Dodge City was, and still is, instrumental in keeping the name of this elixir alive.
A famous photograph of early Front Street features a rough sign attached to a well which read "Try Prickly Ash Bitters." Boot Hill Museum has reproduced the sign at its Front Street replica, which prompts visitors to ask "What are Prickly Ash Bitters?"
The short answer is it was one of the many proprietary, or patent, medicines used during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. But, of course, there is more to the story of Prickly Ash Bitters. Like many of the patent medicines of the time, it had plenty of alcohol in it, which leads one to wonder if it actually cured infirmities or simply caused the user not to care until the formula wore off.
But the Prickly Ash Bitters Co. of St. Louis claimed it would assist a "torpid" liver. When the liver fails to properly perform, the "entire system becomes deranged" leading to dyspepsia (indigestion), constipation, rheumatism, kidney disease and more.
Even 19th century medical doctors used the extract from the prickly ash for digestive issues, various infectious diseases and pneumonia.
The prickly ash tree itself grows naturally in parts of the midwest and northeast, including Missouri and eastern Kansas and is covered with very strong prickles. Oil from its bark and follicles traditionally acted as a stimulant and was used for chronic rheumatism, typhoid, skin diseases, impure blood and digestive problems.
Native Americans chewed the bark to numb their toothaches. Tea brewed from the follicles was meant to help with sore throat and served as a diuretic. The berries are considered stronger and have a laxative effect.
Due to the laxative effect, the Prickly Ash Bitters Co. claimed the tonic could not be used as an intoxicating beverage.
In 1906, the Federal government cracked down on all patent medicines with the Pure Food and Drug Act which forbade the transportation of adulterated or mislabeled food and drug products across state lines or across our country’s borders. Drugs had to be inspected by the U.S. Bureau of Chemistry for purity and labels had to list all active ingredients. Furthermore, the spurious claims by manufacturers of products regarding healing or lessening of symptoms had to be substantiated. This led to the death of Prickly Ash Bitters and most other elixirs.
People still use the extract from the prickly ash tree, without the alcohol and other sketchy ingredients, for many of the same reasons it was used in the past, and as an antifungal.
Boot Hill Distillery now makes and sells Prickly Ash Bitters. After researching, they have found an old recipe for this elixir. Distillery manager, Mark Vierthaler states "the history of the brand, its association with Dodge City and Front Street, and it being a wonderful potable bitters (of course) all led to our decision to revive it."
So, the history of Prickly Ash Bitters lives on in Dodge City.
Kathie Bell is curator of collections and education at Boot Hill Museum.