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Odd Wisconsin Archive

John Till and His Miracle Plaster


John Till was not your typical doctor. He wore farmer's overalls rather than a white lab coat, and he couldn't show you a college degree or even a medical license. But at the start of the last century, people came from far and wide to be healed by his miraculous treatment. Unfortunately, the medical profession and state regulators were not as pleased as his patients. But it wasn't his critics that caused Till's downfall.

Lumberjack with a Miracle Cure

Till, an Austrian immigrant, arrived at a logging camp in Barron Co. in 1898. He brought with him fromthe old country a unique paste which, when applied to the back, would supposedly cure everything from bunions to cancer. His theory was that illness is caused by poisons that seep into the body. The patient would be cured when the plaster drew those toxins out.

In the autumn of 1905, Melanie Cloutier of the nearby town of Somerset was near death from an infection. Her husband took her to Till, whose treatment appeared to save her. The news of her recovery spread like wildfire, and before long the little town of Somerset was over-run by health seekers. Reports emerged from northwestern Wisconsin that the plaster had been used to re-attach a dog's tail. In just 10 days the animal was again happily wagging.

Deluged by Patients

John Till soon moved in with the Cloutiers, who built a new wing onto their farmhouse to accommodate his patients (here's a photo of the extended family in 1905). Before long, trains were disgorging literally hundreds of patients in Somerset each day. From 6:00 a.m. until 10p.m., Till and Cloutier lined them up on chairs in the makeshift clinic, treated them in groups of six, and sent them on their way.

A local clergyman recalled, "Till would feel the patient's jugular vein and tell them what their trouble was. The sufferer's back was laid bare. Till would take his sponge and smear his croton oil concoction from neck to base of spine. Cloutier in the meantime would sew in the person's garments some cotton batting. This would soak up the running matter from the skin inflamed by Till's powerful counter-irritant. In time the back would almost be like raw beef. The batting would remain two weeks and then a second treatment might be in store."

Till never charged for his services but each patient left behind a gratuity. A reporter noted that each person "contributed as much as he deemed fit, none less than a dollar, which sums were carelessly thrown into the treasury box to the rear of the thrifty and industrious operator who appeared not to give it a thought." The local bank reported that Till deposited up to $3,000 per week during his heyday.

The Tide Turns

Till's growing reputation eventually caught the eye of the State Medical Board, who had him arrested and brought to trial for practicing without a license. But he brought so much money into the small town of Somerset that no local jury would convict him. After one trial in Hudson, the county seat, "Doctor" Till was greeted on his return to Somerset by a great throng of celebrants headed by a brass band which escorted him triumphantly to his office. That night there was a joyful demonstration with 1,300 new patients clamoring for consultation. "In the long run," the local press concluded, "Till is liable to have many more friends than the... [medical] board, which is frantically determined to ding away at the legislature until they have made it a felony to take a dose of catnip tea or onion syrup without their prescription."

In 1908, Till had a falling out with the Cloutier family and left for New Richmond. But he was too unsophisticated to manage such a popular business, and in subsequent years his lax approach to money was exploited by relatives, business partners and conniving swindlers. As he moved around northern Wisconsin in search of greener pastures, lawsuits and damage claims followed him. In 1920 the State Medical Board finally convicted him and in 1922 he was allowed to return to Austria on condition that he would not practice medicine again in Wisconsin. A quarter century later, after losing virtually all his property first to the Nazis and then to the Communists, Till returned to Wisconsin, where he died while visiting friends in Kiel in 1947.

Learn More

Till's plaster was a mixture of kerosene and croton oil, which the Encyclopedia Britannica defines as a "poisonous viscous liquid obtained from the seeds of a small Asiatic tree..." (now considered too dangerous for medicinal use). Till's story is told in the Wisconsin Magazine of History vol. 39 no. 4 (1956): 245-250. Other details given here are taken from a page about him created by the Chippewa Valley Museum at http://www.cvmuseum.com/Till.html


:: Posted in Odd Lives on May 2, 2012
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