We’ve referred to the popularity of vulcanite (rubber) dentures in the early 20th century, but we haven’t talked about the tale of corporate corruption and vigilante violence that surrounded their commercialization.

an upper denture resting on a hand

The Invention and Patenting of Vulcanite Dentures

Vulcanite rubber was invented by Goodyear in the mid nineteenth century, and it didn’t take long for denture dentists to realize the potential benefit of the material. It could be used to form a flexible, durable base for dentures that molded to the mouth. Best of all, this meant that better dentures could be made quickly and cheaply by dentists.

The discovery that vulcanite could be used to make dentures was made by Dr. John A. Cummings in Boston, who originally filed a notice in 1852 and completed application for a patent in 1855. Originally, the patent office refused his application, but he kept trying. It wasn’t until 1864 that a patent was finally issued by the Patent Office, which realized it had been mistaken in thinking that his patent was too similar to previous inventions.

But by the time the patent was issued, the process had spread around the country and thousands of dentists were illegally making vulcanite dentures without a license. You see, there was a huge demand for dentures at this time because of the recent invention of dental anesthesia for tooth extractions and the suddenly increased access to sugar across the country (both interesting stories in and of themselves). To profit from his invention, Cummings and the Goodyear Dental Vulcanite Company sought to track down infringers and get them to pay a $45 a year licensing fee.

Josiah Bacon, Patent Enforcer

Josiah Bacon was treasurer and manager of the Goodyear Dental Vulcanite Company, and he tracked down infringing dentists, made them pay, and kept some of the money for himself (or none or perhaps all, it’s a little unclear and controversial). By all accounts, he was ruthless in tracking down dentists, but there was one in particular he was dedicated to get: Samuel Chalfant.

Samuel Chalfant was a denture dentist in Delaware who was making vulcanite dentures without a patent and didn’t want to pay the fee, so he fled to St. Louis, then to San Francisco, where Bacon caught up with him and the two men had several confrontations.

The “Murder” of Josiah Bacon

Having tracked down Chalfant, Bacon subjected him to a stern examination in court and determined that not only was Chalfant in violation of the patent, he had violated injunctions against him and held them in contempt. Bacon said the court would punish him, or, according to some accounts, send him to jail.

The next day, Chalfant came to Bacon’s hotel room with a loaded gun, which he claims he brought just to give himself confidence. And, as usually happens when someone brings a gun to a heated situation, the gun came out and Chalfant threatened Bacon, then killed him. He says, though, that he hadn’t meant to shoot Bacon, but the gun went off.

Chalfant turned himself in and was convicted of second degree murder, for which he was sentenced to ten years in prison. (Though, after an abortive escape attempt, his sentence was commuted and he only served six years.)

Pirate or Folk Hero

However, there is some disagreement about whether Chalfant was wrong in killing Bacon.

It seems that there was a popular wave of support for Chalfant, based on a letter written by an agent of the Goodyear Dental Vulcanite company 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 describes Chalfant as an infringer who “preferred to pirate the patent property of this Company,” and as one of numerous “depredators.” In contrast, Bacon “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 other places tell a different story. The Transactions of the Iowa State Dental Society of 1901, for example, states that 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.”

It seems that the court agreed, having pardoned him after a reduced sentence (the Transactions say three years, other sources say six). And it should be noted that after Bacon’s death, the Goodyear Dental Vulcanite Company was much less vigorous in the enforcement of its patent, which expired just two years later.