success for Tooth Ache and Burns, the pain of which it soon relieves, and heals the burn in a short time without leaving a scar.
Also the Compound Vegetable Sudorific Physical Pills. They are a pleasant, efficient, aperient, mild, gentle, efficacious cathartic, safe at all times and under all circumstances. They will be found to excel in Jaundice, Costiveness, Head-Ache, and all bilious and feverish habits, operating without pain or sickness to the stomach. The above medicine is worthy the notice of travelers and seafaring people.
It wasn’t until 1857 that his “Cough Killer” began to appear in newspaper published drug store advertisements, so I suspect he added this medicine to his menu a little later, likely sometime in the mid-1850’s.
In 1869 Arnold sold the rights to his Balsam to Gillman Brothers, a Boston wholesale druggist, for $12,500. Gilman Brothers continued to market the Balsam under Arnold’s name well into the 1900’s.
After the sale of the Balsam, Arnold continued to manufacture and sell his “Cough Killer” and “Compound Vegetable Sudorific Physical Pills,” whose name was ultimately shortened to simply “Bilious Pills.”
Three years later, in 1872, he established the Doctor Seth Arnold Medical Corporation. According to the History of Providence County, R. I. Vol. II, published in 1891:
The Doctor Seth Arnold Medical Corporation was formed August 13, 1872, with a capital of $100,000, to succeed to the business of Doctor Seth Arnold, as manufacturers of proprietary medicines. The corporators were Doctor Seth Arnold, L. W. Ballou, James M. Cook, William G. Arnold, William M. Weeks. Doctor Seth Arnold remained at the head of the corporation until his death, October 31, 1883.
The History of Providence goes on to describe their Woonsocket facilities.
The first place of business was on Greene Street, but since 1875 the fine laboratory on Park Avenue has been occupied. The building has a fine site and is attractive in its appearance and surroundings. It is a frame 40 by 60 feet and contains fine offices and store rooms, in addition to the manufacturing departments.
A full page advertisement published in several editions of the Woonsocket city directory during the early 1880’s prominently featured their new building.
The building was listed with several different addresses over the years. Between 1877 and 1886 it was listed in the Woonsocket directory as 72 (sometimes 64) Sullivan Street, then sometime in the late 1880’s Sullivan Street was apparently renamed Park Avenue and between 1888 and 1891 it was listed as 72 Park Avenue. Later it would be listed as 158 Park Avenue (1892 to 1901) and 358 Park Avenue (1902 to 1905). The last two adress changes were likely due to changes in Park Avenue’s numbering system as opposed to a physical move by the company.
After the death of Seth Arnold the business remained under the control of the Arnold family with Seth’s sons Olney Arnold and later Alexander Streeter Arnold serving stints as president. According to Alexander Streeter’s biography published in “Representative Men & Old Families of Rhode Island,” Vol III, published in 1908, he was serving as president when the company was sold in 1905.
In 1900 he returned to Woonsocket and became the president of the Dr. Seth Arnold Medical Corporation, also holding the position of treasurer, and continued at the head of that concern until 1905, when they sold out to the Boston Drug Company.
The Dr. Seth Arnold Medical Company listing in the 1906 Woonsocket directory indicated that, by then, the business had “removed to Boston, Mass,” but who actually bought them is not clear. There’s no Boston Drug Company listed in the directories, but there is a Boston Chemical Company so that’s a possibility. It’s also possible that Gilman Bros, the company that bought Seth Arnold’s “Balsam” back in 1869 bought them and simply was referenced as “the Boston Drug Company” in Alexander Streeter Arnold’s biography.
Regardless of who bought them, by March 5, 1905 they had left Boston and their long-time headquarters on Park Avenue had been sold. According to the Fall River (Mass) Daily Evening News:
Frank Prue & Co., who operate a knitting factory in leased quarters on South Main Street, Woonsocket, have purchased the three-story Dr. Seth Arnold laboratory building on Park Avenue, Woonsocket, from the Dr. Seth Arnold Medical Corporation. Prue & Co will remodel the three-story wooden building into a knitting factory and will increase the scope of that plant.
After the move to Boston, “Arnold’s Cough Killer continued to appear, all but sporadically, in drug store advertisements up through the early 1920’s after which it vanishes.
The sale of the business and the subsequent disappearance of Dr. Seth Arnold’s Cough Killer occurred around the same time that public awareness was generating investigations into the patent medicine industry. One result of these investigations was the 1906 Food and Drug Act that required, among other things, that the presence of habit forming drugs be declared on the labels of drug products. It certainly appears resistance to this legislation was a major contributor to the product’s downfall. While I can’t definitely prove this hypothesis, there are clues in the newspapers.
One is a June 1, 1911 story in the Selma (California) Enterprise:
The State Board of Health last week gave out a list of more than 100 alleged violates of the pure food law whom the district attorneys of the various counties will be asked to prosecute.
Dr. Seth Arnold’s Cough Killer was on the list of offenders.
Another was found in the L. A. Times on April 1st, that same year.
George A. Tilt of Gardena was said to have sold Dr. Seth Arnold’s Cough Killer without a label showing it to contain morphine, ethyl alcohol and chloroform.
Tilt was fined $25.
The bottle I found is a mouth blown medicine with a contents of less than 2 oz. Sold over the years in three sizes; small, medium and large, this is almost certainly the small size. Throughout most of the product’s history, this size was yours for 25 cents.
The bottle’s finish does not appear tooled so I suspect it dates to the late 1800’s.