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Tuesday, September 7, 2021

The Quack

The Quack 

C.A. Asbrey

We live in an age where we rarely encounter quackery, or if we do, we've usually sought out the alternatives to modern medicine on purpose. But our ancestors weren't so lucky. They were everywhere in the past. In this post, I'm going to concentrate on the 19th century as that was the birth of modern times, and the beginning of proper registration, and regulation, of medical practitioners.   

The word 'quack' comes from the old Dutch word, ‘quacksalver’. It originally meant someone who uses home remedies and false knowledge with the aim to cure. However, one thing we really do know is that many of the quacks of the past did not care one jot whether or not their products or ministrations worked. The primary aim of the quack was to make money, quickly followed by power over the victims. The motive was one of total exploitation of the public. 

The quack was essentially a form of confidence trickster, one in which astounding claims were made about the efficacy, safety, and effectiveness of their products. If you were fortunate, the cure contained nothing more than sugar water. If you weren't, it could maim and kill.  

In this post, I'm not including those who thought their products and cures were doing good. There were numerous deluded, and experimental, people who thought they were pushing the boundaries of human knowledge, or who truly believed in their products. This post isn't about people who were wrong. It is about those knowingly doing wrong.    

It's easy for us to think of the Victorians as staid, conservative, fixed on tradition, and old-fashioned. That actually couldn't be further from the truth. It was a dynamic period, full of thrusting young people challenging the status quo, and intent on changing the world. In a period when the average age was around twenty-six, as opposed to forty (UK figures) at present, those young people frequently clashed with the older generation who had been brought up in the Georgian and Regency periods. The young wanted change, and they wanted it fast. As Anthony Ashley Cooper, the 7th Earl of Shaftesbury, said to the House of Commons, February 28, 1843, “…a fearful multitude of untutored savages… [boys] with dogs at their heels and other evidence of dissolute habits…[girls who] drive coal-carts, ride astride upon horses, drink, swear, fight, smoke, whistle, and care for nobody…the morals of children are tenfold worse than formerly.”  

And they weren't just looking for social change, they were embracing science and technology. By the end of the Victorian period almost every aspect of life had been impacted by rapid change; religion, family life, food, clothing, hygiene, employment, and even holidays had all changed forever. But it didn't come easily. The old guard had very entrenched ideas, and were not ready to relinquish them easily.  Surgeons who kept bloodied jackets for operations did not like the idea of removing them in the name of hygiene. They were a badge of honour, and the messier they were, the more experienced the surgeon was seen to be. The pace of change actually assisted the quacks. Their cures could be sold as new discoveries, and in a society where science was practically unknown, there were very few who challenged them.  

Dalby's Carminative, Daffy's Elixir and Turlington's Balsam of Life bottles 

It would be a mistake to assume that quack remedies were always sold by itinerant fly-by-night, miscreants. Many were established companies and were amongst the first to use branding to make their products more recognizable. These patent-medicines largely owe their origins to the British Empire, with these remedies being sold in the colonies from the 17th century onwards. From there local versions sprung up, and followed the same pattern of public exploitation. Some existed for well over a century and were very well-known, and they were marketed in increasingly sophisticated ways. Following the revolutionary war, British patent-medicines lost ground to American competition, especially as they were denied access to the market. The exponential growth of quack remedies was helped by the advent of mass marketing. The golden age of quackery had begun, and not just in America. It was mirrored all over the world.

Daffy's Elixir was said to have been invented by a clergyman, Thomas Daffy, in the 16th century. He declared it an elixir salutis (lit. elixir of health) and promoted it as a generic cure-all. Daffy died in 1680, and left the recipe to his daughter, Catherine. He also left it to relatives Anthony and Daniel who were apothecaries in Nottingham. Anthony moved to London in 1680, and began promoting his purging cordial until his death in 1693. The work was clearly profitable as his widow, Elleanor and his daughter, Katherine, kept at the family business right into the 18th century, using newspapers and broadsheets to promote the elixir. It was popular enough to inspire people to copy it, often using alcohol inferior to the quality brandy used in the original recipe. It passed through the hands of various companies, the contents changing as it went. The new owners claimed sole rights, despite it never actually being patented. It was famous enough on both sides of the Atlantic  to be mentioned in many works of literature. It is in Anthony Trollope's Barchester Towers in 1857. It was also in Thomas Pynchon's novel Mason & Dixon. 

In the Charles Dickens book, Oliver Twist, Ch. II, where it is referred to as Daffy, in the sentence: 'Why, it's what I'm obliged to keep a little of in the house, to put into the blessed infants' Daffy, when they ain't well, Mr. Bumble,(the Parish Beadle)' replied Mrs. Mann as she opened a corner cupboard, and took down a bottle and glass. 'It's gin. I'll not deceive you, Mr. B. It's gin.'

William Makepeace Thackeray book, Vanity Fair, Chapter XXXVIII A Family In a Small Way, where it is referenced in the sentence ‘..and there found Mrs. Sedley in the act of surreptitiously administering Daffy’s Elixir to the infant.’     

It took various forms throughout its existence. A recipe from 1700 was analysed and it was found to be largely a laxative made with an alcohol base. It had the following ingredients: aniseed, brandy, cochineal, elecampane, fennel seed, jalap, manna, parsley seed, raisin, rhubarb, saffron, senna and Spanish liquorice. Other recipes include Guiuacum wood chips, caraway, Salt of Tartar, and scammony. 

In the 19th century this amazing liquid was said to cure:  The Stone in Babies and Children; Convulsion fits; Consumption and Bad Digestives; Agues; Piles; Surfeits; Fits of the Mother and Vapours from the Spleen; Green Sickness; Children's Distempers, whether the Worms, Rickets, Stones, Convulsions, Gripes, King's Evil, Joint Evil or any other disorder proceeding from Wind or Crudities; Gout and Rheumatism; Stone or Gravel in the Kidnies; Cholic and Griping of the Bowels; the Phthisic (both as cure and preventative provided always that the patient be moderate in drinking, have a care to prevent taking cold and keep a good diet; Dropsy and Scurvy. The frequent use of the medicine to treat Colic, gripes or fret in horses was deplored in early veterinary manuals.    

Turlington's Balsam of Life was one of the earliest medicinal patents in the world (the earliest being for Epsom Salts in 1698). In 1744 Robert Turlington was granted a royal patent, allowing him to pursue anyone who tried to pass their concoctions off as his. Turlington claimed his balsam cured "kidney and bladder stones, cholic, and inward weakness." He soon expanded the list of ailments he could cure to a forty-six page pamphlet. It was hugely popular in Britain and the USA. Turlington also used a very specific shape of bottle to make his cure-all stand out from the crowd. He changed the shape at last four times to confound counterfeiters.    

The market exploded, with over 1,300 proprietary medicines listed in British Parliamentary records in 1830. Almost all would be considered quack medicines by today's standards. Many did nothing at all, but a lot of them contained enough opium or alcohol to alleviate some symptoms for long enough to convince patients that they were actually improving, or to get high enough not to care. The worst played on the addictive qualities of their products to keep people buying.

In the USA the term snake oil was used for many quack remedies. Where British remedies tended to play on scientific advances, or on the the ancient provenance of their medicines, the American counterpart played more on the exoticism of the ingredients and a more fire and brimstone form of sales pitch. More often than not, the sales were made and the salesmen hot-footed it out of town before people found out how useless their purchases were.    

In 1875, the Pacific Medical and Surgical Journal complained:

"If Satan has ever succeeded in compressing a greater amount of concentrated mendacity into one set of human bodies above every other description, it is in the advertising quacks. The coolness and deliberation with which they announce the most glaring falsehoods are really appalling. A recent arrival in San Francisco, whose name might indicate that he had his origin in the Pontine marshes of Europe, announces himself as the "Late examining physician of the Massachusetts Infirmary, Boston." This fellow has the impudence to publish that his charge to physicians in their own cases is $5.00! Another genius in Philadelphia, of the bogus diploma breed, who claims to have founded a new system of practice and who calls himself a "Professor," advertises two elixers of his own make, one of which is for "all male diseases" and the other for "all female diseases"! In the list of preparations which this wretch advertises for sale as the result of his own labors and discoveries, is ozone!"

In 1880 William Ramdam produced a microbe killer which he claimed could "cure all diseases". In fact, it was no more than sulphuric acid and red wine. Such wild claims were made about many of these medicines. A Dr. Sibley claimed that his Reanimating Solar Tincture would "restore life in the event of sudden death." Dr. Solomon claimed that his remedy, Cordial Balm of Gilead, which consisted of brandy and a few herbs, would cure everything from masturbation and venereal disease, to almost any ailment.     

Not all quack medicines were useless. A few did help some ailments, but it was the huge list of alleged cures which knocked them into the quack category. Beecham's Pills became known as an effective aid to digestion, but originally made expansive claims about the broad range of 31 illnesses they could cure. They were discontinued in 1998. Turlington's Balsam of Life was found to be effective at curing skin fissures, blisters, and canker sores. It's still available under the name of Tincture of Benzoin, and is often used by orthopedic surgeons before a cast is applied as it prevents itching.

It's worth noting that the effectiveness of these remedies is purely coincidental, as their use does not match the original claims. Their present use was conveniently discovered after the fact.

In 1909, the British Medical Association published Secret Remedies, What They Cost And What They Contain. It was an attempt to debunk quack remedies. Over 20 chapters, they analysed the contents, claims, and the actual cost of the ingredients, and told the public the cold, hard truth. It did lead to the end of some quack remedies, but not all. It took law and regulation in many countries for them to be banned, and for the con men to be prosecuted.  The law had to step in to protect people seeking help at their lowest points.

The last word goes to William T. Jarvis, wrote in 1992, "Practitioners use unscientific practices and deception on a public who, lacking complex health-care knowledge, must rely upon the trustworthiness of providers. Quackery not only harms people, it undermines the scientific enterprise and should be actively opposed by every scientist."   



In All Innocence

“Nat, take a look at this.” Jake held out a sketch pad.

The dark eyes scanned the parchment before they darted back to his partner. “The whole railway car?”

“Yup. When one of the butlers was sayin’ he was sketchin’ I thought I’d have a look to see if it was any use to us.” He smiled. “I think it is. We can see where people were just before the murder.”

“It sure is. Look at that. Everyone in their place. I guess the ones playing the game with blindfolds moved about, though.” The cheeks dimpled. “And we can see exactly where that was. This is a real good drawing. Who did it?” He scanned the cabin and smiled at the lean man whose receding chin disappeared into his starched collar. “Ah, yes. The one who spoke up.”

Jake held the pad out at arm’s length and turned the page to look at a few unfinished etchings. “He’s talented. He’s caught your lopsided face real well.”

Nat’s mouth firmed into a line. “My face isn’t lopsided.”

“Yeah, it is. It might look fine from your side, but you should see it from here.” 

Nat turned indignant eyes on the conductor. “Farrow, is my face lopsided?”

The man gave Nat a long, hard stare. “Not lopsided exactly, but one eye’s bigger than the other.” He pointed, staring at the right one. “Well, maybe not bigger. A different shape? It’s got more lines about it. Funny, I never noticed it until you pointed it out. It’s kinda different from one side to the other.”

“No, it’s not.” Nat stabbed a gloved forefinger at the drawing. “I’ve always been told my eyes are my best feature.”

Jake’s guffaw cut through the railway car. “Maybe for their variety?” He glanced between the sketch and his nephew.

“In the drawing, it might be. Not in real life,” said Nat. 

Jake snapped the pad shut and grinned. “I guess the problem ain’t so much that your eyes don’t match some romantic hero, it’s more that they don’t match each other. It don’t matter none. Abi loves you anyway, and the babe seems to take after her ma.”

The partners watched Farrow’s retreating back as he followed the driver and the fireman down the aisle toward the latrines.

“And you’re so perfect?” Nat demanded. “What about those curls? You look like that boy in the advertisement for tar soap; the one in frilly knickerbockers.”

One slim, fair brow arched in retort. “At least they picked him because he was sweet-lookin’. Not because he’s lopsided. That ain’t gonna sell soap.” Jake paused pensively. “Your face might sell some kinda cure, though.”

“I’m not lopsided.” Nat dropped his voice to a hiss. “My description in the wanted posters said I have even features.”

“Good point.” The blue eyes sparkled with humor. “I guess it was such a good description you were recognized everywhere you went, huh? That’s why you’re in jail right now.”

“I can’t talk to you when you’re like this. It’s like trying to order a cat around.”

“You should be more grateful, Nat. I just got you a picture of where everyone was just before the second murder. Whoever it was would have to try to get past Mrs. Hunter and Philpot in the back row.”

“Yup. I have one more thing to find out. Where did Farrow go?” Nat nodded toward the sketch pad in Jake’s hand. “And take those. We don’t want anyone to have pictures of us.”

“So you agree it looks like you?”

“Just take the pad, Jake.” Nat sighed at his uncle’s laughing eyes. “Tell him we need it for evidence.”



  1. Wow, Christine, it's very obvious how much you love research and you do it so well. I've always found early medicine and quackery fascinating subjects. Back in the 80s I read a lot of Valerie Sherwood's historical novels in which she included medical practices of the time and put a warning in her books for readers not to try them (for obvious reasons) as we know how dangerous they were. And your excerpt is delightful. I always look forward to your posts, and sifting through all the research available is a daunting job. Thank you for your dedication.

    1. Thank you so much. It struck me as a subject most of our characters would have had some experience of, if we write historical novels. I learned a lot researching it too. I never knew they were innovators in branding.

  2. Fun, wry excerpt - poor Nat!

    Quackery, sadly is still with us and is still damaging. The appeal of a cure-all is compelling but sadly, not so easy to achieve

    1. Yes, they do play on people's vulnerabilities. We are very lucky to have genuine medical advances to fall back on. Thanks for commenting.

  3. What an interesting and informative article. But I agree with Lindsay that quackering is still with us. When people trust taking horse worm medicine over vaccines, quackery still prevails. I think there is a large portion of people who believe what they "want" to believe, rather than accept hard truths. They want a miracle cure, whether it be laying on hands, handling of snakes or drinking snake oil.

    1. I completely agree. There's nothing like a pandemic to bring out desperation in people. I think the willful rejection of conventional medicine is a modern aspect of quackery, as people in the past couldn't distinguish between the two.

  4. I agree with Lindsay and Deborah. Quackery is still with us and today's technology makes it easy to promote quack cures. Loved the excerpt.

    1. Thanks for commenting. I totally agree. It is still very much with us.