Perry Davis’ Vegetable Pain Killer
In some ways, the tale of Perry Davis is an example of triumph over adversity. Born in 1791 into a desperately poor family and apprenticed to a cordwainer, he was an inventor manqué, several of his patented ideas failing to attract investment and leaving him deeper in debt. He was also desperately unlucky. When 14 he fell off some scaffolding, breaking his hip, an injury which left him lame for the rest of his life. He suffered from respiratory problems which the medics could not cure. Only two of his nine children survived. In 1840 he became very sick and was in great pain.
Eschewing medical practitioners, Davis relied on his own resources and started experimenting with a concoction of herbal and naturally grown ingredients. He had no high hopes as to its efficacy, rather anticipating it to be “handing me gently to the grave”. Miraculously, he got better only for ill fortune to dog him once more. After his house in Fall River was destroyed by fire in 1843 and he was on his uppers, he decided to concentrate on the one thing that had worked for him, his patent medicine. Even then, he had another setback. Whilst tinkering with the formula, a can of alcohol exploded, causing severe burns to his face. The application of his panacea did the trick.
If nothing else, Davis was a consummate salesman and imbued with absolute confidence in his product, he flogged it for all he was worth. Bottles of the vegetable pain killer began to fly off the shelves, so much so that he opened a factory in the aptly named Providence. Advertising was fulsome as to its powers. An example ran, “an inexpensive and thoroughly reliable safeguard is offered by Perry Davis’ Pain Killer which…has stood unrivalled as a household companion. It is used externally as well as internally and is just what is needed for burns, bruises, cuts, sprains etc; and most people know that no other remedy is to be compared with it as a cure for coughs, colds, rheumatism, neuralgia etc in winter and all summer complaints in their season…it is a medicine chest in itself”. Another featured a host of cherubs bearing the distinctive brown bottle.
Testimonials were cited including one from Mark Twain; “those who could run away did. Those who could not drenched themselves in cholera preventatives and my mother chose Perry Davis’ Pain Killer for me”. Its fame spread overseas and during the American Civil War it was dispensed to soldiers and horses alike. An ardent Baptist, Davis gave bottles to missionaries to take with them abroad. His generosity was usually rewarded with a boost in sales. As his personal fortune grew he gave donations to many causes, gifting $50,000 in 1850 for the erection of a new Baptist church. When he died in 1862, his coffin was followed by crowds of the poor whom he had helped.
The production and sale of Davis’ Pain Killer survived his death, his son taking over the responsibility and the potion was still on sale until the early 1940s. And what was in it and was it any good? Although Davis never revealed the formula, it seemed that it was a mix of vegetable extracts, camphor, ethyl alcohol and opiates. With that lot inside you, it is no wonder you felt better, even if only temporarily. The ultimate in pick-me-ups, perhaps!