During the 1840s many Irish men and women made the long journey to Van Diemen's Land, convicted of crimes ranging from murder to stealing food during the famine. Some were glad to go, hoping for food and work in a new colony. A number obtained land and settled down as small farmers; others committed further crimes and ended on the Tasmanian gallows. Few, however, had the effrontery to set themselves up, like John Gibbons, as quack doctors in the land of their exile.
In 1840, Gibbons was a farm labourer in Cashel. Aged 28, he and his wife Catherine had seven children to support. On 25 June he was charged at the Cashel Quarter Sessions with pig stealing, before the assistant barrister of Tipperary, James Howley. Howley, a Catholic, though much reviled in the loyalist press, was well regarded in Tipperary and eventually knighted for his work. The case against Gibbons was doubtful. The pigs, belonging to a man named Magrath, were certainly found in his possession, but there was no proof that Gibbons had stolen them. Indeed, he was able to produce a very respectable witness, the wife of John Brennan, steward of Mr Mansfield a Clonmel gentleman. Mrs Brennan testified to seeing Gibbons buying the two pigs for 16s 3d each at the Caher markets.
In his summing up to the jury, Howley warned that they must not consider the accused's previous reputation in their verdict. We can only conjecture Gibbons' past. Later he admitted to having been once charged with assaulting a prostitute and being in gaol for ten months. Confusingly he then claimed that while he got nothing, the prostitute was sentenced to two months gaol. At some stage Gibbons was imprisoned on a hulk. It is possible that he remained on remand for ten months while awaiting his trial. The Cashel jury, despite the assistant barrister's caution, convicted Gibbons and he was sentenced to transportation for seven years. Animal theft was then considered a serious crime and worthy of condign punishment. Surrounded by local landowning JPs on the bench, Howley, before sentencing, would also have been well informed as to Gibbons' previous unpunished misdemeanours.
After her husband's sentence, his unfortunate wife Catherine, left to provide for their seven children with no support, twice petitioned the Lord Lieutenant, Hugh, Viscount Ebrington, for clemency. The petitions emphasised the thin evidence against Gibbons and appealed to Howley's notes on the case. The second petition was supported by several gentlemen, two of whom were JPs. They 'knew the petitioner to be in very distressful circumstances' and deemed her 'a great object of pity'. 1 The Viceroy and his advisers remained unmoved by Catherine's plea 'to take pity on her and her children doomed to a disgraceful widowhood and orphanage in the lifetime of their natural protector'.
Although it was possible, and officially encouraged, for convicts who had served most of their term to apply for their wives and families to be brought to Van Diemen's Land, more frequently their marriages were considered annulled in practice. There was a discrepancy in the accounts of Gibbons and his wife; while Catherine, backed by local gentry, claimed seven children to Gibbons, her husband only admitted to two. By 1847, at the height of the famine, Gibbons described himself as a widower with one child. If true, he must have lost his wife and one child; however it is possible that Catherine and six of their seven children had succumbed to the great starvation, a family tragedy typifying the times. For the wives and families of many transported convicts, the hated workhouse, if they could gain admittance, was the only resort.
A few months after his conviction in June 1840, Gibbons embarked on the Egyptian with 170 Irish convicts bound for Van Diemen's Land. 2 A swarthy young man, 5'51/2" tall, with a deeply wrinkled face, large head and mouth, Gibbons had an advantage over many of his fellow-convicts; he could both read and write. In Van Diemen's Land he was one of the first batch to be placed under the new probation system which required labour in a gang before graduation to the more independent passholder status, working for a private employer, and finally a ticket-of-leave and virtual freedom. Gibbons' probation gang work was spent at Jerusalem and North Esk. His initial period of twelve months in the gang was extended by two extra months for the offences of idleness and disorderly conduct. He then moved to work in the northern city of Launceston.
By 1847 Gibbons was free by servitude. Aided no doubt by his literacy, he decided to set up as a healer. He hung a shingle outside his door in Launceston offering medical treatment on a 'no cure, no payment' basis. Gibbons did make some application to the local Medical Board for permission to practise. Dr W.R. Pugh, a member of the Board, received a letter from Gibbons 'stating that he had put some bottles up in his window, and that he felt grateful to me for not having interfered.' Gibbons also appears to have assumed the title 'doctor'. 3
The contents of the bottles was not disclosed, but, throughout the world it was a fruitful period for quack medicine, the Launceston Examiner in particular carrying regular advertisements for the most unlikely cures. The most obtrusive was the ubiquitous puff for Holloway's pills and ointments, which often occupied more than two whole columns in the newspaper. 'Professor' Thomas Holloway (1800-83) began selling his pills and potions in England in 1837. After a period of bankruptcy and incarceration in a debtors prison, he prospered mightily. The pills remained on sale throughout the world until the 1900s. The Launceston Examiner published a Holloway promotion boasting of spending 'the enormous sum of twenty thousand pounds annually in advertisements alone', spread not only throughout the British Empire but Africa, South America, Southern Europe and Turkey. The pills were even infiltrated into Russia where patent medicines were prohibited. There was some justification for considering Holloway 'a Napoleon of advertisers'. 4 Holloway made a large fortune, established a free newspaper library in the Strand and endowed the Royal Holloway College at the University of London.
Various authorities disagreed on the precise contents of his pills, clearly based on simple ingredients. But their popularity was not affected. 5 They were, at best, placebos whose effectiveness depended on the beliefs of the user, influenced by mass advertising. Launcestonians read the Earl of Aldborough's testimonial for Holloway, who had cured him of a disorder of liver and stomach. The potential cures in the Launceston advertisement did not mention cancer as such, but tumours, venereal affections, consumption, erysipelas, jaundice, stone and gravel were all included. 6 An 'advertorial' in the rival Cornwall Chronicle claimed that 'thousands of persons who had been patients in large hospitals, and under the care of the greatest surgeons of the day without deriving the least benefit, as a last resort use Holloway's ointment and pills, which always cure them, and frequently in as little time as a cut finger would require when treated in the usual way.' 7
Another regular advertiser in the Launceston Examiner was Parr's Life Pills, 8 supposedly obtained by Herbert Ingram from a recipe derived from the 17th century 'old Parr', claimed to cure both constipation and diarrhoea. Engels found Parr's Pills popular with the poor English workers. Though advertised in papers like the Dublin Freeman's Journal, Ingram set up other papers, such as the popular and influential The Illustrated London News, and made a fortune. 9
With such examples locally available, 'Doctor' Gibbons saw a profitable future. For a start, all appeared well. He gained a number of patients who were prepared to testify to his skill. Hannah Cherry was 'very dangerously ill' when Gibbons attended her and provided relief in 24 hours. Mrs Kennedy had extremely sore eyes, which the lotion of Dr Pugh failed to cure. Gibbons' eye water proved effective. William Page not only had painful eyes, but had lost the sight of one for nine years. In nine days Gibbons removed the pain and restored the sight. Mrs Alice Wyburn had endured for twenty months a sore hand which prevented her from washing clothes. After treatment from Gibbons, she washed without concern. Mrs Ann Brazer had spat blood for six years. Gibbons had cured her in a fortnight and there was no relapse after a year. James White's condition worsened after treatment by Dr [F.H.] Brock of Hobart when he struck his leg with a rusty wedge. After eighteen months of misery, Gibbons rehabilitated the leg in a fortnight. He was similarly successful when White had two subsequent accidents. Finally, Mrs Dyson was 'perfectly cured' by Gibbons after she had suffered a sore breast for six weeks. 10
These stories are very similar to the tales told in the advertisements of Holloway, Ingram and other quack advertisers of the period. It seems that Gibbons' list of satisfied customers was growing rapidly. The advantage of the long-range advertisers lay in the fact that their claims were difficult to disprove. If a patient failed to respond to their treatment they retorted that insufficient pills or ointment had been used. Gibbons had to deal with patients on the spot, though his 'no cure, no payment' policy was calculated to disarm critics. The crisis came when he was engaged by Thomas Bishop. Bishop was terminally ill with cancer of the face and neck. An operation had been attempted, but there was no hope of further success. In desperation Bishop called upon Gibbons, who agreed to cure him for £20, with £5 down at once and £15 to come after the cure was effected. James Morris Martin, a friend of Bishop, considered these harsh terms, contrary to Gibbons' usual insistence on payment after cure. Bishop was not disposed to argue. Gibbons applied a lotion to the neck with a feather. Bishop complained of a burning pain but Gibbons told him it would be necessary to burn the flesh to the bone to clear the disease. When Gibbons paid a later visit, Bishop and Martin tried to discover the nature of the lotion, but Gibbons refused to reveal it. In a struggle to seize the phial, Gibbons broke it through the window. But Martin's wife collected enough liquid in a spoon from the windowsill for its analysis as sulphuric acid.
Bishop bled profusely and Dr Pugh was called in. Pugh was an experimenting doctor who pioneered the use of ether in operations. 11 He managed to stop Bishop's bleeding by an operation to ligate the corotid artery, but Bishop died painfully 16 days later on 16 May 1847. An information had already been laid against Gibbons for practising medicine without qualifications. 12 The inquest on Bishop in Launceston found Gibbons guilty of manslaughter and his formal prosecution ensued. 13 Gibbons was fortunate to obtain the services of Edward Macdowell, a leading barrister and former attorney-general of Van Diemen's Land. Macdowell was a Wicklow man. He had defended the famous Irish bushranger, Martin Cash, and played a leading role in setting up a Van Diemen's Land fund for Irish famine victims earlier in the month. 14
The case against Gibbons 15 hinged on the principle that any person, qualified or not, 'who through gross ignorance or rashness, administered medicine, and death ensued in consequence, was guilty of felony.' As the current attorney-general, Thomas Horne, stated, it would still be manslaughter if the act shortened life for only one instant. This was the second such case tried in the colony, but there had been several in England, the most noteworthy being that of a St. John Long. Horne hoped that the verdict of the jury 'would prevent unskilful and unqualified persons, known as quacks, from practising upon the bodies of Her Majesty's subjects. Life was dear and should be protected.'
The basic facts were soon elucidated. Macdowell insisted, and was upheld by the judge, Chief Justice Sir John Pedder, and even by the attorney-general, that Gibbons' lack of formal qualifications was not a factor. Macdowell also 'humourously adverted to the public sale of Parr's pills, Holloway's ointment, Dutch drops, etc., as sufficient apology for the quack advertisements of his client'. The prosecution significantly did not press this point. In the witness box, Dr Pugh admitted, under Macdowell's cross-examination, that in some cases of superficial cancer strong acid might be applied 'without injurious results, but not where the glandular system was diseased.' Pugh agreed when the judge interpreted this as meaning that there were cases of cancer where treatment with sulphuric acid would be beneficial.
The issue may have been clouded by the contemporary debate on whether sulphuric ether, as an anaesthetic, might be preferable to other forms. Before Gibbons' trial, Pugh had opposed sulphuric ether, which he adjudged too dangerous. An editorial in the Launceston Examiner, however, insisted that the risks were worth taking. 16 Dr J. Weston of New Norfolk experimented successfully with sulphuric ether on a dog. 17 The Anglican Bishop Francis Nixon sent Dr Pugh from England the latest apparatus for inhaling sulphuric ether. 18 The question was almost rendered academic by the more effective application of chloroform as an anaesthetic by Dr, later Sir James, Simpson. 19 It appears to have been first used successfully in Hobart and Launceston in May and June 1848. 20 But deaths through chloroform in Newcastle, England, though explained away by Dr Simpson, were a warning to Tasmanians. When William Moore died under chloroform at the Launceston General Hospital in September 1848, the inquest, however, completely exonerated the surgeon in charge, Cornelius Gavin Casey. 21 Meanwhile, from Norway came another rival anaesthetic in the form of sulphate of carbon, easily abstracted from carbon. 22
In Gibbons' case, Macdowell was attempting with some success to demonstrate that medical science was insufficiently advanced to convict Gibbons for the use of sulphuric acid in what was obviously a desperate case. The defence counsel proceeded to cite from John Wilcock's Medical Profession 23 a number of cases in which leading judges such as Lord Ellenborough, Sir Matthew Hale, Sir Edward Coke and Sir William Blackstone had ruled out murder or manslaughter in cases where medical treatment had failed. Macdowell quoted Sir John Hullock, Baron of the Exchequer, 24 who, when faced with such an indictment for manslaughter, was 'afraid to let the case go on, lest an idea should be entertained that a man's practice may be questioned wherever an operation fails.' The modern tendency to litigate against doctors can prove as irksome to a Surgeon Casey as to a 'Doctor' Gibbons.
Macdowell followed up these precedents by maintaining that 'Gibbon saw a hopeless case and resorted to a desperate remedy to save the life of his patient. The same course is adopted by Dr. Pugh, who having seen the hopelessness of the case, performed an operation of such a hazardous and difficult character that the probability was death would ensue in ninety-nine cases out of a hundred.' Somewhat casuistically, Macdowell also argued that there was no actual proof that Gibbons had administered sulphuric acid. The broken phial had not been applied and it was only assumed that the earlier treatment was of the same substance. Macdowell concluded by calling as witnesses the citizens, mentioned earlier, who believed themselves cured by Gibbons' ministrations.
After the attorney-general had denied any parallel between Dr Pugh's operation to prevent immediate death and Gibbons' treatment, which Horne insisted was obviously sulphuric acid, Pedder summed up. The Chief Justice used a crude analogy. If he fired a gun at random into the crowd and killed someone, it was 'no excuse to say that he didn't know it was loaded, or that he didn't think it would hurt anybody, or he didn't know what the effect would be.' The public 'had a right to expect, that he [Gibbons] should possess the requisite skill and knowledge.' Though this was perilously close to the denial, already conceded, that unqualified practitioners were guilty of manslaughter if unsuccessful, the jury quickly convicted Gibbons.
Pedder sentenced the quack doctor to eighteen months hard labour, not transportation to Port Arthur as might have been expected in a serious case of manslaughter. Gibbons served his time in gangs at Ross and Spring Hill before his discharge on the expiry of his sentence. 25 His subsequent movements are obscure and he fades out of history. The case, however, left several questions unanswered. Assuming that the witnesses who spoke up for Gibbons' cures were genuine, orthodox medicine might have had difficulty in accounting for his success. Was there, as Macdowell indicated in the trial, any real difference between quacks like Gibbons who suffered for their temerity and the enormously successful quack advertisers whose claims were probably more outrageous than those of Gibbons, but who continued to pursue them profitably throughout the world? While Gibbons' family suffered probable starvation in the Irish famine, the Irish newspapers carried Holloway's advertisements throughout that dismal period. Death from hunger was one of the few complaints that Holloway did not claim to cure. In a period when medical knowledge was still limited and the training of doctors still haphazard, was it in fact possible to separate with precision the quack who treated cancer with sulphuric acid and the 'orthodox' doctor who bled for every condition? A New Zealand newspaper, as late as 1885, deemed patent medicine advertisements like Holloway's, 'extremely objectionable', 26 but nothing could reduce their profits.
There was a curious sequel to Gibbons' presumption two years later. Charles Underwood, was transported from Sydney to Norfolk Island and then to Van Diemen's Land for forging a cheque for £50. Now working as a passholder for Mr Kemp of Lindisfarne, Underwood claimed a cure for snakebite. Underwood invited Governor Sir William Denison to recommend him for a conditional pardon in return for his expertise. The governor agreed and an experiment, presided over by the Chief Medical Officer, took place on 7 April 1849 at St Mary's Hospital, Hobart Town. Fifty gentlemen attended the demonstration. A diamond, a whip, and a black snake were set to bite some rabbits and a cat. Unfortunately, though 'pinched and bullied in every way' the snakes refused to oblige. However, Underwood himself was reportedly bitten on the hand attempting to prise open a reluctant snake's mouth. He applied light coloured liquid from a small phial and the venom appeared to have no effect. Underwood declared that he had achieved a cure in Sydney when all hope had evaporated and had picked up his knowledge at Callao in Peru. He maintained that a small quantity of the application, lasting a whole year, would cost only three halfpence. This certainly undercut Holloway's currently advertised 'extraordinary' cure of a South Australian man from snakebite on his leg at the cost of 16s and a 10s bottle of Croft's Tincture of Life, reported at the Cape of Good Hope as a certain cure for poisonous venom. 27 But, as further proof was demanded of Underwood, the Hobart experiment was repeated in the following week with a small carpet snake. Unfortunately, it failed to catch a rabbit. Underwood did not then get his conditional pardon, but in December 1849 the Launceston Examiner advertised his antidote as the product of twenty years' experiment, available at 2s 6d for fifty, or 5s for one hundred snakebites. His ticket-of-leave, awarded in October 1849, was revoked in 1852 when he acquired five gallons of rum by false pretences. 28
While medical knowledge was still in its infancy in the Van Diemen's Land of the 1840s, trials on rabbits, dogs or cats were obviously safer than experiments on humans, even when the latter were in extremis. Gibbons' opponent in the witness box, Dr Pugh, attempted the establishment of a cooperative people's hospital in Launceston, but even this proved ultimately unsuccessful and left scope for unorthodox practitioners. 29 The scepticism of mid-19th century authorities in Hobart and Launceston towards the claims of Gibbons and Underwood, and the rigorous demand for scientific, visible evidence was neutralised by the aggressive advertising of a Holloway or a Croft, whose claims in retrospect appear equally ridiculous. Significantly, the Launceston Examiner, which devoted considerable space to Holloway's advertisements, was contemptuous of his cures. 30 Today such importunity is reinforced an hundredfold by the hypnotic power of electronic media. Today such importunity is reinforced an hundredfold by the hypnotic power of electronic media. As for the regular medical profession, though Gibbons was undoubtedly a quack, his case raised the perennial problem of blame for the practitioner when treatment fails.
1. Petitions of Catherine Gibbons to the Lord Lieutenant, 9 and 22 July 1840, National Archives of Ireland, Convict Reference File, 1840, G26.
2. AOT, Con, 33/3.
3. Launceston Examiner, 5 and 19 May 1847.
4. Launceston Examiner, 10 March 1849.
5. People's Advocate, Sydney, 22 January 1853 and 26 February 1853. Jennifer Hagger, Australian Colonial Medicine (Adelaide, Rigby, 1979), pp. 173-4. Suggested ingredients: (1) Butter, lard, Venice turpentine, white wax and yellow wax. (2) Aloes, jalap, ginger, myrrh, massed with mucilage. (3) Aloes, rhubarb, saffron, Glauber's salts and pepper.
6. Launceston Examiner, 9 June 1847.
7. Cornwall Chronicle, 23 February 1848.
8. Woods' Tasmanian Almanac of 1849, for example, had four pages of advertisements for Parr and another four for Holloway.
9. F. Engels, Condition of the Working-Class in 1844 (London, Allen and Unwin, 1952), p. 104. and Freeman's Journal, 12 November 1842; Limerick Reporter, 6 May 1842.
10. Launceston Examiner, 14 July 1847.
11. Michael Roe, Quest for Authority in Eastern Australia (Melbourne University Press, 1965), p. 158; C. Craig in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Vol. 2, 1788-1850, I-Z (Melbourne University Press, 1967), p. 355.
12. Launceston Examiner, 5 May 1847.
13. Launceston Examiner, 19 May 1847.
14. Launceston Examiner, 1 May 1847.
15. For trial see Launceston Examiner, 14 July 1847.
16. Launceston Examiner, 23 June (Pugh) and 4 August 1847 (leader).
17. Joan Goodrick, Life in Old Van Diemen's Land (Adelaide, Rigby, 1977), p. 129.
18. Hobart Town Courier, 8 September 1847.
19. Launceston Examiner, 1 April 1848.
20. Launceston Examiner, 17 May (Hobart, Dr McDonald) 26 June (Launceston -dentistry) 1848.
21. Launceston Examiner, 12 July 1848 (Newcastle); 4 October 1848 (Launceston).
22. Launceston Examiner, 19 July 1848.
23. John William Wilcock, The Laws relating to the MEDICAL PROFESSION; with an account of the rise and progress of its various orders (London, W.T. Clarke, 1830).
24. Sir John Hullock (1767-1829), Baron of Exchequer, 1823-29.
25. AOT, Con, 37/3. No. 951.
26. South Canterbury Times, 18 March 1885, quoted in Evening Post, Wellington, 31 March 1885.
27. Hobart Town Courier, 11 April 1849. Callao was mentioned in the Hobart Town Courier, 18 April 1849. The Courier started advertising Holloway's antidote for snakebite on 24 February 1849, ending that advertisement on 18 July 1849.
28. Sir William Denison, Varieties of Vice-Regal Life, Vol. 1 (London, Longmans, 1870), p. 115; Goodrick, Life in Old Van Diemen's Land, p. 129, Hobart Town Courier, 11 and 18 April 1849; Launceston Examiner, 4, 24 April and 8 December 1849. AOT, Con, 33/71. Despite an attempt to abscond, Underwood regained his ticket in 1854 and the long-awaited conditional pardon in May 1855.
29. Roe, Quest for Authority, p. 194.
30 Launceston Examiner, 25 August 1849