"...we should pass over all biographies of 'the good and the great,' while we search carefully the slight records of wretches who died in prison, in Bedlam, or upon the gallows."
~Edgar Allan Poe

Monday, December 11, 2017

James Graham, Prince of Quacks

James Graham, by John Kay

Hail! Wond'rous Combination!!!—but chief—THOU FIRE ELECTRIC
—Celestial Renovator!—Thou Life of all Things—Hail!
—In Majesty and Mystery combin'd!
Enthron'd—unveil'd—in this tremendous—this most genial Temple!
To Britain's Daughters—to Britannia's Sons—bear the best Blessing, HEALTH!
Stretch forth thy Hand that bears the triple Branch—
Medicinal!—which binds up broken Hearts!—illumes the Soul,
And flings the Rose of Health o'er the pale Cheek of Sickness,
Far—far from those who take them, and from these sacred Walls removing Pain and Death."
-From James Graham's "The Guardian Goddess of Health," 1780

A great many people are obsessed with good health. A great many people are obsessed with good sex. It was James Graham's peculiar genius to be able to fashion an appeal to both those interests. A combination of Dr. Ruth and Dr. Oz, with a considerable amount of P.T. Barnum thrown in, "Dr." Graham is still fondly remembered as one of history's great quacks.

Graham was born into a middle-class Edinburgh family in 1745. In his youth, he studied medicine at Edinburgh University, but never earned a degree. That failed to stop him from adopting the title of "Doctor," and practicing medicine in his own individualistic fashion.

When Graham was 25, he moved to Yorkshire, where he married a Mary Pickering and set himself up in a medical practice. He soon ventured out to the American colonies, where he presented himself as a specialist in eye and ear diseases. In Philadelphia, he studied Benjamin Franklin's recent experiments with electricity, an experience that would be a great influence on Graham's work. He returned to England in 1775, and began to offer the novel treatments that would make him famous.

Like all wise quacks, Graham sought to attract wealthy hypochondriacs. He treated their "nervous disorders" with what he called his "three great medicines" of "electrical ether," "nervous ethereal balsam" and "imperial pills," milk baths, "magnetic thrones" and mild electric shocks. It was all quite barmy, but essentially benign, and his confident charm convinced his patients that it all did them a great deal of good. His skill with what would later be called "placebo effect" gained him a large and highly appreciative clientele among the neurotic well-to-do.

In 1779, he built his Templum Aesculapium Sacrum (popularly known as the Temple of Health) in London's Strand. He also published a series of pamphlets advertising his wonderful cures. His Temple was something of a Georgian medical carnival ride: His "electrical throne" sat in a place of honor among his various odd medical apparatus, while the Temple as a whole was filled with florid paintings, statues, stained glass, and perfumed air, while a glass harmonica played therapeutic music for the benefit of Graham's patients. Graham proclaimed that his Temple aimed to "prevent barrenness" and propagate "a much more strong, beautiful, active, healthy, wise, and virtuous race of human beings, than the present puny, insignificant, foolish, peevish, vicious, and nonsensical race of Christians, who quarrel, fight, bite, devour, and cut one another's throats about they know not what."

"Public Advertiser," November 11, 1780

In 1780, he published his "Lecture on the generation, increase and improvement of the human species," a highly popular sex manual. As part of his favorite theme of good sex through good health, his Temple featured beautiful, robust, nearly-nude young women posing as "Goddesses of Health." (Legend has it that one of these models was a young courtesan named Emma Lyon, who would later gain fame as Lord Nelson's Lady Emma Hamilton.)

Graham's most famous "cure" was his "celestial bed." This large sleeping couch, lined with magnets and connected to his electrical machines, was covered with a flowered dome crowned with a pair of live turtle doves. Couples lay in bed to the tune of musical "celestial sounds" and surrounded by pipes that released "ethereal gases." At the head of the bed was a clockwork tableau in honor of Hymen, the god of marriage. It all frankly sounds like something that would distract from passion, rather than promote it, but the bed was promised to cure impotence and sterility--at fifty pounds a night.

Graham's siren song of vigorous health and lots of sex brought visitors to the Temple in droves. Even skeptics like Horace Walpole, who called the Graham's edifice "the most impudent puppet-show of imposition I ever saw"--eagerly paid a crown apiece to tour the facility. (The scantily-clad Health Goddesses probably didn't hurt attendance.) Graham became such a celebrity that in 1780, he received the dubious tribute of a hit play satirizing him. "The Genius of Nonsense," ran for some 22 performances at the Haymarket Theater. Another satire mocking the "doctor," "Il Convito Amoroso," may even have been written by Graham himself.

Like every great charlatan, he realized there was no such thing as bad publicity.

Unfortunately, as popular as the Temple of Health may have been, it was extremely expensive to maintain. Although Graham himself lived frugally, even ascetically, the splendors he presented to the public soon bankrupted him. In 1782, all his property was seized by creditors, and the following year he was compelled to place ads in the newspaper promising to pay 20s to the pound on all his debts. However, his lectures on "sexual health" continued to be successful, no doubt at least in part because his "rosy, athletic, and truly gigantic goddesses of Health and of Hymen" played a prominent role in his talks. (His "high priestesses" gave separate lectures for the benefit of the ladies.)

Graham's frank lectures on sex got him banned in Edinburgh in 1783. He responded with yet another pamphlet, "An appeal to the public, containing the full account of the ignorant, illegal, and impotent proceedings of the contemptible magistrates of Edinburgh." This admittedly tactless rejoinder got him arrested. While awaiting trial, he issued "A full circumstantial and most candid state of Dr. Graham's case, giving an account of proceedings, persecutions, and imprisonments, more cruel and more shocking to the laws of both God and man than any of those on record of the Portuguese Inquisition." He also lectured to his fellow prisoners, with additional entertainment provided by "a mellow bottle and a flowing bowl." That August, he was sentenced to a fine of twenty pounds sterling, which was paid by his Edinburgh admirers.

After this escapade, he continued to lecture throughout England and Scotland without any more major problems. His increasing interest in religion inspired him to downplay the emphasis on sex that had made him famous--and notorious. In 1789, he told an audience that although his younger days had been regrettably wild, he had now achieved "the mild serenity of an evening natural, and of an autumn intellectual sun." His deepening involvement with Christianity led him to vigorously debate leading Unitarians, and be began to call himself "The Servant of the Lord Oh, Wonderful Love." (O.W.L. for short.) He also became an equally ardent disciple of vegetarianism.

In 1790, he published his "Short treatise on the all-cleansing, all-healing, and all-invigorating qualities of the simple earth," where he extolled the healing powers of his new favorite fad, the earth-bath. He would treat audiences to a demonstration of this cure-all, gradually shedding his clothes onstage while men with shovels covered him in dirt up to his chin. It was, one audience member wrote, "quite enough to call up the chaste blushes of the modest ladies." Graham argued that food was unnecessary--all one needed was to absorb nutrients through bathing in mud.

Sadly, Graham's eccentricities deepened in his later years, to the point where he could arguably have been called quite mad. (He also became an opium addict, which undoubtedly had something to do with his mental deterioration.) He claimed--on no evidence whatsoever--to have offered his medical advice to the prince of Wales. It was said that he would often "rush into the streets and strip himself to clothe the first beggar he met." Graham's family periodically had to confine him in his rooms.

Graham published his final pamphlet in 1793, where he claimed that from December 31, 1792, to January 15, 1793, he ate nothing and drank only cold water, keeping himself alive through massages with his "nervous aethereal balsam." Despite the fact that he boasted that he had discovered the secret to living to the age of 150, the doctor died suddenly from a "burst blood vessel" on his forty-ninth birthday, June 23, 1794.

Although Graham is remembered as a snake-oil salesman, he was much less harmless than the average charlatan. The magnetic and electrical devices he championed are concepts that many modern-day medical experts are now exploring as serious treatments for some ailments. He decried war and slavery, and championed religious tolerance and education for women. He was a generous, charitable man who treated his parents--described by early biographer John Kay as "old-fashioned Presbyterian Whigs of the strictest kind"--with notable kindness and attention. Although some of his ideas were decidedly odd--he called masturbation "a deadly paralytic stroke"--his advocacy of spartan eating, emphasis on fresh air and cold bathing, and celebration of the benefits of a healthy, happy sex life ensured that all in all, he did his patients some good, and probably very little harm. This is a boast few other medical practitioners of his day--reputable or otherwise--could make.


  1. A very interesting fellow. While many of Graham's concepts are being treated seriously today, even the whacky ones would probably make someone wealthy today. It's interesting that he himself lived a frugal life, so he didn't do all of this for the money. For what then, for the notoriety? People have done more for worse reasons.

    1. I'm convinced he did all that because he believed in what he was doing 100%. He may have been a quack, but he was an utterly sincere one.


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