By Todd R. Sciore
“The origin of medical quackery is probably as ancient as the origin of medicine” ― The Boston Medical and Surgical Journal (1893)
Few people have taken the fraudulent practice of medicine to the level of the duplicitous 19th century Doctor Spolasco and, when one considers the myriad of quacks, hucksters and snake oil salesman that have come before and after him, that is actually quite an achievement on his part. While the Hippocratic Oath stresses a do-no-harm approach to patient care, the late Baron Spolasco, regularly did more harm than good. Like a laughable late-night infomercial, his advertisements often came with testimonials from patients who were supposedly healed by his expertise. A case study in false advertising, one of his handbills, states that “the cripple made to walk, the deaf to hear, the dying to live, the blind to see …” while also proclaiming “any individual who has lost his, or her nose, can be supplied with a REAL one, Grecian, Roman or Aquiline, perfect and natural as by Nature.”
The Baron Spolasco
Believed to have been born circa 1800 in Gateshead, County Durham (now known as Tyne and Wear), England, his real name has been referenced by different historians as being John Williams or John Smith. The honorary and generally hereditary title of Baron was most likely self-imposed and as one of the lowest chivalric ranks, it gave him the persona of educated nobility while cleverly standing a lesser chance of being questioned.
Spolasco’s dubious medical career began in Ireland starting in Limerick where he peddled various panaceas to the gullible and infirmed by overstating their effectiveness. Eventually the locals would catch on to his charade but not before finding the only thing he relieved them of was their savings. He then moved on to Cork, to treat the untreatable and tout the medicinal benefits of his proprietary (and spurious) cures such as Balm Of Spolasco, Vegetable Patent Pills and Antiphroditic. Sensing that the citizens of Cork had also gotten wise to him, Spolasco fabricated a grandiose excuse that his talents were required elsewhere and abruptly left town.
In 1839, Spolasco was charged with manslaughter when a woman died after he prescribed caster oil and turpentine to treat an intestinal ulcer. He was acquitted but was arrested again in 1840 for forging government stamps on pills he sold to unwitting buyers.
The SS Killarney
On January 19, 1838, Baron Spolasco boarded the doomed paddle steamer Killarney along with his young son Robert and set out for Wales. The Killarneys encountered a storm and while the ensuing tragedy led to increased fame for The Baron, it came at a high personal cost as his son was among those who perished. The survivors clung desperately to an offshore rock until they were saved and, upon their rescue, Spolasco wrote his Narrative of the Wreck of the Steamer Killarney. In her entertaining book, The Quack Doctor, Historical Remedies For All Your Ills, medical quackery historian Caroline Rance refers to Spolasco’s narrative as “a gripping read and, while melodramatic (in a good way) and self-aggrandizing, the Baron’s story concurs in most details with other reports of the wreck.” The Baron then headed to Bristol and made his way to Wales ― more specifically, Swansea.
The Baron set up a practice in Swansea and was generally well received early on, as author Russell Davies described: “This charming, Mephistophelean showman, dressed in a crimson, white, scarlet and gold uniform, with his over-the-top hyperbole, promised the impossible and more.” However, his flagrant malpractice led to charges of manslaughter in 1839 over the death of a young female patient for whom he had prescribed a concoction containing castor oil and turpentine to treat what was found to be an intestinal ulcer. He was arrested again in 1840 for forging government stamps on pills he sold to unwitting buyers. It was also during his time in Swansea that he had a medallion struck to honor himself.
Spolasco eventually made his way to American shores, landing in New York. This time, the silver-tongued doctor found a dearth of low-hanging fruit, thus the man whom Cork historian Michael Lenihan once referred to as “a chancer of the highest order” saw his fortunes wane dramatically. Another bitter pill for the Baron to swallow was a less-than-flattering description in Walt Whitman’s 1856 Life Illustrated series of character sketches entitled Street Yarn. Lambasting Spolasco’s miracle-like claims and his litany of questionable professional designations, Whitman scathingly penned: “The Baron Spolasco, with no end of medical diplomas from all sorts of universities across the ocean, who cures everything immediately […].” In the end, Spolasco’s closest association with legitimate practitioners of medicine are examples of his medallion in a 1943 cabinet inventory of medals in the Collection of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia and in the collection of medical and scientific medals at The University of Pittsburgh Health Sciences Library System’s Falk Library.