From Electrical Shocks to Holes In Skulls: Cincinnati Tried Almost Anything To Fight Hangovers

A word to the wise: Don’t try any of these “cures” at home.

Image Courtesy Cincinnati Enquirer August 30, 1896 | Image extracted from microfilm by Greg Hand

Still feeling that New Year’s Day hangover? Well, let’s not buck tradition. Did you know, for quite a long time, Cincinnatians had no word for hangover? It is a fairly recent term. Before 1900, “hangover” had nothing to do with booze. For some time, the dreadful after-effects of an alcoholic binge were almost synonymous with inebriation. Before 1900, “jag” meant both the hangover and also the inebriated state from which the hangover blossomed.

Nevertheless, from time immemorial, Cincinnatians endeavored to deal with, as Kipling put it, “the cold grey dawn of the morning after.” The Cincinnati Enquirer [August 11, 1870] pioneered this concept in a front-page article about drunkenness in general, and reviewed the traditional hangover cure known as “the hair of the dog.” The origin of this remedy can be traced to folklore suggesting that “the hair of the dog is the cure for the bite.” In other words, if alcohol brought you to this state, alcohol can relieve your pain.

Feeling desperately out of sorts from last night’s debauch, he rushes to the first saloon and forces a cocktail down his throat. Perhaps the indignant stomach rejects it, but he puts down another, and another, until he finally gets one to stick, and upon this foundation he builds up a superstructure of drinks.

If cocktails didn’t work—or if the penitent sufferer could not bear the thought of that option—a pharmacopeia of nostrums was available at every Cincinnati pharmacy. The Enquirer in 1870 listed seltzer, citrate of magnesia, valerian, digitalis, tincture of getstheminum, morphine, cayenne pepper, even ammonia as palliatives. The Cincinnati Post [December 28, 1915] offered this solution:

A glass of hot water with a teaspoonful of limestone phosphate in it, drank before breakfast for a while, will not only wash these poisons from your system and cure you of headache, but will cleanse, purify, and freshen the entire alimentary canal.

If the patient desired only sleep, or “rest in the arms of Morpheus” as the classicists would have it, the Enquirer recommended bromide of potassium, bromide of ammonia, or hydrate of chloral. While acknowledging that some inebriates were given to laying handkerchiefs soaked with chloroform over their faces, the Enquirer noted several cases in which that remedy had proved fatal.

If pharmacology could not assuage your agonies, Dr. James C. Kerr could, or, at least, he promised that his “Renovator” could. In an advertisement [Cincinnati Commercial Tribune May 27, 1871], Doctor Kerr affirmed:

Indiscretion in eating or drinking brings on a deranged stomach. A torpid liver, and two or three day’s sickness, with a doctor’s bill thrown in, follows. A dose or two of the Renovator would open the bowels, set the liver vigorously to work, the bile would be carried off, and the doctor’s bill and lost time would be saved. So it goes.

The Enquirer’s columnist was in no mood to accept this cure-all:

They can systematically harass their systems, and then renovate with Dr. Kerr. But after all, a renovated system isn’t as good as a new one. It’s like a renovated pair of breeches—looks very well on the outside, but a little wear makes it worse than before.

Image Courtesy Cincinnati Enquirer December 12, 1897 | Image extracted from microfilm by Greg Hand

The Enquirer [October 19, 1893] praised a new hangover cure discovered in Anderson, Indiana, by druggists Alexander and Dave McKee, who experimented on several hungover customers by applying significant electrical shocks to their crania.

The electrical current, in some manner, seems to neutralize or dispel the effects of alcoholic poisoning, and a few applications of the moistened sponges upon the poles of the electrical machine does its work more effectually than seltzer or lemon, or any other potions resorted to by gentlemen when they have become badly ‘buckeyed’.

More popular than electricity was the gold cure. Various compounds of gold claimed nearly miraculous power to banish inebriation, hangover, or even the taste for spirituous liquors. Various municipalities, notably at Madisonville and at Lebanon, Ohio, established gold-cure sanitariums to treat alcoholism. The results were inconsistent. Sometimes wildly so. The Enquirer [June 19, 1892] laid out the sad case of Robert Louders, recently a patient at the Madisonville gold-cure institute.

Not long after he had taken the treatment he manifested signs of mental trouble. He became aware of it himself and asked to be sent to an asylum. He felt an impulse to harm his family.

A man from Cincinnati related a most unusual hangover cure to the Enquirer [February 23, 1895]. The Cincinnatian sent $25 to an address in Nashville and received the following instructions:

Make an incision in the scalp, trephine a portion of the skull about the size of a silver dollar. Have a silver cap made to cover the opening thus produced. Whenever you feel the hilariousness produced by whisky lift off this skullcap, thereby allowing the fumes of the alcohol to escape.

Despite all of the various schemes proposed for a century or more, none was as demented as that reported by the venerable Enquirer columnist Ollie James on December 26, 1943:

We went to a Junior Chamber of Commerce dance, and  a fellow paid us one of the sweetest tributes we ever received. Mr. Bob Kisker said he and his wife always read our column to cure themselves of a hangover. Heck fire, we’ll have to take to reading it ourself sometimes.

The real secret to hangover relief was revealed in James Norwood Pratt’s sublime 1971 monograph, “The Wine Bibber’s Bible”:

But there are certain sins for which the quality of mercy simply will not be strained, and God offers no antidote for the hangover. The Italians do. It contains every herb from aloes to zedoaria and is the one aperitif you will want to consume in strictest moderation since it can be a remarkably effective laxative if overdone. It’s called Fernet Branca and most people find it vile beyond belief. We admit it’s the furthest-out flavor in Christendom, but it helps.

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