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Hadacol, the Last of the Medicine Shows

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Advertiser-supported entertainment is nothing new. Since medieval times, people could see free entertainment right in their hometown as long as they listened to a sales pitch for dubious remedies along with the singing, dancing, and side show acts. Sales of snake oil and other patent medicines paid for the show and then some. Like other forms of traveling entertainment, the medicine show lost its luster when people gained the opportunity to go see movies instead. The medicine show had one last hurrah during the 20th century in the form of Hadacol.

240LeBlancThe story of Hadacol is the story of Dudley LeBlanc. A born entrepreneur, LeBlanc put himself through college in Lafayette, Louisiana by running a clothes pressing business. Then he put four brothers and two cousins through college as well. LeBlanc sold shoes, tobacco, patent medicine, and funeral insurance. He also ran a funeral home, which benefitted greatly from insurance sales. LeBlanc served as state senator and in the Louisiana Public Service Commission. In 1932, he ran for governor of Louisiana against Oscar Allen, who had the support of Huey Long. It was a particularly nasty campaign that LeBlanc lost. He also ran unsuccessfully for governor in 1944 and 1952. LeBlanc served as state senator for four non-consecutive terms between 1940 and his death in 1971. In the midst of his political career, he also made millions selling Hadacol.

LeBlanc ran into some trouble with the FDA over the patent medicines he was selling in 1941. Rather than deal with defending products that weren't all that profitable, he stopped making Dixie Dew Cough Syrup and Happy Day Headache Powders. Then he came up with something better. The story LeBlanc told was that he was suffering from pain in his big toe, and the only doctor who could help him wouldn't share the recipe for the medicine he used. So LeBlanc stole some from an inattentive nurse and research the ingredients on the label. From that information, he developed Hadacol. The name was short for Happy Day Company, with an L for LeBlanc. However, many years later when someone asked how he named the drug, LeBlanc said "Well, I hadda call it something."

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Hadacol was a mixture of vitamins B1 and B2, iron, niacin, calcium, phosphorous, honey, and diluted hydrochloric acid in 12% alcohol. The alcohol content wasn't all that high, but the hydrochloric acid meant it was delivered through the body faster than it would be otherwise. The mixture really made people feel better, although it wasn't a cure for the many diseases it was advertised for: high blood pressure, ulcers, strokes, asthma, arthritis, diabetes, pneumonia, anemia, cancer, epilepsy, gall stones, heart trouble, and hay fever. And that was only the beginning.

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What made Hadacol a success was LeBlanc's advertising ingenuity. He explored ways to promote his product that took the public by surprise -and worked. He kept supplies low in some pharmacies to create demand. He paid people for their testimonies, which sometimes crossed the line to ridiculous.

"Two months ago I couldn't read nor write. I took four bottles of Hadacol, and now I'm teaching school."

200hadacol-adHadacol was everywhere, on radio, on billboards, in newspapers and magazines, and at the local pharmacy. It was even sold in liquor stores and bars. People paid $3.50 for a 24-ounce bottle even if they had no food in the pantry. The hope for a better tomorrow trumped common sense in those days, just as it does now. LeBlanc pushed Hadacol on his radio show, which he broadcast in French. He published a medical pamphlet extolling the wonder of his elixir. He gave away swag featuring the name Hadacol on it, including water pistols and a comic book for children with stories drawn from glowing testimonies. LeBlanc wrote a jingle called "The Hadacol Boogie" which was recorded by several artists including Jerry Lee Lewis. He gave out Hadacol tokens, good for 25 cents off a bottle. LeBlanc had to expand his factory, then build more factories. Hadacol use spread from Louisiana across the nation. Millions of bottles were sold every year.

240hadacolboogieThe Food and Drug Administration objected, not to Hadacol itself, but to LeBlanc's claims that it cured cancer, epilepsy, asthma, and other diseases when it clearly did not. Wanting to avoid trouble, LeBlanc pulled those claims, but the damage was done. The new health claims were vague, but he couldn't do anything about the testimonies consumers gave. Without specific diseases, Hadacol became a cure-all for whatever people hoped it would cure. And no matter what was wrong, the medicine made people feel better -and that was all that mattered. LeBlanc instigated rumors that Hadacol was good for sexual potency, a tip that was slyly alluded to in the medicine shows. Hadacol was said to be recommended by doctors, although the only doctor named was Dr. L.A. Willey, who later turned out to be a Californian convicted of practicing medicine without a license. To enlist doctors for endorsements, LeBlanc offered free samples and a payment for each patient a doctor could recruit for research.

250_300hadacolparadeIn 1950, LeBlanc took the show on the road. The Hadacol Caravan of 130 vehicles played one-night stands throughout the South. Thousands of people paid admission with Hadacol box tops each night and enjoyed entertainment from Carmen Miranda, Mickey Rooney, Bob Hope, Lucille Ball, George Burns and Gracie Allen, Roy Acuff, Minnie Pearl, and other big names. The band played, chorus girls danced, circus acts performed, and LeBlanc sold millions of bottles of Hadacol. the caravan then headed west and recruited the talents of Groucho Marx and Judy Garland. In 1951, LeBlanc toured using a 17-car train called the Hadacol Special. The shows featured bicycle giveaways, beauty contests, and clowns selling Hadacol. Jack Dempsey, Milton Berle, Jimmy Durante, and Cesar Romero joined the show, which played for a month straight in Los Angeles. Hank Williams played the final act of the show and brought people to their feet every night.

190hadacolgoodforAt the time, Hadacol was the second biggest advertiser in the US, right after Coca-Cola. As the caravan headed east, there were hints that all was not well with LeBlanc financially. The company head was spending more in advertising than he was bringing in. He announced that he was selling the company to the Maltz Cancer Foundation, but would stay as a sales manager. The actual buyers included Dr. Maxwell Maltz, a plastic surgeon who ran a "private research project." Then news then came that LeBlanc was in trouble with the IRS. The caravan tour laid off some performers, then cancelled before the end of the schedule. Some performers were stranded without pay. The group that bought Hadacol was stunned to find how far in debt the company was, and declared bankruptcy even before paying the entire $8 million selling price to LeBlanc. Still, LeBlanc had the last laugh, as the company's debts were no longer his. Later that year, LeBlanc appeared on Groucho Marx' TV show You Bet Your Life. Marx asked him what Hadacol was good for. LeBlanc quipped "It was good for about"¦ 5 and a half million dollars for me last year."

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Food
The Gooey History of the Fluffernutter Sandwich

Open any pantry in New England and chances are you’ll find at least one jar of Marshmallow Fluff. Not just any old marshmallow crème, but Fluff; the one manufactured by Durkee-Mower of Lynn, Massachusetts since 1920, and the preferred brand of the northeast. With its familiar red lid and classic blue label, it's long been a favorite guilty pleasure and a kitchen staple beloved throughout the region.

This gooey, spreadable, marshmallow-infused confection is used in countless recipes and found in a variety of baked goods—from whoopie pies and Rice Krispies Treats to chocolate fudge and beyond. And in the beyond lies perhaps the most treasured concoction of all: the Fluffernutter sandwich—a classic New England treat made with white bread, peanut butter, and, you guessed it, Fluff. No jelly required. Or wanted.

There are several claims to the origin of the sandwich. The first begins with Revolutionary War hero Paul Revere—or, not Paul exactly, but his great-great-great-grandchildren Emma and Amory Curtis of Melrose, Massachusetts. Both siblings were highly intelligent and forward-thinkers, and Amory was even accepted into MIT. But when the family couldn’t afford to send him, he founded a Boston-based company in the 1890s that specialized in soda fountain equipment.

He sold the business in 1901 and used the proceeds to buy the entire east side of Crystal Street in Melrose. Soon after he built a house and, in his basement, he created a marshmallow spread known as Snowflake Marshmallow Crème (later called SMAC), which actually predated Fluff. By the early 1910s, the Curtis Marshmallow Factory was established and Snowflake became the first commercially successful shelf-stable marshmallow crème.

Although other companies were manufacturing similar products, it was Emma who set the Curtis brand apart from the rest. She had a knack for marketing and thought up many different ways to popularize their marshmallow crème, including the creation of one-of-a-kind recipes, like sandwiches that featured nuts and marshmallow crème. She shared her culinary gems in a weekly newspaper column and radio show. By 1915, Snowflake was selling nationwide.

During World War I, when Americans were urged to sacrifice meat one day a week, Emma published a recipe for a peanut butter and marshmallow crème sandwich. She named her creation the "Liberty Sandwich," as a person could still obtain his or her daily nutrients while simultaneously supporting the wartime cause. Some have pointed to Emma’s 1918 published recipe as the earliest known example of a Fluffernutter, but the earliest recipe mental_floss can find comes from three years prior. In 1915, the confectioners trade journal Candy and Ice Cream published a list of lunch offerings that candy shops could advertise beyond hot soup. One of them was the "Mallonut Sandwich," which involved peanut butter and "marshmallow whip or mallo topping," spread on lightly toasted whole wheat bread.

Another origin story comes from Somerville, Massachusetts, home to entrepreneur Archibald Query. Query began making his own version of marshmallow crème and selling it door-to-door in 1917. Due to sugar shortages during World War I, his business began to fail. Query quickly sold the rights to his recipe to candy makers H. Allen Durkee and Fred Mower in 1920. The cost? A modest $500 for what would go on to become the Marshmallow Fluff empire.

Although the business partners promoted the sandwich treat early in the company’s history, the delicious snack wasn’t officially called the Fluffernutter until the 1960s, when Durkee-Mower hired a PR firm to help them market the sandwich, which resulted in a particularly catchy jingle explaining the recipe.

So who owns the bragging rights? While some anonymous candy shop owner was likely the first to actually put the two together, Emma Curtis created the early precursors and brought the concept to a national audience, and Durkee-Mower added the now-ubiquitous crème and catchy name. And the Fluffernutter has never lost its popularity.

In 2006, the Massachusetts state legislature spent a full week deliberating over whether or not the Fluffernutter should be named the official state sandwich. On one side, some argued that marshmallow crème and peanut butter added to the epidemic of childhood obesity. The history-bound fanatics that stood against them contended that the Fluffernutter was a proud culinary legacy. One state representative even proclaimed, "I’m going to fight to the death for Fluff." True dedication, but the bill has been stalled for more than a decade despite several revivals and subsequent petitions from loyal fans.

But Fluff lovers needn’t despair. There’s a National Fluffernutter Day (October 8) for hardcore fans, and the town of Somerville, Massachusetts still celebrates its Fluff pride with an annual What the Fluff? festival.

"Everyone feels like Fluff is part of their childhood," said self-proclaimed Fluff expert and the festival's executive director, Mimi Graney, in an interview with Boston Magazine. "Whether born in the 1940s or '50s, or '60s, or later—everyone feels nostalgic for Fluff. I think New Englanders in general have a particular fondness for it."

Today, the Fluffernutter sandwich is as much of a part of New England cuisine as baked beans or blueberry pie. While some people live and die by the traditional combination, the sandwich now comes in all shapes and sizes, with the addition of salty and savory toppings as a favorite twist. Wheat bread is as popular as white, and many like to grill their sandwiches for a touch of bistro flair. But don't ask a New Englander to swap out their favorite brand of marshmallow crème. That’s just asking too Fluffing much.

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The Hospital in the Rock
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History
Budapest’s Former Top-Secret Hospital Inside a Cave
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The Hospital in the Rock

At the top of a hill in Budapest, overlooking the Danube River, sits Buda Castle, a gorgeous UNESCO World Heritage site visited by thousands of tourists every year. Directly underneath the castle, however, lies a less-frequented tourist attraction: a series of ancient, naturally formed caves with a colorful and sometimes disturbing history.

The entire cave system is over six miles long, and most of that has been left unchanged since it was used as cold storage (and a rumored dungeon) in the Middle Ages. Between 1939 and 2008, however, a half-mile stretch of those caves was built up and repurposed many times over. Known as Sziklakorhaz or The Hospital in the Rock, its many uses are a testament to the area’s involvement in World War II and the Cold War.

At the start of World War II, the location served as a single-room air raid center, but operating theaters, corridors, and wards were quickly added to create a much-needed hospital. By early 1944, the hospital had officially opened inside the cave, tending to wounded Hungarian and Nazi soldiers. After less than a year of operation, the facility found itself facing its largest challenge—the Siege of Budapest, which lasted seven weeks and was eventually won by Allied forces on their way to Berlin.

As one of the few area hospitals still operational, the Hospital in the Rock was well over capacity during the siege. Originally built to treat around 70 patients, close to 700 ended up crammed into the claustrophobic caves. The wounded lay three to a bed—if they were lucky enough to get a bed at all. Unsurprisingly, heat from all those bodies raised the ambient temperature to around 95°F, and smoking cigarettes was the number one way to pass the time. Add that to the putrid mix of death, decay, and infection and you’ve got an incredibly unpleasant wartime cocktail.

A recreation inside the museum. Image credit: The Hospital in the Rock 

After the siege, the Soviets took control of the caves (and Budapest itself) and gutted the hospital of most of its supplies. Between 1945 and 1948, the hospital produced a vaccination for typhus. As the icy grasp of the Cold War began to tighten, new wards were built, new equipment was installed, and the hospital was designated top-secret by the Soviets, referred to only by its official codename LOSK 0101/1.

Eleven years after facing the horrors of the Siege of Budapest, in 1956, the hospital hosted the casualties of another battle: The Hungarian Uprising. Thousands of Hungarians revolted against the Soviet policies of the Hungarian People’s Republic in a fierce, prolonged battle. Civilians and soldiers alike lay side-by-side in wards as surgeons attempted to save them. During the uprising, seven babies were also born in the hospital.

Surgeons lived on-site and rarely surfaced from the caves. The hospital’s chief surgeon at the time, Dr. András Máthé, famously had a strict "no amputation" rule, which seemed to fly in the face of conventional wisdom, but in the end reportedly saved many patients' lives. (Máthé also reportedly wore a bullet that he’d removed from a patient’s head on a chain around his neck.)

The Hospital in the Rock ceased normal operations in December 1956, after the Soviets squashed the uprising, as the Soviets had new plans for the caves. With the Cold War now in full swing, the still-secret site was converted into a bunker that could serve as a hospital in case of nuclear attack. Diesel engines and an air conditioning system were added in the early '60s, so that even during a blackout, the hospital could still function for a couple of days.

The Hospital in the Rock

The official plan for the bunker was as follows: In the event of a nuclear attack, a selection of doctors and nurses would retreat to the bunker, where they would remain for 72 hours. Afterward, they were to go out and search for survivors. Special quarantined rooms, showering facilities, and even a barbershop were on site for survivors brought back to the site. (The only haircut available to them, however, was a shaved head; radioactive material is notoriously difficult to remove from hair.)

Thankfully, none of these nuclear procedures were ever put into practice. But the hospital was never formally decommissioned, and it wasn’t relieved of its top-secret status until the mid-2000s. For a while, it was still being used as a storage facility by Hungary’s Civil Defense Force. The bunker was maintained by a nearby family, who were sworn to secrecy. In 2004, it was decided that responsibility for the site fell solely on St. John’s Hospital in Budapest, who were seen as the de facto owners in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union.

By 2008 the bunker was renovated, refurbished, and ready to be opened to the public. Today it operates as a museum, with exhibits detailing life in the hospital from various periods of its history, as well as the history of combat medicine as a whole. The sobering hour-long walk around the hospital concludes with a cautionary gaze into the atrocities of nuclear attacks, with the final walk to the exit featuring a gallery of art created by survivors of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings.

Another part of the caves beneath Buda Castle. Image credit:Sahil Jatana via Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

The caves beneath Buda Castle have certainly had a bumpy history, and walking through them now is chilling (and not just because they keep the temperature at around 60°F). A tour through the narrow, oppressive hallways is a glimpse at our narrowly avoided nuclear future—definitely a sobering way to spend an afternoon.

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