Ohio History Journal





Professor of Social Sciences, Northern Illinois State Teachers College

The development of American agriculture as it unfolded from

the pioneer subsistence level to that of a diversified enterprise was

marked by the general characteristic of change-change from old

practices to new ones. There were several factors responsible for

this inconstancy, one of which was a growing necessity for differ-

ent varieties of seeds and plants. Agriculturists in each new settle-

ment soon found it expedient to explore and experiment, for old

seeds degenerated after a few years of repeated planting and it

became necessary to change in order to secure profitable results.

The demand for new seeds also developed from the exigencies of

the environment, for there were variations in soil, in climate and

topography, and in problems of transportation and storage as well

as changes in the dietary habits of people and animals both at home

and abroad. Moreover, agriculturists were motivated by national

interests; following the European wars of the eighteenth century

the American people turned more to a policy of economic inde-

pendence, and as a result a greater incentive was made to pro-

duce and develop agricultural products here at home. With an

expanding market it was natural that different sections of the

country would turn to new crops and methods, thus giving rise to

improvements and innovations. Futhermore, the growing economic

disparity of the farmer with that of American industry which

developed after the Civil War, forced the farmers to be more will-

ing and ready to make changes in order that they might survive

better in the highly competitive economy that became increasingly

more severe during the latter half of the past century.

By 1860 there was a noticeable change in the Ohio Valley in

regard to the practices of farming; instead of a one-crop system


* The material used in this article was obtained in connection with a larger

investigation which was made possible by a Social Science Research Council grant-




SEED HUMBUGGERY                       53


the farmers had definitely begun to diversify their plantings.1

Wheat was moving west. This change created a demand for newer

and better seeds both for the fields and gardens. To supply these

ever increasing needs of the western farmers there arose various

schemes and techniques of supplying them; some were reputable

and others fraudulent. It is the purpose of this study to elaborate

on some of the latter methods found among the farmers during

the post-Civil War period. The impression is not to be given that

most seed distributors or vendors were dishonest, for there were

respectable seed houses in the larger cities which commanded a

loyal patronage of the farmers. However, from the evidence found

in the contemporary agricultural literature the practice of swin-

dling through bogus and humbug seed machinations was by no

means uncommon, and its psychological effects on the rural mind

must not be dismissed as insignificant. Such malpractices in the

distribution of seeds, it is true, were only a fragment of the overall

behavior pattern which followed the westward spread of urbanism

and industrialism in the North, but this one, added to the many

other fraudulent schemes and devices, nevertheless was a contrib-

uting factor in producing the protest psychology so common among

the farmers in the latter half of the nineteenth century.

To supply the farmers with seeds there developed five regular

sources: (1) the seed agent who traveled about the countryside

in somewhat the same fashion as the bogus tree peddlers;2 (2) the

seed companies which operated by the use of circulars and adver-

tisements; (3) the seed houses which sold their products by

catalogs and through the local mercantile stores; (4) the agricul-

tural division of the patent office which distributed samples to the

farmers through their agents and the congressmen; and (5) the

associational plans which were developed by local farm groups

in order to raise special varieties for use and for sale.

Seed agents were frequent callers at the farm homes, and most

of them were rather unique characters possessing a glib tongue

and a knowledge of the rural mind. They were generally expe-

rienced in humbuggery having been at different times "wordy


1 P. W. Bidwell and J. I. Falconer, History of Agriculture in the Northern

United States, 1620-1860 (New York, 1941), 330-333.

2 See Earl W. Hayter, "Horticultural Humbuggery among the Western Farmers,

1850-1890," Indiana Magazine of History, XLIII (1947), 205-224.



advocates" of such things as patented cures, bogus jewelry, lottery

tickets, farm gadgets, and patent-right devices. When one line

lost its appeal or had exhausted its possibilities, they took up

another.3 Some of them became notorious in the rural communities,

and their names were bywords as symbols of humbuggery.

Their seeds were generally of a poor quality and could be

bought and packaged at a low cost to the agent, thus making it

worth his while financially to peddle them in the rural areas.4

Most likely they were falsely labeled under some foreign name

such as Hungarian corn, Egyptian wheat, Norway oats, and German

barley as such labeling gave the seeds a much greater appeal than

those grown locally. Each variety had some marvelous origin

such as, for example, Egyptian wheat which was reputed to have

come from a few seeds discovered in a tomb of that country, its

great capacity to produce being due to "the long rest it had."5

Others came from Indian tribes or were first discovered by mission-

aries in some distant land.

These agents had not only an assortment of packaged seeds

for ready distribution, but they likewise sold bulbs, roots, and other

items that were in demand at that time. Most farming commu-

nities and often whole sections of the country underwent periods

of mania for a particular variety of seed or plant; for a few years

it was the craze to grow mulberry trees, then it was Chinese sugar

cane. Again it was Bohemian hulless oats and at another time it

was sorghum plants. The agents were certain to capitalize on these

popular demands. In the late sixties the cultivation of the "Wine

Plant" or rhubarb was looked upon by many as a profitable busi-

ness. The juice from this plant was used in the adulteration of

wine, and since there was a brisk demand for this beverage, the

farmers were urged by agents to begin its cultivation.6

Farmers were deluged by bogus seed companies with circulars

through the mail and by advertisements in the agricultural journals

and the local newspapers. Many of these were small concerns, or


3 American Agriculturist (New York), XXXIV (1875), 127.

4 In one Pennsylvania county alone an agent sold $1,000 worth of bogus seeds.

American Agriculturist, XLIV (1885), 347. Agents also sold large amounts of these

seeds at the fairs. Prairie Farmer (Chicago), LVI (1884), 812.

5 Illinois Farmer (Springfield, Ill.), II (1857), 155.

6 Moore's Rural New Yorker (New York), XVII (1866), 87, 95, 111. For earlier

forms of mania see Arthur H. Cole, "Agricultural Crazes, A Neglected Chapter in

American History," American Economic Review, XVI (1926), 622-639.


SEED HUMBUGGERY                          55

just individuals, operating in more or less isolated places where

their nefarious practices would not be easily detected. Two com-

panies operating from the small town of Cleveland, Tennessee,

flooded the Middle West with circulars and posters of their "mar-

velous" seeds.7 Ohio also had more than her share of these estab-

lishments, not in seed products alone but in other articles such as

eggs, poultry, incubators, and the like.8 The testimonies and exag-

gerations should have been sufficient evidence to make most farmers

wary, but in spite of the claims for their products many were

caught in the net only later to complain bitterly to the press. It is

difficult to believe that farmers would send money to such unknown

concerns for samples of corn whose kernels were listed to be "as

large as the average size Chestnut"; for cotton seed, at thirty cents

a seed, that was "worm-proof" and needed no machine to gin it; for

watermelon seed that produced a melon weighing 125 pounds; for

tomato seed that sold for $5.00 per ounce; and for certain varie-

ties of oats at $2.00 per 1,000 seeds.9

The seeds were frequently misrepresented, were often old and

low in germination, and generally were mixed with other similar

varieties. A good example of this type of swindle concerned seed

that was advertised as "Honey Blade Grass" which was the popular

kind at that time, but instead of mailing this variety to their

customers the bogus companies sent a blend of millet seed which

sold on the market for a much lower price.10 In many cases the

swindler would either retain the money and make no reply or

send to the customer a circular containing lottery tickets, with an

explanation of how he could win a town lot, a watch, or some

grand prize for a few extra dollars.11    A letter from one of these

victims to the editor of the Ohio Farmer illustrates how these indi-

vidual concerns operated. The following had been his experience:

As one of the ... readers of THE OHIO FARMER I claim the privilege

of exposing one of your advertisers. In THE FARMER . . . one James Wil-

son, of Fremont, .... advertised seed corn for sale. I live six miles south of


7 American Agriculturist, XXXV (1876), 207, XL (1885), 79-80; Daily Iowa

State Register (Des Moines), January 25, 1878.

8 Colman's Rural World (St. Louis). XXXVII (1884), 186; Cultivator and

Country Gentleman (Albany, N. Y.), XXXVI (1871), 345, 457, XXXVII (1871),

408, 425.

9 Farmers' Review (Chicago), IV (1880), 402; Michigan Farmer (Detroit), n. s.,

XVII (January 12, 1886), 4; American Agriculturist, XXXV (1876), 207.

10 Illinois Farmer, IV (1859), 345; American Agriculturist, XXXVIII (1859), 71.

11 American Agricultrist, XXXI (1872), 245.




Fremont, and . . . I went . . . to see the gentleman, but could not find him.

I then called upon his references, . . . but they knew nothing whatever of

him. I then called upon the postmaster, who said a man of that name had

rented a box in the office. With these facts in my possession, I communicated

with you, warning you that he was a swindler, and yet you gave his advertise-

ment another insertion in your paper. The postmaster now informs me that

he has left the city and that there are some fifty money orders and registered

letters in his box, which his victims can have returned to them by communi-

cating with the postmaster . . . before Wilson calls for them.12

Most farmers were on the lookout for bargains and new

varieties in seeds and consequently were easy victims for the seed-

houses which sold their products through catalogs and on com-

mission in the local stores. The most reputable companies, and

there were several, such as Vicks of Rochester and Ferry in Detroit,

sold better products and ones that could be relied upon, but they

were reluctant to advertise or place in their catalogs any of the

fantastic and fraudulent varieties so frequently promoted by the

swindling profession. In order for the latter to sell these question-

able seeds at a handsome profit, they gave a large commission to

the local merchants and hid themselves in some remote city or

town where they could mix the seeds with dust or some old and

unreliable variety that when sown would not germinate. Old seeds

were useless to the farmer; experience showed that they lost their

vitality with age. Corn that was three years old had only about

fifty percent germination; millet the same age had less than this

amount; oats at three years was about three-fourths good, and at

eight years had less than one-sixth germination. Wheat at three

years was a little over half good, and at eight and nine years old

did not grow at all; rye at three years was practically no good;

barley at the same age was half to two-thirds good, but worthless

at eight years. Grass seeds could not be depended upon for more

than one year unless there was special care in storing.l3 Thus when

the farmers bought these old seeds they not only were cheated out

of their purchase money, but the ground which they had prepared

was encumbered with worthless growth, while they themselves

were defrauded of their labor for a year.

So vexatious did these problems become that most of the im-

portant magazines, such as the Horticulturist and the Rural New

12 Ohio Farmer (Cleveland), LXV (1884), 348.

13 Ibid., LXX (1886), 376-377.


SEED HUMBUGGERY                            57


Yorker, began a campaign against the frauds of seedsmen. The

following is a part of the communication contained in one of the

western magazines in regard to

the miserable stuff under the name of . . .seeds, that is put up by irre-

sponsible parties, and placed for sale in various obscure country stores, and

sold to those who cannot be expected to hunt up the original offenders.

These seeds are old refuse stuff, too old to grow, under true or false names

as the case may be, and perhaps with a small portion of fresh seed mixed,

that grow freely, to prevent detection. Often big names are given to these

old or common seeds, and a price charged as big as the name.14

The press campaigns by these leading journals over a period

of years resulted in attempts to regulate the frauds by law. The

following is an excerpt from one of the prominent agricultural

magazines in regard to an early bill:

The bill, we understand makes a fine of $50, or imprisonment for three

months, or both, the penalty for selling seeds that are not true to the name

with which they are labelled. Carry out such a law and our seedsmen would

all be in prison in less than a year. Some kinds of seeds mix very readily;

indeed nothing but the greatest care will prevent mixture, and this care,

our seed-growers have not learned to exercise, nor will they learn it in a day.

Buy at any of our seedstores, packages labelled Long Green Cucumbers, and

not one seed in a thousand will prove true .... Scarcely a pure specimen can

be found at the seedstores .... This evil we hope to see corrected.15

These evils were corrected but not for several years. By the late

eighties the judges and legislators came to the rescue of the farmers

in most of the western states and such frauds were greatly


The fourth source of supply of seeds for the farmer was the

agricultural division of the patent office which delivered packets

of seeds through the senators, representatives, and territorial dele-

gates in congress. This division of government was established for

the purpose of purchasing, disseminating, and experimenting with

seeds and plants gathered from all parts of the world. From the

early fifties its representatives collected different varieties of seeds

in Europe and sent them to farmers in America. William M. King,

director of the seed department of the division, reported in 1886


14 Illinois Farmer, VIII (1863), 52.

l5 Moore's Rural New Yorker, X (1859), 46. By 1888 many of the western

states had enacted laws designed to "punish and prevent fraud in the sale of grain,

seeds, and other cereals." Michigan Farmer, XVIII (January 12, 1887), 4; The

Farmer (St. Paul, Minn.), IV (1888), 337.

16 Western Rural and American Stockman (Chicago), XXVI (1888), 108, 284;

Ohio Farmer, LXIX (1886), 72, 300; Michigan Farmer, XIX (February 6, 1888), 4;

Orange Judd Farmer (Chicago), V (1889), 241.




that more than 4,000,000 packages were mailed out to the farmers

in that year at a cost to the government of more than $100,000.,

This appeared as a large expenditure in that day, but according

to the director it was a small amount when compared to the

increased production resulting to the farmers from the new and

improved varieties.17

A large distribution of seeds by the government and the large

expenditures by this division brought it into sharp criticism from

many of the seed companies. They inveighed against it as the

government "seed store."18 The attack was leveled largely against

the waste; too much money was spent for the benefits received, for

farmers were too often not interested in the seeds sent out to them

by their congressmen, and as a result they were never planted. One

critic stated:

The government seed shop ought to be abolished now and forever; it is

a travesty on agriculture. It simply deludes Congressmen that they are making

votes among the farmers by sending little bags of seed to them. A man that

has got sense enough to plant seeds, plants the kind he wants, not what other

men think he wants.19

From the evidence there seems to be no doubt but that some

of the criticisms were justified. Many of the imported seeds were

distributed without proper consideration given to their value. Due

to the scarcity at times of these foreign importations the division

often had to buy stocks from the commercial companies here at

home and not infrequently they were of an inferior quality.20

Furthermore, the division occasionally made hasty recommenda-

tions for some particular variety that they had imported which in

the end turned out to be of no value; such recommendations gave

the swindlers an excellent selling point and afforded them an

opportunity to sell more openly large amounts of it to the farmers.

The final source of the farmer's seed supply was in the form

of an associational plan which was concerned with the growing

and selling of different varieties of oats and, in a limited way,

with other cereals. It was the fraudulent techniques used in the

operation of this plan that created most of the disturbance. During


17 0hio Farmer, LXX (1886), 376-377.

18 Earle D. Ross, "The United States Department of Agriculture during the Com-

missionership," Agricultural History, XX (1946), 133, 140, 142n.

19 Ohio Farmer, LXX (1886), 28.

20 Ibid., LXXII (1887), 56.


SEED HUMBUGGERY                       59


the period under discussion the western farmers had increased

many fold the cultivation of oats, which was due to four main

factors: (1) they fitted into a pattern of rotation of crops; (2)

they were a better revenue crop than other cereals, for yields were

larger and prices were good; (3) there was a large increase in

the number of horses and mules, which created a demand for

feed;21 and (4) they were becoming a popular food for humans

in the form of oatmeal. These factors brought about such a

demand for oats that a widespread system of swindling developed

under this associational plan in connection with certain varieties

of this seed.

Through this plan the modus operandi of distributing oats

became quite uniform in procedure throughout the West; beginning

in Ohio it spread from county to county and state to state until

it had run its course.22 In the case of Norway oats, which was dis-

tributed by a firm in Chicago by the name of D. W. Ramsdell &

Company, this plan was utilized and it became the pattern for

subsequent swindlers with but few modifications. The procedure

of this firm was to send out agents to contact a number of farmers

in a township and to organize an oat association, members of which

were sold the seed at from $5.00 to $10.00 per bushel; they in turn

would give their notes for the amount payable the following year.

The agent would give a bond guaranteeing to buy from the farmers

at the time of the next harvest all the oats that they raised for a

certain amount per bushel depending on the price they had paid

for the original seed. In turn the farmers would promise to hold

the seed after harvest and not sell it to any one except the agents;

by so doing both parties could monopolize this particular variety

and keep the price high.23

These oats were not only second rate in yield but they rusted

and lodged badly, making them difficult to harvest.24 The farmers

who joined the associations soon discovered that the agreements

of the contracts were not enforceable, the bonds given by the agents

were fraudulent, and only where it was profitable to them did they


21 Robert Leslie Jones, "The Horse and Mule Industry in Ohio to 1865," Mis-

sissippi Valley Historical Review, XXXIII (1946), 61-88.

22 Cultivator and Country Gentleman, L (1885), 992, 1053; Western Rural and

American Stockman, XXV (1887), 104.

23 Western Farmer (Madison, Wis.), II (1870), 345; Moore's Rural New Yorker,

XXIII (1871), 176.

24 Moore's Rural New Yorker, XXIII (1871), 314.



ever call at harvest time for the farmer's oats. If these bonds were

"lifted," as the farmers called it when a contract was carried out,

it was done not in good faith but with the express purpose of

advertising to the surrounding community in order that more

associations could be formed. In many cases, when the agents

failed to return on schedule, the farmers were left holding the

bonded oats according to contract as it was necessary to secure a

release from the agents before they could sell them elsewhere.

This situation aided the agents in keeping Norway oats off the

market and in continuing to dupe new members with $5.00 to

$10.00 seed. The notes given by the farmers were as a rule not

held and paid for out of the following year's crop as was agreed

to, but were "shaved" at the local bank which made them payable

in money at the time of maturity.25 Under such conditions a great

deal of discontent was generated; the farmer not only had to pay

the purchaser of the note, but was left holding the oats resulting

from the harvest. A western editor described phases of this swindle

in one of his denunciations as follows:

Mr. Ramsdell had oats that grow taller, produced more, weighed more to

the bushel, were better for feed, and could be grown on all lands and soils

between the Artic and Antartic circles. He sold them at $10 per bushel . . .

and obligated himself to take all grown by those who purchased seed from

him at $5 per bushel. He did a fair business the first year, a good business

the second, and a wonderful one the third. Every one grew Norway oats.

Then when harvest came and the immense crop of Norway oats began to

arrive, Mr. Ramsdell was not to be found. That season the streets of Detroit

were filled with teams loaded with Norway oats, for which the growers ex-

pected to get $5 per bushel. They sold finally for 50 cents, and the credit

of the Norway oats was gone forever.26

By 1871 the Norway oats swindle was coming to an end.

Farmers from New York to as far west as Iowa were up in arms

and trying to get rid of their oats. One farmer in the latter state

reported that in his own township alone "there are more than 3,000

bushels of so-called Norway Oats, produced from seed sold the

farmers by Ramsdell & Co. Two brothers in an adjoining township

have 1,500 bushels and many farmers 200 to 300 bushels."27 Others

who had become suspicious wrote to the journals asking that the


25 Ibid., 187.

26 Michigan Farmer, XVI (January 6, 1885), 4.

27 Moore's Rural New Yorker, XXIII (1871), 187.


SEED HUMBUGGERY                       61

editors "publicly request any person in the United States, who

knows of D. W. Ramsdell's taking any oats according to contract,

to communicate the fact to you for publication. By so doing you

will relieve many from the agony of suspense which they are now

enduring."28 Some of these anxious farmers resorted to the courts

in an attempt to recover damages; in Illinois one farmer who was

stranded with eight thousand bushels of bonded seed sued the firm

for $100,000.29 This brought an end to Norway oats and accord-

ing to the Prairie Farmer Ramsdell was compelled to close his

shop and subsequently disappear.

With the success of the Norway oats fraud it was quite natural

that other seeds would be sold in somewhat the same manner. In

the early eighties comparable schemes developed for the selling

of "Red Line," "Gold Dust," and "Seneca Chief" wheat, German

barley, and various varieties of corn and beans, but these were

more or less insignificant when compared to the extent and influence

of the humbug connected with Bohemian hulless oats.30 The mania

for this type of seed was so general among the western farmers

that it took nearly a decade before it ran its course. There were

so many involved in this fraud and there was so much money lost

that it might be compared to the mulberry hysteria that swept the

agricultural states in the early part of the nineteenth century.

Hulless oats had been the desideratum of the American

farmer for many years; they saw in them the solution to the prob-

lems connected with this cereal. In the first place an oat without

a hull would satisfy the requirements for a good horse feed. Regular

oats generally raised for this purpose did not give satisfaction as

they had a tendency after repeated sowings to develop into a

larger proportion of hulls and stalks.31 Oats with these heavy

hulls had little value in them for feed, and in order to secure what

value there was in the grain it was necessary to crack or grind

them, which required an extra cost. Most animals, after they had

reached a certain age and their teeth had become defective, were

unable to masticate the coarse kernels, hence little food value was


28 lbid., 234, 384.

29 Michigan Farmer, II (March 4, 1871), 68.

30 Ohio Farmer, LXVIII (1885), 25, 67; Western Farmer and Wisconsin State

Grange, Bulletin (Madison, Wis.), V (March 27, 1886), 7, (November 27, 1886), 2;

Michigan Farmer, XVI (April 7, 1885), 4, (October 27, 1885), 1, XVII (June 8,

1886), 4, (July 27, 1886) 1, 5.

31 Ohio Farmer, LXIX (1886), 187.



obtained. Hulless oats, in the second place, were desired by the

oatmeal companies as they would eliminate much of the expense

in preparing cereal for the breakfast table. These needs by both

farmers and manufacturers prepared the ground for the swindlers

when they introduced their "skinless" oats to the western farmers

in the late seventies of the past century.

According to the New York Sun, in commenting on this type

of oats, scarcely a year had passed during the last three hundred

years that some itinerant peddler had not tried to swindle the farm-

ers of Europe with this "hulless oats," and for the past fifty years

they had been at it in the United States.32 There seemed to be no

end to the names under which it was sold; at one time it was called

Boutella oats, at another Chinese, and it finally terminated its course

under the name of Bohemian.

This particular variety of oats, in spite of the fact that it had

been in the country for many years, had little general popularity

until about 1878; at this time it was introduced into the lake

counties of Ohio by a general agent from Canada who was supposed

to have brought in about two hundred bushels along with his

scheme for selling it; from this seed all the rest was reputed to

have come.33 His plan was modeled on that used by the Norway

oat distributor but on the whole was much more systematic, and

due to the novelty of this variety of oats more effective in captur-

ing the imagination of the farmers. The aim of the associations

was to hold all these oats as a monoply and each year the agents

would have double the amount of seed to sell to the newly formed

associations; the oats raised by the members over and above the

contract were not to be used for seed; by such procedure both

parties would profit. A good description of a Bohemian oat asso-

ciation that operated in Hardin County, Ohio, was given by one of

the farmers in 1884; and it was typical of the methods used by


Two brothers . . . claiming to represent "The Northwestern and Central

Ohio Seed Company", of Tiffin, and a man . . . representing "The Henry, Wil-

liams and Crawford Bohemian Seed Company," came into Hardin county,

and . . . sold a few small lots of Bohemian oats in different parts of the

county at $10 per bushel, taking the farmers' notes . . . and giving a sort of


33 Ibid., XVI (1878), 348.


SEED HUMBUGGERY                       63


bond agreeing to sell double the amount for them the following season at

$10 per bushel, less 25 per cent. commission. It was generally thought that

all those that bought were swindled and that the agents would never be back

again, but they put in an appearance early the succeeding season . . . and

hurried up the parties to get their oats ready, as they were needing them to

sell, which seemed to establish the idea in the minds of many farmers that

the business was all right. The agent . . . hired some leading, influential

farmer to go with him and point out the best . . . farmers for their victims.34

The following year the agent found the nonmember farmers in

this county anxious to buy his seed oats; by canvassing the balance

of the townships he was able to sign up a large number. To this

group he delivered oats grown by the parties he had sold to the

previous year, but soon dropped them and shipped in other grain

which he was able to buy at fifty cents per bushel, by the carload,

and put his former customers off with a promise. The bonds were

past due, and very few of them had been lifted, according to the

contract. The notes given for the grain had been sold to banks

and brokers and were due; the farmers had no other recourse

than either to pay them and take their losses or be sued by the

"innocent" parties who had purchased the promissory notes.

The agents had several means of escape in their contracts; a

few of the important considerations had not been specifically

stated. For example, when most of the farmers signed their notes

they did not read them over carefully enough to realize that they

were negotiable and could be sold to third parties; they were under

the impression that the notes would be paid for from the crop

of oats raised the following year. They also overlooked the clause

in the agreement pertaining to "double the amount purchased."

The contract did not read that the agent would "buy" double the

amount-he no doubt had made that a verbal promise-but rather

he bonded the association to "sell" double the amount; this was to

be interpreted that if the agents did not take the oats the association

would be responsible for selling them. In many cases the farmers

organized a new association and appointed an agent "to go and

beat some one else as they were beaten."35 Such double swindling

frequently led to stresses and strains within the communities. More-

over, the bond given to the farmers was not genuine even though

34 Ohio Farmer, LXIX (1886), 206-207.

35 Michigan Farmer, XVI (November 3, 1885), 1, XVII (December 21, 1886),





it was claimed to represent a corporation which had deposited

hundreds of thousands of dollars with the auditor of the state as

an indemnity "for the faithful carrying out of the terms of said


From Ohio this fraud spread both east and west. In the fall

of 1885 agents were busy organizing associations in various parts

of Pennsylvania and New York. By 1887 it was boasted by these

swindlers that in the former state they had "never found a region so

easily milked of cash as the Cumberland valley."37 It was esti.

mated that $500,000 was taken from three counties in this region

alone. It had such a demoralizing effect upon business and created

so much distress among the farmers that bankers began to refuse

to discount any more notes.38

Having covered most of the counties in Ohio the agents moved

to greener pastures; by 1888 they had canvassed every state as

far west as Minnesota.39 In the department of agriculture report

for 1886 the statistician stated that correspondents from twenty-

five states had sent in accounts of the Bohemian oats schemes. The

following states were listed along with the number of counties:

Ohio is the center, reports having been received from forty-five counties.

Indiana comes next, twenty-four counties, then Michigan, sixteen counties,

and Illinois, ten counties. Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Iowa report agents in

a few counties, and Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska, Dakota, Tennessee and

Kentucky an occasional foray. Agents have also appeared in ten counties of

New York, in Pennsylvania and West Virginia. One is reported from Con-

necticut and one from Maine. Altogether 130 counties report the fraud, and

it is thought a complete record would show 200 afflicted counties in the

United States.40

According to the above report the success of the swindlers

diminished somewhat as they moved westward, for the experiences

of the farmers in the East had a tendency to filter through to those

in the West, and as a result a stronger resistance was encountered.

Furthermore, when an agent would make his appearance in a

community, the agricultural journals, farm organizations, and

36 Michigan Farmer, XVIII (March 21, 1887), 4; American Agriculturist, XLV

(1886), 123. The bond was highly decorated with a "big red seal" and a "bold

signature of a secretary." Michigan Farmer, XVIII (February 7, 1887), 4.

37 Western Farmer, VI (1887), 360; Ohio Farmer, LXVIII (1885), 377.

38 Cultivator and Country Gentleman, LII (1887), 525.

39 Western Rural, XVI (1878), 393, 409, XVII (1879), 29; Western Rural and

American Stockman, XXII (1884), 149, 633, XXV (1887), 104; Prairie Farmer, L

(1879), 49; Michigan Farmer, XVI (October 20, 1885), 1; Daily Iowa State Register,

January 25, 1878.

40 Ohio Farmer, LXIX (1886), 245; The Farmer, II (1887), 156.


SEED HUMBUGGERY                         65


newspapers were able to go into action immediately to protect the

farmers. The editor of the Ohio Farmer, in commenting on the

battle of the agricultural press against Bohemian oats, made this


We just received a letter from the Iowa Homestead, stating that the army

of agents had just invaded the southern part of that State, and requesting us

to send them some good ammunition. We sent it, and hope it will prove ef-


The prominent agricultural journals throughout the West

carried on a vigorous warfare against this swindle, and much of the

success in eliminating it must be credited to them. With the rural

newspapers, however, the record was not so good; they were more

susceptible to bribes and large fees for advertisements.42 One

exception to this was the Chagrin Falls Exponent in Ohio, whose

wide-awake editor, in spite of attempts to bribe him, threats of

libel, and even thrashings, was able by his investigations to drive

the swindlers out of his part of the state. Much of the information

that he uncovered in connection with these schemes was used later

by other papers throughout the West.43

There were several other good reasons why these schemes

came, to an end besides the exposes of the press. This variety of

oats, when compared to most of the other types, not only did not

yield well, but a certain percentage of the crop was not even

hulless. Moreover, these oats lodged easily and were found to be

rather soft and spongy. This latter characteristic made them dis-

liked by the millers. Several of the agricultural experiment farms

throughout the Middle West tested these oats for a number of

years, and in every report they were low in yield. In Ohio, out of

twenty-eight varieties, they were one of the four lowest; in Wis-

consin they found them to be the lowest of all the various kinds

tested.44 From the many reports sent to the press by actual farmers,

the same opinion was given; sometimes they ran as low as ten

bushels per acre when others yielded as high as sixty and seventy.

As one farmer said in expressing his views on this subject: "You

are more apt to raise a crop of notes than you are a crop of oats."

41 Ohio Farmer, LXIX (1886), 124.

42 Michigan Farmer, XVI (January 6, 1885), 4; Ohio Farmer, LXIII (1883), 241.

43 Cultivator and Country Gentleman, L (1885), 963.

44 Wisconsin State Agricultural Society, Transactions (Madison, 1871), 376;

Ohio State Board of Agriculture, Forty-first Annual Report (Columbus, 1886), Ap-

pendix, 66-67; Western Farmer, VI (1887), 739.



Many of the farmers when they signed up in these associa-

tions had at that time believed they could sell their surplus oats

to the cereal and seed companies at high prices, but that possibility

soon vanished. D. Ferry, who was a prominent seed buyer and

distributor in Detroit, explained his position in a letter to the

Michigan Farmer:

We beg to state that we do not deal in Bohemian Oats at all. We do not

consider them an especially desirable farm product, and the disrepute in-

to which they have been brought through certain speculative schemes which

have been worked in connection with them among the farmers of this State

renders them particularly undesirable for any reputable house to deal in.45

F. Schumacker, one of the largest oatmeal manufacturers in Ohio,

made a similar statement in regard to their undesirability for his


I do not want them for oatmeal even at the same price with common

oats. I do not know of a mill anywhere using them for oatmeal, and I do

not know of a farmer sowing them more than twice.... They have no standing

in any of the grain markets.46

The concluding phase of this swindle was confined to lawsuits,

court decisions, and legislative enactments. In 1886 the treasurer

of the Ohio State Grange reported that the courts at that time

were full of lawsuits connected with Bohemian oats contracts.47

All during this period farmers often resisted payment and were

ultimately sued by the holders of the notes; others paid them

rather "than have it go out that they had been nipped."48 In a

number of places, when the farmers discovered that they had been

"taken in" by the bogus agents, they "organized themselves into

an anti-Bohemian oat association" and assessed each member a

certain fee in order to defray the expense of a suit.49 Generally,

however, they were unable to escape payment, for the notes had

passed into the hands of persons who claimed in a court of law

that they were unaware of the considerations for which the notes

were given; such claims were usually supported by the courts, and

with this legal protection the bankers and brokers took advantage

45 Michigan Farmer, XVI (November 3, 1885), 1.

46 Western Farmer and Wisconsin State Grange, Bulletin, V (March 27, 1886),

7. The seed companies that did buy them usually paid from one to two dollars per

bushel and furnished the sacks. Ohio Farmer, LXVII (1885), 72.

47 Western Farmer and Wisconsin State Grange, Bulletin, V (March 27, 1886),


48 Michigan Farmer, XVI (September 22, 1885), 4.

49 Ibid., XVII (May 11, 1886), 4; Ohio Farmer, LXVIII (1885), 19, LXIX

(1886), 206-207.


SEED HUMBUGGERY                          67


of the opportunity to reap large and lucrative profits since the

discount rates on these negotiable notes ran from twenty-five to

forty percent.50 In some instances the agents "hawked" the notes

for whatever they could get for them.

The farmers had little chance of resisting payment to the

bankers, but they were able successfully to prosecute the agents

when they could be found. Many of these agents were not the

original perpetrators of the fraud but were merely neighbors or

farmers who lived in adjacent communities and had helped to

organize new associations for the purpose of unloading the oats

they had been left with. Under such conditions the lawsuits were

between the farmers themselves.51 The farmers could sue the

organizers and collect damages on the bond of the association, for

it was not the incorporated company that it was represented to be

but was known to be false by the agent at the time of procuring

the note. In several instances the farmers were able to lay their

hands on the original agents of the scheme; in Indiana one was

fined and sent to the penitentiary for several years, and in Ohio

another received a similar sentence in connection with forgeries

of Bohemian oat notes.52

The financial effect of this swindle on the farmers as a whole

is difficult to assess; in some areas it was a real hardship, forcing

the farmers to mortgage their farms, while in others the farmers

who were caught in the fraud were able to get out by passing the

burden to some one else.53 It is true that most of the farmers signed

up for only one or two hundred dollars' worth of the oats when

they joined the associations, but there were others who took as

much as five hundred. Reports were numerous in the various

agricultural journals as to the total amounts taken from the differ-

ent counties. The following is a sample of the extent of this fraud:

Trempealeau County, Wisconsin, $20,000; Eaton County, Michigan,

$35,000; Hardin County, Ohio, $100,000.54 In the latter state


50 Ohio Farmer, LXIX (1886), 206-207. The farmers became quite antagonistic

against the lawyers, for they too made a handsome profit from this swindle. Michigan

Farmer, XVIII (July 27, 1887), 1; Ohio Farmer, LXVIII (1885), 296.

51 Ohio Farmer, LXIX (1886), 206-207, LXX (1886), 251.

52 Cultivator and Country Gentleman, L (1885), 963; Ohio Farmer, LXXI

(1887), 240; Michigan Farmer, XVI (December 1, 1885), 1.

53 Michigan Farmer, XVI (February 17, 1885), 4, XVII (February 23, 1886),

4, (August 31, 1886), 4.

54 Western Rural, XVI (1878), 393, 407, XVIII (1880), 145; Michigan Farmer,

XV (December 23, 1884), 4, XVI (February 9, 1885), 4; The Farmer, II (1887), 156.




alone, which no doubt was the most affected, it was estimated that

as much as $1,000,000 was taken from the farmers by these oats


These losses brought about a pressure on the legislatures in

the western states to put "a stop to this swindling business" in the

"sale of grain, seeds, and other cereals." By 1888 several bills

were either pending or laws had actually been passed to cover this

problem. In Michigan the supreme court came to the rescue of

the farmers by a decision in the case of McNamara v. Gaggett,

preventing the purchaser of a note from collecting the amount.55

The following editorial comment in regard to the Iowa law is

representative of what was happening in other states:

THE IOWA LAW . . . makes not only the selling of seed at fictitious

prices a criminal offense, but renders the notes given therefor void. Every State

should not only speedily enact similar laws, but make them broad enough

to cover all notes obtained by fraudulent representation, uncollectable ....

This would put an end to all such forms of swindling, in the purchase of seeds,

implements, or anything else.56

This law, and others like it, in the western states gave the

farmers some protection against the fraudulent agents who for

several years had humbugged the communities with their endless

varieties of bogus seeds; it is further evidence that economic

grievance is often the basis of political action.

55 Michigan Farmer, XIX (February 6, 1888), 4; Prairie Farmer, LX (1888), 93.

56 The Farmer, IV (1888), 337; Western Rural and American Stockman, XXVI

(1888), 284; Orange Judd Farmer, V (1889), 241.