Medicine and Mercy in Alexandria: The Real Apothecary

After watching PBS’ Mercy Street, some of you are asking if that’s really what it was like during the Civil War, particularly in regards to medicine and medical treatments. Keep reading to learn why the answer is an emphatic ‘yes’ and how you can explore more by visiting the sites in Alexandria that inspired the series.

Medicine and Mercy in Alexandria: The Real Apothecary Where the Characters Shopped

Fans of Mercy Street can explore the Stabler-Leadbeater Apothecary Museum, which feels more like a time-machine, where the real-life Green family frequently shopped in the 1800’s. When the shop, which served as a cross between “CVS and Home Depot” according to museum curator Callie Stapp, closed in 1933, the door was simply locked. The interior stayed intact as it had been during operation, with even the contents of the jars preserved.

Thanks to rallying community members, the apothecary was quickly turned into a museum, which the Washington Post called “the finest collection of antique drug store furnishings and medicinal bottles in America” in an article from 1939. The Stabler-Leadbeater Apothecary Museum continued to garner very famous visits, including one from Eleanor Roosevelt in 1942. 

More recently, the stars of PBS’ Mercy Street visited the apothecary, including Mary Elizabeth Winstead who plays Nurse Phinney. Winstead herself was in awe, transported back in time, saying:

“It’s really cool, particularly seeing the chloroform and ether is a really cool moment. Because that’s a thing that my character uses a lot on the show. Learning how to do that on set, how to administer it, was such an interesting thing. Just to get to see a place like this that hasn’t been changed since the 1850s so we’re actually stepping into something that looks exactly like what it’s been like.”

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Image Courtesy of M. Enriquez for Visit Alexandria, Featuring PBS’ Mercy Street Stars Hannah JamesTara Summers and Mary Elizabeth Winstead at the Stabler-Leadbeater Apothecary in Alexandria

Stepping Back in Time at the Apothecary That Helped Inspire the Series

Apothecary Over Time

Images Courtesy of the Stabler-Leadbeater Apothecary, showing not much has changed since the shop closed

Even if the word “history” has you falling asleep at your desk, you will be in awe of the Stabler-Leadbeater Apothecary in Alexandria. The apothecary was operated by the same two families (the Stablers and Leadbeaters) for over 140 years after being founded in 1792, and was widely recognized as one of the oldest apothecaries in the nation. It remained open during the Civil War and was a busy hub in Alexandria at the time, understandably so.

Though the apothecary is not seen in last night’s episode, it is where the real-life Green family shopped frequently before, during and after the war in addition to Civil War doctors and soldiers, who were known to stand in long lines waiting for cough drops. It is the site where Mercy Street characters like Dr. Jed Foster would be getting their medicines and supplies.

The apothecary not only served the Green family, but also Martha and George Washington and Robert E. Lee. Legend has it that Lee was in the Alexandria apothecary when he received orders to suppress the raid at Harpers Ferry. Extensive records of purchases can be seen at the museum, including those from the Washington’s and Robert E. Lee.

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Image Courtesey of L. Barnes for Visit Alexandria, showing the medicinal jars left intact, like chloroform in the upper left hand corner.

Medicine & Mercy Street Inspired Experiences in Alexandria

To learn more about the apothecary and the medicine you see in Mercy Street, explore some of the exciting events and exhibits featured throughout our city that wowed the stars of Mercy Street and inspired the show’s creators. 

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Image Courtesy of M. Enriquez for Visit Alexandria

MEDICAL EXHIBITS:

This Terrible Disease
Stabler-Leadbeater Apothecary Museum
Opening January 13, 2017
107 S. Fairfax St, Alexandria, VA 22314
703-746-3852
www.alexandriava.gov/apothecary

As an operating drug store during the occupation of Alexandria in the Civil War, the Leadbeater family sold medicinal remedies for the various diseases like smallpox and malaria that afflicted the local military and civilian populations. Today, visitors can take a guided tour and experience the historic space where occupied Alexandria came to shop. The exhibit features prescriptions and accounts of remedies sold to the Union Commissary Department, the contraband population, and civilian residents during the war.

Medical Care for the Civil War Soldier Exhibit
Fort Ward Museum
Ongoing exhibit
4301 West Braddock Road, Alexandria, VA 22304
703-746-4848
https://alexandriava.gov/FortWard

Fort Ward Museum has an ongoing exhibit which features original medical instruments and equipment from the Civil War period and information on Union Army hospital sites in Alexandria. 

Who These Wounded Are: The Extraordinary Stories of the Mansion House Hospital
Carlyle House Historic Park
Continuing through January, 2017
121 N. Fairfax Street, Alexandria, VA 22314
703-549-2997
From 1861-1865, the U.S. Army used Carlyle House, then the home of Emma Green and her family, and the adjacent Mansion House Hotel as a hospital and staff quarters. The people who lived and worked at this site in Alexandria and their real life stories have inspired the PBS television show, “Mercy Street”. The owner of the house and hotel, James Green, was one of the richest men in town and made a deep historical footprint on Alexandria.
Carlyle House’s exhibit features the factual story of the history of the site and its occupants. Upstairs, a new interpretation will explore the lives of these individuals through period hospital rooms and doctor/officer housing.

 

Alexandria’s Nurses & Hospitals During the Civil War
The Lyceum: Alexandria’s History Museum
Continuing through March 31, 2017
201 S. Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314
703-746-4994
www.alexandriava.gov/lyceum

This small panel exhibit features stories of some of the real nurses who worked in local hospitals, including two of the main characters on “Mercy Street.” Also part of the exhibit is a map showing where those medical facilities were located, and comments from a soldier who was treated in some of them, including the notorious “Camp Misery.”

MEDICAL TOURS:

Medical Heroism in Alexandria: Tour by Land and Water
From April 2016 through Columbus Day; 2nd Saturday and 4th Friday of each month; 2 p.m. start at the Alexandria City Marina
DC Military Tours
703-407-6663
www.dcmilitarytour.com

Explore the “Mercy Street” story by land and by water on this guided tour of Civil War Alexandria. Accompany a trained military historian from DC Military Tours by boat through Alexandria’s 19th-century seaport and then by land for an inside access look at period sites depicted on “Mercy Street,” including a Civil War hospital and other parts of the city’s Civil War landscape.

Apothecary of Mercy Specialty Tour
Stabler-Leadbeater Apothecary Museum
2nd Sunday in January, February, March and April 2017 at 12: 15 p.m.
107 S. Fairfax St, Alexandria, VA 22314
703-746-3852
www.alexandriava.gov/apothecary

Explore the themes of PBS’ “Mercy Street” through the lens of this family-owned apothecary that stayed in business through Alexandria’s occupation during the Civil War. This 45-minute tour showcases special archival materials and period ingredients. Capacity is limited to 15 and advance registration is encouraged.

 

 

For more information on Mercy Street inspired experiences in Alexandria, click here.

 

Header image courtesy of M. Enriquez for Visit Alexandria.