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Greene’s Syrup of Tar

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by Paul Hellerhistoryhellerhigher-contrast-label

He was an Alderman, an Episcopalian and a highly regarded member of the Republican Party. Lester Greene was, by all accounts, a pillar of Montpelier society. He also sold dangerous narcotics in an elixir he called “Syrup of Tar,” manufactured in his patent medicine factory on Berlin Street near downtown Montpelier.

In 1895 Greene lived in a modest home at 15 First Avenue. Later, at 15 Berlin Street, Greene would build a 17,000 square-foot, multi-story manufacturing facility to produce his patent medicines, including his flagship product, Syrup of Tar, a cough remedy that contained alcohol, chloroform  and heroin. With increasing frequency, many Vermonters languished in the throes of alcohol and drug dependence, while Greene became a successful businessman and an unwitting purveyor of addiction through the products he sold.

The patent medicines of the late 19th century were remedies that may or may not have had therapeutic value. These nostrums were often the brainchild of quacks and medical impostors. Their great success was due not to their scientific formulations, but instead, to their imaginative packaging and exaggerated advertising campaigns. It also didn’t hurt sales-wise that powerful narcotic and sedative ingredients were part of the formula.

Greene was born in Plattsburgh, New York in 1863. His father piloted merchant ships on Lake Champlain. The elder Greene later moved his family to Swanton, where Lester graduated from high school and began working at a pharmacy. After four years learning the druggist’s trade, Greene worked for a year in St. Johnsbury, then returned for a time to Swanton. He came to Montpelier in 1882 and found employment as a pharmacist for five years, after which he purchased Bascomb’s Drug Store.

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An entry in Carleton’s “Genealogical and Family History of the State of Vermont” (1903) noted:

“During his career as a pharmacist Mr. Greene obtained a thorough knowledge of drugs and their uses, and utilized this knowledge in preparing a remedy for coughs and colds, placing it on the market under the name of “Greene’s Warranted Syrup of Tar.” This syrup became so favorably known throughout the country, and the demand for the remedy so great, that he separated it from his drug business, and on September 10, 1898, a company was formed for its manufacture and sale, being incorporated under the state law, with L. H. Greene as president. This company has erected a three-story building, seventy-four by seventy-four feet, in which it employs a large force, manufacturing this medicine for the wholesale trade.”

Greene hired E. S. Meigs to run his State Street drug store while he concentrated his efforts on his new plant on Berlin Street. Meigs had come from Boston where, according to The Watchman in 1895, he had held “a responsible position in the largest retail drug store in New England.” This freed Greene to devote more time to the Syrup of Tar facility, as the medicines made there were “meeting with such popularity that more help and increased facilities are needed to help fill the orders.”

The Watchman continued, “A convenient laboratory has been fitted up on the second and third floors of the building now occupied by Mr. Greene, sufficient for an output of 2,500 packages daily. The members of the new firm, Lester H. Greene and J. Eli Goodenough, are thorough businessmen; their remedies are put up on honor; every package is sold on the no-cure no-pay plan, and if last year’s sales are any criterion, the new firm will be a success.” The money-back guarantee was a focal point of the company’s advertising campaign, and was included in all printed matter for the life of the firm.

In 10 years’ time, the patent medicine business was turned on its head with “The Great American Fraud,” an industry exposé published in Collier’s Magazine in 1905. The reporter, Samuel Hopkins Adams, took on the patent-medicine lobby, an influential consortium of snake-oil salesmen who sought to protect a $75 million a year industry. Adams was horrified to learn that this amount was spent almost entirely on products containing little more than alcohol and opiates. In the article, Adams cited a study which maintained that “more alcohol is consumed in this country in patent medicines than is dispensed in a legal way by licensed liquor vendors.”

Further discrediting the patent medicine makers was the charge that the medicines often aggravated the conditions they were intended to ameliorate. Adams had particular scorn for the cough medicines containing opiates and chloroform that were marketed to consumptives, those suffering from tuberculosis. Adams had an analysis performed on one such remedy — a cough medicine — and found, like Syrup of Tar, it was an opiate and chloroform mixture which he claimed was a diabolical concoction to give to anyone, particularly a consumptive. The chloroform was calculated to allay the cough, thereby checking nature’s effort to throw off the dead matter from the lungs; the opium drugged the patient into a deceptive cheerfulness. The combination, Adams concluded, was designed to shorten the life of any consumptive who took it regularly.

So insidious was the addiction problem in Vermont during this time that an industry sprung up to treat substance abuse. In Montpelier, the Keeley Institute, a drug and alcohol rehabilitation center, opened a franchise a short walk from Greene’s Syrup of Tar factory and, in the few years of its existence, treated over 500 patients in Montpelier for addiction to alcohol or opiates. While many questioned the effectiveness of the “Keeley Cure” — it was reported that many of their clients soon resumed their old habits after leaving treatment — the fact that the therapy was so popular is an indication of the degree of addiction in central Vermont.

Hopkins’ Colliers article unleashed a fury of legislation and regulation of patent medicines. Almost immediately the Pure Food and Drug Act was enabled. It expressly forbade the “manufacture, sale, or transportation of poisonous patent medicines,” and required accurate labeling of all ingredients used in the medicines. By 1916 an FDA inquiry was directed against Greene’s Syrup of Tar, charging the company with mislabeling the ingredients included in the nostrum. The heyday of patent medicine and Greene’s Syrup of Tar was over. Heroin and chloroform were removed from the formula; only a modest amount of alcohol remained.

The brand was soon in decline, and moved to smaller quarters on School Avenue. Greene continued to operate the company from his scaled-down factory until the 1920s, finally selling it to the Burlington Drug Company in 1928. The original factory became home for a few years to the U.S. Clothespin Company, until a fire in 1924 leveled the building. After the fire, the clothespin company moved to a location further down the Winooski River to avail itself of the hydropower, generated at what became known as the clothespin dam.

Greene's factory on Berlin Street
Greene’s factory on Berlin Street

While muckraking journalists like Samuel Hopkins Adams heralded the decline of the patent medicine industry, in the early 20th century, it was an uphill battle. The manufacturers of these questionable remedies were often the largest source of advertising revenue for newspapers and magazines. “The press of the United States is at the beck and call of the patent medicines,” charged Adams. “Not only do the newspapers modify the news affecting these interests, but they sometimes become active agents.” In Vermont, papers such as the Times Argus and Caledonian Record often printed endorsements of patent medicines as if they were news items rather than paid advertisements. Eventually, through a long process of litigation and legislation, the most dangerous ingredients in all of the patent medicines were finally outlawed in the 1930s.

In Montpelier, Greene was well known as an advocate of Masonic orders: a 32nd degree Mason and a potentate of Mt. Sinai Temple of the Shrine. His 1932 obituary in the Argus also noted: “At the time of his death he was secretary of the Automobile Club of Vermont, an office he had held since the organization of that body. He had served as a member of the City Council Montpelier from 1901–1903 and maintained a keen interest in public affairs.”

Greene’s commitment to commercial and business life in Montpelier was never questioned, but the adverse effects of his patent medicine held untold misery for his unsuspecting customers.