History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

14 May 2008

Shocking! Dr. Graham’s Electrical Cures

I’ve been undergoing physical therapy for a wonky problem with my hip and as I lay in a tiny dark room hooked up in six places to an electrical stimulus machine, or “stim,” I thought (for some reason I was thinking in French) plus ça change, plus, c’est la même chose—the more things change, the more they stay the same.

I had written about the famous quack (or not) doctor, James Graham in my novel of Emma Hamilton, TOO GREAT A LADY. In 1780, the teenage Emily Lyon (Emma’s nom de guerre at the time) went from being something of an apprentice at one of London's more respectable bawdy houses (there is no historical indication that she ever actually whored herself there) to working for the wildly popular Dr. James Graham at his Temple of Health, or Temple of Aesculapius in a number of capacities.

I began to notice the numerous handbills advertising the educational lectures and beneficial cures offered by Dr. James Graham, at the Temple of Aesculapius—also known as the Temple of Health—located at the Adelphi on the Royal Terrace in Bond Street. I even puzzled my way—for I read so poorly at the time—through Dr. Graham’s pamphlet on “The Wondrous Effects of the Celestial Bed in the Curing of Impotency and the Sustaining of Life.” A night’s enjoyment of the healthful pleasures of the famed Celestial Bed could be had for a mere fifty pounds. What must such a contraption look like? I wondered. Fifty pounds was a king’s ransom! Although his methods had become all the rage among London’s wealthiest and most glamorous citizens, thanks to the patronage of the vibrant and popular Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, it was a matter of opinion about town whether the doctor was a quack or a genius.

(Emma as a Bachante; painted y Elisabeth Vigee-LeBrun, 1790-91)

Having resolved to attend a lecture, I encountered no difficulty in securing an escort from among Mrs. Kelly’s patrons; yet I had not realized, until I witnessed it with my own eyes, that the real entertainment took place after the five-shilling scholarly presentation, a lengthy program of a decidedly more sensual (and dearer) nature. Beautiful young women, scantily attired in shifts of the sheerest muslin, struck classical attitudes while—with a liberal employ of sexual innuendo—Dr. Graham, clad like a clergyman in a black frock coat, demonstrated the healthful benefits appertaining to the espousal of mud baths and his radical new electrical treatments.

This excerpt from TOO GREAT A LADY is taken from fact. Graham was indeed a huge hit among the young cognoscenti: Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, attended Graham’s wildly popular lectures on the healthful benefits of electrical cures and mud baths, followed by pseudo-erotic demonstrations of the same. Watching her skimpily-clad colleagues strike poses, Emma may have gotten the idea for her famous Attitudes, which she would perform to great acclaim years later. Not all of Graham’s assistants were “mute.” Some of the young ladies sang angelically, providing background music for Graham’s demonstrations. Emma, renowned for her voice, got her start in this capacity, and was later promoted to sitting in a mud bath, sunk up to her shoulders. Audiences saw only her charming face and an enormous, elaborately dressed powdered wig.

Dr. James Graham, lecturing in Edinburgh

Born in 1745 in Scotland, James Graham was the son of a saddler. Although he never completed his medical studies in Edinburgh, he called himself a doctor nonetheless. He moved to America when he was in his twenties, offering himself as an “eye specialist.” In Philadelphia, he met Benjamin Franklin and after familiarizing himself with Franklin’s experiments with electricity, grew convinced that it was the cure for all ills.

In 1775, Graham returned to London. There, he set up a practice and his “electrical medicine” began attracting a posh clientele. Patients were delivered electrical jolts while sitting on a purpose-built chair (which he called a magnetic throne) or wearing special crowns or caps. Graham’s lectures and treatments were so popular that in 1779 he moved his practice to an elegant townhouse calling it the Temple of Health. The wealthy paid a small fortune to attend his lectures, and the risqué post-discussion demonstrations, but to Graham’s credit, he used their coin to fund a free clinic for the poor, whom he treated at the Temple of Health during the daylight hours.

Electrical cures in action, from a 1766 engraving

The Temple of Health had several ornately decorated rooms, the famous of which was the Tinsel Chamber of Apollo which housed the notorious Celestial Bed.

Dr. Graham boldly claimed that anyone who rented the twelve by nine foot bed for the night would be "blessed with progeny." Sterility or impotence would be cured.

The bed could be tilted so that it lay at various angles, the incline being considered more conducive to contraception. According to the entry in the Museum of Hoaxes, the mattress was filled with “sweet new wheat or oat straw, mingled with balm, rose leaves, and lavender flowers,” as well as hair from the tails of fine English stallions. Above the bed, an inscription in Latin read: It is a sad thing if a rich man has no heir to his property.

Graham's famed Celestial Bed

The pair of would-be parents would be serenaded with soft music (sometimes played and sung by the young Emily Lyon) as they cavorted in the spectacular bed. They could watch themselves in the large mirror suspended above them on the ceiling, while behind them, electricity crackled across the headboard, ostensibly filling the air with what Graham referred to as a magnetic fluid that was “calculated to give the necessary degree of strength and exertion to the nerves.”

Graham also espoused radical dietary beliefs, insisting that people should 'abstain totally from flesh and blood, from all liquors but cold water and fresh milk, and from excessive sexual indulgence., He also believed that many human ailments were due to wearing woolen clothing.

Although the Temple of Health was wildly successful for a number of years, by 1783 or 84 (depending on which source you believe), Graham was deeply in debt. He moved back to Edinburgh, where he began to tout the efficacy of a new cure-all—mud baths. Graham trumpeted these treatments as the secret to immortality, insisting that people could absorb all the nutrients necessary to sustain life simply by bathing in mud. Naturally, like every good quack, he assured his customers that he himself had availed himself of the cure with astounding success, claiming that he had survived two weeks immersed in mud with no outside nourishment except for a few drops of water.
Not too many years later, Graham either got religion or went mad, depending on how you look at it. He founded the New Jerusalem Church (in which he was the only member) and began signing all his letters “Servant of the Lord, O.W.L.” (Oh, Wonderful Love). In 1792, he fasted for fifteen days and covered his naked body in grass turf. Charitable even in dementia, he was seen walking the streets stripping off all his clothes, to give them to the poor. The authorities were not amused, however. In 1794, Graham was arrested for lewdness; he died soon after.

So, was Dr. Graham crackers? Ever had a mud bath? Been slathered with seaweed at a spa? Went “swimming” in the Dead Sea? Ever been hooked up to a modern-day “stim” machine? Have you ever subjected yourself to a new-age treatment or “cure” that turns out to be pretty old-fashioned? Maybe James Graham wasn’t such a charlatan after all!


Blogger Kathrynn Dennis said...

Fasinating, Amanda. And I sooo want to see the images you posted. My browser or BlogSpot has censored them?

Pray tell, what were they images of? Dr. Graham's big magic bed?

Tee-hee. Fun post.

2:33 PM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

This image thing was driving me crazy. I would add them to my post and then they would disappear. So I'd re-do the post and they'd be up, but evidently on certain browsers, they're no longer there. I can see them on AOL, but can't on Internet Explorer.

Here's the url for the Museum of Hoaxes site where I found the ever-disappearing images:

The two images that keep fritzing out are of electrical cures in action (from a mid-18th c. engraving) and yes -- of the celestial bed! I finally noticed last night when I looked at them again that the woman depicted in the celestial bed is bare breasted! But you have to look really closely. And it's not a big image. I can't imagine that they were "censored." Certainly the image of the electrical cure doesn't have any drawings of bosoms, however tiny. :)

2:43 PM  
Blogger Kathrynn Dennis said...

Yep, looks like BogSpot is censoring...but I found the images. Thanks for the URL. Ever fun.

P.S. I log and blog from work and I ALWAYS get caught trying to be fast...hence the mispelled words.

Kathrynn, who can spell fascinating. Really. ;-)

6:14 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home

Free Web Site Counter
Kennedy Western University Online