Archaeologists have dug up a 19th-century recipe for fending off death.
During a recent excavation beneath a hotel site at 50 Bowery, Chrysalis Archaeology discovered a tiny, greenish glass bottle that once contained the "Elixir of Long Life."
The bottle found amid a cache of 150-year-old liquor bottles beneath what was once a German beer garden sparked the archaeologists' curiosity, and they decided to hunt down the original recipe so they could try the elixir themselves.
“We decided to engage in our own brand of experimental archaeology,” said Alyssa Loorya, the president of Chrysalis, a company regularly hired by the city to oversee excavation projects. “We wanted to know what this stuff actually tasted like.”
Loorya enlisted colleagues in Germany to help her track down the recipe in a 19th-century medical guide. After they translated it for her, she discovered it contained ingredients still used by modern-day herbalists: aloe, which is anti-inflammatory, and gentian root, which aids digestion. Mostly, though, the elixir was made of alcohol.
“These types of cure-alls were pretty ubiquitous in the 19th century, and always available at bars,” Loorya said. “Similar bitters and ingredients are still used today, in cocktails, and in health stores, but I guess we don’t know if it was the copious amounts of alcohol or the herbs that perhaps made people feel better.”
Loorya and her team are gathering the ingredients for the elixir and plan to try making it within the next couple of weeks.
They also plan to recreate Dr. Hostetters Stomach Bitters, a once-popular 19th-century medicine, after finding two of those bottles at the 50 Bowery site and seeking out that recipe as well.
The Hostetters recipe is a bit more complex, containing Peruvian bark, also known as cinchona, which is used for its malaria-fighting properties and is still used to make bitters for cocktails, and gum kino, a kind of tree sap that is antibacterial. It also contains more common ingredients, including cinnamon and cardamom seeds, which are known to help prevent gas.
When DNAinfo New York showed the recipes to herbalist Lata Kennedy, who's owned the East Village herb shop Flower Power for 19 years, she said many are still used to naturally treat ailments.
“All those ingredients are about your digestive health, and that’s really a key to good health in general,” Kennedy said of both the Elixir of Life and Hostetters recipes. “Those ingredients make a liver tonic, one that soothes your stomach, and also helps you poop — get out the toxins.”
Using alcohol to extract the beneficial properties of herbs and roots is still a common practice used by herbalists today, Kennedy said. She sells many of the ingredients used in the recipes, both in raw form and alcohol-based tinctures, and she believes they improve people's health — and could even prolong their life.