The Patent Medicine Conspiracy Against Freedom of the Press

Mark Sullivan, The Patent Medicine Conspiracy Against Freedom of the Press. Collier’s, 4 November 1905. “In the Lower House of the Massachusetts Legislature one day last March [1905] there was a debate which lasted one whole afternoon and engaged some twenty speakers, on a bill providing that every bottle of patent medicine sold in the State should bear a label stating the contents of the bottle…. The debate at times was dramatic–a member from Salem told of a young woman of his acquaintance now in an institution for inebriates as the end of an incident which began with patent medicine dosing for a harmless ill….In short, the debate was interesting and important–the two qualities which invariably ensure to any event big headlines in the daily newspapers. But that debate was not celebrated by big headlines, nor any headlines at all…. Now why? Why was this one subject tabooed?”

Excerpts from story:

I take it if any man should assert that there is one subject upon which the newspapers of the United States, acting in concert and as a unit, will deny full and free discussion, he would be smiled at as an intemperate fanatic…. I invite you to search the files of the daily newspapers of Massachusetts for March 16, 1905, for an account of the patent medicine debate that occurred the afternoon of March 15 in the Massachusetts Legislature. In strict accuracy it must be said that [one]…paper, on two separate occasions, gave several columns to the record of the proceedings of the Legislature on the patent medicine bill. Why the otherwise universal silence?

The patent medicine business in the United States is one of huge financial proportions. The census of 1900 placed the value of the annual produce at $59,611,355. Allowing for the increase of half a decade of rapid growth, it must be today not less than seventy-five millions. That is the wholesale price. The retail price of all the patent medicines sold in the United States in one year may be very conservatively placed at one hundred million dollars. And of this one hundred million which the people of the United States pay for patent medicines yearly, fully forty million goes to the newspapers. Have patience! I have more to say than merely to point out the large revenue which newspapers receive from patent medicines, and let inference do the rest. Inference has no place in this story. There are facts a-plenty. But it is essential to point out the intimate financial relation between the newspapers and the patent medicines….

Does this throw any light on the silence of the Massachusetts papers? Naturally such large sums paid by the patent-medicine men to the newspapers suggest the thought of favor. But silence is too important a part of the patent-medicine man’s business to be left to the capricious chance of favor. Silence is the most important thing in his business…. [S]ilence is the fixed quantity–silence as to the frauds he practices; silence as to the abominable stewings and brewings that enter into his nostrum; silence as to the deaths and sicknesses he causes; silence as to the drug fiends he makes, the inebriate asylums he fills…. So he makes silence a part of the contract….

[T]wo remarkable conditions of the contract: ‘First–It is agreed in case any law or laws are enacted, either state or national, harmful to the interests of the T.C. Ayer Company, that this contract may be canceled by them from date of such enactment…. Second–It is agreed that the J.C. Ayer Co. may cancel this contract, pro-rata, in case advertisements are published in this paper in which their products are offered, with a view to substitution or other harmful motive; also in case any matter otherwise detrimental to the J.C. Ayer Company’s interest is permitted to appear in the reading columns or elsewhere in the paper.’ This agreement is signed in duplicate, one by the J.C. Ayer Company and the other one by the newspaper.

That is the contract of silence. (Notice the next one, in identically the same language, bearing the name of the C.I. Hood Company, the other great manufacturer of sarsaparilla; and then the third–again in identically the same words–for Dr. Munyon.) That is the clause which with forty million dollars, muzzles the press of the country….