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The Kilmers of Binghamton, New York

1997 By John E. Golley, Email: ByGolley@email.msn.com




This is the history of a family, a "patent medicine" company and ultimately, of a city. The Kilmer family started out in the small village of Cobleskill, New York and through several generations, influenced the health and politics of the city of Binghamton and made their mark upon the world.....this is their story.

Dr. Sylvester Andral Kilmer, MD was born in Cobleskill, New York on December 19, 1840, one of eleven children of Daniel and Maria Shaver Kilmer. He attended the log school in Cobleskill, the Schoharie Academy and then the Warnerville and Richmondville Seminaries. At the age of eighteen, he entered the office of Dr. Scott, a prominent Allopathic physician in Schoharie County. Wishing to get away from the "one school" idea, he then studied with Dr. Downing who had been called the successful pioneer of Homeopathy in the Schoharie region of New York State. Dr. S. Andral Kilmer started his own practice of medicine as county physician at Barnerville, Schoharie County. Following through with the idea of a broad acquaintance with medicine and surgery, he studied Eclectic and Botanic Practice with Dr. Patrick of Wisconsin. He attended the preliminary and regular course of the Bellevue Hospital and Medical College in New York City, where he had instruction at the Eye and Ear Infirmary on Blackwell's Island and other hospitals. He also received a special practical course at the Philadelphia Lying-In-Charity Hospital, where he received instruction in Practical Obstetrics and Diseases of Women; he also received similar instruction at the Central Dispensary of Chicago. He received further instruction at the Philadelphia School of Operative Surgery under the special tutelage of the noted physician Dr. D. Hayes Agnew and he also had a diploma from the Bennett Medical College of Chicago. After a successful tour of medical lectures and practice in the West, he settled in Binghamton, New York.

In Binghamton, he was first employed in visiting Binghamton and the surrounding cities on advertised days, in which practice Dr. Kilmer was so famous and successful that he was soon enabled to begin erection of his Laboratory buildings for the preparation of his remedies, which became necessary to supply the ever increasing demand. In 1878 his brother, Jonas Kilmer, moved to Binghamton to run the business end of the proprietary medicine business, and in 1892, Jonas bought out Dr. S. Andral Kilmer's share of the business. Their first major laboratory and manufacturing plant was located at the corners of Chenango and Virgil Streets in Binghamton. Dr. Kilmer prepared many different medicines, some of which were Dr. Kilmer's Ocean Weed Heart Remedy, Female Remedy, Indian Cough and Consumption Cure, Autumn Leaf Extract, U & O Ointment and Prompt Parilla Pills, but the most well known remedy was Dr. Kilmer's Swamp Root Kidney Liver and Bladder Cure. Swamp Root contained Buchu leaves, Oil of Juniper, Oil of Birch, Colombo Root, Swamp-Sassafras, Balsam Copaiba, Balsam Tolu, Skullcap leaves, Venice Turpentine, Valerian Root, Rhubarb Root, Mandrake Root, Peppermint herb, Aloes, Cinnamon and sugar and contained approximately 9 to 10-1/2% alcohol.

In the years prior to Dr. Kilmer's sale of his interest in the proprietary medicine business, during its growth and increasing professional services, Dr. Kilmer kept looking for a place which included the peculiar properties required and known only to him. He located such a place in Osborne Hollow, situated approximately ten miles east of Binghamton, where there was a sulpho-phosphate spring. He induced the townspeople to rename the area Sanitaria Springs and at a cost of $100,000 he built a Sanitarium and Hydrotherapium in 1892. The outside grounds were a well-arranged system of natural parks and the buildings contained every modern convenience of their time including electric lights, steam heaters and elevators. In addition to the sulpho-phosphate spring, there were ten others including the Blue Lithia, Red Iron, Black Magnetic and Ferro-Manganese. All types of baths were in use summer and winter, including Sulphur, Turkish, Russian and Electric. Dr. Kilmer's son Ulysses was employed as Associate Superintendent and a daughter, Edith, was the Librarian. Another of Dr. S. Andral's brothers, Andrew G. Kilmer, gave up his life work as a teacher ( He had been Associate Principal of the Schoharie Academy, Vice-President of the Franklin Institute, Principal of the grade school in Cobleskill and Principle of the Academy in Bainbridge, New York. He also organized the academy in Schenevus, with much success.) and entered the business office of Dr. Kilmer and Company and later, was the Assistant Superintendent of the Sanitarium. Andrew Kilmer was my maternal grandmother, Alice Cooper Kisselburgh's great-grandfather. She and her sister used to visit him and Uncle Sylvester at the sanitarium in the summer when they were young. It was also around this time that Dr. S. Andral Kilmer began formally treating patients for cancer, both at the Sanitarium and also at his Cancertorium at 254 Conklin Avenue in Binghamton. He advertised his cancer cure nationally and would pay train fare to the Sanitarium upon commitment of a stay of three to six months to effect the cure. He advocated a homeopathic approach to the treatment of this disease , which involved a controlled diet, treatment with the different springs as well as a secret medicine which, after a time, would cause the cancer to be expelled from the body; they would literally fall off. My grandmother and her sister had both been witness to these treatments and witnessed the results first-hand, and swore that they had seen the eradications occur. Dr. Kilmer was decidedly against plasters, radium, x-rays and surgery on these cancers as he felt that not only did they injure the patient, but they caused the cancers to be harder to treat and might even cause them to spread. At this period of time in Binghamton, there was a very heated clash between the traditional medical doctors and the homeopathic doctors; they wouldn't even work in the same hospitals together. Dr. Kilmer had been trained in both practices, but leaned more toward the homeopathic and allopathic teachings. This fact, as well as his ties to the proprietary medicine business, keep him under constant scrutiny by the "old school" doctors of his time. His assertions of having a cure for cancer, which they felt was impossible given his methods, made him the brunt of ridicule by his colleagues. He offered to share his knowledge in the non-surgical treatment of cancer with them, according to conversations his daughter Hattie Marguerite had with my grandmother, but was his help was refused and rebuffed, and he was so professionally ridiculed by his colleagues, that he took the secrets of his "cure" to his grave. The patients who were treated by Dr. Kilmer held him in high esteem, and he was treating patients three days before his death of a cerebral hemorrhage. He died in his home at 44 Beethoven Street in Binghamton on January 14, 1924. Whether or not he had a cure for cancer is open to conjecture - my grandmother and her sister would both state a resolute yes, however, testimonials and the like, especially of that era, quite often are at best questionable; my only thought is...what if?

Dr. S. Andral Kilmer and Jonas M. Kilmer had two other brothers who were also in business for themselves. Augustus Kilmer established the Kilmer Manufacturing Company in Newburgh, New York which manufactured baling ties and wire fencing. Another brother, Thomas J. Kilmer, was a physician in Schoharie, New York and several old bottles embossed with his name are known to exist.

Jonas M. Kilmer was also born in Cobleskill, New York on April 11, 1843. He was a graduate of the Bryant and Stratton Business College in Albany, after which he worked for a year in the general store of Joseph Taylor of Schoharie Court House, and then worked the next eighteen years in the mercantile business in New York City with several different firms, rising to important positions. His brother convinced him to move to Binghamton in 1881 where he ran the business end of the "patent medicine" business as an equal partner. In 1892 he bought out Dr. S. Andral Kilmer's interest in the company, though some would say he "swindled" his brother in the deal; the purchase price is unknown. Jonas' son, Willis Sharpe Kilmer became the Head of Advertising for the company, and business began to increase rapidly. The company was incorporated in 1909 as Dr. Kilmer & Company and had branch offices in New York, Chicago, Rio De Janeiro, Brazil and Kingston, Jamaica, West Indies. In 1899, Jonas Kilmer was elected Director of The People's Bank of Binghamton, in which capacity he served from October 2, 1899 until February 9, 1907, at which time he was elected President; he served in this capacity until his death. On December 4, 1907 he was chosen as a trustee of Binghamton Savings Bank and also served as President of the Binghamton Press from 1904 until his death. People's Bank merged with Broome County Trust Company on April 20, 1914 and became People's Trust Company. From 1893 to 1908, Jonas Kilmer also served as a member of the Board of Police Commissioners. Jonas Kilmer died in Binghamton in 1912, but not without first giving all the credit of the success of the family business to his son, Willis Sharpe Kilmer.

Willis Sharpe Kilmer was born in Brooklyn, New York on October 18, 1869. He graduated from Cornell University in 1880 and went to work in the family business. Willis was put in charge of the advertising department of Dr. Kilmer and Company, which lead to a swift increase in business. Advertising in the late 1800's was not the "science" that it is today and Willis Sharpe Kilmer was one of advertising's earliest pioneers. His first wife was Beatrice Richardson who's socially prominent father was one of the brightest executives in a fledgling newspaper advertising agency in New York City. Willis Kilmer had a more metropolitan upbringing than many of his peers and his relationship with Mr. Richardson and his family connections all helped benefit Willis and his new ideas. Dr. Kilmer and Company utilized all the forms of advertising of the day including painted wooden signs, posters and printed circulars, but with the entrance of Willis' leadership, began purchasing ad space in newspapers expounding the virtues of their numerous cures and they were amongst the fore-runners in printing Almanacs, which not only would list the normal items such as moon phases, best planting times and the like, but at every turn of the page, listed one or more of the products, printed testimonials for the same and helped diagnose "ailments" of which one of their products would "cure".

The packaging of their products was also easily noticed on the shelf. For ease of finding the correct cure, their Heart Remedy had an embossed heart on it, Swamp Root Kidney Cure had a kidney embossed on it and so forth, and their packaging was bright orange with the likeness of a whiskered Dr. S. Andral Kilmer printed boldly on the front. The package also invited customers to write to Dr. Kilmer for advise and prescription, which, long after Dr. S. Andral Kilmer had sold his share of the business, caused Dr. Kilmer to initiate a lawsuit against his brother and nephew in which he accused Dr. Kilmer and Company of representing him as the physician in charge of their medical department and also, that they pretended to give medical advice and prescribe medicines for diseases which they pretended to diagnose. When a lower court ruled against Dr. Kilmer and Company, Willis pursued the suit in The Appellate Court, and in 1917, the decision against the company was reversed. It was Willis Sharpe Kilmer's advertising prowess as well as his "muscle" via political and professional contacts that made Swamp Root a household word. When other patent medicines were losing popularity due to The Pure Food and Drug Act as well as an increased respect for medical science, Swamp Root was still filling the Kilmer coffers. When asked what Swamp Root was good for, Willis Kilmer once replied, "About a million dollars a year!".

Patent medicine wasn't the only thing Willis Sharp Kilmer was involved in. On April 11, 1904, Mr. Kilmer founded The Binghamton Press, which became a very well-respected newspaper in the country. It has been alleged, although never proven, that he started the newspaper for the purpose of putting The Binghamton Evening Herald out of business and he could also control the advertising of various patent medicines and any articles condemning the same. There were several people such as Samuel Hopkins Adams, who were very much against patent medicines and were lobbying very hard for the passage of The Pure Food and Drug Act. Mr. Kilmer was very successful in "squashing" their stories and did eventually put The Evening Herald, run by his long-time personal and political enemy Guy Beardsley, out of business. Mr. Beardsley later sued Willis Sharpe Kilmer charging conspiracy to put him out of business; Beardsley lost the suit.

Willis Sharpe Kilmer was also a very fine judge of horses. The family mansion is still located on Riverside Drive in Binghamton, and on the surrounding grounds, Mr. Kilmer built Sun Briar Court, which had a 1/5 mile indoor track, an outdoor track connected to a half-mile circular track, 100 fire-proof stalls and the main stable included offices, quarters and a clubhouse. The Kilmer racing colors were brown, green and orange and he owned many fine horses; Genie- the son of Man O' War, Sun Briar, Sun Beau and Exterminator, which won the 1918 Kentucky Derby and was the leading money winner for four straight seasons. Sun Beau held the American record for money won until Sea Biscuit broke the record in 1939. Mr. Kilmer owned a large estate on the Rappahannock River in Virginia known as Remlik (Kilmer spelled backwards) as well as a game preserve near Binghamton called Sky Lake and he was a pioneer in forest and game preservation in New York as well as Virginia. He established the Kilmer Pathological Laboratory in Binghamton and started Binghamton's first nine hole golf course, which later became the Binghamton Country Club. Willis Sharpe Kilmer died of pneumonia on July 12, 1940 leaving an estate estimated at $10 to $15 million dollars, and is interred in the family mausoleum in Floral Park Cemetery in Binghamton, New York.

After World War II, his second wife, Sarah Jane Wells, sold the rights to make and manufacture Swamp Root to Medtech Laboratories of Cody, Wyoming. The eight story Kilmer Building, built in 1902 after the original building was damaged by fire, still stands at 141 Chenango Street and Swamp Root was still on the shelves of the E. C. McKallor Drug Company in Binghamton in 1983 - it can still be ordered today, more than almost 120 years after it was first produced, a testament to the advertising skill of Willis Sharpe Kilmer and the strength of the Kilmer name and reputation.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

  1. Binghamton and Broome County, New York, Volumes I, II and III, The Lewis Historical Publishing Company, 1924

  2. Broome County Historical Society Newsletter, Spring 1982

  3. The Binghamton Press, June 30, 1983

  4. The Sunday Press, July 24, 1983

  5. The Binghamton Press, July 13, 1940

  6. The Binghamton Press, January 14, 1924

  7. The History of the Kilmer Family In America, Rev. C. H. Kilmer, 1897

  8. Lost Landmarks of Broome County, New York, Marjory Barnum Hinman, 1983

  9. One For A Man, Two For A Horse, Gerald Carson, 1961

  10. Willis Sharpe Kilmer's Use of Advertising in the Promotion of Swamp Root, Annette Bakic, 1981

  11. Dr. Kilmer's Swamp Root Almanac, 1930

  12. Dr. Kilmer's Swamp Root Almanac, 1941

  13. Dr. Kilmer's Red Book of Hope

  14. Valley of Opportunity


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