An Age Of Superstition
THE eighteenth century was still an age of superstition. True, a small number of enlightened men laughed at it, and in 1736 witchcraft ceased to be a capital offence. Among the populace, however, the belief in witchcraft and a hundred other superstitions still flourished. Astrological almanacs and charms were sold by the thousand, every sort of fortune-teller, necromancer, quack and adventurer set up in business and generally did very well. That England was a happy hunting ground for such people gradually became known on the Continent and a stream of adventurers came over. There was the French astrologer who was consulted by George I and who told him that he would not live for more than a year after the death of his wife. At the end of this period the King left England to die in his beloved Hanover. He took a sad farewell of his court, and assured them, with tears in his eyes, that he would never see them again. To many of his subjects this did not seem to be a matter for tears, and they were both surprised and annoyed when he came back again in rude health.
In July 1776 the Italian swindler Guiseppe Balsamo, who had assumed the high sounding name and title of Count Alessandro di Medina Cagliostro, came to London. He was accompanied by his wife and a secretary and brought with him three thousand pounds in gold, besides money and jewels. He set up in rooms in Whitcomb Street near Pall Mall as a professor of the occult sciences and an infallible guide to lucky numbers in lotteries. He also had a scheme for weaving silk out of hemp, and what made him really famous and sought after, his physical regeneration. This was a course which would cure all ills or nearly all and indefinitely prolong life. It consisted of a forty days' course of baths, sweating, starvation, medicines, purgatives and a diet of roots. Many people came to him and declared they were cured. Possibly they were; starvation and roots after a long course of over-eating and drinking may well have had an excellent effect. Then Cagliostro did an unwise thing, he started what may be called a mumbo-jumbo of "Egyptian Masonry". This naturally aroused the suspicions of English Masons and people began to whisper that he was an impostor who had swindled many people on the Continent. He contrived, however, to make friends with Lord George Gordon, who, however mad he may have been, was not a knave; other acquaintances were less reputable, a man and his wife of the name of Fry and an Italian called Vitellini set out to swindle him. They actually contrived to extract from him half his gains, and not content with this had him arrested for a fictitious debt of one hundred and ninety pounds and subsequently on a charge of witch craft. Cagliostro was acquitted on both these charges; but was imprisoned at the King's Bench at the instance of a fellow countryman, Badioli, who had become one of his sureties. Lorenza, his wife, now took a hand. She went to mass one Sunday at the chapel of the Bavarian minister, and here by her sighs and tears attracted the attention of a member of the congregation, Sir Edward Hales. He gave her money and afterwards, when her husband was released from prison, employed him to do mural paintings at Hales Place. Cagliostro knew nothing of art and his effort only excited derision. Then he took to lecturing and as popular lecturers must hold their audiences, his lectures took a sensational turn. He stated in one of them that the people of Medina, whose country was infested with wild beasts, were in the habit of fattening their pigs with arsenic. They then turned them out on the countryside to be devoured by ferocious animals. These promptly died of arsenic poisoning; but why the pigs had not died of it Cagliostro did not explain. That anyone should have troubled to refute such nonsense seems odd; but a certain M. de Morande, the editor of a French newspaper, expressed grave doubts about the authenticity of these curious facts. Cagliostro promptly sent a letter to the Public Advertiser inviting de Morande to breakfast with him. The principal diet at this meal was to be a sucking pig fattened according to the Medina custom.
"The day after our breakfast" Cagliostro wrote "one or more of four things will happen. Either both of us shall die or we neither of us shall die, or you shall die and I survive, or I shall die and you survive. Of these four chances I give you three, and I bet you 5,000 guineas that on the day after our breakfast you shall die and I shall be perfectly well. You must either accept the challenge or acknowledge that you are an ignorant fellow, and that you have foolishly ridiculed a thing which is out of your knowledge."
M. de Morande did not accept the invitation and declared that Cagliostro was "the greatest impostor of the age". Finding that his many enemies were working against him and that Londoners were becoming less sympathetic, the count spoke mournfully of going to live with the wild beasts of the jungle where he was sure of finding friends, and departed for Paris.
We have mentioned George Psalmanazar in a previous chapter. His real name is not known, but he was supposed to be a Frenchman. While serving in a regiment abroad he became acquainted with the chaplain, a man called Innes. He was already posing as a native of Formosa and talking some gibberish which he called Japanese. Innes, who was thoroughly disreputable, had discovered that the man was an impostor; but thought that something might be made out of him. He suggested that he should become a convert to Christianity. Psalmanazar agreed, and Innes then wrote to Compton, Bishop of London, informing him of his success in converting this heathen Japanese to the Church of England. The Bishop, without apparently making any inquiries, invited them both to come to London. Psalmanazar accepted with alacrity, he was thankful to get out of the army. Innes had had the bright idea that Psalmanazar should write a History of Formosa. He set to work, and in two months-he had been educated at a Jesuit College.-he turned out a book, written in Latin, which purported to be a history of his native island. Innes translated it into English and when they came to England it was sold to a London bookseller. It was full of the wildest absurdities; but as no one had been to Japan it was difficult to refute them. Lord Pembroke, it is true, expressed some doubt whether Psalmanazar's statement that Greek was studied in Formosa could be accurate; but nevertheless the book achieved great success. He next turned his attention to the Church Catechism which he translated into what he called Japanese. There could not, one supposes, have been any large sale for this in England; but the book undoubtedly brought him prestige among the clergy and religious people. Innes, who perhaps realized that doubts were being expressed about his accomplice and that the imposture might not go undetected, went off to Portugal to be Chaplain-General of the English troops there. It was a post he had obtained through the good offices of the Bishop of London. Psalmanazar was now without his mentor and he did a very foolish thing. About a year before he had met Halley, who was then Savillian Professor of Mathematics at Oxford and afterwards became Astronomer Royal. Halley made some awkward inquiries about the position of the midday sun in Formosa and also how long the twilight lasted. Psalmanazar's answers were most unsatisfactory. If he had been wise he would have kept very quiet about the matter; but in his preface to the new edition of his book on Formosa he stated that Halley and his friends had been completely satisfied with his replies to their questions. This was too much for the future Astronomer Royal. The man who predicted the return of a comet, who discovered the proper motions of the stars and the long inequality of Jupiter and Saturn, might be expected to know something about the position of the midday sun in Formosa. He declared indignantly that Psalmanazar's answers to his questions had been anything but satisfactory, and that he was a rank impostor. Psalmanazar, finding that deceit no longer paid, took to hack writing for the booksellers. He also produced his own memoirs in which he confessed that
"out of Europe I was not born, educated not ever travelled ", and he expressed deep sorrow "for the base and shameful imposture of passing upon the world for a native of Formosa and a convert to Christianity, and backing it with a fictitious account of that island, and of my own travels, conversion etc. all or most of it hatched in my own brain without regard to truth or honesty".
Psalmanazar may have been sincere in his protestations of repentance. Mrs. Piozzi tells us that his
"pious endurance of a tedious illness ending in an exemplary death confirmed the strong impression which his merit had made on Dr. Johnson".
Boswell mentions him two or three times. He belonged to the club where Johnson met the metaphysical tailor and where he
"sought after George Psalmanazar the most. I used to go and sit with him at an ale house in the city" Johnson told his biographer.
The latter says that Johnson reverenced Psalmanazar for his piety, and would as soon have thought of contradicting a bishop. There were very, very few people whom the Great Cham would have refrained from contradicting.
Gustavus Katterfelto was another quack. His fellow countryman, Pastor Moritz, declared that
"every sensible person considers Katterfelto as a puppy, an ignoramus, a braggadocio and an impostor; notwithstanding which" he adds "he has a number of followers".
For some time he travelled about the country in a caravan accompanied by large black cats. Then he cast his eyes on the metropolis, the Mecca of every great quack. He hired rooms in Piccadilly and inserted the following advertisement in the Morning Post of July 31, 1782.
"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 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."
This idea that disease could be caused by living organisms was something quite new and it might have startled the medical world had it been advanced by anyone more reputable. Epidemics, it was thought by the older school of physicians, were caused by heat, damp, and other natural causes. It had been the accepted opinion in ancient Greece, and the more conservative among the doctors saw no reason to doubt it. There were, however, some of the younger men who thought that disease was carried by minute particles in the air, which they called formites. They could be, they suggested, destroyed by soap and water, fresh air and various disinfectants. That any of them might be seen under a microscope was never imagined, except by Katterfelto.
Dr. Boissy was another foreign quack who flourished in London. Perhaps it is incorrect to call him a quack, for he certainly gained a reputation and a fortune as a skilful surgeon. His methods of advertising, however, suggested a mountebank rather than a medical man. Accompanied by a servant in livery Dr. Boissy would drive every Thursday to Covent Garden, where under one of the colonnades a platform had been erected. Boissy having climbed up to his post by means of a ladder, would seat himself at a table on which were his medicine chest and surgical instruments. He would then rise, take off his gold-laced cocked hat and bow right and left to the surrounding multitude. On these occasions he never charged his patients any fees. This was the practice of many of these mountebank-physicians. They may have been moved by compassion or have realized that here was a cheap and excellent advertisement. In any case the poor could have paid very little and men like Boissy were making a fine income out of the well-to-do.
Philip Loutherbourg and his wife, who came from Alsace, were pure philanthropists. When people came to them "they looked upon them with an eye of benignity and cured them". They never charged any fee. Unfortunately the patients were admitted by ticket and there was always a great crowd. Unscrupulous people sold their tickets to those who had been waiting wearily for hours and charged as much as two or three guineas for them. The Loutherbourgs were said to have effected hundreds of cures. They met, however, with great opposition and suffered, they declared,
"all the malignity that man could suffer joined to ungrateful behaviour and tumult".
Disgusted at this reception of their kindness they gave up their cures and retired into private life.
Then there was a Mr. Lattese from Piedmont, who declared that by a long course of experiments he had
"discovered the wonderful secret of procreating either sex at the joint option of the parents. Should they desire a daughter", which few people did, "the success cannot be warranted with absolute certainty; but should they concur in their wishes to have a son, they may rely that by strictly conforming to a few easy and natural directions they will positively have a boy. Mr. Lattese thinks fit to premise that he will pay no attention but to letters post paid and signed with real names, directed to him at the Antigallican Coffee-House by the Royal Exchange."
Mr. Lattese did not remain long in business, probably his clients were disappointed with daughters.
These quacks and impostors whom we have mentioned were at the head of their profession, but there were also others, the travelling mountebanks, half entertainers half quack doctors, who set up their booths in the market places of country towns and even penetrated into remote villages. "Please ma'am the mountebanks be come" was the exclamation of a village serving maid on seeing a coach draw up at the door of her mistress's house. The only vehicle of that sort which she had ever seen in those remote parts was the coach which carried the mountebanks. Macky, when he was staying at an inn at Winchester, saw
"a coach with six bay horses, a calash and four, a chaise-marine and four enter the inn yard".
He tells us the liveries
"were yellow turned up with red, and there were four gentlemen on horseback in blue trimmed with silver. . . .There was no coronet on the coach, but a plain coat of arms with this motto argento laborat faber. Upon enquiry I found this great equipage belonged to a mountebank and, that his name being Smith, the motto was a pun upon his name. The footmen in yellow were his tumblers and trumpeters, those in blue his merry-andrew, his apothecary and spokesman. He was dressed in velvet and had in his coach a woman who danced upon the ropes."
These mountebanks were immensely popular, especially in the country. They provided such entertainments as tight-rope dancing, tumbling and various acrobatic feats. They also sold powders, pills and ointments, which they assured their audiences had already cured half the crowned heads of Europe. Some even produced certificates, medals and large seals, which they said had been bestowed upon them by grateful princes.
Carlyle declared that the age of superstition ended with the French Revolution. This was not, however, the opinion of the German traveller Memnich who, describing the England which he saw in 1799, said that it contained quacks and impostors "beyond any other in the whole world". Mme de Bocage does not go so far as this; but she describes with amazement how ten thousand Londoners ran away out of the city because a soldier had prophesied that it would be entirely destroyed by earthquake on a certain date.
"Such a prediction" she says "would never have occasioned so much terror in Paris."
In the country, especially in remote places, every kind of superstition flourished. Baretti says that at Honiton he was shown the stool used for ducking witches. This was in 1760, and such a method of dealing with witches had for many years been illegal. It still lingered, however, in out-of-the-way places, and the belief in sorcery had lasted through the eighteenth century and into the present day.