scamilton: an american musical
Or, how Lydia Pinkham grifted her way into millions of dollars and also my heart.
Good day, friends!
You may or may not know this about me, but I consider myself something of a scam connoisseur. They, along with stories about cults, are the only kind of true crime I’m interested in. I’ve consumed every version of the Theranos story that’s out there. Lularoe, Fyre Fest, WeWork, Beanie Babies: if there’s a documentary about it, I’ve seen it.
Which is why it’s my pleasure to introduce you to a lady who was fully 150 years ahead of this trend and who deserves her own HBO documentary as soon as possible:
Lydia Pinkham, The Lady Who Got Rich on a Goofy Scam and a Dream
First, shoutout to my college roommate Nina, who sent me an email that just said “have you heard of this lady” accompanied by two links. I had not, but now I have, and I love her.
Lydia Pinkham was born Lydia Estes in 1819 in the town of Lynn, Massachusetts. She was raised as a Quaker, which gives me the opportunity to highlight my favorite thing about Quakers: they never met a cause they wouldn’t agitate for. She fought for women’s rights, abolition, temperance, something called Swedenborgism that I looked up and immediately decided was too niche for me to spend time understanding. She was the granddaughter of the witches they failed to burn, etc.
Lydia got married in her early thirties and dedicated her life to being a wife, mother, and homemaker. This seemed to satisfy her well enough, but then the nation experienced the Financial Panic of 1873, an event I frankly have never heard of but is more or less what it says on the tin.
The Pinkham family started experiencing significant economic stress, and when Mr. Pinkham’s business affairs were ruined, they were really between a rock and a hard place.
Which was when Lydia decided to get creative. After all, times was hard.
A Spoonful of Bullshit Helps the Medicine Go Down
Now, it’s important to know that this was 1875, and the FDA wasn’t founded until 1906. In those days, you could piss in a bottle and call it medicine, and no one would be there to tell you not to. (This is the future Ted Cruz wants.)
So Lydia, free of the tyranny of big government and looking to make a quick buck, did what any of us would do:
She started brewing up a big batch of bullshit and marketed it as a “lady’s cure.”
I’ve discussed before in this newsletter that talking about lady problems is the absolute surest way to get away with any god damn crime you want to. The very concept of periods freaks men out, and they immediately stop asking questions. Say a medicine addresses issues related to menstruation or menopause, and male pharmacists probably started selling it right and left just so they wouldn’t have to look at it anymore.
Lydia’s lady cure cast a super broad net, claiming to heal countless unspecified women’s issues that fell under ridiculous umbrellas like “hysteria” and “general sadness.” The cure was made up of two primary ingredients:
A bunch of random herbs
An absolute metric shit ton of alcohol
“But wait!” you say. “Didn’t you just tell us that Lydia Pinkham was an advocate for the temperance movement? Whose whole thing was avoiding alcohol in any quantity, including metric shit tons?”
This makes me respect her game even more, honestly. The lady had her morals, and then she had her goofy scam, and it absolutely did not matter to the right hand what the left hand was doing.
Rakin’ in the Vegetables
Lydia started selling her bottles of boozy garbage on the street for a dollar, which sounds like a steal until you realize with inflation, that amounts to fully one hundred dollars in 2022 money.
And people ATE THIS SHIT UP. She was so successful that she expanded her business from a kitchen-table operation to an entire factory, where she made $300,000 worth of her famous anti-hysteria magic vegetable tonic every year.
Again. With inflation. That is THIRTY MILLION DOLLARS.
Not only was Lydia a commercial success, she was also a marketing darling. People trusted her so ubiquitously that she established a Department of Advice at her company that gave medical and wellness advice to women who wrote in asking for it. The only way this could make me laugh harder is if she’d called it the “Department of Totally Legit, Well-Researched, Not Bullshit Medical Advice for Ladies with Real Problems.”
Because, may I remind you, hysteria wasn’t a thing, and Lydia’s vegetable compound did nothing but get women drunk.
Maybe in 1875, getting drunk really was the best possible solution for women forced to endure the daily patriarchy. I don’t know, but women really loved this shit, and positive testimonials popped up in newspapers everywhere.
Those Ol’ Fun-Suckers at the FDA
Lydia Pinkham died in 1883, while her bullshit medicine empire was still at the height of its popularity. Somebody at the Department of Advice kept writing back to all those women asking wellness questions, though, and they kept signing all the letters Lydia Pinkham. I like to imagine it really was Lydia’s ghost, determined to spread bullshit from the beyond.
In 1905, the magazine Ladies Home Journal started getting suspicious, as the real Lydia Pinkham would have been almost 90 years old at this time. They found Lydia’s gravestone and ran a picture of it in the magazine, demanding that the company explain how a dead lady was writing letters.
Quietly, the company started signing the letters “Jennie Pinkham.”
Eventually, as I foreshadowed earlier, a little thing called the FDA came along and said “hey maybe you can’t charge $100 for some rubbing alcohol and random plants from the backyard and say it’ll make women live forever.” The business had to make some concessions, scaling back its claims and reducing the alcohol content to something less at home in a frat house basement.
It’s still around, though! You can buy it for 12 bucks plus shipping at Walmart, if that’s a thing that would make you happy. The alcohol content is only 10% now, unfortunately.
Wikipedia also tells me that “many modern-day feminists admire Pinkham for distributing information about menstruation.” Well, this modern-day feminist admires Pinkham for being a stone-cold liar even beyond the grave who got women drunk for cash. Rock on, Lyds.
I have an event coming up I’m really excited about! On Tuesday, April 26, I’ll be teaming up with the wonderful Bookends & Beginnings in Evanston, IL to teach an online workshop about the basics of writing historical fiction! It’ll be a 90-minute virtual class with writing exercises, my own tips and tricks, and almost certainly at least one picture of my cat. The workshop fee is $45 but comes with a $10 gift card to Bookends, which you can use toward any book you like. (Including mine. Which I am honor-bound to recommend.)
All the details are here, and writers of all levels are welcome.
Until next time, be well, and live your dreams until the FDA tells you to stop,