“Pills, Potions, Powders and Poisons” by Oak Bluffs author


“Pills, Potions, Powders and Poisons: A pioneering African-American in Pharmacy” by Robert Carter Hayden Jr. Self-published by Select Press. 106 pp. with annotations. $20. Available at Bunch of Grapes Bookstore and Vineyard Scripts, Vineyard Haven and Cousen Rose Gallery, C’est La Vie, Conroy Apothecary in Oak Bluffs.

In the 1860s, $400 was a small fortune. Certainly in New Bedford, the amount was a stunning find for 14-year-old drug store delivery boy Robert Carter.

In “Pills, Potions, Powders and Poisons,” historian and Oak Bluffs resident Robert Carter Hayden Jr. tells us that the wallet found by Mr. Carter, his great-grandfather, contained the cash equivalent of $56,000 today.

Mr. Carter’s conscience won that day. He gave the wallet, with no identification, to his pharmacist employer who knew its owner, a local bank president. Mr. Carter’s action 150 years ago changed his life and his family’s saga going forward.

We learn that Mr. Carter’s honesty earned him an apprenticeship at Caldwell’s pharmacy after his graduation as from New Bedford High School in 1866, which began a historic 37-year career as the Bay State’s first certified African-American pharmacist in New Bedford and in Boston.

This is a family history of six generations, painstakingly researched by the author, that provides us with a riveting picture of the life and times of free African-Americans in the period before and after the Civil War, both in Virginia’s southern culture and in the north in Massachusetts.

We learn, for example, that a sizable portion of the African-American population in Alexandria, Virginia were already free well before the Civil War and were regarded as important contributors to the local community and economy. And we learn about the prewar historical events that led to a southern black diaspora to the north.

New Bedford in those days was a favored destination for African-Americans because it was a boom town in the mid-1800s and a hotbed of the Abolitionist anti-slavery movement before the Civil War. “The mid-1800s witnessed a nexus of race politics, economic prosperity, ethnic diversity and social enlightenment in Carter’s birthplace…Perhaps he was ‘in the right place at the right time’,” Mr. Hayden writes.

Mr. Hayden returned to New Bedford this week at the request of the New Bedford Historical Society for a presentation and book signing.

In an interview this week, Mr. Hayden said he had no interest in or intention to write about his family history until he found several artifacts, including his great-grandfather’s apothecary notes or “formulary,” essentially formulas for preparing medicines, some named for the clients for whose medical conditions they had been prepared.

Current day pharmacies dispense prescribed and mostly pre-manufactured meds, but 19th century apothecaries actually mixed perfumes and created medicines for specific conditions. Mr. Carter, for example, created a special formula that tempered his own son’s epileptic condition.

Mr. Hayden believes what he has learned about his progenitor has informed his own life and he hopes it will inform the lives of succeeding generations. “It’s cleared up some family comments and attitudes that I’d always found perplexing. I believe everyone would benefit from researching their family history,” he said.

“This really became my life’s work for several years. I achieved my goal, which was to complete it by Christmas 2010 as a present for family members. Most of my 5 grandchildren are adults but I have a 13-year old grandson who is old enough to understand the story,” he said.

About the author

Mr. Hayden is a historian, author, and educator who has contributed to African-American historiography for 35 years. He is the author, co-author, and editor of 19 books and special publications in the field. In addition to historical research, writing and teaching, he served as an assistant superintendent in the Boston Public School System, has lectured for several decades at UMass-Boston, Northeastern, and Lesley universities and wrote a weekly column on Boston’s black history for the Bay State Banner newspaper in Boston.

He has served on the Oak Bluffs Historical Commission and is the national secretary of the Association for the Study of African-American Life and History (ASALH). A New Bedford native, Mr. Hayden has a bachelor of arts and master’s degrees from Boston University, and post-graduate fellowships from Harvard University‘s Graduate School of Education and from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

Mr. Hayden credits Anna Lynch at Alexandria’s Bassett Library as a primary contributor to the research scholarship that went into the work. “I was in the library and this elderly white lady approached me and asked about my work. That was the beginning. She took on my project and has become a dear friend,” he said.

Mr. Hayden is familiar with serendipity. Ms. Lynch was an instructor at Wellesley College and Boston University in urban archeology.

“Anna was there that day, at that time, only because the nearby CVS pharmacy hadn’t filled her prescriptions and she had an hour to kill,” he said.