Guest Post: Author Caroline Starr Rose

A traveling medicine show promises to cure all, but two kids learn it takes more than faith in the miraculous to fix things that are broken.

Thirteen-year-old Jack knows 
what cured his baby sister when his family thought she might never get well—Dr. Kingsbury’s “Miraculous Tonic.” Guaranteed to relieve maladies known to man or beast, Dr. Kingsbury’s potion can cure everything from pimples to hearing loss to a broken heart, and Jack himself is a witness to the miraculous results and the doctor’s kindness. When he had no money, the doctor didn’t turn him away but gave him the tonic for free along with a job—to travel with him from city to city selling his cure-all elixir.

When Dr. Kingsbury and Jack arrive in Oakdale, the town at first feels like any other they’ve been to. But it’s clear Oakdale is a town with secrets, and its citizens are slow to trust strangers. 
Then Jack meets Cora, and a friendship neither expected starts to bloom. Together they uncover something else they didn’t expect—not only secrets about the town but also Dr. Kingsbury. As they race to discover the truth, they’ll have to decide who and what to believe before it’s too late.


There’s no sore it will not heal: charisma, cure-alls, and charlatans

by Caroline Starr Rose

I write books to make sense of the world  — this gloriously weird, sometimes heartbreaking, marvelous place we call home. Years ago, while visiting a museum in St. Louis, I heard a talk on charlatans (people who intentionally deceive others for their personal gain). It sparked a number of questions in me: Why do we believe the things that we do? What might we be willing to try to change our circumstances? Exploring these ideas was the starting point for my book, Miraculous.

Medical knowledge has come a long way since the 1800s. Back then, far less was understood about illness and the human body. Because medical training was limited, treatments varied widely. It was easy for anyone with a little experience to claim to be a doctor—and some did, for their own personal gain. 

During the nineteenth century, charlatans found plenty of willing customers in the rural regions of the United States (90 percent of the country then) where doctors were scarce. Most families at that time relied on home remedies that helped ease the discomfort of minor illnesses but were no match for serious diseases or chronic conditions. Lack of medical knowledge, limited access to proper care, and ineffective home remedies were the perfect combination for the rise of patent medicines. 

Patent medicines, sometimes called cure-alls, were unregulated medications with over-the-top claims that they could fix any ailment. Anyone with a bit of skill, a little medical insight, and a strong business sense could create and sell a cure-all. These “medicines” came in a variety of forms. Tonics and tinctures were meant to be swallowed. Liniments and salves were applied to the skin. Some self-described doctors moved from town to town to sell their products, a spectacle called the traveling medicine show. These shows were part entertainment, part lecture, and part doctor’s visit. Many people viewed the traveling doctor as an authority figure, falling under the spell of hypnotic speeches and demonstrations that were meant to deceive.

By 1906, roughly 50,000 different patent medicines were available in the United States! Here’s just a sampling:

Hamlin’s Wizard Oil claimed to heal rheumatism, pneumonia, hydrophobia, lame backs, asthma, sore throats, toothaches, headaches, stiff joints, and even cancer. “There’s no sore it will not heal,” its slogan read, “no pain it will not subdue.” 

Burdock Blood Bitters claimed to cure “all disorders arising from impure blood or a deranged liver.” 

Dr. Kilmer’s Swamp Root Kidney, Liver, and Bladder Cure worked on “pimples, diabetes,” or “internal slime fever.” Kilmer’s Ocean Weed Remedy could be used to cure “sudden death.” (I can’t help but wonder how that might work.)

Believe it or not, the mouthwash Listerine got its start as a patent medicine. It was once used as “a surgical disinfectant, a cure for dandruff, a floor cleaner, a hair tonic, [and] a deodorant.”

Did patent medicines really work? This is a tricky question. Some “may have had medical value, provided they were taken in the right doses for the appropriate ailment.” Some people improved because of the “placebo effect,” a phenomenon where recovery comes from simply believing a medicine can heal. Many patent medicines included addictive substances such as alcohol, opium, morphine, and even cocaine. These substances could mask an ailment, bringing temporary relief. And perhaps most important to remember, when given enough time, the human body often heals itself of minor illnesses. 

The medicine show era drew to a close in the 1930s. The newly formed U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the Federal Trade Commission determined which drugs could be sold and which claims had to be eliminated because of false advertising. Automobiles and movie theaters meant people no longer had to wait for entertainment to find them; they could seek it out themselves. Easy access to drugstores meant regulated medicine was available to anyone who needed it. 

Today we’re certain we’re more sophisticated than the people who lived in the past. We think we’d never fall for the outrageous claims made at a traveling medicine show. But aren’t we still drawn to the people that promise the world? Don’t we long for the products that assure us they’ll make our lives easier? Don’t we secretly hope there’s a fix to our problems, a sure-fire solution that’s guaranteed? While their claims might not be as bold or extravagant as they were in the past, cure-alls and charlatans still exist today. I hope Miraculous helps young readers to examine the world around them. I hope it shows them to pay attention and remember: No remedy can cure every ache or pain. No product can solve every problem. No person has all the answers.

Teaching ideas

Discussion questions

  1. Why do you think some characters are willing to believe in the power of the tonic? Do you think in some circumstances the tonic could truly be beneficial? If yes, whom might it help and how?

  2. Miraculous can be described as a story of second chances. Share three examples from the book that support this idea.

  3. Dr. Kingsbury preys on people’s insecurities and worries in order to make a sale. Can you think of advertising examples in our current day that are similar to Dr. Kingsbury’s approach?

  1. Why do you think the book is told through multiple points of view? How would the book be different if Dr. Kingsbury’s perspective had been included? 

Videos about patent medicines

(Please preview to determine if these are appropriate for your classroom.)

Quackery: A History of Fake Medicine and Cure-Alls from CBS Sunday Morning (6:59)

A good overview of quackery in the United States, the limitations of medical knowledge, and modern-day examples of Coronavirus “cures.”

Patent Medicines (6:36)

Lots of visuals of advertisements and handbills, with a focus on Lydia Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound (a product still available today!).

Patent Medicines from History 101 (2:21)

A quick overview of quackery with some examples of advertisements from the 1800s and modern-day connections.


Create Your Own Cure-All


What type of medicine is your cure-all? What five things will your medicine “cure”? Create a poster that will attract your ideal customer.

Classroom Talk Show


Invite characters from Miraculous to a classroom talk show! Assign various characters to your students and invite them to take on their persona. Other students should prepare questions to ask the characters. Have students reflect on how characters would interact with each other and how they might respond to questions about things such as their motivations, actions, choices, opinions, fears, strengths, weaknesses, hopes, secrets, and dreams.

Miraculous read alikes:

The Boneshaker by Kate Milford

The Wishgiver: Three Tales of Conven Tree by Bill Brittain

A Fine White Dust by Cynthia Rylant

a great non-fiction read:

Poison: Deadly Deeds, Perilous Professions, and Murderous Medicines by Sara Albee

Caroline Starr Rose is a middle grade and picture book author whose books have been ALA-ALSC Notable, Junior Library Guild, ABA New Voices, Kids’ Indie Next, Amazon’s Best Books of the Month for Kids, and Bank Street College of Education Best Books selections. In addition, her books have been nominated for almost two dozen state award lists. Caroline was named a Publisher’s Weekly Flying Start Author for her debut novel, May B. She spent her childhood in the deserts of Saudi Arabia and New Mexico and taught social studies and English in four different states. Caroline now lives with her family in New Mexico. Miraculous is her latest book.