One of the most remarkable of the early 19th century British quacks was the self-styled Baron Spolasco who first saw the light of day as plain John Smith in Yorkshire in the early 1800s. What’s in a name, after all?
Adopting an exotic name, blackening his hair and wearing theatrical rouge, Spolasco wandered the country, scattering his seed – he fathered a number of illegitimate children during the course of his peregrinations – and claiming to have the answer to pretty much any complaint known to mankind. His calling card claimed that he could ensure “the Consumptive cured – the Cripple made to walk – the Deaf to hear – the Dying to live – the Blind to see, and every other affection treated incidental to the human frame.” After all, if you have such powers, why bother to list the particular diseases for fear that you may have missed some and narrowed your potential market.
For 22 shillings and sixpence, irrespective of what was wrong with you, you would be supplied with two pills wrapped in pink and blue paper and some powder folded in some white paper. These remarkable panaceas were probably composed of aloes and jalap and probably worked as strong laxatives. So busy and popular was Spolasco that when he was in Bristol as a “consequence of the number of sufferers who daily crowded around Baron Spolasco’s consulting rooms, he has found it necessary, in order to save his valuable time, to charge an admission fee of 5 shillings, which admission fee, if the patient be poor, will be received as consideration for the Baron’s advice, the wealthy will, of course, have to pay the usual fee of one guinea.”
Another of the enterprising Baron’s sidelines was rhinoplasty. His advert for this particular service claimed that “any individual who has lost his, or her nose, can be supplied with a real one, Grecian, Roman or Aquiline, perfect and natural as by nature.” The procedure involved bringing down a flap of skin from the patient’s forehead with which to reconstruct the snout. Worryingly, the Baron expressed surprise that it involved the shedding of so much blood.
But it was not all plain sailing – the Baron was one of the lucky thirteen to survive a shipwreck en route to Ireland, although his son went down with the Killarney. Then a year later in 1839, he was up before the beak on a manslaughter charge, after Susannah Thomas had died. When accompanied by her mother to consult the Baron, he claimed he didn’t need to hear her symptoms and gave Susannah the usual two pills and powder. Susannah did not pick up and her mother foolishly summoned Spolasco’s assistance again. Within a quarter of an hour of the second consultation, the poor girl was dead, an autopsy revealing that her intestines were inflamed and her stomach ulcerated and gangrenous. But as it could not be proved conclusively that the Baron’s medicament hastened her demise, he was acquitted.
Spolasco spent a few months in jail in 1840 for forging government stamps on his pills but on his release he moved to London. He cut quite a dash with a flashy coach and a servant of colour dressed in uniform and cockades but the London folk had seen it all before and he was soon run of town.
He ended up in New York, living in penury and dying around 1856 from a cancer that his panacea could not help him with. By this time he was being described in the press as an outright quack who “wore a mountebank costume” and fitted Walt Whitman’s withering denunciation of such people in Street Yarn; “what a bald, bare, wizened, shrivelled old granny he would be.”