Retro Fails: 10 Vintage Pills from the World of Cure-All Quackery

beechams-pills-2 (Image: Alwyn Ladell)

We’re fascinated by vintage medicines, and not just because they often did more harm than good. It’s the idea that anyone could be a snake-oil salesman, and that charisma, charm, and coming up with a good claim were once more important to a medicine’s commercial success than actual medical knowledge. We’re going to take a look at another group of Retro Fails, this time, entirely in pill form.

Wendell’s Ambition Pills

Are you a man? More specifically, are you a man who’s nervous and weak, prone to nightmares, sleeplessness, and overwhelmed by a sense of foreboding? Do you have enlarged veins? Do you suffer from a lack of confidence, uncontrollable trembling, or ineffective kidneys? If so, you’ll need Wendell’s Ambition Pills.

ambition-pills (Image: via Weird Universe)

Advertised even into the early 20th century, Wendell’s Ambition Pills were said to be able to cure all that ailed a weak and nervous man, giving him the confidence to achieve and a healthy aura to go along with his new-found success and motivation. They were so confident that they were offering a money-back guarantee, and for only $1 per box ($5 for six boxes, price to soon go up!) what did you have to lose? Besides, of course, your life.

The American Medical Association published the results of an investigation into the ambition pills in its 1918 edition, and found that the pills contained strychnine, iron, pepper, cinnamon and ginger. The A.M.A. saw this as a major problem, as sale of the so-called ambition pills was unregulated, and it was entirely possible for anyone to buy a box that contained enough strychnine to kill a grown person.

Dr Pierce’s Pleasant Pellets

Dr Ray Vaughn Pierce got his start in Buffalo, NY but it wasn’t long before he built up an empire that included a facility in London and offered worldwide shipping. He also founded the Pierce’s Palace Hotel in 1878, designed as a cross between a hotel and a hospital for patients visiting from all over the world. His pills had fun names, like Dr. Pierce’s Golden Medical Discovery Pills, Smart Weed, and Dr. Pierce’s Pleasant Pellets, and knowing what we know now – the contents – it’s no wonder they were popular.

dr-pierce-tablets (Image: via New York Heritage)

At the beginning of the 20th century, The Ladies Home Journal tested a selection of pills to see just what was in his miracle cures. They contained, of course, opium and alcohol, and led to the good doctor leading the opposition to a law that threatened to bring the whole snake-oil market crashing down. The Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 was poised to put a stop to exactly those kind of things, but miraculously, he won his lawsuit.

In 1903, the company began claiming it had discontinued any potentially dangerous substances in its pills, and ingredients leaned more towards cinnamon and sugar than opium. Irrespective of them claims, neither they nor the lawsuit kept him from winning seats in both the Senate and then the House of Representatives. Ironically, perhaps, much of the fortune he built from selling his miracle cures was lost when he invested poorly in California gold and coal. Pierce is buried in Buffalo’s Forest Lawn Cemetery, but his buildings have long since disappeared.


Hair styles might come and go, but the widespread desire for thick, healthy hair has always remained the same. In 1897, Dr. Campbell’s Red Blood Forming Capsuloids were launched, as one of the usual types of cure-alls. By 1904, though, they had re-branded themselves as a fix for thin hair, baldness, or greying.

red-blood-forming-capsuloids (Image: via The Airship)

The capsules contained haemoglobin, oleic acid, basalm of Peru, olive oil, and purified storax, and early advertising stated that the haemoglobin was taken only from the finest, strongest bulls – a claim that was later dropped from the ads. One of the strangest advertisements claimed the capsules were particularly useful in the spring, when hair had a tendency to fall out in handfuls.

While most hair tonics were applied to the scalp, Capsuloids pointed out that such medicines couldn’t solve the problem, since there was no way they could be absorbed into the body. Its capsules, meanwhile, started to regrow hair from the inside out, killing off any germs that had set up shop at the base of hair follicles, and revitalizing hair from the root.

Bile Beans

In spite of a terrible name and a major lawsuit in Scotland, Bile Beans remained on the market in the 1980s. Weight loss pills are certainly nothing new, and the disgustingly-named Bile Beans claimed to help keep you slim and trim by promoting what they called ‘inner health’.

bile-beans (Image: Ilovetigerplanes)

They were supposed to cure everything from female complaints and indigestion to blackheads, insomnia and constipation. They were even supposed to have aided recovery during the influenza epidemic of 1899. According to the company’s history, its development came about because one scientist, Charles Forde, noticed that Aboriginal Australians were incredibly healthy. He attributed this to a certain vegetable substance they consumed, which was then packaged into pill form, coated in a charcoal-and-sugar substance, and sold as Bile Beans.

So popular were the beans that many people tried to imitate their success, and in one case, that imitator won. George Graham Davidson won the right to use the name ‘Davidson’s Bile Beans’ based on the fact that their whole history was a hoax.

For once, they actually did what they were supposed to, at least in one case. One of the main ingredients was aloin, a form of aloe that is also a laxative. But while it therefore helped with at least one of the problems it claimed to treat, it was still ruled unsafe by the US Food and Drug Administration. That ruling, limiting the use of aloin, didn’t come until 2002 Bile Beans, meanwhile, had been off the market for years by that time, but you can still see a Bile Beans ghost sign in York.

Pink Pills for Pale People

If you had a pale complexion that you absolutely weren’t happy about, there were a couple of different options for you. Dr. Williams’ Pink Pills for Pale People claimed that paleness was usually a sign that something was wrong, and his pills could fix all that. Advertisements cited the case of the copper-coloured 17-year-old Miss Bridges, who was suffering from heart palpitations, lack of appetite, and sleeplessness. A round of Pink Pills for Pale People and she perked right up. The pills were also highly recommended for girls approaching womanhood, where they would prevent early death, consumption and “early decay”.

pink-pills-for-pale-people (Image: Closeapple)

The pills were mostly ferrous sulphate, and thus had a mild effect on the amount of iron in the blood, though at too small a dose to be particularly useful. As a footnote, there was no Dr. Williams. The creator was actually George Fulford of Ontario, Canada, who, in 1905, he receive the rather strange honour of becoming the first Canadian to die in a car crash.

If pink pills weren’t your style, there were also Dr. MacKenzie’s Improved Harmless Arsenic Complexion Wafers in the UK, marketed as Dr. Campbell’s Safe Arsenic Wafers across the pond. Not only would they clear up the standard skin problems, they also claimed to help a person recover their natural complexion after illness.

And yes, it has arsenic in the name. The effects of arsenic were well-known; in 1880, newspapers were already reporting deaths from arsenic consumption. And in 1911, an 18-year-old in St. Louis died after taking a box of the “harmless” wafers in an attempt to clear his skin.

Holloway’s Pills

Thomas Holloway sold pills and ointment, and he did it so successfully that at the end of the 19th century, he was one of the richest men in England. Unlike many of his competitors, Holloway was selling pills that were mostly (it’s thought) harmless. Analysis has shown they contain mostly myrrh, aloe and saffron, so it’s likely they didn’t kill as many people as other pills. What makes him truly noteworthy are his advertising campaigns and the fortune he made from his pills.

holloways-pills (Image: via

The ads were little short of epic. Starting out, he recruited his brother to go into chemists around London and request his pills. When they didn’t have them, his brother would make an absolute scene and storm out. Fortunately, Holloway was right behind him, with a stash of pills to sell in order to keep customers happy.

Some of his advertisements went straight for the heart, pointing out that children often got sick more than adults, with many kids dying before they were eight-years-old. If parents didn’t want their kids to die, they’d better give them regular doses of Holloway’s pills in order to keep the humours in balance and the body happy.

So what were they supposed to do? They were weirdly, brilliantly universal, said to cure everything from gout, swelling and rheumatism to all skin diseases, tumours and cancers. Anyone could take them, everyone should take them, and many people did take them – so many, in fact, that when he died, his fortune helped finance the Royal Holloway College.

Curing Shell Shock with Pills

At the end of World War One, 80,000 returning British soldiers were diagnosed with what was then called shell shock. Countless more suffered in silence, while those on the home front tried to come to terms with the loss of fathers, sons, husbands and friends. And, bizarrely, a whole bunch of over-the-counter remedies were available to cure it.

dr-cassells-tablets (Image: Robarts Library via The Quack Doctor)

Dr. Cassell’s Tablets were supposed to cure nervous collapse and indigestion, and according to the testimony given by one Mrs. Brickett, they had successfully cured her nerves after she went through an air raid. They were advertised as completely restorative and anti-spasmodic, a cure not only for shell shock but for paralysis, headache, heart palpitations, wasting diseases and – even more bizarrely – loss of flesh and premature decay.

Phosferine had an actual veteran as its spokesperson, who talked about being caught in the trenches and the nightmares that followed him home. Wine and alcohol merchants had their own brand of tonics as well, and Hall’s Wine was reported to have been particularly successful in fortifying the nerves of those caught in air raids. There were others, too, of course – many of which contained substances like morphine and cocaine.

Tapeworm Pills

This one’s a little different, and we don’t really know how true it is. You’ve heard the stories – or perhaps urban legends – of women swallowing pills filled with tapeworm eggs to infect themselves and lose weight. The origin of the story was The Charlotte Observer newspaper of North Carolina. In 1912, it published a story about a high-society lady who heard a rumour of a friend having great success with a new weight loss pill. After buying the pills, they’re taken by her suspicious husband, sent to Washington, D.C. for testing, and found to contain tapeworm eggs.

tape-worm-pills (Image: via Wikipedia)

The Washington Post tried to chase down the story, and the only named agency – the Washington health service that did the testing – had never heard of it. The story was picked up several more times in a couple of other papers, and continued to grow. It was even picked up by a 1927 humour column and syndicated across the country.

Original stories claim the pills were taken without people knowing what was in them, perhaps a commentary on the faith of all those taking the many miracle cures that were on the market. By 1953, the story had morphed into something people were doing on purpose, but there’s still no proof that anything was ever actually done.

Weirdly, this is one old-school cure that seems to be more popular in practice today than it was previously. Every so often, stories pop up on the news channels of people swallowing tape worms, but there’s still no concrete evidence to suggest it was anything more than an urban legend.

Carrington’s Life Pills

The Reverend Caleb Carrington, Vicar of Berkeley, was the seller of, if advertising is to be believed, some of the most amazing pills ever.

capsicum (Image: USDA)

Like many of his contemporaries, Carrington’s Life Pills were rumored to be good for digestion, female complaints, and the prevention of “many fatal acute diseases”. According to an angry letter in the Monthly Gazette of Health, Vol. VIII, 1823, he also promised that the pills would “create a soul under the ribs of death”…. and while we’re not entirely sure just what means exactly, it goes without saying that even by then, people were rather upset that this man of God felt it necessary to sell cures for the body as well as tend the soul.

Carrington may also have caught onto something incredibly important that many others overlooked – actually feeling the effects of the drug. The major ingredient in the pills was capsicum, or chili peppers. It seems an odd ingredient for a cure-all, but he’s not entirely off-base as far as history is concerned. Red pepper has been used to relieve muscle pains, treat respiratory illnesses, and as a torture device.

Beecham’s Pills

Thomas Beecham was an amateur herbalist who once raised animals in the Oxfordshire countryside. In 1840, he set off to make his fortune with Beecham’s Pills, good for everything from that uncomfortable, full feeling you get after meals, to drowsiness, bad dreams, scurvy and skin conditions. They were especially valuable to women, who could take them to clear up any female complaints they might have. By 1858, Beecham had his own factory and was exporting his pills all over the British Empire.

beechams-pills (Image: Leo Reynolds)

In 1912, the British Medical Association investigated and found that the pills were made from aloe, ginger, and powdered soap. Even though they published their findings, the pills remained hugely popular well into the 1950s. In fact, they stayed on the market until 1998.

The strangest part Beecham’s Pills is perhaps the verse that they inspired. In 1894, doggerel poet William McGongall was hired on to write an advertisement for the company, which is odd, because McGongall was such a bad poet that his public performances had been outlawed in Edinburgh because of the chaos that always followed and the dead fish that were inevitably thrown. So, we’ll leave you with this double-Retro Fail, William McGongall’s ode to Beecham’s Pills.

What ho! sickly people of high and low degree
I pray ye all be warned by me;
No matter what may be your bodily ills
The safest and quickest cure is Beecham’s Pills.

They are admitted to be worth a guinea a box
For bilious and nervous disorders, also smallpox,
And dizziness and drowsiness, also cold chills,
And for such diseases nothing else can equal Beecham’s Pills

They have been proved by thousands that have tried them
So that the people cannot them condemn.
Be advised by me one and all
Is the advice of Poet McGonagall.



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