Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Toilers in London, by One of the Crowd [James Greenwood], [1883] - Doctor Quackinbosh

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"THERE is nothing to be done in the street physic line o' business without plenty of patter," as a vendor of a miraculous toothache tincture - at one penny the bottle - confided to me. "In neighbourhoods like this" (Brick Lane, Spitalflelds), "any amount of mumbo-jumbo, as we call it, goes down. Keep it going, and be genteel in giving mouth to your h's.' Never mind about its being proper. Whatever word you use that will bear a good sounding 'h,' let it have it. It sounds hedgerkated, and as though you've been through your degrees, or whatever you call 'em. That's why I wear this mortarboard cap. There's a flavour of college and university about it. Do I know anything about dentistry? Not me. I'm a house-painter - when there's anything in that line stirring, which is for about three months out of twelve. Where did I get that decayed lot of human teeth from? I bought 'em up at the Cattle Market, at Islington - where you can buy any mortal second-hand thing on Fridays. I bought very nigh half a peck of 'em for fifteenpence. Enough to give anybody the toothache to look at 'em. 'Course they are. That's the purpose of 'em. They give the clue to a lot of patter. 'It is not because I'm sellin' my specific in the streets of London,' says I, 'that you must suppose, ladies and gentlemen, that I ham heither hignorant hor hinexperienced. I give you hoptical hevidence of the many begscruciatin' hoperations I've performed on the masticatory horgans of the human frame. Every one of them teeth you see before you, both marlows and hinsisors, was drawn from the human jaw by this hand - the hagony of which caused me to give my mind to the inven-[-124-]tion I now offer you. It is not honly the hagony of hextraction, it is the danger of a fractured jawbone, which here is one in the bottle, the young woman belonging to which was hoperated on at Guy's at the time when I was walking the hospitals.'"
    "And is that a human jawbone?" I asked him, pointing to the osseous specimen suspended in some liquid by a string.
    "Well, I don't mind telling you, it's a sheep's," he replied frankly; "but it's only to hillustrate the hargyment like, and it does just as well. What is my miraculous tincture made of? Come, now, that's coining it a little too strong. You wouldn't guess in a month. No, there's no opium in it. Opium, hey! what, and get a profit out of pen'orths! There's no harm in it. They say simple remedies are the best, and I'm blest if they could have a simpler one than mine. They might swallow a pailful of it, and it wouldn't hurt 'em. Can it possibly do them any good? I'll tell you what, guv'ner" - and here the proprietor of the miraculous toothache tincture grew serious, almost solemn - "I assure you I've seen it do 'em that good I've been perfectly thunderstruck. I've had 'em come here with their jaws bound up, and black under the eyes with the pain, and I've rubbed their gums with my tincture, and they've been free from pain that minute."
    "It must be faith," I suggested.
    "It must be something," returned the ex-house-painter, with a glance at his bottles that betrayed his consciousness that the key to the mystery was not contained within them; "but it has often been a puzzler to me, as I tell you, fair and honest."
    Very different was this candid and jovial impostor from another of the craft whose acquaintance I made shortly afterwards in the Walworth Road. This was the vendor of an embrocation for the cure of rheumatism - a man of somewhat better education than he of the toothache tincture, but still a very ignorant person; but his manner of addressing the crowd gathered round his temporary rostrum was even more striking than his jargon. He was so quaintly dressed that I at first thought either he was one of those mountebanks who make their way by sheer impudence, or that he was a little crack-brained. He wore a sort of dressing-gown, braided with all manner of cabalistic signs, and a tight-fitting black velvet skull-cap on his head, the effect of which was in some degree marred by his elaborately oiled side-locks, turned under in what is vulgarly known as the "Newgate knocker" style of hairdressing. It was evident, however, that he was a man thoroughly believed in by the poor people about him; and he was doing a brisk trade in boxes of ointment at twopence each or four for sixpence. "If you harsk me of what my ointment is made," he said - with the air and tone adopted by certain street-corner preachers - I answer you, it is composed of the simplest 'erbs of the fields, gathered by myself and distilled in my own laboraytory. If you ask me again, how I account for a simple ointment made out of the 'erbs of the field effecting such cures as is well known to you it has effected, the reply I make is that I don't presume to account for it. I know myself better. It's give to some to heal the poor, who can't afford to go to physicians who ride about in their carriages and charge five [-125-] guineas a visit  - and p'r'aps it's been give to me. I don't say it is. I leave you to judge for yourselves: you have got your eyesight, and your understanding, and you have seen over and over again what my ointment can do when the most heminent of the faculty has failed. Twopence the box, or four boxes for sixpence. You've heard, all of you, of precious ointment. Nobody ever heard me call mine by that name, though many men whose cures have seemed that miraculous as some of mine have might so lay claim. I sell you my simple ointment, only, bear in mind, made of the 'erbs of the medders, and if there is a power in it that I can't put in I don't charge you for that. For your sakes, I'm 'umbly glad that it is there, but I don't charge you for it."
    He did not "charge for it," nor did he "say it," but what he unmistakably hinted was that his ointment possessed a power due to a supernatural recognition of his - the ointment seller's - praiseworthy endeavours to ameliorate the afflictions of his humble fellow creatures. And the most curious part of it was that his tone, his gestures, the expression of his face, all betokened that preposterous, almost blasphemous, as the daring assumption seemed - he more than half believed in it himself.
    "He quite believes in it, there's no doubt about that," remarked a milkman of the locality, near whose shop the crowd was gathered.
    "Well, I don't know whether he is an impostor; I only know this, that if he was a out-and-out sharp 'un, and one to take full advantage of foolish people's weakness, he might have made a little fortune by this time. He certainly have made what seemed like wonderful cures. I've seen 'em myself, and I aint a man to be 'umbugged. Of course he don't cure 'em, but he's got a name for it; and there's many who fancy they've got rheumatism and them kind of complaints, when all that is the matter with 'em is a disease of the 'magination. That's how I reckon it up," said the milkman; "and I've seen 'em come here with stiff joints, and he's rubbed 'em on the spot, and they've been all right in about half a jiffy. Why, a bit ago there was a old woman come, when there was a tidy crowd on a Saturday evening, and she brought her gal along with her - quite a young Woman she was - and the old woman she up and raises her voice, holding her gal by the hand, and telling the people that she couldn't be easy in her mind till she'd come there and give the ointment man credit in public for her daughter's wonderful recovery. I don't know how many months she said it was that her gal was abed, without any use in her legs; anyhow, two twopenny boxes cured her, and there she was, alonger the old woman, and going up to him - the young un did, I mean - she took him by both his hands and fell a-crying out of sheer thankfulness like. And how did he take it?-the ointment man, you mean? Well, I never see a man look queerer. He look scared-like and frightened. He hadn't got a word to say. He hooked it. Not another box did he sell that evening, but he packed up and went home. He's done very well ever since, and that's what he means when he talks about there being a power in his ointment he didn't put there. I can't say that he believes it himself. I think he's one of that weak-minded sort that would go off his head if he [-126-] really did believe it. So he just nibbles at it as far as he's got pluck enough, and chucks out hints. He makes a tidy thing of it. He'll have that there collar-box - what he keeps his money in - full of ha'pence and silver, before he's done to-night."
    I can only hope that I did the ointment-seller no injustice by failing to fall in with the milkman's charitable conclusions. He, the man in the dressing-gown and with the oily under-turned side- locks, may have been one of the weak-minded sort; but there was the wide-awakedness of the weasel in his restless survey of the crowd about him; and he had a knack of "chucking out his hints" at those whom he deemed would be most likely to be impressed with them, that raised in my mind something stronger even than suspicion against him.
    That little incident of the old woman and her daughter, I could not help thinking was much too good to be genuine ; and strangely enough, not more than a day or two afterwards I heard from the lips of another street doctor, a similar instance of a miraculous cure, as well as the details of the way in which the "dodge" was worked. This last-mentioned individual I found in Whitecross Street, St. Luke's, and this "fake," as he himself designated it, for the time, was the vending of Liver Pills, and which he assured me were exactly the same as were sold at the doctors' shops.
    "And why shouldn't they be," said he; "they cost nothing, or next door to it. I can buy 'em all ready made up for half-a-crown a pound; and a pound will fill a pint pot, which gives a very good profit when they're sold out at four a penny. They have to pay a penny for a couple at the doctor's shop, so they ain't bad treated. How long have I been in this line? Well, I've been a street doctor going on for twenty-three years, and all the time I've never been five miles out of London. I don't know how many there are at it. I know about a dozen in the same line, but there's a good many more than that. None of us sticks to one thing long-to the curing of one complaint, I mean. It depends on the neighbourhood. When I first started I worked Woolwich with my 'miraculous Nine Oils.' Men who work at heavy lifting and hauling, and are likely to get strains and ricks of the back, have a superstitious belief in the 'Nine Oils.' It is the same wherever you go. What are they? what, the original Nine? Blessed if I know, nor they don't know either. But that don't make any difference. I used to give 'em one - sperm oil - and call it the Nine. It went down wonderful round about the docks and at the gate of the arsenal, when there would be, p'r'aps, a couple of thousand men going in and out of the gate night and morning and at dinner times. I, working at the ladies' shoemaking before that, along with another young fellow, and being out of work we started the street-doctoring business. My mate had been in the theatrical scene-painting line, and could picture a bit on canvas. He painted a back scene for the stall, representing 'before' and 'after.' Half the painting was a lot of poor fellows looking dreadful bad, some of 'em with their arms in a sling, and some with their legs bandaged, and some with crutches and sticks, all of 'em having been sprained or overstrained themselves at their heavy work, and they were being turned away from the gates of the hospital, [-127-] and writ under 'em were the words 'Discharged incurable.' The other half of the painting showed a sort of a angel coming down and showerin' on 'em out of a bottle a regler drencher of the 'Nine Oils,' and there they was a-tearing off their slings, and chucking their sticks away, and waving their crutches, and hooraying. This, besides the board and trestles, and a lot of doctors' bottles with sperm oil in 'em, was all we had to start with. When I say we, I was the principal, being more genteel-looking, and having the gift of the gab. We hit on an idea to give the thing a start. The first day I made a pitch near the docks; it was Monday dinner time, and there was soon a crowd round the picture, most of 'em chafing it and me too; while I kept on pattering serious about having just come from America, after giving a man, who had found out the virtues of the miraculous oils, and who was making a rapid fortune, a thousand dollars for the secret, on condition that I wouldn't work till I got to England. It was sixpence a bottle, but I didn't sell one of 'em, and I didn't expect to yet awhile. But when the crowd was thickest, there come up to the outside edge of it a poor fellow lookin' terrible ill, and with one arm out of his jacket sleeve. He began to abuse me most awful for trying to swindle poor afflicted people out of their money. 'Here's a chance for you!' he cried out; 'if your Nine Oils can do such wonders, try 'em on my shoulder. I've been laid up with a sprain in it these nine weeks, and haven't done a stroke o' work. Cure me; I haven't got any money, but I'll give you the jacket off my back.' My poor fellow,' says I, 'I can't promise to set you right on the spot, but step up here, and I'll try what I can do for you.' And the crowd made way for him, and up he came. I helped him off with his shirt, and there was his shoulder and back with a blue and green bruise, as large as the crown of my hat. I rubbed away at him for about five minutes with my oils, the crowd each minute growing greater, and then says I, 'Now tell the people, free and fair, how you feel after it.' He tried to, but his feelings were too much for him. He worked his bad arm like a windmill for a minute or so, so as to show that I had quite cured it; and then he picked up his jacket, and handed it to me, saying, 'Take it and welcome, and I wish, for your sake, the pockets of it were full of golden coin.' It was a telling bit, I can assure you; but when I handed him back his jacket and half-a-crown with it, and shook hands with him, you might have heard the hooraying a couple of streets off. I sold every bottle I had in less than five minutes, and had to promise to be there again next day with a fresh supply. I needn't tell you it was my mate who acted the man with the sprained shoulder. We did wonderfully well. Day after day, for months, I used to take about two pound ten; and it was more than three-quarters profit. And it might have gone on, but for my mate taking to drink, and growing too lazy to do anything in the business. At last he'd do nothing at all but go about and amuse himself and sponge on me for the money to do it with. Then he took to gambling; and wouldn't be satisfied with half our takings. It was all owing to him, he said, that the game was what it was; and if I didn't treat him handsome, he'd round' on me and have me pelted out of Woolwich. [-128-] So I had to break with him,and shifted to Poplar; and being now regularly in for street-doctoring, I come out there with my Pill of Faith. And my old pardner he followed me there; and was always drunk, and attended me at my pitches, telling the people most awful lies as to what my pills was made of. 'They're only bread,' he used to say. 'Look here, this'll show you.' And he'd take up a handful and stuff 'em into his mouth. 'I used to be his pardner,' he'd say, 'and I know all about 'em. And I tell you there's no more good or harm in 'em than there is in chewing a bit of old crust.' "
    "And was it so?"
    "Well, to tell the truth, there wasn't any lie in what he said about 'em being bread. They was bread, and nothing else. But he'd no reason to be so blessed malicious, and it served him right to be paid out for it."
    "And who paid him out?"
    "I did. I couldn't get no peace of my life, on account of his coming up and bolting my pills by the handful, just to show they was only bread. So one day I got the doctor's man who made 'em for me to shove a little something of a wilent nature in about a handful of 'em; and I kept these in front of all the rest, handy for him to grab at if he came again. Oh, yes, he came again. 'What, you aint done selling your rubbishing bread pills?' he hollers cut, when I'd got a good many people about me. 'You ought to be ashamed of yourself,' says he, 'selling the people little bits of dirty bread for medsun. Look here,' ses he to the people, 'this will show you what they're made of;' and he snatches up a lot of the planted ones, and chews 'em and swallows 'em. That cured him of interfering. He never came any more."