Henry Knox, Drug Dealer?


February 25, 2014
by John L. Smith, Jr. Also by this Author


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How many times does someone get the chance to read through the business correspondence files of one of the Founding Era’s most fascinating personalities? I had the distinct privilege of doing just that while researching an angle of Henry Knox’s Boston bookstore. I learned that Henry sold much more than just books – he sold drugs!

Most people know Henry Knox as the nation’s first secretary of war in President Washington’s Dream Team cabinet. Others may know him as the intrepid patriot who dragged 60 tons of artillery over the Berkshire Mountains in the dead of winter so that Washington could post them on Dorchester Heights, forcing the British evacuation of Boston. Others may only know him as a name possibly connected to Fort Knox. All true, but before all of that – Knox was a heavyset bookseller in Boston.

Portrait (circa 1784) of Henry Knox by Charles Willson Peale. Current location: Philadelphia Museum of Art
Portrait (circa 1784) of Henry Knox by Charles Willson Peale. Current location: Philadelphia Museum of Art

Bowing to economic pressure in 1770, Parliament had just repealed all the Townshend duties on imports into the colonies…except for tea (and we know about that one). Generally the repeal of the duties took a lot of the colonial fire out of their boycott of many British goods. Trade picked up. That’s just what a youthful Henry Knox had been waiting for. Well, that, and his coming of age, so that he could go into business for himself. Henry, who had been working as an apprentice in Nicholas Bowes’s bookstore, was now free to order books from London and open up his very own bookstore.[1]

On July 25, 1771, Knox’s twenty-first birthday, his patriot friends Edes and Gill ran his “open for business” advertisement in their Boston Gazette. As listed on his trade card, Knox stocked “Books in all Languages, Arts, and Stationary, &c. &c. in this first location of his “London Book-Store”[2] on Cornhill (now Washington Street) near the Town House. Knox, well liked and charming, attracted a wide variety of clientele to his salon bookstore, patriot and loyalist alike. “Knox’s store was a great resort for the British officers and Tory ladies, who were the ton at the period.”[3] (The word “ton” had nothing to do with weight control, but rather meant “the stylish set”).

But Henry Knox was also competing with at least nine other booksellers in Boston.[4] In May 1772 when Knox relocated to a larger shop front on Cornhill, he began diversifying by adding bindery services and carrying “paper hangings”[5] (wall paper) to his book and magazine inventory. Selling such a variety of goods was not uncommon for colonial shopkeepers. According to an invoice from Wright & Gill of London, Knox even started carrying “German flutes, bread-baskets, telescopes, protractors”.[6] Knox did not discriminate and did business with both rebels and loyalists during this pre-war period. It was around this time, his business papers show, that Knox developed a relationship with the New York publisher James Rivington.[7]

Rivington, it seems, liked Knox for his honesty and integrity in business dealings, and so Rivington offered young Henry a share in his business ventures. Knox liked this because it gave him an edge on the local competition. Knox’s business correspondence shows that he agreed to sell on “Commission”[8] several medical remedies of the time. The drug orders received, procured, and filled by Knox are a tantalizing window into the shadowy, unregulated potion world of the late eighteenth century.

The five drugs mentioned most often in Knox’s correspondence were:

Maredant’s Antiscorbutic Drops

In his letter of May 15, 1773, Rivington told Knox that these drops were among the “Medicines I would choose to have advertised very frequently at my own expense.”[9] Rivington’s letter doesn’t say what these drops were used for. But apparently a kindly parent had placed a public notice in the London Chronicle: “To The Public. My child was cured of an inveterate Leprosy by MAREDANT’S Antiscorbutic Drops, after being under the Care of many Surgeons and Physicians, eminent for the Cure of those Diseases, to no Purpose; he was shocking to look at.[10] Who, the child or the Physician?


An order for Knox dated April 8, 1773, from Joseph Clarke of Northampton, Massachusetts, asked for “one ounce of good rappee”.[11] Defined by the Oxford Dictionary, rappee was “a coarse kind of snuff made from the darker and ranker tobacco leaves, and originally obtained by rasping a piece of tobacco.” In the London Chronicle of February 15, 1772, Wimble of London advertised 52 grades of rappee.[12] For innocent readers, snuff was ground-up tobacco stems and leaves that one, yes, inhaled into each nostril for an intense nicotine hit. Just as it was considered good etiquette in old black and white movies to offer a cigarette to someone, in colonial days it was good manners as one took out one’s snuffbox to offer a pinch of snuff to a friend.

Cordial Cephalic Snuff

In the same rappee order from Joseph Clarke above, Clarke throws in a request for a copy of “Goldsmith’s Essays” along with “the best quils you have”. But he also included an order for “one Vial of cephalic snuff”.[13] Cordial Cephalic Snuff was sometimes marketed as “Liquid Snuff”,[14] but, in the slippery world of marketing truths back then, the snuff may have been merely moist and not a liquid. Regardless, the amazing and miraculous benefits are explained in an ad in the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston News-Letter, May 28, 1774: “The Cordial Cephalic Snuff, which is an effectual Remedy for most Disorders of the Head, especially the common Head-ach, to which it hardly ever fails giving immediate Ease, and by frequent Use prevents its Return. It removes Drowsiness, Giddiness & Vapours, relieves Dimness of the Eyes, and is particularly excellent in curing recent Deafness, and in restoring the Memory when impaired by Disorders of the Head. It has a most grateful aromatic Smell, and is very proper for all Persons who visit sick Rooms and unwholesome Places.”[15] Well, it cures pretty much everything then.

Mad Dog Bite Pills

There’s no idea what ingredients these were created from, and they didn’t appear to have a snappy marketing name like some of the other “Medicines” sold by Henry Knox. Nevertheless, Knox ran an ad in the Massachusetts Gazette, March 3, 1774, selling “The never-failing Cure for the Bite of a Mad Dog, Prepared by William Hill, Esq; of Omskirk, Lancashire.” These pills were possibly better known as “Omskirk Medicine for the Bite of a Mad Dog”. Again, no telling what was inside these pills, but the 1833 volume of the London Medical Gazette reports nonchalantly that of rabies survivors, “some did nothing, others took the Ormskirk medicine, and had a dip in the sea”.[16] Whatever.

Dr. Keyser’s Pills

By far, the most world-renowned drug Rivington commissioned Knox to sell was “Dr. Keyser’s celebrated Pills”. They were for the cure of, uh, venereal disease. Rivington began the distribution of these VD pills to Knox via a letter of Dec. 28, 1773: “You will receive likewise some of Dr. Keyser’s Pills viz. 6 boxes at 40 s. 12 Do at 20 s. 24 Do at 10 s. N. York Currency. An Allowance of 20 per Cent I shall make you for selling and will very soon send you an advertisement of them. They cure great numbers to the astonishment of the Faculty when the usual Processes fail.”[17] It seems that “the active ingredient of the celebrated Keyser’s Pills” was “mercury”.[18] Yeah, that will certainly do the trick. In fact, in medical journals of the time it was noted that the liquid version of the ingredients of Dr. Keyser’s Pills “has been recommended externally, to remove freckles”.[19] Freckles would be the least of your problems if you used Dr. Keyser’s Pills.

By summer 1774, Knox was still running newspaper ads saying that a busy customer could purchase both Keyser’s Pills and mad dog bite pills at his store to save time. [20] But also in that summer of 1774, the Coercive Acts (known as the Intolerable Acts much later) were kicking in, closing the port of Boston and changing how the upper house of the Massachusetts Council was chosen from election to royal appointment. This was punishment for Boston’s “destruction of the tea”. General Thomas Gage had sailed into Boston to become the new governor, and things were tense. Very tense. Nevertheless, on June 26, 1774, optimistic businessman Rivington wrote Knox, “I shall soon send you a pamphlet which will greatly invigorate the Sale of Keysers pills.[21] It would seem sexually transmitted diseases never took a break, regardless of politics.

The threat of war also didn’t stop James Rivington in late July 1774 from shipping five chests of tea for Henry to sell for him. This just seven months after what would later become known as the Boston Tea Party. This tea shipment may seem strange, but James Rivington and his newspaper were on the Loyalist side. It’s very possible to think that because Henry Knox had just married Lucy Flucker, daughter of a prominent Loyalist, Rivington assumed that Knox was also on the Loyalist side. However, Henry sent the tea back to Rivington with a politely vague note: “I forgot my politics – or rather, I have none to communicate at present. Things seem to be pretty much at a stand, since I wrote to you.”[22]

But hey, in spite of the battle storm clouds gathering, it seems Henry’s retirement plan was to win the New York Lottery. Knox bought six lottery tickets from James Rivington and received them in a letter, “Sir, – Enclosed you will receive Six Lottery Tickets No 1005, 1021, 1022, 1023, 1024, 1025 agreeably to your orders just now received.[23]

In a sad and a symbolic footnote to their business camaraderie, one of the final examples of correspondence between Knox and Rivington shows up in Knox’s store letters.[24] It was a note from Rivington dated November 19, 1774: “Sir,… The Lottery in which you had Six Tickets was not drawn occasioned by a number of the Tickets being destroyed in a fire of one of the managers houses and the immediate operation of an act of our Legislature against all Lotteries.”[25]

The old “lottery tickets burned up in a fire” excuse, huh? Well, it’s nothing to fight a war over.

For more information about medications in colonial America, here are some recommendations from Dr. Sam Forman, author of the recent biography Dr. Joseph Warren: Harold B. Gill, The Apothecary in Colonial Virginia (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1972); Medicine in Colonial Massachusetts (Boston: Colonial Society of Massachusetts, 1980); Nicholas Culpepper, Culpepper’s School of Physick or the Experimental Practice of the Whole Art (originally published 1659; reprint New York: Gryphon Editions, 1993). John L. Smith Jr. would like to thank Dr. Forman and J. L. Bell for their careful reading and helpful suggestions on this article.

[1] Possibly receiving an advance from Bowes, on April 12, 1771, Knox sent an order totaling £340 to the London publisher and book merchant Thomas Longman and Sons. Mark Puls, Henry Knox, Visionary General of the American Revolution (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008), 12-13.

[2]  This store name had first been used in 1766-1767 in Boston by John Mein. Worthington Chauncey Ford, “Henry Knox and the London Book-Store in Boston, 1771-1774,” Massachusetts Historical Society Proceedings, LXI (June 1928) [hereafter Ford, “Henry Knox”], 228.

[3] The quote is attributed to Knox’s friend Henry Burbeck. Francis S. Drake, Life and Correspondence of Henry Knox (Boston: Samuel G. Drake, 1873), 12.

[4] Ford, “Henry Knox”, 228-231.

[5] Ford, “Henry Knox”, 232.

[6] Invoice from Wright & Gill, London, dated Feb. 17, 1772; Noah Brooks, Henry Knox, a Soldier of the Revolution (NY and London: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, The Knickerbocker Press, 1900), 10.

[7] In 1773, Rivington began publishing a very pro-Tory newspaper with the catchy title The New York Gazetteer or the Connecticut, New Jersey, Hudson’s River, and Quebec Weekly Advertiser. He was involved in a number of other business ventures such as tea importing and a coffee shop. Late in the Revolutionary War, however, Rivington became a spy for Gen. George Washington.

[8] Ford, “Henry Knox”, 255.

[9] Ford, “Henry Knox”, 255.

[10] The London Chronicle, Or, Universal Evening Post, August 26-28, 1762, 208.

[11] Ford, “Henry Knox”, 251.

[12] Ford, “Henry Knox”, 251.

[13] Ford, “Henry Knox”, 250-251.

[14] Ford, “Henry Knox”, 251; British Apollo, No. 4, 1709, advertises this as a “Most Excellent Chephalick Water, or Liquid Snuff.”

[15] Ford, “Henry Knox”, 250-251.

[16] London Medical Gazette: or, Journal of Practical Medicine, XI (1833), 503.

[17] Ford, “Henry Knox”, 269-270.

[18] John Redman Coxe, M.D., ed. The American Dispensary, 8th edition, (Philadelphia: Carey & Lea, 1830), 336.

[19] Coxe, The American Dispensary, 336.

[20] Massachusetts Gazette and Boston News-Letter, May 5, June 23, June 30, 1774.

[21] Ford, “Henry Knox”, 293.

[22] Henry Knox to James Rivington, Boston, Thursday, July 28, 1774; in Puls, Henry Knox, 20.

[23] James Rivington to Henry Knox, N. York, March 21, 1774; in Ford, “Henry Knox”, 276.

[24] Choosing the patriot side after the shots were fired at Lexington and Concord, Henry and Lucy Knox escaped besieged Boston. Henry left the bookstore in care of his older brother, William. Eventually however, the business was discovered by British troops, and was ransacked and destroyed.

[25] James Rivington to Henry Knox, N. York, November 19, 1774; in Ford, “Henry Knox”, 302.


  • As a part-time actor who portrays Henry Knox, as both the General and the Secretary of War, for the American Historical Theater and Historic Philadelphia Inc., your eye-catching headline certainly stopped me cold. I wondered if I would have to incorporate a scene in which Henry is standing in the shadows on some street corner in Cornhill beckoning an unsuspecting customer to “try something just once to make yourself feel good.” Great research, and I will file it away in my mental repertoire should the need ever arise in encounters with others.

    1. Bob – well I’m glad the headline got your attention, and while it’s true Henry sold a wide variety of items as he diversified his business, he and many other Boston booksellers also sold the popular medicinal cures that customers wanted of the day. The only thing shady as you jokingly allude to were the cure claims of the manufacturer! Ha! And congratulations on your acting portrayal of General Knox! You, sir, are making a big difference in correcting the historical illiteracy trend of Americans, young and old. Salute!

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