Mountebank Distributing his Wares on the StageLast month, when my laptop was broken, I thought all my notes for this blog might be lost forever. So I was scratching round for something to write about and came across Robert Chambers article about mountebanks. He then went on to describe a bunch of fascinating people that I’d never heard of. Mountebanks were quack doctors who travelled about pedalling their cures and often performed operations on stage in front of an audience. As I wrote about Franz Mesmer yesterday, the link between medicine and theatre is still on my mind.

Today marks the death of Sir William Read who died in 1715. He wasn’t destined to be a knight. Originally, he was either a tailor or a cobbler and he was barely literate. He somehow became a mountebank and travelled the country peddling his wares. His specialities were diseases of the eye and the removal of tumours. He did all this with the aid of a substance he called ‘styptic water’ which was, I believe, designed to stop bleeding. In fact, you can still buy styptic pencils today for the same purpose, so perhaps it worked. Anyway, he managed to rise to the position of eye doctor to Queen Anne and her successor George I. People didn’t like him very much. When he was knighted, Beau Nash, a dandy from Bath turned down the offer of a knighthood because he did not want to be associated with Read. Beyond that, I couldn’t find out very much about him, apart from the fact that he published a book about eyes which was mostly lifted from someone else. But it does give me the opportunity to tell you about a couple of Robert Chambers mountebanks.

05 24 gustavus kattafeltoGustavus Katterfelto was a Prussian conjurer, scientific lecturer and mountebank who travelled about England and Scotland towards the end of the eighteenth century. He found fame in London during a flu epidemic in 1782. Part of his performance included a solar microscope, which he used to project images of micro organisms found in water, on bread or in cheese. He claimed these were the insects which caused the influenza. Unfortunately, people started to think he might be releasing the insects and actually causing the disease. He quickly took out an advertisement announcing that all his insects had died in a rain storm. Then, three days later, he took out another announcing that he himself had caught influenza. Not long after that he claimed to have found the cure, which he would sell at five shillings a bottle. Among his other claims were, that he had discovered the secret of perpetual motion and that he had launched the first hot air balloon fifteen years before the Montgolfier brothers. Katterfelto lectured on electricity and magnetism and performed with a black cat, who he claimed was evil. When the cat later gave birth kittens, its offspring were very much in demand. Marie Antoinette may have had one of them. The kittens that he kept would sometimes magically convey themselves into the pockets of his audience members, but they might also find that they had been relieved of their money and watches at the same time.

After he had outworn his welcome in the capital, he took off on a less successful tour of the provinces. In Shrewsbury, he accidentally set a haystack on fire with a hot air balloon and was jailed when he couldn’t afford to pay for the damage. I was delighted to find out that he performed, and was well received in Whitby, which, you might have gathered, is my home town. One of his favourite tricks there was to put his daughter in a massive steel helmet and lift her to the ceiling with a giant magnet.

05 24 james grahamThe other mountebank I want to tell you about today is James Graham, who operated in London at the same time as Katterfelto. Graham studied medicine in Edinburgh, but never took a degree. He travelled to America where he learned about the principles of electricity from a friend of Benjamin Franklin. He left before the revolution and travelled Holland, Germany and Russia before setting up in Bath in 1776. By 1780, he had opened his ‘Temple of Health’ in London. There, he offered electrical and magnetic cures with a heavy emphasis on the electrical. You could sit on an electric throne, put on an electric crown or soak yourself in an electric bath. He sold medicines with names like ‘Electrical Aether’ and ‘Nervous Aetherial Balsam’ and gave medical lectures. These he performed with the aid of a succession of ‘Goddesses of Health’, who were supposed to represent physical perfection. One of his goddesses was Emy Lyon, who later became Emma Hamilton, mistress of Lord Nelson.

The following year, he opened another premises, his ‘Temple of Hymen’ in Pall Mall. This held his most impressive piece of equipment. His ‘Celestial Bed’. The bed was designed to help couples who were having difficulty conceiving a child. It was twelve feet by nine and was surmounted by a dome filled with fresh flowers, automata, a pair of live turtle doves and also a large mirror. The mattress could be tilted into a favourable position and was filled with fresh wheat or oat straw, rose petals, lavender flowers and, just for good measure, hair from the tails of the best English stallions. If you think this all sounds a bit much, I want to tell you that it was also a musical bed. The movements of its occupants would cause organ music to play which increased in intensity with their ardour. You could hire this bed for fifty pounds a night. That was an exorbitant sum in the 1780s but there were plenty of aristocratic families who desperately needed an heir and who were probably so riddled with syphilis that they were having difficulty producing one. I was a bit sad that I couldn’t find a picture of it, but then I came across this lovely re-imagining of Graham’s Celestial Bed by an artist called Tim Hunkin.

Graham was a great showman but sadly not very good with money and, by 1784, he was bankrupt. Two years later, he was back in business and promoting ‘earth-bathing’. He claimed that bathing in soil was the secret to immortality. That a person could absorb through their skin, all the nutrients they needed. He claimed that he had survived for two weeks immersed in his earth bath, with nothing but a few drops of water for sustenance. He even gave lectures whilst burieded up to his neck in a flower bed. In later years, he became extremely religious and founded the New Jerusalem Church. He was its only member. In 1792, he began to experiment with prolonged fasting as a way of extending his life-span. He died two years later. He was forty-nine.


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