Monday, July 16, 2012

The (very slow) downfall of the upstart chymist

These are the rather surprisingly good woodcuts for The devil upon Dun: or The downfall of the upstart chymist: being the second edition of a late song: to the tune of Smoak us, and choak us, a single-sheet drinking song of 1672.

On the left, the ‘chymist’ stands at his pestle and mortar, preparing his elixir by pulverizing the bones his has on the table before him, labeled ‘the matter’. “More bones”, he says.

In the middle pane, he is assisted by a devil in distilling his preparation, which he hails as “The Grand Elixir”. As the liquor flows, the devil cries that “The Spirits are mine”.

In the right-hand panel (which is really two scenes in one), we see the effect upon the patient. A man who is unwell lies in bed, and receives the preparation from the chemist, who assures him of its safety and curative power (“I warrant you”). But the effect of the touted elixir is rapid death: two mourners for the late patient react: “Sumus fumus” (‘We are but smoke’) and the wry “Thankes to the Chymist”, while a third, his elbow on the catafalque, concludes sorrowfully “Not by art but Chymicallie”.

The verses accompanying the picture are less impressive:

'Mongst all Professions in the Town,
Held most in renown,
From th’Sword to the Gown,
The upstart Chymist rules the Roast;
For He with his Pill
Does ev’n what he will,
Employing his skill,
Good Subjects to kill,
That he of his dang’rous Art may boast,
O 'tis the Chymist, that man of the fire,
Who by his Black Art
Does Soul and Body part:
He smoaks us, and choaks us,
And leaves us like Dun in the mire.

A subsequent stanza in which the chemical doctor miraculously silences two disputing parsons contains a solid OED antedating:

As for the Parsons, both Pro and Con,
Dispute, and Objection,
Can’t save them, th’Chymist anon
With th’Elixir can soon end the strife,
Straight silence them both,
Who t’agree are loth,
For th’Ginny-pigs sake, though
Their quarrels give th’Old Cause new life.

If this is a clumsy joke on that newly-named animal, the guinea pig, with “jocular or contemptuous applications with allusions to the coin”, the OED does not have this till
1821, in W. Combe’s Third Tour Dr. Syntax: ‘Oh! oh!’ cried Pat, ‘how my hand itches, Thou guinea pig, in boots and breeches, To trounce thee well.’

The verses go on in a ragged fashion: here’s a stanza about the response of the orthodox medical profession:

The College Doctors with great heat,
Do very much brow-beat
So desp’rate a cheat,
Using prov’d methods safe to cure;
Yet these Chymists cry,
Who dares it deny?
At easy rates they’ll make all sure.
O 'tis the Chymist, &c.

Here the writer declares that the elixir is in fact a good means of domestic murder:

If Wife of Husband, or Husband of Wife,
By reason of strife
Are weary, Or Fathers life
Hinders th’Heir; his Laboratory
Can perform with hast,
Without much distaste,
What Indian poison can’t supply.
O 'tis the Chymist, that man of the fire,
Who by his Black Art
Does Soul and Body part:
He smokes us, and chokes us,
And leaves us like Dun in the mire.

He wishes all the ‘chymists’ sent to Algiers, to kill the population there, leaving England’s population free to grow:

Then may New Troy with Citizens fill,
Being secur’d from ill;
Then no printed Bill,
No Almanac; no Tradesman’s Shop
Shall th’Elixir vent,
To make Experiment
On liege people, killing with one drop.
O 'tis the Chymist, &c.
No printed adverts, or adverts in almanacs will sell this deadly elixir in this future ‘New Troy’ (or London).

The famous elixir just on the market had been announced in 1670 by Anthony Daffy: Direction given by me (Anthony Daffy, student in physic) for taking my safe, innocent and successful cordial drink, elixir salutis; proper to the cure of each distemper (in the printed sheet of its virtues mentioned,) and suited unto the patients several ages, sexes and constitution.

The ‘chymist’ in the woodcut may be just a generic figure, but might well have been Anthony Daffy himself. The original mixture for the elixir was apparently formulated by his uncle. Here’s the Wikipedia entry:
This gives some idea of the ingredients. They varied over time, but certainly would have had a laxative effect. The writer of the entry has Anthony Daffy move to London from Nottingham in the 1690’s: but he can be seen calling himself ‘of London, citizen and student in physick’ in 1675.

The success of the preparation he marketed was such that rival ‘elixirs’ were quickly concocted, and promoted with materials copied from his own pamphlets (as he complains). By 1675 he was putting into print Daffy’s original elixir salutis, vindicated against all counterfeits, &c. or, An advertisement by mee, Anthony Daffy, of London, citizen and student in physick by way of vindication of my famous and generally approved cordial drink, (called elixir salutis) from the notoriously false suggestions of one Tho. Witherden of Bear-steed in the county of Kent, Gent. (as pretended), Jane White, Robert Brooke, apothecary, and Edward Willet.

 Despite the poem announcing Daffy's downfall, it was a long time coming. ‘Daffy’s Elixir’ is advertised all the way through the 18th and 19th centuries: 2,188 hits are returned by the gale 18th century newspaper database, 5,522 hits by the Gale 19th century newspapers database. In the Protestant (Domestick) Intelligence or News Both from City and Country (London, England), Tuesday, March 16, 1680, Daffy lets it be known that he is still alive (counter to the reports of those who counterfeit his preparation), that he has enjoyed the benefits of the elixir for above twenty years, and that the real things can only be got from him or from the authorized outlets he had advertised in print.

The elixir makes itself familiar in literature: Pope tells the reader of the Dunciad that ‘the Balm of Dulness’ “is a Sovereign remedy, and has its name from the Goddess herself. Its ancient Dispensators were her Poets; but it is now got into as many hands as Goddard’s Drops or Daffy’s Elixir.”

Thackeray makes the best use of it, accurately capturing that tension between the generations over infant care:
“Between Mrs. Sedley and her daughter there was a sort of coolness about this boy, and a secret jealousy---for one evening, in George’s very early days, Amelia, who had been seated at work in their little parlour scarcely remarking that the old lady had quitted the room, ran up stairs instinctively to the nursery at the cries of the child, who had been asleep until that moment---and there found Mrs. Sedley in the act of surreptitiously administering Daffy’s Elixir to the infant. Amelia, the gentlest and sweetest of every-day mortals, when she found this meddling with her maternal authority, thrilled and trembled all over with anger. Her cheeks, ordinarily pale, now flushed up, until they were as red as they used to be when she was a child of twelve years old. She seized the baby out of her mother’s arms, and then grasped at the bottle, leaving the old lady gaping at her, furious, and holding the guilty tea-spoon. Amelia flung the bottle crashing into the fire-place. “I will not have baby poisoned, Mamma,” cried Emmy, rocking the infant about violently with both her arms round him, and turning with flashing eyes at her mother. “Poisoned, Amelia!” said the old lady; “this language to me?” “He shall not have any medicine but that which Mr. Pestler sends for him. He told me that Daffy’s Elixir was poison.” “Very good: you think I’m a murderess, then,” replied Mrs. Sedley. “This is the language you use to your mother.”
The elixir – and later rivals like Holloway’s ointment – was the recourse of those obliged to try ‘self-doctoring’. Doctors would always have dismissed it as poison, but they wanted their fees.