Sunday 6 June 2010


On Saturday, the Wellcome Collection hosted an evening of Quacks and Cures. Along with talks, debates, leeches and naval surgeons, there were plenty of advertisements and medicine shows peddling questionable patent medicines!

Used as we are to the NHS, it seems extraordinary to us that you'd share your symptoms with someone who had a stall at the local market and then take whatever mysterious substance they might prescribe for you. However, when medicine had to be paid for privately, 'official' doctors were expensive and often didn't have great success rates, and there was plenty of appealing sales patter along with the pills and potions, it makes sense that these quacks could usually make a living at their trade.

Let's move away from the Wellcome Centre and back in time to visit two practitioners. First, one whose potion has lived on in popular culture: Lydia Pinkham, immortalised in song as 'Lily the Pink'. Her story is a reminder that many people labelled 'quacks' sold products in which they genuinely believed, and which may have been effective.

This American woman concocted a tonic designed to relieve menstrual cramps and symptoms of menopause, Lydia E Pinkham's Medicinal Compound. She was an abolitionist and feminist who originally gave her remedy freely to family and neighbours. When her husband was financially ruined in the 1870s, she marketed the tonic commercially and her advertising also encouraged women to write to her. The responses, signed 'Mrs Pinkham' but later written by members of staff, shared information on women's health issues and recommended exercise and a healthy diet - probably far more valuable to many of her customers than the tonic itself.

The compound, a mixture of alcohol and herbs, survived into the twenty-first century although not to the original recipe. As for that song, it's a (polite) version of various drinking songs. They grew up during the Prohibition era, when the high alcohol content of Pinkham's tonic meant that it enjoyed a new popularity with both women and men.

One of the more unusual quack stories, though, has less to do with the medicine than the seller. We know almost nothing about what the travelling quack Charles Hamilton sold in the 1740s, although Hamilton seems to have been much more salesman than healer. He had trained under two 'mountebanks' before setting up on his own account. His travels through England brought him to Wells, Somerset in 1746. There, he would marry his landlady's niece before they moved on - but in nearby Glastonbury he was unveiled as a woman, Mary Hamilton. 'Mrs Hamilton' denied all prior knowledge of her husband's sex although it took several months of marriage before her 'husband' was exposed.

The Corporation of Glastonbury reacted with horror and employed a lawyer to prosecute Hamilton. However, they and the court were faced with a problem: they had no idea what offence to charge Hamilton with. There was no specific offence addressing sexual activity between women, and marriage was regulated by the church. Other cases in London had used fraud charges since under English law a husband became owner of all his wife's property, but this doesn't seem to have occurred to the Somerset prosecutors. Finally, they settled upon a charge of vagrancy - often used as a 'catch-all' and serious enough to see Hamilton imprisoned for six months and publicly whipped four times. Despite this vicious sentence, the Bath Journal was able to suggest something of a happy outcome to the story: curiosity-seekers flocked to the prison to visit Hamilton, 'to whom she sells a great Deal of her Quackery'.

Like Lydia Pinkham, Mary/Charles Hamilton made an impact upon popular culture. Henry Fielding wrote an anonymous pamphlet retelling her story, supposedly repeating her own account but in fact almost entirely fictitious. The first run sold out almost immediately and the popular pamphlet was reprinted. The history of the quack, after all, is often as much about their ability to entertain as their healing powers.

All the photos were taken at Quacks & Cures.

No comments: