Today is the birthday of Charles Mackay who was born in 1814 in Perth, Scotland. He was a poet, journalist, novelist and songwriter, but what I really want to tell you about today is the book that he published in 1841. It is called: ‘Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds’, which is an excellent title. It is about the odd things that people suddenly become obsessed with in their thousands. From get rich quick schemes to miracle cures. From the hunting down of witches to the admiration of audacious criminals. Even the peculiar little sayings that come from nowhere and are suddenly on everyone’s lips.
I was also pretty excited to find out about Charles because, in his massive two volume work, he has covered so many of the topics that I have come across, and found fascinating, whilst writing this blog. He has a great deal to say about alchemy and the people who practised it. People, he says, are generally troubled by three things: their mortality, a lack of wealth and worrying what the future holds. Alchemists have at least two of these covered with their Elixir of Life and their Philosopher’s Stone which will turn base metals into gold. They believed that in Antediluvian times (before the Flood) people possessed the knowledge to extend their lives for hundreds of years. They also believed that all metals were made from metallic earth and a red inflammable material they called sulphur. Gold, they thought was made from just these two things, but other metals contained impurities. Find out how to remove the impurities, and you have gold.
There are some great potted biographies of alchemists, including Edward Kelley, who I mentioned elsewhere and a man called Artephius. He was born some time in the twelfth century but managed to convince everyone that he was over a thousand years old. He claimed to possess the Philosopher’s Stone. In his search for it, he had descended into hell and seen the Devil sitting on a golden throne. Then there was Albertus Magnus and his pupil Thomas Aquinas. Both were later made saints and both were keen alchemists. They didn’t succeed in finding either the Philosopher’s Stone or the Elixir of Life, but they did manage to bring to life a bronze statue which they also gave the gift of speech. Apparently it used to act as their servant. Unfortunately it wouldn’t shut up and Thomas wound up smashing it to bits with a massive hammer. So, there you are. Be careful what you wish for.
In his section on predictions, he mentions the Prophetic Hen of Leeds, who I wrote about last week. There is also a section on cures which speaks at length about the Weapon Salve which I came across whilst writing about Jan Baptist van Helmont back in December. It was a rather peculiar belief that wounds could be cured at a distance by applying an ointment to the weapon that caused it. After that, people started to believe they could cure a wound by magnetising the weapon. This led to another strange idea, that people would be able to communicate with each other over vast distances in the following way: Cut a piece of skin from the arm of each person and ‘mutually transplant them while still warm and bleeding’. When the patch of skin grew into its new arm, it would still remember the body it came from. It would sense if any harm was done to that body. Therefore, if you tattooed, on each piece of skin, the letters of the alphabet, you could use a magnetised needle to prick out your message. Even if its original body was thousands of miles away, it’s new owner would be able to sense the pricks and read out the message on his own tattoo.
Actually, Charles Mackay has a lot to say about magnetic cures. It has a long history and hasn’t really gone away, even today. He has a great deal say about Mesmer, who I will, no doubt, get round to mentioning in May. There is also a lovely story about an American called Benjamin Perkins who, in 1798, brought to England a magnetic cure that he claimed would relieve gout and rheumatism. It consisted of two heavily magnetised metal plates which he moved over the afflicted area. He called them ‘metal tractors’. His patients experienced much relief and Perkins became a wealthy man. But then a physician at Bath, a Dr Haygarth, began to wonder about the cure. He tried the same thing with blocks of wood, painted to look like metal. He found the results were the same. This led him to write a book which also has a wonderful title, it is called: ‘Of the Imagination, of the Cause and Cure of Disorders, exemplified by Fictitious Tractors.’
Charles Mackay seems to be largely remembered now for his analysis of financial disasters, economic bubbles and the way that humans, no matter how intelligent they are, fail to see the inevitable consequence of investing in something that has no intrinsic value. He mentions tulipomania, which I have also covered elsewhere. Really, you just have to look at the dot com boom, property investment and the selling of debts that will never be repaid to see that we have learned nothing, and probably never will.
But there is a lot more to Charles than that. There’s a whole other volume that I haven’t touched on which talks about the religious fervour and hope of economic and political gain that fuelled the Crusades. He also talks about the obsession people once had with witches. Witch Finder General, Matthew Hopkins, liked to tie his victim, generally an old lady, to a chair and then wait. If any insects came and settled on her, he declared them her familiars. One poor lady was declared a witch after being visited by four flies called Ilemezar, Peck-in-the-Crown, Grizel-Greedigut and Pye-Wacket. I can’t help thinking this says more about Matthew Hopkins than it does about his poor victim. Matthew himself died as a result of being accused of witchcraft. Someone got a bit fed up of it all and declared that he had got his list of witches from the Devil.
There is also a chapter about the way people have come to love daring criminals like Robin Hood and Dick Turpin. Perhaps, he says, it is because people love an adventurer. Or perhaps it is that they love a story where the undeservedly rich are cheated of their wealth. Clearly I have fallen victim to this particular madness myself, as my post about Jack Sheppard is probably the longest I’ve ever written. If you want to know more about what he has to say about ghosts, about fortune tellers, about holy relics, seek out his work at internet archive. It’s a little ponderous but quite readable.
I’ll finish up for today by telling you about a couple of popular phrases that have captured peoples imaginations and then disappeared into obscurity. He calls them ‘the harmless follies and whimsies of the poor’. In London, there was once a time when you could answer any question or finish any argument with the simple word ‘Quoz’, and everyone thought it was hilarious. Why did this happen? ‘Quoz’. Why did I suddenly decide to start writing a huge essay every day on a subject I previously knew nothing about? ‘Quoz’. See? It still works. This was replaced by: ‘What a shocking bad hat!’ Anyone wearing a hat that was just a little bit worn would face a chorus of ‘What a shocking bad hat!’ as they passed by. It became easier to buy a new hat, even if you couldn’t really afford one. If you appeared annoyed by the taunt, people would remove your hat, drop it in the mud, lift it out with a stick and pronounce again ‘What a shocking bad hat!’. Probably my favourite though, was addressed to adolescent boys who hang around on street corners imagining themselves all grown up and alpha-male. It is: ‘Does your mother know you’re out?’ It made them absolutely furious and also rather humiliated.