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Friday, November 6, 2009

Quackery in upstate New York in 1835

I am very fortunate to have a wonderful collection of things to do with quackery: bottles, trade cards, broadsides, billheads, letters, diaries, and so on. I think the letters and diaries are among my favorites because they are very personal and heartfelt, often intended to be read by only the writer, in the case of diaries, or the person being written to, in the case of letters. So today I am going to share with you one of my favorite letters; I hope you'll enjoy it.

This letter was written on the 17th of July 1835 by Charles Shepard, M.D. to James B. Hunt, an attorney. (I have left the spelling and capitalization as it is in the original, but added red for emphasis.) Doctor Shepard was living in Adams, which is upstate New York on the east end of Lake Ontario; Mr. Hunt was living in Herkimer, New York, which is half way between Syracuse and Albany. Doctor Shepard was having a tough time getting his medical practice going because of all the pestiferous quacks all around him. From the tone of his letter, it doesn't sound like he and Mr. Hunt were particularly close friends, but Doctor Shepard apparently respected Mr. Hunt enough for him to reach out and seek his advice (sort of an early nineteenth century version of networking). Doctor Shepard was ready to move all the way to Michigan if Hunt would tell him just one thing about the largely untamed frontier - not whether Michigan's Indians or wolves or cold winters were dangerous, but whether it was free of quacks:
I am in the village of Adams in good health but low spirits attempting to get a living by the practic of my profession, which is of all others the most contemptable in this place. The medical faculty of this plac consists of five besides myself and they are a strange mass of Drunkardness infidelety quackery and foolishness as was ever met with. They are a disgrace to the profession and a pest to society. Still the people after being duped and gulled by this professional kind of a nondescrip will employ them because they can pay them in whiskey which makes it rather small business for those that dont drink it. I understand you have been to Michigan I hope you have found a place for me as I am Sorely sick of this. It will be a great while before I Shall do enough to support myself beside my debts which I Shall never pay if I have got to earn the money by the practice of medicine in this place - There is six physicians to 12 or 1500 inhabitants. The ride is very much circumscribed there being physicians all around us within four or five miles. Mr Hunt please write me a few lines as soon as convenient and give me a history of your town and your opinion of Michigan. Likewise give me your opinion as to what I had better do as I shall Starve here. Give my respects to the people at Herkimer.

It's a fantastic slice of history, but alas, only a slice. I wish I knew what happened to the good doctor; perhaps I will someday with more research and time. If any of you know anything about him, please let me know! Of course, what I'd really like to know more about is those quacks that made Doctor Shephard's life so miserable!

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