Web Text-ures Logo
Web and Book design,
Copyright, Kellscraft Studio

(Return to Web Text-ures)
Kellscraft Studio Logo



THERE lies before me a leather-bound, time-stained, dingy little quarto of four hundred and fifty pages that was printed in the year 1656. Its contents comprise three parts or books. First, "The Queens Closet Opened, or The Pearl of Practise: Accurate, Physical, and Chirurgical Receipts." Second, "A Queens Delight, or The Art of Preserving, Conserving, and Candying, as also a Right Knowledge of Making Perfumes and Distilling the most Excellent Paters." Third, "The Compleat Cook, Expertly Prescribing the most ready wayes, whether Italian, Spanish, or French, For Dressing of Flesh and Fish, Ordering of Sauces, or Making of PASTRY'  pastry in capitals, as is due so distinguished an article and art.

This conjunction of leechcraft and cooking was in early days far from being considered demeaning to the healing art. A great number of the cook-books of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were written by physicians. Dr. Lister, physician to Queen Anne, wrote plainly, "I do not consider myself as hazarding anything when I say no man can be a good physician who has not a competent knowledge of cookery."

The book contains a long, pompous preface, in which it is asserted that these receipts were collected originally for her "distress'd Soveraigne Majesty the Queen Henrietta Maria; that they had been "laid at her feet by Persons of Honour and Quality;" and that since false and poor copies had been circulated during her banishment, and the compiler, who fell with the court, was not able to render his beloved queen any further service, he felt that he could at least "prevent all disservices" by giving in print to her friends these true rules. Thus could he keep the absent queen in their minds; and also he could give a fair copy to her, since she had lost her receipts in her flight.

Though Agnes Strickland stated that copies of this Queens Closet Opened are exceedingly rare in England, several are preserved in old New England families, some of them the descendants of colonial physicians; and the book may be shown as a fair example of the methods of practice and composition of prescriptions in colonial and provincial days.

This volume of mine was one of those which were not fated to dwell among "Persons of Honour and Quality" in old England; it crossed the waters to the new land with simpler folk, and was for many years the pocket-companion of an old New England doctor. Two names are carefully written on the inside of the cover of my book, names of past owners: "Edward Talbot, His Book," is in the most faded ink, and "William Morse, His Book, in the y'r 1710, Boston." A musty, leathery smell pervades and exhales from the pages, and is mingled with whiffs of an equally ancient and more penetrating odor, that of old drugs and medicines; for many a journey over bleak hills and lonely dales has the book made, safely reposing at the bottom of its owner's pocket, or lying cheek by jowl with the box of drugs and medicines, and case of lancets in his ample saddlebags.

This country doctor, like others of his profession at the same date, had not studied deeply in college and hospital; nor had he taken any long course of instruction in foreign schools and universities. When he had decided to become a doctor, he had simply ridden with an old, established physician ridden literally in a half-menial, half-medical capacity. He had cared for the doctor's horse, swept the doctor's office, run the doctor's errands, pounded drugs, gathered herbs, and mixed plasters, until he was fitted to ride for himself. Then he had applied to the court and received a license to practise that was all. I doubt not that this book of mine, and perhaps a manuscript collection of recipes and prescriptions, and a few Latin treatises that he could hardly decipher, formed his entire pharmacopoeia. As he had chanced to inherit a small fortune from a relative, he became a physician of some note; for in colonial days wealth and position were as essential as were learning and experience, to enable one to become a good doctor.

I like to think of the rich and pompous old doctor a-riding out to see his patients, clad in his suit of sober brown or claret color with shining buttons made of silver coins. The full-skirted coat had great pockets and flaps, as had the long waistcoat that reached well over the hips. Knee-breeches dressed his shapely legs, while fine silk stockings and buckled shoes displayed his well-turned calves and ankles. On his head he wore a cocked hat and wig. He owned and wore in turn wigs of different sizes and dignity ties, periwigs, bags, and bobs. His portrait was painted in a full-bottomed wig that rivalled the Lord Chancellor's in size; but his every-day riding-wig was a rather commonplace horsehair affair with a stiff eel-skin cue. One wig he lost by a mysterious accident while attending a patient who was lying ill of a fever, of which the crisis seemed at hand. The doctor decided to remain all night, and sat down by a table in the sick man's room. The hours passed slowly away. Physician and nurse and goodwife talked and droned on; the sick man moaned and tossed in his bed, and begged fruitlessly for water. At last the room grew silent, the tired watchers dozed in their chairs, the doctor nodded and nodded, bringing his eel-skin cue dangerously near the flame of the candle that stood on the table. Suddenly there was heard a sharp explosion, a hiss, a sizzle; and when the smoke cleared, and the terrified occupants of the room collected their senses, the watcher and wife were discovered under the valance of the bed; the doctor stood scorched and bareheaded, looking around for his wig; while the sick man, who had jumped out of bed in the confusion and captured a pitcher of water, drunk half the contents, and thrown the remainder over the doctor's head, was lying behind the bed curtains laughing hysterically at the ridiculous appearance of the man of medicine. Instant death was predicted for the invalid, who, strange to say, either from the laughter or the water, began to recover from that moment. The terrified physician was uncertain whether he ought to attribute the conflagration of his wig to a violent demonstration of the devil in his effort to obtain possession of the sick man's soul, or to the powerful influence of some conjunction of the planets, or to the new-fangled power of electricity which Dr. Franklin had just discovered and was making so much talk about, and was so recklessly tinkering with in Philadelphia at that very time. The doctor had strongly disapproved of Franklin's reprehensible and meddlesome boldness, but he felt that it was best, nevertheless, to write and obtain the philosopher's advice as to the feasibility, advisability, and the best convenience of having one of the new lightning-rods rigged upon his medical back, and running thence up through his wig, thus warding off further alarming demonstration. Ere this was done the mystery of the explosion was solved. When the doctor's new wig arrived from Boston, he ordered his newly purchased negro servant to powder it well ere it was worn. He was horrified to see Pompey give the wig a liberal sprinkling of gunpowder from the powderhorn, instead of starch from the dredging-box; and the explosion of the old wig was no longer assigned to diabolical, thaumaturgical, or meteorological influences.

Let us turn from the doctor and the wig to the book; let us see what he did when he singed his head and burnt his face. He whipped my little book out of his pocket and turned to page 77; there he was told to make "Oyl of Eggs. Take twelve yolks of eggs and put them in a pot over the fire, and let them stand until you perceive them to turn black; then put them in a press and press out the Oyl." Or he could make "Oyl of Fennel" if he preferred it. But probably the New England goodwife had on hand one of the dozen astounding salves described in the book, that the doctor had ere this instructed her to make, and in which I trust he found due relief.

One cannot wonder that the sick man craved water, when we read what he had had to drink. He had been given, a spoonful at a time, this "Comfortable Juleb for a Feaver," made of "Barley Water & White Wine each one pint, Whey one quart, two ounces of Conserves of Barberries, and the Juyces of two limmons and 2 Oranges." The doctor had also taken (if he had followed his Pearl of Practice) "two Salt white herrings & slit them down the back and bound them to the soles of the feet" of his patient; and I doubt not he had bled the sufferer at once, for he always bled and purged on every possible occasion.

The Water of Life was also given for fevers, a few drops at a time, and also as a tonic in health.

"Take Balm leaves and stalks, Betony leaves and flowers, Rosemary, red sage, Taragon, Tormentil leaves, Rossolis and Roses, Carnation, Hyssop, Thyme, red strings that grow upon Savory, red Fennel leaves and root, red Mints, of each a handful; bruise these hearbs and put them in a great earthern pot, & pour on them enough White Wine as will cover them, stop them close, and let them steep for eight or nine days; then put to it Cinnamon, Ginger, Angelica-seeds, Cloves, and Nuttmegs, of each an ounce, a little Saffron, Sugar one pound, Ray-sins solis stoned one pound, the loyns and legs of an old Coney, a fleshy running Capon, the red flesh of the sinews of a leg of Mutton, four young Chickens, twelve larks, the yolks of twelve Eggs, a loaf of White-bread cut in sops, and two or three ounces of Mithridate or Treacle, & as much Muscadine as will cover them all. Distil al with a moderate fire, and keep the first and second waters by themselves; and when there comes no more by Distilling put more Wine into the pot upon the same stuffe and distil it again, and you shal have another good water. This water strengtheneth the Spirit, Brain, Heart, Liver, and Stomack. Take when need is by itself, or with Ale, Beer, or Wine mingled with Sugar."

Who could doubt that it strengthened the spirit, especially when taken with ale or wine? Plainly here do we see the need of a doctor being a good cook. But what pot would hold all that flesh and fowl, that blooming flower-garden of herbs and posies, that assorted lot of fruits and spices, to say nothing of the muscadine?

Our ancestors spared no pains in preparing these medicines. They did not, shifting all responsibility, run to a chemist or apothecary with a little slip of paper; with their own hands they picked, pulled, pounded, stamped, shredded, dropped, powdered, and distilled, regardless of expense, or trouble, or hard work. Truly they deserved to be cured. They did not measure the drugs with precision in preparing their medicines, as do our chemists nowadays, nor were their prescriptions written in Latin nor with cabalistic marks the asbestos stomachs and colossal minds of our forefathers were much above such petty minuteness; nor did they administer the doses with exactness. "The bigth of a walnut," "enough to lie on a pen knifes point," "the weight of a shilling," "enough to cover a French crown," "as bigg as a haslenut," sd great as a charger," "the bigth of a Turkeys Egg," "a pretty draught," "a pretty bunch of herbs," "take a little handful," "take a pretty quantity as often as you please" such are the lax directions that accompany these old prescriptions.

Of course, the remedies given in this book were largely for the diseases of the day. Physicians and parsons, lords and ladies, combined to furnish complex and elaborate prescriptions and perfumes to cure and avert the plague; and the list includes one plague-cure that the Lord Mayor had from the Queen, and I may add that it is a particularly unpleasant and revolting one. A plague swept through New England and decimated the Indian tribes; and though it was not at all like the great plague that devastated London, I doubt not red man and white man took confidingly and faithfully medicines such as are given in this little book of mine: the king's feeble and much-vaunted dose of "White Wine, Ginger, Treacle, and Sage;" Dr. Atkinson's excellent perfume against the Plague, of "Angelica roots and Wine Vinegar, that if taken fasting, your breath would kill the Plague" (it must have been a fearful dose); "Mr. Fenton's the Chirurgeon's Posset and his Sedour Root."

Cures for small-pox and for gout are many. Varied are the lotions for the "pin and web in the eye;" so many are there of these that it makes me suspect that our forefathers were sadly sore-eyed.

One very prevalent ail that our ancestors had to endure (if we can judge from the number of prescriptions for its relief) was a "cold stomack;" literally cold, one might think, since most of the cures were by external application. Lady Spencer used a plebeian "greene turfe of grasse" to warm her stomach, with the green side, not the dirt side, placed next the skin. She could scarcely have worn this turf when she was up and around the house, could she? She must have had it placed upon her while she was in bed. Josselyn said in his "New England Rarities" that, "to wear the skin of a Gripe dressed with the doun on" would cure pain and coldness of the stomach. Thus did like cure like. A "Restorative Bag" of herbs and spices heated in "boyl'd Vinegar" is asserted to be "comfortable." "It must be as hot as can be endured, and keep yourself from studying and musing and it will comfort you much." So it seems you ought not to study nor to muse if your stomach be cold.

Many and manifold are the remedies to "chear the heart," to "drive melancholy," to "cure one pensive," "for the megrums," "for a grief;" and without doubt the lonely colonists often needed them. We know, too, that "things ill for the heart were beans, pease, sadness, onions, anger, evil tidings, and loss of friends,"  a very arbitrary and unjust classification. Melancholy was evidently regarded as a disease, and a much-to-be-lamented one. External applications were made to "drive the worms out of the Brain as well as Dross out of the Stomack." Here is "A pretious water to revive the Spirits: "

"Take four gallons of strong Ale, five ounces of Aniseeds, Liquorish scraped half a pound, Sweet Mints, Angelica, Eccony, Cowslip flowers, Sage & Rosemary Flowers, sweet Marjoram, of each three handfuls, Palitory of the Wal one handful. After it is fermented two or three dayes, distil it in a Limbeck, and in the water infuse one handful of the flowers aforesaid, Cinnamon and Fennel-seed of each half an ounce, Juniper berries bruised one dram, red Rosebuds, roasted Apples & dates sliced and stoned, of each half a pound; distil it again and sweeten it with some Sugarcandy, and take of Ambergreese, Pearl, Red Coral, Hartshorn pounded, and leaf Gold, of each half a Dram, put them in a fine Linnen bag, and hang them by a thread in a Glasse."

Think of taking all that trouble to make something to cheer the spirits, when the four gallons of strong ale with spices would have fully answered the purpose, without bothering with the herbs and fruits. I suppose the gold and jewels were particularly cheering ingredients, and perhaps entitled the drink to its name of precious water. Indeed, it would be cheering to the spirits nowadays to have the precious metals and gems that were so lavishly used in these ancient medicines.

Full jewelled were the works of English persons of quality in the time of the Merry Monarch and his sire. The gold and gems were not always hung in bags in the medicines; frequently they were powdered and dissolved, and formed a large portion of the dose. Like Chaucer's Doctour, they believed that "gold in phisike is a cordial." Dr. Gifford's "Amber Pils for Consumption" contained a large quantity of pearls, white amber, and coral, as did also Lady gent's powder. Sir Edward Spencer's eye-salve was rich in powdered pearls. The Bishop of Worcester's "admirable curing powder" was composed largely of "ten skins of snakes or adders or Slow worms" mixed with "Magistery of Pearls." The latter was a common ingredient, and under the head of "Choice Secrets Made Known" we are told how to manufacture it:

"Dissolve two or three ounces of fine seed Pearl in distill'd Vinegar, and when it's perfectly dissolved and all taken up, pour the Vinegar into a clean glasse Bason; then drop some few drops of oyl of Tartar upon it, and it will call down the Pearl into the powder; then pour the Vinegar clean off softly; then put to the Pearl clear Conduit or Spring water; pour that off, and do so often until the taste of the Vinegar and Tartar be clean gone; then dry the powder of Pearl upon warm embers and keep for your use."

Gold and precious stones were specially necessary "to ease the passion of the Heart," as indeed they are nowadays. In that century, however, they applied the mercenary cure inwardly, and prepared it thus:

"Take Damask Roses half-blown, cut off thier whites, and stamp them very fine, and strains out the Juyce very strong; moisten it in the stamping with a little Damask Rose water; then put thereto fine powder sugar, and boyl it gently to a fine Syrup; then take the Powders of Amber, Pearl, Rubies, of each half a dram, Ambergreese one scruple, and mingle them with the said syrup till it be somewhat thick, and take a little thereof on a knifes point morning and evening."

I can now understand the reason for the unceasing, the incurable melancholy that hung like a heavy black shadow over so many Puritan divines in the early days of New England, as their gloomy sermons, their sad diaries and letters, plainly show. Those poor ministers had no chance to use these receipts and thus get cured of "worms in the brain," with annual salaries of only 60, which they had to take in corn, wheat, codfish, or bearskins, in any kind of "country pay," or even in wampum, in order to get it at all. Rubies and pearls and gold and coral were scarce drugs in clerical circles in Massachusetts Bay and Plymouth plantations. Even amber and ivory were far from plentiful. We find John Winthrop writing in 1682, "I am straitened, having no ivory beaten, neither any pearle nor corall." Cleopatra drinks were out of fashion in the New World. So Mather and Hooker and Warham were condemned to die with uncheered spirits and unjewelled stomachs.

Another ingredient, unicorns' horns, which were ground and used in powders, must have been difficult to obtain in New England, although I believe Governor Winthrop had one sent to him as a gift from England; and John Endicott, writing to him in 1634, said: "I have sent you Mrs. Beggarly her Vnicorns horne & beza stone." Both the unicorn's horn and the bezoar stone were sovereign antidotes against poison. At another time Winthrop had sent to him "bezoar stone, mugwort, orgaine, and galingall root." Ambergris was also too rare and costly for American Puritans to use, though we find Hull writing for golden ambergroose.

Insomnia is not a bane of our modern civilization alone. This little book shows that our ancestors craved and sought sleep just as we do. Here is a prescription to cure sleeplessness, which might be tried by any wakeful soul of modern times, since it requires neither rubies, pearls, nor gold for its manufacture:

"Bruise a handful of Anis-seeds, and steep them in Red Rose Water, & make it up in little bags, & binde one of them to each Nostrill, and it will cause sleep."

So aniseed bags were used in earlier days for a purpose very different from our modern one; if your nineteenth century nose should refuse to accustom itself to having bags hung on it, you can "Chop Chammomile & crumbs of Brown Bread smal and boyl them with White Wine Vinegar, stir it wel and spred it on a cloth & binde it to the soles of the feet as hot as you can suffer it." And if that should not make you sleepy, there are frankincense-perfumed paper bags for your head, and some very pleasant things made of rose-leaves for your temples, and hard-boiled eggs for the nape of your neck you can choose from all of these.

They had abounding faith in those days. Several of the prescriptions in "The Queen's Closet" are to cure people at a remote distance, by applying the nostrums to a linen cloth previously wet with the patient's blood. They had plasters of power to put on the back of the head to draw the palate into place; and wonderful elixirs that would keep a dying man alive five years; and herb-juices to make a dumb man speak. The following suggestion shows plainly their confiding spirit:

"To Cure Deafnesse. Take the Garden Dasie roots and make juyce thereof, and lay the worst side of the head low upon the bolster & drop three or four drops thereof into the better Ear; this do three or four dayes together."

"Simpatheticall" medicines had a special charm for all the Winthrops, and that delightful but gullible old English alchemist, Sir Kenelm Digby, kept them well posted in all the newest nonsense.

In a medical dispensatory of the times the different varieties of medicines used in New England are enumerated. They are leaves, herbs, roots, barks, seeds, flowers, juices, distilled waters, syrups, juleps, decoctions, oils, electuaries, conserves, preserves, lohocks, ointments, plasters, poultices, troches, and pills. These words and articles are all used nowadays, except the lohock, which was to be licked up, and in consistency stood in the intermediate ground between an electuary and a syrup. These terms, of course, were in the Galenic practice. In "The Queen's Closet" all the physic was found afield, with the exception of the precious metals and one compound, rubila, which was made of antimony and nitre, and which was in special favor in the Winthrop family as many of their letters show. They sent it and recommended it to their friends and better still, they took it faithfully themselves, and with most satisfactory results.

There was also one mineral "oyntment" made of quicksilver, verdigris, and brimstone mixed with "barrows grease," which was good for "horse, man, or other beast." Alum and copperas were once recommended for external use. The powerful "plaister of Paracelsus," also beloved of the Winthrops, was not composed of mineral drugs, as might be supposed, but was made of herbs, and from the ingredients named must have been particularly nasty smelling as well as powerful.

The medicine mithridate forms a part of many of these prescriptions; it does not seem to be regarded as an alexipharmic, but as a soporific. It is said to have been the cure-all of King Mithridates. I will not give an account of the process of its manufacture; it would fill about three pages of this book, and I should think it would take about six weeks to compound a good dose of it. There are forty-five different articles used, each to be prepared by slow degrees and introduced with great care; some of them (such as the rape of storax, camel's hay, and bellies of skinks) must have been inconvenient to procure in New England. Mithridates would hardly recognize his own medicine in this conglomeration, for when Pompey found his precious receipt it was simple enough: "Pound with care two walnuts, two dried figs, twenty pounds of rice, and a grain of salt." I think we might take this cum grano salis.

Queer were the names of some of the herbs; ale-hoof, which was ground-ivy, or gill-go-by-ground, or haymaids, or twinhoof, or gill-creep-by-ground, and was an herb of Venus, and thus in special use for "passions of the heart," for "amorous cups," which few Puritans dared to meddle with. The blessed thistle, of which one scandalized old writer says, "I suppose the name was put upon it by them that had little holiness themselves." Clary, or clear-eye, or Christ's-eye, which latter name makes the same writer indignantly say, "I could wish from my soul that blasphemy and ignorance were ceased among physicians"   as if the poor doctors gave these folk-names! The crab-claws so often mentioned was also an herb, otherwise known as knight's-pond water and freshwater-soldier. The mints to flavor were horsemint, spearmint, peppermint, catmint, and heartmint.

The earliest New England colonists did not discover in the new country all the herbs and simples of their native land, but the Indian powwows knew of others that answered every purpose very healing herbs too, as Wood in his "New England's Prospects" unwillingly acknowledges and thus explains: "Sometimes the devill for requitall of their worship recovers the partie to nuzzle them up in thier devilish Religion." The planters sent to England for herbs and drugs, as existing inventories show; and they planted seeds and soon had plenty of home herbs that grew apace in every dooryard. The New Haven Colony passed a law at an early date to force the destruction of a "great stinking poisonous weed," which is said to have been the Datura stramonium, a medicinal herb. It had been brought over by the Jamestown colonists, and had spread miraculously, and was known as "Jimson" or Jamestown weed.

Josselyn gives in his "New England's Rarities" an interesting list of the herbs known and used by the colonists. Cotton Mather said the most useful and favorite medicinal plants were alehoof, garlick, elder, sage, rue, and saffron. Saffron has never lost its popularity. To this day "saffern tea" is a standing country dose in New England, especially for the "jarnders." Elder, rue, and saffron were English herbs that were made settlers here and carefully cultivated; so also were sage, hyssop, tansy, wormwood, celandine, comfrey, mallows, mayweed, yarrow, chamomile, dandelion, shepherd's-purse, bloody dock, elecampane, motherwort, burdock, plantain, catnip, mint, fennel, and dill all now flaunting weeds. Dunton wrote with praise of a Dr. Bullivant, in Boston, in 1686, "He does not direct his patients to the East Indies to look for drugs when they may have far better out of their gardens."

There is a charm in these medical rules in my old book, in spite of the earth-worms and wood-lice and adders and vipers in which some of them abound (to say nothing of other and more shocking ingredients). In surprising and unpleasant compounds they do not excel the prescriptions in a serious medical book published in Exeter, New Hampshire, as late as 1835. Nor is Cotton Mather's favorite and much-vaunted ingredient millepedes, or sowbugs, once mentioned within. All are not vile in my Queen's Closet far from it. Medicines composed of Canary wine or sack, with rose-water, juice of oranges and lemons, syrup of clove-gillyflower, loaf sugar, "Mallago raisins," nutmegs, cloves, cinnamon, mace, remind me strongly of Josselyn's New England Nectar, and render me quite dissatisfied with our modern innovations of quinine, antipyrine, and phenacetin, and even make only passively welcome the innocuous and uninteresting homceopathic pellet and drop.

Many other dispensatories, guides, collections, and records of medical customs and concoctions, remain to us even of the earliest days. We have the private receipt-book of John Winthrop, a gathering of choice receipts given to him in manuscript by one Stafford, of England. These receipts have been printed in the Collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society for the year 1862, with delightful notes by Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes, and are of the same nature as those in the Queen's Closet. Here is one, which was venomous, yet harmless enough:

"My black powder against ye plague, small-pox, purples, all sorts of feavers, Poyson; either by way of prevention or after Infection. In the Moneth of March take Toades, as many as you will, alive; putt them into an Earthen pott, so yt it be halfe full; Cover it with a broad tyle or Iron plate, then overwhelme the pott, so yt ye bottome may be uppermost; putt charcoals round about it and over it and in the open ayre not in an house; sett it on fire and lett it burne out and extinguish of itself; when it is cold take out the toades; and in an Iron morter pound them very well; and searce them; then in a Crucible calcine them; So againe; pound them & searce them again. The first time they will be a brown powder, the next time blacke. Of this you may give a dragme in a Vehiculum or drinke Iuwardly in any Infection taken: and let them sweat upon it in their bedds: but let them not cover their heads; especially in the Small-Pox. For prevention half a dragme will suffice."

I do not know what meteorological influence was assigned to the month of March; perhaps it was chosen because toads would be uncommonly hard to get in New England during that month.

All the medicines in Dr. Stafford's little collection were not, however, so unalluring, and were, on the whole, very healing and respectable. He prescribed nitre, antimony, rhubarb, jalap, and spermaceti, "the sovereignest thing on earth for an inward bruise;" and he also culled herbs and simples in vast variety. He gave some very good advice regarding the conduct of a physician, the latter clause of which might well be heeded to-day.

"Nota bene. No man can with a good Conscience take a fee or Reward before ye partie receive benefit apparent and then he is not to demand anything but what God shall putt it into the heart of the partie to give him. A man is not to neglect that partie to whom he had once administered but to visit him at least once a day & to medle with no more than he can well attend."

The account books of other old New England physicians, and other medical books such as "A Treatise of Choice Spagyrical Preparations," show to us that the seventeenth and eighteenth century medicines, though disgusting, were not deadly. We know what medicines were given the colonists on their sea journey hither: "Oil of Cloves, Origanum, Purging Pills, and Ressin of Jalap" for the toothache; a Diaphoretic Bolus for an "Extream Cold;" Spirits of Castor and Oil of Amber for "Histericall Fitts;" "Seaurell Emplaisters for a broken Shin;" and for other afflictions, "Gascons Powder, Liquorish, Carminative Seeds, Syrup of Saffron, Pectoral Syrups and Somniferous Boluses."

Cod livers were given then as cod-liver oil is given now, "to restore them that have melted their Grease." A favorite prescription was "Rulandus, his Balsam which tho' it smel not wel" was properly powerful, and could be gotten down if carefully hidden in "poudered shuger."

Cotton Mather, who tried his skilful hand at writing upon almost every grave and weighty subject, composed a book of medical advice called the "Angel of Bethesda." It was written when he was sixty years of age, but was never printed; the manuscript is preserved in the library of the American Antiquarian Society at Worcester. It begins characteristically with a sermon, and is fantastically peppered with pompous scriptural and classical quotations, as was the Mather wont. The ingredients of the prescriptions are vile beyond belief, though, as Mather said in one of his letters, they are "powerful and parable physicks," which are two desirable qualities or attributes of any physic. The book gives an interesting account of Mather's share in that great colonial revolution in medicine the introduction of the custom of inoculation for the small-pox. His friend, Dr. Zabdiel Boylston, of Boston, was the first physician to inaugurate this great step by inoculating his own son a child six years old. Deep was the horror and aversion felt by the colonial public toward both the practice and practitioners of this daring innovation, and fiercely and malignantly was it opposed; but its success soon conquered opposition, and also that fell disease, which six times within a hundred years had devastated New England, bringing death, disfigurement, and business misfortunes to the colonists. So universal was the branding produced by this scourge that scarcely an advertisement containing any personal description appears in any colonial print, without containing the words, pock-fretten, pock-marked, pock-pitted, or pock-broken.

Through the possibility of having the small-pox to order, arose the necessity of small-pox hospitals, to which whole families or parties resorted to pass through the ordeal in concert. Small-pox parties were made the occasion of much friendly intercourse; they were called classes. Thus in the Salem Gazette of April 22, 1784, after Point Shirley was set aside as a small-pox retreat, it was advertised that "Classes will be admitted for Small pox." These classes were real country outings, having an additional zest of novelty since one could fully participate in the pleasures, profits, and pains of a small-pox party but once in a lifetime. Much etiquette and deference was shown over these "physical gatherings," formal invitations were sometimes sent to join the function at a private house. Here is an extract from a letter written July 8, 1775, by Joseph Barrell, a Boston merchant, to Colonel Wentworth: "Mr. Storer has invited Mrs. Martin to take the small-pox in her house; if Mrs. Wentworth desires to get rid of her fears in the same way we will accomodate her in the best way we can. I've several friends that I've invited, and none of them will be more welcome than Mrs. Wentworth." These brave classes took their various purifying and sudorific medicines in cheerful concert, were "grafted" together, "broke out" together, were feverish together, sweat together, scaled off together, and convalesced together. Not a very prepossessing conjoining medium would inoculation appear to have been, but many a pretty and sentimental love affair sprang up between mutually "pock-fretten" New Englanders.

The small-pox hospitals were of various degrees of elegance and comfort, and were widely advertised: I have found four separate announcements in one of the small sheets of a Federal newspaper. From the luxurious high-priced retreat "without Mercury" were grades descending to the Suttonian, Brunonian, Pincherian, Dimsdalian, and other plebeian establishments, in which the patient paid from fifteen to as low as three dollars per week for lodging, food, medicine, care, and inoculation. At the latter cheap establishment each person was obliged to furnish for his individual use one sheet and one pillow-case-apparently a meagre outfit for sickness, but possibly merely a supplemental one.

This is a fair example of the prevailing advertisement of small-pox hospitals, from the Connecticut Courant of November 30, 1767:

"Dr. Uriah Rogers, Jr., of Norwalk County of Fairfield takes this method to acquaint the Publick & particularly such as are desirous of taking the Small Pox by way of Inoculation, that having had Considerable Experience in that Branch of Practice and carried on the same the last season with great Success; has lately erected a convenient Hospital for that purpose just within the Jurisdiction Line of the Province of New York about nine miles distant from N. Y. Harbour; where he intends to carry said Branch of Practice from the first of October next to the first of May next. And that all such as a disposed to favour him with their Custom may depend upon being well provided with all necessary accomodations. Provisions & the best Attendants, at the moderate Expence of Four Pounds Lawful Money to Each Patient. That after the first Sett or Class he purposes to give no Occasion for waiting to go in Particular Setts but to admit Parties singly, just as it suits them. As he has another Good House provided near Said Hospital where his family are to live, and where all that come after the first Sett that go into the Hospital are to remain with his Family until they are sufficiently Prepared & Inoculated & Until it is apparent that they haven taken the infection."

Of all the advertisements of small-pox hospitals, inoculation, etc., which appear in the newspapers through the eighteenth century, none is more curious, more comic than this from a Boston paper of 1773:

"Ibrahim Mustapha Inoculator to his Sublime Highness & the Janissaries: original Inventor and sole Proprietor of that Inestimable Instrument, the Circassian Needle, begs leave to acquaint the Nobility & Gentry of this City and its Environs that he is just arrived from Constantinople where he has inoculated about 50,000 Persons without losing a Single Patient. He requires not the least Preparation Regimen or Confinement.

Ladies and Gentlemen who wish to be inoculated only acquaint him with how many Pimples they choose and he makes the exact number of Punctures with his Needle which Produces the Eruptions in the very Picquers. Ladies who fancy a favorite Pitt may have it put in any Spot they please, and of any size: not the Slightest Fever or Pain attends the Eruption; much less any of those frightful Convulsions so usual in all the vulgar methods of Inoculation, even in the famous Peter Puffs. This amazing Needle more truly astonishing and not less useful than the Magnetic one, has this property in common with the latter, that by touching the point of a common needle it communicates its wonderful Virtues to it in the same manner that Loadstone does to Iron. And that no part of this extensive Continent may want the Benefit of this Superlatively excellent Method, Ibrahim Mustapha proposes to touch several Needles in order to have them distributed to different Colonies by which means the Small Pocks may be entirely eradicated as it has been in the Turkish Empire."

Generous Ibrahim Mustapha! despite the testimony of the Janissaries and the entire Turkish Empire, I cannot doubt that in your early youth you frequently kissed the Blarney Stone, hence your fluent tongue and your gallant proposition to becomingly decorate with pits the ladies.

Besides the scourge of small-pox, the colonists were afflicted grievously with other malignant distempers  fatal throat diseases, epidemic influenzas, putrid fevers, terrible fluxes; and as the art of sanitation was absolutely disregarded and almost unknown, as drainage there was none, and the notion of disinfection was in feeble infancy, we cannot wonder that the death-rates were high. Well might the New Englander say with Sir Thomas Browne: "Considering the thousand doors that lead to death, I do thank my God that we can die but once."

Cotton Mather was not the only kind-hearted New England minister who set up to heal the body as well as the soul of the entire town. All the early parsons seem to have turned eagerly to medicine. The Wigglesworths were famous doctors. President Hoar, of Harvard College, President Rogers, President Chauncey, all practised medicine. The latter's six sons were all ministers, and all good doctors, too. It was a parson, Thomas Thatcher, who wrote the first medical treatise published in America, a set of "Brief Rules for the Care of the Small Pocks," printed as a broadside in 1677. Many of the early parsons played also the part of apothecary, buying drugs at wholesale and compounding and selling medicines to their parishioners. Small wonder that Cotton Mather called the union of physic and piety an "Angelical Conjunction."

Other professions and callings joined hands with chiriugy and medicine. Innkeepers, magistrates, grocers, and schoolmasters were doctors. One surgeon was a butcher sadly similar callings in those days. This butcher-surgeon was not Mr. Pighogg, the Plymouth "churregein," whose unpleasant name was, I trust, only the cacographical rendering of the good old English name Peacock.

With all these amateur and semi-professional rivals, it is no wonder that Giles Firmin, who knew how to pull teeth and bleed and sweat in a truly professional manner, complained that he found physic but a "meene helpe" in the new land.

So vast was the confidence of the community in some or any kind of a doctor, and in self-doctoring, that as late as the year 1721 there was but one regularly graduated physician in Boston    Dr. Samuel Douglas; and it may be noted that he was one of the most decided opponents of inoculation for small-pox.

Colonial dames also boldly tried their hand at the healing art; the first two, Anne Hutchinson and Margaret Jones, did not thrive very well at the trade. The banishment of the former has oft been told. The latter was hung as a witch, and the worst evidence against her character, the positive proof of her diabolical power was, that her medicines being so simple, they worked such wonderful cures. At the close of King Philip's War the Council of Connecticut paid Mrs. Allyn 20 for her services to the sick, and Mistress Sarah Sands doctored on Block Island. Sarah Alcock, the wife of a chirurgeon, was also "active in physick;" and Mistress Whitman, the Marlborough midwife, visited her patients on snow-shoes, and lived to be seventy-eight years old, too. In the Phipps Street Burying Ground in Charlestown is the tombstone of a Boston midwife who died in 1761, aged seventy-six years, and who, could we believe the record on the gravestone, "by ye blessing of God has brought into this world above 130,000 children." But a close examination shows that the number on the ancient headstone, through the mischievous manipulation of modern hands, has received a figure at either end, and the good old lady can only be charged with three thousand additions to wretched humanity.

Negroes, and illiterate persons of all complexions, set up as doctors. Old Joe Pye and Sabbatus were famous Indian healers. Indian squaws, such as Molly Orcutt, sold many a decoction of leaves and barks to the planters, and, like Hiawatha,

"Wandered eastward, wandered westward,
Teaching men the use of simples,
And the antidotes for poisons,
And the cure of all diseases."

A good old Connecticut doctor had a negro servant, Primus, who rode with him and helped him in his surgery and shop. When the master died, Doctor Primus started in to practise medicine himself, and proved extraordinarily successful throughout the county; even his master's patients did not disdain to employ the black successor, wishing no doubt their wonted bolus and draught.

In spite of the fact that everyone and anyone seemed to be permitted, and was considered fitted to prescribe medicine, the colonists were sharp enough on the venders of quack medicines or, perhaps I should say, of powerless medicines on "runnagate chyrurgeons and physickemongers, saltimbancoes, quacksalvers, charlatans, and all impostourous empiricks." As early as 1631, one Nicholas Snapp was fined and whipped for pretending "to cure the scurvey by a water of noe worth nor value which he sold att a very deare rate." The planters were terribly prostrated by scurvy, and doubtless were specially indignant at this heartless cheat.

Tides of absurd attempts at medicine, or rather at healing, swept over the scantily settled New England villages in colonial days, just as we have seen in our own day, in our great cities, the abounding success   financially of the blue-glass cure, the faith cure, and of science healing. The Rain Water Doctor worked wondrous miracles, and did a vast and lucrative business until he was unluckily drowned in a hogshead of his own medicine at his own door. Bishop Berkeley, in his pamphlet Siris, started a flourishing tar-water craze, which lived long and died slowly. This cure-all, like the preceding aquatic physic, had the merit of being cheap. A quart of tar steeped for forty-eight hours in a gallon of water, tainted the water enough to make it fit for dosing. Perhaps the most expansive swindle was that of Dr. Perkins, with his Metallic Tractors. He was born in Norwich, Conn., in 1740, and found fortune and fame in his native land. Still he was expelled from the association of physicians in his own country, but managed to establish a Perkinean Institution in London with a fine, imposing list of officers and managers, of whom Benjamin Franklin's son was one. He had poems and essays and eulogies and books written about him, and it was claimed by his followers that he cured one million and a half of sufferers. At any rate, he managed to carry off 10,000 of good English money to New England. His wonderful Metallic Tractors were little slips of iron and brass three inches long, blunt at one end, and pointed at the other, and said to be of opposite electrical conditions. They cost five guineas a pain When drawn or trailed for several minutes over a painful or diseased spot on the human frame, they positively removed and cured all ache, smart, or soreness. I have never doubted they worked wonderful cures; so did bits of wood, of lead, of stone, of earthenware, in the hands of scoffers, when the tractorated patients do not see the bits, and fancied that the manipulator held Metallic Tractors.

As years passed on various useful medicines became too much the vogue, and were used to too vast and too deleterious an extent, particularly mercury. Many a poor salivated patient sacrificed his teeth to his doctor's mercurial doses. One such toothless sufferer, a carpenter, having little ready money, offered to pay his physician in hay-rakes; and he took a revengeful delight in manufacturing the rakes of green, unseasoned wood. After a few days' use in the sunny fields, the doctor's rakes were as toothless as their maker.

Physicians' fees were "meene" enough in olden times; but sixpence a visit in Hadley and Northampton in 1730, and only eightpence in Revolutionary times. A blood-letting, or a jaw-splitting tooth-drawing cost the sufferer eightpence extra. No wonder the doctor cupped and bled on every occasion. In extravagant Hartford the opulent doctor got a shilling a visit. Naturally all the chirurgeons eked out and augmented their scanty fees by compounding and selling their own medicines, and dosed often and dosed deeply, since by their doses they lived. In many communities a bone-setter had to be paid a salary by the town in order to keep him, so few and slight were his private emoluments, even as a physic-monger.

The science of nursing the sick was, in early days, unknown; there were but few who made a profession of nursing, and those few were deeply to be dreaded. In taking care of the sick, as in other kindnesses, the neighborly instinct, ever so keen, so living in New England, showed no lagging part. For it is plain to any student of early colonial days that, if the chief foundation of the New England commonwealth was religion, the second certainly was neighborliness. There was a constant exchange of kindly and loving attentions between families and individuals. It showed itself in all the petty details of daily life, in assistance in housework and in the field, in house-raising. Did a man build a barn, his neighbors flocked to drive a pin, to lay a stone, to stand forever in the edifice as token of their friendly goodwill. The most eminent, as well as the poorest neighbors, thus assisted. In nothing was this neighborly feeling more constantly shown than in the friendly custom of visiting and watching with the sick; and it was the only available assistance. Men and women in this care and attention took equal part. As in all other neighborly duties, good Judge Sewall was never remiss in the sick-room. He was generous with his gifts and  generous with his time, even to those humble in the community. Such entries as this abound in his diary: "Oct. 26th 1702. Visited languishing Mr. Sam Whiting. I gave him 2 Balls of Chockalett and a pound of Figgs." And when Mr. Bayley lay ill of a fever, he prayed with him and took care of him through many a long night, and wrote:

"When I came away call'd his wife into the Next Chamber and gave her Two Five Shilling Bits. She very modestly and kindly accepted them and said I had done too much already. I told her if the State of my family would have born it I ought to have watched with Mr. Bayley as much as that came to."

To others he gave China oranges, dishes of marmalet, Meers Cakes, Banberry Cakes; and even to well-to-do people gave gifts of money, sometimes specifying for what purpose he wished the gift to be applied.

The universal custom of praying at inordinate length and frequency with sick persons was of more doubtful benefit, though of equally kind intent. One cannot but be amazed to find how many persons   ministers, elders, deacons, and laymen were allowed to enter the sick-room and pray by the bedside of the invalid, thus indeed giving him, as Sewall said, "a lift Heavenward." Sometimes a succession of prayers filled the entire day.

Judge Sewall's friendly prayers and visits were not always welcome. After visiting sick Mr. Brattle the Judge writes, but without any resentment, "he plainly told me that frequent visits were prejudicial to him, it provok'd him to speak more than his strength would bear, would have me come seldom." And on September 20, 1690, he met with this reception:

"Mr. Moody and I went before the others came to neighbor Hurd who lay dying where also Mr. Allen came in. Nurse Hurd told her husband who was there and what he had to say; whether he desir d them to pray with him; He said with some earnestness, Hold your tongue, which was repeated three times to his wives repeated entreaties; once he said Let me alone or Be quiet (whether that made a fourth or was one of the three do not remember) and, My Spirits are gon. At last Mr. Moody took him up pretty roundly and told him he might with some labour have given a pertinent answer. When we were ready to come away Mr. Moody bid him put forth a little Breath to ask prayer, and said twas the last time had to speak to him; At last ask'd him, doe you desire prayer, shall I pray with you. He answered, Ay for Gods sake and thank'd Mr. Moody when had done. His former carriage was very startling and amazing to us. About one at night he died. About 11 o'clock I supposed to bear neighbor Mason at prayer with him just as my wife and I were going to bed."

One cannot but feel a thrill of sympathy for poor, dying Hurd on that hot September night, fairly hectored by pious, loud-voiced neighbors into eternity; and can well believe that many a colonial invalid who lived through mithridate and rubila, through sweating and blood-letting, died of the kindly and godly-intentioned praying of his neighbors.

Book Chapter Logo Click the book image to turn to the next Chapter.