Text: Burton R. Pollin, “Poe’s Literary Use of ‘Oppodeldoc’ and Other Patent Medicines,” from Poe Studies, December 1971, vol. IV, no. 2, 4:30-32


[page 30, column 1:]

Poe’s Literary Use of “Oppodeldoc” and Other Patent Medicines

Bronx Community College of the City University of New York

In the Southern Literary Messenger of December 1844, Poe published his longest burlesque, “The Literary Life of Thingum Bob, Esq. Late Editor of the ‘Goosetherumfoodle.’” The late Professor Mabbott regarded it as “perhaps the most amusing of Poe’s satires (if the background is understood)” (l). The “background,” in Hervey Allen’s view, comprised his early life in Richmond and his relations with John Allan or father “Bob” in the tale (2). The burlesque is, however, chiefly a satire on editors and especially on “father” Graham, proprietor of the Gentleman’s magazine, on which Poe had so manfully worked, as he makes clear in the tale (3). Poe, or “Thingum Bob,” presents himself under the strange pseudonym of “Oppodeldoc” early in the satire. In his only reprint, in the Broadway Journal of July 26, 1845, Poe altered a deprecatory reference; “John Neal’s paragraphs” became “Lewis Clarke’s paragraphs” (4). His including the name of the hostile Knickerbocker editor led the writer of one of the few studies of the tale to misconstrue “Oppodeldoc” as an anagram on the pseudonym of Clark’s deceased twin brother, “Dr. Ollapod,” used in a series of much earlier Knickerbocker miscellanies (5). Poe certainly knew the name of this character from George Colman’s play, The Poor Gentleman, as I have shown (6). But in 1844 there was little need for a satire on Willis Gaylord Clark. Moreover “Oppodeldoc” is not a reasonably close anagram of “Dr. Ollapod,” and why should he apply the pseudonym of an enemy to himself in the tale? Much more important —the name “Oppodeldoc” was that of a well-known patent medicine, ingeniously worked into the fabric of the story.

We need to notice only a few of the details at the beginning to see the extraordinary relevance of Poe’s use of the word. Thingum Bob, now a successful editor, in presenting his memoirs to the curious, tells about his father, Thomas Bob, merchant-barber in the city of Smug and “inventor” of the well-known “Oil-of-Bob,” presumably a hair preparation. Poems in the Gad-Fly to the “Only Genuine Oil-of-Bob” inspire him with a desire to rival the author; he therefore plagiarizes verses from Dante, Shakespeare, Homer, and Milton and sends the farrago to four magazines over the signature of “Oppodeldoc.” Each of the critical responses by the editors, given by Poe, makes copious reference to this pseudonym, so that we find “Oppodeldoc” printed twenty-one times in the course of five of Harrison’s pages, ten times followed by the humorous parenthesis “whoever he is” and twice, in comments by Thingum the narrator, by “whoever he was.” Poe confounds the reader’s pretended misunderstanding by having the Rowdy-Dow mistake the pseudonym for the name of an “illustrious Roman Emperor,” while the Lollipop merely calls him one of “the illustrious dead.” Since Poe knew that the name was familiar to everyone as that of a notorious patent medicine, he could [column 2:] include tangential references to exorbitant charges and extravagant claims. Every one of the four magazines resents Oppodeldoc’s pretensions and demands for “a’speedy insertion and prompt pay’ “ (VI, 5) . Since the chief form of the medicine was that of a liniment, Thingum Bob evidently chose it by mental association with his father’s hair tonic, source of his original inspiration. Poe is thereby enabled to pun on the disillusioning results and the situation. Of the three magazines that reprinted some of the plagiarized verses (a few taken from Hamlet), Thingum says:

The putting them in the smallest possible minion, (that was the rub—thereby insinuating their lowness—their baseness,) while WE stood looking down upon them in gigantic capitals! Oh it was too bitter! it was wormwood—it was gall. (VI, 8)

Since Oppodeldoc was sold also as bitters, Poe’s use of two modified quotations from Hamlet becomes even more humorously pointed.

Surely we might ask why this play upon the name of one of the most prominent and oldest patent remedies should not have been more obvious. Presumably it was— to Poe’s contemporaries. As for modern readers, Poe may have delayed recognition of his playfulness by using an older spelling with a double “pp” for “opodeldoc” as the Oxf ord English Dictionary and all other modern lexicons list it. Tracing the background of this nostrum and noting its great popularity will enable us to understand Poe’s resentment of the many quack remedies which led to great fortunes for their “inventors” and promoters, while he, Mr. Thingum Bob, “labored” and “toiled” and “wrote” ceaselessly “through hunger and through thirst” and remained poor (VI, 26-27). Opodeldoc does, indeed, date far back, although not to Roman times as the tale implies, for “Paracelsus” or Theophrastus Bombast von Hohenheim, the Swiss-German adept in alchemy and the Kabbala, coined the word as early as 1541. According to Kurt Peters, he composed it out of the italicized syllables in the three following ingredients for his medicinal plaster: “opo nax, bdel lium, and aristoloch ia.” (7). Paracelsus’ “opodelloch” had become “Unguentum Opodeldoch” in the Edinburgh Pharmacopoeia of 1722, being applied to a “spiritous preparation” of camphor and soap. Before and after this date we find a variety of spellings and forms, such as “oppodeltoch,” “opodeldock,” and “opodeldoc,” the last of which became almost standard in England by the end of the eighteenth century (8). Dr. Steer added ammonia to the standard ingredients, patented the concoction, and prospered greatly from its sale before his death in 1781. The firm of Francis Newberry of London continued making “Dr. Steer’s Opodeldoc” and exported it to the United States (9). It was to be found on the list of the eight most popular patent remedies exposed in 1824 by the Philadelphia College of Pharmacy in its Formulae for the Preparation of Eight Patent Medicines (10).

The well-organized “guild” of patent medicine manufacturers used every trick of propaganda to promote their products, including patented labels with unvarying announcement material, oddly shaped and distinctively marked and colored bottles, extensive advertisements in journals, and widely distributed broadsides with verses, florid descriptions, and testimonials from spurious medical authorities [page 31:] and grateful users. In 1835 the Free Will Glass Manufactory was making “Opodeldoc Bitters bottles,” and in 1848 a leaflet for glassblowers listed the prices of “small and large opodeldoc bottles,” said to be standard “Druggists’ Wares.” Throughout the nineteenth century the liniment was being sold in special bottles (11). Even in the twentieth century one can find it still in use “as a domestic remedy for stiffness and sprains” (but not as bitters), and it is listed in the pharmacopoeias of England and the United States (12).

It is apparent from the advertisements that in Poe’s day “Steer’s Opodeldoc” reigned almost supreme, although I have found an 1826 advertisement for “Butler’s Cajeput Opodeldoc,” imported from England (13). Poe must have been familiar with the broadsides for “Steer’s Opodeldoc.” A copy from 1810, which I have examined, is identical in its exaggerated claims with one dated by the owner as “cir 1840-50” (14); since this was the period of Poe’s story, a few sentences will underscore the humor of Poe’s using the word as a pseudonym for the “”wattle” sent to the magazines by Thingum Bob and also the humor of his mentioning “those who have been nauseated with a sad dose . . . . from the editor of the ‘Goose-Quill’” (VI, 11), and “beginning with ‘Achilles’ wrath,’ and ‘grease.’” (p. 4):

This incomparable Opodeldoc . . . . is warm, penetrating, attentuating, and is therefore an excellent embrocation for the Gout and Rheumatism . . . . Long contracted Sprains are removed by it, and it is of the utmost service for Weak and Rickety Children . . . . for Burns and Scalds . . . . for Horses that are strained in the back Sinews, wrung in the Withers, or have their back galled with the saddle . . . . for a fresh Cut, . . . . for the sting of Wasps . . . . for sudden Head-Aches. . . .

Does this not rival Thingum Bob’s “Ode upon the ‘Oilof-Bob’” (p.9)?

Poe must often have observed that hoaxes in the form of patent medicines made enormous fortunes for their promoters while even his most successful literary hoaxes, such as the tale of balloon-crossing of the Atlantic in 1844, increased only his reputation, not his income. Perhaps, too, the obviously spurious claims and disastrous effects of these nostrums outraged his own sense of truthfulness and common sense. Whatever the cause, in the works of Poe various other patent medicines incur his invariable objurgation and even provide him with a scornful climax for his “Some Words with a Mummy.” Poe’s earliest squib against patent medicines occurs in ‘The Signora Zenobia” of December 1838 (later titled “How to Write a Blackwood Article”). Mr. Blackwood is responding to Miss Zenobia’s enquiry about the formula for a successful article, a la Blackwood’s Magazine papers. Always describe an experience of great mental and physical anguish, with emphasis on the sensations, he tells her: “Hanging is somewhat hacknied. Perhaps you might do better. Take a dose of Morrison’s pills, and then give us your sensations” (II, 392). In his 1840 reprint of the tale Poe preserved “Morrison’s Pills” and indeed repeated the phrase in a thrust of 1849 at those who seek merely “temporary success” (XVI, 148). However, in the Broadway Journal reprint of 1845 (BJ, 2, 2) he apparently decided to furnish a more spectacular instance of quack medicines and substituted Brandreth for Morrison (15). During [column 2:] the same year in “Some Words with a Mummy” he again used the name of Brandreth, as we shall see. Poe chose his object of scorn well, for Benjamin Brandreth, youngest son of Dr. William Brandreth, had come from England in 1836 to make and sell his digestive remedy or “Brandreth’s Life-Addition Pills to keep the blood pure.” In 1837 he moved his manufactory up to Sing-Sing, whence he sent his patent medicine throughout the nation. In the Boston Daily Times of February 4, 1840, I find an advertisement extolling the pills as good for purgation in cases of small pox—proof of wild claims. His phenomenal success—attested by his having a net worth of $200,000 by 1839—came, in part, from an arrogant tone, a literary flavor, and an historical sweep in his advertising copy. Everyone in New York knew about his friendship and quarrel with James Gordon Bennett, of the New-York Herald, and in the late 1840’s his nostrum was singled out by a Select Committee of the House of Representatives as a prime example of meretricious, high-pressure salesmanship (16). No reform bills were subsequently passed, however, and Brandreth’s Pills could be purchased even in the 1880’s.

Another patent medicine that Poe deprecated audaciously called itself “Swaim’s Panacea.” In the Southern Literary Messenger of April 1849, Poe defends Bayard Taylor’s poetry against carping critics:

Are our most deserving writers to be forever sneered down, or hooted down, or damned down with faint praise, by a set of men who possess little other ability than that which assures temporary success to them in common with Swaim’s Panacea or Morrison’s Pills? (XVI, 147-148)

Considering the ubiquitous popularity and grandiose pretensions of Swaim’s Panacea, Poe is exercising great restraint. William Swaim, having been cured of a disease, possibly venereal, by a physician’s remedy, about 1822, ferreted out the ingredients, added to them oil of wintergreen for flavor, and extensively advertised his “panacea,” especially through pamphlets decorated with a symbolic Hercules killing the hydra. Despite exposes published by medical societies of New York and Philadelphia, he continued manufacturing his nostrum, waxing immensely rich by the mid-century (17). Even in the 1930’s “Swaim’s Panacea” was being sold. In the New York Academy of Medicine Library is a hand-written pamphlet announcing a “Hospital for Scrofulous and Syphilitic Incurables to be supported by Subscription.” Article 16 states that Mr. James Swaim will supply to the indigent inmates, gratis, the “Panacea,” which is to be “the principal medicine used” (18).

It is no cause for wonder that in 1845 Poe, desperate for ease of mind and money, at the outset of his unfortunate connection with the Broadway Journal, published “Some Words with a Mummy,” his satire on modern American manners, in the American Whig Review of April 1845. It is too easy to overlook the fact that the chief mover of the action of the whole piece is “Dr. Ponnonner,” just such a character as “Dr. Swaim” or “Dr. Brandreth,” whose very name suggests hypocritical rascality. Clearly, he is one who always swears by his honor, although in reality he has none. At the end we find him a manufacturer of patented “lozenges,” which make him [page 32:] eligible to join the immortal company of Swaim, Morrison, Brandreth, and Steer. The revived mummy, Count Allarnistakeo, embalmed and brought intact from Egypt, it must be remembered, has cleverly controverted each claim of modern Western man, proud of his technology, with proof that the ancient Egyptians had the same or better inventions and processes. The Count is refuted only when Dr. Ponnonner asks “if the Egyptians had comprehended, at any period, the manufacture of either Ponnonner’s lozenges, or Brandreth’s pills.” The narrator comments: “We looked, with profound anxiety, for an answer;—but in vain. It was not forthcoming. The Egyptian blushed and hung down his head.... Indeed I could not endure the spectacle of the poor Mummy’s mortification. I . . . . took leave.” Then he adds, “I am convinced that every thing is going wrong.... I shall ... get embalmed for a couple of hundred years” (VI, 137-138) (19). Surely Poe, cryogenically preserved, would be pleased to discover the changed ranking of patent medicine manufacturers, and of serious authors.



(1) Thomas O. Mabbott, ed., Collected Works of Edgar Allan Poe: Poems (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard U P, 1969), p. 555.

(2) Hervey Allen, Israfel (New York: Farrar and Rinehart, 1934), pp. 112-114, 485.

(3) Mabbott, Poems, p. 555, and Mary E. Phillips, Edgar Allan Poe (Philadelphia: John C. Winston Co., 1926), II, 922. For the text of the story, see James A. Harrison, ed., The Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe ( New York: Thomas Y. Crowell and Co., 1902), VI, 1-27, with variants on pp. 275-277. To this edition my volume-page parentheses will refer.

(4) Broadway Journal, 2, 37, and Works, VI, 22, 276. Poe signed only the second printing.

(5) William Whipple, “Poe, Clark, and ‘Thingum Bob,’ “ American Literature, 29 (1957), 312-316.

(6) See my study, “Poe’s Dr. Ollapod,” American Literature, 42 (1970), 80-82, which failed to mention Poe’s reference to Clark as “Ollapod” in Alexander’s Weekly Messenger, January 29, 1840, p. 2.

(7) See Charles H. La Walla, Four Thousand Years of Pharmacy (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott Co., 1927), p. 415, who cites Peters, presumably referring to Die Geschichte der Pharmazie. The OED alludes also to Paracelsus and to the first ingredient as perhaps from the Greek for “vegetable juice” or “ottos.”

(8) La Walla, p. 415, and OED.

(9) George B. Griffenhagen and James H. Young, “Old English Patent Medicines in America,” United States Museum Bulletin No. 218, Paper 10 (Washington: Smithsonian Institution, 1959), pp. 155-183, trace the development of Steer’s nostrum in this country. The librarians of the New York Academy of Medicine most kindly made available to me clippings from London newspapers of the 1780’s and 1790’s, showing Newberry advertisements of the substance, as well as the other materials used in this study.

(10) La Walla, p. 479, and Griffenhagen, p. 168.

(11) Pictured in Griffenhagen, pp. 178-179.

(12) Encyclopaedia Britannica (11th ed., 1911), XXV, 299. Webster’s New Third International Dictionary (Springfield, Mass.: G. and C. Merriam Co., 1961), calls it either a plaster or one of various soap liniments, with the first meaning “obsolete.” The New “Standard” Dictionary of the English Language (New [column 2:] York, Funk and Wagnalls Co., 1960), gives both meanings without the qualification of “obsolete,” and with the ingredients for the liniment.

(13) The New York Academy of Medicine Library has excerpted and pasted this up, with no indication of the journal, but since “Cajuput oil” (the more common spelling) from a Malaysian tree is listed in the OED with a first date of 1832, the clipping may be misdated.

(14) The earlier one is in the Academy’s collection, the later one is listed in Catalogue 374 of Charles E. Tuttle Co. of Rutland Vermont [l970], p. 19, with sample sentences enabling verification of its being a reprint.

(15) I have found no trace of Morrison in the literature on patent medicines; a search of contemporary newspapers should prove rewarding.

(16) James Harvey Young, The Toadstool Millionaires (Princeton N. J.: Princeton U P, 1961), p. 80. His chapter on Brandreth, the chief source of my information, is tellingly entitled “Purgation Unlimited.” In the Broad way Journal reprint of the tale of Thingum Bob, Poe substituted “Prentice” for a derogatory reference to Bennett (VI, 21, 276).

(17) Young, pp. 59-74.

(18) Young, pp. 60, 65, indicates its use in the Philadelphia Alms House Infirmary until 1825.

(19) I have indicated the implications of Poe’s use of other names and details in my study, “Poe’s’some Words with a Mummy’ Reconsidered,” Emerson Society Quarterly, No. 60 (1970), [Poe] Supplement, Pt. II, 60-67.


Associated Article(s) and Related Material:

  • None


[S:0 - PSDR, 1971]