Robbing the Doctor: 17th-Century Medics as Victims of Crime

During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, a common complaint against medical practitioners was that they effectively picked the pockets of the sick, whilst doing little for them in return. As the Helmontian physician George Starkey remarked in the middle of the seventeenth century, the patient was “like to pay the price of the doctor fully with his life” – which Starkey regarded as a brave acte’!

But medics, just like anyone else, could sometimes be victims of crime. The records of the Old Bailey contain a fascinating list of these unfortunate practitioners, and the list of crimes and calumnies they suffered. More than this, however, they can offer an alternative glimpse into the world of early modern medical practice.

Old Bailey in the 19th century

(Old Bailey in the 19th century – image from Wikimedia Commons)

Sometimes, for example, physicians and other practitioners found themselves the victims of petty crime. In 1686, Edward Newgent of St Clement Danes pinched the periwig of an unnamed ‘Doctor of Physick’. The good doctor testified that he had been walking along the street in the evening, when the assailant whipped off his hat and wig, and pelted away down the street with them. The doctor gave chase and had the thief arrested. For this seemingly innocuous crime, the unlucky Newgent was sentenced to death!

Another victim of circumstance was Richard Allen of Holborn. In 1675, hearing a disturbance in the street, Allen, ‘by profession a Sea-Chirurgeon’, opened his door and was attacked by a mob (including bayliffs on the hunt for a person to serve a writ). Allen, was set upon by the men, ‘they hacking and hewing him without any mercy, that they left him dead upon the place’. So ‘mortal and dangerous’ were his wounds, that a ‘good part of his skull was taken clean off’.

Surgeon01.jpg

(Image from Wikimedia Commons)

At other times, the medicines or very tools of their trade might be targets for thieves. Surgeons, and their instruments, seem to have been a particular target. Instruments, especially high end examples, could be expensive and decorous, and were therefore worth taking. Consider the case of William Marriott, surgeon, whose house was broken into in October 1693 by the terrible trio of Batson, Dando and Bedford, ‘about 3 o’clock in the morning in a rude manner’. Swearing ‘great oaths’ and ‘offering to send his Soul to Hell’ they relieved him of £42 in cash, a gold locket and ‘a pair of forceps val. 4s, and other surgeons instruments besides’. All were acquitted.

March 1679 saw a “mischievous youth” slip into a barber-surgeon’s shop and observing that the barber was in another room, he made off with a “case of instruments, most of them tipt with Silver”. Crime didn’t pay for the errant youth; he was burnt in the hand for his trouble. A trio of thieves also relieved a London practitioner Peter Hillery of a “case of Chirurgeon’s Instruments” along with his sword. Hillery testified that he was “drinking in a Brandy shop” with one of the thieves, when he found the items missing. Quite why he felt the need to take his instruments to the pub with him is, unfortunately, not recorded.

Highway Robbery

(Image from Lewis Walpole Library)

Accosted by the highway robber, Daniel White, one John Delaphont was forced to stand and deliver ‘two boxes of surgical instruments, together with his hat, coat and shirt!

As well as the crimes themselves, some cases offer us a view into the world of what might be termed ‘irregular’ or ‘unorthodox’ practice. The descriptions of individuals are sometimes telling. In October 1679, for example, “several Bottels of a medicine called Elixar Vite” (otherwise known as ‘elixir vitae’ – a strong distilled water) were stolen from “a very ancient Itallian Gentel Man who has long professed Physick in this Kingdom”. The Italian was Salvator Winter, one of a string of European itinerant practitioners, who toured Britain in the mid seventeenth century, peddling their wares. In other sources, Winter was described as a ‘medical licentiate’, and signed letters testimonial to the skill of other practitioners. The servant of the unfortunate Winter was indicted, but later acquitted.

A_quack_doctor_treating_her_patient's_chilblains._Engraving_Wellcome_V0011085.jpg

(Image from Wikimedia Commons)

Another ‘unorthodox’ practitioner named Blagrave – “a pretender to physick” was relieved of a “Gold chain, a Medal, divers pieces of plate, several rich Cloaths, some Money &c”. The richness of the pickings from Blagrave highlights what a lucrative profession the practice of medicine could potentially be. To possess this level of goods suggested a man of means.

It wasn’t all one-way traffic however. As the records sometimes tell, medical practitioners could sometimes be tempted away from the path of righteousness. The exotically-named Toussaint Felix Urvoy was indicted of the heinous crime of stealing three china dishes in 1760. The case was complicated since Urvoy was owed money by the complainant, and claimed the dishes had been lent to him. Another witness described him as ‘a quack doctor’ who had befriended him in a public house (a pattern seems to be emerging here!) and said he ‘had some particular nostrums by which he could cure several disorders’.

Consider, though, the cautionary tale of the surgeon Stephen Wright, born to a wealthy Irish family, given a good education, versed in arithmetic and classics and sent to Dublin to be apprenticed to a prominent Irish surgeon. All was going well until…

“Unhappily for Stephen he chose to go by the Way of London, and to acquaint himself a little with England, the Place of his Nativity, whence his Forefathers came; tho’, as he said, his Father had a pretty good Estate, besides a handsome Sum of Money in Ireland, to which he was Heir, but by his desperate Misbehaviour, he has effectually prevented his inheriting either one or the other. For some Time after his coming to England, he served a Surgeon in the Country in Surrey, and might have done well, had he kept to his Business and been industrious, as he had good Education, and seemed capable of his Profession. His Friends had advanced to him 180 l. to bear his Expences at the Colleges in Paris. But he not content with that, resolved to improve this Sum, tho’ the Project he fell upon was wrong and foolish, and had no Success answerable to his Desire. In Effect he went to a Gaming-House in Covent-Garden, where in two or three Days, or at most a few Days, he lost the 180 l. designed to bear the Expence of his Travels, and then having no Money left, and not knowing what to do, but being destitute of the Grace of God, he resolved upon desperate Courses of Robbing.”

Given that so much focus is often upon the occupational lives of medical practitioners, it is interesting to see glimpses of their world through another lens. Lists of stolen items, for example, can be extremely useful in gauging what sorts of equipment physicians and surgeons owned, and where they took them. The terms by which medics were referred to and known is also revealing, not least in the colourful characters who sometimes inhabited the margins of medicine. The reason that I particularly like these records, though, is that they offer an intimate insight into the daily lives, frailties and misfortunes of a group of individuals, showing us a side of their lives not often reflected in the usual records of their medical occupation.

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