Despite The Enlightenment, the eighteenth century was still an age of credulity and superstition. Astrological almanacs and charms were sold by the thousand. Every sort of fortune-teller, quack doctor and peddler of patent remedies set themselves up in business. Since many did well, it became clear to such people all over Europe that England was a happy hunting ground. A stream of hopeful ‘snake-oil salesmen’ and quacks came from many countries to join in the fun.
Here are two of the most famous members of the breed at that time. Like many others, they managed to worm their way into the favour of the gentry and aristocracy — and even drew the attention of the royal family.
“Count Alessandro di Medina Cagliostro”
His real name was Guiseppe Balsamo and he had done well enough on his way through Europe to arrive in London in 1776 accompanied by his wife, a secretary and a significant fortune. Three thousand pounds in gold, besides money and jewels, he claimed. At first, his scam was to claim he had an infallible guide to selecting the winning numbers in lotteries. If this didn’t interest an audience, he also had a scheme for weaving silk out of hemp.
Then, like many of his kind, he lit upon the topic of curing sickness as the best arena for his ‘talents’. He began to peddle a system, not just for curing ills, but for complete physical regeneration — an infallible curative programme which would prolong life into the bargain. It consisted of a forty days’ course of bathing, sweating, starvation, plus his own patent medicines and purgatives — all the while subsisting on a diet of roots. He collected many claims for spectacular ‘cures’ and publicised them with glee. Nowadays, we know all about ‘the placebo effect’, but people of the time would have taken them to be genuine.
Then he overreached himself.
He claimed to be an adept of “Egyptian Masonry”, a statement which aroused the hostility of English freemasons. People started to look into his background. A whisper went the rounds that he was an impostor who had swindled many people on the Continent. He even fell victim to a swindler himself and was imprisoned for non-payment of a fictitious debt. All the while, his claims became wilder. He claimed to be an artist and his wife persuaded Sir Edward Hales to use him to paint murals at Hales Place. How she did this is not recorded! Needless to say, his artistic efforts were greeted with total derision and more claims that he was an imposter. By now, Londoners were becoming tired of him, so he departed for Paris, never to return.
“Professor” Gustavus Katterfelto
Katterfelto was a prince amongst quacks and mountebanks. He travelled about the country in a caravan, accompanied by several large black cats. He claimed one was a “Famous Evil Moroccan Black Cat”. This particular cat he used in various conjuring tricks to bring in the crowds and whip up excitement. For example, he “… induced several gentlemen to bets respecting its TAIL, as by the wonderful skill of Katterfelto she would appear in one moment with a big tail and the next without any, to the utter astonishment of the spectators.”
“Wonders! Wonders! Wonders!
Are to be seen by Katterfelto and his Black cat, worth 30,000 pounds, let out of the bag by the Philosopher himself, who has discovered a secret more valuable and astounding than the Philosopher’s Stone, the art of extracting go[l]d from the cat.”
Pastor Moritz, a German also touring England at the time, declared that, “every sensible person considers Katterfelto as a puppy, an ignoramus, a braggadocio and an impostor …” It made no difference. Katterfelto began claiming to be a professor in his native Prussia and continued to attract large audiences wherever he went.
Oddly enough, some of what he claimed not only had substance but was ahead of its time. He obtained a microscope and a primitive form of projection. Using these. he showed his audiences all kind of invisible creatures moving in a drop or two of rainwater. He went further, however.
He made the remarkable claim that these invisible creatures — he called them ‘insects’ — were the source of many diseases and infections. We know that what he saw were not bacteria or viruses, of course. But the idea that disease could be caused by tiny organisms did not reach serious scientific minds for some time to come. Only when it did could the link be made between improving hygiene and preventing some of the commonest fatal diseases of the time. Would it have happened earlier, if Katterfelto had been taken seriously? We can never know.
Here’s another of his advertisements, this time from 1782. It’s the usual odd mixture of scientific demonstration and the old standbys of card tricks and medical quackery. Perhaps that’s why his ‘discovery’ of living creatures too small to be visible drew so little attention from serious men of science. He could never bring himself to desert his mountebank ways.
“Wonders, Wonders, Wonders, Wonders! are now to be seen at No. 22 Piccadilly, by Mr. Katterfelto’s newly improved and greatly admired solar microscope. Mr. Katterfelto has, by a very long and laborious study, discovered at last such a variety of wonderful experiments in natural and experimental philosophy and mathamaticks [sic] as will surprise all the world. Mr. Katterfelto will show the surprising insects on the hedge larger than ever, and those insects which caused the late influenza as large as a bird, and in a drop of water the size of a pin’s head, there will be seen above 50,000 insects. N.B. After his evening lecture he will discover all the various arts on dice, cards, billiards and O.E. tables. Admittance, front seats 3s. second seats 2s. and back seats 1s. only. Mr. Katterfelto likewise makes and sells Dr. Bato’s medicines at 5s. a bottle.”
A Travelling Circus of Quacks
If Cagliostro and Katterfelto were the most ‘eminent’ practitioners of their dubious profession, there were many others — far too many to include in one blog posting. These travelling mountebanks and quacks were entertainers as much as healers — maybe rather more. They travelled in gaudy carriages to show the wealth their nostrums had made for them. Then they set up their booths in the market place of country towns and villages, since their real skill lay in working a crowd.
They usually sold powders, pills and ointments. These, they assured their audiences, had already cured vast numbers, including many of the royal households and aristocracy of Europe as well! They waved imposing certificates. They wore medals and sashes supposedly bestowed upon them by grateful princes. Some even included actual entertainments in their demonstrations, such as tight-rope dancing, tumbling and acrobatic feats. Their advertisements contained glowing endorsements of every kind, all written by themselves. They printed and distributed pamphlets in advance of their arrival to help drum up interest,
It’s easy to be contemptuous of the crowds who attended these people and listened to their patter. Yet is it all so different from a good deal of marketing today? A little less regulated, for certain, but no less cynical in its use of every kind of attention-grabbing device to gild the lily of a dubious product.
William Savage writes fiction as well as non-fiction. His historical murder-mysteries are set in Norfolk in the years between 1760 and 1815, at a time when tensions with France were high and republican and revolutionary ideas were spreading throughout an England suffering the growing pains of the Industrial Revolution. You can see all his books listed here, including the latest, “A Shortcut to Murder”, set in 1793.