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Open W-F, 12-4pm, Sat 10am-2pm | (860) 364-5688

I’ll Take a Chaffee with that Poison

By Cooper Sheldon  |  Fall/Winter 2023

A few months ago, before our latest intern, Linus Barnes, graduated, he brought out an old traveling doctor’s medical kit (2012.16.47) with the intent of writing a piece on it for the Spring 2023 newsletter. Unfortunately, he ran out of time. Just a few before Labor Day and I was looking for something new to accession, something quick. Searching the second floor, I found that same medical kit, sitting innocently behind a glass case. Lifting it out of the case, I brought it to the collections lab and opened it up. Removing the top, I found three semi-organized rows of vials filled with tablets, liquids, and powders. The back of the medical kit is a small compartment that when opened revealed a series of surgical tools and even more vials, this time without contents. With a couple of hours left in the day, I got to work. With vials of arsenic, cascara, belladonna, strychnine, and chloroform, it looked like its original owner was well-stocked to cure any early 1900s ‘ailment.’ At the end of the day, I was not even close to being done and realized that this was going to take a little more than a week. Turns out, it took a month.
Van Horn and Sawtell Medical Kit, 1900s

Dr. Jerome Chaffee

This medical kit (2012.16.47A-BJ) was gifted to us by Kathryn Heacox back in 2012, then in 2018 it was part of the ‘Sharon Cures: Centuries of Medicine in One Small Town’ exhibit. At the conclusion of the exhibit, the kit was relegated to a second-floor cabinet, where Linus and I would eventually stumble upon it. Kathryn’s husband was Edward O. Heacox Sr., a pharmacist and owner of the Sharon Pharmacy. It is uncertain why he came into ownership of this piece, but we do know that it was given to him by G. D. Gudernatch, M.D. Between 1900 and 1909, Dr. Jerome Chaffee, founder of the Sharon Hospital, ran a private practice in Pine Plains, NY. It was at this point that he likely purchased the medical kit, as a logo on the inside of the lid states “Van Horn and Sawtell Company.”

This company ran a surgical and medical supply company out of New York City between 1904 and 1919, until it was purchased by the Johnson and Johnson Company. Dr. Chaffee formed the Sharon Hospital in 1909, acting as Chief of the medical staff, treasurer, and eventually President of the Board. He gave 35 years to the institution for which he founded, passing away in 1947. During his time in Sharon as a medical practitioner, one can only imagine the variety of pharmaceuticals that found their way into this medical kit, only to be removed once their purpose was served. He was adored by the community in which he served, leading us to wonder which homes this medical kit made its way into, who took what medications, and how many miles it traveled before ending up in our collection.

Out of the 40 or so medications or treatments found inside vials that are part of 2012.16.47, one of the most recognizable is the tincture of Belladonna (2012.16.47AH). Belladonna is a leafy green plant with a purple flower and black berries that originated in Southern Europe and Asia, though it can now be found in the United States and across the world. Although every part of the plant is poisonous, the leaves and black berries are by far the most toxic. Historic uses of Belladonna include dilating the eyes, diluting pain, teething in children and infants, motion sickness, ‘women complaints’, and allegedly making broom flight capable for witchy activity. The vial of Belladonna in our collection is labeled as coming from Clarence H. Eggleston Ph. G., a pharmacist here in Sharon, Connecticut. While there is no longer any Belladonna extract in the vial, it does raise the questions as to how it was used, what and who’s ‘complaints’ were treated by its contents?

While not as deadly as ‘deadly nightshade,’ a vial of tablets composed of Iron, Arsenic & Strychnine, if used improperly can still be lethal. Strychnine is chemically synthesized and historically used as a stimulant and performance enhancing drug by athletes. Small doses cause muscle contractions and an increase in blood pressure. A 50 to 100mg oral dose of strychnine can cause seizures, heart, respiratory, and brain failure in 15-30 minutes. It only takes 15mg to cause the same effects in children. Visually, this is smaller than a grain of sand. The second component in this vial is arsenic, a naturally occurring mineral that makes its way into humans through pesticides and contaminated water.
Symptoms of arsenic poisoning include gastrointestinal, kidney, and liver issues, headaches, weakness, difficulty breathing, and cancer. If exposed to a high enough dose, it may take 2 to 20 years for skin cancer to develop. A lethal dose of arsenic is less than 1/8th a tsp for adults, and even less for children. The last component of this tablet is Iron, which is a naturally occurring mineral readily found across the world. Iron supplements can help those with low iron levels, such as individuals that are pregnant or chronically iron deficient. While it is not as toxic as strychnine or arsenic, iron is still dangerous in higher doses. Symptoms of iron poisoning include brain-fog, anxiety, depression, nausea, weakness, joint pain, and more. These Iron, Arsenic & Strychnine tablets would have been used to help stimulate heart and bowel muscles. Of course, if taken all at once, this medication would definitely not be beneficial to your health.

Preserving artifacts and documents is one of the many purposes a museum or archive holds. While not all the tablets and liquids found in the medical kit were toxic and poisonous, in order to preserve the vials, we plan on properly disposing of the tablets and liquids in a safe manner. Before their disposal we photographed all the vials with their contents intact, this way we preserve the objects history. In addition, we make the images and records of these objects available to the public through CTCollection, allowing anyone with an internet connection to access every object record we’ve digitized. These efforts enable us to preserve and document the history of Dr. Chaffee’s life’s work and to also recognize the contributions of Dr. G.D. Gudernatch, and the Heacox’s.

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