No Syrup, No Swimmer

Without Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup and the fortune it generated, Diana Nyad as we know and love her would not exist. So—because I messed it up the first time—here’s a re-examination of Nyad’s “Lucy Winslow” claims in Find a Way.

“The Curtis family,” wrote Diana Nyad,

“…had come from a century-old successful clan of New Yorkers, starting back in the early 1800s with the first Lucy Winslow, one of the first female physicians in Manhattan….” (p. 36)

As I wrote in …The Lies in Find A Way, Lucy Winslow, Nyad’s great great grandmother, came from Maine, didn’t move to New York until the mid-1800s, and was not a physician.

But Miss Lucy Winslow was not the Mrs. Winslow of soothing syrup fame. Diana confused Lucy with her mom. Before I explain, we’ll need a bit more background from Find a Way:

“This forebear Lucy evidently invented a soothing syrup for babies…. The syrup was laced with a pacifying ingredient, and it was the consumer product, the rage, of its time, catching lightning in a bottle when Dr. Winslow’s husband, Jeremiah Curtis, threw his marketing skills into it.” (ibid)

First things first: the product’s namesake was Mrs. Charlotte Winslow, Lucy’s mother. Charlotte’s husband was Joseph Winslow, a Maine farmer.

Second things second: What made Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing syrup the rage of its time? Morphine—Nyad’s “pacifying ingredient”—and alcohol.

Charlotte, like her daughter, was neither a nurse nor a physician. And she probably didn’t ply her babies with opiates. The real brains behind the brew most likely belonged to Charlotte’s son-in-law, Jeremiah Curtis, a druggist in Bangor, Maine. He probably concocted Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup sometime after marrying Lucy Winslow in 1829.

A “Dr. Curtis’s Soothing Syrup” might have caught on given its contents. But it would have faced intense competition from the many other doctor-denominated, morphine-laced patent medicines available at the time. Dr. Seth Arnold’s Cough Killer, right, is just one example.

The ambitious Jeremiah, however, saw a better way. In a brilliant stroke of promotional misdirection, he affixed his mother-in-law’s name—a name that oozed calm and dignity—to his dangerous concoction.

Someone in the Curtis family began selling Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup no later than 1845. Whether it was Jeremiah (as per most sources) or his brother Jacob, Jr. (as the ad below seems to indicate) or some combination thereof, I’m not sure.

Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup ad in the Whig and Courier of Bangor, Maine.

The real Mrs. Winslow (i.e. Charlotte), lived her entire life in Maine. She passed away in 1850, long before the wild profits from her eponymous potion began rolling in. Her Curtis descendants, however, pocketed a fortune before various governments forced them to remove morphine from the mixture.

The family must have invested well. Proceeds funded Jeremiah’s grandson Atherton Curtis, a well-known art collector and patron (and the relative who raised Nyad’s mother, Lucy Winslow Curtis, in Paris). The proceeds also funded Jeremiah’s daughter, Laura Curtis Bullard, an author who helped bail out Susan B. Anthony’s weekly women’s rights newspaper, The Revolution. A 2011 version of Anthony’s Wikipedia page mentions Bullard’s connection to “a popular morphine-containing patent medicine.” It also notes that Anthony banned patent medicine ads from The Revolution but that such ads began appearing after Bullard’s takeover.  Anthony’s current Wikipedia entry has been redacted.

The Curtis financial legacy eventually attracted Aristotle Z. Nyad, Diana’s con artist step-father. It most likely funded Diana’s private-school education—Pine Crest, Emory, Lake Forest—and her unprofitable globetrotting on the pro swimming circuit.

The Curtis storytelling legacy provided a foundation for Nyad’s own feeling for the flexibility of facts. Let’s compare…

Mrs. Winslow’s Credentials
(as per advertisements)
Box Jellyfish Lethality
(as per Diana Nyad)
“an old nurse for children” “90% of all people…die instantaneously.”
“an excellent nurse” “95% of the people…die instantaneously.”
“one of the most experienced and skillful Nurses in New England” “Usually a fatal sting 99% of the time.”
“an experienced Nurse and Female Physician” “I shoulda’ died that night. No hyperbole.”
“‘Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup’…is the prescription of one of the oldest and best female physicians and nurses in the United States.”
(Brooklyn Life, January 31, 1914detail)

Charlotte had been dead almost 75 years by the time that final ad has her prescribing her son-in-law’s toxic broth. And box jellies are rarely fatal. No hyperbole.

Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup advertising card showing an infant grasping for relief.

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