Ads for Hot Springs Liver Buttons, Munyon’s Rheumatism Cure, Gloria Tonic Tablets and hundreds of other nostrums filled newspaper columns in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Testimonials were a common feature of these ads. A March 8, 1905, ad for Duffy’s Pure Malt Whiskey, published in the Minneapolis Journal, featured a photo of a grim-looking woman and the headline: “A Dear Old Soul Active and Happy at 106.”

“ ‘I will be one hundred and six years old,’ writes Mrs. Tigue, ‘on the fifteenth of March, and really I don’t feel like I am a day over sixty, thanks to Duffy’s Pure Malt Whiskey. Friends say I look younger and stronger than I did 30 years ago. I have always enjoyed health and been able to eat and sleep well, though I have been a hard worker. Even now I wait on myself and am busy on a pretty piece of fancy work. My sight is so good I don’t even use glasses. Am still blest with all my faculties. The real secret of my great age, health, vigor and content is the fact that for many years I have taken regularly a little Duffy’s Pure Malt Whiskey, and it has been my only medicine. … I am certain I’d have died long ago had it not been for my faithful old friend Duffy’s.’ ”

The American Medical Association looked into these sorts of ads and found a pattern of dubious medical claims and testimonials. The Journal of the American Medical Association said this about Duffy’s:

“But whether we consider Duffy’s Malt Whiskey a ‘patent medicine’ or a low-grade ‘booze’ makes little difference. As we have said elsewhere: A high-grade whiskey has but a limited place in therapeutics; Duffy’s Malt Whiskey has none.”

Two physicians attested that Mrs. Tigue was nearly blind and did not use alcohol in any form. Her son said a Duffy’s solicitor went to his mother’s nursing home and got her permission under false pretenses.

Duffy’s Malt Whiskey, first marketed in 1886 as the “greatest known heart tonic,” prospered for decades on the strength of its false medical claims and forged endorsements. The rise of the temperance movement, increased government scrutiny and, eventually, Prohibition, spelled the concoction’s doom.

The makers went out of business in 1926. Nancy Tigue died at age 107 on June 24, 1906, little more than a year after the ad.

Ben Welter