In the sometimes not-so-good old days, Hoosier newspapers were overflowing with ads for what today we’d call snake oil. Before the Civil War, when these papers typically only ran to four pages and often lacked enough subscribers to stay afloat, vast amounts of newsprint went to work advertising spurious quack panaceas. As late as 1900, editors in need of underwriters for the news had no qualms about giving ad space to “doctors” who thought that cocaine could cure a sore throat or that an effervescent ginger “summer drink” could get rid of your cholera.
Nor did the amount of medical ads diminish after the war.
From the turn of the century until World War I, a massive national advertising campaign directed at mothers and kids touted a tasty cure-all with roots in the Wabash Valley: Kramer’s Cascarets, “The Candy Cathartic.”
Born in Keokuk, Iowa in 1861 to parents who hailed from Richmond, Indiana, Harry Lewis Kramer was a clever businessman and one of the most energetic and revolutionary advertisers of his day.
In 1890, the 29-year-old entrepreneur, who lived in Attica in Fountain County, attracted investors and started up a health resort at a spot near the spectacular Fall Creek Gorge in neighboring Warren County.
Built around a mineral spring discovered in 1884 by Civil War veteran Samuel Story (a victim of severe arthritis who noticed his ailment getting better when he sloshed around in the mud), the lavish hotel Kramer constructed first went by the name Indiana Mineral Springs, then as the Hotel Mudlavia, after the soothing mud-baths offered there. A service town that popped up next door to the resort took the name of its postmaster, Kramer, and is still on the map, though the hotel has faded into legend.
(Kramer made sure his face was all over small-town American newspapers. This clip appeared in Fair Play in Sainte Genevieve, Missouri, on September 17, 1904. Printer’s Ink hailed Kramer as “a man of almost superhuman energy — a new Napoleon, perhaps. . . He writes his own advertisements, all of which are characterized by wonderful originality and a desire to get out of the beaten track.”)
(Hotel Mudlavia near Williamsport, Indiana, around 1917. This photo was taken by Anna Marie Landis, who worked at the famous resort. Williamsport-Washington Township Public Library.)
Kramer’s sprawling Mudlavia health spa attracted the rich and famous — including boxing champion John L. Sullivan, Indianapolis poet James Whitcomb Riley, and Hoosier songwriter Paul Dresser. Papers lauded it at as “one of the finest sanatariums in the United States.” Mudlavia ranked with the great mineral baths at French Lick, Indiana; Bedford, Pennsylvania; and Hot Springs, Arkansas.
The lure? Not just nature — or the elaborate Chinese garden out back. Pure mineral waters bubbling out of the Warren County hills offered relief from a vast array of bodily ailments. Infusing water with mud, doctors and their assistants at Kramer’s resort offered a therapeutic “Magno-Mud” cure (sometimes misspelled “mango mud” in the papers), giving blissful relief to aching joints and muscles. Kidneys and livers also went away from Mudlavia feeling much happier.
Closely tied to Kramer’s investment in this tranquil health spa in the luscious Hoosier woods was his other main business interest: a sugary substitute for the dreaded dose of castor oil once administered by American mothers everywhere. This was Kramer’s nationally-famous “candy cathartic,” Cascarets.
Dozens of speedy and sure-fire purgatives feature in the annals of 19th-century medicine and journalism. From a spoonful of old-fashioned castor oil itself to a gentler “Castoria” and a wide variety of sarsaparillas and “fig liver syrups,” our ancestors knew plenty of ways to achieve what they rightly saw as the highly-desirable result of these over-the-counter drugs: a vigorous flush of the intestines.
I’m not sure if Kramer ever studied chemistry and medicine or just stuck to the business end of things, but in the 1890s he made a fortune selling laxatives. (The Attica entrepreneur also marketed a chewing gum called No-To-Bac, which claimed to help smokers kick the habit.) Pioneered at a lab in Attica, by 1899 five million boxes of octagonal, chocolaty-tasting Cascarets were pouring out of Kramer’s factories in Chicago and New York.
“Cascaret Kramer” revolutionized American advertising, but he was no medical Napoleon. Plant-based laxatives, used to flush out the bowels, had figured for millennia into folk medical practice. The jolt to the nether regions customers got from these candy cathartics came from the drug’s most potent ingredient, the bark of a species of buckthorn tree — the cascara, native to the Pacific Northwest, northern California, and Idaho. Early Spanish explorers called this diminutive tree the cascara sagrada (“sacred bark”). Mixed with aloe and the roots of rhubarb, Native Americans on the Pacific Coast and in the Northern Rockies used it as a natural purgative.
By the late 1800s, trainloads of buckthorn bark were being shipped out of the Northwest to pharmaceutical companies around the world in quantities that endangered the tree’s survival. Much of the bark went to the factories of the Sterling Remedy Company, Kramer’s wildly successful over-the-counter pharmaceutical enterprise.
Like other Americans, Hoosiers were wild for a good clean-out. Kramer helped create the craze. On April 25, 1907, the Indianapolis News ran a full page-length ad (really a medical manifesto). “The Curse of Constipation” was almost certainly written by Harry Kramer.
Often Caused by Castor Oil and Salts
A Warning That All Should Read and Heed
Constipation is indeed the curse of mankind. From a simple bit of carelessness this dreadful destroyer of life gets a hold on its victim and slowly but surely tortures him to a horrible death.
It is a fact that all people at some time or other become constipated, and if the warning be not instantly heeded, and the system put back into working order without delay, the victim is marked for death — a long, lingering one, often so disguised that no one would dream of its original cause.
It is also true that nearly every disease recorded by medical science has its beginning in constipation. Yes, great learned men have said that if people would learn to keep their bowels in order there would be no disease. Professor B. Howard Rand, the great professor of chemistry in the famous Jefferson Medical College, as a farewell advice to the newly graduating class of young doctors, always said “Trust in God and keep your patients’ bowels open!”
Going into amazing detail in the pages of the News, Kramer went on to describe how Cascarets “begin to cure the moment you begin to chew them.” These buckthorn candies give “tone and strength” to the walls of the intestines and (so the ad went) help purify the blood, give “a ruddy complexion; bright eyes; clear, active brain; everything that makes life worth living.” Kramer promoted his tablets as useful against ills far beyond those affecting the intestines. Children’s diseases, headaches, nervous ailments, female complaints, skin diseases, appendicitis, oral thrush, and worms could all be kept in check or cured.
Some of the drug’s benefits were almost certainly mythic. One of many printed endorsements ran: “After taking Cascarets for a few nights before writing, I was able to pass a tape-worm 24 feet in length. Cascarets have our praise. . . — Mrs. Harry Wood, Kenneth, Indiana.”
Kramer sold his candy cathartic for a dime in handy, pocket-sized metal boxes. “You don’t know until you try how much good is crowded into a little 10-cent box.”
Kramer’s clever marketing extended to kids, who often didn’t realize they were taking “medication” when they downed a sweet Cascaret. “They are harmless and safe for the little folks.” This ad from the South Bend News-Times on November 20, 1918, shows a “Kid’s Indignation Meeting.” A marketing genius, Kramer often paid to have his ads run in the regular news columns of papers.
The name and popularity of the sugar-coated laxative became so widespread that it entered the popular vocabulary. A polo team in Anderson, Indiana, took the name “Anderson Cascarets” around 1904. In New York City, night-workers at banks began to be known as “Cascarets” because they “work while you sleep.”
Kramer sold his product rights for the drug to the Sterling Remedy Company around 1918 so that he could focus on his health resort at Mudlavia. (The company was then based in Wheeling, West Virginia.)
Tragically, on February 29, 1920, a fire in a linen closet reduced the vast wooden hotel to ashes. Many sick patients at the sanitarium, unable to walk due to rheumatism, were barely able to get out alive. Some guests jumped from third-story windows, then suffered in the February cold even as Mudlavia smoldered in front of them. Over fifty-thousand dollars in jewels perished in the flames.
Harry Kramer planned to rebuild the hotel, but never did. The advent of antibiotics and the coming of the Great Depression effectively ended the heyday of the great American health spas. (The owners of the French Lick resort in southern Indiana sold it to the Jesuits for use as a school in the 1930s for $1.00.)
Kramer retired to 1012 Ferry Street in Lafayette and died of a heart attack in 1935, apparently while visiting the license branch of the Tippecanoe County DMV. The inventor of Cascarets is buried at Lafayette’s Greenbush Cemetery.
A retirement home and restaurant were built on the site of Mudlavia. They, too, burned down in 1974. (Some ghost hunters claim the site is haunted.) As late as 2008, the natural spring that once made this place famous was still being tapped by an Indianapolis-based mineral water company. The FDA banned the use of cascara bark in 2008, when researchers discovered the plant has carcinogenic properties and (ironically enough) may contribute to liver ailments.
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