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March 19, 2014

Historic Hoaxes and Quackery Collectibles

Victorian Vampire Slaying Kits
Tennants Auctioneers in Leyburn, England, sold an antique vampire slaying kit in June, 2012.  It had been estimated that the unusual item would bring $2,000-$3,000 but when the auctioneer's gavel slammed down, the final bid was over $10,000.

The kit consisted of a rosary, crucifix, a pistol, handwritten psalm (Luke 20:27), four oak stakes, a bottle of consecrated earth, a common prayer book, a wooden mallet, silver bullet mold, and two glass bottles containing garlic paste and holy water.

After Bram Stoker's Dracula was published in 1897 gullible, late-19th Century adventure seekers believed that vampires actually existed and thought a slaying kit would solve their problems.  Very few intact kits survive today.

The World's First Spirit Photographer
Photography was in its infancy in the mid 1800s but clever con men were already taking advantage of the public's fascination and gullibility with the new invention.

In 1861 William Mumler, a Boston jewelry engraver, was dabbling in photography and took a self portrait. When it developed he noticed the shadowy form of a young girl floating behind his image.  It was an accident, the result of an earlier negative made when the same plate had been used for a previous photograph.

A family member insisted the image was that of a deceased young cousin. Word spread and Mumler couldn't resist taking advantage of the publicity.  He billed himself, quite successfully, as the World's First Spirit Photographer.

Mary Todd Lincoln was susceptible to the mystique of the spiritualist movement and went to Mumler to have her picture taken.  Not surprisingly, the image of her late husband, Abraham Lincoln, showed up in the photograph. Though charged and tried for fraud, Mumler was acquitted because of lack of proof that the spirits weren't real.  Apparently PhotoShop existed long before we knew it.

The Phrenology Helmet

Phrenology was introduced in the late 1700s by German physician Franz Joseph Gall.  A discipline that linked bumps on a person's head to their personality and character, phrenology was quickly accepted as a science and the quacks went to work full time.

The Phrenology Helmet was made by L.N. Fowler who sold the public on the idea that electrical currents could cure headaches and other misdiagnosed ailments.

Here are a few other 19th Century "miracle medical"
apparatuses that defy understanding:

The Ideal Sight Restorer and Massager 
(Sold for $60.00)

Electric corset?  Yikes!

"Lung salve" treated lung troubles, sore
throats, appendicitis, cuts - even dog bites! 

"Doctor" S.B. Smith's Torpedo Magnetic Machine was manufactured in 1850.  Smith claimed that the low voltage the machine produced - tingling electric shocks - would cure just about every malady.

The main ingredient of Mrs. Winslow's Soothing Syrup?  Morphine!

The Health Jolting Chair, introduced in 1885,
was advertised as a "brain-refresher."
(I think I need one of these!)

Okay, don't be grossed out by this next
historic hoax - it's not a real hand:
The Hand of Glory 
Composed of wood 'bones' and vines, a Victorian Hand of Glory kit
came with candles to use in seances.  Supposedly those in attendance
became immobile and locked doors opened spontaneously.  The
appendage was said to have come from a hanged felon but it was
actually a skeletal "hand" created from wood or animal bones.

The Great Moon Hoax of 1835

Until the invention of the radio, newspapers were to the public what the internet is to us today.  In order to boost readership Victorian editors were eager to print stories that grabbed the readers' attention.

The New York Sun published such a story in the Summer of 1835.  It printed a series of articles describing astronomer John Herschel's amazing discoveries on the moon through the use of his cutting-edge "hydro-oxygen magnifiers." According to Hershel, his telescopes were so powerful that he was able to see lunar objects as small as 18 inches tall.  

And what amazing Moon discoveries did Herschel see in his observatory?  Sandy beaches, lush valleys with cascading waterfalls, herds of "lunar bison" and single-horned goats bounding through glades of woods!  The New York Sun editors were told that these findings had previously been published in the Edinburgh Journal of Science, a non-existent newspaper fabricated by Hershel's assistant, Andrew Grant.  Within a few months the newspaper articles were proven to be complete fiction but the public didn't protest too loudly because the stories were so entertaining.

Victorians swore by these and other hoaxes and quackery like those of our generation who believe in the healing powers of crystals, copper bracelets, and magnetic necklaces.  It wouldn't surprise me if our great-grandchildren find our "cures" at flea markets in 100 years.


  1. THis is really a fabulous post! We had something similar to the Torpedo Magnetic Machine when I was a kid. I think most of the pieces got broken over the years, no idea what became of it!

    1. Gosh, it would be worth a fortune today! Thanks for stopping by.

  2. How very interesting was this post! I do enjoy learning new things about the past.....some of the things that they came up with are just so mind blowing! Have a wonderful week!!!

    1. Thanks so much for stopping by! I agree - the past is fascinating.