April 12, 2024

Charm and Charlatans: The Intersection of Quackery and Mysticism With Caroline Rance

Charm and Charlatans: The Intersection of Quackery and Mysticism With Caroline Rance

Joining the podcast today is historian Caroline Rance to examine particular historical cases that highlight fraud and other out- of- the- ordinary happenings. From the curious case of Sago Jenkinson, whose diagnosis led to a tragic end in 1840s Hull, to the mystifying account of Dr. Harris of Rhayader, Wales, who spun webs of witchcraft to ensnare his patients in the 1860s, to Ethel May Wilkinson, the fortune teller with mystical visions and potions get ready to explore cases of quackery where the boundaries between reality and the supernatural blur.

My Special Guest Is Caroline Rance

Caroline Rance started The Quack Doctor (https://thequackdoctor.com) to share her interest in the history of patent remedies and health fraud. She now also writes at https://thequackdoctor.substack.com and co-hosts the literature podcast She Wrote Too (https://shewrotetoo.substack.com). She regularly gives talks on the history of medicine and has spoken at The Old Operating Theatre Museum, the Wellcome Library, the Thackray Museum, St George’s Hospital medical school, the QED conference, Skeptics in the Pub groups and numerous other venues. She has appeared on the BBC’s Great British Railway Journeys and A House Through Time and BBC Radio 4’s comedy panel show, Best Medicine. She has an MA in Medicine, Science and Society: Historical and Philosophical Perspectives from Birkbeck, University of London. You can find more of her work over on substack at www.thequackdoctor.substack.com

In this episode, you will be able to:

1. Explore aspects of the history of medicine including cases of medical fraudsters.

2. Discover the connection between some fraudsters and elements of magic and the supernatural.

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Welcome to Haunted History Chronicles, the podcast where we unravel the mysteries of the past, one ghostly tale at a time.

I'm your host, Michelle, and I'm thrilled to be your guide on this eerie journey through the pages of history.


Picture this a realm where the supernatural intertwines with the annals of time, where the echoes of the past reverberate through haunted corridors and forgotten landscapes.

That's the realm we invite you to explore with us each episode.


We'll unearth stories, long buried secrets, dark folklore, tales of the macabre, and discuss parapsychology topics from ancient legends to more recent enigmas.

We're delving deep into locations and accounts all around the globe, with guests joining me along the way.


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Join the podcast on social media, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram to share your own ghostly encounters, theories, and historical curiosities.


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The links are conveniently placed in the description for easy access.

So whether you're a history buff with a taste for the supernatural or a paranormal enthusiast with a thirst for knowledge, Haunted History Chronicles is your passport to the other side.


Get ready for a ride through the corridors of time where history and the supernatural converge, because every ghost has a story and every story has a history.

And now let's introduce today's podcast or guest.


Welcome to Haunted History Chronicles.

Today we have a special guest, the curator of the Quack Doctors Realm, where the shadows of medical fraudsters and the whispers of the supernatural intertwine.

Caroline Rance is the author behind volumes such as Kill Grief, The Quack Dr. Historical Remedies for All Your Ills and The History of Medicine in 100 Facts.


Her expertise has illuminated the darkest corners of medical history, revealing the bizarre and uncanny tales concealed within.

Today, Caroline joins us to delve into the peculiar cases that blur the lines between medicine and magic.


From the curious saga of Sego Jenkinson, whose diagnosis lead to a tragic end in 1840s Hull, to the mystifying tales of Doctor Harris from Wales, who spun webs of witchcraft to ensnare his patients in the 1860s.


And finally Ethel May Wilkinson, the fortune teller whose visions transcended the realms of the ordinary.

Prepare to be spellbound as we unravel the threads of these chilling accounts where the boundaries between reality and the supernatural blur.


Join us as we embark on a journey through the corridors of history where every twist and turn reveals secrets.

Ladies and gentlemen, brace yourselves for a spine tingling episode with our esteemed guest.

Let the shadows whisper their secrets as we explore the dark recesses of the past.


Welcome to the unknown.

Morning, Caroline.

Thank you so much for joining me today.

Good morning, Michelle.

Thanks very much for inviting me on to Haunted History Chronicles.


I'm very excited about this.

I mean, I love my history, but I also think there's some fascinating cases which you highlight as as part of what you do in your research that I think are really thoroughly interesting and intriguing.

So I'm really looking forward to the topic to be honest.

For anyone who is listening, Do you want to introduce yourself and tell them a little bit about your background and of course, obviously your writing and your research and your blog, etcetera?


Yes, certainly.

Well, I'm Caroline Rance.

About must be about 15 years ago now, I decided to set up a website calledthequackdr.com and this was really just something that I happened to be interested in.

So I decided to do it about the history of medicine, but with a particular focus on patent remedies and fraudsters.


So people who were using medicine to try and con people into giving them money and also the kind of advertised medicines that are available for ordinary people to buy, particularly in the Victorian era.

I then had a book out called the Quack Dr. Historical Remedies for All Your Ills.


That's out of print now, but I am hoping to re release that fairly soon.

More recently I have started a sub stack called the quackdr.substack.com and that is a bit more general about the history of medicine.

There's still quite a quackery aspect to it because that's where my interest lies, but I'm trying to broaden what I write about to bring in more details about different history of medicine episodes.


I mean it's intriguing because the I think these cases highlight so many different things in terms of belief systems, in terms of the this rapid changing and evolving medical field if you like, you know the advancements and and people just generally trying trying to keep up with that.


But then also the perceptions around doctors and the perceptions around medicines and how that was changing as well.

I mean, it just speaks so much, I think, to perceptions around medicine at the time.

This almost between two worlds of the old world and this advancing modern world stepping into a world very unfamiliar, and how people felt about that.


Yeah, very much so.

So today we're particularly focusing on the mid 19th century.

And that was a time when the medical profession was really trying to become more regulated.

So people were looking at any outsiders and seeing them as quacks.


And you had the British Medical Association starting up.

There was then in 1858 the Medical Act, which provided for the medical register and the profession was expecting the general population to think that, Oh yes, we definitely must have a qualified Dr. for our healthcare.


And that wasn't the case.

People had been used to using a variety of traditional healers and were not necessarily that interested in having qualified doctors.

And yet there was this tension between the profession and between anybody who they did not consider legitimate.


Which again is fascinating because I I think it's like history is written, isn't it, by those who who write it.

And I think the same is probably true of of all these kinds of fields where you have a body who is governing what it should look like, what it means to be legitimate.


Because, you know, obviously when we consider some of the practices that were were taking place during the same period when shade and scorn are being placed on those who fall outside of their their purview, outside of what they're doing.

You know, you had phrenologists.


This was being used in courts to sentence people based on medical expertise and science.

That tells you know the court and those who were doing the examination of course that these individuals were criminals, that they were murderers and they're the shape of their head tells than this and that was medical science.


And so it's it's fascinating that you know you you kind of really do have this period where we are going from one part of something into another.

And it's almost you've got the medical field making these judgments, but yet still very much on the on the cusp of really understanding so much of medical science today.


Even the what was considered the official medical profession, they didn't really have that many effective treatments at their disposal.

So in the 1830s, for example, there was a big craze for using leeches.

Now we know that leeches can be used legitimately in medicine these days for some specific purposes, but the theory then was to remove blood from the body in order to rebalance the humours.


So it depends who is defining things as to whether you think that that is a legitimate practice or is that quackery.

Why is it one or not the other?

It just depends who is saying it and whether they have any authority in society.



And you've brought some fascinating cases for us to look at and think about today, which kind of have elements of the supernatural, where advice is being given to patients based on beliefs, folk beliefs, superstitions, witchery, magic, all of these different things, Yes.


Do you want to start with the Sago Jenkinson case?

Because it's it's an interesting one.

Terribly sad, but also fascinating how it played out.


So we've got somebody here who was really using traditional beliefs in popular magic, but actually using that in order to effectively con people.


So we've got this character calling himself Sago Jenkinson.

Now it seems that he was probably actually called James Parsons and he was active in Hull in the 1840s.

Now, he kind of managed to enjoy some celebrity.

He called himself the French Doctor and he would have lots of people coming to visit him in order to try and get some treatment.


And they evidently believed that he had this background as a doctor in France.

And they he would go to a pub and set up there and have patients visiting him and he was apparently making as much as £9 a day.

He did have some medicines that he would give to people and give them some advice, but yeah, he was actually making quite a reasonable amount of money from this.


And the difficult part of this case is that it was quite sad that a lady called Mrs. Harborough took her child to see him, her sick child.

He told her that her child would be cured if she followed his advice.


And this was quite unusual.

He would sometimes give patients medicines, but in this case he told her that she must have been bewitched by a neighbour.

He told her that she'd probably quarrelled with somebody and that this person had bewitched the child and she couldn't remember anything.


As she got on well with people, she hadn't quarrelled with anybody.

There's nothing in the past that she could recall now.

She had to go away because there are so many people there waiting to see this doctor and she sort of was trying to think about it and try and recall anything that had happened.


And she did eventually dredge up some memory about the child bickering with another child, as kids do all the time.

And this other child was the offspring of Mrs. Sharp, who was one of her neighbours, now Sega.


Jenkinson took this as evidence that Mrs. Sharp was the witch and that she had put some sort of curse on this poor child.

And to get rid of the curse, Mrs. Harborough was supposed to draw blood from the witch.

So she'd have to go and encounter Mrs. Sharp and stick a pin in her or a needle or something and make it appear like an accident so that it wasn't really an assault and she would draw blood and she was led to believe that that would then cure her child.


Now, fortunately, perhaps she didn't actually go through with it, but she did mention what Sego Jenkinson had said.

So this started to get around the community as gossip and Mrs. Sharp, who was just generally minding her own business, was suddenly being ostracised by all her neighbours.


At one point she went out to get some shopping and the shopkeeper was giving her these sort of dodgy glances and she said the shopkeeper said to somebody else very meaningfully, that poor child is dead, nobody can hurt it now.


And it turned out that Missus Harbor's child had sadly died and people were suspecting Missus Sharp of being responsible.

So this was really awful, both for of course the Harborough family who had lost their child, and for Mrs. Sharp, who was perfectly innocent and had nothing to do with it, and yet was being accused of witchcraft, which could have been potentially dangerous because she might have been arrested.


Now she had the wherewithal, fortunately, to inform the authorities about this, and she decided to take Sago Jenkinson to court.

Now he ended up in court, and it's quite interesting to see that those in authority at the court actually treated it all as a bit of a joke.


You know, they thought it was pretty amusing that it was all about gullible people believing in these silly ideas and they didn't take it very seriously.


And yet we know that there is this incredibly sad case behind it of a child dying of its illness.


In the end, Sago Jenkinson was actually discharged because the courts didn't take it seriously.

They didn't believe that there was anything to it or that he'd particularly done anything wrong, so they just let him go.

And newspaper reports about this case were kind of focusing on the gullibility of the people involved.


One newspaper, the whole packet, said, I'll quote from this The facts of the case speak but little indeed, for the boasted March of intellect of the 19th century.

So, like what we were talking about before, you've got this tension between the ideas of progress and science, and yet the belief in popular magic, which was still very much a part of ordinary people's lives.


And also their trust, I think, you know, if we think about most people's common experience of the medical doctor, it was, I don't think it was anything favourable.

You know, you saw them as anatomist, you saw them with the scalpel, you saw them, you know the worst points in your life maybe.


And and so I think there was a degree of mistrust in something very new to them, something very not not very well known, not understood.

And yeah, I think that alongside these superstitions, these old remedies, these old beliefs, those were part of their communities, it was part of their families, it was part of their everyday experience and had been for so long, there's it's almost ingrained in them.


Yes, absolutely.

I don't think it.

And it wasn't really that they were rejecting medical science particularly.

They didn't necessarily see that much distinction between 1:00 Doctor and another.

Now, this is before the medical register, this particular case, but even after the medical Register, you weren't necessarily going to bother trying to find a copy and seeing if the practitioner that you're consulting happens to be on there.


It wasn't as important to these ordinary communities as the medical profession perhaps thought it should be, and for some people you might just not even have access to a qualified Dr. If you're living in an isolated community, there wouldn't necessarily be one nearby.


So you'd be consulting with somebody who had a good reputation for healing, who perhaps would be seen as a cunning man or cunning woman or a wise woman, and that was just the completely normal thing to do.

It it's so interesting that because this is obviously much more towards the tailoring end of the persecution of women as witches and men as witches.


So you can kind of see that playing out in terms of how it's received in court.

You know them kind of taking it with a grain of salt, it playing out in the media as something almost to poke fun at.

But yet at grass roots level you can see how this very much played out in the community and how this really did lead to the the kind of the the ostracising of Missus Sharp where whereby the community very much still got on board with it.


And again I think that's where you can see how this very much impacted on small communities, local communities.

And how this wasn't just something believed by a few.

It was still very much prevalent in the everyday lives of people.


To the point where they could ostracize their local community member who who had probably never done anything wrong to them in their whole lives.

But suddenly on the basis of one person's testimony, that was enough.

And especially I think if there's then someone I'll attached to that, there's that evidence and that's that was all that was needed in some cases for this suddenly to spot back up again and and raise that suspicion.


Yes, and and with this being in the 1840s, this is long after what we would consider to be the witch craze and that we might read about historically.

And and yet you have got people clearly still believing that this is a possible reason for somebody's illness.


Yeah, absolutely.

And and the really terrible thing is that that like you pointed out that in this case, you know you have Mrs. Sharp who is targeted and has to go through the legal process to be vindicated.

But then you have the loss of this child and and Sago Jenkinson, who nothing appears to happen.


There's no he.

Sort of gets away with it and sort of leaving all this chaos in his wake has been making a lot of money from convincing people about this stuff, and we don't really know what he thought about it at the end.

But he just seems to have not really cared that somebody has died and that this family is grieving and that then they've got this community tension building up with poor Mrs. Sharp as well.


You can't imagine, I mean what it would have been like post this and post the court case still within this community, how they felt about the outcome.

Yeah, I mean.

It's it's difficult to kind of ponder and wonder, but I can't imagine it was something that ended just because the court case concluded that there was no evidence and it was, you know, something to to throw out of court.


But they're still dealing with the accusations and they're still dealing with the grief.

And Jenkinson, as an itinerary practitioner, could just move on to the next community so there wouldn't be any comeback on him from the one that he had started in.

But you do wonder whether Mrs. Sharp might still have been suspected a little bit.


Maybe people thought there was no smoke without fire, that OK, the courts had dismissed it, but who can believe in the experts?

So maybe rumours would have persisted even after this had all supposedly finished.

I mean it's it's I think they are so fascinating when you look at historic cases of witchcraft, trials and persecutions and you know right from the very beginning, right to the very end, I think each of them have something very distinct to say in terms of what they show.


And and these latter cases often get very much overlooked because they're not part of that witch craze, as you mentioned, that happened much earlier.

But I do think they speak very much to what was still going on and what was still happening.

And when we consider that, you know you you had evidence of people being persecuted much later than the 1840s in this case, you know all the way through up until during the Second World War for instance.


And so it's it's, I think it's really important to understand how how they evolved what happened and what changed and and how it was still prevalent but yet other things were happening around it and it was changing what was happening to the point where we got to where obviously it wasn't something that that that then was continued to to be done to people.


But yeah, I think terribly sad case, but very, very interesting.

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And you have another case, haven't you?

That happened shortly afterwards in the 1860s, which similarly had witchcraft and charms and these superstitions at the heart of what was happening.


Do you want to tell us a little?

Bit about that case.

Yes, this one is fortunately not quite as sad, but we have a practitioner called William David Harris and he was active around mid Wales, so Clanid, Lois and Friada.


And this was in the 1860s.

Now he called himself Doctor Harris.

He didn't have any qualifications, but he took on that title and he advertised by getting lots of handbills printed and giving those out in the local area.

As far as I know, none of these handbills actually survive, but there's some evidence of what kind of things they said.


And he claimed that he was a herbalist and a medical doctor, and interestingly he put that he was late of Kurticadno, which was a place in Wales.

Now that is particularly relevant because Kurticadno had been the home of a family by the surname of Harry's, which got the extra E in it, and they were renowned medical practitioners and astrologers.


They'd been a little bit earlier in the 19th century and they were really well known.

So it seems that this Doctor Harris probably was leading people to believe that he was related to them in order to gain communities trust.

Now one thing that the Handbills also stated, which is quite funny, was take notice Doctor Harris is no quack.


So that was to reassure people that they could consult him safely.

Now in this case he targeted an American man called Thomas Minor Jones.

Now he'd just come over to the UK just in November 1866, and he already had a long term illness.


He said that he was coughing up blood from his lungs for whatever reasons.

He settled in the village of Ron and I think he probably had some relatives there.

And somebody told him that Doctor Harris was nearby treating a patient, and he could go out and speak to him and see whether anything could be done for his condition.


So he saw Doctor Harris and he arranged to go to Lanidlois to see him.

And this is only really just a few days after he'd arrived in the UK.

Now, what Harris told him was that he had been witched by a woman in America, and if he got rid of this witching, he would be well again.


Now he it seems that Thomas Jones was really, really excited about that because he'd been suffering a long time from these horrible symptoms.

And he's later quoted as saying the prisoner said that he could cure me and I felt so overjoyed that I promised him a present.


So this was later on when the case eventually came to court.

So it does show how practitioners can use this idea of false hope in order to convince people to follow their advice.

The treatment for this supposed bewitching was to carry a piece of paper with a charm on it.


So Harris wrote something down, and he sewed the paper up in a piece of cloth, and he told Jones to wear it, making sure that it never fell off and hit the ground or that would break the spell.

And for this, Jones gave him two instalments of 2 lbs.

So that's a reasonable amount of money for the 1860s.


We got some words on the paper.

He didn't tell Jones what it said at the time, but later on in court this was read out and I could read it out now so we can see what it says.

It said the 4th is Mayinom one of the powers who hath the ability of superficial administration and protection that is at one and the same time present with many.


His presence must be sought by humility and prayer.

The 5th good genius is Gaeoman, an Angel of celestial brightness who has the peculiar ability of rendering his pupil invisible to any evil spirit whatsoever.


That's kind of interesting because it does seem to be based on Reginald Scott's The Discovery of Witchcraft, or rather appendix, that was added into that into the 1665 edition, which was called Discourse on Devils and Spirits.


So it seems like Harris probably had access to that book and was sort of vaguely remembering what it said.

I don't think it's the exact text that's in the Discourse on Devils and Spirits, but it was pretty similar.

And on another occasion, with a different patient, he got his daughter to copy something directly out of a book and get the patient to wear it in the same kind of way.


Now there was another patient nearby called Samuel Phillips who had a painful leg and he had been advised by his family doctor to have an operation, so he was consulting a regular medical practitioner.

But the problem was that that couldn't be done locally and he would have had to go to London.


His doctor was going to try and get him into one of the London hospitals, and I don't know whether perhaps this just seemed like too much of A commitment or he didn't want to have to wait to go to hospital.

But he decided to consult Harris as well, and he had similar experience with having this spell wrapped up in a piece of paper and he had to wear it.


Now, Harris actually told him that the pain in his leg was caused by cancer, so it's a quite serious stuff going on there.

And he also provided some medicine which was supposed to renew all of Samuel Phillips's blood.

Now eventually Harris was arrested and taken to court for supposedly defrauding these people and getting money by false pretences.


So that's how we know the details of this case.

And again, there seems to be quite a lot of amusement and laughter in court about the idea that people would be so silly and gullible as to believe this kind of stuff.

So you've got the same kind of attitudes from the authorities and that ordinary people in the communities are perhaps a bit behind the times, still believing in all what they considered to be superstitious nonsense rather than science.


And now, in court, the charge relating to Thomas Jones was actually thrown out because they couldn't prove that Jones really believed Harris was a doctor.

So there wasn't any false pretences in particular.

And quite an interesting means of Harris's defence was that his lawyer kind of implied to Jones that Jones's disease was actually syphilis.


He didn't say that outright, but you can kind of get the idea that that's what he meant when he was talking in court and he was implying that being witched by a woman in America is actually kind of a euphemism for having this sexually transmitted disease.


That's a quite an interesting means of defence there.

That wasn't actually the case, because Thomas Jones's symptoms were confined to this bleeding from the lungs.

But it is quite interesting to see how the courts and the authorities tried to explain that in a scientific way by saying that the bewitching was actually something different.


Now he did get committed to jail for the case of Samuel Phillips.

And what's what I quite liked was the way that Samuel Phillips was described in quarters, an innocent Welshman and not an American.

So perhaps they believed his testimony a bit more about his painful leg.


But they did find that he had been his money had been taken under false pretences, and so Harris went to jail for three months.

One thing that came out in court was that Harris had apparently gone blind while awaiting trial, and there was no real reason given for this.


I think some people thought that his experience of being in jail in a horrible, damp cell had caused this blindness, but that's mitigated his sentence, so he was only sent in jail for three months rather than for longer.

I mean it's just, I mean I love the bit about that you can trust the Welshman, Eric.


And I mean it's so, I mean again it speaks to attitudes at the time, but you know, you trust the local person rather than the outsider that comes from elsewhere in the world.

But I mean it, it adds an amusement to at least, doesn't it?


Again, it really does highlight exactly what we've been talking about this this sense of them and us type thing, but also people very much needing to try everything, to try something to cure their ails.

And if you are desperate, if you are in pain, if you really are needing that cure, whether it's for your sick child or the pains that you're experiencing in your leg or the trouble that you've got with your lungs, whatever it was you, you would have been desperate to do anything.


And I think this is where you can really understand how even if you trust in in medical science, you might still want to try these old remedies, these old things, just in case.


Just give it everything.

Yeah, thinking that it's worth a try.


And one thing that Thomas Jones said in court was I did not for a moment believe that the paper would take away the spell.

So he kind of doesn't really even believe in the witchcraft element or it anyway.

Harris apparently gave him some medicine as well, and that was what he really trusted in.


But there's this very big overlap between medicine and the actual drugs that Harris was giving and this witchcraft element, which kind of goes along with it.

The patient didn't really believe it in these circumstances, or at least said that he didn't.


And then you got Samuel Phillips, who did have access to a qualified Dr. and had the possibility of having surgery in London.

And surgery was obviously pretty daunting and they would have anaesthetics by then.


But Even so, it's a big deal to actually travel to London and have your leg operated on.

And there is this idea that, well, perhaps something else is worth a try.

If Harris's treatment works, then he wouldn't have to go and have this operation and that would be well worth it.


So when Samuel Phillips paid, I think it's about 6 lbs altogether.

So quite a lot of money to Harris.

But if it had worked then that would have solved all his problems.

So there is this idea of just trying something out and hoping for the best I.

Think we see the same thing in in modern Yeah, definitely with illnesses that we experience today.


People trying other remedies or doing something different to try and help aid their symptoms or aid the the illness and fighting the illness, whether it's from changing lifestyle or bringing in homeopathic remedies or trying some kind of an alternative medicine.


And you know, it's no different to that.

And I think when you compare it with that, you can understand why people may still cling to some of these older traditions, these older remedies, because again, I think in most cases, probably what more most people would have been more familiar and accustomed to than the local doctor, if they had a local doctor at all.



So Even so, at the time it wouldn't really be considered alternative medicine because an alternative to what?

They didn't necessarily have anything else, and So what we might now call alternative medicine for them was just what they were used to, what had traditionally been something to rely on and completely normal.


But it is fascinating how in this case what you've got is a the prosecution of Doctor Harris under this kind of umbrella of witchcraft charms spells false pretences, you know, gaining money through fraud with this element of the witchcraft etcetera.


But it's so fascinating to see how it's it's evolved to that from these earlier persecutions that we, you know, we've referenced before.

I mean, it just feels like such a fascinating journey to see that evolution and how now we've got other types of individuals kind of brought into that mix, but for very different reasons and for for different means and methods.


Which again, is still so fascinating to explore to see how it's still there on the fringes and being used to target and persecute people for for their crimes in this case.

Yes, very much so, yeah.

And one thing that I saw that Philip said in court, which I found particularly interesting, was that he said I do not understand anything about registered doctors.


So somebody had produced the medical register, which was around by this time, and was able to show that Harris's name was not on there.

And yet to Phillips, the patient, that didn't matter.

He didn't really have any distinction between a registered doctor and one who wasn't registered.


And this wasn't an uneducated bloke.

He was a Carpenter.

He had a trade.

He'd been to school.

And yet, to him, it wasn't about being ignorant.

It was just about it didn't matter whether somebody was registered or not and he didn't understand the laws and the new register and what it meant.


And I don't and I think most people wouldn't have, would they?

Again, I think it comes back to that them and us type thing.

It's this was such a a fast-paced moving body.

You know medical science was growing exponentially.


I think during this period, you know, you've got hospitals springing up everywhere and the training of medical doctors becoming much more of a machine compared to what it used to be.

Yes, in a relatively short space of time, because even just at the beginning of the 19th century, a lot of practitioners would have learnt by apprenticeship.


So the ones that most ordinary people in the communities would be seeing if they saw anyone at all would be a surgeon, apothecary or later known as General practitioner.

They wouldn't have a medical degree.

They would have the licence of the Society of Apothecaries and the certificate of the Royal College of Surgeons, and those two qualifications were the usual ones for a General practitioner in the country community.


And so you've then got more qualifications coming along.

As the century goes on, you've got much more formal education.

But how much?

The average person really was aware of that.

Unless they had a particular interest in medicine, why would they know about it?


They were getting on with their work and their own lives and weren't necessarily keeping up to date with all of that so-called progress.

And for many, I think you know the distinction in classes with the learned and those that are just getting on and working the everyday common man and woman and their families, they're they're completely different worlds.


And so why and how would you possibly know about these things and what's involved?

You just wouldn't.

You're not in the same circles.

It's not something that's really impacting on your life day-to-day until it until it is is right there when you have someone facing that illness and needing that help.


I mean it's like so many things isn't it You you know about these if you're in the centre of it, but if you are not part of that group, you're so much on the outside and and very, very much not in the know.

And I think that was true of this fast-paced, moving evolution of of this body of of individuals and what they were doing.



And you've got the insiders of that group assuming that this is common knowledge and that everybody knows about it and that everybody will be interested and will want to look at the medical register to check out people's qualifications.

So there's them.


Just assuming that this is something that's important to everybody, when, as it turned out, it wasn't really.

No, I think it, I think it highlights just this lack of communication and and awareness, doesn't it, whereby they they're doing something for the benefit of everyone.


To try and allow people to have that assurance that who they're conversing with and who they're gaining advice from is is legitimate, who is scientific, who has this rigour behind them, the qualifications behind them, so that the intent, the good, the intention is there.


But at the same time they're not conveying that to the people because they just it's that assumption that it will be common knowledge and I think it shows maybe a degree of misunderstanding or.

I suppose it's what would perhaps now be called being out of touch.


You hear that applied to politicians quite a bit, and perhaps that applies here as well.

I think so.

I think you're absolutely right.

But it is.

So it honestly it's so intriguing and this is what I love about what you're doing and why I think anybody who has an interest in history but has an interest in medical history or just social history, who has?


I mean it doesn't have to be elements of superstition.

You cover so many different examples that that touch on this but then go into other elements of of medical history, which is just, I mean you must love what you do and you've got another really interesting case that's the that you've been reporting on more recently about the fortune teller.


Yeah, so this one's a little bit different.

We're into the 20th century now and there is an article about this on my sub stack at the quackdr.substack.com, but we'll cover it here as well.

And this one took place in Bridlington in Yorkshire, and it started in about 1925 with somebody called Ethel May Wilkinson setting up as a fortune teller, and she called herself Madame Burdette.


Now she was unlike some fortune tellers and that she wasn't just trying to predict the future.

She claimed to be able to influence it.

And I was interested in researching her because there was a sort of medical aspect to what she was doing as well.

She claimed to have a potion that could affect people's futures.


Now in 1930, there was a woman called Dora Line and her sister Mabel, and they were both approaching 50.

They weren't married, and they wanted to be.

So they were trying to find out whether a fortune teller could predict whether they would eventually be able to find a husband or not.


And they became quite friendly with Madame Burdette anyway, and they decided to get her to do reading for her, for them both.

Now they were reasonably well off.

They had some kind of independent income of their own.

And so they had some money to spend on what Wilkinson could tell them.


And they just had things like normal palm readings and that sort of thing to start with.

And then I could, to quote what Wilkinson said to Dora Line, she said, I think you have known a man for some time.

There is a woman stands between you.

He cares a great deal for you.


The other woman seems to hold him.

He is not a very happy man.

Through this I cannot get you together without help and that would cost £25, but the affair is worth it.

So 25 lbs.

That's a lot of money, and that seemed like quite a lot of money to spend on this sort of thing now, let alone in 1930.


But what Wilkinson was offering was what she called a Zepp reading.

She had this magical substance that had supposedly come from America, and she called this stuff zip.

And it was a kind of thing that you would burn and it would give off smoke.


And it was supposed to then show the image of the future husband in the smoke.

Now not only that, not in showing the image, but it would also put some sort of hold on this unsuspecting man so that he would not be able to have any other girlfriends.


Now Dora and Mabel Line both believed that this was true or that at least it was worth a try.

So they spent their savings on these zip readings and they were really using a lot of money to do this.


Dora Line had apparently sold £150 worth of jewellery to just keep going back to Wilkinson and having more and more readings now.

Eventually Wilkinson was arrested for charges similar to our previous cases of taking money by false pretences, and there's some quite big sums involved here.


The sisters had allegedly lost more than 600 lbs with these Sep readings and once Doraline had eventually realised that this was not actually happening and that she was wasting her money, she had asked for some money back and Ethel Wilkinson was trying to threaten her.


At this point she was actually saying that she would put a knife into her if she did, if she went to the courts or didn't keep quiet about it.

And so a very sort of unusual and very dodgy sort of character that we've got dealing with there.


Yeah, she seems quite forthright.



So what exactly was that and and where did it come from?

Well, it was a some kind of powdered substance which Wilkinson had obtained via her daughter.


And her daughter, who has grown up and married, had been in travelling in Florida and she had encountered some kind of substance which was known locally as zoophyte.

So that kind of suggests that it was plant material that we don't really know.

And she had heard that that was used in Native American charms and she knew that her mum was into this kind of thing.


So that's why she sent some to her in the UK.

So I think it is quite interesting that we have this suppose Native American tradition as well that was very popular in certain patent medicines at the time.

That you were supposed to be very reverent of these ancient traditions.


And that there was an idea that these tribes and nations really had a lot of insight into healing.

And that some patient medicine operators use that as a way of creating distrust in the modern scientific aspects of medicine.


It's falling back on something a bit older, isn't?

It you know.

These are remedies that have been used culturally by grapes for such a long time.

And so again, it's always saying, well, this is, this has been something used for centuries and has worked, they still use it.

So therefore you know, have faith in it.


So it almost adds that social tick, if you like, of giving it a bit more credence, Yeah.

So that's something other.

Yeah, it's what's known as an appeal to antiquity now with their logical fallacies.

So and there's still very much in operation today where people are induced to believe that something is really good and very proper and traditional if it comes from some tradition from the past.


It's fascinating that someone would go to that length to bring that in, you know, to have that element to their, their kind of their repertoire, if you like to again, add credence to what she's also doing in terms of the the setting and the scenario she's creating.


Again, I don't know what that speaks to her as a person.

Yeah, I mean, I think she was quite a dodgy character generally.

She had been in trouble with the courts before for doing things like receiving stolen goods, so I think she was able to latch onto whatever she thought was going to make her money.


So perhaps this set her apart from other fortune tellers who might be doing tarot readings and things that were more familiar to people.

She could bring in this exotic mystery from the Native American traditions, and that perhaps gave her her unique selling point.

And I was going to say precisely that it almost, it does almost for me, remind me very much of mediums during the Victorian period and beyond whereby there was almost this one upmanship or what could they bring into the seance parlour in order to set them apart from someone else.


And it does almost have that feel to it.

This is her version of pulling ectoplasm from her medical, various other parts of her body.

You know, it's that it's something that draws people in.

It's something a bit different.

And again, I think when you have something a bit unusual, if you imagine someone in that setting sitting and seeing it, it would have felt so strange.


It would have been something so out of their norm and their comfort zones that just seeing it play out, it is almost like a showman in a circus, this commanding theatrical stage presence.

And you can, you can understand how someone really would be drawn into the mysticism of the whole thing that she's capturing and what she's what she's using.


The fact that she has legitimate things that help add weight to that, I think just adds to the believability for somebody, again, who is primed for wanting to believe in it in the 1st place.


So yeah, it's it's another interesting element, the fact that she, she does seem to have this, this aspect that sets her apart, that makes her a draw for people who are really very much interested in getting a positive outcome.



And so what's Ethel Wilkinson had told Doraline to do?

He was actually just go out in the street and just look for a nice looking chap and pick one that she wanted to marry and somehow bring him back to Wilkinson's house where he would be sprinkled with Zep and this would apparently stop him from bolting.


Now luckily for all the men of Bridlington at that time, this line didn't go through with that.

I think she realised that that was a bit over the top, but that was the sort of thing that this practitioner was supposedly trying to get people to do.

Can you think?

I mean, when we think about the 1930s post the First World War, you know the number of young women who who found themselves maybe with they were widowed, maybe their fiances had been killed.


An awful lot of men were killed during the First World War.

The the number of women that did not marry afterwards, the way it impacted society is profound.

I mean really profound, the statistics, quite horrifying as to what that led to and the changes and the shifts that that then caused in terms of women in the workforce etcetera, because they had no marriage proposals.


And you can see that here.

You've got someone obviously playing advantage of of some of that.

You know, here is someone desperate for love and to be married, willing to part with large sums of money.

And what you've got is this, this kind of scenario that is very, I would imagine, fascinating to observe with the smoke.


And you know, this is what I can see inside you.

I mean, you can almost imagine it's almost very similar to a seance parlour, isn't it?

The smoke and mirrors and just enough to kind of give you that sense of this is something otherworldly and magical and intimate that makes you continue to believe until you know, obviously for her.


Luckily, she came to the realisation that she was just past it, parting with all of her money.

Yeah, but you can imagine somebody seeing this smoke and thinking, oh, perhaps I can make out a face there just about.

Because obviously we all see faces and all sorts of things.


And you can imagine somebody say, well, maybe next time maybe it'll be a bit clearer And just wanting to keep going back and trying to find this and perhaps being influenced by all the the show, the showmanship around the whole thing.

And I don't know whether Ethel Wilkinson wore a traditional fortune tellers outfit or anything like that, but you can imagine her having all of these interesting items in her room, crystal balls and all that sort of thing, and perhaps making it look as though this was something really special.


And I think, I think when you are obviously going into that setting anyway, you're primed because you want to believe.

So you're open to suggestion and I think this is where all the the smoke and the the paraphernalia if you like, adds to that.


But I think you're right there.

There's also something very much in the in the tool that she was utilising.

It allows someone to have enough to start to believe, to possibly think that they might see something, because that's part of what we do anyway as human.


As human beings, we look for patterns in what we're seeing.

And again, if you've got the right person who is very good at what they're doing, you can be convinced of most things.

And I an element maybe of her also wanting to convince herself and hence why the repeat visits but.


And perhaps also convincing herself that she was spending money on something good.

You know, sometimes you don't want to throw good money after bad, but it is very tempting to do that sometimes.

Also, there's credence in the fact that if she continued to go that somehow it's not money wasted because there's going to be this end point where it happens, whereas if she stops now then it will have been for nothing.


She might as well continue and pursue it to the end when she's finally going to be at this point where she has the love of her life.

Whereas if she stops now, she will have nothing.

She will have lost all of this money, but she also still won't have the answer to why she went in the 1st place.


And so you can kind of see how you can almost get caught up in the situation and continue for the length of time that she obviously did, because that amount of money is astronomical.

And there was.

It did really have a huge effect on Dora Lyon's life.


Because she eventually had no money left at all, no savings or anything.

And and there's one point at which she was of no fixed abode.

So she had come from this fairly comfortable lifestyle and and after that point where she was at no fixed abode, she ended up with the Salvation Army looking after her for a while.


So it really did have a huge effect on her life.

That's really terribly sad.


Just you can't imagine someone going to that length.

Almost to the point of destitution.


You know where you have.

I mean, if she's sold most of her jewellery, if she's not got fixed abode, then she doesn't have those assets.


And again, without a husband, without that kind of, you know, that support.

I mean, just that must have been terribly frightening, terribly daunting, yes.

And one thing that which is quite ironic that happened as a result of reporting of this case after it went to court, was that she got some fan mail.


So somebody, a naval officer from Portsmouth or somebody who is posing as a naval officer, wrote to her expressing his interest in having a relationship with her.

And I suppose she was clutching at straws by this point.

And she did actually go to Portsmouth to meet him.


And for whatever reasons that we don't know, that didn't work out.

Either he was trying to con her as well, or he just didn't like her when she turned up.

So he disappeared and left her with more unpaid bills in Portsmouth and nowhere else to go.

Oh, that's that's just, yeah, I mean, we just can't wrap your head around that one, can you?


You would you would like to think that she would have learnt and been a bit more cautious, But I think he speaks to that level of, I don't want to say desperation, but it is almost that, isn't it?

It's that real, that hope, that desire being so overriding, that almost common sense goes out of the window a little bit, especially given precisely what she's just been through with Ethel May Wilkinson.


You know you you would think she would have had a little bit more, I don't know, St.

Smarts to be a bit more cautious after that, but obviously not.

No, she's just sort of almost doubling down and throwing herself into it even more.

But I suppose though, if you if you've got to the point where you are so destitute, what more do you have to lose?


Maybe other than just being hurt again.

I mean that's just so painful and so sad.

I think it does speak so much to the times though.

And like I said earlier, just that real drive and that desperation and that need for for something, for this kind of marriage was so paramount for so many people.


It was it was so important.

It was the kind of the bedrock of society, and I think there were an awful lot of women who didn't have that and maybe really did yearn for that and felt that they were missing something out, which is.

Yeah, yes, different times, yeah.


There was eventually a happy ending, though, I was able to find out.

So I did a lot of trawling through Ancestry and trying to piece together what happened to Dora after this episode.

And she got a job as a housekeeper.

So she was then a reasonably financial financially stable and with Somewhere to Live.


And she met a relative of her employer and did eventually get married at the age of 71.

That's impressive.

Oh, that's lovely that she found love at the end.

Of her life.

That's nice, but I think more than anything, the fact that she had that stability, that she found something to help her get her her feet back on the ground and yeah.


Yeah, yeah.

I think she was from the kind of background where she would never have expected to become effectively a servant because she did have some independent income to start with and was presumably from a family that would be considered of a higher social status.

But she did find that stability, as you said, in this job as a housekeeper, and that worked out really well for her.


Honestly, it's been so fascinating to hear these different cases.

They're all so unique but so individual and fascinating and speak so much to the different themes and things that we've been talking about.

And like I said earlier, you have such a wealth of of material and for anyone who has any interest in history, unique history, quirky history, elements of superstition, I mean there is something there for everyone to enjoy.


I mean really intriguing, fascinating cases that I just don't think many people will have come across in their day-to-day.


No, I try.

I do like to try and focus on cases that haven't been written about that much, and I think the Doctor Harris one has appeared in a few academic papers, but it's not really that well known.


And so I do like to really dig into these things that haven't been covered.

I do cover better known aspects of the history of medicine too, but it is really particularly interesting to find something new.

And I I remember reading not so long ago on because again, obviously I do read yours I am, but I remember reading not so long ago.


You had this really interesting case and it was something that I had heard in research but didn't have as much detail as you had about the basically the submerging of people inside the whales in order to cure their arthritis and their rheumatism and so on.


Yeah, and I was just I I loved it.

Yeah, that's that is a really quirky 1, isn't it?

This was in NSW and it's in the 1890s, so quite late on really in terms of the general history of medicine.

But that was the bit that really intrigued me, the fact that it was so late and it was being reported in London.


Yeah, I think a lot of the reports over here, we're seeing it as kind of a quirky and quite amusing story.

But people evidently did believe that they could go and sit in the flesh of a decomposing whale and that this would help their rheumatism.

And I suppose the rationale for it a bit is that throughout history, people have rubbed oils and fats onto their joints to help ease pain, including the human it came from.


And there's, I suppose there's some parallels in the kind of rubs and liniments that you can put on things nowadays.


And and like you said, the fact that you know for not that long before this period and for when this happened, people were, they were also using human fat from corpses to rub onto their ailments.


And I think the whale, if you think about the mystical element of the whale and and particularly around NSW, New Zealand, Australia, all of those are smaller islands as well.

You know the whale really was a a magical creature.

It's part of their their, you know, their their myth and their law and so it's grounded in belief system that there's something very magical about this creature anyway and so it does kind of make sense that then it comes through and you start to see it brought into medical thinking and medical understanding and superstition.


So yeah, it not, it doesn't.

It's not so far out of the realms of possibility when you start to think about that and and like you said the the kind of the evolutional procedurally putting on oils and ointments from so many, you know, various other sources anyway, I think the mystical element was the whale part.


For most people, that was probably something very unknown and unheard all.

Yes, especially in this country looking at these news reports.

Whereas in the particular area of NSW where this was prevalent, there was a really strong traditional among the Aboriginal communities who lived in that area about the magical powers of the whale and how important it was to their traditions.


So it partly stemmed from that, but it also reminds me of the use of snake oil in America, which is, I probably won't go on too much about because that's probably a whole episode in itself.

But there was the idea of using snake fats and the fats of other animals to help rheumatism, and it probably just depended on where you were in the world and what species were there and what traditions for surrounding them.


Yeah, I I was going to say precisely that.

I think there's so much in what was local to that community in terms of what they latched onto that could be the cure, all the thing that was going to help them.

But yeah, I love that article.

I think it was a marvellous article.


And the images, the fact that you've pulled those sources so that you could actually see.

Yes, and that's what really makes it.

And there was cartoons on there as well.

And pictures.

Yeah, there's that picture which people can find on my website at the quackdr.substack.com.


This guy actually sitting in the whale and the viewer is looking at it from a bit of a distance and you can just see his little head popping out.

And he was in there for a long time.

Yeah, he'd stay in for 5 minutes and then jump out.

They had to stay there for hours, yeah.


I'm laughing, but it is really fascinating.

And like I said, there is something on your side for anyone.

There are some really intriguing cases and just fascinating exploits and and apparatus people.

I mean you touch on so many different subjects within this field.


So I highly recommend anybody to come and find you.

And I will make sure that on the podcast description, notes etcetera, we have links to your sub stack and links to your website etcetera so that they can find you.

They can read some of these articles, find more about you and obviously when the book goes back into print, no.


As and when that happened, in case they want to to read more from from you in the book.


Thank you so much for your time, Caroline.

Honestly, it's been absolutely fascinating.

Thank you.

It's been really lovely to chat to you.

And if people do want to find me, they can look at the quackdr.com, which is where I focus a bit more on the advertised types of medicines and the advertising imagery of the Victorian era.


And then, as I said, there's the quackdr.substack.com where there's lots of all sorts of quirky random bits from the history of medicine.

Yeah, honestly, I recommend both.

I I we can consume both.

You don't want to miss out.



They are real gems.

They're a real highlight.

I look forward to the weekly posts that I get via my e-mail on the subset.

I appreciate it.

Thank you.

Honestly, thank you so much for your time and I will say goodbye to everybody listening.

Bye everybody.

Caroline Rance Profile Photo

Caroline Rance


Caroline Rance started The Quack Doctor (thequackdoctor.com) to share her interest in the history of patent remedies and health fraud. She now also writes at thequackdoctor.substack.com and co-hosts the literature podcast She Wrote Too (shewrotetoo.substack.com). She regularly gives talks on the history of medicine and has spoken at The Old Operating Theatre Museum, the Wellcome Library, the Thackray Museum, St George’s Hospital medical school, the QED conference, Skeptics in the Pub groups and numerous other venues. She has appeared on the BBC’s Great British Railway Journeys and A House Through Time and BBC Radio 4’s comedy panel show, Best Medicine. She has an MA in Medicine, Science and Society: Historical and Philosophical Perspectives from Birkbeck, University of London.
You can find more of her work over on substack at www.thequackdoctor.substack.com