The Vermifuge Bottle

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During these days of doom, gloom and uncertainty, this little tale of a long ago cure for what ails you may bring a smile to your face. It was published in 1912 by C.A. Stephens, a prolific short story author, many of whose tales were published in The Youth’s Companion. One series concerned four or five cousins, all who had lost their parents in the Civil War, and who then came to live with Gram and Gramp on their New England farm. This was one of their stories which I’ve compressed to fit it into a blog format. — S.M.


Gram was a dear old soul, but she had fixed ideas as to the ailments of youngsters. Whenever any one of us had a cold or upset stomach she was always sure we were suffering from an attack of worms. She seemed to believe that the average kid was nothing but a thin shell of flesh and skin, enclosing hundreds, if not thousands, of worms! And drastic measures were necessary to keep this raging internal population down to the point where a child could survive.

For this, Gram had one remedy in which she had implicit faith and that was a huge spoonful of Van Tassel’s Vermifuge, followed four hours later by two great spoonfuls of the castor oil of that period, an oily, rank abomination. As for Van Tassel’s Vermifuge, it resembled raw petroleum, an evil, greenish-black, syrup almost too nauseous to swallow. It was my fervent hope in those days that, if in the next world there was a deep, dark, super-heated cell, it was reserved expressly for Van Tassel and his potion.

Any time one of us came to the breakfast table, looking a little rusty and peaked and without appetite, Gram would exclaim, “Poor child, you are all eaten up by worms! You need a dose of Vermifuge.” With fascination, the worm-suspect would watch her pour out the hideous, sticky liquid, till the tablespoon was full and running over. “Now shut your eyes and open your mouth,” Gram would say, and when the awful dose was in, “Swallow! Swallow hard!” Then she’d cup her hand under the victim’s chin and tilt his head back until there was nothing to do but swallow, gagging and coughing. Gramp would always offer a swig of coffee to hopefully kill the taste, although it never quite did.

Gram kept the noxious stuff in an old demijohn in the cupboard. Now there was another jug on the top shelf in the same cupboard, about half full of old, thick elderberry wine which Gram had made years before. It was used only “for sickness,” and was always kept on the upper shelf. The Vermifuge and the old elderberry wine looked a lot alike, and once, mysteriously, someone, somehow had shifted the thick, dark liquids from one bottle to the other and put the jugs back in their usual places.

In due time Ellen had to take a dose from the Bottle and it was noticed that she appeared surprised, but neither cried nor gagged. Nor did she seem in a hurry to swallow the conciliatory sip of coffee from Gramp’s sympathetic hand. “Why, Ellie girl, you are getting to be quite the brave girl,” was his comment. From then on, after we got over the initial shock of not tasting the horrible Vermifuge, we actually looked forward to the formerly hated treatment and the warm, tingly feeling it made in our stomachs.

There was to be a “quarterly meeting” at the church one Saturday afternoon and Sunday, and the preacher came to Gramp’s to stay till Monday morning. Elder Witham was getting on in years and he had taken a cold which affected his appetite. Gram had prepared a good supper on the Elder’s account, but after we all sat down and he had asked the blessing, he said, “Sister Sophie, you’ve got a nice supper but I don’t believe I can eat a mouthful to-night. I’m all out of fix and I’m afraid I shan’t be able to preach to-morrow. I think I’ll just go lie down a bit on your lounge, to see if I can’t feel better.”

Well Gram was much disturbed and said, “Elder Witham, isn’t there something I can give you to take? Some Jamaica ginger, or something like that?” [a popular tonic at the time, Jamaica ginger was mostly alcohol.]

“Oh, that is rather too fiery for me,” the Elder replied.

“Then how would a few swallows of my elderberry wine do?” queried Gram.

“But you know, Sister Sophie, that I don’t hold with such things,” said the Elder.

“Still, I think really that it would do you good,” urged Gram.

“Perhaps,” said the old fraud, for truth to say, this was not his first experience with the elderberry bottle; so Gram went to the cupboard.

About this time, we kids decided we’d had enough to eat and quietly disappeared outside, where we listened at the open window. Gram poured out a small glass of elderberry wine and handed it to Elder Witham. He took one good swallow, jumped to his feet and ran to the wood-box. “Jehosophat! What! What? What in thunder is this?” he spluttered, spitting as energetically as possible. “You’ve given me bug-pizen! — and I’ve swallered a lot of it!”

Shocked and frightened, Gram could only sit, bug-eyed and helpless at first, and then she snatched up the bottle, smelled of it, then tasted it.

“My sakes, Elder Witham!” she cried, “Don’t be scared, it’s only Vermifuge, such as I give the children for worms!”

“Aaugh!” coughed the good man. “But it’s nasty stuff, ain’t it?”

As we milked that night, I’m sure I saw Gramp shaking with something like laughter, but his back was to me and I’m not sure. Not much was said at breakfast next morning and the Reverend didn’t preach that day. Gram didn’t attend meeting — she was nearly ill from shame, and it was several days before she felt up to investigating. Along about Thursday she cross-examined us all rather sharply but no one seemed to know much and all she could do was give us an earnest lecture about the importance of telling the truth.

The episode put a damper on the Vermifuge Bottle, however; it was never quite so prominent after that.

— Sam Moore

Taking a dose from the Vermifuge Bottle. [Illustration from the book]

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