Perry Davis, who lived in Westport from 1795 until 1837, could have been a hero of one of Horatio Alger’s wildly successful novels of the late 19th century. The typical Alger hero is born in poverty, lives by a strong moral code, and with hard work and perseverance leapfrogs from adversity to fame and fortune. He falters often but never gives up his dream.
At one point in 1843, Perry Davis had one thin dollar to his name. By the time he died in 1862, he had amassed a fortune from the sales of Perry Davis’ Pain Killer. Alger couldn’t have made up a story more compelling than Perry Davis’s.
Speaking to an overflow crowd in Lees Market Community Room, Westport Historical Society President Tony Connors, who holds a Ph.D. in American History, painted a picture of a man who never gave up his dream of making something of himself. Connors’ insightful style and informative slide presentation were as potent as the medicine that propelled Perry Davis to become a household name in the mid to late 1800s.
Perry Davis was born in Dartmouth in 1791 to parents so poor they don’t show up on tax records because they owned no personal property.
Perry’s father, Edmund Davis, moved his family to Westport in 1795. When he was 14 years old, Perry Davis fell from scaffolding and broke his hip, causing him to be lame for the rest of his life. He had respiratory problems that persisted despite visits to doctors who were so ineffectual that people often suffered rather than visit one.
In 1810, his father sent his 17 year-old son to apprentice to a cordwainer, a craftsman who makes shoes from scratch. “ This is the first indication we have that Perry had a sense of ambition,” Mr. Connors said.
In search of spiritual sustenance, Davis embraced the First Baptist Church in Tiverton where he met Sarah Davol and married her in 1813. His faith in God and the constancy of his wife’s presence would be pillars of strength for the rest of his life. He would need them. Misfortune tested his faith mightily and often. Of their nine children, only two survived, Sarah born in 1817 and Edmund born in 1824. As Mr. Connors observed, a pattern was forming in which, “Fortune doesn’t smile on the Davis family.”
With an idea to manufacture an improved grinding mill, Davis relocated his family to Pawtucket - just in time for the Great Panic of 1837 in which businesses and banks folded like decks of cards. He moved his family to Taunton, another industrial town. Again, his idea for a grinding mill met with failure. He was now $4500 in debt.
In 1840, Davis became very sick and was in great pain. Not one to give in without a fight, he dug in. “I searched the globe in my imagination, selected the best ingredients and directed as I believe by the hand of Providence compounded these medicines so that the narcotic influence of one might be balanced by the other. I commenced using my new discovered medicine with no other hope than handing me gently to the grave,” Davis wrote later. He not only survived, he got better.
After moving the family to Fall River, Davis actually patented four or five inventions but found no backers. An enormous fire consumed 20 acres of Fall River in 1843. Davis’s home, of course, was obliterated. Men of lesser determination, faith in God, and pluck would certainly have given up.
On the wings of charitable contributions, the Davis’s relocated to Providence, RI, with the clothes on their backs, a wagon, and a charred harness. Mr. Davis fell back on his only creation that ever worked for him. He would make and sell the pain killer that once saved him from death.
While experimenting with the pain killer’s formula with his wife and daughter, Davis’s face was terribly burned when a can of alcohol exploded. Like many of his time, he had no faith in doctors. He fell back again on his homemade medicine. He was back at work two weeks later.
People were not inclined to spend money on quack doctors, and there was no regulation of medicines, but a salesman with a good pitch could convince them to reach into their pockets to buy a product that could alleviate pain.
Davis, who parked himself near the gates of the 1843 State Fairs in Pawtucket and Taunton, was just such a salesman. He knew his product worked for him and shouted it out for all to hear. His bottles of Perry Davis’ Pain Killer began to sell. With the eternal zeal of a born entrepreneur, he opened a factory on Pond Street in Providence. Success was on the horizon.
Mr. Connors cited a host of social, political, economic, and religious trends that helped make Perry Davis’ Pain Killer a brand known around the world. (See sidebar) The Pain Killer's ingredients were potent. It is no wonder that a formula of vegetable extracts, camphor, ethyl alcohol, and opiates would make a sick person feel better. Davis trademarked the name “Pain Killer” and never divulged the formula for his product.
“ During the Civil War, it was given not only to soldiers but horses, too. Opium and alcohol even made the horses work longer and harder,” Connors said to laughter from the crowd. Among testimonial to the product, Mr. Connors quoted Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) who said, “Those who could run away did. Those who could not drenched themselves in cholera preventatives and my mother chose Perry Davis’s Pain Killer for me.”
Davis was a portrait of humility and business acumen. “He was a devout Baptist all his life and he gave free samples to Baptist missionaries to go overseas. For every bottle he gave away, many cases got sold “, Connors said.
Mr. Davis was generous to causes small and large when he became prosperous. He donated $36,000 to the new Baptist church in 1850. When he died in Providence in 1862, he was mourned by throngs of poor people he’d helped during his lifetime.
“He made tremendous amount of money. Poor till he was about fifty, he gave a lot away, and didn’t forget his own struggles. The third generation had great wealth but none of the drive, modesty or moral fiber of Perry Davis himself,” Mr. Connors said. The Davis and Son label disappeared forever in 1940.
Photo: Audience member reads label of Perry Davis Painkiller bottle Mr. Connors' wife found on eBay.
“Did he know what he was doing with this opium and alcohol? Yes. But he believed God had directed him to come up with this kind of medicine and in some way he believed he was doing the right thing. People believed and Perry Davis provided,” Mr. Connors concluded.
It took 50 years of struggle, but Fortune finally smiled on the Davis family.
Davis sidebar: Social, political, economic, and religious trends that helped make Perry Davis’ Pain Killer a brand known around the world
• Spirit of Jacksonian Democracy inspires more respect for the intelligence of the common people, less need for them to depend on upper class, including doctors.
• Religious Revivals proclaim that salvation can be achieved by reading the Bible, less need for trained ministers to lead the way.
• Cholera Epidemic of 1849 in Providence, Davis claims his Pain Killer can cure it (“Outrageous,” says Connors), historians of the time give him credit for doing so.
• Civil War stimulates sales of all patent and proprietary medicines. Government takes over production and distribution of Pain Killer, returns profits to the Davis company.
• Newspapers proliferate, an age of national advertising ensues as population becomes more literate. Newspapers prosper from ads for medicine. Davis is clever advertiser.
• Legal protection: Davis trademarks the name “Pain Killer.” Supreme Court upholds case when another company calls their product ‘Pain Killer’.