Fake coffee. Rotten meat. Poison milk. This is the story of a few good men and their bitter fight to make America’s food supply safe. Hounded by enemies and discredited at every turn, a handful of scientists and activists challenged the titans of the 19th century food industry – and won.
Fake coffee. Rotten meat. Poison milk. This is the story of a few good men and their bitter fight to make America’s food supply safe. Hounded by enemies and discredited at every turn, a handful of scientists and activists challenged the titans of the 19th century food industry – and won.
Blum, Deborah. The Poison Squad: One Chemists Single-Minded Crusade for Food Safety at the Turn of the Twentieth Century. 2018.
Morris, Edmund. The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt. 1979
Sinclair, Upton. The Jungle. 1906.
Hilts, Philip J. Protecting America’s Health: The FDA, Business, and One Hundred Years of Regulation. 2003.
Wilson, Bee. Swindled: The Dark History of Food Fraud, from Poisoned Candy to Counterfeit Coffee. 2008.
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Hello and welcome to Conflicted, the history podcast where we talk about the struggles that shaped us, the tough questions that they pose, and why we should care about any of it.
Conflicted is a member of the Evergreen Podcasts Network, and as always, I’m your host, Zach Cornwell.
Welcome to Episode 17: The Kitchen Cartel.
In the year 2019, a huge controversy fractured American discourse.
This debate turned brother against brother. Coworker against coworker. It split us apart into two irreconcilable factions. In many ways, it challenged every assumption we had about who we were as a nation.
I’m referring, *of course*, to the Popeye’s Chicken Sandwich.
For years, Chick-Fil-A had reigned supreme in the annals of fast food fried chicken sandwiches. Nothing could touch it. It was perfection on a pedestal. Then, Popeyes threw down the gauntlet.
It’s hard to describe what a unique media experience this was in America. What began as a whisper, turned into a buzz, and then a roar. Popeyes had a chicken sandwich and it was, supposedly, excellent. Better than Chick-fil-A’s by a country fried mile.
There were lines to try this thing. Popeye’s locations frequently ran out within hours. There were even scattered incidents of violence. Some people were killed over this sandwich. No joke. And all the word-of-mouth was supplemented by a deluge of TV and social media advertising. In the eye of this marketing maelstrom, was one perfect image: A glorious shot of the Popeye’s Chicken Sandwich.
It was so immaculate; it looked like a painting. Between two golden, cloudlike buns sat a perfectly crunchy piece of fried chicken on a bed of bright green pickle slices. It defied gravity…and reality.
Because when you actually got the sandwich, it left something to be desired, appearance-wise. The bun was smushed. It was a little dry and desiccated. The chicken was good, but it wasn’t the ambrosia that the advertising had led us to believe it would be. The chicken was askew, it looked a little sloppy. The pickles were kinda soggy, the sauce was gloopy and unevenly distributed.
But of course, that’s to be expected. We know that the food we see in commercials is a fabrication. An impossible standard. A myth that we subconsciously accept. Because in reality, that immaculate chicken sandwich on TV is actually propped up by toothpicks to give it its gravity-defying posture. The bun is spritzed with a spray bottle to give it a buttery shine. The sauce is likely not sauce at all. It’s usually an inedible liquid with the exact degree of viscosity necessary to stay consistent under the blinding hot lights of a photography studio.
But that’s true about most food we see on TV. Modern food stylists are wizards. They will use anything and everything, no matter how unnatural or artificial, to make food look as delicious as possible. It’s an art form unto itself.
For example, whenever you see perfectly smooth maple syrup cascading over a stack of pancakes? That’s motor oil. Pennzoil. It has just the right hue and consistency, plus it won’t absorb into the pancakes.
When you see Cheerios floating in a bowl of perfectly white milk, they’re actually just sitting in a pool of Elmer’s glue. It won’t make the cereal soggy.
And if you need to add some steam to a shot of a piping-hot meal, you might soak cotton balls or tampons in water, microwave them, then conceal them behind the plate. That way you get thick roiling vapors of steam. At least that’s how it used to be done.
The point I’m trying to make with all of this, is that we are willing to accept a certain amount of fiction in our food. All these advertising tricks and embellishments are innocent enough. It’s not physically hurting anyone. It’s telling a story. Besides, we like being lied to a little, right? We like having the platonic ideal of chicken sandwich in our heads when we bite into the soggy, smushed version.
We know the food we get isn’t going be spritzed with motor oil or filled with toothpicks or swimming in glue. The real version is a little ugly, but edible and substantive. We’re okay with a little self-deception. But what about…actual deception?
Imagine that the fiction didn’t stop with the ad campaign. That it wasn’t just white lies on a TV commercial, but a harmful, chemical deception that found its way into your home and your stomach. And your kids’ stomachs. Imagine that beautiful piece of fried chicken was well past its expiration date and filled with embalming fluid to keep it from rotting. That the crispy-fried batter wasn’t so much flour as it was sawdust and insect parts. That the pickles were given their bright green color courtesy of toxic copper oxide.
Now imagine that all of this is legal.
You would go to the grocery store and every aisle is a game of Russian roulette. Because companies have no obligation to tell you what’s in the stuff they’re selling you. They have no legal obligation to keep you safe. Their only obligation is to their own profit margins.
Thankfully that is not the case today. For the most part, our modern food supply is safe and heavily regulated. But in the closing decades of the 19th century, it was a jungle. A wild west of lies, landmines, and horrific duplicity. A time when it was almost impossible to ascertain what food was real and genuine, and which ones were literally poison, masquerading as healthy food. Parents were as likely to give their children a toxic dose of lead as they were a nutritious meal.
So…what changed? Why don’t we have poisons and toxins in our food now? Did large corporations just suddenly grow a conscience and decide to do the right thing? No. It took decades of reform and struggle and dead-ends to make it happen.
Today’s episode is about that struggle. About the handful of men and women who fought tooth and nail to make America’s food supply safe. Hounded by enemies and discredited at every turn, a handful of scientists and activists challenged the titans of the 19th century food industry – and won.
I recognized that I have a compulsive tendency to zig when I should zag, so in this season of holiday feasts and huge spreads of delicious food, I’m going in the opposite direction a bit. Some of this stuff is absolutely harrowing. It will challenge the strength of your stomach a bit. But it’s a very inspiring story with some huge, larger-than-life characters. And it might just make you a little bit more thankful this holiday season.
So, let’s get it into it.
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Our story begins across the pond, in Britain.
In the city of London, around the year 1820, a young woman arrived at her favorite hairdresser. She was there to get her hair done. A simple cut-and-style, a nice new do.
She sits down in the chair and the hairdresser gets to work with clippers and combs and brushes. This young woman knew she was going to be there for a while – a few hours, probably – so she thought ahead and brought a little snack. It was a jar of pickled cucumbers.
As the hairdresser cuts the young lady’s hair, the woman eats her snack. They chat and talk and gossip. The girl was probably super excited to hit the town with her new hair, freshly trimmed and styled.
When she’s finished, the girl throws the empty pickle jar away, pays the hairdresser and heads home. A few hours later, she starts feeling weird. She feels light-headed and nauseous. Then, the waves of nausea turn into cramps. The cramps turn into an agonizing pressure, pushing relentlessly against her diaphragm and her lungs.
She immediately lays down to rest, but she doesn’t get better. She just feels worse and worse. Her family can only watch helplessly as the discomfort turns into agony. The young woman’s belly becomes distended, filling with air and fluid with every passing hour. She starts vomiting blood. They pull up her shirt and see that her abdomen is crisscrossed with networks of blue veins bulging beneath the skin. She cries out in pain over and over again, but no one knows what to do. Doctors were surely called, but they didn’t know what to do for her.
This young English woman spends the next 11 days, roughly 264 hours, in excruciating pain. Until finally, she dies. Post-mortem, a physician was summoned. A certain Dr. Percival. And Dr Percival, a man with an eye for chemistry, deduces the cause of death.
The jar of pickles.
This innocent snack could’ve been bought from any grocer on any corner in any neighborhood in London. It was impossible to know for sure. But this particular jar of pickles had been poisoned. Not deliberately…or at least not with the intention of killing this young woman. But they were toxic. And not by accident.
The pickles had been dosed with copper oxide. Why? Well, copper oxide, although poisonous, gives vegetables what one chemist called a “lively green color”. And a jar of pickles is much easier to sell if the contents look fresh and green. Well, there was nothing lively about the young woman. She was dead. Although I’m sure her hair looked good in the casket.
The family was naturally heartbroken, but there was no one to turn to. No court or cop or government official could help them. As historian Deborah Blum writes:
“Britain had no law against making unsafe—or even lethal—food products.”
The sad truth was, this young woman was just one casualty in a long line of casualties linked to deliberately poisoned – or “adulterated” food.
Let’s zoom out, just a bit.
The 19th century was a time of tremendous change. It was the era of industrialization, automation, and the birth of modern science. The post-Enlightenment world was brimming with possibility. Every day it seemed, new discoveries were being made, new machines were being invented, and new oddities were being revealed to a fascinated European public.
The atmosphere wouldn’t have been that different than the one we have now in the Internet age. Today, it seems like every other hour a new gadget or app or device is being churned out. That sense of breathless innovation was how it would’ve felt in the early decades of the 19th century.
And one of the fields that was getting the most attention was chemistry.
What began as a basic understanding of the relationship between oxygen and combustion, quickly snowballed into a cutting-edge new scientific field. By mastering nature’s fundamental elements and understanding how substances reacted with one another on a molecular level, humans could remake and alter matter in unprecedented ways. As one historian noted:
“In the space of about twenty years commencing in 1770, the science of chemistry experienced a change more complete and more fundamental than any that had occurred before or has occurred since.”
But like all sciences, chemistry soon made the leap from the halls of academia, to the alleys of commerce. Enterprising minds began to realize that this new frontier of knowledge could be used to make money – a LOT of money. Even the simplest chemistry could deceive the human senses. It could make rotten food taste like new. It could make old withered, produce look bright and colorful. It could prolong the life of foodstuffs for days, weeks, months, maybe even years.
It was like magic. Or at least it seemed to be.
British food producers and retailers start using chemistry to cut corners. They use chemical shortcuts and tricks to deceive a gullible public. To commit what today we could call blatant, criminal fraud. As one businessman named Richard Wallington said in 1855: “What the eye never sees, the heart does not grieve over.” Or as we say in modern times, “What they don’t know, won’t hurt ‘em.”
If you were a human who ate food in 19th century England, you were either being swindled or poisoned every day of your life. By 1820, it was inescapable. And I think the best way to fully grasp the sheer ubiquity of food fraud and adulteration in this time period, is to examine it through the lens of a single day.
So imagine. You wake up. 6AM. You’re groggy; you gotta go to work. So you make yourself a cup of coffee. But odds were, that bag of grounds you bought from the grocer down the street is not coffee at all. It is, according to historian Bee Wilson: “Almost universally thinned with chicory powder, the chicory itself cheapened with several of the following: roasted wheat and rye, burnt beans, acorns, sawdust, or carrots.”
Now your kids are thirsty too, so you pour them a glass of milk. But the milk was not pure either. It was usually way past it shelf-life, watered down and infused with a heavy dose of formaldehyde to mask the rotten taste. The dairy seller might have even added a few drops of toxic yellow dye to give it a healthy creamy color.
So after having your fake coffee and poisoning the kids with bad milk, you head to work. At lunchtime, you grab a bite to eat. Maybe a sandwich. Unfortunately for you, that nice white bread was adulterated too. According to Wilson: “Bakers would take low-grade flour and ‘improve’ it by adding the bleaching chemical alum to make the bread whiter, lighter, and more porous.”
After work, you head home. And maybe you want to do something nice for the kids, buy them some sweets. You stop at a shop and grab a handful of bright, colorful candies. Well, all that color came with a cost. As Wilson writes: “Red ones were often colored with lead or mercury; the green sweets with copper-based dyes, and the yellow, with yellow chromate or lead.
Lead was a very convenient additive at this time. Because not only did it inhibit the growth of bacteria, it was also naturally sweet. That’s a little known fact – that lead is actually delicious. As a result, it was everywhere in the food supply. Used as a sweetener and a shortcut by everyone from confectioners to wine makers. Unfortunately, it also caused:
“severe constipation and unbearable colic pains, loss of speech, deafness, sterility, blindness, paralysis, loss of control of the extremities, and eventually death.”
But back to our hypothetical working Joe.
After a long day, maybe you want to relax with a stiff drink. So you head to the pub to grab a pint. And the barkeep places a tall glass of ale with a fluffy white head. Well, brewers often added a chemical called “green vitriol” to their beer to produce a satisfying, foamy head on their beer. It was, of course, toxic. And a marker of bad quality.
So you can start to see how pervasive this problem is. There’s almost no way to escape it. And it often had dire consequences. According to Deborah Blum:
In 1847 three English children fell seriously ill after eating birthday cake decorated with arsenic-tinted green leaves. Five years later, two London brothers died after eating a cake whose frosting contained both arsenic and copper. In an 1854 report, London physician Arthur Hassall tracked forty cases of child poisoning caused by penny candies.”
And these were just the cases where people ingested so large or so concentrated a dose that the effects were immediate. For most people it was a slow, gradual poisoning. Lead, for example, takes years to build up in your bones before it starts to kill you.
Now, you might say, surely these food sellers didn’t know what they were doing. This was an ignorant time, they didn’t understand the long term effects of all these chemicals. Sadly, you’d be wrong in that assumption. These sellers knew exactly what they were doing. And it was all to squeeze a little more money out of their customers and cut costs of production. But these sellers also relied on the local food supply, so the result was that everyone was poisoning one another. As Bee Wilson writes:
“Thus, the apothecary, who sells poisonous ingredients to the brewer, chuckles over his roguery and swallows his own drugs in his daily copious exhibitions of brown stout. The brewer in turn, is poisoned by the baker, the wine merchant, and the grocer.”
And if any retailer, grocer, or food supplier tried to do it honestly, he was often run out of business. Cost-saving adulteration was so widespread, that cutting corners was the only way to stay competitive. According to Bee Wilson honesty was “suicidal” As one English food swindler told a journalist:
“We’re all trying to cut one another down, because we all want a livelihood, and unless we did cut one another down, we wouldn’t get it.”
One historian summarizes the problem:
“If swindling was everywhere, what is the point of being honest?”
Predictably, the people who suffered the most under these chaotic unregulated circumstances were poor people. As a British journalist named Henry Mayhew wrote in the 1840s:
“How cruelly the poor are defrauded. They are underpaid for what they do, and at the same time fearfully overcharged for what they buy”
To put food on the table, parents often had no choice but to serve their kids rotten meat or formaldehyde-laced milk. It was toxic, but at least it was calories. The choices were either starve, or slowly poison yourself to death. At least with adulterated food, you’d last a little longer.
This problem was an open secret. There were even popular songs and poems at the time, demonizing grocers as cheats, swindlers and poisoners. One of those went like this:
He sells us sands of Araby, as sugar for cash down.
He sweeps his shops and sells the dust, as the purest salt in town
He crams with cans of poisoned meat, the subjects of the king
And when they die by the thousands, why he laughs like anything.
Now, you might be asking, where was the government in all this? Where is the law? Surely all these people dropping dead inflamed the consciences of government officials and spurred them towards regulation?
Unfortunately, this was a case of wrong people, wrong place, wrong time. The science of chemistry was coming into its own at the exact same time that another revolution was taking place: Unregulated, laissez faire capitalism. As Wilson writes:
“The prevailing mood of the British press and government in 1820 was still excessively laissez faire: nonintervention remained the dominant philosophy of the day.”
“A reluctance of government to upset the wheels of commerce” and a “reckless willingness of a the worst swindlers to sacrifice the health of others to turn a quick buck.”
“The market was God, and many believed that through some magical process of equilibrium, the market would provide.”
As the German chemist Frederick Accum said:
“The eager and insatiable thirst for gain, which seems to be a leading characteristic of the times, calls into action every human faculty, and gives an irresistible impulse to the power of invention; and where lucre becomes the reigning principle, the possible sacrifice of even a fellow creature’s life is a secondary consideration.”
But this indifference to the public health and worship of cold-hard capitalism was a new phenomenon. It had not always been this way. Europe, in fact, had a robust history of regulating the production of food to make sure it was safe for consumption and honestly produced.
As early as 802 A.D., the Frankish emperor Charlemagne had “issued what was probably the first edict against fraudulent wine in the post-classical age” according to historian Bee Wilson.
In the middle ages, in England, the manufacture and sale of wine was rigidly enforced. In 1364 a vintner named John Penrose was accused of selling bad or adulterated wine. He was hauled before the mayor of London, forced to drink a cup of his own swill, and then promptly kicked out of town and forbidden to ever make wine again.
Bakers in the middle ages were required to imprint their seal into every individual loaf of bread they baked. So that if a customer noticed any adulteration or undesirable qualities in the dough, they could trace it back to the man who baked it.
One 16th century London baker who’d sold a bad loaf of bread was publicly shamed; he was dragged through the muddy streets with a loaf of his own bad bread hanging around his neck. Bread was serious business in the Middle East as well. A local judge in Turkey is recorded as saying that he threw a swindling baker into his own oven as punishment:
“I went to his bakery, I had his bread weighed and found it light. His oven was still red hot. I had him thrown in, and my business was finished.”
Spices and herbs were also emphatically regulated. In fact, in England there was a special profession for ensuring their purity. They were called “Garblers”, a term taken from the Arabic word “gharbala”, which means to sift or select. Bee Wilson describes them as “the first guardians of public health.”
They even had to swear an oath, promising they would not engage in corruption or scheme:
“You shall swear that you shall well and honestly behave yourself in the office of garbling within the city of London, without stealing, embezzling, or unlawfully or honestly conveying away any part of such spices…You shall garbel and cleanse all manner of spices, drugs, and merchandize, justly, truly, and indifferently according to your skilled judgment without respect of any person or persons whatsoever.”
But as the centuries wore on, and the cult of the unregulated free market began to take hold, public health took a backseat to personal enrichment.
“Caveat emptor” or “Buyer Beware” was the axiom of the day. The burden was not on sellers to provide a safe product, but on the customer to ascertain which products would kill them or not.
It was an impossible task. Not only because of the pervasiveness of fraud and adulteration, but because of how ingeniously the toxic chemicals were woven into the products. Often times, you couldn’t taste the different between a piece of candy filled with lead dyes and one filled with harmless natural dyes.
It got so bad, that chemists would sell little pamphlets and how-to guides on how to test for harmful chemicals in everyday food items. For example, to tell if your milk was laced with formaldehyde or arsenic or bleach, you would drop certain additives into it and depending on the color or the reaction type, you’d know whether your milk was pure or not.
And then there was the other problem. How do you hold anyone accountable when everyone is doing it? And who is to blame when the chains of production are so long and so multi-faceted that it is impossible to assign culpability. There is no single villain twirling a mustache dropping a vial of poison into the food supply, but a complex web of people involved. As Bee Wilson writes:
“No single person can take responsibility for the quality of a given food or drink, since it has passed through so many hands. Adulteration thrives when trade operates in large, impersonal chains. In a rural setting, swindling is a risky business. If you are a village milkman, the chain between you and you customers is very short. You know them all by name because they are your neighbors. If you start watering down your milk, the chances are that word will soon get out and you will be ostracized. But if you are selling milk in the metropolis of London in 1820, to an ever-shifting clientele, it is easier to cover your tracks.”
She goes on:
“To ensure secrecy of these mysteries, the processes are very ingeniously divided and subdivided among individual operators, and the manufacture is purposely carried on in separate establishments.
But eventually, people start to get angry. And anger is always an accelerant for reform. Activist, scientists and journalists start exposing these practices, driven by a righteous fury. Frederick Accum, one of the many activists who were appalled by the state of public health and food safety in mid-1800s Britain, had this to say:
“The man who robs a fellow subject of a few shillings on the high-way, is sentenced to death, while he who distributes a slow poison to a whole community escapes unpunished.
The reformers believed, according to Wilson that “to poison cunningly and knowingly was a crime akin to murder, driven by naked greed.”
The tipping point came in 1857, when twenty one people in Yorkshire died after eating candy that had been mixed with arsenic by accident. The confectioner defended himself by saying he had meant to mix in chalk instead. No one was convicted, because there was no crime to convict anyone of. And that tipped the balance in favor of reform.
In 1860, Britain passed a far-reaching Adulteration Act. It clamped down hard on food producers and industrial practices, and it made the average person in Britain much, much safer. It wasn’t perfect, but in subsequent decades it would be expanded and improved.
But the fight was far from over.
Across the Atlantic, in America, the situation was much, much worse. The economic vacuum left by the Civil War, combined with a revolution in industrial technology, turned every American’s pantry into a veritable death trap. There was no oversight, no regulation, and no rules. Thousands of unsuspecting Americans were being sacrificed every year at the altar of the free market. And no one in Washington seemed to care, as long as they were all getting rich in the process.
In the end, it would take a tense and unlikely alliance between a chemist, a novelist, and a President to save America’s food supply.
It would be a battle, as Bee Wilson put it, “between the science of deception and the science of detection”.
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In the spring of 1880, students at Perdue University in Indiana were treated to a very odd sight.
A huge man, “muscled like a ditch digger”, was riding a bicycle through the campus grounds. He zipped effortlessly though the paths and gardens, wearing a suit and hat, waving and smiling as he went. Until, eventually, he arrived at the Chemistry building.
This eccentric individual was not an entertainer or a member of the circus, he was a professor, named Harvey Washington Wiley. The rest of the faculty at Perdue disliked and resented this oddball gallivanting among their distinguished ranks, but the students loved him. Professor Wiley even used to play baseball with the students after classes.
The 36-year-old Harvey Washington Wiley was no stranger to operating outside the mainstream. He had been raised by staunch abolitionists on a farm in rural Indiana. Not a popular position at the time. His childhood home, situated a few miles from the Ohio River, had even been a stop along the Underground Railroad.
Harvey Wiley absorbed a lot of lessons from his parents, but the most impactful one was the belief in always doing the right thing, especially when everyone around you was doing the wrong thing. One of his earliest memories was of his father casting the literally the only vote for abolition in their county. At the time, votes had to be cast verbally, aloud, in front of everyone. But his Dad stood up and declared loudly and proudly that he was for abolition of slaves. The other voters hurled insults, slurs, and ridicule at him. One even called him the “n-word.”
Harvey Wiley internalized that sense of social justice, and as a young man fought for the Union in the Civil War. He had seen so many of his fellow soldiers maimed and mangled in the fighting, he developed an interest in medicine and science. Surely mastery of those disciplines would allow him to do some good in the world. As he said at the time:
“A medical man cannot climb to Heaven and pull down immortality, but he can help give others a life full of health and happiness and hope.”
The field of chemistry interested him most. It was exciting. A modern mystery to be unraveled, bit by bit. There was so much space left on the map, so to speak. So much to be discovered. As he wrote in his diary:
“I find so many things that I do not know as I pursue my studies. My own profession is still a wilderness.”
After getting his degrees, studying abroad in Germany, and scoring a gig at Perdue, Doctor Wiley had achieved quite a lot by his mid-30s. But then, another opportunity came along. In 1881, the Indiana State Board of Health tasked Wiley with researching the purity, or lack thereof, of commercially available honeys and syrups. It sounds like a very esoteric and mundane area of research, but what he found under the lens of his microscope was shocking.
90% of the samples he’d been asked to examine were fake.
The vast majority of American honey sellers were not selling honey at all. They were selling cheap, artificially-made corn syrup and advertising it as honey. And it wasn’t just a case of slapping on a label or writing a slogan. These sellers went to elaborate lengths to deceive and cheat their customers.
First, they would tint the glucose with yellow dye, to give it a rich, amber color. Then they would create wax, paraffin mold that looked like honeycomb, fill it with glucose and seal it up. Sometimes sellers would even stick insect parts, like a bee wing, a thorax, or a leg, to create the illusion of straight-from-the-hive authenticity.
The blatant fraud was bad enough, but Wiley also found toxic residue in the containers. Copper and chemical remnants, bits of animal bones, and sulfuric acid. This wasn’t just fake honey, it was toxic fake honey.
Wiley was furious. His findings offended that deeply ingrained instinct toward fairness and honesty that he had adhered to for his whole life. As he wrote:
“How could one corrupt what was produced by God and nature, and needed for life by humans?”
His report back to the Indiana State Board of Health was a blistering indictment of the nation’s lack of food labeling laws:
“The dangers of adulteration are underrated, when it is for a moment supposed that any counterfeit food can be tolerated without depraving the public taste, and impairing the public safeguards of human life.”
Wiley had been searching for a crusade all his life. And now he’d found it.
In the same year, 800 miles to the east in Albany, New York, another young American outsider was taking a small stand against American corruption.
January 2nd, 1882 was the eve of the Assembly of the New York State Legislature. Newly elected representatives were pouring into Albany, eager to begin their work the following day.
It was an extremely cold evening. About 17 degrees, well below zero with windchill. And pacing through the streets without a care in the world, was a 23-year-old man. The people he passed on the sidewalk though he was insane, because he was wearing no winter overcoat. But that didn’t seem to bother him one bit. He seemed to relish the challenge of enduring the cold.
This young man marched straight up to the New York State capital building, which featured a silhouette that historian Edmund Morris describes as “Jagged against the skyline, an improbable forest of steeples, turrets, dormers, and gables, all gleaming in the moonlight.”
The young man walked inside the building and almost leapt up the staircase leading to the upper floors. His destination was a sumptuously decorated meeting room, where 52 members of the Republican caucus were meeting and strategizing. This young man was the 53rd member. A representative named John Walsh describes what happened next:
Suddenly our eyes, and those of everybody on the floor, became glued on a young man who was coming in through the door. His hair was parted in the center, and he had sideburns. He wore a single eye-glass, with a gold chain over his ear. He had on a cutaway coat with one button at the top, and the ends of its tails almost reached the tops of his shoes. He carried a gold-headed cane in one hand, a silk hat in the other, and he walked in the bent-over fashion that was the style with the young men of the day. His trousers were as tight as a tailor could make them, and had a bell-shaped bottom to cover his shoes. “Who’s the dude?” I asked another member, while the same question was being put in a dozen different parts of the hall. “That’s Theodore Roosevelt of New York,” he answered.
Teddy Roosevelt was just a 23-year old kid when he began his career in government, but he would go on to shape the future of the United States, most famously as its 26th President. But that was in the far-flung future. Back in 1882, he was just a punk kid, with a big mouth and something to prove.
If you’re not overly familiar with Teddy Roosevelt, that’s okay. You’ll get to know him fairly well over the course of this episode. Full disclosure, he’s *easily* one of my favorite American Presidents. He’s riddled with flaws and contradictions, but he’s absolutely fascinating. He’s just such a character, you know. In many ways he’s almost like a cartoon.
Teddy Roosevelt or TR as some people often call him, is a mythic figure. People around him just seemed to be in perpetual awe of how unique he was. Particularly of how energetic he was. The young politician was known, according to colleagues, for his “elastic movements, voluminous laughter, and wealth of mouth.” Another said Roosevelt would enter a room “as if ejected from a catapult.” One friend said years later that Teddy’s early years in politics were “just like Jack coming out of the box”.
You know those people who seem to have an inexhaustible reserve of energy? The people who want to stay out until 4am or hike up a mountain or get to the office at the crack of dawn for no conceivable reason. Well, Teddy Roosevelt was one of those people, cranked up to 11.
He would often invite other representatives for long, stamina-sapping walks around the city of Albany. Most people who accepted his invitation never wanted to go on another one again afterwards. Teddy just wore them out; they couldn’t keep up. One told him: “You will have to get somebody else to walk with you. One dose is sufficient for me.”
But the truth was, this vast reservoir of energy was a smokescreen for a deep well of insecurity and pain. Teddy Roosevelt had been extremely sickly child, plagued by asthma, illness and pessimistic prognoses by physicians. Some said that he wouldn’t live past childhood, or least not live at a normal quality of life. But as a boy, Teddy had resolved to never let that physical weakness define him. He was determined that he would be able to do anything any of the other boys could do. Better, even.
He threw himself into outdoor activities, sports, boxing, hunting, running, you name it. A normal asthmatic would’ve dropped dead from the exertion, but Teddy somehow, overcame it. It was an obsession, an insatiable restlessness that would define his entire life. As a result of his childhood fragility, Teddy Roosevelt hated two things above all: Weakness and bullies. And he encountered plenty of both in his first year of politics in 1882.
The weakness he saw was corruption, a kind of moral weakness. His fellow representatives took bribes without a second thought, doled out hush money, did favors for business partners, and used their elected positions as slush funds to enrich themselves.
Roosevelt had as little respect for their performance as he did their personalities, calling the opposition: “Stupid, sodden, vicious lot, most of them being equally deficient in brains and virtue. Totally unable to speak with even an approximation to good grammar; not even one of them can string three intelligible sentences together to save his neck.”
His insults could be extremely colorful, calling one corrupt colleague: “entirely unprincipled, with the same idea of Public Life and Civil Service that a vulture has of a dead sheep.” He referred to these unethical lot collectively as the “the black horse cavalry”
When you read Roosevelt’s words on the page, you get the impression of a thundering presence, but in reality, he was not a formidable public speaker in those early days. His voice was “high and squeaky” according to historian Edmund Morris. He goes on:
“Between phrases he would open his mouth in a convulsive gasp, dragging the air in by main force. Clearly his asthma was troubling him. At times the slight stammer which friends had noticed at Harvard intruded, and his teeth would knock together as the words fought their way out. “He spoke as if he had an impediment in his speech,” said a friend. “He would open his mouth and run out his tongue … but what he said was all right.”
The young Roosevelt had no issues or reservations about pissing off the older establishment members. He was colorful and incessantly bombastic. As a fellow representative remembered:
There wasn’t anything cool about him. He yelled and pounded his desk, and when they attacked him, he would fire back with all the venom imaginary. In those days he had no discretion at all. He was the most indiscreet guy I ever met … Billy O’Neil and I used to sit on his coat-tails. Billy O’Neil would say to him, “What do you want to do that for, you damn fool, you will ruin yourself and everybody else!”
Naturally, the big wigs in the New York Assembly were not wild about this inexperienced, self-righteous kid barking up their trees and giving them grief for running the side hustles they had always ran. It even threatened to put Roosevelt not only in professional danger, but physical danger.
One day, Teddy got wind that another representative who he had sparred with, an ex-prizefighter from New York named Big John McManus, was planning on ambushing him with some friends. Their plan was to wrap him up in a blanket, and humiliate him in public. Once Teddy heard about the plan, he walked up McManus, who was much, much bigger and taller than him, and sneered:
I hear you are going to toss me in a blanket. By God! if you try anything like that, I’ll kick you, I’ll bite you, I’ll kick you in the balls, I’ll do anything to you—you’d better leave me alone.”
Teddy Roosevelt hated bullies. And he would not be bullied under any circumstances.
Nor could he be bought, as the rest of the assembly quickly realized. He turned down lavish bribes and declined favors, offered up to him if he’d agree to vote a certain way or kill a certain bill. He gained a reputation as rabid reformer, a goody-two-shoes with teeth. As a journalist named George Spinney wrote at the time, Teddy had “a most refreshing habit of calling men and things by their right names,”
He quickly became known as “the cyclone assemblyman”. One acquaintance describe him as possessing: “Such a superabundance of animal life was hardly ever condensed in a human [being].”
His crusading nature even brought him into conflict with members of his own family, as Edmund Morris describes his biography of Roosevelt:
His own uncle, James A. Roosevelt, took him to lunch and condescendingly remarked that he had done well at Albany so far. It was a good thing to have dabbled in reform, but “now was the time to leave politics and identify … with the right kind of people.” Roosevelt asked if that meant he was to yield to corruptionists. His uncle replied irritably that there would always be an “inner circle” of corporate executives, politicians, lawyers, and judges to “control others and obtain the real rewards.” Roosevelt never forgot those words. “It was the first glimpse I had of that combination between business and politics which I was in after years so often to oppose.”
Despite his instinct for doing the right thing, the young Teddy Roosevelt had his blind spots. He could credibly be called an elitist. He saw people of lesser means as being of lesser means because of a deficiency of character. He attributed economic hardship or lack of mobility to weakness or laziness. That jives with his psychology; in his mind, he had overcome so much, why couldn’t other people?
Roosevelt believed according to biographer Nathan Miller that: “the degradation of the workingman was the result of natural law – or character – rather than economic or social injustice.”
Teddy Roosevelt was a blue-blood. He was from a filthy rich family in New York City, and while he wouldn’t endorse, tolerate, or abet outright corruption, he didn’t have much sympathy for the working man. He refused to vote for bills that would raise the minimum wage or salaries for policemen and firemen. He even thought that some civil service workers were paid too much, calling them “large leaks” in the state budget.
But those blue-blood calluses would begin to soften over time. And it all began with a heavy dose of reality.
In investigating the veracity and validity of a bill that would abolish the private manufacture of cigars in immigrant housing, Roosevelt took a tour of the slums in New York City. He was taken aback at the squalid environment and the inhumane working conditions. He was, frankly, horrified by it and emerged from the tenements a changed person. I can’t remember the exact quote and I’m paraphrasing a bit, but afterwards, he said something like: “I had no idea that people lived this way.”
As historian Philip J Hilts writes: “The realization that hardworking people who were neither lazy nor corrupt could nevertheless find themselves in such awful living conditions began to bring a change in Roosevelt’s thinking.”
In 1882, no one would’ve guessed that this 20something peacock from New York would do anything to make life better for everyday people. He could’ve lived in a blissful bubble of privilege and power, unconcerned with the struggles of others.
But that would not be Teddy’s path. Later in life, Roosevelt would encounter a criminal conspiracy capable of turning even his formidable stomach.
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While a young Teddy Roosevelt was making waves in New York State, Harvey Washington Wiley was settling into a brand-new gig.
Gone were the whimsical rides on a high-wheeled bicycle through the grounds of Perdue University. Doctor Wiley was moving up in the world. He was now Doctor Wiley, Chief Chemist at the United States Department of Agriculture.
His study on the widespread adulteration of honeys and syrups had made a big splash in the scientific community. And a year or so later, he was tapped to join the newly formed Bureau of Chemistry. His main job in Washington would be investigating allegations of adulteration in other industries.
As expected, he’d gotten a lot of flak from the honey people after his pioneering study. They didn’t like people poking around in their industry and alerting customers to the scams. Wiley got threats, insults, mean Tweets. There was even a pamphlet circulated entitled “Wiley’s Lie.” He’d put a target squarely on his own back.
Doctor Wiley stuck out like a sore thumb in D.C.
Again, he was a huge guy from the country. Well above 6 feet tall. Built like a linebacker. You can imagine the bizarre image of this massive guy perched over a microscope in a basement lab examining nearly indetectable molecular structures. And despite the wrath of the honey folks, he decided at the end of the day, he needed to keep his head down and just do the work:
“I felt hurt to be the victim of such insinuations and misstatements. But it is best to go about one’s business and let enemies do their worst.”
Doctor Wiley would make plenty of enemies over the course of his time in Washington DC. In 1885, his first major assignment presented itself. The investigation of a cornerstone of the American diet: commercially sold milk.
To really understand some of the stuff we’re about to get into, you’ve got to understand the landscape of industry and business in America in the late 19th century. Doctor Wiley and the people of his generation were living in a watershed moment for Western civilization. As Philp J Hilts writes:
In the first half of his life, two-thirds of the nation still worked on farms. But the flight from the land had begun. Soon, a majority of Americans would be living on crowded avenues and in city tenements, and by the second half of Wiley’s life machines were being invented and applies in every field, and factories built around these hissing, tapping objects. Workers were lined up to feed and operate them. Out the other side came profit.”
“Where the Founding Fathers had imagined a farm-based republic, America was now a high-contrast, high-energy landscape of machinery and industry, in concert with the restless activity of buying and selling”.
This is when massive food corporations and companies like Heinz, Nabisco and Campbell’s start to come into existence. And with that explosion of commerce, came underhanded selling practices. Regulation and reform could not keep up with the pace of change, and that left an opening for unethical and unscrupulous businessmen to do…whatever they wanted. Back to Philip J Hilts:
“By the end of the century, the corruption in the food and drug trade was unlike anything seen in any time in history. There had always been some cheating – short-weighting, watering of wine, cutting of medical powders with inert substances to increase their weight. These had been criminal offenses and were sometimes punished harshly. But the abuses never became so common and widespread as they did in America in the late 19th century. New forms of cheating were now possible on a large scale for the first time, at exactly the moment when a food or medicine maker did not have to face his customer directly, given the expanded distribution network. Adulteration and deception became easy and very profitable.”
“Societies throughout history have always imposed social controls on business and economic activity, through civil or religious authority. But during the 19th century when unfettered capitalism dominated the scene, the long historical relationship was reversed, and society was ruled by economics with the strong presumption that no controls should govern it. The boldest achievement of the time was the corporation. It freed the energy of human groups to pursue the creation of products and profits unlike anything that might have been imagined. And, for the first time in the history of human commerce, individuals could, with legal sanction, escape responsibility for their actions as businessmen.”
Doctor Wiley and his cohorts at the Bureau of Chemistry faced a lawless wilderness:
“There were no national rules about hygiene, purity, or honesty, in the labeling of food and drugs.”
In fact, the United States was the only industrialized nation who didn’t have these kinds of laws on the books. American food exports were often turned away in Europe because they were seen as untrustworthy and unsafe.
Plus, Wiley had to contend with a government bureaucracy with little interest in doing anything about it. As Hilts writes:
“Wealth in America was rapidly leaving the hands of a large number of landowners and flying into the hands of a few industrialists, reaching the point before the end of the century when 60 percent of the wealth was in the hands of one percent of the population.
[…] Political corruption was beyond anything easily imagined today. The US senate was referred to as the ‘millionaire’s club, and it resembled a convention of industry representatives. Because of strong party control over state legislatures and election rules, it had become common for wealthy men to pay a fee to the party to get themselves nominated and elected to office.”
This shift alarmed no less august a figure than Abraham Lincoln himself, who warned darkly before his death that:
“Corporations have been enthroned…an era of corruption in high places will follow and the money power will endeavor to prolong its reign by working the prejudices of the people…until wealth is aggregated in a few hands…and the Republic is destroyed.”
But such existential concerns were a little above Doctor Wiley’s paygrade. His chief concern in 1885 was America’s milk suppliers. And whether they were legit or not.
A vanguard of muckraking journalists had already done most of Wiley’s investigative work for him. In the 1850s, a New York journalist named John Mullaly had begun looking into the practices of dairy producers. His reaction to what he found was: “Where are the police?”
As you approached one of these massive dairy facilities, you would be engulfed in a gag-inducing stench. You could smell it from as far as a mile off. If your nose and stomach could endure long enough to actually step inside, you would see hundreds upon hundreds of malnourished cows, 600, 700 to a single barn, standing shoulder-to-shoulder, ankle deep in their own excrement.
According to one historian:
“Over the cow’s short, miserable life, its teeth tended to rot out before the animal stopped giving milk and was sent to slaughter—or dropped dead in the stall.”
The cow’s udders were frequently ulcerated, but they would be milked regardless. They would continue to be milked up to the hour of their death, even when they could barely stand.”
The reason they were so sick was a lack of nourishment. The dairy producers to save money, fed their animals what was called “swill”, a by-product from nearby whiskey distilleries. Basically leftover, half-fermented grain mush. According to Philip J Hilts:
After a distillery had finished using grains and water, the leftover swill was sent red-hot down into the trough. The animals couldn’t get much nutrition from it, but got huge amounts of liquid, and when milked gave large quantities of nutrition-stripped milk.
This nutritionally worthless product was known as “Swill Milk”, and as bad as it sounds, that was only before it went into the bottle. When the liquid finally found itself under Doctor Wiley’s microscope, both figurative and literal, the truth depth of the malpractice was revealed. As historian Deborah Blum writes:
“Wiley’s investigating chemists had found a routinely thinned product, dirty and whitened with chalk. It wasn’t just bacteria swimming in the milk. At least one of the samples that Wiley’s crew tested had worms wriggling in the bottom of the bottle. […] “A subsequent report in Indiana by that state’s board of health added that a random sampling of milk found “sticks, hairs, insects, blood, pus and filth.”
Because food regulation did not exist in any meaningful capacity, this unacceptably deficient product was sent out into the world by the hundreds of thousands of gallons. As the New York Times observed at the time:
“It is now fit for nurseries, tea-tables, ice cream saloons, and it is distributed throughout the city, insidious, fatal, and revolting poison.
And the people most harmed by this milk were, as you might have guessed, kids.
Lack of regulation harmed all social classes, but working-class women were hit the hardest. After giving birth, they usually had to go right back to their jobs. And rather than breast feed or employ wet nurses, these women often relied on cows’ milk to feed their babies. The first people to notice the link between swill milk and sick children were, obviously, pediatricians. As one wrote:
“I have every year grown more suspicious of distillery milk. Whenever I have seen a child presenting a sickly appearance, loose flabby flesh, weak joints, capricious appetite, frequent retchings and occasional vomitage, irregular bowels with tendency to diarrhea and fetid breath.”
An old researcher friend of Doctor Wiley’s from Perdue had even found heavy traces of embalming fluid in certain milk samples. The rationale was that “Two drops of a forty percent solution of formaldehyde will preserve a pint of milk for several days.“
A reporter on the dairy industry’s payroll asked this researcher what was so bad about that? He angrily replied: “Well, it’s embalming fluid that you are adding to the milk. I guess it’s all right if you want to embalm the baby.”
In 1887, Doctor Wiley and his colleagues at the Bureau of Chemistry released a damning, three-part national report on their findings.
Now, decades of Hollywood pacing has trained us as audiences to believe, that when a meticulously researched expose like this one comes out, that’s game over. The good guys win, gavels are slammed, legislation is passed, happy ending.
But the reaction to this report was more or less…a collective national shrug. At least on the Federal level. A few sporadic state and local laws were passed, but it did nothing to alleviate the problem. Without a massive federal mandate that forced private interests to change their business practices, dairy producers could just continue doing what they wanted.
The reports also made Wiley more of a political target. Lobbyists and special interests in the food industry were starting to look at this crusading chemist and see a problem. This guy was bad for business. One editor of a food trade journal refused to shake Wiley’s hand at a party. He said Wiley was “the man who is doing all he can to destroy American business.”
But Doctor Wiley was undeterred. He kept going. He decides to look into a wide range of food products for evidence of fraud, adulteration and toxicity. This was not just a milk problem, it was systemic. It ran though all facets of American food.
Wiley discovered that most commercially sold butter was not butter at all. It was oleomargarine, which is just leftover animal scraps, fat, and detritus, congealed and pureed into a kind of spread. Margarine producers dropped some yellow food coloring in it, wrapped it in packaging that promised “purity” and “pride” and marketed it as butter. It wasn’t necessarily poisonous, but it was fraud all the same.
Wiley’s team found that most bread and flour sold in the US was, as Deborah Blum puts it, “liberally laced with ground white clay and powdered white rocks called “barites.” Some flour, labeled as made from wheat, was really cheaper corn flour, whitened with sulfuric acid.”
Next the Chemistry Bureau looked at cocoa, coffee, and tea. As Deborah Blum writes:
Cocoa powders contained everything from clay to sand to iron oxides (the latter used as a coloring agent). “Finely powdered tin is sometimes added to give the chocolate a metallic luster,” the report added. Coffee, long America’s hot beverage of choice, had frequently been cut with all manner of adulterants ranging from tree bark, sawdust, and ground beets and acorns to relatively flavorful substitutions such as chicory root and the bitter seeds of the blue lupine flower.
By 1892 Wiley’s staff had determined that about 87 percent of all ground coffee samples tested were adulterated. “One sample contained no coffee at all.” But they’d also found that processors had devised a way to make coffee-free “beans” by pressing a mixture of flour, molasses, and occasionally dirt and sawdust into molds.
Mustard was made by:
“mixing water with coarsely ground flour or crumbled gypsum, a mineral commonly used to make plaster. To give the resulting sludge a mustard like tint, Martin’s yellow (more technically 2,4-Dinitro-1-naphthol yellow), a coal-tar dye containing benzene (and related to naphthalene, a primary ingredient in moth balls),
A New York scientist named Jesse Park Battershall had found that out of almost 200 samples of commercially sold candy, over half contained arsenic and lead. 41 out of 48 candy brands made with orange dye contained lead.
Now to the modern mind, all of this evidence seems like a slam dunk, but you’ve got to remember, this was the 19th century. There was not widespread understanding or even belief that all these adulterative substances were bad for you. The reaction was often, okay, well it tastes fine, it fills me up, if the producers take a few liberties, that’s just life. Something’s gonna kill me someday, I’m just trying to live my life.
As Wiley sarcastically observed in a riff on an old circus expression:
“To be cheated, fooled, bamboozled, cajoled, pettifogged, demagogued, hypnotized, manicured, and chiropodized, are privileges dear to us all….Americans like to be humbugged.”
It was around this time in his life, that Doctor Wiley started to slip into a depression. You can actually read his diary entries from this time period, and they make it clear that he’s just beaten down.
His research had brought him ridicule, pushback and political heat. Even his own supervisor was telling him to tone it down, going so far as to cut Wiley’s funding. Not to mention that it is incredibly depressing to see example after example of lying, deceit, and swindling. Corruption so systemic as to be insurmountable.
His personal life wasn’t going much better. His parents, who had instilled such a strong moral compass in him, had recently died. As he wrote: “I was plunged at once out of my long boyhood.”
It served as a sharp reminder that in all his years, he had never settled down. Wiley wasn’t a boy anymore; he was a middle-aged, workaholic bachelor. He had been far too consumed with his work in DC to ever meet someone, or start a family. It was something he’d always wanted for himself, but it never seemed to work out.
At one point, Wiley had fallen hopelessly in love with a beautiful young librarian named Anna. He courted her for months, carrying her picture in his pocket watch. Finally, he worked up the courage to ask her to marry him. She politely declined to become Mrs. Wiley.
So - Dr Harvey Wiley threw the full force of his energies and passion back into his first love. Science and chemistry. He was determined to make an impact this time.
Despite accusations of being a foe of big business and capitalism, Wiley respected every American’s freedom to do and eat as he pleased, saying:
“It is not for me to tell my neighbor what he should eat, what he should drink, what his religion shall be, or what his politics are. These are matters which I think every man should be left to settle for himself.”
But he didn’t believe that American corporations should be free to deceive, defraud, and poison the American public. What Wiley needed was a big demonstration.
He needed ironclad proof that big business was making America sick.
He couldn’t just tell the American public these adulterants were bad – he needed to show them.
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In the summer of 1898, an American soldier was sitting on a dock in Tampa Bay, Florida. He was digging in his pack for some food, waiting for a ship that would take him and thousands of other soldiers to war. Conflict had broken out between the United States and Spain, and the American army was being sent to the island territory of Cuba.
As this hungry soldier was waiting on the dock, he found a tin can in his pack, marked “beef”, part of the ration kit supplied to him by the Army. He pried open the top to discover a meal that was, frankly, inedible. As one veteran described:
The top was nothing more than a layer of slime. It was disagreeable looking and nasty. The beef was stringy and coarse and seemed to be nothing more than a bundle of fibers.”
The soldier noticed a distinct aroma coming from the “beef”. It was chemical, a preservative tang that smelled like embalming fluid. He noticed crystal deposits had formed on the meat. These were the same crystal deposits that often formed inside cadavers after they had been embalmed.
As this soldier was looking at his dubious meal, a 40-year-old American Colonel swaggered over. The Colonel wore a magnificent cavalry uniform – tall leather riding boots, a cocked hat, and a pair of distinctive spectacles. The Colonel asked the soldier what was wrong. The man complained: “I can’t eat the canned meat.”
This pissed the Colonel off. He said: “If you are a baby, you shouldn’t have come to war. Eat it, and be a man.”. The soldier did as he was ordered and nibbled at the slimy meat. A few seconds later, he vomited all over the dock. The Colonel, intrigued, tried some of the meat himself. He immediately spat it out.
Colonel Teddy Roosevelt had to admit, this queasy soldier had a point. The meat was disgusting and inedible.
In 1898, at the start of the Spanish-American War, Theodore Roosevelt was 40 years old. Since his time in the New York state legislature, he had lived quite a life. One that we would need like 6 hours to fully document. He’d developed a taste for adventure and hardship and glory. His political career had flourished, propelling him to the highest echelons of the US government.
But he’d also experienced unfathomable personal loss. He’d buried a young wife, a mother, and a brother. Death and sickness stalked every chapter of his life. But he always overcame it. That didn’t mean he was immune to insecurity though. A point of family shame had always been that Roosevelt’s father had failed to serve his country in the Civil War, so when a new war came along, Teddy couldn’t pass up the opportunity to test his mettle.
He went on to fight very famously in the Spanish-American war, leading a cavalry regiment dubbed the Rough Riders. Less than 5 years after the war, Teddy Roosevelt would be President of the United States.
But he never forgot his encounter with that soldier, and the poor quality of the meat in the US Army’s rations. He later said that he would “rather have eaten my hat” than eat the meat the Army supplied to its soldiers. He said it was: “uneatable, unpalatable, unwholesome . . . utterly unsafe and utterly unfit.”
This raised a lot of questions back home. Something about America’s best and bravest having to subsist on rancid meat while they served their country touched a nerve with the public and its representatives.
Congress in particular wanted to know why its fighting men were being fed such garbage food. You can’t win wars if your soldiers are doubled over on the battlefield from food poisoning. But it was hard to ascertain whether the issue was bad meat, bad chemicals, or both.
The company that had supplied the meat to the Army blamed the problem on the soldiers themselves. The cooks were not seasoning the meat properly, they had the audacity to say:
“All meats require pepper and salt and as the soldiers did not have any seasoning, it is likely the canned meat tasted flat to them. That may have had some effect on them.”
After many investigations, it was revealed that the meat was not actually embalmed or injected with formaldehyde, it was just rancid, terrible cuts of beef supplied by the processers. The Beef Barons of the meat industry escaped any consequences, but the bell could not be unrung. It was at this juncture that people began to start asking questions about chemical preservatives and how safe they were.
Which brought our old friend Doctor Wiley once more into the national arena.
In the spring of 1902, a series of advertisements ran in government newsletters throughout the US.
The ads were “looking for young robust fellows” with “cultivated palates” to participate in a scientific study by the Bureau of Chemistry. The participants would receive three square meals a day as part of their involvement in what the ad called “hygienic table trials” . It was also mentioned that the participants needed to have “a sense of adventure and strong stomachs”.
Many young men responded, mostly government employees. One man expressed his interest, saying “I have a stomach that can stand anything.” The Washington Post reported that the study would be opening “for the first time in history, a scientific boarding house under the direction of Doctor Harvey Wiley.”
Wiley was about to embark a bold new scientific endeavor, what historian Deborah Blum called “one of the most influential scientific studies of the 20th century.”
As Doctor Wiley sifted through the swamp of American food, he became aware of a huge array of chemical additives and preservatives being added to a host of products. Chemicals with innocent, market-friendly names like Preservaline, Freezine, Rosaline Berliner, and Borax – to mention just a few.
These preservatives were very, very necessary to the profit margins of food corporations and meatpackers. See, the companies had to ship their products by railroad to markets all over the country, but they also had to keep the food fresh somehow. Widespread refrigeration did not exist yet. And canning and bottling could only go so far in delaying spoilage. So once again, capitalism turned to science, and found a willing accomplice.
Everything from ham to vegetables to cakes and tea were packed with these chemical preservatives. The substances were often tasteless, colorless, odorless – sometimes they even enhanced the flavor. And they prolonged the life of products for exponential amounts of time. The result was food that was seemingly, as Deborah Blum puts it “indestructible.”
This set off alarm bells for Wiley.
He had long been suspicious of chemical preservatives. Because no one had any idea what they did to the human body over long periods of time. His suspicion was that they were very very bad for us. But without hard data, all he had was suspicion and a hodgepodge of anecdotal evidence. He needed indisputable proof of the harmfulness or harmlessness of these preservatives.
So in 1902, Wiley gets permission from Congress to organize a study. An experiment. One that would be performed on human subjects. His plan was simple: He would gather a group of 12 volunteers and selectively dose their food with chemicals, then see what happened to their bodies over the course of time. Maybe they would get sick, maybe they would die, maybe they would be fine. Wiley had his suspicions, but he couldn’t know for sure. To save America’s food supply, he would have to deliberately poison a handful of American guinea pigs.
Now this is the part of the episode where the topic really earns the title of the show.
Doctor Wiley was incredibly conflicted (**ding) about this study. He knew with a fair degree of confidence that he would be irrevocably damaging the health of a dozen young people. But in his mind, there was no other way to demonstrate an indifferent public what their food was doing to them. If his findings were conclusive enough, the outraged people of America would demand change. And all the lobbyists and money in Washington couldn’t stop it.
But first, he needed to conduct his study. It was a very simple, if methodologically imperfect, experiment. As Deborah Blum breaks it down for us:
His plan was to sit people down at “hygienic” tables—by which he meant a clean and carefully controlled setting—and feed them precisely measured meals. Half of the diners would eat fresh, additive-free dishes. The others would receive specific doses of a chemical preservative with each meal. The diners were not to know who was consuming what. Wiley and staff would monitor the health effects, if any, from these diets.”
To ensure the integrity of the results, these guinea pigs were not allowed to eat anything between meals. They couldn’t have a beer in a pub or a snack in the street. As Wiley wrote:
“Each individual subject pledged himself to abstain entirely from food and drink not prepared by the scientists in charge of the dining room.”
Also, to the great amusement of local journalists, the participants had to agree to collect their urine and feces in bags and bring it to Wiley’s laboratory for analysis.
You can actually find photographs of these volunteers eating at the little dining room Wiley set up in the basement of the Department of Agriculture. And it looks just like 12 guys sitting in a restaurant. Wiley even hung a sign above the dining room that said; “NONE BUT THE BRAVE CAN EAT THE FARE.”
The overall weirdness of this study – the fantastical nature of it – turned the experiments into a pop culture phenomenon. These brave participants, willing to put their lives on the line for science were soon referred to by newspapers as the “Poison Squad”.
Someone even wrote a vaudevillian parody song about the Poison Squad at the time:
“On Prussian acid we break our fast
We lunch on Morphine stew
We dine with a matchhead consommé
Drink carbolic acid brew
Thus all the deadlies we double-dare
To put us beneath the sod
We’re death immunes and proud as proud
Hooray for the Poison Squad.”
What was less whimsical was Dr Wiley’s findings. The first chemical he tested on his subjects was Borax – or sodium borate. It was technically a cleaning product, but when added to rancid meat or wilted vegetables, it would react with the proteins and tighten the molecular structure, making the food appear crisp and fresh. Even though it wasn’t.
Wiley’s findings were contained in a 500-page report to the Secretary of Agriculture in 1904.
Within a matter of weeks after the study began, the volunteers quickly began experiencing adverse effects. They were put on a steady diet of Borax capsules and clean, safely prepared food. Initially, Wiley had tried hiding Borax in the butter and the milk, but the volunteers caught on and stopped buttering their bread or putting milk in their tea. So Wiley goes “okay, we’re just gonna give them a pill”. One group gets Borax, one group gets placebo.
Well, the Borax group started feeling: “distress in both the stomach and the head.”
They had a hard time thinking clearly, which then extended to more pronounced symptoms like unexpected waves of nausea, headaches, and vomiting. They start rapidly losing weight – it’s is just falling off them. All of a sudden, these healthy 20something guys look sick and emaciated. Eventually, several members of the Poison Squad had to drop out of the study.. Their bodies just couldn’t take it anymore.
Doctor Wiley and his team chalked it up to a two-faceted problem. Borax affected the kidneys, and possibly other organs. And the average person wasn’t just getting a dose of it here or there, it was the sheer ubiquity of the chemical that was the problem. Over the course of a single day, a person would ingest several grams of Borax in their butter, cream, meat, sweets, whatever. That stuff, day after day after day, would drastically shorten the average person’s lifespan.
Wiley knew that his findings wouldn’t result in an outright ban of borax – it was far too integrated in the logistical necessities of food preservation – but *at least* he thought, the food producers owed the public the honesty of clear labeling:
“As a matter of public information, and especially for protection of the young, the debilitated, and the sick . . . each article of food should be plainly labeled and branded in regard to the character and quantity of the preservative employed.”
He concluded: “The real evil of food adulteration is deception of the consumer,”
But the more he watched his volunteers lose weight, get sick, and drop out, Wiley was “converted by my own research”. And he came to believe that these chemicals should not be present in the food supply at all - at any level.
Wiley went on to test several other preservatives on the Poison Squad: Salicylic acid, sulfuric acid, benzoic acid, formaldehyde, and saltpeter. The results were always the same: catastrophic health effects. Internal bleeding, gastrointestinal disease, just nightmarish, conclusive evidence. This stuff could not be allowed in the food supply anymore.
As the public became more and more disturbed by this growing body of evidence collected by the eccentric, six-foot-tall scientist and his squad of guinea pigs, the tide began to shift.
Wiley allied himself with influential women’s groups, he organized pure food exhibits at the St Louis World’s Fair, he does everything he can to raise awareness about this issue. But once again, Wiley became a target for the powerful food manufacturers lobby. And they were not playing around.
They accused him of sensationalism, spotlight-seeking, and publishing fabricated data. One newspaper called him “The Most Hated Man In America.”. Another ran the headline: “Chemistry on the rampage.” Wiley was trying to: “destroy our appetites” and he should be “muzzled“ the articles said. One especially brutal piece of character assassination said:
“Dr. Wiley seems to thirst deeply for notoriety. He is happiest when looking complacently into the horror-stricken eyes of women he has just scared half to death.”
But despite the attacks, the publicity drummed up by Wiley and his experiments was ever-slowly inching public opinion toward reform. And best of all, America had a brand-new President, one who Wiley believed would be the perfect ally in his fight against impure food.
Theodore Roosevelt was sworn in as the 26th President of the United States on September 14th, 1901. His predecessor, William McKinley, had been shot, and when he died a week later, the big job passed to the Vice President: Teddy Roosevelt.
In the handful of years since, Teddy Roosevelt had acquired a reputation as a trust-buster, a scourge of big business and a progressive lightning-rod that would drag America into the 20th century by hook or by crook. This is the guy, thought Wiley. This is the ally the pure food movement needs.
But being President is much different than being a 20something state representative in Albany, or a cavalry commander in Cuba, or Assistant Secretary of the Navy. Teddy’s maverick personality and unorthodox tactics could only go so far in his new role. The money in Washington, the lobbies, the special interests, were powerful obstacles to overcome.
Nevertheless, Roosevelt had done a lot to put the fear of God into big business. He put the coal industry on blast, whipped the railroads into shape, all kinds of stuff. We can’t get into it or we’ll be here forever. Just to be transparent, I had to actively shackle myself to just this part of Teddy’s story.
But the Food Manufacturer’s lobby proved a particularly tough nut to crack. As Teddy looked deeper into the issue, he came to realize that some of his closest political allies were heavily involved in the muck. Giant food corporations were greasing palms all over Washington, several of them within Teddy’s inner circle.
As Roosevelt admitted in 1902: “It will take more than my recommendation to get a law passed. I understand there is some very strong opposition.”
It didn’t help that the Pure Food movement seemed to be composed of a bunch of Puritanical, self-righteous busybodies. Theodore Roosevelt looked at Doctor Harvey Wiley and his legions of Pure Food crusaders and saw, frankly, a bunch of zealots. Fanatics who could not, and would not, compromise on any of their demands.
A lot of this was due to what representatives of the food industry were telling Roosevelt directly. Their deep pockets allowed them special access to the President, and they portrayed Wiley as: “a radical, impervious to reason and determined to destroy legitimate business.”
Roosevelt didn’t need much convincing to dislike Wiley anyway. At one point early in his Presidency, Teddy had even called for the Doctor to be fired. Basically, Wiley had publicly disagreed with the administration about Cuban sugar tariffs. Well Roosevelt didn’t like that, and he demanded that Wiley’s superiors fire him. But someone talked him off the ledge, and instead, Roosevelt sent a stern note to the Doctor, saying “I will let you off this time, but don’t do it again”.
Wiley knew Roosevelt didn’t like him, writing years later: “He never had a very good opinion of me.”
But around 1904-1905, the Pure Food controversy had brought the two men back into each other’s orbits. Roosevelt agreed to back a bill that would impose certain restrictions on the food industry. Doctor Wiley knew the bill wasn’t perfect, but having any law of its kind on the books was at least a start.
Unfortunately, Congress stopped the thing dead in its track. Their pockets were overflowing with bribes and political contributions from the Food lobby. One Senator from Rhode Island named Nelson Aldrich attacked even the concept of food regulation, saying:
“Are we to take up the question as to what a man shall eat and what a man shall drink and put him under severe penalties if he is eating or drinking something different from what the chemists of the Agricultural Department think desirable?”
The bill actually passed by a decent margin in the Senate, but was left to languish on the House floor. And there it would stay, preserved but lifeless – just like the embalmed food Wiley had investigated so famously. The bill would not be moving forward. Reform was not going to happen.
Doctor Wiley was devastated. He had failed. After twenty years of tireless research, endless personal attacks, and so much work, nothing had been accomplished. He had poisoned those 12 young men of the Poison Squad for nothing. He had wasted half his life, his good years, when he could’ve been settling down, finding love and raising a family….all for nothing.
But then, in February 1906, a package arrived at the White House, addressed to President Teddy Roosevelt.
It was an advance copy of a new novel, due to be published later than month. Roosevelt opened the book and saw that the writer had autographed the cover page. “Upton Sinclair” was the writer’s name. And the book’s title was… The Jungle.
Roosevelt was a speed-reader, he could fly through books and retain information in great detail. Well, 413 pages later, he was rattled on a fundamental level.
This little book was about to change America forever.
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In November of 1904, a thin 28-year-old man slipped unnoticed into the massive complex of slaughterhouses, stockyards, and meat-processing plants in the heart of Chicago – a place known locally as Packingtown.
This young guy was nervous and jumpy. Because he was not supposed to be there. To blend in, he had disguised himself as an ordinary employee. Which just meant he carried a simple lunch box at his side.
And to his surprise, no one bothered him. No one asked him what he was doing there or who his supervisor was. No one suspected a thing. As the young man remembered many years later:
“So long as I kept moving, no one would heed me. When I wanted to make careful observations, I would pass again and again through the same room.”
But if anyone had asked him a single question, they would’ve realized this guy was not a meat packer at all. He was a writer, named Upton Sinclair.
Upton Sinclair had come to Chicago by train a few weeks earlier and rented a small room near the sprawling facilities of Packingtown. It would’ve been a cheap room, no one wanted to live in that part of town if they had a choice. But Sinclair was there for a reason. He was there to gather research for a novel, working undercover to document what exactly was going on in the gloomy killing floors and assembly lines of America’s big meat corporations.
Upton Sinclair was not the ideal candidate for this kind of work. According to Philp J. Hilts:
“This was no place for an anxious young man with stomach worries and a tendency to panic. Sinclair, who was the product of an alcoholic father and a puritanical mother, was said to have ‘an obsessive fear, of alcohol, sex, and impurities of any kind.”
But for seven weeks Sinclair snuck into Packingtown almost every day. And every day he would observe the things he saw, commit them to memory, and write them down in his crummy Chicago apartment. He would make sketches, and ask questions, but he never raised any undue suspicion.
Unlike Doctor Wiley over in Washington, Upton Sinclair’s chief concern was actually not food safety. It was worker safety. He was a diehard socialist, and he was interested in documenting the terrible working conditions in Packingtown. What he ended up finding was far more sinister.
As Sinclair meandered through Packingtown, he saw a consistent, rampant disregard for sanitation and quality control.
Many of the animals were diseased, but they would be butchered and sold as good meat to the unsuspecting American public all the same. “It was a nasty job killing these, for when you plunged your knife into them they would burst and splash foul, smelly stuff into your face.”
There were rats everywhere. The workers would try to lure the rodents with poisoned bread and then “the rats, the bread, and the meat would go into the hoppers together.”
Much of the meat was rotten, gray, and covered in fuzzy mold. It was simply bathed in acidic compounds like Doctor Wiley’s old nemesis Borax or glycerin, then fed into grinders to become links of sausage.
Sinclair describes one incident where a dead pig fell off the assembly line into the latrine pit that the workers used. They just hauled the carcass out and without bothering to wash it off, chopped it up and fed it into the grinders.
But there were other things that found their way into the America’s meat. There are lots of sharp edges in a 19th century packing plant. Lots of cleavers and blades and buzzsaws. A careless worker might lose a thumb, a finger, or even an entire hand to the assembly line. Rather than stop the flow of production and try to fish it out, it just went into the grinders like everything else.
But the most horrifying anecdote Upton Sinclair came back from Chicago with was this. Sometimes a worker would accidentally fall in to the vats of acidic chemicals used for rendering the beef into lard. “When they were fished out, there was never enough of them to be left worth exhibiting.” Their bodies simply disintegrated and became part of the gelatinous mass. If an employee was working late and fell in, they might be “overlooked for days, till all but the bones of them had gone out into the world as Pure Leaf Lard.”
To add insult to injury, the big meat corporations selling this stuff were engaged in what Bee Wilson called “outrageous profiteering”. They’d mark up their prices 2%, 5%, 10%, even as the quality plummeted.
Sinclair feverishly completed chapter after chapter of his tell-all: “I wrote with tears and anguish, pouring into the pages all the pain that life had meant to me.”
Sinclair realized that America’s food industry as a whole and Packingtown in particular was one giant criminal conspiracy. A cartel of grift, lies, and poisoned product. In Sinclair’s eyes, the greatest victims were the workers themselves. Paid almost nothing to brave life and limb to put an inferior product on the shelves:
“The great corporation which employed you lied to you, and lied to the whole country; from top to bottom, it was nothing but one gigantic lie.”
This was an environment where apex-predator corporations devoured the weak, unsupported wage workers, all while lawlessly selling a dangerous, unregulated product. It was that metaphor with supplied the title to Sinclair’s book: The Jungle.
Initially, no one would publish Sinclair’s novel. It was too outrageous. Too sensational. Too much blood and guts and grime. His editor called it “gloom and horror” unrelieved. But Sinclair refused to dial it down, and eventually he found a publisher. He was warned it might not sell because of the graphic content. But Sinclair pushed ahead, saying: “I had to tell the truth and let people make of it what they would.”
The American public was outraged, nauseated, disgusted, and furious.
Most of all President Theodore Roosevelt, who had vivid memories of the disgusting beef rations his men had been supplied with in the Spanish-American War.
And the thing that really got everyone riled up were the allegations that human appendages had been ground up with the beef and pork. As Deborah Blum said: “Now the American public is wondering if they’re a nation of cannibals”.
President Roosevelt realized that this book could be used as a political cudgel to break through the deadlock of Washington apathy and legislative inertia. He was getting a hundred letters a day about this book. In a rare moment of alignment, ethical interests and political necessity were pointing in the same direction.
Roosevelt decided he wants to meet Upton Sinclair in person. This young man who’d spent two months casing the stockyards and slaughterhouses of Chicago. So he invites Sinclair to the White House.
These were two men who could not have been more different. Neither liked each other at atll. Roosevelt would pound the table as he talked for emphasis. The jump Sinclair would flinch and wince at these theatrical flourishes. Ironically, Roosevelt thought Sinclair was the unhinged one, a hysterical socialist who had a contempt for red-blooded American capitalism.
But Teddy was not a hypocrite. And he didn’t like big business taking advantage of the average American. As Roosevelt reflected:
“I could not afford to disregard ugly things that had been found out simply because I did not like the man who had helped in finding them out.”
But there was one little problem with the Jungle that provided a stumbling block for the progressives. The Jungle was a novel. Technically a work of fiction. It told the story of a Lithuanian immigrant whose American dream begins to unravel and implode after working in the crushing conditions of Chicago meat packing plants. Sinclair’s critics claimed there was not a shred of real, factual evidence in his novel. These gory details were just meant to spice up the story. There was no actual truth to them.
The Jungle, they said, was simply a rhetorical rag of Socialist propaganda. The Chicago Tribune, deep in the pockets of the meat packer corporations said Sinclair’s book was: “95% lies.”
President Theodore Roosevelt felt compelled to send investigators of his own. He needed more than the word of a 28-year-old muckraking offer. So Teddy sends his own team of investigators to Chicago.
And they discover, that it was all true. Almost every detail in Sinclair’s book could be corroborated. They put out a report, called the Neill-Reynolds Report, and it translated into non-fiction what Upton Sinclair had alleged against Packingtown in his novel. They even dug up new details, saying: “the pillars of the buildings were caked with flesh. In these packing houses, the meat is dragged about on the floor, spat upon and walked upon.”
The American public was “haunted” by these revelations according to one historian. Europe was refusing to import *any* American meat. There were even songs written about it; One was a riff on Mary Had A Little Lamb:
“Mary had a little lamb, and when she saw it sicken, she sent it off to Packingtown, where now it’s labeled chicken.”
Most American food companies were blind-sided by this. No one expected the American public to ever catch on in any meaningful way and *demand* that their food be properly regulated. However, some enterprising captains of industry had already gotten ahead of this.
Some started to realize that the label of “purity” could be a tremendous branding opportunity. There was money in selling a good, clean product. And so the mindset of American food industry begins to change. Away from swindling and towards the power of branding.
One example of this was an entrepreneur named Henry J. Heinz. His company figured out how to make a shelf-stable condiment that used natural preservatives like vinegar and real, quality ingredients. You can find Heinz tomato ketchup in almost every fridge in America now.
Doctor Wiley had seen this coming too. A lobbyist had once accused him of “trying to ruin our business.” Wiley had responded: “Sir, I am trying to save your business.”
So, in the end, three things cohered into an unstoppable tidal wave of political activism. The audacious scientific research of chemists like Doctor Harvey Wiley and the Poison Squad, the muck-raking investigations of writers like Upton Sinclair, and the realization that honesty and quality could be *good* for big business by capitalists like Henry Heinz and others.
The Pure Food and Drug Act was passed by the US House of Representatives on June 29th, 1906. President Theodore Roosevelt signed it into law the next day. The law prevented “the manufacture, sale, or transportation of adulterated or misbranded or poisonous or deleterious foods, drugs or medicines, and liquors.”
It was, along with the Meat Inspection Act, the first federal consumer protection law in American history.
It had only been four months since The Jungle had hit American book shelves. But for the author himself, Upton Sinclair, it was a hollow victory. The real lesson of his novel had been the evils of food adulteration, but of the evils of unregulated capitalism. He hoped his squalid portrayal of overworked and underpaid stockyard employees would ignite a wave of socialist sentiment in the US. But that was not to be.
As Upton Sinclair remarked: “I aimed for America’s heart. And by accident, I hit it in the stomach.”
Sinclair may have lit the fuse, but scientists like Harvey Washington Wiley had spent years collecting the kindling, slowly and methodically building a bedrock for the Pure Food Bill of 1906 to be built upon. But Teddy Roosevelt, always needing the lion’s share of the spotlight, played down the role of Doctor Wiley’s research. He had a compulsive need to be the hero in every story. As he self-congratulated:
“The Pure Food and Drug bill became a law purely because of the active stand I took in trying to get it through Congress.”
Doctor Wiley, Upton Sinclair and other activist were:
“although honest men, so fantastically impractical that they played right into the hands of their foes.”
History would come to hold a different view. Today the Pure Food and Drug Act is often known as “Wiley’s Law.”
Asked how we felt about the passage of the law, Doctor Wiley, his six-foot-tall frame now slightly hunched at the age of 62, said he felt like: “a general who wins a great battle and brings a final end to hostility.”
Now, whenever there’s a great moral or political victory in America, there’s always an inevitable backlash. The food corporations and lobbyists came back with a vengeance, chipping away at the efficacy of the 1906 law bit by bit. But to a certain extent, a bell had been rung that could never be unrung.
The American public had woken up to lies and fraud and dishonesty prevalent in American industry. Some would say they had to be violently shaken awake, but their eyes were open nonetheless.
Writing and researching about this topic has gotten me thinking a lot about the delayed reaction we seem to have when it comes to reform – of any industry. Whether it be industrial food production, electronic technology, or social media.
It takes us a while to fully understand the little cracks and crevices that can be exploited before we get around to reforming it. When something is so new and so game-changing, the pace of innovation can rocket far beyond the reach of legislation.
In my home country, the US, we’re just now beginning to reckon with the lawless and untamed nature of social media networks. Who knows, maybe in our lifetime, we’ll see the equivalent of a Dr Harvey Wiley or an Upton Sinclair who can pull the veil off and push the country towards some kind of reform or regulation that makes life better for everyday people.
With that in mind, I want to end today’s episode with a passage from a book by historian Philp J. Hilts. It describes this uneasy relationship between industry and the public good, and Doctor Wiley’s views about it:
“Wiley and other progressives believed strongly: First, that progress was essential and desirable. Second, that business was a great engine of progress, along with science and education, and should be greatly encouraged. Third, that business had shown in the nineteenth century it could not well serve two masters – it could not seek profit with a single-minded energy and at the same time take care that citizens were protected from the injustices and injuries that its action or products might cause. The new kind of business could not, in other words, honestly police itself. Fourth, that because the new corporations had grown to such great size and influence, the policing of businesses should be done by government, the only other organization in society of sufficient weight to confront business successfully if needed.
These ideas produced fierce arguments at the time and still do.”
This has been Conflicted. Happy holidays and thanks for listening.
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