Electrickery

I’m strangely fascinated by pseudoscience. Homeopathy, Young Earth Creationism, Scientology, all utter bollocks and yet I love hearing about them. I don’t know why. I frankly have nothing but contempt for all pseudoscience, particularly where it crosses into the realm of medicine.

Pseudoscience relies on ignorance to work its magic. You don’t understand quantum physics, do you? So when we tell you that this pendant will use quantum energy transference to resonate with your cellular integral field to reduce your risk of cancer, arthritis and diabetes, promoting weight loss, immunity to disease and essential wellbeing, you won’t know any better. You can’t say it won’t do that, so just run with this here. Only two hundred pounds to you, sir. A bargain if ever there was one.

Oftentimes, pseudoscientists work to actively promote ignorance – maybe those hoity-toity “legitimate scientists” claim to be able to understand quantum resonance, but why should you believe them? You can’t even understand what they’re talking about!

In the case of medical pseudoscience, or “quackery” as it’s more commonly known, I have particular contempt due to the emotional manipulation involved. Sure, quacks sound sympathetic, but that’s because they tell you what you want to hear. Doctors tell you cancer has no cure? Well, that just shows how callous they are, because I can cure it with simple-feng-shui-ley-line-type crap. There appears to be a concentration of toxins in your breasts, let me lay my hands on them. Even when quacks aren’t taking advantage of the desperate and incurable, they’re still emotionally manipulative. Diet and exercise are hard, wouldn’t it be far easier if you just used acupuncture to somehow, against all laws of physics, cause the fat to disappear? The worst aspect of all this is that people often reject conventional medicine in order to spend a fortune on the modern-day equivalent of a bottle of snake oil, endangering their chances of recovery and often their lives.

As quackery relies so heavily on people’s lack of scientific knowledge, it often employs whatever the latest weird and exotic science is to make suckers sit up and take notice. Potential patients may have heard of this new “magnetism,” “radiation” or whatever, but aren’t so likely to know the full range and scope of its abilities. Particularly given that many of these substances are used in legitimate medicine – radiotherapy, for instance.

For an awfully long time, the big thing was electricity. Luigi Galvani discovered in 1786 that passing electricity through a dissected frog’s leg would cause it to kick. This seemingly confirmed a popular misconception that electricity was a vital force.

Not that the quacks had been waiting for scientific confirmation, of course. James Graham (pictured below), for instance, had been convinced ever since seeing a demonstration by Benjamin Franklin in the early 1770s that electricity was worth paying attention to. He proclaimed it to be a force that “invigorates the whole body and remedies all physical defects.”

In 1779, he came to London and opened the Temple of Health and Hymen just off the Strand, at No. 4 Royal Terrace. This was showmanship of which P. T. Barnum would have been proud. No expense was spared. The place was filled with huge, exotic-looking machinery that promised to use electricity to blast “aetherial forces, vivifying air, and the magnetic effluvium into the whole body or any particular part of it.” Various other electrical and chemical treatments were available, including an electric bath and an electric throne.  Don’t try this at home, kids. If you fancied a takeaway, you could purchase Graham’s range of “Imperial Pills” and “Aetherial Balsams.”

If you were having a little trouble in the bedroom (cough), then you might consider a session on Graham’s notorious “Celestial Bed.” This was a large and magnetically-charged bed which vibrated, played music and released fragrances that were supposedly “aetherial” in nature (but frankly, what in the Temple wasn’t?). The unhappy couple would hand over a whopping fee of £50 and spend the night therein in the hope of relieving infertility. I suspect that any successes arising were purely coincidental.

Graham’s particular interest was matters of a sexual nature, and it certainly didn’t escape his notice that sex was a pretty good selling point. To that end, some of the most popular attractions in the Temple were the Goddesses of Health, delightful young ladies whose job was to assist Graham and to depict what physical perfection should look like. In the name of science, of course. Scantily-clad science. Rumour has it that one of the Goddesses, depicted right, would later marry into wealth, becoming Lady Emma Hamilton and later still Lord Nelson’s mistress.

The temple was, initially at least, a roaring success – so much so that within a couple of years, Graham was able to up sticks and move to fashionable Pall Mall. Alas, while Graham was a persuasive quack, he wasn’t so strong on the financial side of things, and his extravagance resulted just two years later in his having to sell up entirely.

He never quite managed to replicate the Temple’s success, and spent the rest of his days promoting ever more bizarre alternative medicines, such as being buried naked in mud and not eating for weeks at a time. He died in 1794 at the age of just forty-nine, which says a lot about the efficacy of his methods.

Fortunately, such quack electrical nonsense didn’t last long, because – oh wait, no, the belief in electricity’s mystical health-giving properties lasted until at least 1951, when the Food and Drug Administration in the USA banned the sale of electrical remedies. Hell, there are probably people even today who think you can cure impotence by electrocuting your gentleman’s prerequisites. There’s a sucker born every minute.

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2 Comments

Filed under 18th century, 19th century, Fashion and trends, History, London, Medicine, Notable Londoners, Regency, Science, Sports and Recreation, West End

2 responses to “Electrickery

  1. opheliajasmin

    Though if the placebo effect is scientifically proven – why not pay for whatever you believe in? gentleman’s prerequisites aside – because that’s just nuts.

  2. Pingback: London Lit: The Casebook of Victor Frankenstein | London Particulars

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