"It is the presence of this remarkable agent [electricity] which, in [De Grath's] opinion, gives the article such a command over inflammation and pain...even those who may be inclined to question it must admit that, from some cause or other, the ELECTRIC OIL produces results that may well be called unparalleled." --advertisement, Henry & Curran Farmer's and Mechanic's Almanac (1875)
One of the most interesting aspects of collecting old advertisements is their value as historical resources. Research into the products advertised, and the people who sold and used them, can uncover some interesting facets of social and popular history. Take, for example, this ad from the John F. Henry & Curran Co. Farmer’s and Mechanic’s Almanac 1875, for Professor De Grath's Electric Oil.
Electric Oil is hailed in this ad as the greatest of medical discoveries, good for just about anything that the patient was suffering from. Electricity was a common element of alternative medical therapy in the Victorian era, more commonly in the form of belts, chains, necklaces or corsets which applied a therapeutic current to the patient by means of a battery pack. Dr. Jennie Kidd Trout, the first woman to qualify as a doctor in Canada, offered electric baths at her Therapeutic and Electrical Institute in Toronto from about 1875 to 1882.
De Grath's oil was supposed to have been exposed to an electrical charge in some way before being packaged. The writer of the advertisement cautions that "it is of little consequence" to the satisfied customers whether their cures were due "to the subtle principle referred to in its name." However, the ad continues:
Electricity is undoubtedly an important medical agent. It not only annihilates time and space, but in some cases disease...Professor De Grath claims that the sedative and curative elements of his preparation - which are in themselves potent and have been proportioned and combined with rare scientific skill - have had their remedial power almost quadrupled by a peculiar application of electricity to the whole.
Several testimonial letters follow, all from Philadelphia-area people. De Grath was based in Philadelphia for the most part, although IRS records of the 1860s show him as residing in Newton, Jasper County, Illinois for at least a year or two. He was also taxed as a peddler in Maryland and Michigan.
People wrote to praise the Electric Oil for curing everything from deafness, gout, mouth cankers, earache, stiff neck, piles and headaches - indeed “any other Complaint that Creates Soreness or Pain.” In short, it was a panacea (like most patent medicines). One could take it internally or rub it on the afflicted areas; in severe cases, one did both. Edward Stimble of Philadelphia was “a martyr to frosted feet” until De Grath’s oil saved him. And a Mr. Tryon of New Jersey claimed to have been cured of “deafness of ten years’ standing…in the presence of 200 persons,” by means of Electric Oil.
"Professor" Charles De Grath was perhaps the Charles De Grath, age 35, who was listed in the 1852 Canadian census. This Charles De Grath was a shoemaker living in Ontario with his 23 year old wife Sabina. The earliest I have been able to trace Professor De Grath with any certainty is 1855, the year in which he wrote a booklet extolling the virtues of his oil. Electric Oil was nothing less than the "Greatest Cure in the world for pain!...None genuine without the signature of Prof. Chas. De Grath…”
De Grath was running into some problems by the 1870s. In January 1875 - the very year that the Henry and Curran almanac was published - Henry E. Bowen of that firm made a legal complaint against the “man calling himself Dr. Charles De Grath.” Bowen said that De Grath “forged and counterfeited” medicine labels used by Henry and Curran. De Grath said that this was plain malice, due to the fact that he himselfwas suing Henry and Curran “on charges of violating the internal revenue laws by not affixing stamps to some of the preparations sold by them.”
In September 1875, De Grath was a being held on an extradition warrant “on a requisition from the Governor of Illinois.” He had committed perjury in Alexander County, Illinois, but the Times article is brief and does not make clear what the nature of the perjury was.
In January 1876 De Grath’s marital troubles came to the attention of the New York Times. His ex-wife “Mrs. S. De Grath, the proprietor of several patent medicines” was the catalyst for De Grath’s arrest for perjury. This was not, presumably, the same perjury charge in Alexander County, since the marital perjury issues took place in Chicago (Cook County):
Mrs. De Grath did a large business in Jersey City at one time in patent medicines, and supported both herself and her husband. De Grath became very dissolute and led such a dissipated life that his wife refused to support him any longer, and he went to Philadelphia. There he met a young lady to whom he proposed marriage, but she refused her consent until he had obtained a divorce. De Grath then went to Chicago and succeeded in procuring a divorce, after which he returned to Philadelphia and got married. Subsequently the first Mrs. De Grath went to Chicago and secured his indictment for perjury in connection with the divorce case. He was arrested, but escaped from the Constable and fled to Hoboken, where he has since been residing with his new wife.. When he was taken into custody on Sunday night, he made a desperate but ineffectual attempt to escape.
The Times added that arrangements were being made for De Grath to be tried in Chicago. Unfortunately, they do not seem to have followed the case after this. Certainly, a search of the Chicago papers would be useful in a continuation of research into De Grath’s career.
Charles De Grath died sometime in the late 1880s, at which time Sarah De Grath was listed in the Camden, New Jersey city directory as "widow [of] Charles,” although of course she was his ex-wife. In 1900 she was working as a housekeeper in Mount Laurel, New Jersey.
The De Grath Drug Company was still in business and being taxed in New York State as late as 1902. A Dr. Thomas’ Eclectric Oil, an imitation of Electric Oil, was advertised in Canada as late as the 1940s. In Newfoundland, Canada, Eclectric Oil was an over-the-counter cure for sore throats and earache as late as the 1940s and 1950s. And curiously, the original De Grath's Electric Oil was still being produced and advertised in Brazil in the 1950s; in one such ad, Charles De Grath was called the "King of Pain." And indeed for many Victorian people who used his preparation, that is just what he was.
L.H. Crawley is the editor of the Virtual Dime Museum, a history blog.
Annual Report of the State Treasurer, New York State Treasurer’s Office (1902) [link ]
“Are the Labels Counterfeit?” New York Times, January 22, 1875, p. 8.
Camden City Directories 1887-91 [Ancestry Library ]
Charles De Grath household, 1852 Census of Canada, Canada West, Hastings, 1268 Sidney Twp., p. 22d, 23a, (44)
Crellin, J.K. Home Medicine: The Newfoundland Experience (McGill-Queen's UP, 1994), p. 141 “De Grath Remanded For Extradition,” New York Times, Sept. 28, 1875, p. 3.
Discovered at last! Greatest cure in the world for pain! Prof. Chas. De Grath's "Electric oil"... (Philadelphia, 1855)
“Divorce Through Perjury,” New York Times, Jan. 18, 1876, p. 8.
IRS Tax Assessment Lists, 1862-1918 [Ancestry Library, 1862-66 now available]
John F. Henry, Curran & Co., Farmer's and Mechanic's Almanac 1875 (Nos. 8 & 9 College Place, New York, 1875), pages not numbered [Privately owned by L.H. Crawley]
Trademarks 1870-1873: #1304, Medicine, DeGrath S., Jersey City, NJ 6/10/73
McElroy's Philadelphia Directory For 1856, p. 147 : DE GRATH & Co., electric oils, &c., 39 S. 8th
McElroy's Philadelphia Directory For 1858, p. 157: De Grath Chas. Prof., electric oils, &c., 105 S. 8th, h 1507 Stiles
McElroy's Philadelphia Directory For 1866, p. 187: De Grath Charles, 1232 Clover
William Goodenough household, 1900 U.S. Census, District 14, Mount Laurel, Burlington, New Jersey, p. 16A, #326/329, Roll T623957, ED 24: Sarah De Grath, Housekeeper, b Jun 1856, 43y, widow, 5 children of whom 3 living, b Penn, parents b Penn.
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