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Schenectady native John Riggs was a doctor who sang and sold medicine

Schenectady native John Riggs was a doctor who sang and sold medicine

Riggs studied medicine at Albany Medical college, yet joined a minstrel show after college and went on tour in the South.

In late November 1917 the World War I Battle of Cambrai was underway in Europe with both Germany and Britain sustaining heavy casualties according to a front-page Amsterdam newspaper account. The United States had entered the war in April.

One of that year’s Thanksgiving Day observances in Amsterdam was a concert to raise money to make life easier for local soldiers who had been drafted. Some Mohawk Valley soldiers were training at Fort Devens in Massachusetts with the 303rd New York Infantry before shipping overseas.

The local Liberty Bond Vocal Club sang as did a soldier quartet and soloists from Fort Devens. They performed songs including “Over There” and “Pack Up Your Old Kit Bag.” The singers and their conductor received “tumultuous applause.”

The Second Presbyterian Church across from the city library on Church Street was packed for the concert. Eighty-three years later, that church building would be destroyed in a fire.

A free will offering of $150 was collected in 1917 for the troops. Adjusted for inflation, that would be over $3,000 today.

The conductor of the Liberty Bond Vocal Club, James T. Riggs of Market Street, came from a musical family. His father, Dr. John V. Riggs had died the day before at age 78 in his apartment in Amsterdam’s Sanford Block. The funeral took place the next day at his son’s home.

Dr. John Riggs’ life

Dr. John Riggs was originally from Schenectady. His father Stephen was a printer and publisher of a newspaper, the Schenectady Cabinet. Riggs, though, studied medicine at Albany Medical College and graduated from the Buffalo College of Physicians and Surgeons as a homeopathic doctor.

He loved music and joined a minstrel show after college. While on tour in the South he left the troupe to study yellow fever, which was widespread there.

He came back to the Mohawk Valley and opened a doctor’s office at 29 Market Street in Amsterdam. He married Annie Wilds of Schenectady in 1861, at the start of the Civil War.

He founded and directed the Arion Society, an Amsterdam singing group. He was known for performances at the Sanford Hall on West Main Street and the Union Hall on East Main Street.

In 1889 Riggs sold his medical practice and went to New York City to become a professional singer. Riggs came back within two years, opened a drug store on Market Street and made his living treating patients and manufacturing medicines, including Dr. Riggs’ Stomach Globules for Dyspepsia and Indigestion. Dyspepsia is pain in the stomach, which was believed to be caused by difficulty digesting food.

A 1911 newspaper ad stated, “Prepared from Dr. J.V. Riggs’ original formula by the Riggs’ Medicine Co., in the Blood Building. At all leading drugstores. Price 50¢. Only genuine when bearing Dr. Riggs’ signature.”

While marketing his potions (also including Dr. Riggs’ Wine of Cod Liver Oil), Riggs continued to sing and conduct. He was a member and onetime director of the St. Ann’s Episcopal Church choir.

Choir member Emily Devendorf wrote rhymes describing her fellow choristers. Devendorf wrote of Riggs that “his voice is deep and tremendous strong, and without him, we do not so well get along.”

Annie Wilds Riggs died in 1909. Husband and wife were buried at Fairview Cemetery.

Much of the information for this story came from Anne DeGroff of Amsterdam, the great-granddaughter of Dr. John Riggs. Five years ago with the help of Historic Amsterdam League co-founder Jerry Snyder, DeGroff was able to buy a bottle of Dr. Riggs’ Stomach Globules on eBay. She said she had been trying to find them for forty years.

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