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The Poisonous Laxative That Built America

As Lewis and Clark mapped the West, they depended on a hearty dose of mercury to cure both constipation and syphilis. It’s a miracle they didn't die

In 1804, one year after the U.S. snatched up more than 800,000 square miles of land from Napoleon, two unmarried soldiers in their 30s embarked on an epic two-year road trip, covering 8,000 miles there and back, to map the new digs and push west, in part so the Europeans couldn’t beat us to whatever was still out there. Their names were Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, and they were very constipated.

That’s because their daily diet consisted of nine pounds of dried strips of beaver tail, buffalo and elk meat as well as a considerable amount of whiskey to wash it all down. As such, the men had potent poisonous laxatives on hand to flush everything bad out the backdoor. That meant poop, yes, but also the good-times syphilis that plagued the men on the trip. The laxatives were aptly called thunderbolts or thunderclaps.

It’s because of these laxative-inspired shits, however, that we’ve identified the only existing campsite from the expedition, which is called Traveler’s Rest and is located along Lolo Creek south of Missoula, Montana. Archaeologists discovered a high amount of mercury in the area where the latrine was dug and cross-checked their findings with a Lewis and Clark journal entry about taking the thunderbolts there on a four-day stay as they headed back across the country.

Now, much reporting has insisted that we’ve identified a number of Lewis and Clark campsites this way, but it’s untrue (or, in modern parlance, FAKE NEWS). There is, in fact, only the one case.

Julie Stein, an archaeologist and expert in chemical signatures in soil, tested the latrines at another site, Fort Clatsop, the Oregon area where L&C wintered next to the Pacific, explaining a bit more about how the process works. “When we live in the landscape, we drop a lot of phosphorous phosphates,” she told NPR in 2016. “There’s two different ways of dropping. You can drop garbage, which includes bones of animals and plants. And you can drop human waste, which also has a lot of phosphorous phosphates.” (Unfortunately, Stein found that the mercury level at Fort Clatsop wasn’t elevated enough to confirm L&C’s presence.)

Stein and company were looking for those signatures, but particularly the way they could detect which ones belonged to Lewis and Clark and not the homesteaders who lived in the exact same landscape years afterward. “Clark was the one who ended up administering the thunderbolts until it had the desired effect,” Stein explained. “And the desired effect was, things were coming out of all parts of your body.”

Image via Wikimedia Commons

Back, though, to why they needed thunder-powered laxatives in the first place: Essentially, road food is available food, so you eat what you can get your hands on, and avoid taking too many risks that could cause undue illness, extreme discomfort or death. Clark noted in his journal that their daily supply of food to get through 24 hours was roughly four deer, an elk and a deer or a single buffalo.

They also took corn and flour, coffee and sugar and ate root vegetables and fruits as they could find them and verify their edible safety. But they ate whatever they could capture or kill as well. One man got lost and survived 12 days on grapes and a single rabbit before finding his way back to the group. When supply was more plentiful, they had deer, antelope, elk, bison, geese, grouse, turkeys, horse and sometimes dogs (about 190 were purchased from Native Americans to eat). They salted, smoked and dried the meat, which is where gastrointestinal distress walks in.

But eating that much dried meat will back you up like nobody’s business, and for that, they had a supply of 1,300 pills about four times the size of an aspirin that contained none other than the wonder drug of the day: mercury. They got the stash from a doctor named Benjamin Rush, a good friend of Thomas Jefferson’s from back when they signed the Declaration of Independence together in Philly.

Rush, a preeminent physician of the day, prescribed an early 1800s-era cure-all called calomel, a frighteningly effective purgative with a high dose of mercury chloride. He’d made his own version, which Lewis and Clark referenced in their journals as Dr. Rush’s Bilious Pills. They were believed to empty excessive bile, which was thought to cause any number of ailments.

The good doctor was a fan of something called “heroic medicine,” based on the idea that the extreme purging of blood, bile and, really, anything inside your body would flush out the bad stuff. The trouble with this thinking — which involved a lot of dangerous and often fatal bloodletting, too — was that cures were only a matter of doses before they killed.

Luckily, in this case, the mercury was insoluble, so it passed through the body in pure form, but not before men spent hours on the shitter, and not before they slowly poisoned themselves in the process. That said, it did kill off a lot of bacteria, including syphilis. And given the number of Native American daughters (many of whom had already been lent to other European explorers) offered to the men to broker peaceful relations — sometimes four women in a night to one man — they needed all the help they could get. So much so that Rush had instructed the men to dose until they drooled or salivated, which at the time wasn’t understood to be a sign of actual mercury poisoning.

It is, of course, a bummer (for history nerds and lovers of exact coordinates most of all) that there’s not enough of this mercury-filled shit left behind to perfectly retrace L&C’s steps. It’d be some fun and novel American tourism if anyone could recreate their shitmap today, sans mercury. Still, this shouldn’t stop you from seeing the country with a hefty dose of jerky and whiskey in hand.

Just make sure you can stop along the way for modern bathroom breaks in modern restrooms, and (if needed) modern laxatives that won’t leave you shitting until you drool.