Quacks and mountebanks are impostors extremely dangerous to society; for they not only cheat under the most plausible pretences, but very often poison credulous people with their nostrums. This species of fraud has, however, we are happy to observe, greatly decreased within the last thirty years. In that time the progress of literature has been rapid, and impositions become thereby more readily detected.
The deceptions used by these artful villains were various. When they had stuffed down the pill, the powder, and the tincture, which were to cure all disorders, they had recourse to sham-lotteries, where articles made with base metal, and of inferior work, which they pretended was standard gold and silver, were the vaunted prizes; but even those comparatively worthless articles seldom came to the gaping crowd; for the quacks generally took care that their wheel should contain no numbers affixed to them, so that the deluded people, under this additional imposition, for their money, often purchased their destruction.
A cheat of this description, who called himself Isaac Long, a Jew, in the year 1771, was upon his circuit through Wiltshire, at each town practising his frauds, and disseminating his poison, when the justices, much to their credit, ordered him to be taken from his stage, and committed to gaol, as a vagabond. To punish him effectually, they caused informations to be exhibited against him for offences against the lottery act. When the Doctor was brought to trial, he attempted to evade conviction, by pretending, that he sold his medicines and gave away his plate. This brings to mind the old method of propagating treason, libels, or obscene prints, and still practised in Ireland. A few years ago the editor's affairs called him to Londonderry, and having never before been in Ireland, the manners of the lower class of the wretched inhabitants aroused the emotions of pity and amazement; in fact, they sometimes beg in crowds; and almost at every corner is posted a beggar. He was particularly struck with an old woman, who in one hand held some straw, while ballads were in the other. With the voice of a boatswain, and in a most vernacular brogue, she perpetually roared out,
"Who'll buy my straw?
"Who'll buy my straw?
"I dare not sell my book,
"But I'll sell my straw.
"I don't offer rye or oat,
"But my real barley-straw.
"For the Budget's broke open,
"And the butter's come out,
"Of our Stir-a-bout."
Her ballad was a jargon of nonsense and obscenity. This sort of evasion, would not, however, suit the purpose of Doctor Isaac Long; for it was too evident that the poor duped people threw up to him their money, under the sole hope of obtaining the tinselled prize. The jury convicted him on two penalties of 200l. each; which the cunning Israelite, such had been the monstrous credulity of the people, found means to pay, rather than lie longer in prison.
These murderous wretches, Quack Doctors, who pretend to cure every disease, by one specific, by which the credulous, who swallow their poison, soon linger into the grave, were formerly severely punished. Stow records an exemplary punishment that was inflicted on an empiric who pretended to medical skill, in the reign of Richard I. When his presumptuous lyings could no longer be faced out, says this old historian, he was led on horseback through the city of London, with his face turned to the tail of the animal, and with a collar of Jordans, to which was affixed a Whetstone, tied round his neck, while the populace greeted him with shouts, and rung him with basins. In the reign of Edward VI. also, one Greig, a poulterer, who had acquired the reputation of being skilful in curing the most inveterate maladies, was, on examination, proved to be a crafty deceiver, and was ordered to be set in the pillory, in Southwark, where he publicly asked pardon of the lord mayor and aldermen, who were present, as well as of all the citizens, for the impositions he had practised.
This most dangerous of all descriptions of impostors, in the present day, we are of opinion, should, for the first offence, that is to say, for the first they killed, be pilloried; for the second, fined and imprisoned; and for the third, sentenced to the gallows.