Wednesday, 17 October 2012

The Risqué Revelation of the Wayward Waxworks

                         In the world of Victorian quackery, no name looms so large as that of Dr Joseph Kahn. According to some contemporaries, ‘Dr’ Kahn was not so much a doctor as an immigrant German barber, who advertised his ‘services’ in the newspapers and who came to the attention of assorted commentators and authorities for a number of odd reasons. 

'Dr' Joseph Kahn

When Kahn arrived in London from Alsace with his pregnant wife and mother-in-law in 1851, he opened his primary business, the Anatomical and Pathological Museum, at 315 Oxford St where he exhibited anatomical exhibits, both real and modelled in wax, and microscopical specimens to paying customers. 

Advert for Kahn's Museum - Punch 1855

Waxwork anatomical models were a great phenomenon in Victorian England, and were used as an alternative to the dissection of corpses in medical schools. But whereas the medical schools were closed to the public, anatomical museums were open to all and, particularly, to women. Kahn had a ‘special’ room, ostensibly only open to medical men but in reality open to anyone who paid, where he showed those bits of human anatomy not normally seen in polite society. His ‘excuse’ was that he was providing information for doctors, nurses, midwives – who probably saw enough examples in their professional lives that they didn’t need Kahn’s models too. 

Figure exhibited at the Kahn museum

He also had examples of the effects of ‘secret diseases’ modelled in wax, and it was in the treatment of these afflictions were the real money was made. Ladies and Gentlemen who found themselves suffering from such maladies could consult Dr Kahn in a confidential fashion, and would invariably be found to be suffering from diseases that were pretty pricey to treat. One of his favourite diagnoses was ‘spermatorrhoea’ which afflicted large numbers of young men, all of whom needed expensive treatments. 

G Kahn MD - Lectures on Marriage

Visitors to Kahn’s museum were also presented with a booklet, or ‘catalogue’, which contained information about the ‘truth’ of married life, complete with woodcuts and diagrams, at the back of which was a section on ‘self-diagnosis’. 

Kahn's Do It YourSelf-Diagnosis

There is a list of ‘symptoms’, which cover just about anything and everything, from shortness of breath and loss of hair, blushing to sighing. Tick off enough symptoms and recourse to Dr Kahn was recommended, and that’s when your troubles really started. The ‘cures’ were not cheap (about £500), didn’t work, and opened the users up to claims of ‘unnatural vices’ if they sought recourse to law. He also went into business with Parry and Co (a cover name for the Jordan family), who advertised on fly-posters pasted in public urinals and supplied ‘medicines’ by mail order, under plain cover, for Gentlemen who might be in need of such supplies. He also republished, under his own name, various booklets and pamphlets by the Jordans, particularly The Silent Friend, a lurid work describing in terrifying details the awful effects on the mind and body of certain amatory complaints. 

Advert for Kahn's Philosophy of Marriage from Notes and Queries 1856

Panicked by these details, ‘green young men’ would send off their money and receive Kahn’s quack medicines in return, quite often to treat non-existent, self-diagnosed ailments. These businesses did not really bring in all that much money, and Kahn suspected his rivals of skulduggery, particularly when, in 1853, he was accused of ‘interfering’ with the fourteen year old John Youard. 

Old Bailey record of Youard v. Kahn

The case went to the Old Bailey on September 19th, where ‘The particulars of this case were unfit for publication,’ although they were deemed ‘abominable’; Kahn was found not guilty and the boy Youard was deported for life as a punishment for attempted extortion. Strangely, Kahn received support from Thomas Wakley’s The Lancet, the leading anti-quackery periodical of the day, who called the whole thing a ‘foul conspiracy’. The collaboration with the Jordans and Wakley’s endorsement brought about a change of fortune, quite literally, and the Museum moved, first to Piccadilly and later to Tichborne St, Haymarket. 

Location of Kahn museum, Piccadilly

The Kahns moved into a large rented house on Harley St, where they had a carriage and pair and several riding horses. The financial success brought Kahn to the attention of the medical authorities, who began to question his credibility. In 1857, a country court action was brought against him for extortion, which he lost, and during which it was discovered that ‘Dr’ Kahn lacked any medical qualifications that were recognized in England. 

Punch makes fun of the Kahn museum

Punch quipped that maybe he should change his name to ‘Can’t’, and when his association with the quack Jordans was revealed, it damaged his reputation further. Wakley withdrew his support and The Lancet launched into Kahn with a vengeance. Eventually, he left the country, presumably back to Germany, and more or less disappeared from history. His name, however, was kept alive by several quacks, who traded under the pseudonym, and confederates continued to run the museum. 

Attack on the Great Kahn-Quackery

In September 1873, a case was heard at the Old Bailey which reported that a raid had taken place on the Kahn premises, where over 8,000 ‘obscene’ books had been seized. An evangelical Protestant group, The Society for the Suppression of Vice, called for raids on the museum and waxworks were seized and destroyed, on the grounds that they were obscene. The museum eventually fell foul of the 1857 Obscene Publications Act, and was closed down, as were other provincial museums of the same sort. A Kahn museum (with links to the Jordans) was opened in New York in 1870, and books bearing the name Kahn continued to be published into the early twentieth century.

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