Dr. Charles M. Townsend was many things – concocter and purveyor of patent medicines, head of his own entertainment troupe and cornet player, occasionally giving impromptu performances from the balcony of a house he built about 1870 on the southwest corner of West Market and Baxter streets.
What he was not was an actual physician, although that did not seem to matter to those who bought Dr. Townsend’s Magic Oil or Cholera Balm or other cure-all, many directly off Townsend’s gaily painted wagon during one of his visits to towns and cities in western Ohio and eastern Indiana in the 1860s, ‘70s and 80s. In the years following the Civil War, medicine was expensive, people were poor, and educated doctors were scarce. Visits from medicine shows like Townsend’s were much anticipated.
“We have just learned that Dr. C.M. Townsend, the great specialist physician of Lima, O. is in the city,” the Fort Wayne Daily Gazette announced Sept. 3, 1870. “His great worm-destroying lozenges are unequaled in the land.”
Nor did Townsend’s lack of official status in the medical community seem to matter to future poet James Whitcomb Riley, who joined Townsend’s traveling troupe when it visited his hometown of Greenfield, Indiana, in the early autumn of 1875. In an article on Riley in February 1918, Harper’s Monthly magazine quoted the poet: “Though my patron, … Townsend was not a diplomaed doctor, he had a natural instinct for the art of healing, was a man of excellent habits, and the whole company was made up of good straight boys – jolly chirping vagabonds like myself.”
Among those “jolly chirping vagabonds” at the time were Pete Dalzell, Billy Mershon, James Townsend, “a funny man by the name of Sylvester,” and Riley, the News wrote, adding that. “Dalzell played cornet and bass drum together, and James Townsend the clarinet. Billy Mershon was a piano dealer and also led the city band.”
The Harper’s article described the arrival of Townsend’s show in Greenfield: “One hot autumn afternoon, as he (Riley) was poring hopelessly over a law book, there swung into town to the jubilee of bugles a covered wagon painted in gay colors. The body of the wagon was ultramarine blue, across which glittered the golden letters, Dr. Townsend’s Magic Oil Company. No more law for Riley that afternoon. There before him appeared the proprietor, bowing, on a little back platform, Stetson hat lifted, frock-coat flapping, and hair trimmed to make him look wonderfully like General Grant. Behind him, in linen dusters, a band of three young fellows, each playing two instruments, poured forth martial tunes, interspersed with sacred music from an organ within the wagon.”
Townsend, the Stetson-hatted proprietor of the show, was born June 25, 1825, in Vermont. He was married twice, first to Catherine Berry, who died in 1866, and later to Margaret E. Dilley, and arrived in Allen County around 1850. He was the father of eight children, six boys and two girls. Son James Townsend, the clarinet player in the medicine show, became an attorney and served as mayor of Lima in the late 1870s.
In his 1961 book, “Toadstool Millionaires: A Social History of Patent Medicines in America Before Federal Regulation,” James Harvey Young wrote that Towsend was “one of the better sort” of patent medicine salesmen.
“The doctor was a kind and generous man with a gift for coining moral aphorisms,” Young wrote. “During the winter he prepared and packaged his Magic Oil, his King of Coughs, and his Cholera Balm, in Lima, Ohio, and in the spring set out with a covered wagon containing side seats for the members of his troupe.”
Nearing a town, they would arouse the population with blasts from a horn and then distribute broadsides. At the edge of town, they formed a band and paraded through the main streets.
“Dr. Townsend gave two ‘lectures’ a day, one in the afternoon, the main speech at night,” Young added. “The versatile Riley did so many things that he was presented as the ‘Hoosier Wizard.’ He beat the bass drum, played the violin, sang ballads, gave poetic readings and used his sketching talent to draw cartoons on blackboards affixed to the wagon while his employer extolled the merits of his remedies.”
When Townsend’s troupe returned to Lima in the autumn of 1875, Riley came along. Riley “was soon being invited to a great many homes to dine and recite his poems,” Richard Crowder wrote in his 1957 book “Those Innocent Years: The Legacy and Inheritance of a Hero of the Victorian Age, James Whitcomb Riley.” Riley was “treated like ‘one of the boys’” in the large Townsend family, Crowder wrote.
“He composed verses about the compounds, he painted signs on the glass, he helped make cartons for the bottles,” Crowder wrote.
At the end of the season, Townsend’s troupe often entertained Lima audiences. In November 1871, Lima’s Weekly Gazette advised “lovers of music and mirth” to come to the City Hall, where the troupe would give “one of their classic entertainments consisting of vocal and instrumental music, comic and sentimental songs, burlesque characters, comedy and jokes. The Dr. on his return home has concluded to favor the people of Lima with one of their concerts before disbanding for the winter.”
Riley returned to Greenfield in mid-December 1875, continued writing poetry and became famous in the process. He never forgot his time with Townsend.
Although he seldom recited his poetry before an audience, Riley made an exception for Lima, returning in October 1903 to perform at a sold-out Faurot Opera House.
“At that performance, several of the songs he also wrote were performed by area residents,” Kim Kincaid wrote in an October 24, 1997, story in the News. “Riley was so touched – it was said – he left the stage several times. Returning, he continued his performance but often removed his thick glasses to wipe his eyes.”
Riley died in Greenfield in 1916.
Townsend would continue his life on the road, despite occasional dangers. In November 1873, while making some collections in the Celina area in his horse and buggy, he was ambushed by two men, “one holding the horse and the other going to the side of the buggy and demanding him to ‘shell out,’ at the same time striking at him with a knife, cutting through overcoat, dress coat, lining and shirt, but doing no other damage,” according to a story from the Celina Journal. “The doctor, having a ‘loaded’ whip, struck the assassin on the head and fell him to earth; at the same time telling the man at the horses to ‘let go or he would kill him as he had his companion.’”
The doctor escaped, as did the would-be robbers.
“Death on the spot is none too good for such cowardly devils, and it should be dealt out to them unsparingly,” the Journal opined.
Townsend died in 1887.
“This community was startled last Friday morning with the announcement that Dr. Townsend, one of Lima’s oldest and best-known citizens, had suddenly and peacefully passed away,” the Allen County Democrat wrote Nov. 18, 1887. “About two weeks prior to his demise, he came driving home from Celina, in an unconscious condition, the fatal disease pneumonia having already taken effect.”
He was, the newspaper added, “one of the best-known men in Northwestern Ohio, and by all was he liked for his genial and affable character.”
Reach Greg Hoersten at firstname.lastname@example.org.