The Mystery Man in the Wall of the Chancognie House
I do not usually dig around inside the walls of the Chancognie House, but occasionally there is a need to do so for restoration work. Such was the case recently when a small section of exterior siding needed repair. Urban areas have dealt with rats for centuries, so it was not a surprise to find rats’ nests in the c. 1810 walls here.
The upside of finding historic rats’ nests? They can be a treasure trove of artifacts which provide valuable insight into the history of the house and the people who once lived here. So, over Christmas, with the enthusiastic help of my mother (and I say that without a hint of irony), I started sorting through the rats’ nests. Donning gloves and masks, we carefully sorted through the dusty contents finding a range of artifacts from an 1877 Seated Liberty half dollar to a strand of tinsel, along with fragments of paper and fabric.
As I carefully sorted through the detritus, I found the rather dapper looking gentleman at the top of this post looking back at me. Who was this mystery man?
There were few clues to his identity, but the style of his attire seemed to suggest the early 20th century. The word “Elgin” followed by a comma seemed significant since there are several cities with that name in the US. The most prominent of these cities is Elgin, Illinois and in the early 20th century, it was home to several major businesses which would have placed advertisements in a newspaper, namely Elgin Watch Company and Elgin Dairy Company. Elgin Watch Company also published an Almanac from 1871-77 which featured line drawings similar to the mystery man.
Searching period newspapers from Charleston, I found countless advertisements for Elgin watches and Elgin butter, but none of them featured my mystery man, nor did any of the Elgin Watch Almanacs. So, I looked to some of the other words in the ad for clues – what appeared to be “bottle” and “purchase” suggested some sort of beverage. I found a list of beverages with an Elgin connection: Elgin Eagle Brewing Co. in Elgin, Illinois, Elgin Bottling Works in Elgin, Texas and Elgin Dairy in Salt Lake City, Utah, among others. Once again, I could not find any advertisements from those companies that featured my mystery man.
If only the rats had taken a slightly bigger piece of paper for their nests! As a last-ditch effort, I decided to sort through the pile of smaller paper fragments to see if there might be any pieces that I had missed. There was one tiny scrap. With the only complete words being “road,” “away,” and “good,” and a partial word that could possibly be “remedy” or “remedies,” I doubted that it would be very useful. But it turned out to have just enough information to find my mystery man.
Meet Harrison Shepard. So impressed was he with Dr. Pierce’s Golden Medical Discovery that he wrote a testimonial from Elgin, Tennessee to extol its virtues as a cure-all which was published in the November 19, 1919, edition of the Charleston News and Courier. While the headline of the fragment that I found here at the Chancognie House is different than the one in the November 19, 1919, advertisement, there is no doubt that the man staring back at me from the rats’ nests was Harrison Shepard.
Or was it? In an interesting twist, Harrison Shepard underwent a dramatic makeover in 1922. While his testimonial remained unchanged, his appearance was updated to reflect current fashion and perhaps present a more sophisticated image. It did not last long – the final advertisement that I could find featuring Harrison Shepard endorsing Dr. Pierce’s remedies appeared in March 1923.
As for Dr. Pierce, he did exist. He was born in Stark, New York in 1840 and graduated from Eclectic Medical College in Cincinnati, Ohio in 1862. Eclectic medicine focused on botanical remedies and was popular in the US in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Pierce first introduced Dr. Pierce’s Favorite Prescription around 1867 which was followed by Golden Medical Discovery, Pleasant Pellets, and other concoctions. His remedies were primarily targeted at ailing women which could explain Harrison Shepard’s brief tenure as a spokesman.
Although Pierce’s remedies may have had dubious results, he made a fortune selling his mail-order patent medicines. In an age where cure-alls were at their peak of popularity, Pierce carved out a profitable niche through clever marketing including the use of testimonials, such as the one from Harrison Shepard. He died in 1914, but his company continued under the direction of his son until the 1940s. For an example of his Golden Medical Discovery, see this item in the collection of the Smithsonian. For more on Dr. Pierce and some of his other remedies, see this article on the Pierce medical artifacts in the collection of New York Heritage and this article about one of Pierce’s Favorite Prescription bottles from the Royal Gorge Regional Museum & History Center.
And now back to sorting through the rats’ nests….