Quacks Pretend To Cure Other Men’s Disorders But Rarely Find A Cure For Their Own – Part Fifty


Perry Davis’ Vegetable Pain Killer

In some ways, the tale of Perry Davis is an example of triumph over adversity. Born in 1791 into a desperately poor family and apprenticed to a cordwainer, he was an inventor manqué, several of his patented ideas failing to attract investment and leaving him deeper in debt. He was also desperately unlucky. When 14 he fell off some scaffolding, breaking his hip, an injury which left him lame for the rest of his life. He suffered from respiratory problems which the medics could not cure. Only two of his nine children survived. In 1840 he became very sick and was in great pain.

Eschewing medical practitioners, Davis relied on his own resources and started experimenting with a concoction of herbal and naturally grown ingredients. He had no high hopes as to its efficacy, rather anticipating it to be “handing me gently to the grave”. Miraculously, he got better only for ill fortune to dog him once more. After his house in Fall River was destroyed by fire in 1843 and he was on his uppers, he decided to concentrate on the one thing that had worked for him, his patent medicine. Even then, he had another setback. Whilst tinkering with the formula, a can of alcohol exploded, causing severe burns to his face. The application of his panacea did the trick.

If nothing else, Davis was a consummate salesman and imbued with absolute confidence in his product, he flogged it for all he was worth. Bottles of the vegetable pain killer began to fly off the shelves, so much so that he opened a factory in the aptly named Providence. Advertising was fulsome as to its powers. An example ran, “an inexpensive and thoroughly reliable safeguard is offered by Perry Davis’ Pain Killer which…has stood unrivalled as a household companion. It is used externally as well as internally and is just what is needed for burns, bruises, cuts, sprains etc; and most people know that no other remedy is to be compared with it as a cure for coughs, colds, rheumatism, neuralgia etc in winter and all summer complaints in their season…it is a medicine chest in itself”. Another featured a host of cherubs bearing the distinctive brown bottle.

Testimonials were cited including one from Mark Twain; “those who could run away did. Those who could not drenched themselves in cholera preventatives and my mother chose Perry Davis’ Pain Killer for me”. Its fame spread overseas and during the American Civil War it was dispensed to soldiers and horses alike. An ardent Baptist, Davis gave bottles to missionaries to take with them abroad. His generosity was usually rewarded with a boost in sales. As his personal fortune grew he gave donations to many causes, gifting $50,000 in 1850 for the erection of a new Baptist church. When he died in 1862, his coffin was followed by crowds of the poor whom he had helped.

The production and sale of Davis’ Pain Killer survived his death, his son taking over the responsibility and the potion was still on sale until the early 1940s. And what was in it and was it any good? Although Davis never revealed the formula, it seemed that it was a mix of vegetable extracts, camphor, ethyl alcohol and opiates. With that lot inside you, it is no wonder you felt better, even if only temporarily. The ultimate in pick-me-ups, perhaps!

Motivated By Curiosity And A Desire For The Truth – Part Twenty Seven


Do humans have the same range of facial expressions?

A picture is worth a thousand words, they say. Every picture tells a story. The human face can be wonderfully expressive and can give the onlooker a sense of what you are thinking or feeling without the need for you to utter a word. To the enquiring mind the obvious question is whether there is a stock range of expressions for emotions or, putting it another way, do humans make the same facial expressions in response to the same emotions.

An interesting question, you might agree, and one which a graduate scientist at the University of Minnesota, one Carney Landis, applied his mind to in 1924. The starting point was to assemble a group of volunteers, most of whom came from Landis’ fellow graduate students. His idea was to submit the group to a range of situations which would evoke different emotions, ranging from joy to fear, and examine the facial expressions that each made. To make life easier for himself, he decided to divide the human face into a series of sections following the musculature and paint lines around each section. By taking a series of photographs he would be able to determine how each volunteer responded and which part of the face moved in response to any given stimulus.

Having developed the methodology, the experiment began. The key, obviously, was to assemble a range of stimuli that would provoke a strong reaction. So, rather like a bush tucker trial, the guinea pigs were asked to put their hands in a bucket of slimy frogs. Whilst this was going on, Landis was happily snapping away. They were asked to look at pornographic images, were subjected to electric shocks, smell ammonia. You get the picture.

All went swimmingly until Landis produced a live white rat on a tray and asked them to decapitate it. Even allowing for the fact that sensibilities around animal rights were not as advanced as they might now be, this bizarre request caused a bit of a stir amongst the volunteers. What was interesting, and perhaps the most significant outcome of the bizarre experiment although the import seemed to have passed Landis by, was that only a third of the volunteers actually refused to carry out his command. Had he pondered this phenomenon, he would have pre-empted Stanley Milgram’s equally disturbing experiments of 1963 into the extent that people would obey orders even if meant causing others harm. The students’ noble refusal to obey Landis didn’t spare the rats. Landis did the job for them.

The other two thirds, with some reluctance, set about butchering the rats. The trouble was that the executioner’s art is a rather skilled one, calling for a steady hand and steely determination, and most made a bit of a fist of it. According to Landis’ notes, “the effort and attempt to hurry usually resulted in a rather awkward and prolonged job of decapitation”. It is hard to imagine the scene of devastation as the rats suffered a slow and painful death. Perhaps Landis should have concentrated on looking at the expressions on the rodent’s faces.

And the result of this rather bizarre experiment? Try as he could, Landis could not see any correlation between an emotion and expression. It seems that people have a wide range of facial expressions to convey the same emotion. Still, it is good that we have cleared that one up.

If you enjoyed this why not check out Fifty Curious Questions by Martin Fone. Available now. Just follow any of the links




Course Of The Week


With time on my hands, I’m always on the look-out for an interesting learning experience. An ad in the ever popular North Wales Weekly News came to my attention this week, offering fart classes. So confident were the organisers that it was going to be a rip-roaring success that they were putting on a repeat event and then a class a week. I was particularly intrigued to find out what the refreshments were – pickled onions or Brussels sprouts, perhaps?

Imagine my disappointment then when on making enquiries, I discovered it was an unfortunate typo. It would have been fun.

So upset am I that I have gone away on holiday. Thanks to the wonders of WordPress’ scheduler posts will appear as normal Mondays through to Friday, but the weekend Of The Week posts will not reappear until 25th March 2017. Contain your disappointment!

Names Of The Week (2)


What were the odds on the Bishop of Coventry, Christopher Cocksworth, making a cock-up during the vote on gay marriage at the recent Church of England Synod? The only bishop to vote against the motion, he claimed that “due to a moment of distraction” he pressed the wrong button on his handset when the vote came to its climax. Perhaps he was pondering what were two cocks worth in a gay marriage?


Confusing – isn’t it? – when two restaurants have the same name. It was certainly the case for the online version of Guide Michelin France which, I read this week, awarded the sought-after star to the humble Le Bouche a Oreille in Bourges. The gaff was swamped – presumably the news had travelled by word of mouth.

There had been a bit of a Bishop of Coventry but the mistake was soon rectified, the honour being bestowed on the much more upmarket Le Bouche a Oreille in Boutervilliers near Paris. Still, some good honest, reasonably priced fare might have been just what the gourmands needed.

Tales From The Nursery – Part Forty Five


Jack Be Nimble

This is a short rhyme which first appeared in the 1815 edition of Gammer Gurton’s Garland and goes as follows, “Jack be nimble/ Jack be quick/ Jack jumped over/ A candlestick”. It is occasionally followed by a second verse, “Jack jumped high/ Jack jumped low/ Jack jumped over/ and burned his toe”. I suppose it served him right for dicing with danger by jumping over a naked flame.

We have seen in other rhymes that Jack is used as a generic description for a boy or a man and there is no reason to suppose that the usage here is any different. But there are those who are determined to attribute this rather simple and charming rhyme to something or someone of historical import. Our first suspect is Calico Jack Rackham, a pirate who operated in the Caribbean until his eventual capture and execution in 1720. His principal claims to fame were the natty design that he employed on his flag – white skull and cross bones on a black background – and the fact that two of his crew were female, Anne Bonny and Mary reed. They both escaped dancing the hemp jig because they were with child. Whilst he was obviously a picaresque character there is no reason to suppose that he is the Jack of our rhyme. His only nimbleness was his evasion of the long arm of the law for some time.

The next suspect is the dread disease, yellow fever, which was popularly known as yellow Jack. In days before medicine was as advanced as it is now one common form of treatment for a victim of the fever was to light a fire in their room in the hope that the flames would draw out the fever. It probably did not work but at least the patient was kept warm. As a precaution when there was an outbreak of fever, lit candles would be placed by the side of a child’s bed to guard it against the disease. The theory goes that the rhyme is an invocation to the fever to avoid the candle and, therefore, the child so protected and to leap into the fire, thus eliminating the danger of infection. Ingenious as this may be, there is no compelling reason to think it is the case.

The third suspect is the pursuit of candle jumping which formed part of the St Catherine’s Day celebrations on 25th November in more innocent times. The participant was required to jump over a two-foot-tall lighted candle. If this was achieved successfully without knocking it over or extinguishing the flame, then the celebrant would have good luck for the following year. Failing to clear the flame could result in an injury such as Jack suffered, perhaps the harbinger of the ill fortune that will follow. Particularly popular amongst the lace makers of Buckinghamshire the practice rather petered out in the late 19th century, perhaps because of ‘elf and safety concerns.

Lace making wasn’t an exclusively female occupation so we don’t have to worry that Jack is a male. Of the three theories, this is the most compelling but I can’t help thinking that this is an unnecessarily elaborate explanation for a simple rhyme. Perhaps we should just be content with taking it at face value, an amusingly uncomplicated rhyme. But where would be the fun in that?