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Quackery

Quackery grew in fashion because its ideas reflected the spirituality of the period. While the many quack movements differed in what they advocated, all complemented America's 19th century Romantic philosophy that the country was a chosen place with a special purpose in history, that rejuvenation of the individual would produce rejuvenation of the country, that health and happiness were available to everyone, and that the body and mind were linked. When quackery mixed with religious revivalism and social reform at mid cen- tury, it gained huge followings.

Title page of Samuel Thomson's New Guide to Health; or Botanic Family Physician,1835.

The first popular quackery movement in America was Thomsonianism, founded by Samuel Thomson (1769– 1843). He believed disease resulted from a clogged system and was cured by purging and sweating. But unlike heroic doctors, Thomson opposed mineral purgatives like Calomel in favor of distillates of native American vegetables, and eschewed bloodletting. He received a patent for his "system" in 1813 which he promoted in Thomsonian Materia Medica and A New Guide to Health. While he was highly critical of formal medical training for doctors, in 1840 he opened his own Botanic Medical College in Columbus, Ohio. This is one of many examples of how quack movements assumed the trappings of traditional medicine to improve credibility.

Phrenology was not a cure, but a way to interpret the mind and body to better understand both. Founded by Franz Josef Gall (1758-1828) in Vienna, phrenology centered on the physiological basis of the mind. Promoted in the United States by Orson S. Fowler, the movement claimed a person's character was made up of 37 faculties which could be "read" on the cranium at the site where each was located. The size of the brain in these locations would reveal the strength of that particular faculty. As Fowler stated, there were "connexions and relations which exist between the conditions and developments of the BRAIN and the manifestations of the MIND." Phrenology was even applied to art as sculptors and painters did phrenological profiles of their subjects to insure their art would reflect the traits of the subject. O.S. Fowler began his own publishing company which not only published books on phrenology, but other quackery movements as well.

The 37 faculties of the brain as mapped by Samuel R. Wells.

Mesmerism also came from Europe, founded by the German Franz Anton Mesmer (1743–1815). Mesmer believed bodies had invisible magnetic fluids (or animal magnetism) that caused illness when disturbed because organs were deprived of the vital fluids. To cure, physicians manipulated these fluids either using magnets or, if a gifted healer, with hands alone. Mesmerism in America was promoted by Robert H. Collyer. Mesmerism became intertwined in religious revivalism, and took on spiritual characteristics.

An application of electrotherapy.

Closely related to the ideas of mesmerism was electropathy, which came in vogue in the second half of the 19th century. Electricity was believed to have magical properties and, as demonstrated by lightning, was powerful. Proponents such as S. R. Wells believed the body operated like a large magnet with positive and negative charges. If electricity was applied to the areas where these charges were out of balance, the patient would be cured. Electricity was particularly useful in treating "nervous diseases" (mental illness) since there were no known scientific cures. Resourceful entrepreneurs soon began producing electrical garments and products, including corsets, belts, and hairbrushes (advertised as a cure for hair loss).

Hydropathy became popular between 1820 and 1860. Although it had roots in ancient times, the movement's founder was a Silesian peasant Vincenz Preissnitz (1799-1851), who claimed to have cured himself of broken ribs as a boy by applying cold cloths to the affected area. The hydropathic system had three treatments: the general application of water by bath, the application to a particular part of the body, and internal cleansing by drinking or injecting. In the United States, hydropathy was promoted by Dr. Joel Shew. One of Shew's treatments, called the "wet sheet treatment," was to wrap the patient in layers of cold, wet sheets and a woolen blanket, place him in bed until he began sweating, then remove the blanket and douse the patient with cold water. Wet dresses were also common, consisting of loose gowns dipped in cold water before putting on. The wet dress influenced the development of the bloomer, popularized by suffragettes. Hydropathy influenced the women's rights movement in another way too. Since short hair dried quicker, followers cut their hair, and the look was adopted by the suffragettes.

One of the many facilities around the country for taking the water cure.

Hydropathy had no adverse effect on those who prescribed to it, and produced some benefits. It promoted frequent bathing when most Americans rarely bathed, helping to prevent the spread of disease. Hydropathy treatment was followed by walking in the open air, and as such promoted exercise at a time when frailty was the norm.

Hydropathy was so popular that it had its own magazine, The Water-Cure Journal, published by O. S. Fowler's company and boasting a circulation of 50,000 in 1850. Among the events reported in the journal was the establishment of the American Hydropathic Institute in New York in 1851. For a fee of $50, men and women could be trained in the fundamentals of the water cure to become qualified "water cure doctors." The institute, operated by the couple Thomas Low Nichols and Mary Sargent Gove Nichols, was another example of how quackery movements assumed many of the tenets of scientific medicine to improve their credibility.


Barbara Floyd, University Archivist, University of Toledo

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Last Updated: 1/3/12