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Posts Tagged ‘quackery’

For Man and Beast

May 13, 2014 | by

The Internet will lead a traveler down strange byways. I no longer remember where I started, but here I stand, at the end of a circuitous and occasionally treacherous path, suddenly full of facts about Merchant’s Gargling Oil. Let’s not linger on how I got here. I’m as confused as you are.

Merchant’s Gargling Oil is “a Liniment for Man and Beast,” a catch-all salve first produced by George W. Merchant, a druggist, in 1833. Who can guess what compelled Merchant to whip up that first batch of petroleum, soap, ammonia water, oil of amber, iodine tincture, benzine, and water? Who still can say what frame of mind found him slathering this unguent on his skin? And who, at last, will stand up and tell me why Merchant saw fit to market his concoction as “Gargling Oil” even though he intended it primarily for external use?

These mysteries belong to the ages. More certainly, we can say that Merchant’s Gargling Oil was intended to treat burns, scalds, rheumatism, flesh wounds, sprains, bruises, lame back, hemorrhoids or piles, toothache, sore throat, chilblains, and chapped hands; that the Merchant business was successful enough to produce a promotional line of almanacs, songbooks (“songsters”), and stamps; and that horses were evidently crazy for the stuff. Beyond that, this Gargling Oil is awash in contradictions. For instance, despite its external uses, you could, if you wanted to, take it internally: Read More »


The Immortality Chronicles: Part 5

September 16, 2013 | by


What have we not done to live forever? Adam Leith Gollner’s research into the endless ways we’ve tried to avoid the unavoidable is out now as The Book of Immortality: The Science, Belief, and Magic Behind Living Forever. Every Monday for the next two weeks, this chronological crash course will examine how humankind has striven for, grappled with, and dreamed about immortality in different eras throughout history.

In the late 1700s, a Scottish quack named James Graham, Servant of the Lord O.W.L. (Oh, Wonderful Love), became the talk of London for claiming anyone could live to 150 simply by making regular visits to his private clinic, the Temple of Health. Graham encouraged valetudinarians to rub themselves with his patented ethereal balsam. He also advocated earth baths, in which naked patients climbed into holes in the ground and were covered neck deep in mud. He spoke of the salutary effects of thoroughly washing one’s genitals in cold water or, even better, in ice-cold champagne. His most in-demand device, however, was the celestial bed, a massive stallion-hair-filled mattress supported by forty glass pillars that administered mild shocks of electrical current. Graham’s clients hoped the effects of “holding venereal congress” in the bed would cure barrenness—or at the very least help them live longer, if not forever.

Graham was only forty-nine years old when he died in 1794—a pivotal, auspicious year in the history of immortality. It was the same year that Blake engraved his Songs of Innocence and Experience with lines about being a happy fly whether he lives or dies, about immortal eyes in forests of night, about “that sweet golden clime / where the traveler’s journey is done.” What Graham sought in the physical, Blake found in the mystical. His visions showed him “what eternally exists, really and unchangeably,” that “which liveth for ever.”

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