Thursday, 18 October 2012

The Embarrassing Enterprises of the Victorian Vendors

              Let’s talk about sex. 

Oh, err, does that make you a bit nervous? A bit uncomfortable? Not sure if you want to do that? 


Because that’s exactly how the quack doctors worked. In our times, we have much easier access to information that our ancestors could ever have imagined. Ignorance is not bliss, as some would have us think. Ignorance is dangerous. It is dangerous because it opens us up to misinformation. And the quacks provided misinformation - in spades. 

Premature Decline in Man?

Just imagine for a minute that you are a Victorian youngster (not a ‘teenager’, because teenagers did not exist back then. Well, they did, but that’s not what they were called. The noun ‘teenager’ was not used until the early 1940s). You are a young man or a young woman. And then your body starts doing strange things that it hasn’t done before. Things start appearing where they didn’t appear previously. Stuff starts happening. What are you going to do? Is it normal – Am I normal? Who are you going to ask about all this? 

Mother's Little Helper

Not Mamma or Papa, surely not. Because it might not be normal, and then who knows what will happen next? A teacher? Not in Victorian England, you don’t. That’s not what teachers did. What about the Parson? Are you kidding? This might be sinful! Do you really want to go to Hell? Well, obviously, the doctor. But wait. You pay to see the doctor. It’s not like today, where you just make an appointment and turn up. No NHS. 

Life Savers?

The Doctor (with a capital letter) is a highly respected member of society and you pay to see him. But you are a youngster, so where will you get the money? And even if you do raise the funds, what if discovers something – horrible? Where will he send you next? What might the treatment be? Can you mention it to a friend, an older brother or sister maybe? Not likely, what if they blab – who knows whom they will tell? Best keep quiet. Don’t mention it and it might go away. So you live in ignorance, worrying and fretting, and it keeps happening. You pick bits up, here and there, and maybe, just maybe, someone has a quiet talk to you about birds and bees and flowers, all of which probably just confuses you even more. 

Roll Up, Roll Up

And one day you see an advertisement in a newspaper for a book about ‘problems’. It’s only a shilling, and it’s written by a doctor, because it says so in the advert. Look, he’s got letters after his name – whatever they stand for. Or maybe, you plan to get married and you want to know what that entails, so you send off a book about marriage, no harm in that, surely? Well, it all depends on whose book you buy. And the quacks were very clever about how they marketed their books.  

Dr Bate's - True Marriage Guide

 The typical book starts with the incontrovertible facts – the plumbing, as it were. There is a chapter on the male plumbing followed by a chapter on the female plumbing, all very scientific, all very anatomical, all stuff you can’t argue with. It is plain, straightforward, descriptive information, with Latin names attached, precisely as you would find in an anatomical textbook. There might even be pictures, all nicely labelled, showing you exactly what is where. And this gains your confidence, as it’s all true and done - medically. Then follows more information, maybe outlining what occurs during puberty, how conception happens, what pregnancy involves, again done medically, but with little germs of ‘philosophy’ dropped in along the way. 

Dr Larmont - Medical Adviser and Marriage Guide

At first, you hardly notice these nuggets of wisdom, but they build up along the way, until they develop into a system of lies designed to alarm, startle or downright scare. There will be allusions to ‘fluids’, ‘emissions’ and ‘secretions’. Words like ‘morbid’, ‘nocturnal’ and ‘unnatural’ will be used. ‘Vice’, ‘solitary’ and ‘sin’ will follow soon after. And they’ve got you. Your mind harks back to the time that ‘that’ happened. And there was also ‘that’ other time. You’ve done it to yourself, you’re to blame, it’s your fault. So, now what? 

Help is at Hand - Venereal Diseases with COLORED PLATES (yuk)

Luckily, help is at hand. The same nice people who sold you the book also sell the ‘cure’ for whatever ails you. You can conveniently buy it from them through the post, so you write off for the free diagnosis. Pretty soon, yet receive a reply, and a request for more details and a urine sample. So, you post that off too and by return you get a reply – it’s lucky that you got in touch when you did! This is an advanced case, in need of immediate treatment, otherwise madness or even death is certain to follow soon. You travel to the doctor’s establishment, where a large brass plate on the wall inspires confidence, and are shown into a well-appointed sitting room. The genial doctor enters, asks some questions, runs a cool hand over your brow and takes your pulse and requires a ‘warm’ sample for immediate analysis ‘by test-tube and microscope’. 

Dr F Hollick - The Marriage Guide

You do the necessary and the doctor goes away, only to return shortly, with a look of grave concern all too evident on his face. It is, he tells you with greatest regret, just as he suspected. The tests have proven positive. You need specialised treatment and you need it now. And so it begins. You make a payment. You make another payment. You need some rare, very special remedy. So that’s another payment. And the worst part about all this is, there’s nothing wrong with you. You’ve been duped. But you don’t know that. Because the ‘Doctor’ has told you, and you’ve read his book. And even if you doubt him, what can you do? Go to the police? And tell them, what? That you’re one of ‘them’ - one of ‘them’ that does ‘that’? To yourself?

Dr F B Courtenay - Revelations of Quacks and Quackery

These humbugs were astonishingly common, precisely for these reasons. The Medical Authorities did what they could, and tried to alert the public. One of the leading figures in the anti-quack movement was Dr Francis B Courtenay, who wrote a series of letters to The Medical Circular, which were also collected into a pamphlet called Revelations of Quacks and Quackery, under the pseudonym Detector, which ran to several editions. Courtenay gave real-life accounts of the practices of the quacks and gave real-life examples of the consequences of their frauds. 

Dr Hollock's Aphrodisiac Remedy

One case was that of a young Oxford lady, 'pretty, clever and accomplished', who was engaged to be married. She bought one of the Philosophy of Marriage books and was shocked to discover that a condition from which she was suffering slightly (leucorrhoea – a common enough complaint, often caused by hormonal imbalance) was considered to be a bar to marriage. She had no friends in which she could confide, and thought it her duty to break off the engagement, which she did, and entered a decline from which it was thought she would never recover. 

Courtenay - Suicide of a Corporal of the Guards

Another sorry case was that of Lance-Corporal George Ashford of the Coldstream Guards, a lively and popular soldier who bought a copy of The Warning Voice, which he then read constantly. His demeanour changed, to the alarm of his comrades in arms, and he became withdrawn and sullen. One morning, he took his rifle, placed the stock on the floor, leaned over from his bunk, put the barrel in his mouth and blew his brains out. At the inquest, it was found that he had bought, for £1 5s, a homeopathic medicine, which he took three times a day. He had asked companions for information on the quickest way to die and had been heard to mutter that he was ‘… a ruined man for life.’ It was concluded that he had taken his own life ‘… whilst in a state of unsound mind.’ 

Dr Henry Smith - The Warning Voice

A third example is that of James Miles of Gravesend, who committed suicide in January 1865. He had been a valued worker, abstemious and conscientious, twenty-four years old and happily married, until he began to complain about headaches and stomach pains. One afternoon, he kissed his wife, shook her hand, wished her goodbye, lit his pipe and went out. He went down to the canal, jumped in and drowned himself. A policeman found two quack pamphlets in Miles’s pocket, and more, with letters, in a tin at his home. A Dr De Roos had written thirty letters in ten months, pressing him for money and impressing how important it was that he kept up his treatment. One of De Roos’s pamphlets had the word ‘suicide’ prominently printed around its border. 

Punch April 1865 endorses Courtenay's campaign

What was important is that Courtenay actually named names. He included the names of the quacks, their addresses and their aliases. He gave examples of their frauds, and warned what to beware of. He urged other doctors to mention these quacks and their ruses to every single one of their male patients, and told them to pass the message on to their sons, nephews and brothers. He exhorted the clergy to do the same from their pulpits, as a duty to the flocks in their care. Courtenay’s work was very well received, covered widely in the popular press and his cause was loudly spread. Punch, correctly, pointed out that a ‘normal’ publication could not publish the names of the quacks for fear of libel suits, but Courtenay was deliberately provoking them by publishing his findings in a ‘specialised’ medical journal, whose authority and readership they would not dare to cross.

I’d like to say it worked. That all the quacks packed up and found proper jobs. But I can’t. They are still out there, flogging coloured water and sugar pills to the ignorant. And it’s not just medicine – remember my old chum, Michelle, from Microsoft. I had another call from one of her colleagues just the other day, offering to clean up my laptop for me. Because Andy (or whatever passes for a pseudonym in India these days) was an expert and knew about laptops. And I’m not an expert – or so Andy thought. Except I was working with computers before Andy was a twinkle in his Daddy’s eye, and showing other people how to use them for more years than I care to remember. And, I’d had my little encounter with Michelle. So, whether it’s your Man Parts, your Lady Bits or your Shiny Things, just remember – someone, somewhere, is willing to part you from your money because you don’t know enough about these things. Be careful out there.

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