If your Easter chicks aren’t looking too chirpy, why not perk them up with a dose of this 20th-century Kentucky remedy?

The Champaign Democrat 6 Sept 1912
From The Champaign Democrat, 6 Sept 1912

As a 1911 advert put it:

Sick fowls don’t pay,
Droopy hens won’t lay

and the Poultry Cure was a bargain at only 50 cents for a quantity that could be diluted to 12 gallons. The product claimed to be effective against a variety of conditions, but prominent in the advertising is ‘the gapes’, a disease affecting both domestic poultry and wild birds. When suffering from the gapes, the victim holds its mouth open and gasps for air as if it has something stuck in its throat.

Regular readers of The Quack Doctor might not be surprised to learn that the ‘something’ is parasitic worms. Without going into too much detail, gapeworms are blood-red, lodge in the bird’s trachea, and appear to be Y-shaped because they exist in a permanent state of copulation. No wonder the chickens look surprised.

The Xenia Daily Gazette, OH, 1 June 1910
The Xenia Daily Gazette, OH, 1 June 1910

Testimonials for the Poultry Cure emphasised that it was the secret of success for experienced farmers – i.e. those who would not be fooled by any dubious flash-in-the-pan products. Mrs D A Brooks in 1908, for example, wrote:

I have been using your Bourbon Poultry Cure and I think it fine. If you induce our druggist here to keep it in stock I will recommend it. I am an old time chicken raiser and so many people come to me for pointers on poultry.

Whether the Poultry Cure was good or bad for neighbourly relationships is difficult to tell from Illinois farmer Ellora Sonnemaker’s testimonial:

I have eighty head of fine Bourbon Turkeys. My neighbours lost all of theirs. They all raise Bronze Turkeys and say that mine are better bred is all the difference. I feed Bourbon Poultry Cure twice a week and tell them if they will use it they will have as good luck with their turkeys as I have with mine.

Meanwhile, the product enabled Mrs Cox of Lawrenceberg, KY, to win first prize in the best gobbler at Kentucky State Fair.

The Bourbon Remedy Company also sold a medicine for hog cholera (swine fever) but if the pigs and chickens had swapped notes, they might have discovered that there was no difference between the mixtures. According to analyses made when the FDA seized a consignment in 1919, both solutions contained aloes, free sulphuric acid, sulphates of iron, copper and magnesium, colouring and flavouring. Neither would be effective against the wide range of diseases they were supposed to cure.

The Bourbon News, Paris KY 12 September 1913
The Bourbon News, Paris KY 12 September 1913


  1. My question is if this “poultry cure” was an actual form of bourbon, in which case this might not have just been a bit of medical quackery. I’ve found ads for my great grandfather’s pharmacy where he is selling this cure. Prior to being a druggist he was a saloon keeper but that business was shut down when temperance leaders succeeded in making his county a dry county. It seems he did continue selling alcohol in some way that was still considered legal. But he was still arrested for not exactly being within the law. I can’t help but wonder if he wasn’t selling alcohol in the forms of things like Bourbon Poultry Cure as a workaround. “I’m not selling intoxicating beverages for people, I’m selling medicine for sick animals.” Given that at the time temperance was drying up counties all over the place, it would make sense for liquor manufacturers and vendors to resort to “booze-not-really-for-birds” to keep selling product.

  2. Hello,

    I have currently lost 4 chickens in a matter of days! It started off with my introducing a new Tom (male turkey) to the brood. The Tom died in 3-4 days, and suddenly my hens starting getting sick and dying unexpectedly. In addition to losing the Tom, I have lost 3 hens and a rooster. I went to a local wildlife health center, described the symptoms my chickens are experiencing, and they provided me with some type of medication to dissolve in their drinking water. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to have been successful. May you please provide any information as to what may be causing the sudden sickness/death of my chickens and provide advice as to what I can do to remedy this problem? Any information would be very much appreciated!

    Chicken symptoms:
    — Pale colored comb
    — Diarrhea (however, no presence of blood in the excrements)
    — Swollen crop
    — Loss of appetite
    — Weight loss
    — Eyes are closed throughout the day
    — Trouble breathing
    — Abnormal chicken sounds
    — Appear to be tired/exhausted
    — Wings are droopy
    — One gets sick, then dies unexpectedly, and then another gets sick and dies, etc.

    The youngest is 6 months old. There is no obvious presence for lice in their feathers (no scratching nor pecking at the feathers). There is no obvious presence of mites in their coop (they go into the coop to lay eggs normally and sleep normally). There is also no presence of worms in their excrements.

    (Note: I also checked my chickens for other symptoms, however, they DO NOT exhibit the following: swollen sinuses, watery eyes, bad breath, standing while sleeping, bald spots, fluffing of feathers, head shaking, scratching, problems with egg laying, or reluctant to sleep in their coop at night)

    With gratitude,

    • Hi Emma,

      I’m really sorry to hear about your chickens but unfortunately I can’t help as this is just a history site and I have no qualification to advise on either human or animal health. I suggest going back to the health centre or calling in another veterinarian to take a look at them. Best of luck with it – I hope they will be OK.

Comments are closed.