By Ray Schultz
Ladies Home Journal is not known for its investigative journalism. In 1906, though, it published a story titled, The Inside Story of a Sham, about phony testimonials in patent medicine ads, exposing the inside workings of a highly fraudulent business.
The article started with the fact that the medicine sellers brazenly used real peoples’ names without their permission. For example, a Senator whose signature appeared in ads wrote that he had not endorsed the product, and that he had never even received the sample that supposedly was sent to him. Another notable threatened legal action if the medicine sellers didn’t stop quoting him by name. Author Mark Sullivan wanted to know: How did the medicine sellers get these peoples’ signatures? Here’s what he uncovered. (Note: we’ve maintained his spelling).
I found that there are three men, rivals in trade, who make a business of securing these indorsements for “patent medicines” from prominent men. They are known as “testimonial-brokers.” The best-known and most successful of the three was approached one day last spring by a man who represented a well-known “patent medicine.” The medicine man states his case: he was about to extend the advertising of his “medicine” and he wanted testimonials. In short, he put it to the testimonial-getter concretely by saying that he wanted signed testimonials from, say, one hundred Members of Congress, Governors, and men high in the Army and Navy. The testimonial-getter was perfectly at home in this situation. He figured on the contract as an architect would estimate on a house.
Confirming my talk with Mr. _________, I will undertake to obtain testimonials from Senators at seventy-five dollars each, and from Congressman at forty dollars on a prearranged contract. A contract for not less than $5,000 would meet my requirements in the testimonial line.
I can put your matter in good shape shortly after Congress meets if we come to an agreement. We can’t get Roosevelt, but we can get men and women of national reputation, and we can get their statements in convincing form and language.
Here it was then—an actual business!
The next point I wanted to find out was: Who gets the seventy-five dollars or the forty dollars? Not the Senator or Congressman, I found. It is true that there are a few public men who have a financial interest in “patent medicines”; but none sells his name outright for seventy-five or forty dollars. The testimonial-getter explained this:
“The knowing how to approach each individual is my stock in trade. Only a man of wide acquaintance of men and things could carry it out. Often I employ women. Women know how to get around public men. For example, I know that Senator A.________has a poverty-stricken cousin who works as a seamstress. I go to her and offer her twenty-five dollars to get the Senator’s signature to a testimonial.
But most of it I do through newspaper correspondents here in Washington. Take the Senator from some Southern State. That Senator is very dependent on the Washington correspondent of the leading newspaper in his State. By the dispatches which that correspondent sends back the Senator’s career is made or marred. So I go to that correspondent. I offer him fifty dollars to get the Senator’s testimonial. The Senator may squirm , but he’ll sign all right. Then there are a number of easy-going Congressmen who needn’t be seen at all. I can sign their names in anything and they’ll stand for it. And there are always a lot of poverty-stricken, broken-down Army veterans hanging around Washington. For a few dollars they’ll go to their old Army officers on a basis of an old acquaintance’ sake, and get testimonials.”
Assuming that was true, it doesn’t say much for the journalistic ethics of those home-town correspondents.
Just as bad, in Sullivan’s view, were the unauthorized testimonials from ordinary people. In one case, a woman said that she “had never used the ‘medicine’ she was advertised to indorse., but that a man had called on her, offered to have a dozen photographs of her taken at the best gallery in her city, and she could have them all free of charge if she would sign the letter and let her photograph be printed. She did, and she got the photographs, but she had never had the ailment spoken of in the advertisement, and had never tasted a drop of the “medicine.”
Well, at least she got the photos. Many people got nothing. And some victims had their names used because they were actually taking the medicines, and were so zonked that they didn’t care if their names were used. Sullivan explains:
Where the “testimonials” seemed genuine, I found that either the cocaine or the morphine in the “medicine” soothed the pain of the victim, or the strychnine or alcohol exhilarated the taker. But as to a genuine case of actual good gone or help received, except fancied, I could not find a single one of all those I investigated.
Well, so much for honesty in that supposedly golden time, but it didn’t go on for long: The Pure Food and Drug Act was passed that same year, and put most of the patent medicine sellers out of business (along with some testimonial brokers, no doubt). Still, online scam artists post fraudulent testimonials even now. Ladies’ Home Journal should look into it.