One of the members of the Kadohadacho Chapter of the Arkansas Archeological Society came by the Survey this morning, with some follow-up information from last night’s talk. I showed the picture of Wilder’s “Mother’s Worm Syrup” bottle recovered from Locus 9 (see the last post). The advertisement for Wilder’s syrup, published in the New Orleans Commercial Bulletin in 1870, lists among its attractive qualities that it is free of the “poisonous effects of all worm candy.”

Our Chapter member had done some internet research on worm candy to find out a bit more about what it was. He pointed Jamie and I to a few web pages which gave us a lot more information on 19th and 20th century worm medicines, specifically candies.

As with syrups and tonics, patent candy pill ingredients were proprietary information, so we don’t know what was in the worm candies that Wilder’s ad refers to. The Smithsonian Institution, though, has a picture of a box of DeWitt’s Worm Candy, dating to around 1930. The National Museum of American History has another image of it, too. The DeWitt’s box bears the words “For eradicating round worms a reliable preparation/The active ingredient of which is santonin.”

Santonin, as the great and powerful Wikipedia tells us, is an anthelminthic, a vermifuge (worm expeller). It is compounded from the flowers of Artemisia maritima, or Sea Wormwood, native to Turkestan and the Southern Ural region (Merck 1989 cited in NCBI 2013). In small doses, santonin could be effective at killing off the worms, though it could turn your vision yellow or green, and urine purple or red (Encyclopedia Britannica 1911).

Wow. It actually gets scarier.

In larger doses, however, it could produce aphasia (the inability to form or comprehend language), muscle tremors, epileptic convulsions, blindness, and death (Encyclopedia Britannica 1911).

We can’t be sure that the active ingredient in the worm candies Wilder’s ad referenced was santonin, as they were patent medicines and, as they predate the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, didn’t have to publish their contents on the label. However, if it was santonin or another medicine with similar properties, certainly the above-mentioned side effects would be consistent with the “poisonous effects of all worm candies” that Wilder’s medicine claimed to be free of.

So, now you know a little bit more of our history with battling intestinal worms…


Encyclopedia Britannica
1911     Encyclopedia Britannica: A Dictionary of Arts, Sciences, Literature and General Information, Volume 24: Saint-Claire Deville to Shuttle. New York: Encyclopedia Britannica.

1989    The Merck Index: An Encyclopedia of Chemicals, Drugs, and Biologicals. 11th edition. Whitehouse Station, NJ: Merck.

National Center for Biotechnology Information [NCBI]
2013    Santonin. Electronic resource (, accessed 13 February 2013.