Dudley LeBlanc’s Tonic Hadacol Promised Amazing Health Benefits And A Stiff Shot Of Alcohol.What Could Possibly Have Gone Wrong?
By Brad Goins
One assumes that when a politician rises to high levels, he must have something of the con man in him. The politicians we usually find the most interesting are the ones who seem to have been born with the con man gene. The intricate scenery behind politics facilitates the propagation of the short con, the long con — every kind of con. When a professional con artist starts plying his trade when he’s holding high political office, the results can be wonderful to behold.
Way back in 1943, Louisiana state Sen. Dudley J. LeBlanc — a con artist if ever there was one — hit upon a long con that turned out to be the proverbial gold mine. Or at any rate, it sure seemed that way.
The name of this magical con was Hadacol. And like any great con man, the creator of Hadacol had carefully developed a fascinating and highly detailed story for his highly dubious product.
LeBlanc said he’d once suffered from a terrible foot pain. He eventually found a doctor who made him pain-free. When LeBlanc asked the doc what medicine he’d used, the medical man replied he’d administered a combination of B vitamins.
LeBlanc said he’d concocted a brew that contained the doctor’s formula. When LeBlanc created Hadacol, he threw in plenty of different B vitamins as well as a few other vitamins and minerals.
Hadacol wasn’t LeBlanc’s first venture into the health care flim flam business. He’d earlier produced the Happy Day Headache Powders. But the FDA was especially unhappy with this product, and seized all of it.
While the FDA refrained from raising a ruckus about Hadacol, in 1951, the American Medical Association weighed in briefly on the snake oil, stating that a doctor who prescribed or promoted Hadacol could not “do himself or his profession greater harm from the standpoint of view of the abuse of the trust of a patient suffering from any condition.”
For the most part, the FDA must have felt that it would at least do no harm if individuals consumed some B vitamins and some minerals. And the extravagant health claims LeBlanc made for the tonic were apparently not enough to flame the ire of government bureaucrats.
The Selling Point
For the vast majority of the many thousands who bought Hadacol, its health benefits, or lack thereof, were beside the point. For them, the chief selling point of Hadacol was that its content was 12 percent alcohol (or 24 proof). On the label, the alcohol was described as a “preservative.”
Everyone assumed that LeBlanc was targeting the large number of southern counties that were dry at the time. Because Hadacol had the legal status of a medicine (or, to be precise, a “dietary supplement”), anyone could walk into the drugstore and buy it — no ID required.
But not every one went along with the pretense. It was rumored that clerks in many drugstores (which already had the reputation of being places where alcohol was kept) served Hadacol to certain customers in shot glasses.
And the Cocktail Database says that bars in the French Quarter used Hadacol to make what was called the “Tassel Cocktail.”
It may have been served in the cocktail glass in New Orleans. But every bottle of the Hadacol product was manufactured at LeBlanc’s operation right up the road in Lafayette.
The Best Lines
In addition to creating Hadacol, LeBlanc created the best line about the tonic. When he was asked how he came up with the name for Hadacol, he often answered, “Well, I hadda call it something.”
He came up with almost as good a line when he appeared on Groucho Marx’s radio program. When Marx asked LeBlanc what Hadacol was good for, the slick politician answered, “It was good for $5 million for me last year.”
Although LeBlanc also had an elaborate story about how he came up with the name “Hadacol,” the everyday person undoubtedly assumed the name was chosen because of its unmistakable resemblance to the word “alcohol.”
A Wealth Of Promotions
LeBlanc was inventive and relentless in promoting his mixture. Advertising promised that Hadacol relieved not symptoms, but “THE CAUSE OF YOUR AILMENTS.” Particular ailments for which relief was promised were “Stomach Disturbances, Gas, Heartburn, Indigestion, Nagging Aches and Pains, and Certain Nervous Disorders.” In addition, it was asserted that Hadacol “rebuilt” the suffering individual’s “Pep, Strength and Energy.”
Advertising copy was just a small part of the battery of hustles LeBlanc worked to bring the public’s attention to Hadacol. He produced a Hadacol comic book called Captain Hadacol. In addition to the usual fliers, t-shirts and thimbles, LeBlanc cranked out Hadacol lipstick and water pistols. He also minted a coin that granted the bearer a 25-cent discount on a bottle of Hadacol. LeBlanc’s face was engraved on the coin’s head.
LeBlanc organized the Hadacol Goodwill Caravan. These enormously popular traveling shows featured such superstars as Lucille Ball, Minnie Pearl, Bob Hope, Judy Garland, Chico Marx and Hank Williams. LeBlanc also brought in blues and jazz players in an effort to attract black audiences. Adults were required to present two Hadacol box tops for admission.
Obviously, LeBlanc was a master hustler. And his efforts were rewarded. By 1951, Hadacol was selling $2.5 million a year of product.
The Economics Of The Con
It wasn’t the FDA or the AMA that shut down LeBlanc’s expressway to success. It was pure, old-fashioned greed.
In 1951, LeBlanc sold what appeared to be an extremely lucrative Hadacol business to investors for $8 million. But when they got a thorough look at the books, the investors must have experienced some of the nervous disorders that Hadacol didn’t cure.
It turned out LeBlanc had been spending more in advertising than the tonic had been making in profits. In the last quarter of his ownership, the Hadacol corporation was nearly $2 million in the red. A $650,000 debt to the IRS and an additional $2 million dollars in debt were found in the “Accounts Receivable” section of the sale agreement. LeBlanc’s explanation was that all the debt was caught up in cases of Hadacol that were in transit at the time the deal was made.
The Federal Trade Commission complained loud and long about these shenanigans. Those complaints, and media coverage about the sea of debt LeBlanc had created with Hadacol, stopped LeBlanc’s political ascendancy just as thoroughly as his fuzzy accounting had stopped Hadacol.
LeBlanc, who’d served four terms as the state senator from Vermillion Parish, was attempting to parlay that experience into a desk in the governor’s office. But at some point, the public must have quit thinking of him as a colorful barker and started thinking of him mainly as a swindler. He went down to defeat in the 1952 gubernatorial election. It was his third and last unsuccessful bid for the office.
LeBlanc devoted the remainder of his life to promoting the interests of Cajuns. In the 1960s, he co-founded the powerful Cajun lobbying group CODOFIL. He advocated for French instruction in Louisiana and successfully pressured the government of Canada to release documents about the Acadians. He died in 1971.
The PBS documentary Cajun Renaissance Man chronicles the events of LeBlanc’s life. The movie was filmed by LeBlanc’s granddaughter, Michele LeBlanc.
Effects On Popular Culture
Hadacol was a subject of general conversation only for a few short years. But during that brief period, its effect on popular culture was profound. Hadacol’s reputation as a successful con and a sneaky way to get a cheap thrill made it an easy target for humor.
The most widespread cultural manifestation of this appears to have been in music.
“Hadacol Boogie” was recorded by Monroe musician Bill Nettles, who often collaborated with Jimmie Davis, Louisiana’s “Singing Governor.” Nettles took Hadacol Boogie to No. 9 on the country charts.
Some claim that same song was the first ever played by Jerry Lee Lewis in public. At any rate, Lewis and Buddy Guy collaborated on a recorded version of the song in 2006.
Nettles also came up with the “Hadacol Bounce,” which would go on to be covered by Professor Longhair.
The legendary “Fiddle King of Cajun Swing,” and creator of the Cajun anthem “Jolie Blon,” Harry Choates, called his contribution “Valse de Hadacol,” which translates simply into “Hadacol Waltz.”
Crowley blues man Elmo Nixon was so sold on LeBlanc’s miracle elixir that he called his band The Hadacol Boys.
Joe Lutcher recorded the song “Give Me My Hadacol.” And Hank Williams’ Hadacol song (for which Audrey Williams sang along) was called “What Put the Pep In Grandma?”
Other Hadacol-themed songs of the mid-century were “Drinkin’ Hadacol,” “Everybody Loves That Hadacol,” “Hadacol — That’s All” and “The Hadacol Bounce.”
The Music Weird blog at blogspot.com provides a large selection of videos of assorted stars and would-be stars singing about Hadacol. The fact that all these songs were recorded between 1949 and 1953 says something about the brevity of Hadacol’s existence.
After the wave of Hadacol ditties, the tonic was the butt of jokes in the even more widespread and influential cultural medium of mainstream cartoons. In a 1952 cartoon, Woody Woodpecker declined to purchase the product “Had-A-Cough” from Buzz Buzzard. And a year later, Daffy Duck was taken in by a traveling salesman who promised him that the tonic Atomcol would build Daffy’s muscles.
Although Hadacol was on the shelves for less than a decade, today, 65 years down the line, it remains part of America’s folklore and cultural history. On eBay, bottles of Hadacol in their boxes range in price from $10 to $100. Much more frequently offered than the bottles are the recordings of Hadacol songs. These tend to be priced in the neighborhood of $25 each.
Energy Drinks: A Case Study
It’s interesting to compare the case of Hadacol to that of the somewhat controversial energy drinks of the present.
The most obvious point of similarity is the presence of numerous B vitamins in both Hadacol and the energy drinks. And just as Hadacol also had a complement of several minerals, energy drinks offer a mix of herbs, and in particular the ever-mysterious and ever-present taurine.
Although there are similarities between the two, there is one stark difference. While Hadacol promised to cure “THE CAUSE OF YOUR AILMENTS,” energy drinks make no health claims. This key difference probably keeps energy drinks flying well under the radar of the FDA. Energy drinks promise to do one thing and one thing only: provide energy. Anyone who’s slammed two bottles of Five-Hour Energy will have no doubt that these tonics do exactly what they claim to.
The sticking point is one that once dogged Hadacol: manufacturers’ suggestion that the drinks’ energy comes from herbs and B vitamins. A number of nutritionists and other researchers have conducted studies that bear out the notion that whatever energy the drinks provide they provide through the inclusion of concentrated amounts of caffeine. Again, no one is suggesting that B vitamins are harmful. It’s just that they don’t provide noticeable amounts of energy. Any hints to the contrary are misleading.
So far, the strong suggestions that energy drinks derive their effectiveness mainly from vitamins and herbs haven’t been thought to cross any legal boundaries. But the controversy goes on. Given how many relatively innocuous products are regulated in the U.S., it’s not at all impossible that energy drinks will one day be subject to regulation.
On the other hand, all the regulation in the world wouldn’t have had the least effect on the antics of Sen. LeBlanc. Truly a Cajun renaissance man, he’s earned a permanent place in the histories of con artists, Louisiana politics and Cajun identity.