Dr Velpeau’s Magnetic Love Powders
In cultures and times when arranged marriages were not the vogue, one of the principal concerns for the male member was how to win over the fairer sex. And where there is insecurity, there is fertile ground for the practitioner of quackery to till.
Dr Velpeau – of course, that was not his real name, it was the more prosaic J C Merrill and may have been an attempt to associate his product with the French surgeon, Alfred Velpeau – offered his dupes powders which were supposed to transform their amatory fortunes. What was most enterprising about the scam was that the adverts were in the form of a job advert for salesmen, offering a salary of 800 dollars and commission. When someone responded, all they received was a sample of the powders and some instructions as to their use. “These powders” the literature proclaimed, “properly administered, are warranted irrespective of age, circumstances or personal appearance, to win them the love or unchanging affections of any one they may desire of the opposite sex.”
The problem was in the proper administration of the powder. The male was not the one to consume it but rather he had to find a way to induce the object of his affections to take the powder. This might be an insuperable hurdle for someone who is particularly gauche in the presence of the opposite sex. Slipping some surreptitiously into a beverage might just work. If he succeeded in getting the woman to consume the powder, the man would have an anxious wait to see whether she went weak at the knees and threw herself at him. Astonishingly, at the height of the scam in 1855, Velpeau was getting upwards of forty letters a day from men desperate enough to send him two dollars for the keys to unlock a woman’s heart.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, nothing happened. Many would put the failure down to experience but some were incensed enough in late 1855 to write to the Mayor of New York, complaining about Merrill’s sharp practice. The scam hit the newspapers but the victims didn’t find a sympathetic press. One paper commented, “Only think of it! For two dollars, any enterprising young man – no matter if he is as poor as an editor, and as ugly as a baboon, can through the instrumentality of these powders, make himself “lord” of the most charming lass of “sweet sixteen” to be found within the limits of our friend’s agency, which comprises four counties!”
The Mayor, though proved to be more sympathetic and Merrill had his collar felt and was charged with fraud. He eluded incarceration by promising to stop flogging his powders and to return the monies extracted from his victims. Whether he returned the victims’ money is unclear but the lure of easy money was too much to resist and six weeks later he was still at it, selling his miraculous powders and fleecing his victims. This time, though, Merrill couldn’t evade the long arm of the law. He was arrested, charged with defrauding his victims and thrown in jail. And that was the end of the Magnetic Love Powders.