Catherine MacauleyPopular science has always attracted the gullible and those who prey on them and a combination of sex and science is an almost infallible recipe for making money. Or so the notorious Dr James Graham thought – and for a few years he was proved right.
Graham studied medicine in Edinburgh where he was born in 1745 and, although he does not appear to have taken the examinations, began to style himself Doctor. He sailed to Baltimore in 1769 where he encountered the new craze for electricity – Philadelphia was full of Benjamin Franklin’s lightning rods – and began to form his theories for the prolongation of life and vigour.
On his return to England in 1774 the “doctor” set up a practice in Bristol promoting health, long life and happiness through a regime of healthy living involving eating plenty of fruit and vegetables, taking exercise and ensuring bodily hygiene by the application of quantities of cold water. The basic routine would doubtless be approved by modern doctors and there is no evidence that it did not genuinely help his patients. But Dr Graham’s money-making twist was to add electricity, promoting it as a miraculous aid to long life and health.
He was so successful that he moved to Bath, by which time his approach was gaining a reputation for increasing vigour and especially for improving patients’ sex lives, helping cases of infertility and curing impotence by applying “Effluvia, Vapours and Applications ætherial, magnetic or electric.”
While in Bath he met Mrs Catherine Macauley, a 46 year old widow who was feted for her intellectual activities and egalitarian views. This meeting provided him with a fortuitous piece of PR when his brother, a 21 year old surgeon’s mate, was introduced to the lady and they married almost immediately. The resulting gossip and scandal was a wonderful advert for the older brother’s treatments – here was a middle aged woman who, rejuvenated, could satisfy her lusty young husband. The lady shown in the portrait (above right) would not appear to be someone much amused by such talk.
In July 1780, on the wave of celebrity that the Macauley scandal produced, Graham moved to London and opened the Temple of Health (or Temple of Hymen) in Adelphi Terrace, the hugely fashionable new development by the Adam brothers. (Shown below)
The Temple’s centrepiece was a suggestively phallic electrical conductor with a pair of semi-globes attached. The whole place was scented, cunningly lit, luxurious and mysteriously erotic. Electricity was generated by a series of Leyden jars to produce sparks, flashes of lightning and spectacular effects and soon the Temple was hung about, as one visitor observed, with “walking sticks, ear trumpets, visual glasses etc left and placed as most honourable trophies by deaf, weak, paralytic and emaciated persons, cripples etc. who being cured had no longer need of such assistance.”
It proved so successful that Graham opened a second Temple at Schomberg House in Pall Mall with the infamous Celestial Bed, stuffed with wild oats and hair from the tails of, naturally, stallions. Draperies, lights, mirrors, organ music and perfume and the enticements of Vestina, Goddess of Health created an exotic sexual playground. Rumour has it that Emma Hart, later Lady Hamilton, played the role of Vestina, but this is now disputed.
Graham claimed that the bed, surrounded by lodestones or magnets, was an aid to pleasurable sex and the creation of healthy offspring. Charges to use it are said to range from 50 guineas to £100 a night.
To quote one of his pamphlets, “The venereal act itself, at all times, and under every circumstance, is in fact no other than an electrical operation…those heart-piercing and irresistible glances shooting at critical moments from soul to soul are no other than electrical strokes or emanations.”
Nor was it all luxury. Dr Graham had not lost his enthusiasm for very cold water and recommended washing the genitals in it frequently, especially “…certain parts which next morning after a laborious night would be relaxed, lank, and pendulous, like the two eyes of a dead sheep dangling in a wet empty calf’s bladder, by the frequent and judicious use of the icy cold water, would be[come] like a couple of steel balls, of a pound apiece, inclosed in a firm purse of uncut Manchester velvet.”
For many people these claims fed into popular beliefs about Animal Magnetism and a new interest in the workings of the body. But more critical observers saw through his claims from the start – Horace Walpole remarked it was “the most impudent puppet-show of imposition I ever saw.”
By the 1780s debts and scepticism overcame Graham and he had to sell up. He fled to Edinburgh where he was gaoled for “publishing lascivious and indecent Advertisements & delivering wanton & Improper lectures.”
He gave up his electrical therapies and developed new theories on the virtues of mud baths which he claimed were the secret to immortality. Perhaps influenced by popular tracts on the virtues of sea bathing, which maintained that valuable mineral salts could be absorbed through the skin by immersion, he argued that soaking in mud would allow all the nutrients essential for life to be obtained. He claimed that he himself had lived for two weeks immersed in mud with only a little water to drink. The fact that this would be a miserable existence did not appear to have occurred to him.
Somehow, by 1786, he was back in London in Panton Street, Soho, with an establishment promoting mud-bathing – demonstrated by semi-naked women.
He became steadily stranger and, in the grip of religious mania, founded “the New Jerusalem Church” which attracted no followers at all. His extreme behaviour escalated and eventually he was arrested in 1793 for persistently stripping off his clothes as he walked and handing the garments to the poor. The unfortunate Dr Graham died soon afterwards at the age of 49.
The connection of electricity, magnetism and sex did not however die out with the disappearance of the Celestial Bed. Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies, for example, included Miss Harriet Jones who practised the “Grahamitic method”. She was, apparently, a “desirable bed-fellow who after every stroke gives fresh tone and vigour to the lately distended parts.”
The red brick Schomberg House – without the Bed, unfortunately – can still be seen in Piccadilly on the South side, just past St James’s Palace. (Detail of the front shown right) Later it housed the upmarket and fashionable draper Harding, Howell and Co. (shown below. Ackermann’s Repository 1809)) but there are no reports of any beneficial electrical impulses lingering and the ladies shopping in the fabrics department appear decidedly calm.
6 responses to “Electrical Sparks, Icy Draughts and Pendulous Parts – Dr James Graham and the Celestial Bed”
His religion must have been truly terrible not to have caught on in the 1790s.
He was obviously charitably inclined – giving his clothing away – but the poor man was probably unhinged enough to put off the most devout follower!
Wonderful stuff. Not to be read while drinking coffee though! Especially — ahem — uncut Manchester velvet…
Too funny. Love the Celestial Bed and the cold water regime. Poor man was clearly a visionary. Wonder what he would come up with if he was around now?
Oh Dear, I do hope he isn’t an ancestor, but then all families have their moments. anne stenhouse graham
Delighted to see fresh interest in the ever-fascinating electric doctor. For the full story, do read my biography ‘Doctor of Love: Dr James Graham and his Celestial Bed’, published by Alma Books in 2008. More info here: http://www.lydiasyson.com/books/doctor-of-love-james-graham-and-his-celestial-bed/ There should be a new e-edition of it coming out later this year.