Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Fannie’s fraudulent treatment

Fannie Voller’s obituary refers to her long illness and to the “strong hopes” with which she was taken to Binghampton, New York, for treatment. Letters written by Fannie and by her husband, John Voller, reveal that Fannie was a patient in New York of Dr. S. Andral Kilmer, remembered today as the inventor of the patent medicine Swamp Root.

John took Fannie to New York for treatment in early July, 1905, leaving her in the care of Dr. Kilmer. Later that month, home with the children, John wrote to Dr. Kilmer to ask after Fannie:

Dear Sir:—
     I regret to trouble you with correspondence, but I am very anxious to hear from you relative to my wife’s condition. It is not a matter of impatience with me, or time, or money. No sacrifice within my power would be too great to make, that will assist in her recovery, but I should be very glad to hear from you definitely and frankly as to her present condition, and the progress of the cure. I know you will appreciate my position in this matter. It is not from a lack of confidence in your ability; in fact, I feel that I have every reason to be thankful that my wife is under your care, but a word from you as to what I may hope for in the future will be very much appreciated.
          Yours very truly,

John’s confidence in Dr. Kilmer was misplaced.

From The Great American Fraud, Articles on the Nostrum Evil and Quacks, by Samuel Hopkins Adams:

Another quack family with a cancer branch is the Kilmer family of Binghamton, N. Y. Kilmer’s Swamp Root, one of the most blatant of the “patent-medicine ” swindles, was devised by Dr. S. Andral Kilmer, who sold out years ago (although Swamp Root dupes are still urged to write him), and is now proprietor of a “CanCertorium,” and an itinerant charlatan. “Cancer’s First Conqueror” is his modest description of himself. He “itinerates” through the large towns and small cities of New York State, advertising like Barnum’s circus. Free consultation, remedies at $3 a week, and treatment at $2 a week, constitute his traveling plan. At his CanCertorium at Binghamton, N. Y., the charges are higher. A campus caretaker at Hamilton College, afflicted with facial cancer, went to Dr. Kilmer’s Cancertorium on a fund raised for him among the undergraduates, who did not know of the nature of the institution. He was provided with all the liquor he could drink, evidently with a view to keeping him drugged, until Kilmer had extracted $800 from him, when the progress of his disease was so marked that he became frightened and left, going to a reputable surgeon, who at once operated. He is now back at work. This man kept track of seven of the CanCertorium patients whom he came to know well, of whom, so he tells me, five died and the other two are apparently going the same way. Dr. S. Andral Kilmer represents an old, picturesque and fast-disappearing tribe of bunco-artists, and when his side-whiskers disappear from the pages of the small city dailies, those publications will be the less amusing, though the more respectable for the loss.

The passage above appeared originally in an article in Collier’s Weekly printed in July, 1906—five months after Fannie’s death.

It saddens me even now—more than a century later—that my great grandmother spent precious months separated from her family during her illness. She visited home at least once during her stay at the Cancertorium. In early January, 1906, she returned home for the last time. Fannie died quietly at home on February 9, 1906, her family at her side.

By the way, you can still buy Swamp Root, at least some modern version of it, today.


  1. What a sad story! I believe I could feel John's pain through his letter.

  2. I am so grateful that my uncle discovered and saved the letters that tell us Fannie's story first hand!

  3. What a touching and sincere letter. It's so sad that quack doctors robbed people not only of money but even, as you pointed out, precious time with their families.

  4. I would be very interested to learn more since I am currently researching this Dr. Kilmer

  5. Sheldon, not sure I have much more than printed here. I may have an excerpt from a letter from Dr. Kilmer to my Fanny's husband.

    Drop me an email via my Blogger profile with your contact info and I'll certainly share whatever I have.

  6. Hi, thanks, my email is gosline@hotmail.com ... it would be great to get the letter from Dr Kilmer to Fanny's husband. Regards,
    Sheldon Lee Gosline
    UCL Centre for the History of Medicine
    University College London, London UK

  7. Hi Sheldon, the letter is not in my possession, but let me see if I can get an image of it for you. Will contact you via email...

  8. Thanks! I look forward to whatever data you can pull together.

  9. Hi Amy, Back in London now and break over. Any luck finding that letter?

  10. Hi Amy, just checking ... do you have any more data on Fannie's cancer? What type it was and where located? The obituary note you mention is a little vague about the cause of death, was it certainly cancer? Do you happen to know how old Fannie was? Any other details would be useful, such as cost of care, since I am trying to put together a profile of Kilmer's patient care. Feel free to respond by email, gosline@hotmail.com THANKS!


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