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A Snake Oil Tycoon's Yacht Goes To War

July 26, 2018

The luxury yacht Candace was opulent at a time during the Golden Century, 1830-1930, when the lavish display of wealth was common place in the toys of the rich and famous. She was built at Cook, Welton and Gemmell in a place called Hull, England in 1903. Candace was 200 feet long with a beam of 23 feet and she drew 13 feet 6 inches of water.  She was powered by a steam engine and her tonnage was 600 tons. In 1907 she was purchased by Willis Sharpe Kilmer and renamed Remlik.
Willis Sharpe Kilmer was a very unusual man. He made his fortune in advertising by turning an obscure patent medicine called Swamp Root into a house hold name.  Kilmer’s uncle Dr S. Andral Kilmer concocted a remedy he claimed was made from vegetables with just 9% alcohol mixed in as a preservative. This during prohibition, added to the lure of Swamp-Root. It also appealed to people tired of being purged and bleed or given awful tasting mixtures they often made in their own kitchens as did Dr. Kilmer. At the time there was no Food and Drug administration, medicine makers could claim anything and not be punished. Today we might consider it snake oil, but thanks to Willis Kilmer’s innovative and intensive advertising campaign, it became a household name. And, it made a vast fortune for Willis Kilmer. One of the most effective parts of Kilmer’s advertising campaign was his Almanac and dream book which provide good reading with information for farmers, horoscope, good stories, good advice and a heavy mixture of good tales about Swamp-Root.
With the money he made from Swamp Root the tycoon built two massive building, started a newspaper and owned race horses Exterminator and Sea Beau, who won the Kentucky Derby. By his own admission he was a despised man by even members of his own family. When the local newspaper in Binghamton New York criticized SWAMP-ROOT, Kilmer started his own newspaper and hired away most of the employees from the other paper. Kilmer got his revenge when that critical paper closed. By the time the Food and Drug Administration started taking a close look at patent medicines like SWAMP-ROOT and regulating medicines, Kilmer had already amassed a huge fortune.  In addition to Swamp Root which was described as a diuretic to the Kidneys, the Dr. Kilmer Company manufactured ointments for hemorrhoids, remedies for “female troubles”  with an implication that it would cure just about everything.                             
Kilmers aggressive advertising included distribution of the Swamp-Root Alamance and dream book. It contained useful information along with propaganda for Swamp-Root. A customer could get a copy of the Swamp-Root Almanac by sending in a part of Swamp-Root carton. This is a  sample of the testimonials include in the dream book; “My grandfather is using your medicine Swamp-Root and I haven’t words to express the good it is doing him; he about seventy year of age and it surely is doing him good. He has had take six bottles this Winter and I like to recommend it to others who need a good herb Tonic.”
Kilmer had all the rich man’s toys, a lavish private railroad car, a newspaper, race horses and a farm in Virginia. Kilmer didn’t just own race horses. He built an indoor race track in Binghamton , NY then another in Remlik, Virginia.  The Virginia property is reported to have been 3,000 acres with an indoor quarter mile race course and an outdoor mile and half race track.
Kilmer spared no expense. He built one hundred and fifty stalls for the race horses. There was a jockey residence and smaller indoor track for yearlings. At a time when most people did not have indoor plumbing, Kilmer discovered an artesian well on the property. He then built a water tower and ran water mains the length of the farm. He could be cruel to his employees, but was generally kind to his horse farm staff. His valet thought he was wonderful. Like many of his wealthy contemporaries he was said to be ruthless, boorish and loved by his own personal staff, but hated by many employees. Rumor has it that he stole the Swamp-Root business from his uncle. His first socialite wife divorced him because he was an embracement to her and her socially prominent father who taught Kilmer the advertising business. There were numerous allegation of infidelity. Local folklore reports that Kilmer’s second wife so hated the house he built for her in Virginia, she burnt it down. Just abut everything he could name was called Remlik, his name spelled backwards. He fox hunted and had the perfect attire for every occasion, a trait that seems to infuriate his friends. And, of course he had the obligatory yacht.
Kilmer’s yacht Remlik was requisitioned by the U.S. Government when the Great War  broke out in 1917. She was commissioned the USS Remlik (SP157)in July of 1917 as a Special  Patrol boat. The once grand  yacht  was repainted grey and the lavish deck chairs were removed from her decks. In their place Sperry depth charges were loaded aboard and two machine guns bolted to her decks. Remlik was dispatched to the Brest France to patrol the Bay of Biscay and to escort convoys under the command of Lieutenant Commander I.C. Johnson. The Bay of Biscay is a wide inlet of the North Atlantic Ocean indenting the coast of western Europe. While on patrol 18 months after arriving on station is the Bay of Biscay, On September 17, 1917, smack in the middle of raging storm which had her decks being swept by torrents of water, the Remlik’s crew spotted an enemy submarine lurking nearby off her starboard beam. The rough seas  and winds kept her top speed down to 2 knots. Too slow for her to safely launch depth charges and escape the blast. She remained in the area watching for the submarine assured that the seas were too rough for the sub to launch torpedoes. Three times the crew spotted the sub’s telescope. Then near tragedy occurred.
The cradle for one of the dept charges broke loose and was washed overboard. The depth charge, with the pin removed remained on deck rolling around  and about to explode. Spotting the rolling depth charge from his position on the bridge, crewman Chief Boat’s Mate John MacKenzie ran down the rolling and pitching deck and tackled the out of control depth charge. He managed to set it on its end and sat on it until other crewmen were able to lash it down. For his heroism, Mackenzie was awarded the Medal of Honor. She patrolled all through the war and escorted ships along the French coast. At the end of the war USS Remlik was decommissioned and sold to J.S. Webster of Baltimore on June 7, 1920.
In the final analysis perhaps, the hedonist pleasures of Willis S. Kilmer provided a much needed patrol boat for the Navy in World War I and may have saved lives warning off enemy submarines. Certainly, his champion race horses contributed to the development of thoroughbreds and thrilled millions at races across the country. His efforts are believed by many racing experts to have been a major contribution to the sport.  And, SSwamp-Root, with all its false claims, must have provided some real or imagined relief based on its huge sales, for many people at a time when doctors had a limited arsenal of medicines and were still bleeding patients and prescribing enemas for most maladies. If nothing more, his lavish spending provided employment for railroad coach builders, farmers, newspaper people, tailors, building contractors, horse trainers, stable hands and jockeys. Then their was the Captain and crew of his yacht and the various expenses with owning a running a 200 foot steamer. One thing can be said for Willis Spencer Kilmer, he did not ever hesitate to spend lots and lots of his money.



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