They called it HADACOL. And it was on everybody’s lips, no pun intended.
It was everywhere throughout the United States in the late Forties and early Fifties. It was the cure-all for many things, for whatever ailed you, as they say. Advertised as a liquid vitamin/mineral supplement and not an actual medicine (which had more stricter government guidelines), Hadacol sold for $1.25 in an eight-ounce bottle and $3.50 in the “family size” 24-ounce version, the equivalent of about $18 and $50, respectively, today.
Hadacol was created and marketed by a crafty Southern “snake-oil” salesman with the gift of gab by the name of Dudley J. LeBlanc, a Democrat politician, who, had served once in the Louisiana House of Representatives as well as three times in the state senate, besides failing in two attempts at being the state governor. Born in 1894, LeBlanc’s descendants came to the state from French-speaking Canada--known as Acadians--in the mid-1770’s to avoid British rule. It was these Acadians who were eventually labelled in the South as what we know now as “Cajuns.”
A university graduate, LeBlanc joined the U.S. Army in World War I. After that he sold various products--insurance, shoes, tobacco, and medicines--in his home state before slipping into politics. In 1942, in the midst of his first senate term (running from 1940-1944), LeBlanc took ill with beriberi, brought on by a vitamin B-1 deficiency. Upon prescribed with B-1 compounds by a doctor, LeBlanc was cured and from then on was fixed on vitamins to improving one’s health.
After researching for the next couple years, LeBlanc concocted his own tonic mixed in the family barn, a mixture of three B vitamins, iron, calcium, citric acid, honey and--get this--12 percent alcohol, which was cleverly disguised as a “preservative.” I say clever because his drink could then be sold legally in any dry counties. Asked by someone what was in his special brew, Senator LeBlanc answered, “Enough alcohol to make you happy and enough laxative for a good movement.” Time Magazine, on the other hand, called it “a murky liquid that tastes something like bilge water and smells worse.”
Hadacol hit the market in 1945, first in Louisiana then quickly across the South and the entire continental United States. Out of public office by then, LeBlanc bought newspaper, radio and billboard ads that touted ordinary people praising the product. All anyone had to do was consume one tablespoon four times a day with half-a-glass of water after meals and right before bedtime, and then …no more dizziness, weak spells, pain, cancer, epilepsy, heart trouble, or loss of appetite. It was that simple. Leblanc also arranged for sales of Hadacol T-shirts, water pistols, cowboy hats, fliers, posters, and even published his own “Captain Hadacol” comic book.
A busy man, Leblanc’s success with Hadacol continued well into his second senate term from 1948-1952. Hadacol sales were now going through the roof: in 1949, alone, $25 million worth. That same year, Mercury Records put out two songs, the “Hadacol Boogie” and the “Hadacol Bounce,” for the country and rhythm & blues markets, respectively. With both tunes selling reasonably well, LeBlanc then came up with his greatest idea yet to promote his product--The Hadacol Caravan, similar to the Greatest Show on Earth travelling circus style, with buses, cars, trucks and trains. It would hit the road on a series of tours with music eventually the key. Admission was free as long as you had Hadacol boxtops--two for adults, one for kids.
The first “Medicine Show” started August 1950, starring such performers as Burns and Allen, Mickey Rooney, and Chico Marx. Other notables appeared here and there on the tour: Bob Hope, Jimmy Durante, Ava Gardner, boxer Jack Dempsey, Jack Benny and Rochester, and Milton Berle. Sales skyrocketed, so did LeBlanc’s advertising bill. He was now spending over a million dollars a month to push his vitamin drink: $500,000 for talent and $750,000 for advertising. Behind the scenes, all this publicity was his way of campaigning for his upcoming second shot at the state’s governorship in 1952, exactly 20 years after he had lost the first time.
The even-more massive 1951 Hadacol Caravan travelled by train: LeBlanc leased 15 Pullman cars and arranged all the logistics, such as laundry and food for those involved. Running from mid-August to October 1, it covered 18 states and featured honky-tonk country star Hank Williams, along with Minnie Pearl, comedian Candy Candido, the Tony Martin Band, dancers and clowns to entertain the people who bought bottles and bottles of Hadacol at concessions on the tour and at their local pharmacy.
However, by the latter half of 1951, LeBlanc knew he was in trouble, big time. Although he had made millions on Hadacol, he was spending more than he was taking in, owing over $2 million to suppliers and more than $600,000 in taxes to the federal government. With the roof caving in, LeBlanc found a naïve buyer--Tobey Maltz Company of New York City--who had no idea what they were getting into.
By the time they had realized the amount of debts in mid-1952, Tobey Maltz had to claim bankruptcy, but not before LeBlanc netted $250,000 for his company, although he had first claimed he received $8.2 million. The actual deal was a quarter of a million, plus half a million from future profits, which never did happen because there were no profits. At the end of it all, LeBlanc didn’t feel that bad for his deception. “If you sell a cow and the cow dies, you can’t do anything to a man for that.”
LeBlanc went on to lose his second stab at taking the governor’s office in 1952. In 1957, he was charged with tax evasion but his lawyer got him off. By then, the cagey Cajun was trying to peddle a new medicine--very similar to Hadacol—that he had patented. He called it “Kary-ON.” But no one bought it this time around. Moving right along, he was elected to his third and last four-year term to the Louisiana senate in 1964. To his dying day in 1971, LeBlanc was proud of his Cajun ancestry, so much so that he wrote three books on the subject after travelling to Nova Scotia, Quebec, England and France--the origins of the Acadian/Cajun culture.
Today, original Hadacol bottles and other related memorabilia are worth some bucks to collectors, especially those in the Deep South.