©2001 Digger Odell Publications

A Look at the Use of Religion
in the Promotion of Patent Medicines


“In St. Louis Dr. William H. Woodfin, A.M., Phd., D.D., first a Methodist and then a Congregational minister, has a college of divine metaphysics. There he offered courses in the psychology of business success, metaphysical interpretation of the Bible, Biblical literature, comparative religions, and the master mind system. Dr. Woodfin confers the degrees of Doctor of Psychology, Doctor of Metaphysics, and Doctor of Divinity for from $20 to $100. He must be busy, since has about twenty stenographers constantly employed. yes">  He not only trains healers but himself treats the sick.” (Fads and Quackery in Healing, M. Fishbein, 1932)


None was more successful in its exploitation of the religious connection than the Father John Medicine Company of Lowell, Massachusetts which promoted its medicine by using the visage of one Father John.

The story according to one source is that Father John O’Brien, invented his prescription which he gave to two local druggist in Lowell. George Carlton and Charles Hovey ran a drugstore in town around 1850. Supposedly they gave the prescription to local church members and later bottled it for retail sale.(, The Bottle Book, Fike 1987)

Another source indicates the Lowell apothecary of Carleton and Hovey, began in 1860s to market a cough medicine developed by a local Catholic priest - Father John O'Brien.  When the medicine became popular the apothecary reorganized as the Father John's Medicine Company. 

A third source which claims to be the true story says, “Tradition has it that Father John O'Brien was taken ill in 1855.  He made his way to the pharmacy of Carleton and Hovey on Merrimack Street to get something for relief.  He was given a tonic that was composed of cod liver oil and had a licorice taste.   Unlike many other medicines of its time, the prescription contained no alcohol.  It worked so well for the priest that he began recommending folks to visit the apothecary and ask for "Father John's Medicine" - a legend was born.”( University of Massachusetts Lowell Center for Lowell History )

The exact details are obscure but the business was owned and operated by the Carleton and Hovey until both died in the 1880s. yes">  Popular as it was under their auspices, the real growth came close to the turn of the century.

Whatever the truth, whether Father O’Brien or Carleton and Hovey invented the mixture, the use of Father John O’Brien’s name and picture along with a plausible product created an sales empire which lasted over 150 years. The company may have invented the product in the mid 1800s, but it was not until about 1900 that the sales began to grow to a national distribution. Extensive advertising campaigns helped drive the effort. They created posters, advertised in many newspapers and even had films promoting their products in the later years.

In the early 1980s the company was sold and moved it's manufacturing plant to Cody, Wyoming


Later variants describe the medicine as a “Nutritive Tonic and Wholesome Medicine”. It was made from cod liver oil gum Arabic and glycerin mixed with sugar, licorice and flavoring oils (5 ½ oz. Size)


The original trademark information for “FATHER JOHN'S,” is described as




The Canadian Trademark gives a bit more information. Date of first use in CANADA November 1928. REGISTERED: 1903-11-20. INACTIVATED: 1994-09-09

REGISTRANT: Carleton & Hovey Lowell, Massachusetts UNITED STATES OF AMERICA. CURRENT OWNER: Lambda Inc. (a Wyoming Corporation) 721 Sheridan Avenue Cody, Wyoming 82414 Wyoming


The words FATHER JOHN'S and a bust-portrait, in form of medallion of the Rev. John O'Brien, deceased. The words FATHER JOHN'S are arranged above said bust-portrait. The arrangement of the words may be changed and different styles of letters used without altering the character of the trade-mark, the essential features of which are the words FATHER JOHN'S and a bust-portrait in form of a medallion, of the Rev. John O'Brien, deceased. Judging the how common Father John bottles are, the business was hugely successful.


If imitation is a form of flattery then the makers of Father John’s Medicine would be proud. Their success spawned a host of scam artists and medicine men hoping to cash in on the good father’s name. Probably the only firm to gain any real market share was The firm of Oberhausser & Landauer of Wurzburg, Germany who in 1895 registered a trademark bearing the portrait and signature of Father Kneipp two years prior to his death in 1897 for a line of medicinal products. They registered another in 1898.

Father Kneipp, Priessnitz, a Bavarian priest. Father Sebastian Kneipp, was a famous old German priest, who lived from 1821 to 1897. He was a Naturopath - one who advocates natural living and healing through the use of sunlight, baths, fresh air and cold water. Given these items are difficult to market, Father Kniepp never likely made money from his theories but he may have from his “Water Cure.”. Supposedly, in 1842 Sebastian Kniepp after being rejected for priesthood due to tuberculosis cured himself with hydrotherapy techniques he discovered in the Vatican archives. After then being admitted, he began treating sick parishioners. In 1892 Benedict Lust, after being cured by Father Kniepp, commissioned Kniepp to introduce his water cure method into the United States.

While it is not clear whether Lust made any money, the firm of Oberhausser & Landauer must have done so. yes">  Their list of products reads like a printout for a Pharmaceutical warehouse. A partial list from trademark information from The Canadian Patent Office includes: pharmaceutical and sanitary preparations; namely, antiseptic mouthwashes; [bath salts and bath oils for medical purposes; astringents for medical purposes;] analgesic balms; [cough lozenges;] gargles; liniments; pharmaceutical preparations for the treatment of leg pain,] colds, [digestive,] gastric and [cardiovascular disorders, rhinitis, rheumatic symptoms, rubbing compounds for therapeutic use], sleeping tablets, muscle soaks, topical analgesics, [purgatives,] medicated compresses, antiseptics, medicated skin, hair and body lotions; [herbal teas and herbal food beverages for medicinal purposes;] vitamin and mineral supplements, [medicinal vegetable and herbal tonics;] food for babies, Cosmetics, namely cosmetic bath admixtures, skin milk, skin cream; soaps, hair lotions, mouth rinses; pharmaceutical preparations, namely antirheumatics, antihypetonics, cough remedies, antisclerotics, pharmaceutical bath additives, remedies for the bile, diuretics, blood stream enhancing remedies, cardiac remedies, laxatives, gastric remedies, mineral substances as remedies, psychosomatics, varicosis yes">  medicines, vitamin preparation, medicaments obtained from using medicinal plants and medicinal herbs in the form of sweets, pills, powders, packings, ointments, balms, oils, drops and juices, eucalyptus bonbons, cough drops, vitamin bonbons, medicinal teas, dragées for fortifying the heart and stabilizing the circulation, yes">  dragées for beneficial effects on stomach and intestines, dragées for stimulating the digestion, dragées for use as cardiac stimulants, dragées for prevention of arteriosclerios and of premature senility, dragées for use as sedatives, dragées for liver and bile troubles, dragées beneficial in fortifying the nerves, dragées for use as laxatives, dragées for purification of blood, dragées for use as diuretics, dragées against colds, dragées for improving physical and spiritual activity, dragées for dehydrating the body, dragées for regulation of blood pressure, ointments to relieve strain on the legs, ointments against colds, ointments against rheumatism; dietetic yes">  substances for medical use, namely fruit-fibre lozenges, vegetable juices, medicinal drug teas, teas, herbal teas, medicinal vinegar, medicinal wines, herbal essences with alcohol for medical purposes, honey mead for medical purposes, medical juices, medical herbal juices, medicinal honey, medicinal extracts, Herbs prepared as laxative medicines for human use.and herbal tinctures.

Trademark information indicates they are still in business. A recent Registration Date December 27, 1994 showed the Owner (REGISTRANT) Kneipp-Werke Kneipp-Mittel-Zentrale Leusser & Oberhaeusser composed of Luitpold Leusser and Erika Oberhaeusser, both citizens of Germany.

Then there was Father Mollinger

“… Father Mollinger once attracted young and old alike. Said to have the power of healing, Father Mollinger drew thousands of sick and desperate people to his Troy Hill church. The feast days of St. Anthony were the occasion for yearly pilgrimages to Troy Hill, when thousands gathered from all over the country to be healed. For a few days a year, the neighborhood would become a "Mecca of Invalids," as the Pittsburgh Press once described it. Not only did this represent an influx of tourist dollars for our region, but unlike so many other "regional destinations" being proposed today, the Feast of St. nthony didn't simply rob Peter to pay Paul.." (Pittsburgh City Paper, Forging Memories, By Chris Potter)

From The Pittsburg Press, 12 June 1892.

Thousands of Anxious Visitors Expected To-Morrow. Father Mollinger's Resort.

Many People Who Have Come from a Distance to Be Cured of Disease. Interesting Services to Be Held in the Little Chapel. The pilgrimage to St. Anthony's Shrine on Mount Troy has ceased and at sunset to-morrow night the vast assemblage of invalids will begin to disperse. For weeks past they have been coming in from all sections of the country, until all the boarding places in the vicinity of Father Mollinger's chapel have been taxed to the utmost capacity to receive and accommodate them. In fact there are so many visitors they have sought shelter in private families or are being cared for by relatives or friends.



Father William Kroeger, M. D.-A

Dr. Kroeger was originally from Cincinnati, Ohio, where he was born on the 25th of January, 1853. He graduated, with high honors, in the class of 1871, with a degree of Doctor of Medicine. He practiced three years yes">  in Cincinnati and then completed his divinity course in St. Meinrad, Indiana and in 1880, was ordained. His first pastoral assignment was in Elkhart, Indiana. As a result of health problems he requested to be removed to a different climate which lead to his moving to South Dakota in 1893. Over the course of his time there he built numerous churches and established the town which bears his name. The population in 1904 was one hundred and fifty people. and the town had a finely equipped sanitarium, two good hotels, a drug store, two general stores? hardware establishment, grocery, livery, lumber yard, etc., all being under the direct superintendence of Dr. Kroeger. The village is supplied with electric lights, water-works and artificial ice plant, Dr. Kroeger devoted his time to the poor and suffering humanity, His reputation as a physician and surgeon eventually led to his retiring from the work of its priesthood to devote himself solely to the medical profession. He was especially interesting in treatment and cure of diseases of neurosis and he built a sanitarium. "His latest discovery for the treatment of epilepsy, St. Vitus dance, nervous debility, consumption, kidney disease, catarrh of the stomach and cancers, through which he has accomplished wonderful results, has brought him into recognition yes">  throughout the entire medical world. He has in his finely equipped laboratory three of the largest X-ray machines, of his improvement, in the state, and in 1903 his sanitarium had patients from every state in the Union and all over the world….In April, 1903, the Doctor established a weekly newspaper, the Kroeger Echo, installing a fine modern plant for the purpose. In 1900 he established the Bank of Kroeger, of which he is president, cashier and sole owner, while in 1904 he also put into operation a plant for yes">  the manufacture of paper boxes, which he utilizes in connection with his medical preparations, this being the only factory of the sort in the state." (Pages 1856-1857 in "History of South Dakota" by Doane Robinson, Vol. II 1904.  

Father Bordas apparently consented to having his face used although I could find no reference to his medical background. The only information I could find was in the HISTORY OF THE DIOCESE OF SAULT STE. MARIE AND MARQUETTE" By Rev. Antoine Ivan Rezek, Published in Houghton, Michigan 1907 Rev Edward P. Bordas was pastor from May 22, 1897 to September 14, 1905.LAKE LINDEN. HOLY ROSARY CHURCH.

Less well known was Rev. H. Jansen, of Monee who from 1858 to 1864,  supplied a little band of Germans having Baptist affiliations at Kankakee, Illinois coming once or twice a month to preach to them in their father-land tongue.

Are following  fictitious Fathers?

I did find one reference to a Father Carol Policsek in Alpha, NJ.



“Theosophy embodies telepathy and spiritualism with health interest somewhat secondary. Nevertheless, much is made of the ability to produce relaxation and relief of pain by earnest prayer, a sort of “spirit anesthetic.” A church mission of healing in New York, using this cult, is carried on by the Rev. Thomas Calvert, who has developed his own system of psychoanalysis and complexes, and who will put them to work at $5 for forty-five minutes, $10 for ninety minutes, or $15 for two hours.” ( Fads and Quackery in Healing, M. Fishbein, 1932).

The first printed reference in America to an Patent Medicine was in the Boston News-Letter for October 4, 1708. One Nicholas Boone advertised “Daffy’s Elixir Salutis, very good at four shillings and six pence per half pint Bottle.” Reverend Thomas Daffy was Vicar of Redmile, England from 1666 until his death in 1680. No one knows the exact year in which he invented his “Elixir Salutis” but it is believed to have been while he was at Redmile. Records show that the remedy had achieved some good reputation by 1673. Apparently the elixir was sold by Thomas’ son, Daniel in an apothecary in Nottingham .

Daffy’s was not the only early medicine to play upon the name of a good Reverend. Comstock and Company sold a wide range of medicines among which was Rev. T. Bartholomew’s Pink Expectorant Syrup which they advertised from 1839-1844. You could also buy Rev. W. Clarke’s European Cough Remedy, and Rev. T. Hill’s Vegetable Remedy.

Two brands which achieved some popularity were Rev. I. Covert’s Balm of Life and Rev. N.H. downs Vegetable Balsamic Elixir .Rev. Isaac Covert was produced by the Isaac Covert & Co., proprietors (1841) Auburn, NY, Sometime in the 1840s it was distributed by Sanford & Park for distribution in the “West.”. An ad in the Western Star, Lebanon, OH March 26, 1841 said, “5, 000 bottles for sale by Sanford and & Park, large bottles $1.50 small bottles $1.00.” (Pontil Medicine Encyclopedia, Odell 2000)

Rev. N.H. Downs (1832); supposedly invented this “Old Vermont Cough Remedy. A medicine of great celebrity, and in most extensive use for the last eight years throughout New England, Northern NY and Lower Canada for colds, coughs, asthma, consumption croup and whooping cough.” Reverend Down’s tells the story of how many of his family members died with consumption and how in March of 1828 he was stricken with the disease. Over the next three years he treated himself with various ingredients of the Vegetable Balsamic Elixir and of how he was completely cured by March 1832. When the demand for his medicine outstripped his abilities to provide it to the public, he sold the right to J. M. Henry & son of Waterbury Vermont. The brand was very popular and sold well into the 20th century. (A Bit about Balsams, Blasi, 1974)

Rev. J.W. Lawson’s Indian Blood Syrup was a New England remedy which gained some popularity regionally around the Civil War. Number bottle authors list other products Rev. W. Harrison’s Cough Balsam from Rome, NY, and Rev. A. W. Thompson's Liniment. One of my favorites is Rev. I.R. Gates Macamoose. The label reads: "Rev. I.R. Gates Macamoose, the great Indian tonic." Trademark was granted to Joseph H. Carels of Philadelphia for the word "Macamoose" in May of 1895. Carels had been using the name since 1891. (Indian Bottles & Brands, Odell 1997)




Houdini exposed spiritualism so successfully that only the most credulous are likely to believe in its healing yes">  virtues. The beliefs that insanity is due to the poisons of the evil spirits and that the ghosts of famous physicians are able to write prescription through a medium are so absurd as to merit hardly a moment’s attention. Dr. Titus Bull in New York maintains that he has the power to heal by driving out evil spirits through his own saintliness and by the laying on of hands. The idea that there can be anything saintly in this laying on of hands, in the vernacular of the day, is ‘Titus’ “bull.” (Fads and Quackery in Healing M. Fishbein, 1932)

>Augustus Vogler (1819-1908) came to the United States at the age of 20 and began his work in the drug trade as an employee of the Smith & Atkinson wholesale drug firm. It was there he learned the skills necessary to establish his own company five years later. In the early 1870s, he worked with his son, Charles and another partner, John H. Winklemann. In 1878, Charles A. started a company with his father and Winklemann as backer and began to heavily promote St. Jacobs Oil. The Pharmaceutical Era June 18, 1908 states, “Vogeler’s son, the late Charles A. Vogeler, exploited St. Jacob’s Oil, being one of the pioneers of progressive patent medicine advertising and employing many novel schemes.” 

The company produced trade cards, handbills, signs, stamps and almanacs as well as purchasing space in many newspapers around the country. August Vogeler (1845) obtained the rights to Rev. Dr. John Bull's medicine Baltimore, MD Vogeler formed a partnership with A.C. Meyer (1873); Vogeler no longer associated with the business by 1883.

When Charles, died in 1882, the business was carried on by other family members including his widow. The company was sold to an English firm about 1900. They apparently ran the business from this country. In 1912 it was listed as the St. Jacobs Oil Ltd. Located at 205 Clay St. in Baltimore. By 1933 ownership changed again after the “Oel” as it was known was purchased by John Wyeth Chemical Co. who sold the product well into the 1940s.

Thursday, April 2, 1885.

WONDERS NEVER CEASE. Prof. C. Donaldson, New Orleans, La., proprietor of Museums, who suffered eighteen years with rheumatic pains, states he has spent ten thousand dollars to get cured. After trying doctors, famous baths, electric appliances, and legions of Liniments without relief, he tried St. Jacobs Oil, which complete cured him. It is a wonderful remedy, he says, and he has sold his crutches.




St Anthony

St. Benedict

St. Joseph


Even a Cardinal got in on the act.


Heavenly protection was suggested by certain companies by the inclusion of angles in their trademarks. This was a more subtle advertising technique than a direct reference to a religious figure or person. Below is a trademark for a "Liquid Preparation for the treatment of the Skin by the Great Century Medicine Co. of Pennsylvania.

Was Francis Hovey any relation to the Hoveys of the Father John Medicine Company?





In one way or another, religion and healing have been associated since time began. Nostrum makers managed any angle to use it in their promotion. “Ayer’s Sarsaparilla managed to get testimonials from the Sisters of Charity who ran St. Mary’s Infant Asylum in Massachusetts. Failure turned to success for one proprietor when he began to tell the public that his formula had been ‘revealed in a providential manner.’”(The Toadstool Millionaires, James Harvey Young, 1961). There were numerous “Good Samaritan” remedies. Religious signs and symbols abounded. Ads and pitches quoted Biblical verse while others played on Biblical themes with such product names as Balm of Gilead, Paradise Oil and Resurrection Pills. One thing is certain at this point in time all those medicine makers have met their maker. Good thing heaven is free of disease.