Illustration From an advertisement for Forsha’s Balm, Digitized by the Public Library of Cincinnati & Hamilton County and extracted from PDF by Greg Hand
In the fall of 1862, President Abraham Lincoln received a most unusual one-sentence letter from a Cincinnatian named Samuel W. Forsha:
“If the President will give me the charge of a hospital or a ward in one to use my owne Medisen in and use on the wounded Soldiers for three months I will insure ninety percent of all the flesh wounds to be well and the Soldiers to be in a healthy condition and fit for duty within thirty days from the time I take them if I can have them within 8 or 10 days from the time they are wounded and I will only ask the same assistance that the other Surgeons are allowed and the Soldiers will not suffer the twentieth part as much as they do in the other hospitals and their general health shall not be impaired from the effects of the wounds.”
The “medisen” in question was a patent liniment sold under the name of “Doctor Forsha’s Alterative Balm.” By all accounts, the concoction reeked. A surgeon in the United States Volunteers recorded this impression during the Civil War:
“The preparation has the odor of cedar oil. The odor of this preparation is so strong that it remains for days in the room.”
Tests by a Connecticut food and drug laboratory showed that the preparation contained about 25% alcohol. Perhaps that is the reason Forsha’s Balm remained popular long after its inventor ceased to be.
“Doctor” Samuel W. Forsha was born in New York around 1803 and showed up in Cincinnati around 1825. He stood unsuccessfully for election as a city constable in 1828 but, according to the city directory, his day job was cobbling; he was a shoemaker. In 1850, he was listed as a drayman or wagon driver and the next year he was a shoemaker again. He lists no profession in 1852 but, according to the 1853 directory, he had become an eclectic physician at the age of 50.
Eclectic Medicine was a school of health care, popular during the 1800s, that relied on botanical preparations rather than the harsh mercury-based drugs compounded by mainstream physicians at the time. Cincinnati had a famous Eclectic Medical College but “Doctor” Forsha did not likely attend it, much less graduate.
Around 1851, Forsha began marketing his liniment throughout the United States. It was good, he claimed, for both men and horses, and could be used internally or externally. For humans, Forsha’s Balm cured wounds, strains, sprains, bruises, sores, milk leg, burns, scalds, frozen parts, weakness or pains in the back or spine, rheumatism, stiff neck, sore throat, swelled face, tooth ache, poison, bee sting, piles, corns on the feet, cramp or bilious cholics, cholera and cholera morbus, flux, dysentery, pain in the stomach, side or head, bad colds and more. It was equally effective on horses, relieving sweeney, galls, sores, kicks, corks, split-hoof, bruises, strains, sprains, cholic and scratches.
This amazing elixir was mixed up and shipped out of S.W. Forsha’s laboratory on Fifth Street near Smith in Cincinnati’s West End. Doc Forsha had a thriving mail-order business but he wanted the respect of a national hospital, hence his letter to President Lincoln. The letter was delivered to Lincoln with a cover note supplied by U.S. Attorney General Edward Bates:
“From the within, it is evident that Dr. Forsha is not much of a Scholar. But he certainly has great curative powers; and really works wonders in relieving pain and healing wounds. I do really wish that more of our poor, suffering soldiers could have the benefit of his successful practice.”
Lincoln’s Secretary of the Treasury, Cincinnati’s own Salmon P. Chase, also wrote to Lincoln supporting Forsha’s plea. The President sent a note to Surgeon General William Hammond, hastily scribbled on the back of Chase’s letter (the typos appear in the original):
“Will the Surgeon General please alow Dr. Fosha to try the case named within?”
The Surgeon General would most certainly not allow Dr. Forsha’s stinky balm into his hospital, and informed the president of his decision:
“I have met with Dr. Forsha before, and am satisfied that he is an ignorant quack.”
Hammond objected, primarily, to Forsha’s refusal to reveal the ingredients of his foul-smelling liniment.
“If Dr. Forsha will reveal the mode of preparation of his medicine, I will very willingly have it tried in the hospitals, provided it contains no injurious articles.”
Unlikely that. A doctor in a U.S. Army hospital, Meredith Clymer, told Hammond that Forsha’s concoction was worse than useless:
“In every case it has done harm, aggravating materially the sufferings of the wounded officers and inducing unpleasant intestinal symptoms.”
Despite the condemnation by the medical establishment, Forsha’s Balm was a big seller for decades. Although Forsha died in 1877, and his widow in 1889, pharmaceutical catalogs listed the liniment for sale until around 1910. As late as 1919, the Journal of the National Association of Retail Druggists carried a classified advertisement from a pharmacist in Chicago, begging for someone to ship him—cost no object—a dozen bottles.
It is the empty bottles that attract collectors today. Forsha Balm bottles are highly collectible and often appear on eBay.
This article was reposted with permission from Greg Hand, editor of Cincinnati Curiosities