Columbus 200: (White) Lightning in a Bottle
Mystery medicine dabs snake oil on city’s legacy
By Robert PaschenPublished March 1, 2012
“My blood seemed inflamed with poison, and my stomach became entirely demoralized, and I realized I was a sick man. The doctors dosed me to their hearts’ content, but I kept growing worse. Then fortune brought Peruna to my notice and I at once began to mend … I feel now that I owe my life to Peruna and will never cease to be grateful.”
– Mr. Thomas Hicks, Louisville, Ky.
“I feel well and would not be without a bottle of Peruna in time of need for ten times the cost.”
– Mr. David Wilcox, Oakland, Ca.
It’s thanks to the sage and passionate pledges from folks such as these that Dr. Samuel Brubaker Hartman became the richest man in Columbus’ early 20th century, a fortune he acquired in a manner many would recognize in today’s modern world.
Has there ever been any more alluring and lucrative cocktail than alcohol, drugs and slick advertising?
At different times in his life a carpenter, door-to-door Bible salesman, and traveling doctor, Hartman struck gullible gold with Peruna (Pe-Ru-Na), a boozy, mysterious concoction he sold as “medicine” around the world.
This intoxicating (27 percent alcohol) “cure for catarrh” created a family empire, revolutionized advertising, led to the founding of the federal Food and Drug Administration, and helped establish the Columbus Museum of Art. Columbus became “Perunaville” or “Peruna City,” and Hartman became the “high priest of the patent medicine industry.”
During this golden age of quack medicines in America, Peruna was sold alongside Lloyd’s Cocaine Toothache Drops, Kickapoo Indian Cough Cure, Paine’s Celery Compound, W.A. Takbot’s Piso Consumption Cure, Beverage Moxie Nerve Food, Dr. Williams Pink Pills for Pale People, and hundreds more.
But among all the purveyors of questionable old-timey medicine, Dr. S.B. Hartman, with his Peruna factory in downtown Columbus, was the undisputed king.
The Man Who Could Sell Trees to Kentuckians
Hartman was born on April Fool’s Day 1830 in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, the youngest of eight children. Before Hartman was old enough to walk, his father had passed away. At age five, Hartman was separated from his mother and siblings and sent with an uncle to work on a farm.
In 1844, Hartman moved to Medway, Ohio, to learn carpentry from his brother Jacob. At age 14, Hartman could speak only German. Over the next seven years, he learned carpentry and English.
At age 22, after 17 years of manual labor, Hartman put down his hammer and “turned his energy to convincing the German farmers that they were in need of Holy books,” according to a 1933 article in the Columbus Citizen. In one week, Hartman made $82 selling Bibles, equivalent to nearly $2,500 today. He never looked back.
While Hartman excelled at sales (he sold trees to Kentuckians, though there were already millions of trees in Kentucky), he decided to study medicine in Cincinnati, Cleveland, and Philadelphia.
During the following decade, Hartman practiced medicine in Pennsylvania, rode out the Civil War, got married, and by age 38 had amassed a $100,000 fortune, in part by selling Peruna to his patients. But the economy tanked, and Hartman lost everything.
To make ends meet, the portly, jovial German doctor hit the road. He “straightened thousands of crossed eyes and clubbed feet” in cities across the country, according to the Columbus Citizen. Hartman bought full-page ads, which increased his number of patients, and sales of Peruna.
By 1877, Hartman had two kids and outsourced Peruna production to his brother Jacob in Dayton. In 1883, Jacob moved the Peruna operation, which by then was a molten-hot commodity, to Columbus. By 1890, writer Jean Kahler, in the Columbus Dispatch Magazine, pegged Hartman’s annual income from $50,000 to $100,000. According to the Columbus Citizen, Peruna soon brought in $120,000 per day in gross receipts (or around $500,000 per day in 2012 money.) A bottle of Peruna cost $0.15 to make, and retailed for $1.
At one point, someone asked Hartman, “What’s in that medicine of yours?” according to Columbus Dispatch Magazine. “Profit,” Hartman said.
Birth of a Family Business
Hartman sent out pallets of Peruna-themed junk mail, including The Confidential Physician, which included discussion of subjects such as “Approaching Insanity,” “Barber’s Itch,” “Terrible Temptations,” “Total Insanity,” and “Winter Itch.” Peruna, Hartman claimed, could cure all of them.
In 1890, Hartman left the road and opened a Surgical Hotel in Columbus. He moved his family from Pennsylvania to a mansion on Town Street and oversaw the production and marketing of Peruna. Around this time, Hartman’s son J. Harry died at age 18. Hartman – who never drank, nor smoked – thought “cigarettes is what took the boy off.”
After the panic of 1893, Hartman again lost his fortune. But he was saved by the largest order of Peruna in the history of the company – 72,000 bottles, a complete train car full.
Hartman loaded his teenage daughter Mirabel, his business manager William Baker, and the 72,000 bottles of Peruna on a train and left Columbus for Waco, Texas. A young immigrant druggist from the Baltic Sea, named Frederick Schumacher, had placed the large order. And Hartman wanted to meet him in person.
Where Hartman was fat and jolly, Schumacher was short, shy and severe. Schumacher was educated in Europe, had a degree in Pharmacy, and was rumored to be selling Peruna to Native Americans in Texas. But, as put in the Columbus Dispatch Magazine, “it seems possible that many palefaces in Texas, as well as their Indian brothers might have discovered the benefits of this new kind of firewater.”
In Waco, Schumacher didn’t expect to see Hartman, and didn’t expect to see his pretty daughter, Mirabel, standing next to her portly papa. Frederick and Mirabel fell in love. Schumacher moved to Columbus and became Vice President of the Peruna Drug Manufacturing Company. And in 1895, during what the Columbus Dispatch called “one of the very beautiful nuptial events that has occurred,” Schumacher and Mirabel were married. He was 31. She was 19. Hartman bought them a mansion at 750 East Broad Street.
A Maverick with a Message
At the turn of the 20th century, Columbus was still rough around the edges. Schumacher’s refined reserved air made some in the capital city think he was “a sissy.” His “Kaiser Wilhelm mustache and cultivated manner” was “entirely too European for Ohio tastes,” wrote the Columbus Dispatch Magazine.
But this “soft spoken Texan” turned out to be an “advertising genius.” Though Hartman was a master in coordinated national advertising, Schumacher revolutionized direct appeals with the “testimonial.”
Millions of Peruna almanacs, calendars, booklets, newspaper advertisements and billboards soon began featuring first-person accounts of mothers, sailors, farmers, doctors, and everyday folks from across the country singing the praises of Peruna. The ads were hugely successful.
“I feel ten years younger since using Peruna,” wrote Mr. Henry Merz of Evansville, Indiana, in the 1904 Peruna Almanac. In the same publication, Mrs. Col. E. J. Gresham of Herndon, Virginia, wrote, “It took six bottles to cure me, but they were worth a king’s ransom to me. I talk Peruna to all my friends, and am a true believer in its worth.”
An Indiana mother wrote that when her daughter Helen “commenced on the second bottle the change was remarkable.” Other mothers agreed that Peruna was good for kids.
Americans loved the Peruna testimonials from fellow citizens. “At present Peruna company runs copy in 9,000 newspapers from coast to coast, 500 of which are dailies,” Schumacher said. Hartman began spending $1 million a year to carpet bomb America with Peruna advertisements. Sales skyrocketed.
Next, Schumacher hired field agents to obtain testimonials from celebrities, politicians, and military personnel. A 1903 full-page ad listed 28 army generals endorsing Peruna. Another ad stated that “50 MEMBERS OF CONGRESS ENDORSE PE-RU-NA.” Congressman James Luther Slayden of Texas, according to an article by James Harvey Young in Timeline, sarcastically told fellow lawmakers in 1905, “Peruna seems to be the favorite Congressional drink.” Buford Lynch, the Peruna ad man in Washington, D.C., spent close to $12 million getting powerful military and political leaders to endorse Peruna.
“Queen of Actresses” Julia Marlowe shilled for the snake oil. The mascot of Southern Methodist University was (and still is) a black stallion named Peruna. And … “babies were named for it,” Young wrote.
Hartman added new product: La-Cu-Pi-A, a blood medicine, and Man-A-Lin, a laxative. (The names were chosen because they were easy to pronounce, and thus easier to market.) Hartman claimed that his products could cure acne, anemia, asthma, cancer, consumption, deafness, drunkenness, female troubles, hysteria, malaria, nervous prostration, and more, wrote Young. All of these ailments were caused by the mysterious “catarrh,” a vaguely-defined but pervasive ailment. And to prevent “catarrh,” everyone agreed: drink Peruna. (Peruna could also make you younger, smarter, thinner, prettier, more respected, and more liked.) Even the clergy and teetotalers endorsed Peruna.
The Sip Turns Sour
While Hartman and his son-in-law may have thought they were revolutionizing modern medicine, Peruna was essentially creating the country’s first syrup sippers.
“Peruna drunks” became common in cities across the country, especially in mountain towns and temperance states such as Maine that prohibited alcohol. Schumacher had expanded the business into Canada in provinces where alcohol was prohibited. Though bars were banned in some areas, Peruna could be purchased at the drug store. “Druggists had trouble keeping the nostrum in stock,” wrote Young. The “Peruna jag” was so widespread that other “medicines” claimed to cure the “Peruna habit,” i.e. drunkenness, probably with more alcohol.
Though business was booming, there were more troubles appearing on the Peruna landscape. Schumacher and Mirabel were not happy. Local historian Thomas Glass, who possessed many original company and personal papers, said that Schumacher traveled frequently to Europe alone without taking Mirabel or their three daughters. According to Glass, there were rumors that Schumacher was seeing prostitutes on these trips.
For her part, Mirabel, described as the “indulged only child” of the richest man in Columbus, wanted a life in the theater. The Schumacher’s chauffeur said that he drove Mirabel “out every night, and some of them in the wee hours of the morning; and then instead of going home, they was always going over to the Columbus Club and later to the Athletic Club.”
Schumacher also spent time in Canada, where he sold Peruna to miners. While there, Schumacher bought land, founded a town (called Schumacher), and created a gold mine (literally) that made his fortune equal to that of Hartman’s.
Meanwhile, Hartman, now enormously wealthy and a 33rd-degree Mason, began a building boom in Columbus. He built the Hartman Hotel at Main and Fourth streets; the Peruna administration building (with marble and mahogany offices) at Third and Rich streets; the Peruna factory between Third and Fourth streets; and the Peruna stables with “great wagon loads of boxed Peruna which left there every day for the stations, drawn by beautiful horses,” according to the Columbus Dispatch Magazine. As a present to his “overindulged” only daughter, Hartman built the Hartman Theatre at the southwest corner of Third and State streets.
People came to Columbus from around the country to be personally treated at Hartman’s downtown facilities. In addition to daily Peruna doses, Hartman employed “mechanical massage,” “fadic and galvanic electricity,” “medico-electric baths,” “mechano-operative surgery,” and “vacuum receivers,” among other techniques. He was also still a highly sought after physician.
But despite his good fortune and jovial demeanor – one person remembered him as “a nice big fat man” – Hartman was frugal and demanding. When kids opened his gate for his horse, “he wouldn’t hand you any nickels and dimes for it,” remembered Roland Ott. “He’d throw them out in the mud. He wanted you to dig for your money; you had to earn it.” Employee Jane McGill said, “at Christmas time they used to dock us for the day, and then come around with a big bag and give us a silver dollar.” Despite these seemingly harsh practices, Hartman did give generously to local charities.
Peruna was now the largest selling patent medicine in the country. Glass said that Hartman was distributing as many as 2 million bottles of Peruna per week. “He had plants in Brazil, France and Germany,” Glass said, in addition to domestic factories. And Peruna was now being sold across the Western Hemisphere and Europe.
Imitators sprouted up, including P-Ru-Na, Pe-ru-vin-a, and Perina. “Hardest to control were the fly-by-night salesman who traveled rapidly through the country districts, refilling empty Peruna bottles with water colored with rusty nails and peddling them for the regular price of $1 a bottle,” wrote the Columbus Dispatch Magazine.
Great American Fraud
In 1905, everything started changing for the worse. Colliers Magazine reporter Samuel Hopkins Adams took the lid off the whole patent medicine industry in a series of articles called “Great American Fraud.”
As the king of patent medicines, Hartman was Adams’ biggest target. In a huge and costly mistake, the mogul admitted in print that Peruna had no medicinal benefit. “They see my advertising. They read the testimonials. They are convinced. They have faith in Peruna. It gives them a gentle stimulant, and so they get well.” Basically, the placebo effect with a booze chaser. Adams referred to Hartman as “the most conspicuous of all medical frauds.”
Earlier in 1905, C.F. Larrabee, acting commissioner of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, “absolutely prohibited” the sale of Peruna to Native Americans. “As a medicine something else can be substituted,” Larrabee wrote, and “as an intoxicant it has been found too tempting and effective.” The Internal Revenue Service then claimed that Peruna contained so much booze that “retailers who sold it must possess a liquor license,” wrote Young.
Also in 1905, Hartman sued the Ladies Home Journal for $250,000 after the magazine reprinted a signed denial letter by a congressman featured in a Peruna testimonial.
In Colliers, Adams wrote that newspapers and magazines failed their customers by failing to expose the dangers of patent medicines in favor of collecting huge ad revenue “leaving no agency to refute the megaphone exploitation of the frauds. Alcohol fed daily and in increasing doses to women and children, makes not for health, but for drunkenness.”
In 1906, the federal hammer fell on Peruna and all the other snake oils and patent medicines in the United States. The new Pure Food and Drug Act (the forerunner of the FDA) mandated that medicines list ingredients, including alcohol content.
Hartman was shocked and claimed he’d “never engage in anything that looked like liquor traffic.” But after he was pressured by Washington to list Peruna’s 27% alcohol content, Hartman secretly made the formula less boozy. He also added a laxative. This was unfortunate. From sea to shining sea, unsuspecting Peruna customers looking to get drunk instead became incontinent. The Peruna brand was largely finished.
Peruna “continued to net a quarter of a million dollars a year for several years after the doctor’s death,” wrote the Columbus Dispatch Magazine, “largely derived from sale of the original Peruna to Mexicans. Eventually the Mexican government … barred the sale of the elixir.”
By 1912, the owner of a large Midwest drug wholesaler commented, “Peruna is nowhere. We used to get a carload, even two carloads a month. Now we hardly handle a carload in a year.”
The Peruna complex started shutting down building by building. One of the last employees at the downtown Peruna plant, according to former employee Tommy Giller, was the floor foreman, “a dandy woman but drunk from morning till night,” who also was “the best worker as ever they had.”
His empire destroyed, Hartman retired to his 5,000-acre farm in south Columbus where he had the world’s largest registered herd of Jersey dairy cows and from where he produced most of the milk consumed in Columbus.
In 1917, Schumacher and Maribel went through a “bitter and widely publicized divorce,” according to the Columbus Dispatch Magazine. Hartman died a few weeks after the divorce was finalized. Maribel married an actor and moved East. Schumacher remained alone in the Broad Street mansion.
Schumacher died in 1956 at age 92. A year later, Maribel died of pneumonia on Nantucket.
Kathleen Schumacher – their second daughter – was an artist, and encouraged her father to add to his substantial art collection. Kathleen often served as Schumacher’s buying agent. Schumacher donated his collection to the Columbus Museum of Art. And though only the Hartman Building remains as a monument to old Perunaville, the Columbus Museum of Art is a lasting tribute to “one of Columbus’ most curious industries,” (Columbus Citizen).
Robert Paschen is a freelance writer living in Columbus, Ohio. Each month throughout 2012, he will present (614) readers with narratives from Columbus’ 200-year history.