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Anyone who has gone wandering up the River Crane in wellies knows that there is often more than hungry ducks and plastic bottles coming down on the tide. After centuries of carving its way through Tudor middens, Georgian gunpowder mills, Victorian rubbish dumps and wartime back gardens the Crane can offer many surprises to the keen-eyed mudlark. from porcelain pot tops and tin hats to cast iron pokers and earthenware bottles saying ‘Richmond Bottling’. This was the case last Monday when I picked up a small glass bottle carrying the name ‘Kutnow’s Powder’ which was a new one on me - so I looked the product up on the net.

Although it has long disappeared from the shelves of the nation’s shops there is a lot on the web about Kutnow’s. It was a patent medicine which was apparently a proven cure for acidity, headache, excessive uric acid, gout, rheumatism, sciatica, lumbago and kidney trouble and I’m sure a lot of other ailments that I cannot think of at the moment.

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One advert for Kutnows, dating from 1934, shows a trim young woman and the headline ‘Her Figure is the Envy of All’

She doesn’t have to diet or go for violent exercises in order to keep her figure. She’s learnt that it’s far better and safer to rely on a morning glass of Kutnow’s Powder. Kutnow’s Powder is a pleasant saline which breaks up and eliminates surplus fat and ensures a daily clearance of waste food products from the system…

At this point the adverts shows what kind of woman the product is being aimed at…

Half an hour before breakfast tell your maid to bring you a glass of warm water with about a dessert-spoonful of Kutnow’s in it, stir briskly and drink it down. Make this a morning habit and you’ll be sure of keeping slim, active and youthful and having a figure which is the envy of all.

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In 1907 another advert for Kutnow’s Powder, under the heading ‘Prescribed for the Royal Family’, the medicine is heartily recommended for Liver Torpor… whatever that is. Supporting the guaranteed ‘cure-all’ claim are letters from a number of respected medical men, including this one from Doctor William Russell Jones of Virginia…

“I am constantly prescribing Kutnow’s Powder with invariably good results. I also use it myself in order to regulate the inactivity of the digestive and excretory organs. It is especially beneficial in stimulating a sluggish liver, preventing biliousness and dyspepsia and permanently removing the baleful effects of chronic constipation.”

W.R JONES, Professor of Chemistry and Toxology, University of Virginia

I’m surprised the good man didn’t go on to recommend it for unblocking the sink or sweeping the chimney - but he didn’t. What he did do on the 9th November 1907 was to write to the editor of the Journal of the American Medical Association…

To the Editor: —Several times during the past year friends of mine traveling in England have called my attention to certain advertisements appearing in London papers, in which Kutnow’s powder is advertised in conjunction with a letter purporting to have been given by me endorsing the use of this preparation. Attention has also been called to this advertisement in a circular published by The Journal of the American Medical Association in the crusade against “patent medicines”. I desire to state that the use of my name in this connection is unauthorized, and without my knowledge or consent.

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You can’t blame Dr Jones for putting some distance between himself and Kutnow’s Powder because ten years earlier the product was named in a notorious case of murder. In November 1897, Roland Molineux of New York introduced his friend Henry Barnet to Blanche Cheseborough. Henry was much taken by the seductive Blanche and shortly after he proposed to her but she turned him down. The proposal enraged Molineux who had his own eyes on Blanche.

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The following year, on 10 November 1898 Henry Barnet died rather suddenly, and on 19 November 1898, one week after attending Barnet’s funeral, Blanche married Molineux. Barnet’s death was attributed by the attending physicians to a weakened heart caused by diphtheria. This ignored the fact that he had become violently ill on 28 October 1898 after having taken a dose from a sample tin of Kutnow’s Powder which had arrived unsolicited in the mail.

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The powder was later analyzed and found to contain cyanide of mercury. On 28 February 1899 Barnet’s body was exhumed and the organs, when analyzed, were found to contain the same poison. Kutnow’s¸ who were sure that their product had been tampered with, issued a $500 reward for the arrest of a guilty party. Although he was suspected Molineux was never indicted for the murder of Barnet. On 18 November 1902, Blanche filed for divorce in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, citing Molineux’s mental cruelty. The divorce was granted in September 1903, and less than two months later Blanche married Wallace D. Scott, her attorney in the divorce proceedings. She died in 1954 at the age of eighty. As for Roland Molineux, he died on 2 November 1917 in New York. from “syphilitic infection”.

Maybe he had an option. Half an hour before breakfast Molineux should have asked his maid to bring him a glass of warm water with about a dessert-spoonful of Kutnow’s in it. He should then have stirred it briskly and drank it down. It cured almost everything else. I know this because I put on wellies and waded up the Crane.

– from Martyn Day