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Mark Twain

Here’s the story: in the winter of 1905, Mark Twain received a package and handwritten letter from a “doctor” out of California named J.H. Todd. After a cursory look at the items, Twain recognized that Todd was nothing more than a salesman peddling a rather deceptive snake oil — a cure-all pompously called The Elixir of Life — which purported to, among other things, instantly “cure all ailments of the human, animal, and fowl.” Such patent ridiculousness would not have ruffled the feathers of the otherwise unfazed Twain, except for the lingering presence of three relevant facts. Twain’s wife had died suddenly while on vacation the previous year; moreover, meningitis and diphtheria, which the Elixir proudly claimed to cure, had previously taken the lives of Twain’s daughter and 19-month-old son. With these memories now triggered in his mind, Twain sat down to pen a screed against charlatanism. Here’s his customer service complaint for the ages:

Nov. 20. 1905

J. H. Todd
1212 Webster St.
San Francisco, Cal.

Dear Sir,

Your letter is an insoluble puzzle to me. The handwriting is good and exhibits considerable character, and there are even traces of intelligence in what you say, yet the letter and the accompanying advertisements profess to be the work of the same hand. The person who wrote the advertisements is without doubt the most ignorant person now alive on the planet; also without doubt he is an idiot, an idiot of the 33rd degree, and scion of an ancestral procession of idiots stretching back to the Missing Link. It puzzles me to make out how the same hand could have constructed your letter and your advertisements. Puzzles fret me, puzzles annoy me, puzzles exasperate me; and always, for a moment, they arouse in me an unkind state of mind toward the person who has puzzled me. A few moments from now my resentment will have faded and passed and I shall probably even be praying for you; but while there is yet time I hasten to wish that you may take a dose of your own poison by mistake, and enter swiftly into the damnation which you and all other patent medicine assassins have so remorselessly earned and do so richly deserve.

Adieu, adieu, adieu!

Mark Twain


Check out Twain’s original letter. See the Elixir’s actual two-page product label.