• Richard James

'An Extraordinary Remedy'.

Updated: Jun 20, 2020

Whilst writing the fourth book in my Bowman Of The Yard series, I've been researching the use of electric therapy in asylums (if you've been reading the novels you'll know why). The Victorians had a fascination for the new, including the seemingly infinite uses for electricity. Appearing at the first World’s Fair at the Crystal Palace, London, in 1851, Isaac Pulvermacher's 'hydro-electric belt' soon became a talking point in fashionable drawing rooms across the world – with 50,000 people a year reportedly plugging in. It was a simple enough device comprising a belt of small batteries connected to electrodes. These in turn could be applied to any part of the body to provide a titillating electric current.

Pulvermacher's belt spawned a generation of similar devices which were soon put to use in the treatment of various ailments, most notably those of the mind. Doctor Newth of the Sussex Asylum employed a battery and some basins of acidulated water into which the patient's hands and feet were immersed. In 1873, he described the effects of the therapy upon a female patient where all else had failed.

"Case 3 - Melancholia - A.A., female, 26, single, farmer's daughter. History - has been insane for about three months, cause unknown. Bodily health fair. Mentally she seems in a state of depression with a most determined propensity to commit suicide by strangulation. Treatment - Chloral in increasing doses was given to produce sleep, and she had a Turkish bath once a week, but without any good. She broke out into a state of great excitement with violence, a fortnight after admission and endeavoured in every way to destroy herself. This endeavour was frustrated by constant watchfulness, nurses being told off to attend her night and day with orders never to leave her side for an instant. Wet-sheet packing, subcutaneous morphia, ergot and various other remedies were tried; but with the exception of some slight improvement from the packing she seemed little better. Electricity was applied 26 times, positive pole to head, negative to hand. At first, she could only bear a very few cells, six or eight, and it seemed to make her head ache; however, she was afterwards able to bear more. The result has been very satisfactory. She appears much brighter, converses rationally; employs herself skilfully in needlework; has no desire for self-destruction. Both she and her friends acknowledge the benefit that has resulted from the treatment, and she has since been discharged recovered." In this case, as in cases even today, the stimulus of electricity applied to the patient clearly had a beneficial effect. We can only hope the same will apply to Inspector Bowman...

If you have yet to join the investigation, Bowman's story begins with the first novel, The Head In the Ice and continues through the short stories The Smithfield Murder and The Hackney Poisoning to the second novel, The Devil In The Dock. Two more short stories follow, The Hampstead Garrotting and The Holborn Strangler. The third novel in the series, The Body In The Trees, is followed by two more short stories, The Camden Kidnappings and The Chiswick Robbery! The short stories are set between the novels and are free to subscribers to my newsletter.

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