by Monica Groth
The medical world of the 19th century was chaotic. Physicians were only beginning to understand that bacteria and viruses caused disease, and different doctors had different ideas about what constituted a wonder drug and how much of it was a poisonous dose. As a patient of the 19th century you might be treated with calomel (which contained toxic mercury), cocaine injections (used to treat afflictions from eye ailments to in-grown toenails), or heaping tablespoons of the herb “Indian tobacco” (popularized by Samuel Thomson, who later faced murder charges due to the results it had on his patients). If you were interested in the reform-minded “Eclectic” medical movement, to which Elmira’s Drs. Rachel and Silas Gleason belonged, you might try various botanical and natural cures as well as novel electrotherapy treatments (using electricity to treat the body). The Gleasons primarily promoted clean air, exercise, and water treatments (which chiefly meant putting patients in baths of varying temperatures and salinities) at their Water Cure on Elmira’s East Hill (check out some objects from the Water Cure on display at the Museum now).
The 19th century was also the century of quack remedies – cures hawked by peddlers in get-rich-quick schemes. The popularity of such remedies coincided with a growing resolution among the lower and middle classes to shun the elitist medical establishment and be one’s own doctor in a democratic America. Numerous patent “formulas”, “syrups”, and “tinctures” contained dangerous herbs or metals dissolved in hefty quantities of alcohol or morphine. In 1868, The Herald of Health, a New York medical journal warned, “The quacks are generally a wide awake business set of fellows… If there is one species of dishonesty that is more wicked than any other, it is the attempt to thus play with those who are sick.”
One little-known and interesting treatment patented and publicized after the Civil War was Dr. Keeley’s “Gold Cure”. Dr. Leslie E. Keeley was an Army Surgeon who’d witnessed fellow soldiers become dependent upon alcohol. Against the backdrop of temperance movements across the country, questions swirled around what could be done to effectively “cure the inebriate”. A Herald of Health essay by J.B. Fuller Walker, director of the Cleveland Ohio “inebriate asylum”, attempted the use of Turkish baths and Swedish vibratory treatments, but admitted the difficulty in treating those who suffered from alcoholism and addiction. At the time, people were inclined to consider alcoholism a moral failing – not a treatable disease. As put by the Elmira-published medical journal The Bistoury in 1877, “The moral aspect of intemperance is abundantly preached, while the medical bearing of the vice is seldom broached.”
Keeley broached the topic, and his treatment was soon to reach The Bistoury’s city. He famously announced that alcoholism could be treated, along with other addictions – by medicinal gold. After early experiments (of dubious success) conducted with temperance lecturer Frederick Hargreaves, Keely marketed his cure and established a “Gold Cure” institution in Dwight, Illinois where patients could come for treatment. While the chemical compound bichloride of gold was reportedly the key to the treatment, it was mixed with “mystery” ingredients to make a tonic, a teaspoon of which was taken by the patient 4 times a day. The “mystery” cure was then a closely guarded secret, but is now believed to have contained the toxic alkaloids strychnine and atropine, along with willow-bark, ammonia, and coca. In 1886, Keeley introduced the injectable version of his cure which, according to scholar April White, “left a reassuring golden stain on the upper arm” . Patients lined up in “the shooting gallery” at the cure to be injected with a custom cocktail of blue, white, and red liquids.
Opinions on whether Keeley’s cure was genius or sheer quackery diverged. Some “graduates” of the cure swore to its efficacy, while others denounced it. Some thought laws should be established making the cure compulsory and government-funded. Keeley’s treatment spread rapidly, eventually leading to the establishment of over 100 affiliated “gold cures” across the country. Gold Cures directly affiliated with Keeley’s Dwight Institute were established across New York State in Westfield, Binghamton, Geneseo, Babylon, and White Plains (this last establishment being infiltrated and investigated by the famous journalist Nellie Bly). Many more “imitators” opened their own cures inspired by Keeley’s treatment. Throughout the last decade of the 19th century, the Elmira Star-Gazette announced the opening of independent gold cures in Corning, Seneca Falls, Bemus Point, Wellsville, and in New Athens and Blossburg, Pennsylvania. The administration of a course of the Keeley treatment at the Soldier’s Home in Bath in 1894 was also publicized in the paper. It wasn’t long before the gold cure arrived in Chemung County.
The Elmira city coroner Dr. J. A. Westlake and associate Dr. Frank A. Flood established a branch of the Monroe Improved Gold Cure of “the system…in vogue at Bemus Point, Chautauqua Lake” at Coroner Westlake’s Sanitarium on Lake Street in 1892. There, the gold cure was offered amongst other treatments until it was discontinued a year later “owning to the objections raised by ladies” who appear to have disapproved of the patients attracted to the cure.
But shortly thereafter, in 1894, a new gold cure arrived in Elmira. It was known as the Telfair Sanitarium after its parent institution – established by Dr. William Telfair in Rochester, NY. Dr. Telfair had sent a representative, a Mr. Jackson, to Elmira, and Jackson’s efforts and people’s interest soon led to the opening of Elmira’s own branch of the cure at 52 S. Main Street. Operated by Dr. Nathaniel Love and managed by the aforementioned Jackson, the cure appears to have been a success. One 1894 advert in the Star Gazette announces, “The success of the Telfair Sanitarium in Elmira is phenomenal. Why? Because they are making happy homes by their successful cures of those addicted to liquor.” The patients reportedly left the Sanitarium “changed individuals” and an 1895 article highlighting Dr. Love’s work deemed it “unequalled”.
However, in 1895, Dr. Telfair announced he was breaking with the Elmira branch. As often happened in the world of treatment schemes, disciples became hated “imitators” when they became rivals and quickly lost favor with their early colleagues (just as Telfair had deemed himself superior to Keeley years before). The Telfair Sanitarium of Elmira however, despite losing its connection to Rochester, continued to promote its gold treatments, renaming itself the Elmira Sanitarium Gold Cure and advertising its services through the last years of the 19th century.
The gold cure could be dangerous, and death announcements in the Star-Gazette attest that patients hoping to be cured often perished under treatment. One Elmiran succumbed at a Corning Gold Cure in 1893. Whether this was due to the gold injections, his poor health upon arrival, or both, is impossible to say. At least two other deaths were reported that year to have taken place at the gold cure in Blossburg, Pennsylvania.
Though Keeley’s tonics and injections weren’t medically sound, his institutes left an enduring legacy. Patients at the cures socialized and talked with each other about their habits and resolutions and after completing the cure the so-called “graduates” formed clubs to hold each other accountable and seek sobriety together. An Elmira branch of the Gold Cure Club was founded in 1896 and raised money to send those who wanted to take the cure to the Sanitarium. Many credit these organizations as forerunners of discussion based programs continued by Alcoholics Anonymous today.
 White, April. Inside a Nineteenth-Century Quest to End Addiction. JStorDaily 2016. https://daily.jstor.org/
Monica Groth is curator for the Chemung County Historical Society. For more information about the museum and to see more of their blog, click here.