These days we think of dentures as a commonplace technology, and it’s easy to forget that at one time there was cutting-edge science and big money in dentures, which led to some high-stakes confrontations, including one here in California that ended in murder.
The Invention and Patenting of Vulcanite Dentures
Goodyear invented vulcanite rubber in the mid-nineteenth century, and within a decade or so, dentists realized that this was the material they’d been looking for to make dentures. Unlike the wood or ivory bases they had been using, vulcanite made a flexible and durable base for dentures that could be set with porcelain teeth to create an attractive appearance. But, most importantly, the material could be molded to the mouth, giving great-fitting dentures that were relatively cheap and easy to produce.
And it was just in time, too. In the mid-nineteenth century, increased access to sugar meant that the entire population was experiencing an outbreak of oral decay. And with the recent invention of dental anesthesia, more and more people were getting their teeth pulled, so there was rapidly increasing demand for dentures at this time (of course dental implants were not yet an option).
The first dentist to apply vulcanite rubber to making dentures was Dr. John A. Cummings, who first filed a notice to the patent office in 1852 and a full application in 1855. But because of mistakes at the patent office, the patent wasn’t granted until 1864, by which time the process had been adopted by dentists around the country.
In order to make money on the patent, the Goodyear Dental Vulcanite Company, founded on the strength of Dr. Cummings patent, had to track down dentists who were using the process and make them pay for the privilege in the form of a $45 a year licensing fee.
Josiah Bacon, Patent Enforcer
Josiah Bacon was the man who took on this difficult duty. As treasurer and manager of the Goodyear Dental Vulcanite Company, it was his job to track down infringing dentists, and make them pay. Not only were dentists made to pay a current licensing fee: it was the policy of the Goodyear Dental Vulcanite Company that dentists also had to pay a fee for the entire time they were using the process, which often amounted to several hundred dollars (for scale, remember that the average annual salary in the US at this time was between $400 and $500, so it’s likely that in many cases, dentists might have been asked to pay an entire year’s worth of income).
Although Bacon pursued many dentists, there was one that he chased across the entire country: Samuel Chalfant. Chalfant was a denture dentist in Delaware who hadn’t paid his licensing fee. When Bacon tracked him down, he fled to St. Louis. When Bacon located him again, Chalfant fled to San Francisco, where they had a fatal confrontation.
I Never Meant to Shoot Him
When Bacon caught up with Chalfant in San Francisco, Chalfant was brought before the court, where Bacon detailed how the dentist was guilty not just of violating the patent, but also of violating injunctions that had told him not to make vulcanite dentures any more. Bacon apparently didn’t just want Chalfant to pay, he wanted to send him to jail, too.
The day after the courtroom confrontation, Chalfant came to Bacon’s hotel room. He wanted to pay what was owed and hoped to avoid jail. He says he brought a gun, just to give himself confidence. He says he never even meant to get the gun out.
But when the confrontation got heated, out came Chalfant’s gun. And then it got fired. Chalfant claims it just went off. At the time, most of the hotel’s tenants were down eating breakfast, and no one heard the gunshot. Chalfant was able to slip away unnoticed, and he found himself a hotel room.
After a few days of hiding out, Chalfant decided to turn himself in. He was sentenced to ten years in prison.
Pirate or Folk Hero
But the story doesn’t end there. For years, the nation grappled with the question about whether Chalfant was a hero or a villain.
There were many who attempted to paint Bacon as the villain, claiming, for example, that he kept some or all of the money that he forced dentists to pay. In his defense, an agent of the Goodyear Vulcanite Company wrote a letter to the New York Times, which says, “The statements going the rounds of the public press do such great injustice to the memory of the late Josiah Bacon . . . that we deem it our duty to state the facts as they exist concerning his relations to the dentists.” It paints Chalfant as a thief who “preferred to pirate the patent property of this Company,” and as one of numerous “depredators.” Bacon, on the other hand, “was a brave and good man and a faithful officer, simply doing his duty toward the numerous stockholders and the the thousands of licensees of the Company, fearlessly, conscientiously, and with signal ability, paying no heed to the threats made against him.”
But others embraced Chalfant as a hero. While in prison, he became beloved of a female pen pal who helped him escape from prison in the laundry. He almost escaped on an eastbound train with the benefit of a false beard and mustache, but a railroad detective noticed when the juice from a peach he was eating caused the facial hair to come unglued. He was also embraced by the dental profession. The Transactions of the Iowa State Dental Society of 1901, claims Bacon “had no mercy on the dentists and hundreds were so oppressed by him that their business was ruined and many were worried into untimely graves. The murder of Bacon, if not lawful, was generally conceded by the men of our profession as an act of justice.”
Apparently, the courts eventually agreed and commuted his sentence, releasing Chalfant after just six years in prison.
Exciting Dentures Technology–and No One Has to Die
We are also in the midst of a revolution in the technology of dentures. FOY Dentures™, The Denture Fountain of Youth™, are a dramatic improvement in the function, fit, and appearance of modern dentures. We are lucky, though, that no one has been driven to such desperate measures as to commit murder over them, however.