Parry’s Vegetable Compound & The Elixir Wars: 1922

In 1909, Leonard Parry of Mansfield discovered what he called a liquid cure for Tuberculosis, and by 1920 his concoction had turned into a fruitful business of 14 different vegetable compounds for various ailments. 

Parry’s sold all over the country and became essential to a sizable clientele, according to the hundreds of testimonials printed in newspapers from New Jersey to Nebraska.

It would be easy to dismiss this little venture as an episode in the grand American tradition of Snake Oil salesmen, but there is more to the story worth considering.  All you have to do is look at financial documentation that surfaced during a 1918 law suit. 

Numbers came out that weren’t merely dubious newspaper advertising testimonials, but rather sworn court testimony, to the effect that enough bottles of Parry’s Vegetable Compound sold that year to rake in what today would be nearly three million dollars.  The next year, when the Federal Government refused to let Parry sell any of his bottles through the mail, after a high-profile court case served to advertise his claims all over the nation, his profits were closer to five million.

So, the stuff was real enough.

In 1922, however, it had a moment of truth.

From the North Central Ohio Industrial Museum.

Truth or Dare

Parry had been making his Vegetable Compound since 1910, several years after the U.S. Congress had cracked down on Snake Oil elixirs by enacting the Pure Food and Drug Act in 1906.

So presumably there was some truth in his advertising.

His troubles with the law weren’t about the composition of the nostrums he promoted, but rather with the assumption folks held that his illness-curing meant he must be a doctor.

Leonard Parry was the first to assert that he had no medical degrees.  He had, rather, a calling.  He was morally compelled to help people.

When he dosed ailing folks with one of his Compounds they felt better.  It was as simple as that.

He started in the back room of his house on East Second Street in Mansfield, but by 1915 he was keeping office hours in Pittsburgh where his clients could number up to 2,400 a week.  His success impacted such a broad-based demographic that there were chauffeur-driven Carnegies sitting on his bench waiting to see Parry seated next to soot-covered steel workers.

During the 1914 trial of Leonard Parry, Officer Bovard of the Pittsburgh Police Dept. said that Parry’s office “is thronged with people all the time, and that a big crowd is on the outside waiting to get in, early in the morning.” Parry claimed he had 2,400 patients a week, the local policemen said no fewer than 3,000. By 1919, he had 14 assistants to manage the multitudes.

During a 1915 trial when community support of L.L. Parry became an issue at question, it was posited that 30,000 people in Pittsburgh wore these little blue pinback buttons as public endorsement.
It means: Heal the Sick, Leonard L. Parry.

Each of those countless customers, on site or through the mail, paid $.50 to $1.50 for his funny little skinny-neck cork-stoppered bottles with the green label.  They bought them all over the Midwest.  In fact, there were drug stores and barber shops advertising Parry’s from New York to California, in at least half the states of the Union.

Parry’s Vegetable Compound was a colossal train rolling across the years from 1915 to 1935.  There were occasional sidetracks for Leonard Parry, but that never stopped the sales of his Compound.

He was arrested five times for curing people without a license.  It always happened right after someone died—a woman with cancer, a boy riddled with diagnoses.  The survivors got incensed, the authorities did their duty, but none of it stuck for very long.  He was sentenced to six months one time, but when the sentence was suspended the crowd of women in the courtroom burst into spontaneous applause.

These tribulations didn’t amount to much, but the trials did serve to bring out some interesting evidence.

Truth or Alternative Truth

In 1910, Mr. Parry testified as to where the secret formula came from:

The Mansfield News June 11, 1910

In 1915, however, when talking to a reporter he remembered it differently:

The Mansfield News Feb 8, 1915

Then in 1922, his secret formula was raking in so much green that his stockholders staged a coup to swipe the whole works from him.  At that time, when it was all up for grabs, an all-new origin story emerged:

The Mansfield News Sep 28, 1922

In the 1920s, the stockholder pirate part of the sales operation was pushing Parry’s in its original discreet plain green label, which forced Leonard Parry to rebrand his product. 

In order to certify the authentic source of his remedy he began putting his face and signature on every box and bottle that came out of his factory.

At the same time, customers could purchase the identical tonic in a whole new bootleg version called Vitazone, also bottled in Mansfield.

So you can see there was a considerable volume of Parry’s Compound, both authentic and spurious, circulating in the home health world for quite a while.  Perhaps the reason for this could be best understood by examining the results of a 1920 analysis made of the contents of an authentic Parry’s bottle.

The chemical findings were published in the December 1920 Journal of the American Medical Association.  According to JAMA, Parry’s Vegetable Compound was 25% alcohol.  It proved to be especially effective at treating any discomfort after 1920 when alcohol became outlawed, because each bottle of his patent medicine had more booze in it than anything they were legally allowed to sell in saloons.

In JAMA it said,

“Each bottle contains 6 2/3 ounces, of which one-fourth is alcohol.  A dose is considered the contents of one bottle!  It is easily conceivable that such a dose—equal to two stiff highballs—would change the outlook of the taker and possibly cause him to view Parry’s quackery in a tolerant light.”

Portrait of Leonard L. Parry on the frontispiece of his book, “The Cause of Disease,” 1919, Mansfield Ohio.
The book consists of 278 pages: being 10 pp. of Parry’s writing followed by 258 pps. of testimonials submitted by grateful customers all over the U.S. and Canada.

Leonard l. Parry (1854 – 1924) was born in Monroe Township. In later years he claimed that his gift of telepathy was first revealed in Lucas when as a boy he announced that Lee had surrendered to Grant two days before the news reached the village.

In 1915 he prophesied that the U.S. would enter the World War, which would be followed by tremendous famine destroying a large part of the world’s population. Wilson, he said, would be a one-term President and the one who followed him would be the last President of the United States because Christ would arrive shortly thereafter to begin a reign of 1000 years of peace on Earth.

Nearly every year he announced his pending retirement so he could isolate himself in a log cabin east of Mansfield to write an insightful commentary on the Book of Revelation, but he never could desert all the suffering humanity who continually clamored for his ministrations.

VITAZONE, a bootleg limited edition of Parry’s Vegetable Compound bottled in the Diamond Street lab of Hursh Drugs, enjoyed a brief shelf life in Pennsylvania when the secret formula was sold to two physicians in Pittsburgh. They were subsequently arrested and charged with conspiracy to defraud the “true” Vitazone originator in Altoona.

L.L. Parry stated that in his life of service to humanity he was arrested 21 times and imprisoned 5 times. By 1923 his secret formula was being produced and sold by so many fakers that he began putting his photo on everything that carried his name. Various attorneys who questioned Leonard Parry through the years at his trials loved to poke fun at him by asking if his famous Compound did, indeed, act to restore hair, then why was he increasingly bald as the years passed.

The factory floor where Parry’s Vegetable Compound was manufactured, bottled, and distributed was located on North Foster Street, as noted in this Pittsburgh advertisement from 1926. The building still stands today.

Following Parry’s death in 1924, the demand for his tonic never completely waned until it was finally discontinued in 1974. The final generations of the Compound business were carried on by Ernest Wessen, prominently known in Mansfield and around the nation for his Midland Rare Books antiquarian book shop on Bowman Street.

Even after he was in the next world Leonard Parry kept coming up with new products for the soothing, easing and healing of his devoted customers.

Thank You

Images, relics or anecdotes in this article come from the Mark Hertzler collection, the North Central Ohio Industrial Museum, John Stark, and Reid Carlson.

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