A 1665 Advertisement Promises a “Famous and Effectual” Cure for the Great Plague

There is a lev­el of avarice and deprav­i­ty in defraud­ing vic­tims of an epi­dem­ic that should shock even the most jad­ed. But a look into the archives of his­to­ry con­firms that venal moun­te­banks and con artists have always fol­lowed dis­as­ter when it strikes. In 1665, the Black Death reap­peared in Lon­don, a dis­ease that had rav­aged medieval Europe for cen­turies and left an indeli­ble impres­sion on cul­tur­al mem­o­ry. After the rats began to spread dis­ease, ter­ror spread with it. Then came the adver­tise­ments for sure cures.

“Every­one dread­ed catch­ing the dis­ease,” notes the British Library. “Vic­tims were often nailed into their hous­es in an attempt to stop the spread… They usu­al­ly died with­in days, in agony and mad­ness from fevers and infect­ed swellings.” This grotesque scene of pan­ic and pain seemed like a growth mar­ket to “quack doc­tors sell­ing fake reme­dies. There were many dif­fer­ent pills and potions,” and they “were often very expen­sive to buy and claimed, false­ly, to have been suc­cess­ful­ly used in pre­vi­ous epi­demics.”

Sure­ly, there were many in the med­ical pro­fes­sion, such as it was, who gen­uine­ly want­ed to help, but no hon­est doc­tor could claim, as the broad­side above does, to have dis­cov­ered a “Famous and Effec­tu­al MEDICINE TO CURE THE PLAGUE.” So con­fi­dent is this ad that it lists the names and loca­tions of sev­er­al peo­ple sup­pos­ed­ly cured (and promis­es to have cured “above fifty more”). You can go look up “Andrew Baget, in St. Gile’s,” or “Mrs. Adkings. In Coven Gar­den,” or “Mary-Waight, in Bed­ford-Bury.” Ask them your­self! Only, that might be a lit­tle dif­fi­cult as you’ve cur­rent­ly got the plague…. (See a tran­scrip­tion of the adver­tise­ment here.)

This par­tic­u­lar exam­ple appears to have been a guild effort. At the bot­tom of the pam­phlet we find a list of mer­chants offer­ing the need­ed ingre­di­ents for the med­i­cine, which suf­fer­ers would pre­sum­ably mix them­selves, hav­ing first vis­it­ed the shops of Mr. Leonard Sow­ers­by, Mr. Hey­woods, Mr. Owens, Mr. Good­laks, a sec­ond Mr. Hey­woods, and Mrs. Eliz­a­beth Calverts (poten­tial­ly infect­ing oth­ers all the time.) Cus­tomers were clear­ly des­per­ate. They aren’t even giv­en the stamp of a physician’s approval, only the mer­chants’ promise that oth­ers have returned from the brink by means of an “infal­li­ble Pow­der” that also cures “Small-Pox, Fevers, Agues, and Sur­feits.” Chil­dren should take half a dose.

17th cen­tu­ry physi­cians fared lit­tle bet­ter against the plague than doc­tors had over 300 years ear­li­er when the dis­ease first made its appear­ance in Europe in 1347, trav­el­ing from Asia to Italy. They did what they could, as the BBC points out, rec­om­mend­ing “mus­tard, mint sauce, apple sauce and horse­rad­ish” as dietary aids. Oth­er attempt­ed 14th cen­tu­ry cures includ­ed “rub­bing onions, herbs or a chopped up snake (if avail­able) on the boils or cut­ting up a pigeon and rub­bing it over an infect­ed body.”

This sound­ed spe­cious to many peo­ple at the time. One 1380 source, Jean Froissart’s Chron­i­cles, stat­ed sar­cas­ti­cal­ly, “doc­tors need three qual­i­fi­ca­tions: to be able to lie and not get caught; to pre­tend to be hon­est; and to cause death with­out guilt.” Such qual­i­fi­ca­tions have always suit­ed those intent on careers in gov­ern­ment or finance, where times of trou­ble can be high­ly prof­itable. We are for­tu­nate, how­ev­er, for the advances of mod­ern med­i­cine, and for med­ical pro­fes­sion­als who risk their lives dai­ly for vic­tims of COVID-19, even if some oth­er human qual­i­ties haven’t changed since peo­ple tried to end pan­demics by march­ing through the streets whip­ping them­selves.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The His­to­ry of the Plague: Every Major Epi­dem­ic in an Ani­mat­ed Map

Down­load Clas­sic Works of Plague Fic­tion: From Daniel Defoe & Mary Shel­ley, to Edgar Allan Poe

Why You Should Read The Plague, the Albert Camus Nov­el the Coro­n­avirus Has Made a Best­seller Again

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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  • Even Steven says:

    Don’t let Trump or any of his staff see this or else he will be talk­ing about it on his next virus update/campaign ral­ly..

  • Chris DiFonso says:

    This is anoth­er exam­ple of why the FDA (and sim­i­lar orga­ni­za­tions in oth­er coun­tries) is so essen­tial. And, anoth­er argu­ment against Lib­er­tar­i­an­ism. It’s naive to think that all indi­vid­u­als, much less all cor­po­ra­tions, will act just­ly and take respon­si­bil­i­ty for their actions.

  • Karen Livreri says:

    Mean­while- I take chlo­rine diox­ide dai­ly.
    Amaz­ing stuff. It’s OXYGEN! 🤣🤣🤣 brain­washed dip sh*t

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