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.

Frankenstein’s Nephew

04 10 giovanni aldiniToday is the birthday of Giovanni Aldini, who was born in 1762 in Bologna.  In 1798, he became professor of physics at the University of Bologna. Aldini helped to design the first lighthouse to be lit by coal gas,  near Trieste in 1818. He also designed fire-proof clothing using woven asbestos and metal gauze. But he is best remembered for his electrical experiments. His uncle was Luigi Galvani, who did some experiments that involved frogs legs and electricity that I mentioned back in September. Giovanni assisted his uncle in his experiments and they were sure that it was electricity that flowed through the body from the brain, giving life to a body. Galvaini’s work was discredited by another Italian physicist, Alessandro Volta. But Aldini defended his uncle’s work and, using Volta’s batteries and a flair for performance, really took that show on the road. He travelled across Europe performing his experiments in front of large audiences. He would re-animate the bodies of dogs, cattle and even humans by applying an electrical current to the muscles. This drew the interest of the medical profession and the morbid curiosity of the general public. As the corpses twisted and grimaced, it seemed to his audience as though his subjects had really come back  to life.

In Paris, in 1802, he performed his experiments on guillotined criminals and in 1803, at the Royal College of Surgeons in London, he applied his technique to the body of an executed criminal named George Forster. Here is an eyewitness account of what happened…

On the first application of the process to the face, the jaws of the deceased criminal began to quiver, and the adjoining muscles were horribly contorted, and one eye was actually opened. In the subsequent part of the process the right hand was raised and clenched, and the legs and thighs were set in motion. Mr Pass, the beadle of the Surgeons’ Company, who was officially present during this experiment, was so alarmed that he died of fright soon after his return home.

04 10 corpse reanimator

This kind of experimentation was known as Galvanism, named for Aldini’s uncle and it is from this that we have the word ‘galvanise’. So if something shocking or exciting makes us want to do something, we are galvanised into action.

The fascination with Galvanism must have got deep into the public consciousness because in 1816 we know that it came up in a conversation that Mary Shelley had with her friends. She was visiting the Villa Diodati at Lake Geneva and it was, believe it or not, a dark and stormy night. They were all trying to scare each other with tales about ghosts and afterwards decided they would each write a story. Mary’s story grew into a novel about a doctor called Frankenstein.

So perhaps Giovani Aldini, with his ghoulish public spectacles, was the real Frankenstein. Ultimately though, he knew that he couldn’t use electricity to bring a body back to life. He admitted that he could ‘do nothing with the heart’. but he didn’t just perform his electrical experiments on the dead. At Santo Orsola Hospital in Bologna, he seems to have been given a remarkably free rein to perform his experiments on the living. His attempts to use galvanism to restore sight to the blind and hearing to the deaf met with little success. But, after first experimenting on himself, which he found ‘painful and disagreeable’,  he was able to help two patients suffering from what he called ‘melancholy madness’ to return to their previous lives.

Don’t Try This at Home

12 16 johann wilhelm ritterToday is the birthday of Johann Wilhelm Ritter, who was born in 1776 in Silesia, then in Prussia, now in Poland. He was a chemist and physicist with a side interest in philosophy and romanticism, which was rather his downfall. That, and the experiments that he relentlessly performed on his own body.

He began his scientific career at fourteen, when he became apprentice to an apothecary and afterwards studied medicine at the University of Jena. His interest in science sprang from the electrical experiments of Luigi Galvani, who experimented with the effects of electricity on dissected animals in the late eighteenth century. It was work that had led to Alessandro Volta’s invention of the voltaic pile (a sort of battery) which he also used.

In 1800, he discovered that he could use electricity to decompose water into its constituent parts of hydrogen and oxygen. He also found a way of collecting the two gases separately. In the same year he discovered the process of electroplating. He noticed that he could make particles of another metal attach to copper using an electric current. In 1802, he built the first dry cell battery, which he found retained its electrical charge for much longer than the voltaic pile; days rather than hours. That’s quite a list of achievements. But sadly he was not widely recognised or well remembered because he wrote up his notes, if he wrote them up at all, in a rather unscientific way. What he was looking for was a universal balance in all of nature. He hoped to prove that the universe was a single living entity whose functions were, on all levels, interrelated. For example, he believed that it was a certain arrangement of celestial objects that had led to the discoveries of the Leiden jar and the voltaic pile. Then, when he began to do experiments with dowsing, because he believed that magic would turn out to be some king of electricity, and to electrocute plants to see what would happen, people thought he’d really lost it. He probably had. He was thought of as a man who had lost himself in his own dreams.

But it was his belief in an overall balance in nature that led him to his most important discovery. In 1801, Ritter discovered ultraviolet light. William Herschal had recently discovered a light, invisible to man, at one end of the colour spectrum, infra-red. Ritter felt there must be another invisible light at the blue end of the spectrum. Infra-red gives off heat and Herschal had been able to detect it with a thermometer. Ritter couldn’t use this trick at the cooler end of the spectrum and he had to think of something else. He knew that paper which was coated with silver chloride turned black in sunlight. Using a prism, he was able to prove that this happened much more quickly at the blue end of the spectrum than the red. When he exposed the paper only to the invisible part, beyond violet, he found that the paper turned black even more quickly. He had proved that there was a light there that we can’t see.

09 09 voltaic pileI mentioned at the beginning that he performed experiments on himself. This is actually quite common, but Ritter really took it to obsessive extremes. He began by repeating Galvini’s experiment, but he touched one open end of the circuit to a frog’s leg and the other to his own tongue. Once Volta’s voltaic pile became known, he built his own, adding more and more discs to the pile, making the current stronger and stronger and applying it to different parts of his body. Galvini believed that the nerves carried an electrical fluid and Ritter was really trying to find out if electricity applied in certain ways could enhance or dull the senses. He would grab the positive and negative wires in his hands, making himself part of a closed circuit, perhaps for an hour at a time. He noticed that while his positive hand grew warm, the hand on the negative side of the circuit grew cold. But this was not enough for Ritter. He tried his tongue. The positive side tasted acidic and made his tongue feel as if it were bursting out in welts. The negative side tasted alkaline and made it feel as though there was a huge hole in the centre. Putting a wire up each nostril made him sneeze. A wire in each ear made a sharp crackling sound on the negative pole and a muffled sound on the positive. Then he tried his eyeballs. In one eye, everything bowed outwards and he saw blue flashes. In the other eye, he saw a red haze and everything became smaller and sharper. Being the thorough, and also rather unhinged, person that he was, he next tried his genitals. Touching the positive pole to his penis produced a medium swelling. He then tried wrapping it in a cloth which he had moistened with milk to improve the conductivity. He experienced a lot more swelling, but dutifully kept going until he experienced a massive orgasm. Unsurprisingly he judged his experiment a resounding success. He was rather difficult to separate from his voltaic pile after that. Perhaps it was what led him to invent his long life battery.

Ritter pressed on with his experiments and his eyeballs became infected, he experienced frequent headaches, muscle spasms, numbness and stomach cramps. His lungs filled with mucus, which probably contributed from his death from tuberculosis at the age of thirty-three. He was forced to resort to alcohol and to opium to endure the pain, which also became a problem for him. Of course no one should repeat these experiments anywhere, ever. Johann Wilhelm Ritter died alone and in extreme poverty. It was only after his death that the importance of some of his discoveries were noted. He’s a frightening example of why it’s not a good idea to become too obsessed by one thing. What I like about writing this blog is that I can never get overly fixated on one subject. Finish one subject and it’s probably time to learn about something completely different. I aim to keep my interests broad but shallow, and yours as well.


11 19 nolletToday I am celebrating the birthday of Jean-Antoine Nollet, a French clergyman and physicist who was born in 1700. He was born into a poor rural family, but the curé in his village realised he was clever and recommended that he join the Church. Although he became known as Abbé Nollet, he was much more interested in science, most particularly electricity.

Abbé Nollet first became interested in electricity in the 1730s and was soon travelling Europe demonstrating his findings to scientific institutions and members of the aristocracy. The scientific applications of electricity were only just being discovered, so any instruments he needed had to be specially made. It was an expensive business, but Nollet was pretty sharp. Every time he needed a new piece of equipment he would have two or three made at the same time. Because everyone was very excited about electricity, he had no difficulty selling them. Also, of course, if he made something terrifically complicated, they’d also need to employ him to show them how to use it. He was also quite a showman and an excellent networker. He was a member of the Royal Society, taught the son’s of kings and had a private audience with the Pope. He was pretty famous.

11 19 leyden jarThe experiment he seems best known for involved a Leyden Jar. This had been very recently invented and was a way of storing an electrical charge, a little like a battery or a capacitor. Nollet wanted to prove to his audience that electricity travelled very quickly, pretty much instantaneously in fact. So in 1746 at the palace of Versailles, he gathered together 180 of the king’s guards and made them all stand in a line and hold hands. Then he applied a charge from the Leyden Jar to the man at the end. They all jumped at once when they experienced the electric shock. He had proved his point and everyone, including the king, was delighted by it. He later repeated the experiment with 200 Carthusian monks who he connected together with wires. The line stretched for a mile, but the result was the same, they all seemed to receive the charge simultaneously.

Nollet certainly knew how to turn an experiment into an amusing spectacle. In another of his demonstrations, known as ‘The Flying Boy’ he would suspend a boy from the ceiling by silken threads and charge his body with static electricity. If people held small light metal objects, such as a piece of foil near the boy, they would fly towards him and stick to his body. If the room was darkened and you touched the boy, you might see sparks. All this made electricity, a very exciting branch of science and Nollet was particularly gratified by the way women were so impressed by it.

A few years later he discovered that you could use an electrical charge to make water flowing from a vessel turn into a spray. He also discovered, and I don’t know how or why, that if you connect a human to a high voltage generator, and then they cut themselves, they will not bleed normally, but instead, the blood will spray from the wound.