Rough on Rats

“There ought to be a stringent law against the sale of ‘Rough on Rats’,” remarked one of the doctors at the Cincinnati City Hospital on the night of April 11, 1888. He continued, “It’s killing more people than rats. The stuff is common and cheap, and they go for it first thing. It is an arsenical preparation, but there is no law against its sale, or rather under the name; the druggists manage to evade the law.”

At the time the doctor had just treated Henry Otto, a 55 year old cigar maker. He had injured his hand in 1887 and was not able to work. Without a way to make money he’d started fighting with his wife. The couple split up shortly after and on the night in question he went to her house and demanded that their child travel with him to Germany. She threw him out, but not before he noticed that she was significantly pregnant with a child that couldn’t be his. Otto went to the druggist, bought himself some Rough on Rats and went back. In fantastically dramatic fashion he poured the poison in a glass of water and drank it. It affected him quickly and he began to stagger. His wife, unimpressed, knocked him over and told him she hoped she’d have a chance to “despoil his grave”. Her chance came quickly because he died later that night.

Found on packaging as content website

Rough on Rats was developed by Mr. Ephraim Wells of New Jersey in 1872 and was widely advertised.

An early Rough on Rats ad courtesy of History of Nebraska Blog

There is no statistical evidence collected that I could find to this effect but newspapers regularly reported that the poison was widely used for suicide and increased accidental deaths. In 1890, the Pittsburgh Daily Post reported that a jury trying a murder case featuring Rough on Rats recommended that laws be passed banning the sale of it. The article posits that druggists and physicians disagreed as it’s main ingredient, arsenic, was also easily available. It states that the only current governing of the sale of poison was that druggists keep a log of who it is sold to and in what quantities.

A Rough on Rats ad printed in a 1959 newspaper

Here are a few Cincinnati victims of Rough on Rats

  • The father and brother of Jimmie Weaver who put the poison in the family’s morning coffee. His brother died and his father never fully recovered. Jimmie said after that he never thought the poison strong enough to kill and he only wanted to make them sick.
  • Private L. C. Mauck, stationed at Fort Thomas, KY, took the poison in Mid October of 1900. His sweetheart had left him for another. The swift application of antidote and a stomach pump saved his life.
  • Miss Alice Conklyn of Boone county died by suicide on January 24, 1893. Her suicidal nature was well known and her family had taken a box of Rough on Rats away from her. She had stowed some of the poison away and while they were out of the house she administered it to herself. By the time they got home, it was too late to help her. Her mother is reported to have lost her mind several years before and the girl feared that the same fate awaited her. She preferred to die than to have that happen.
  • William Bledd, died on April 17, 1907 after being found next to an empty box of Rough on Rats. He regained consciousness briefly and shared his name but the quantity he had taken couldn’t be overcome. He was said to be despondent over domestic issues.
  • Mollie Scheck decided in September of 1893 to kill her uncle. First, she got a razor and threatened to cut his throat. The two fought and he eventually got the blade away from her. She then got a revolver kept in the home, pointed it him, and pulled the trigger. It didn’t fire and he managed to fight it out of her hand. She changed tack and apologized and went to fix dinner. On tasting his coffee, her uncle sensed something was wrong and stopped. Mollie admitted to poisoning the brew and taking a strong dose herself. Her stomach was pumped and she was saved. She was also presumably relieved of all kitchen duties.
  • Mrs. May Koonts, age 40, found dead in her home on South Main Street. Rough on Rats was determined to be the method. No specific cause was given but Koonts had been the inmate at an insane asylum and her death was ruled a suicide.
  • Mrs. Emma Florence Bell, 31, sent her daughter to the drug store for Paris Green in May of 1881. When the druggist refused to sell it to a child, she sent the girl to a different store to buy Rough on Rats. She used the poison later that day and died of the effects.

This is just a sampling of the deaths and illnesses induced by Rough on Rats. Multiplied out by the many years it was sold and many states and countries it was available in, it is safe to say it caused the deaths of many ancestors.