THE INFAMOUS DR. BRADDEE
Digger Odell Publications ©2008
In December of 2005 Christian Raezor and his digging buddy, Don Hallacher, opened up a wood-lined hole. in the Columbia, Pennsylvania area. In the hole were shards of black glass, several broken Lancaster, Pa. sodas and piece of a Smedly & Brandt Columbia, Pa. soda bottle. It looked as though the hole had been dipped for the only whole bottle found was near the bottom, it was a pontiled Dalby’s Carminative. As most diggers do prior to filling in a hole, they clawed at the sides and remnants of the wood wall. About half way down one side, they found another bottle stuck behind the wood. The bottle was an odd shade of green, pontiled and embossed on all four sides: Dr. Braddee’s Cordial Balm of Health.
When Christian posted his find on the Bottle Forum web site, it created quite a stir. The bottle was unknown although sometime earlier a different Braddee bottle was listed on Ebay. The story behind these bottles is a fascinating tale.
John F. Braddee, Indian Doctor
John F. Braddee was born in Paris, or so he liked to say. The truth was never of great importance to John. In fact, it was Paris – Paris, Kentucky. Perhaps it was because his father died when he was quite young that he never received much moral education. As a young lad he wound up in the big city of Knoxville working as a stable and office boy for Dr. John C. Gunn, M. D. graduate of several of the most popular medical college including those of Philadelphia, London and Paris, who was also the author of a moderately successful ‘Home Book of Health’ entitled Gunn’s Domestic Medicine. Gunn developed numerous recipes and compounds which he dispensed.
A restless lad, John F. Braddee’s time with the good doctor ended abruptly when he struck out with a horse trader on a drive to the Eastern market. Falling sick along the way, he landed in Morgantown, Virginia where he met and befriended William Purnell. The two got on quite well but Braddee believed opportunity lay elsewhere in Uniontown, Pennsylvania.
Braddee’s experience with Dr. Gunn had convinced him that he, too, could be a doctor, at least an Indian doctor of the sort popular at the time. Braddee was a handsome six-foot figure robust in appearance who had a way with people and with words. Sometime in late 1828, With William Purnell in tow, they set of for Uniontown to make their fortune.
Two miles from their destination they arrived at the farm of one Joseph Collins whose daughter Hannah, was ill. Braddee, posing as a doctor, convinced the suspicious farmer to treat his daughter. Doubtful, Collins nicknamed Braddee, “Pocahontas”. Whatever ailed Miss Collins passed and the two struck up a friendship which quickly turned serious. Over the father’s objections, John and Hannah married and settled in Uniontown.
Braddee’s Cordial Balm of Health
John Braddee could neither read nor write which maybe why he retained William Purnell as his clerk. Never the less, his success as a doctor was remarkable. Braddee opened practice about 1829, advertising in the local paper guaranteeing the cure of numerous diseases. For a decade, he expanded to make room for his growing patient base. He built a log building for steam baths to treat sufferers of consumption, dropsy, rheumatism and cancer. He added stables, hitching posts and sheds for both his and his customer’s horses. It is said that folks came from as far as fifty miles away and that up to fifty horses had been seen hitched outside of his office, a double building partly logs and partly frame, on Morgantown St near where it intersects with the National Road. He purchased a fine brick building known as the “Old National House.” from the local judge, Hon. Thomas Irwin. He and his wife and family occupied the new wing he added on the north side where he also had his office and headquarters. His office was adjacent to L. W. Stockton’s Stage yard and Coach Factory, where as many as thirty coaches arrived daily carrying out Stockton’s contract with the government to carry the U. S. Mail. The stage yard being on the National Road was a hub of activity day and night.
DETAIL SHOWING BRADDEE LOCATION IN UNIONTOWN
Braddee’s fortune and fame increased and with the introduction of a line of proprietary medicines including a ‘Female Cordial,’ ‘Camomile Cordial,’ ‘Rheumatic Cure’, ‘Cancer Salve’, “Cordial Balm of Health,’ ‘Tincture of Health,’ ‘Gravel Elixir’, and others. He began a newspaper advertising campaign aimed at the Western States in 1836. His ads appeared in local newspapers from Cincinnati to Arkansas for his most popular medicine his ‘Cordial Balm of Health’. .John Braddee might have come into Uniontown without a dollar to his name but with his expanding practice and proprietary medicine business, he quickly made and spent money on his passion -horses and racing. He kept his racers, “Squirrel” and “Pony” along with his favorite riding horse, “Smearcase” in his stables.
THE BOTTLE ABOVE SOLD AT AUCTION RECENTLY FOR $2750
A Man of Character?
There were constant rumors circulating about Braddee’s other dealings –backroom schemes and other activities thought to be unseemly. It is said that his choice of friends was none too discriminating. He avoided real medical men for fear of exposure instead surrounding himself with men of questionable character. Defrauding the public by posing as a doctor was not his only deception.
Trouble was no stranger to John F. Braddee. He spend a month in jail in 1834 for assaulting a constable. The next year it was a perjury charge for which he was found not guilty but required to pay costs. The following year, he was indicted for making and passing counterfeit notes, again acquitted and ordered to pay half the costs. He appealed and the costs were dismissed. That same year, he was accused by a fellow citizen of passing one thousand dollars in bad notes. Braddee took his story to the local press and advertised that if the money was bad, it was unknown to him and he had given good Western paper for it so was equally the victim. A second time he was acquitted of passing counterfeit money and was once prosecuted for perjury. But these offences were to pale in comparison to what would ultimately make the name of Braddee infamous throughout the country.
Banking and the U.S. Mails
The 1830-1840s were a challenging time for American institutions. Growth and expansion presented problems for financial and governmental organizations. Banks of time issued their own notes or currency. However, this currency was not as universally accepted as our present day bills. Eastern money devalued as it moved further from the bank from which it was issued. Western bank’s (those in what we now call the Mid-west) notes were traded for those issued by the Eastern banks. John Braddee was one of many who exploited the proliferation of so many different types of currency. Counterfeit money was common so merchants and business men relied upon publications such as Bicknell’s Directory to identify bad notes.
The United States Post Office similarly faced difficult logistical problems in delivering mail. The fluidity of the immigrant population and the primitive means of transportation meant delays and lost mail. More ominous, the Post Office faced its own internal problems of corruption. Amos Kendall was the Post Master General under President Martin Van Buren and was the first to become a part of the president’s cabinet. At the time, between twelve and thirteen thousand local postmasters and clerks along with fourteen thousand contractors (like Stockton) and secret agents were engaged in various form of corruption. Bids for contracts were rigged and the highest bidder did not always win. Local postmasters, like Congressional officials of today, had franking privileges which entitled them to “free postage”. Abuse was rampant as large amounts of mail which would otherwise have provided revenue for the government was sent for “friends” and others. There were also allegations of Post Office officials electioneering and traveling in luxury at public expense. One such criticism was leveled at Kendall for sending George Plitt, a special agent stationed in New York to Europe to study European Postal systems in hopes of streamlining the United States Postal organization.
The New Yorker April 25, 1840 quipped:
The Postage Reform – We have heard nothing definite from Mr. Kendall’s agent sent out to inquire into the management of the Mails and Post Offices throughout Europe, nor are we at all anxious to hear. Our expectations from that quarter were never exalted, and we do not believe there is fifty dollars’ worth of information to be obtained which might not have been procured without expense by a dozen simple letter to our Embassadors and Consuls.
Plitt did report to Congress a lengthy and bloated report which was poorly received and criticized by the press. The Huntress, February 28, 1841 said:
Was it honesty and justice to appoint Mr. Plitt special agent of the post office department; a place of great trust, which neither his capacity nor moral character justified? was Mr K. [Kendall] ignorant of the outrage of this same Plitt upon the person of a female at his house where he boarded, which for certain reasons was hushed up? Was it honesty and justice to send Plitt to England at the public expense, without legal authority?
But the winds of change were in the air as a presidential election loomed and with it the certainty that a new Post Master General would be appointed. It was in this political quagmire that John F. Braddee would soon be entangled.
The problems of the banking institutions and those of the Post Office were intertwined. Banks had no reliable method of moving money over any great distance and so it was on the Post Office that the banks were forced to rely. This meant that the mails moving from West to East were filled with money and valuables of all sorts.
Mail robbery and the disappearance of valuables was not uncommon. Sometimes it was employees of the Post Office such as the 1834 robbery in Milton North Carolina. John Bruce was an apprentice and in charge of sorting the mail when he absconded with numerous letters and a check for five hundred dollars. In another case, the deputy Postmaster of Canajoharie, New York was caught stealing twelve hundred dollars. At other times what was thought to be a robbery turned out to be a case of misplaced or even lost mail bags wrongly routed which eventually reappeared.
More desperate men, such as those in Richmond Virginia in 1839 where a mail cart, preceding the passenger stage, was overthrown and the driver beaten by a would-be robber who was driven off without his prize when the passenger stage arrived on the scene.
There was the case of the robbery of the mail coach running between Cincinnati and Springfield, Ohio which was stopped by two men, one of whom put a pistol to the breast of the driver and forced him to a halt. They made off with only the Cincinnati mail bag. such event were commonplace.
The Beginning Of The End
John F. Braddee struck up a relationship with one of the Stockton stage drivers by the name of William Corman shortly after he was newly hired. Braddee convinced Corman that money could be easily made by searching the mail bags and that if Corman would give him the bags, he would go through them and they would divide the profits. Braddee was not alone in this enterprise his accomplices included Peter Mills Strayer, a local saddler, and his long time confident now known as Dr. Wm. Purnell. Braddee assured Corman that such things were commonly done and that money had been made and it had never been detected. So sometime in 1840 they put the plan into action. While Corman was driving the stage between Smithfield and Uniontown, Peter Mills Strayer rode after him in a sleigh and as prearranged, when Corman stopped to water his horses, Strayer took a mail bag and returned it to Braddee. Braddee later told Corman there was nothing in it.
According to Corman’s testimony, the conspirators grew bolder and began stealing mail bags out of the coach while it was parked at Stocktons. Corman would leave a bag in the untended coach and Braddee or one of his directives would pick it up. Still after several times of doing this Braddee or Purnell would tell Corman there was no money or at other times that there was only a little money. Braddee gave Corman three or four dollars as he asked for it and loaned him forty dollars once when Corman’s wife went away. But the last bag stolen contained a large amount of money that he, Braddee, would keep as he had a secret hiding place where he would bury it.
Rooting Out a Villainous Gang of Counterfeiters and Rogues
It quickly came to the attention of Postal authorities when the mail from Wheeling, Va. to New York made up at Wheeling on the 13th 19th, 23rd, and 29th days of November 1840 and on the 5th, 12th, and 18th days of December 1840, never arrived. January 6, 1840, The Christian Reflector reported eight mails had been stolen in November.
The agents of the Post Office Department have been on the watch for some time, endeavoring to detect the robbers, but have so far failed, as that the mail has been robbed while they have been on the look out. They have with considerable difficulty fixed the point of the robbery at Uniontown, Fayette Co. Pa. on the national road.
George Plitt and Howard Kennedy who had, against the objections of the press, had been promoted by Amos Kendall from a common letter carrier to special agent despite his being accused of withholding $27 in secret directed to his care by the Postmaster of Pittsburgh. Plitt and Kennedy were under great pressure not only because a robbery had taken place right under their noses but also because they need to impress the NEW Postmaster General who would be sworn in February. In short, their jobs were on the line. Neither man curried much favor with those in the press or those in power. What they needed was a nothing short of a miracle and that miracle proved to be John F. Braddee.
Plitt, agent for the department for the State of New York, Kennedy special agent for this division of the department and Lucius W. Stockton were put in charge of the investigation. It came to light that William Corman was the driver scheduled on each of the days on which the mail went missing. Plitt hitched a ride with Corman engaged him in conversation and by the time they reached Washington, Pa., Plitt had Corman arrested. January 6, 1841 the information was sworn to and Corman charged with robbing the United States mail. Corman caved quicker than a house of cards and confessed everything he knew in return for a deal. The following day Plitt sought warrants against Braddee, Purnell and Strayer.
Lucius W. Stockton was at the time also in a battle with Amos Kendall. Apparently Kendall for some reason with withholding pay due to The Stockton and Stokes Stage Company. It was no small sum being $122,000. Stockton and Stokes sued and won. Just a coincidence perhaps but the announcement of the outcome of the case was in the same newspaper the same day as the announcement of the arrest of the Braddee Bunch (I couldn’t resist).
The Arrest and Trial
Braddee’s arrest caused quite a up stir in Uniontown such that guards were placed around his house. Plitt and Kennedy obtained search warrants. The search turned up several trunks, and carpet bags in the Braddee house. More than ten thousand dollars was found tied up in a handkerchief hidden in the hay in the stable. It gets better. The Niles Register, February 6, 1841 reported:
On Tuesday an excavation was made of a few feet of ground, (on a new street), which was formerly a privy and part of the lot on which Dr. Braddee’s dwelling house is situated, when another mail bag was found, containing letters dated in January, 1840. Crucibles and a bar of metal were also found in the same place.
Initially at the January 8, 1841 hearing, Braddee, and Strayer swore they knew nothing of the stealing of the mail bags. Presiding Judge N. Ewing set bail for the defendants Braddee, fifty thousand dollars and two sureties in the sum of twenty-five thousand dollars each; Peter M. Strayer, fifteen thousand and two seventy-five hundred dollar sureties; Dr, Wm. Purnell, ten thousand and two five thousand dollar sureties.
It was reported that the four charged failed to obtain bail and were put into the custody of marshal William Crawford who with the help of sheriff Meason of Uniontown organized a possee and took Braddee, Purnell and Strayer by coach to Brownville and then by steamboat to Pittsburgh. Corman was left in the Fayette County jail in Uniontown.
Braddee was the prize – doctor guilty of mail robbery. The evidence against him was testimony by Corman that he recruited by Braddee and that he had actually seen Braddee take three or four mail bags back to his house. Another witness, Samuel Costolo sold Braddee a farm and the money used to pay for the purchase was positively identified as bank notes taken in the robberies. Paper’s played up the trial one estimating that Braddee had stolen half a million dollars. Strayer, who did not want his testimony to be the primary reason for a guilty verdict, held out until he was certain Braddee would be convicted, at which point he turned states evidence to escape conviction. It gets better. Both Corman and Purnell were pardoned by no less than the President of the United States.
Plitt and Kennedy were hailed as heroes in many press accounts. Braddee was held up a the party guilty of the biggest mail robbery in the history of the country. Not everyone thought things were on the up and up. There were mysteries about how Plitt and Kennedy knew exactly where to go to find the hidden money and the buried evidence. The Huntress, February 13, 1841 editorialized:
Now any one can see through all this: It is designed to dupe the new POST MASTER GENERAL to induce him to retain those men in his service. But let such men once make a lodgement in the department under the new Administration and the late ruinous system of fraud and corruption will continue as steadfast as it is now.
The Incredible Ending
All during the trial, Braddee’s wife clung to him. At the sentencing Bradee was given ten years. Once he was imprisoned however she was, shall we say, less than faithful and married another during Braddee’s Imprisonment. In September, Braddee’s mother-in-law, Mrs. Collins of Pittsburg was charged with possessing and or knowing of the stolen money. The indictment was eventually dropped. Her daughter moved out of Uniontown to a place of relative isolation, admitting later in life, she had burned some of the money to dispose of the evidence. Braddee was never told of his wife’s indiscretions as he was fond of talking about her and his child while imprisoned.
Prison did not sit well with Braddee and he devised a plan for his release. He would feign illness such that his impending death would gain him his freedom. The account, which can only be described as bizarre appeared in the Boston Medical and Surgical Journal March 25, 1846. Braddee wished to fool the prison doctor into thinking he had an incurable lung disease. Consumptive patients were known to cough up blood so Braddee mimicked the symptoms. In preparation for a prison Chaplin or physician’s visit, Braddee, whose chosen prison occupation was that of a shoemaker, took a steel sharp pointed awl and pricked his gums saturating a towel with his blood. He then displayed fits of uncontrollable coughing. This ruse convinced the prison officials of his illness. Unfortunately for Barddee, it is likely that the gum pricking lead to the infection which ultimately ended his life. He died in prison serving somewhat less than five years of his sentence confessing his faking of the illness shortly before his demise.
Dr. Purnell purchased at auction all of Braddee’s proprietary medicines. Because Braddee’s property was seized, Purnell was forced to take his show on the road as a traveling doctor.
Was Braddee really a scapegoat for Postal agents? Probably. Many in Uniontown must have thought so as twenty-two of his neighbors put up money towards his bail. Did Braddee deserve the lasting damage to his character? Probably. In prison he had steadfastly maintained his innocence but upon realizing his pending death, he confessed his guilt. What kind of a man commits fraud? Recent research into this area tells us the perpetrators are nearly all male, intelligent, egotistical, risk takers generally hard working rule breakers who are often married - like Braddee. His greed was his undoing to be sure. Wonder what he’d think to find out that just one of his empty bottles today is worth thousands of dollars? It is a cruel irony.
Searight, Thomas B., The Old Pike A History of the National Road, Uniontown, Pa Published by the author. 1894.
Hadden, James A History of Uniontown The County Seat of Fayette County, Pennsylvania Copyright 1913 by James Hadden, Uniontown, PA
Cincinnati Mirror and Western Gazette May 28, 1836.
New York Evangelist June 19, 1841
The Boston Medical and Surgical Journal March 25, 1846.
Report of George Plitt Special Agent of the Post Office Dept. New York Review, July 1841.