Thomas Mark “Doc” Sayman was an eccentric medicine show man who held tent shows and peddled his patent medicines and soaps from town to town around the turn of the century.
Sayman’s father was a tinker and left his mother alone for months at a time to provide for six children on her own. Fleeing abject poverty, young Sayman left home at age nine. He joined the circus and toured with P.T. Barnum.
He first built a factory in Carthage, Mo., but soon outgrew it. In 1892, Sayman began construction on an eight-story factory in downtown St. Louis and he claimed to have earned $700,000 the first year. Despite having attended school very little, he was a self-made millionaire.
Eccentric to the hilt, Sayman’s life was interspersed with generosity, genius, inappropriate use of guns and other antics, with a good-sized sprinkling of bizarre and grandiose ideas. But Doc knew how to turn a buck and his wealth doubtless kept him out of trouble time and time again.
Sayman often challenged people to engage in a head-butting competition with him, a contest he always won. Of course, he failed to tell his opponents he had a metal plate in his head!
The showmanship he learned while touring with the circus, combined with some self-taught medical knowledge, equipped him for the medicine show circuit. His elixirs and salves were touted to cure almost every disease. His tent shows were entertaining and grew increasingly elaborate, often incorporating circus animals and acts.
He traveled throughout Missouri and Kansas, hawking his dubious wares with great flair. An 1884 issue of the Sedalia Weekly Baboo reported that “T. M. Sayman and his soap concert company” had been in Sedalia for several weeks, but had left for Tipton where they would be regaling the natives for one week.
His faithful horse, Dolly, pulled his wagon mile after mile on his long jaunts through the rural communities. After her death, Dolly was stuffed and placed in a glass case in a conspicuous location near the entrance to his St. Louis factory.
His second marriage, to Luella Maycroft in 1915, brought power, influence and more social acceptance to Sayman than he might have had otherwise. She was his secretary. When Vice President Alben W. Barkley married Mrs. Carleton S.S. Hadley in 1949, an informal luncheon was served at the Sayman home.
Newspapers across the country provided accounts of the marriage, reporting that the newlyweds left for their honeymoon from the Sayman home. Alben W. Barkley served under Harry Truman in 1949.
Although Doc had died 12 years earlier, this account shows how Mrs. Sayman was accepted in the top echelon of society, which doubtless boosted his acceptance.
Their only child, Dorothy Jean “DoJean,” literally grew up in the factory where the family had an apartment. They later bought an ostentatious home that still stands at 5399 Lindell Blvd.
Sayman is best known in outdoor recreation circles for having donated several hundred acres for Roaring River State Park in Barry County near Cassville. He met with Gov. Caulfield in 1929 in regard to the project and addressed a joint assembly of the Missouri Legislature to discuss the state park system.
But even this fabulous gift didn’t go as planned. The state didn’t have the funds to develop the land the way Sayman wanted it done so he asked for it back. The paperwork had been signed and the state kept the land.
In the 1930s, Sayman went in on a project to build a magnificent two-story hotel outside the entrance to Meramec State Park at Sullivan, Mo. His partner, a man named Bennett, was from Kansas City. Bennett ran out of money before the building was completed. Sayman eventually bought the property on the courthouse steps in Union, running up at the last minute to place his bid.
Sayman apparently lost interest in the hotel project. Although it was under roof, the Sayman Hotel never opened. A single apartment in the building was completed and occupied for several years. Sayman also owned a home at Sherwood Forest west of Stanton, which is just east of Sullivan.
Bob Cosgrove of Sullivan, Mo., now deceased, said Doc Sayman drove a 1934 or 1935 Packard Coupe in later years. Cosgrove worked for Doc and remembered riding on the running board to look for horses while Sayman drove. Sayman had not had horses on that property for years, but his mental faculties were diminishing and he believed they were still there.
Thomas M. Sayman died in 1937. At its peak, his patent medicine empire had employed about 2,000 salesmen and produced 166 products. His wife continued to operate the business until 1968 when she sold it to Carson Chemical Company. Sayman soaps and salves are still marketed today.
The old Sayman factory in St. Louis was imploded in 2000 to make way for a 336,000-square-foot distribution center. At the time it was demolished, it was known as the Warner-Lambert Co. building. It was located at 2117 Dr. Martin Luther King Dr. in St. Louis City, a street that was known, in 1915, as Franklin Ave.
What stories that building could have told if the walls could have talked!
By Sue Blesi
(Sue Blesi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)