The tricks of the quacks

The prospect of patients with money to spend has historically proved a happy hunting ground for charlatans trying to cash in on the good name of skilled doctors. Leslie Berry uncovers the various fortunes of quacks from bygone eras.

Blue Glass BottleWhere there is cash available, you can expect criminals – and medicine has been no exception.

Quacks have been in no short supply over the years and in the Victorian era and run-up to World War 1 they enjoyed a heyday.

‘No cure – no payment.’ That might even be an attractive marketing line for independent practitioners today.

But this advertising claim certainly worked wonders for the makers of Figuroids, tablets billed as a ‘gentle, scientific, natural and absolutely safe obesity cure’.

It was claimed they would start a scientific process in the body that would allow the patient to breathe, sweat, wee and poo their fat away.

The man behind the tablets was qualified doctor Dr George Dixon – whose patent medicines businesses were reportedly making an average yearly profit of £10,500 by 1908. They worked no wonders – and no wonder.

Sophisticated advertising

As an analysis by the BMA revealed, the tablets were made up of bicarbonate of soda, tartaric acid, sodium chloride, phenolphthalein, hexamethyline-tetramine, talc and gum.

The perennially successful advertising message that drew young women to these attractively presented pills, observes author Caroline Rance in a fascinating new book, is ‘you are not good enough’.

The Quack Doctor, Historical Remedies For All Your Ills, delves into the colourful history of quackery and marketing promotions the charlatans used, and some sophisticated advertising that went with it.

[quote]It is largely a bawdy and gruesome story, but often funny and sometimes moving too. [/quote]There was London ‘Doctor’ John Gardner, who made a fortune from ‘worm medicine’ in the first quarter of the 19th century. He convinced patients at his shops in Long Acre and Shore­ditch that their every symptom was the result of worms.

Beasts expelled

And his adverts gleefully recounted the various beasts his medicine had expelled from the human body:

‘Worms, from 1 inch to 130 in length, some with 150 suckers; others in the form of caterpillars; another species like woodlice, 12 feet to each, a wolf of the stomach, expelled from a lady at Hoxton, who had nearly fallen victim to its ravages!!’.

His museum bottled and displayed all manner of animals ‘for the education and terror of the potential future patient’. They were pointed to the particular beast that was supposedly nibbling away inside them and causing all manner of ailments.

Cures cost thirty shillings (£1.50) – but the specimens, some of them chicken guts and helpings of vermicelli – were, as the author observes, enough to convince patients to ‘do whatever it took to get their unwanted passenger out’.

For matters outside the body, the 1890s saw an advertising boom for commercial arsenic products aimed at complexion. ‘Dr MacKenzie’s Harmless Arsenic Complexion Wafers’, advertised in the London press, promised ‘the most Lovely Complexion’ that the imagination could desire, no matter what condition it may be in now.’

There was also an ‘arsenical toilet soap’ under the same brand, introduced sneakily into the market through a personal advert: ‘Dearest Cora, have you noticed how much Georgie’s complexion has improved lately? He has been using Dr MacKenzie’s arsenical toilet soap. Have you tried it? It is simply delicious. Yours with fondest love, Martha.’

It proved hugely popular. When shares in the mother company were released for subscription in 1897, the prospectus stated sales had reached an annual 340,000.

8773 quack CVR.inddBut nobody died from using the soap and when chemists were taken to court for selling arsenical soaps, the offence was that the product did not contain arsenic.

‘Analysis of samples collected by secret shoppers showed that arsenical soaps contained either negligible quantities of the metal or none whatsoever, and the product could not therefore be considered “of the nature, substance, and quality” demanded by the purchaser.

‘In their defence, the chemists claimed that the soap simply had a “fancy name” intended to appeal to the prevailing interest in arsenic as a beauty aid.’

One chemist came up with the argument that Sunlight Soap contained no sunlight either. How­ever, this proved ineffective in his defence and he was fined.

Then there was Baron Spolasco, who practised as a physician and surgeon. He claimed his abilities included ‘the Consumptive cured – the Cripple made to walk – the Deaf to hear – the Dying to live – the Blind to see, and every other affection treated incidental to the human frame’.

He sold his own range of patent medicines and, when practising in Bristol, conjoured up business by advertising how difficult it was to get to see him: ‘In consequence of the number of sufferers who daily crowed around Baron Spolasco’s consulting rooms, he has found it necessary, in order to save his valuable time, to charge an admission fee of 5s, which admission fee, if the patient be poor, will be received as consideration for the Baron’s advice, the wealthy will, of course, have to pay the usual fee of a guinea.’

It was noted that, whoever the patient and regardless of what was wrong with them, in return for 22s 6d, he supplied two pills folded in pink and blue paper, and some powder folded in white paper.

Too embarrassed

[quote]Conditions were often blamed on masturbation or sexual excess, such as intercourse more than once a week. [/quote]The conmen could latch onto these causes and defraud victims of large sums of money for cures – relying on them being too embarrassed to tell anyone.

One notorious practitioner, ‘Dr Henery’, instilled fear and shame into young men who consulted him in a state of mental and physical infirmity.

He wrote: ‘I have found it a work of much time and difficulty to effect a complete cure – to snatch them from death – from the early graves to which they were hastening.

‘Some of these were afflicted with distressing wasting dreams, nervousness, unfitness for duty or business, trembling, dizziness, restlessness, palpitation of the heart, pains in the loins, and a constant sense of weariness, starting during sleep, failure of memory, frequent headache, dimness of sight, indifference to life, its hopes and pleasures, fear of insanity, and silent wretchedness from fear of impotence. The symptoms in almost all cases are from the ghastly curse – the fatal habit of self-abuse.’

Luckily his ‘Life-Preserving Drops’ and skill with galvanic electricity were available, at a price, for the needy.


Dr Cameron, near Oxford Street, London, in the 19th century was one of the piddle-tasters, or water-quacks.

His adverts said: ‘No surer method can be found to ascertain the nature and cause of Inward Complaints, than by inspecting and analysing the urine. It is by a sedulous study of this important discharge and its various changes and relations, that after an experience of 25 years, Dr Cameron has been enabled to perform cures when the first names and abilities in the profession have failed.’

The more successful water-doctors were able to use underhand methods to find information out about patients and then present it back to them. They might do this using a maid who would listen out for useful snippets of information as patients chatted in the wating room and tell the doctor.

Dr Cameron primed patients in the waiting room to take his advice on board, employing chatty people to pose as other patients, get the real patients talking, and say they were suffering from the same trouble but the good doctor’s treatment had already worked wonders.

Cancer ‘specialist’ Maria Owen, a representative of the Ladies Medical Association, conned pat­ients with lines like: ‘If you will trust in me and the Lord, take a few drops from this bottle, and pay me half a guinea down and undertake to pay half a guinea in six weeks’ time, then you will soon be a different woman.’

Then she would disappear. The Ladies Medical Association did not exist and her medicine was a solution of vinegar and soap in water.

At other times, she tried to convince the well that they weren’t. In 1890 in Aston, she got cash from a woman whom she told had terminal heart disease and obtained 4s 6d from another woman whose nose had been disfigured by cancer.

‘If I don’t put a new nose on your face in six weeks’ time, I’ll refund the money,’ she told her.

No nose – nor refund – ever mater­ialised.

The Quack Doctor, Historical Remedies For All Your Ills, by Caroline Rance, £12.99 hardback. ISBN 978-0-7524-8773-1