The English Priest’s Powder: A 17th-century quack doctor’s advertisement

The marketing strategies of 17th and 18th-century quack doctors are now familiar territory. As Roy Porter’s outstanding book Quacks did so well to bring alive, early modern Britain was a vibrant medical market, a panoply of colourful characters and dubious remedies. They were, to use Porter’s phrase, “a ragtag and bobtail army of quacks”.

Taking advantage of the newly-available cheap print, quack doctors produced reams of advertisements to peddle their wares. Ranging from brief, straight to the point details to more sophisticated means of selling, quack doctors were often skilled wordsmiths; in many ways they needed to do something to stand out from the crowd. With so many different medicines and vendors jockeying for position, they needed to be innovative. This might include elaborate descriptions of the virtues of their medicine. They often included testimonials from those who, they claimed, recovered through the use of their pill or potion. They might use imagery to embellish their advertisements. Occasionally, though, some particularly innovative strategies can be found. One of my favourite is the clever tool of selling without appearing to sell. One of the ways this was done was by disguising the advertisement in the form of a book. A case in point is the engagingly titled Riddles mervels and rarities: or, A new way of health, from an old man’s experience, published in 1698 by Thomas Mace.

Title page from 'Riddles and Mervels' - availble on EEBO (copyright)
Title page from ‘Riddles and Mervels’ – availble on EEBO (copyright)

At first glance this appears to be a typical ‘self-help’ book, a genre popular in the period. In his opening preamble, Mace sets out his philosophy that age and experience are better than any university-trained, licensed physician. Anticipating howls of derision from the faculty, Mace acknowledged that “I am no physician either by education, graduation, licence or practice’. And yet, he argued, a man like himself of 80 years knew his own body better than any young man of 20 or 30 who had merely spent 5 years reading books in a university. Compelling stuff!

The first hint that all might not be as it first seems occurs early on with the inclusion of the following:

“TO Prevent all Frauds, know, That This Rare Power, known by the Name of the English PRIEST’S-POWDER, is to be had No where but at These few Places Following, viz. By the Author (Tho|mas Mace) at his House in St. Peter’s Parish in Cam|bridge, near the Castle; And at Mr. Daniel Peachcy’s in St. Buttolphs Parish there: And in London, by Mr. Adam Mason at his House in Old Bedlam near Bishops|gate; And by Mr. William Pearson, Printer, at the third Door in Hare Court in Aldersgate-street near the Meet|ing House; And by Mr. John Vaughan, Milliner, at his House in Grivil-street near Hatton Garden; and by Mr. Will. Benson in the Old Baily”

Indeed, advertisements in ‘proper’ books were not unusual, but the alert reader will no doubt note the name of the creator and seller of the powder…one Thomas Mace – the man who claims to be no physician. Disguised within an ‘explication of the title page’, the sell goes on…

Universall-Physical-Me|dicine, for all sorts of Constitutions, and all sorts of Maladies, Sicknesses, and Diseases, is a Chymical Prepar’d Powder which for some late years past I have Publish’d in the Name of the English PRIE                         T’S POWDER, and which it self is never to be Taken, either Inwardly (as Physick) nor Ap|plyed Outwardly to any Wound, Sore Scab, Bruise, Swelling, Pains, Aches, Head-Ach Rheumetick-Sore-Eyes, &c. All which, and many more, tis most Ad|mirably good for.) I say, it is never (it self) to be us’d or Apply’d (as Me|dicine) But (only) a lycture, which It sends forth, into some Certain Li|quors; into which it is to be Infus’d, for some certain Hours: And Those Li|quors, (Retaining its Virtue) are only to be us’d; And (as Physick) are to be taken, into the Body, in the way of Potion; […]ther for Vomit, Purge, Glister, or Sweat; But in the way of Chirurgery, are only Outwardly Applyed, by Washings or Bathings &c.

As the book progresses, it seems to revert to the ‘every man his own physician’ style. Mace assured the reader that his intentions were honourable and that he only wished to “Accommodate the Meaner sort of Men; but more especially the Poorest of all, who stand most in Need of Help and Comfort in their Sicknesses, seeing no Great and Skillfull-Physicians, will so much as look after Them, or scarce think of their Miseries; so that many Thousands live in Misery; Languish and Dye, for want of That which every ordinary House keeper might Easily Purchase, and not only have the Benefit of it for himself and his whole Family, during his Life, in all common Sicknesses, and Disea|ses, but might also be assisting to all his Poor Sick Neighbours round Him”

There follows a discourse on the Philosopher’s stone, including several pages of what can only be described as vernacular poetry. A short stanza should suffice:

MUch Talk has been of The Philosophers-Stone,
From Ages past; That by its livge alone,
‘Twould turn Inferiour Metals into Gold.
A Glorious Worder sure, if True; but Hold!
Where is’t? Who has’t? we no such Thing can see;
‘Tis surely Folded up in Mystery

There is even a page of music to allow the reader to literally sing the praises of the remedy!

EEBO (Copyright)
EEBO (Copyright)

But the next sections of the book, although clothed in a discussion of the miraculous effects of the philosopher’s stone, are in fact a shining example of pure quack rhetoric. On first glance it seems that Mace is merely reporting the effects of the ‘philosopher’s stone’ on a range of conditions. But, looking more closely, his ‘priest’s powder’ has been cunningly woven into the narrative. A clue comes in the title to his first section – “The admired use of this powder (or stone)”…which one is more prominent?!

The real clincher comes in the “Eight eminent stories” of the power of the “powder (and stone)”.  Ranging from the dying man who could not sit upright but recovered almost as soon as he had taken the powder, to the cured leper, to the woman suffering from yellow jaundice, whose “foul, corrupt stomach” was poisoning her food, all were miraculously brought to recovery not only by the mysterious priest’s powder but by the personal intervention of the ubiquitous Thomas Mace…who, as he was no physician but knew his own body, clearly just happened to be passing!

This was selling by not selling. The reader, perhaps expecting a list of cures and remedies for all ailments, and lulled by the promise of being able to cure themselves of all maladies without the need for physicians, surgeons or apothecaries, was instead subject to stealth marketing. Mace provided everything about his powder, including where to buy it and how to use it, but disguised it in a discussion of the ‘Philosopher’s stone’ to try and locate his ‘Riddles and Mervels’ as a scientific discourse. Clearly this was an advertisement, but it shows the innovation of medical retailers, and the lengths to which they went to sell their goods. Little is known about Mace. By his own admission he was an old man, but was he someone with a genuine concern for his fellow man, or just another medical entrepreneur, out to make a fast buck. You decide.

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5 thoughts on “The English Priest’s Powder: A 17th-century quack doctor’s advertisement

  1. A very interesting document … One minor question: I don’t suppose you know if it was given away (as you would expect for an advert) or sold (as you would expect for a proper book)? I suspect a customer would be rather annoyed if they spent a shilling or two to buy it only to discover that it was purely an advertisement rather than an actual manual of advice.

    1. Thanks very much for your question. According to the frontispiece it was priced at sixpence, so was sold rather than given away. In fairness, I do wonder whether the early modern book buyer would have been discerning enough to spot the ‘fraud’…a quick leaf through it would have given the game away. There is some ‘proper’ discussion of the physical and virtuous uses of the Philosopher’s Stone, but maybe one or two pages’ worth. The rest is good, old-fashioned sales!

      Thanks again
      Alun

      1. His poor customers! I guess if one were being generous to Thomas Mace, one might consider this a sort of ‘instruction manual’ for those using his ‘powder’. Maybe to a few people it was worth spending sixpence to get the most out of his miracle cure?

  2. I think that’s certainly possible; if, as he claims, he could cure virtually anything without needing to see any other practitioner, it might well have been worth a sixpence punt! I guess that’s partly what Mace was hoping!

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