1862: Perry Davis' Vegetable Pain-Killer

An Inventor and His Miracle Cure Is an Echo of Our Society's Continued Struggle With Opiates and Their Derivatives

In the summer of 1840, Perry Davis was sick. Physically, debilitatingly sick. His businesses had failed, one after another. His family was living in penury. He had, however, an enterprising spirit and creative mind. He concocted a combination of opiates, ethyl alcohol, and herbs, and miraculously, he felt better. He dubbed the tonic "Perry Davis' Vegetable Pain-Killer" and even trademarked the term, which we still use today. He began hobbling from door to door, walking as far as Boston to share his new miracle drug. Not surprisingly, a mixture of highly addictive narcotics and alcohol found its market. Davis' Pain-Killer was the beginning of a phenomenon of patent medicines and tonics in the 19th century. Davis moved his family and his manufactory to Pond Street and became one of Providence's wealthiest and most philanthropic citizens.

Davis' elixir travelled the globe, becoming one of the first global brands. He was a devout Baptist and interestingly a life-long temperance advocate. He sent free cases of his "medicine" to Baptist missions around the world and dubbed himself Dr. Davis. His product was promoted door-to-door, in pharmacies and apothecaries, and in newspapers, magazines, and trade cards. The Pain-Killer was one of the first medicines to not address a specific ailment, but to promise freedom from pain, any type of pain. Ague-wracked sailors, injured mill women, gouty fathers, female complaints, babies' scratches or colic, all could be cured with the Pain-Killer. Davis said it was a medicine cabinet in a bottle, and trade cards showed winged cherubs carrying the elixir next to the words "Joy to the World." At the time of Davis' death in 1862, during the Civil War, the Pain-Killer was so crucial to the Union Army that they took control of the factory on Pond Street.

While making a fortune from his product, Davis engaged in city politics. He built a handsome brick church at the corner of Stewart and Pond Street. His own brick mansion stood beside the church. His son Edmund, richer still, built an extravagant brick mansion right on Westminster Street near the factory. The Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 began to limit the availability of patent medicines, but Davis' tonic continued to be sold into the 1940s.

Today, only images and paper ephemera of Perry Davis' life remain to help us understand the contradictions of this world and the judgments we might make about a man whose fortune was built on the fleeting promise of an escape from pain.

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Westminster St. Bridge over I-95. Providence, RI - 41.819004, -71.418280