Robert James (1703-1776) was a London physician and author. James was born in Staffordshire and educated at both Oxford and Cambridge. By the mid 1740s James owned a busy medical practice in London. He also established friendships with the literary elite, including John Newbery and Samuel Johnson.
During his career James developed and patented several medicines. His most popular concoction was ‘Fever Powder’, a dangerous mix of antimony and calcium phosphate that was still being sold into the early 20th century. James also penned numerous medical guides, including his three-volume Medical Dictionary and a 1747 guide to medicines called Pharmacopoeia Universalis.
The latter contains a section on the medicinal value of human by-products. One of the most versatile of these, writes James, is dried menstrual blood. Provided it is taken from the first flow of the cycle, menstrual blood can be of great benefit:
“Taken inwardly it is commended for the stone[s] and epilepsy… Externally used it eases the pains of gout… It is also said to be of service for the pestilence, abscesses and carbuncle… [It also] cleans the face from pustules.”
Women enduring a difficult childbirth, writes James, can “facilitate the delivery” by sipping:
Histories of Victorian Britain are filled with tragic stories of young chimney sweeps. Recruited at age four or five and apprenticed to so-called ‘master sweeps’, these young boys endured long hours, horrendous treatment and atrocious working conditions.
Chimney sweeps usually worked in the pre-dawn hours, after flues had cooled and before morning fires were lit. With hands and knees they were forced to shimmy up dark narrow flue spaces, packed thick with soot and debris. Regular inhalation of this soot caused many young sweeps to contract respiratory illnesses, such as tuberculosis.
Some young sweeps also acquired an aggressive form of testicular cancer, colloquially known as “soot wart” or “sooty balls”. Thomas Clarke, a Nottingham master sweep, told an 1863 inquiry:
“I have known eight or nine sweeps lose their lives by the sooty cancer. The private parts which it seizes are entirely eaten off, caused entirely by ‘sleeping black’ and breathing the soot in all night.”
Workplace accidents posed a more immediate danger for chimney sweeps. The English press of the late 18th and 19th century contained dozens of reports of the deaths of these ‘climbing boys’. Some fell from roofs or down chimney structures; others become lodged in flues and suffocated; a few were roasted alive after being forced up still-hot chimneys.
One of the more tragic incidents occurred in Lothbury, near the Bank of England, where two young sweeps were sent into a baker’s chimney, one from each end:
“The [first] boy reported that the chimney contained a great deal of rubbish… not answering his master’s call, suspicion arose that he was either sulky or in a dangerous predicament. A stone in the cellar was accordingly taken up and the boy [was] found dead. The master called to the [second] boy who answered him by saying that he was so jammed in that if immediate relief was not given he should die, and this unfortunately was the case… The whole of this happened in ten minutes… Both the lads were very young and small, the oldest not more than eight years.”
Francois Chopart (1743-1795) was a French physician and surgeon. Born and trained in Paris, Chopart became professor of surgery at the Ecole Pratique before his 30th birthday. During his medical career, Chopart developed several new procedures, including facial surgery, skin grafts and partial amputations of the foot.
Chopart was best known, however, for his pioneering research into urology and urological disorders. Writing in his 1791 book Traité des Maladies des Voies Urinaires, Chopart described the strange case of a French shepherd, whose masturbatory habits led him to cleave his penis into two:
“A shepherd from Languedoc named Gabriel Gallien engaged in acts of onanism [masturbation] from the age of 15, sometimes as many as eight times each day. In time he would persevere for an hour without emission, sometimes only passing blood… He employed his hand for 11 years [but] by his 27th year could only induce a state of constant erection, which he attempted to resolve by introducing a piece of wood, six inches in length, into the urethra…”
Gallien found that inserting and gently pistoning this foreign object in his urethra enabled him to reach orgasm. He maintained this method for another six years until, according to Chopart, the inside of his urethra became “hard, insensitive and calloused”. Gallien was again reduced to a state of constant erection. Being “of total repugnance to women, which is often the case with masturbators” the frustrated shepherd had no means of sexual relief. It was then he took drastic measures:
“In utter despair he took a pocket knife and made an incision in the glans of the penis. This was accompanied by minimal pain but was followed by an agreeable sensation and orgasm and copious emission… Once again able to satisfy his venereal desires, he frequently performed the same operation, with the same result. After carrying out this shocking mutilation perhaps a thousand times, he at length failed. He then divided the penis, by a lengthways incision, into two equal halves, from the opening of the urethra to the symphysis pubis [base of the penis].”
Such a development might have concerned others but Gallien simply tied a ligature around his now two-pronged member. He also kept masturbating, “introducing a thin piece of wood into what remained of the urethra, titillating the seminal ducts and producing an ejaculation”.
He persisted with this method for another ten years until the wood ended up lodged in his bladder, triggering an infection and requiring a hospital visit. Doctors found Gallien’s penis in two halves, both capable of erection. It was then that Gallien was questioned and recounted his tale of self-mutilation in search of self-pleasure.
The dual-pronged shepherd from Languedoc died three months later from a chest abscess. Though probably unconnected, doctors attributed this abscess to almost 40 years of masturbation. Francois Chopart himself died of cholera in 1795.
James Graham (1745-94) was a Scottish-born quack physician, notorious for his alternative treatments and bizarre theories. Graham started a medical degree in his native Edinburgh but quickly dropped out of college. He lived in Yorkshire for a time, then spent several years traveling and working in North America and Europe before settling in London.
Tall, handsome and eccentric, Graham became a popular figure in London society. As a physician, he specialised in sexual problems, though his ‘treatments’ were highly unorthodox. Childless couples were told to make love on a mattress filled with stallion hair; barren women were advised to wash their genitals in champagne.
In 1781 Graham both scandalised and fascinated London by unveiling his new premises, the Temple of Hymen in Pall Mall. The showpiece of this temple was Graham’s ‘Celestial Bed’, a gaudily decorated vibrating bed that promised great improvements in love-making and conception.
Later in the 1780s, Graham promoted his theory of ‘earth bathing’, where patients were stripped naked and buried up to their necks in fertile soil:
According to Graham these long stints in the “all-fostering bosom of our original mother” opened the pores and leached toxins from the body. ‘Earth-bathing’ was considered good for many ailments but was particularly effective for curing venereal disease, gout, scurvy, rheumatism, leprosy, cancer, insanity and numerous types of infection. ‘Earth-bathing’ also suppressed the appetite, claimed Graham, so the obese were urged to bury themselves up to the lips, for up to six hours on end.
Graham himself ‘earth-bathed’ hundreds of times, usually as a public spectacle. Scores of Londoners handed over a shilling to watch Graham and an equally-naked female companion being interred in a garden bed. Graham’s ‘earth-bathing’ fad lasted until the early 1790s, by which time he had started to show signs of insanity, possibly the result of opium addiction. He returned to Scotland, where he died in 1794.
The medicinal value of tobacco was a hot topic among 18th physicians, qualified and otherwise. Many hailed tobacco as a wonder drug, capable of treating everything from epilepsy to dropsy. Others were more sceptical.
In 1720, a 32-page pamphlet published anonymously in London condemned the social and psychological effects of tobacco – yet hailed it as a treatment for some minor illnesses and afflictions. Tobacco could be effective as a laxative, claimed the author. Those who smoke or chew it, then swallow either “a little of the smoke” or “their spittle impregnated with its juice”, would soon “obtain two or three stools”.
Tobacco was also hailed as an effective treatment for abdominal pain, gripe and bowel obstructions. The 1720 pamphlet cites the case of a patient suffering “violent iliac passion” or “twisting of the guts”. He was cured of his sufferings after being given tobacco in an unusual fashion:
“[The patient was given] a decoction of it in urine, for a clyster (enema)… After having, with much difficulty, injected the clyster, the patient was constantly rolled upon the floor for some considerable time, till he felt a strong motion for a stool, at which time there was a copious discharge of hard excrements and wind, to the sudden relief of the tormented patient and the joy of his despairing friends.”
Later in the 1700s, William Buchan endorsed the use of tobacco as a laxative, though he preferred to apply it as smoke, blown into the bowels with a pressure enema. Where medical help or specialist equipment was not available, Buchan advised readers that “the business may be done with a common tobacco pipe” – presumably one no longer used for smoking:
“The bowl of the pipe must be filled with tobacco, well kindled, and after the small tube has been introduced into the fundament, the smoke may be forced up by blowing through a piece of paper full of holes, wrapped around the mouth of the pipe…”
In the late 18th century, a Danish physician, C. M. Mangor, delivered a curious report to Copenhagen’s Royal Society. It concerned a series of “fiendish murders” carried out by an unnamed farmer living near the capital.
According to Mangor, the farmer had gone through three young wives in the space of a few years. Each wife had been in good health but died within a day or two of contracting similar symptoms. The farmer’s own behaviour also aroused local suspicions. Six weeks after the death of his first wife he married a servant girl – but she lasted but a few years before falling victim to the mystery ailment, allowing the farmer to marry yet another maidservant.
Eventually, in 1786, wife number three died from the same malady:
“About three in the afternoon, while enjoying good health, she was suddenly seized with shivering and heat in the vagina… Means were resorted to for saving her life but in vain: she was attacked with acute pain in the stomach and incessant vomiting, then became delirious, and died in 21 hours.”
At this point Dr Mangor, then serving as Copenhagen’s medical inspector, arrived to investigate. He discovered the farmer had been poisoning his wives by “introducing a mixture of arsenic and flour on the point of his finger into the vagina” after sexual intercourse, a theory supported by Mangor’s postmortem examination:
“Grains of arsenic were found in the vagina, although frequent lotions had been used in the treatment. The labia were swollen and red, the vagina gaping and flaccid, the os uteri gangrenous, the duodenum inflamed, the stomach natural.”
The farmer was arrested and placed on trial. To prepare for his testimony Dr Mangor conducted a number of experiments on cows. “The results clearly showed that when applied to the vagina of these animals”, he wrote, “it produces violent local inflammation and fatal constitutional derangement”.
The farmer, as might be expected, was found guilty. His punishment is unrecorded but it seems likely he was executed. The number of cows to die in the name of vaginal-arsenic justice is also not recorded.
In 1723 the mayor of Tenby, Thomas Athoe, along with his son, also named Thomas, were apprehended and charged with murdering George Merchant. According to trial records, the two parties had quarreled over the sale of some cattle. The Athoes also bore a grudge against George Merchant, who had “married a sweetheart of young Athoe’s”.
Seeking revenge, the Athoes tracked Merchant and his brother, Thomas, to a place called Holloway’s Water. Using “great sticks”, the Athoes knocked the Merchants from their horses and beat them viciously. They then fell into a frenzy of genital grabbing, George Merchant coming off the worst:
“Taking fast hold of [Thomas Merchant’s] privities, [Athoe Senior] pulled and squeezed him to such a violent degree that had he continued so doing a few minutes longer, it had been impossible for the poor man to have survived it. The pain he suffered is past expression, and yet it fell short of what his brother endured. Young Athoe… seized him by the privy members and, his yard being extended, be broke the muscles of it, and tore out one of his testicles, and calling to his father said ‘Now I have done George Merchant’s business!’ This horrible action occasioned a vast effusion of blood.”
As George Merchant lay dying, Athoe Junior caught hold of “the deceased’s nose with his teeth [and] bit it quite off”. Surgeons who examined Merchant’s body post mortem suggested that his wounds were “sufficient to have killed six or seven men”. The Athoes claimed to have acted in self defence after been attacked by the Merchants, however they produced no evidence of an assault.
The Athoes were found guilty and transported to London. In July 1723, they were dispatched from a ‘hanging tree’ on the Canterbury Road, near what is now Walworth.
More handy hints from the Zoologia Medicinalis Hibernica, published in 1748 by Irish priest and naturalist John K’eogh. The Zoologia is essentially an encyclopedia of the animal kingdom, focusing on the medical applications of each particular creature:
“Trout fat is useful to cure chapped lips and the fundament, the grieved parts being anointed therewith…”
“Butterflies reduced into powder and mixed with honey cure the alopecia or baldness, being externally applied. Pulverised and taken in any fit vehicle, they provide urine…”
“Otter liver, pulverised and taken in the quantity of two drams in any popular vehicle, stops haemorrhages and all manner of fluxes. The testicles, made into powder and drank, help to cure the epilepsy… Shoes made of the skin cure pains of the feet and sinews… A cap made thereof helps to cure vertigo and headache…”
“Rat’s dung reduced to powder cures the bloody flux… The ashes of the whole rat… being blown into the eyes, clears the sight… The dung made into powder and mixed with bear’s grease cures the alopecia…”
“The testicles of a buzzard, broiled or roasted [and] eaten with salt… or two scruples of powder of [buzzard testicles] mixed with half a scruple of ant’s eggs, are spermatogenetic, making men and women fruitful.”
In 1724, the Royal Society tabled a report written by Swedish physician Dr John Lindelstolpe. Titled ‘Intestinum Parturiens’, it involved the macabre story of a 41-year-old Swedish woman who suffered two stillborn pregnancies in 18 months – however the first of these pregnancies produced no baby, living or dead:
“[The patient] became pregnant in July 1720 and continued enlarging for seven months… but after the seventh month the enlargement disappeared, a weight only remaining in the right side. She became pregnant again and in December 1721 was delivered of a dead child.”
The mystery of the first pregnancy was not solved until May 1722, when the patient:
“…Went to stool [and] felt so great a pain in the anus that she thought the intestinum rectum had entirely fallen out. On applying her fingers to relieve herself, she brought away part of a cranium, and afterward found in the close stool two ribs. In the course of the fortnight there came away, by the same exit, the remainder of the bones.”
Dr Lindelstolpe’s theory was that the first pregnancy was ectopic: it had taken root and grown in the Fallopian tube before bursting the tube and descending, “by the formation of an abscess, into the rectum”. Pleasingly, the woman recovered from her horrible experiences in mid 1722. She had since regained her health and carried a pregnancy to term, delivering a surviving child.
John K’eogh (1680s-1754) was an Irish priest, theologian and naturalist. Born in Strokestown, County Roscommon, K’eogh was the son of a prominent clergyman from Limerick. He was educated at Trinity College in Dublin then undertook study in Europe, before returning to Ireland and serving as chaplain to Baron Kingston in his native Roscommon.
Toward the end of his life K’eogh authored two significant volumes of medical receipts. The first (Botanologia Universalis Hibernicaor, 1735) focused on herbal potions and treatments, while the second (Zoologia Medicinalis Hibernica, 1748) contained an extensive collection of animal-based remedies.
As might be expected in an 18th-century medical text, the second contains some unusual advice, such as the diverse medical uses of house cats. Their grease, when applied as an ointment, is effective at “dissolving tumours” and “prevails against nodes in the skin”, while pulverised cat liver is “good against the gravel [kidney and bladder stones]” and prevents stoppage of urine.”
Other cat-based receipts mentioned by K’eogh include remedies for eyesight problems:
“The ashes of a cat’s head, blown into the eyes, or mixed with honey for a balsam… is good against pearls [cataracts], blindness and dimness of the sight.”
Several uses for cat’s blood:
“[Cat] blood kills worms in the nose and in other parts of the skin… Ten drops of blood taken out of the tail of a bore cat, drank, cures the epilepsy… A few drops of the blood given in any proper vehicle are good to cure convulsion fits.”
For something to soothe those aching piles:
“The flesh, being salted and bruised, draws splinters and thorns out of the flesh and helps to cure the haemorrhoids.”
And finally, an interesting cure for hair loss:
“The dung, pulverised one ounce and mixed with mustard seed in powder [and] juice of onions… cures the alopecia or baldness.”