Tag Archives: key features of quackery

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

Merchant’s Gargling Oil

The keys to success in quackery are to come up with something that “cures” a multitude of complaints, advertise the bejeebers out of it and sit back and wait for the money to roll in. If you can extend the panacea’s remit to include the animal kingdom, so much the better. This was the route adopted by the purveyors of George W Merchant’s Gargling Oil and it served them in good stead for almost a century.

The liniment, launched on the unsuspecting American public in 1833, was intended to cure burns, scalds, flesh wounds, a bad back, piles, tooth ache, sore throats, chilblains and chapped hands. According to the adverts “Merchant’s Gargling Oil is a diffusible stimulant and carminative” – so you could use it to deal with flatulence. – “It can be taken internally when such a remedy is indicated, and is a good substitute for pain killers, cordials and anodynes. For Cramps or Spasms of the Stomach, Colic, Asthma, or Internal Pain, the dose may be from fifteen to twenty drops, on sugar, or mixed with syrup in any convenient form, and repeated at intervals of three to six hours.”

The first thing to note is that despite its name it could be applied externally as well as internally. Secondly, it was marketed as good for animals as well as Homo sapiens. Apparently, horses went mad for it. Initially, there was just one version of the liniment but from the 1870s there were two distinct versions – in yellow for animals and in a lighter colour for humans. Never mind if you could only get your hands on the animal version, you could still use it.  The ads did warn, though, “it will stain and discolour the skin, but not permanently.”

The Gargling Oil made extensive use of advertising. As well as the standard newspaper ads, there were almanacs, song books and stamps. In the 1870s Darwin’s evolutionary theories and the suggestion that man descended from apes was causing waves. Disraeli noted “Is man an ape or an angel? My Lord, I am on the side of the angels. I repudiate with indignation and abhorrence these new-fangled theories.” The stushie was too good for the copywriters for Merchant’s Gargling Oil to miss and they ran a series of ads featuring an ape with the quatrain, “If I am Darwin’s grandpapa/ It follows don’t you see/ that what is good for man or beast/ is doubly good for me.

So what was in it and was it any good? The former is the easier question to answer as the adverts were unusually forthcoming. It was a mix of petroleum, soap, ammonia water, oil of amber, iodine tincture, benzene and water. It is hard to imagine what possessed Merchant to knock up this concoction but as it must have tasted awful, the instruction to take it with sugar must have been very welcome.

As to its efficacy, it is not clear. It would have been messy to apply and the petroleum base may have been off-putting but it evaded the attentions of the Food and Drug Association. What did for it was a serious fire at the Merchant factory in Lockport in New York in 1928 which completely destroyed the building – I wonder if the Gargling Oil was flammable? – and it was so destructive that the company never got back on its feet again. It did leave us, though, with some wonderful adverts.

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


The Rev E.J.Silverton

Quacks come in all shapes and sizes but the key characteristics of a successful practitioner are a veneer of respectability, a cure that appeals to people’s concerns, a good marketing pitch and an impressive bunch of testimonials. Many of the quacks who have come under our microscope have, in some form or other, met these criteria. Someone styling himself a Reverend – and there is no reason to doubt that Silverton wasn’t a man of the Protestant cloth – would seem to be on a winner from the start.

As well as comfort for the soul Silverton had developed what he marketed as the Food of Foods. According to advertisements he was making available to the general public this wondrous manna which provided “wonderful cures of deafness and noises in the head and ears, affections of the eyes, neuralgic pains, indigestion, constipation, blood diseases, kidney and liver complaints, gout and rheumatism, bronchitis, asthma, consumption, general weakness and wasting and (of course) many other diseases”. So appealing did this panacea seem that Silverton who was billed as coming from London – always something likely to impress a provincial audience – was able to hire the Free Trade Hall in Manchester in 1884 for a series of lectures and free consultations. Silverton was a marketing genius and his pamphlets were full of positive and glowing testimonials, the adverts placed in the newspapers were, for the time, slick and there was an implication that Silverton was a friend of the Prince of Wales – as we have seen before, a royal connection is always a plus.

Alas, it was whilst he was in Manchester that Silverton encounter someone who would prove to be his nemesis – one Detective Sergeant Jerome Caminada of the Manchester city police who saw it as his duty to expose con men such as the Rev. When Silverton was in Manchester Caminada went to see him in disguise, limping heavily and claiming that something was wrong with his foot. Silverton checked his pulse and tongue, completely ignoring the foot, and diagnosed a case of rheumatism for which the cure was, surprise surprise, the Food of Foods which was available for the princely sum of 35 shillings, around twice the average weekly wage.

Caminada sent two assistants to visit the quack with different symptoms but the remedy was identical. Upon analysis the panacea proved to be little more than a mix of lentils, bran, flour and water. Armed with this evidence Caminada obtained a summons against Silverton for conspiracy to defraud but our quack proved a slippery fish and the stipendiary magistrate failed to bring a criminal case against him.

Notwithstanding this Caminada continued to stalk Silverton wherever he popped up, endeavouring to have his newspaper ads pulled and issuing him with summons. But Silverton was quicker than the law and he and his daughter continued to practise their quackery for around thirty years in all with some significant success.

Silverton died in Nottingham in 1895 aged 60. The local newspaper contains a report of his well-attended funeral and the moving eulogy delivered there. Presumably the congregation were blissfully unaware of that the late lamented clergyman was a quack extraordinaire.