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  • Quacks! Dodgy Doctors and Foolish Fads Throughout History by S. D. Tucker

    THE TWILIGHT ZONE: The Quack Discipline of ‘Zone Therapy’

    In an extract from his new book Quacks! Dodgy Doctors and Foolish Fads Throughout History, out now in paperback, SD Tucker examines the bizarre ‘medical’ advice that combing your hands and squeezing your fingers can cure all ailments known to man.

    Albert Ankers's 1879 painting Der Quacksalber illustrated perfectly the origins of the word 'Quack'; namely, an old Dutch term for someone hawking dubious medicines. (Quacks! Dodgy Doctors and Foolish Fads Throughout History, Amberley Publishing)

    One of the most comical pseudo-medical fads of all time was something called either ‘Zone Therapy’ or ‘Zonotherapy’, depending on how fancy your local quack wished to sound. This involved splitting the body up into ten different vertical zones, and claiming that symptoms in one area of the body could be diagnosed and then resolved by applying pressure to other, corresponding, zones, as everything was connected beneath the skin by nerves. Most of these nerve-networks seemed to terminate in one or other of the fingers or toes.

    This was curious, as anatomists had never managed to actually see these particular nerve-networks before, when cutting up human bodies for analysis. The Zone Therapists conveniently replied that this was because they were invisible.

    Invented around 1909 by Dr William H. Fitzgerald (1872–1942), the chief physician and senior ear, nose and throat surgeon at St Francis Hospital in Connecticut, the fake discipline first came to the attention of the wider world thanks to an article written for Everybody’s Magazine in 1915 entitled ‘To Stop That Toothache, Squeeze Your Toe!’ by the man who would become Fitzgerald’s long-time partner in such nonsense, Dr Edwin F. Bowers (b.1871).

    Unfortunately, whilst Dr Fitzgerald was a real, genuine surgeon, well-educated and well-travelled and with medical certificates spilling out of his ears, nose and throat, ‘Dr’ Bowers was not. An investigation carried out into Bowers by American medical authorities in 1929 revealed that the man had not so much as attended medical college for even a single day’s worth of instruction.

    Simply gripping a comb tightly in your hand in the fashion illustrated above would be enough to ensure an entirely painless childbirth for any woman. (William H. Fitzgerald & Edwin F. Bowers, Zone Therapy; Or, Relieving Pain At Home, Quacks! Dodgy Doctors and Foolish Fads Throughout History, Amberley Publishing)

    There’s One Born Every Minute

    Having established himself as Zonotherapy’s chief propagandist, Bowers set to work collaborating on a book with Dr Fitzgerald, 1917’s Zone Therapy: Or, Relieving Pain at Home, whose introduction jauntily promised it would advance medical knowledge far beyond geneticists’ recent discovery of ‘the evil possibilities in marrying one’s cousin’. The basic idea was that, when your eyes were hurting, say, you would look up in a Zonotherapy book which other part of your body secretly corresponded to these organs, and then apply pressure to this area to put a stop to the pain.

    In this case, the nerves within the first and second fingers of the human hand corresponded to the eyes, so the best remedy was to tie elastic bands around them, or encircle them tightly with little wire-springs until they turned blue. If neither of these items were to hand, you could always try attaching clothes-pegs to them instead – this is not a joke, this was Bowers and Fitzgerald’s actual advice, and they provided S&M-style photographs of people transformed into human washing-lines to prove it.

    The book was marketed primarily as a practical means for dispelling pain when it erupted around the home, away from your doctor with his reassuring stores of opium – even if the pain arose from as serious a thing as childbirth. In order to achieve a painless birth, all the expectant Zonotherapy-loving mother had to do was sit there with a metal comb in each hand, gripping onto them and thereby numbing her nerves whilst she pushed away merrily.

    Doing this, said the authors, would result in a new mother laughing and joking her way through the complete non-trauma of pushing a live infant out through her genitals. One new mother told her Zonotherapist that ‘she did not experience any pain whatever’ using this method, and ‘could not believe the child was born’. ‘This is not so bad,’ she laughed happily, no doubt wanting to drop out another immediately, just for fun.

    Fitzgerald claimed to have performed several successful minor operations without anaesthetic, rendering the whole procedure painless simply by applying constant pressure to his patients’ fingers prior to applying the knife, a discovery he initially termed ‘Pressure Anaesthesia’. Sceptics were invited to let practitioners squeeze the nerves in their hands, then close their eyes and see if they could feel it when pins were jabbed into their flesh.

    Apparently, they said they couldn’t; one daring fellow kept his lids open and let his Zonotherapist attach a hook into his eyeball without feeling so much as a scratch. The keen quack then ‘put several pins into his face’ before calling the man’s wife into the room to show her what he had done. The wife did not seem pleased.

    About as Much Use as a Comb to a Bald Man

    Deafness, meanwhile, could be treated by clamping a clothes-peg around your third toe or poking at your teeth with a cotton-bud, thus enabling you to hear nearby people laughing at you. You could also try combing deaf people’s hands, or solve an earache by fastening a clothes-peg ‘for five minutes or thereabouts’ on the tip of your ring-finger.

    Headaches were dispelled by sucking your thumb and pressing it hard into the roof of your mouth, thus allowing you to ‘push the headache out through the top of the head’. Alternatively, you could ‘attack’ your migraine by shoving your fingers up your nose. If your friends’ heads felt all fuzzy, you could even invade their nasal orifices for them, although it was wise to inform them of your intentions first.

    If you were going bald, meanwhile, you had to sit there ‘rubbing the fingernails of both hands briskly one against the other in a lateral motion for three or four minutes at a time, at intervals throughout the day’ until your hair re-sprouted, thus making you glad you had already invested in a metal comb for your pregnant wife upon the Zonotherapists’ wise advice.

    Those disposed to stomach-ache were advised to ‘arm yourself with a wire-hair brush and a metal comb’ every time they boarded public transport. Then, rather than vomiting over their fellow passengers, they could simply ‘get busy with the comb and brush – not on your head – but on your hands’, thus dispelling travel-sickness, indigestion and ‘distension from gas’. The sight of you obsessively combing your bare hands until you farted might still make people want to sit far away from you, however, in which case it was recommended, for no apparent reason, that you just eat some salted popcorn instead.

    If your baby had a tummy-ache, you could pursue similar methods. Rather than beating your crying infant ‘up and down the room’ with your slippers until it either shuts up or dies, why not just comb the baby until it goes peacefully to sleep?

    Submitting to Zone Therapy treatment may have cured your pain, but it could severely injure your dignity. (William H. Fitzgerald & Edwin F. Bowers, Zone Therapy; Or, Relieving Pain At Home, Quacks! Dodgy Doctors and Foolish Fads Throughout History, Amberley Publishing)

    Dentally Disturbed

    Even sharp needles could be banished from dentistry via sensible use of Zone Therapy. Instead of having cocaine injected into your mouth to numb the pain, it was much simpler to just sit there with elastic bands wrapped around your fingers. As the fingers and teeth were intimately connected, this meant you would surely feel no pain whilst lying back and relaxing within the dentist’s chair. However, because for some unknown reason (presumably related to the differing level of quasi-hypnotic suggestibility of individual patients) Zonotherapy only worked for 65 per cent of the time, the authors of Zone Therapy were careful to advise that, sometimes, the numbing needle did work best after all.

    Not only pain, but actual disease, could be cured by the Zonotherapists, or so they said. Whooping cough was banished simply by pressing a hidden bodily button located somewhere at the back of the throat. Cancer, appendicitis, goitre, even polio, all could be beaten off, at least temporarily, with naught but clothes-pegs and combs. One woman given Fitzgerald’s treatment went so far as to simply wee a bothersome tumour out from between her legs one day, causing it to make ‘a happy exit’ down the drain.

    There was no end to the wonders Zone Therapy could perform. Attending a dinner-party one evening, Dr Fitzgerald met a female opera-singer who complained that her voice was in terminal decline. Eager to help, the surgeon asked if he could fondle her feet in front of the other guests. As he did so, Fitzgerald discovered a calloused area on the big toe of her right foot. He squeezed it for a bit, then told her to sing. Amazingly, ‘Not only was she able to exactly reach the notes she had been missing, but she was able to reach two notes higher than she had ever done before.’ Dr Fitzgerald must have had a grip like a vice! If only his brain had been in such good working order too …

    S. D. Tucker's new book Quacks! Dodgy Doctors and Foolish Fads Throughout History is available for purchase now.

  • False Economies by S. D. Tucker

    The Strangest, Least Successful and Most Audacious Financial Follies, Plans and Crazes of All Time

    Pies in the Sky: Defeating Communism with Chocolate Coins - examining the bizarre use of chocolate coins as a real-life currency in North Korea.

    Life within the Communist hell-hole of North Korea (or DPRK, as it is officially known) is hard. Its economy is, for the most part, centrally planned, condemning most of its people to have to live in poverty. Ever since the days of Kim Il-sung, the nation’s founding father who still technically rules the place even though he is dead, North Korea has pursued a policy of juche, or ‘self-reliance’, which is just another way of saying ‘self-imposed economic isolation’.

    The North has failed to publish any official economic data since 1965, which implies that the only people doing well out of the closed command-economy are the military. Because the ‘Hermit Kingdom’ is about as open to outside penetration as a nun’s chastity belt, it seems that most people there don’t have a particularly good understanding of the notion of capitalism – which is why attempts have been made over recent years to try and undermine the nightmare dictatorship’s economy via the use of chocolate biscuits.

    Following a disastrous 1990s famine, the DPRK’s top brass have thankfully allowed some limited economic reforms to take place, the most significant being the creation of the Kaesong Industrial Complex (KIC) in 2002 under the auspices of Kim Jong-il, father of the current chunky little leader, Kim Jong-un. The KIC was a special economic zone in which sealed-off factories operated by 120 South Korean firms employed 50,000 North Korean workers, getting to pay them lower wages than they would back home whilst simultaneously opening up the North to outside influences, or so it was hoped.

    The real motive of the DPRK was to increase their foreign currency reserves; workers’ wages were paid direct to the North’s government, and they then passed back the equivalent sum in North Korean notes to the factory staff – minus some ‘necessary deductions’, naturally. The KIC is currently closed down due to deteriorating relations between North and South, but even whilst open it proved a source of severe controversy because of one particular product its factories were producing … Choco Pies.

    Choco Pies are the Far Eastern equivalent of Wagon Wheels, being two little circles of cake filled with marshmallow and covered over in chocolate, manufactured by a South Korean company called Orion. Such items may seem unremarkable in the mouth of a capitalist, but confectionaries of this kind were like miracles to the Communists of the North, to whom buttered cardboard is doubtless considered a culinary luxury. To the downtrodden workers of the DPRK, the KIC’s factories contained many hitherto unknown wonders such as toilet-paper (and indeed actual toilets) and the Choco Pies were yet another piece of magic from within Aladdin’s Capitalist Cave.

    The South Korean bosses in the KIC factories started paying their workers with free Choco Pies as a non-monetary bonus supplement, hoping to boost morale and increase productivity. The workers seemed pleased with their new bounty, describing them as producing ‘ecstasy’ upon their very tongues, but inspections of the factory workers’ bins revealed something strange – there were no Choco Pie wrappers in them. Why not? Apparently, it was because the workers were taking them home to use as a makeshift currency, deeming them more valuable per unit than many North Korean banknotes were. The chocolate biscuits had become chocolate coins!

    At the height of the craze 120,000 Choco Pies were doled out to the biscuit-hungry plebs each day, with even corrupt soldiers guarding the KIC site demanding their customary bribes in Wagon Wheels instead of banknotes. If you believe the highest estimates, some 2.5 million Choco Pies were being used as coins per month, and trading at a value of £6.40 each, compared to their usual price of 16 pence in South Korea. A more realistic estimate of their value was 25 pence, but this was still 1 per cent of the average weekly wage of £25. So valuable did they become that KIC workers started holding sporting contests and placing massive bets in biscuits.

    This was all quite disturbing to the DPRK authorities because, as well as helping undermine the economy, the mass distribution of Choco Pies was helping undermine the ideological concept of juche as well. If capitalists were so bad, then why were their biscuits so tasty? The phenomenon was dubbed an ‘invasion of the stomach’, and the regime got nervous, remembering the old argument that the Iron Curtain ended up being torn down because the suppressed proletariat of Eastern Europe, jealous of blue Levis, had wanted to get their hands on more Western consumer goods.

    Several measures were adopted by the DPRK Politburo to stem the crisis, with all Choco Pie bonuses being banned in 2014 in favour of wage top-ups of free sausages instead. Another tactic was to spread fake news about the Choco Pies; according to North Korean media, the biscuits had been infected with unspecified ‘weird substances’ by the South, intended to ‘shake our national defence’ or cause illness. In some sense the Choco Pies were really undercover secret agents, which were ‘spying and scheming’ upon behalf of their capitalist masters, hoping to create a situation where ‘the ideology of the people could wither at any moment’. These ‘sweet symbols of capitalism’ were then replaced by the North with cheap forged knock-off versions, a breed of pirated pies which just didn’t taste as nice, thereby undermining the pseudo-currency’s value.

    Alternatively, DPRK officials warned that the Oriental Wagon Wheels contained miniature bombs or highly powerful biological agents which would immediately give you cancer ‘and make your body suffer’ if you so much as touched one. Foreign food, it was said, ‘contains material that is harmful to socialism’, so had to be prodded away into a designated safe area with a long stick. According to one South Korean academic, ‘When North Koreans see high quality consumer goods [like Choco Pies] produced overseas, they begin to understand that their economic system doesn’t really deliver.’ If it can so easily be undermined by generic marshmallow treats, then the North Korean economy really must be in trouble; should all the currency within the DPRK’s Treasury come one day to be made entirely from confectionary, there is a severe danger Fat Boy Kim might just eat it.

    S. D. Tucker's new book False Economies: The Strangest, Least Successful and Most Audacious Financial Follies, Plans and Crazes of All Time is available for purchase now.

  • Space Oddities by S. D. Tucker


    In an extract from his new book Space Oddities: Our Strange Attempts to Explain the Universe, author SD Tucker remembers the life of Hans Hörbiger - the forgotten Austrian astronomer who claimed that stars didn’t exist, and spied giant ice-cubes floating in space.

    The next time you cast your eyes up towards the Milky Way some clear and cloudless night, take a moment to stop and ask yourself what precisely it is you are seeing. The standard answer is that you are observing a twirling, milky band of light, which stretches out across the heavens in a series of spiral arms, caused by the illumination given out by the innumerable distant suns of our galaxy. In short, you are looking at the stars. The renegade Austrian astronomer Hanns Hörbiger (1860–1931), however, didn’t believe in stars, and in an influential 1913 book, made the rather startling assertion that, far from being the result of starlight, the Milky Way was in fact made entirely out of ice. According to Hörbiger, a series of massive, planet-sized ice-blocks was floating around up there in space, encircling our entire solar-system in an impenetrable white ring. Light from a few actual suns lurking beyond the ice-ring then shone through this frozen barrier, reflecting off its massed ice-crystals, and giving observers on Earth the mere illusion of billions of stars twinkling down at us from the inky blackness. Various other astronomers might well object to this proposal, admitted the Austrian, and even attempt to show off photographs of the Milky Way’s alleged ‘stars’ to prove their case, but he had an easy answer ready to these arguments – all such images were simply fakes. As to any tedious mathematical objections which sceptical astronomers might have made to his proposal, Hörbiger had an even more emphatic response in store: ‘Mathematics,’ he once pronounced, ‘is nothing but lies!’

    Hörbiger could justify this bombastic assertion by pointing back to his successful career as an engineer, during which, one of his most appropriate achievements was to have helped develop new cold-compressors for use in manufacturing artificial ice. In 1894, he had also invented a special kind of low-friction, automatically opening and closing steel disk-valve for use in blast-furnaces - a genuinely helpful invention, without which, various industrial processes, and methods of gas-exchange would simply not have been possible. However, Hörbiger’s invention of this valve was not something he had worked out laboriously at a desk in his workshop, through calculations and technical drawings; instead, it had simply ‘come to him’ whilst on the job. As such, for a qualified engineer, he had little time for mathematics. ‘Instead of trusting me you trust equations!’ he would harangue those who tried to point out to him the various reasons why his ice-ring theory could not be true. ‘How long will you need to learn that mathematics is valueless and deceptive?’

    Hörbiger’s full, entirely maths-less, theory was termed the Welteislehre, or ‘World Ice Theory’ (‘WEL’ for short). Basically, it held that at some distant point in our galaxy’s past there had been a gigantic super-sun, millions of times the size of our own, next to which had orbited a massive planet, many times larger than Jupiter, covered by layers of ice hundreds of miles thick. Eventually, this ice-planet fell into the super-sun, melted, and transformed into jets of super-charged steam, which blew the sun apart, spewing out lumps of rock and fire, which ultimately settled down to become our own current solar-system. Vast clouds of oxygen were also released from the explosion, and reacted with thin layers of hydrogen gases already swirling through space, creating masses of space-water which -space being cold - soon froze into the gigantic ring of interstellar ice-bergs, which now encircled us all. Sometimes, said Hörbiger, one of these ice-blocks breaks away, and floats into the pull of our sun’s gravitational field, falling into it, and creating sun-spots, which are really colossal melting ice-cubes. Occasionally, the Earth happens to be orbiting in the path of one of these falling space-bergs, causing severe hailstorms, before it finally drops into the sun. Our moon is less lucky; being higher up and thus exposed to more ice, it is continually accumulating more and more frozen layers of water on its surface. Eventually, it will get so heavy that it simply falls down to Earth and kills us, claimed Hörbiger. Apparently, such a catastrophe had already happened several times in the past; the Earth used to have other smaller moons, which became so heavy with cosmic ice that they crashed down onto our planet thousands of years ago, destroying Atlantis and making Noah feel glad he had built that Ark. If you thought that the giant ice-berg crashing into the Titanic had been a disaster, implied Hörbiger, then just wait until the giant moon-berg finally collided with SS Planet Earth.

    That’s quite a bold theory, and in order to support it, Hörbiger had to have amassed a huge amount of evidence, didn’t he? No. Much of Hörbiger’s ‘proof’ for his premise amounted to the fact that he had had a few strange dreams or visions which had revealed the ‘truth’ about our frozen universe to him. Just as he had created his Hörbiger-Valve entirely through intuition, so he had created his infamous WEL. As a small child, Hörbiger had owned a telescope. Through this, he liked to look at the moon. He thought its surface looked cold; and, all of a sudden, realised that this simply must be because it was covered with ice. That was Hörbiger’s first revelation. His second came when he had a strange dream in which the Earth became transformed into a giant pendulum, swaying on a luminous string. This apparently revealed to him the secrets of gravitation, showing how ice-bergs in space could be attracted towards the sun. Thirdly, whilst working as an engineer one day in 1894, he witnessed some molten iron falling onto a pile of snow, causing bits of soil beneath to explode under the pressure of the jets of steam, which had been released by the snow suddenly melting. This caused Hörbiger to immediately understand that an ice-planet had once dropped into a super-sun, thus giving birth to our solar-system. Coincidentally (or not), the basic principles of World Ice Theory coincided perfectly with the physical laws relating to water, gas, freezing, and pressure, which Hörbiger had studied and made use of throughout his entire professional life. At last, the WEL was all falling into place; all that now remained was for Hörbiger to write his 1913 book – all 790 pages of it – telling the world about his discovery. Surprisingly, the book had many fans; including, as readers of my own new book can find out, a certain Mr Adolf Hitler …


    S. D. Tucker's new book Space Oddities: Our Strange Attempts to Explain the Universe is available to purchase now.

  • Great British Eccentrics by S. D. Tucker

    ONE LORD A-LOONING: John Conrad Russell and the Sad Destruction of the House of Lords

    In an extract from his book Great British Eccentrics, out now in paperback, SD Tucker remembers the life of the strangest-ever member of the House of Lords, John Conrad Russell.

    With Press controversy currently raging over the prospect of the assorted time-servers, sycophants and hangers-on in the House of Lords apparently planning to try and block the will of the people by conspiring to wreck the passage of Article 50, there have been renewed calls of late to abolish the entire Chamber. This would be short-sighted. Instead, why not simply return the Lords back to the way it used to be, when Members inherited their peerages, rather than being political appointees? Quite apart from putting an end to the naked political cronyism which now characterises life in the Upper House, this would also have the entertaining side-effect of allowing some genuine lunatics to don the famous ermine once again; as is well-known, eccentricity runs rife in the blood of the English aristocracy. The maddest Lord of all was surely John Conrad Russell, the 4th Earl Russell. Russell’s father was one of the most famous men of his age, the mathematician and philosopher Bertrand Russell. John Conrad Russell, however, had to settle for simply being one of the oddest …

    I suspect there can be few persons outside of politics or the media who have ever actually bothered to buy any copies of Hansard, the official transcripts of sessions which take place in the Commons and the Lords. The exception to this rule was an edition containing a particularly unforgettable speech of Earl Russell’s from 1978, which sold out almost as soon as it was printed. Russell’s rabid rant was nothing if not memorable. Certainly, it pulled no punches, the Earl being quite happy to ask his fellow-Peers ‘What are you? Soulless robots?’ before then going on to accuse them all of being nothing but a bunch of ‘spiritless Papal bum-boys’. ‘Forward, the creative spirit!’ he roared, before providing the country with some very creative solutions to its most pressing problems himself.

    In Westminster-speak, Russell’s speech was technically classified as being a ‘response to an unstarred question’ during a debate that was supposed to be about aiding victims of crime, but which ended up being about much, much more. After all, as Earl Russell explained to a bemused House, there was actually no such thing as crime. If Britain was really the civilised nation it pretended to be, he said, then its police-force should be merged with the Salvation Army immediately, and its officers retrained so that their only function was to make people cups of tea.

    If a man tried to steal anything, then that was his perfect right, Russell made clear, giving the example of someone who might walk into a jeweller’s shop to snatch a bag of diamonds. If such a thing happened, said the Earl, then surely the only truly humane thing for the jeweller to do would be to let him steal them, then give him a second bag as well, for good measure. Prisons, it turned out, should be banned; according to Russell, policemen up and down the land were engaged in a gigantic conspiracy to arrest young men and seduce them in their cells, before then selling them on into lives of gay prostitution in prisons. What way was this to treat the flower of English manhood, he asked? Surely it would be better if the Government just paid them all a fair wage to sit around and do nothing all day in big huts instead of making them become Chief Constables’ rent-boys?

    Earl Russell had some interesting plans for the nation’s schoolgirls, too. At the age of twelve, he said, every girl should be considered a woman, and given a free house. Then, 75 per cent of the nation’s wealth would be donated to the fairer sex, whilst the remaining 25 per cent would be used to protect men from the police in their large communal huts, which the girls could then visit in order to choose their husbands – as many as they liked, the men would have no say in the matter. This, he said, would be the true realisation of ‘Women’s Lib’.

    Explaining that ‘the habit of arresting young people and raping them in gaol is part of a plot which is designed to destroy the human race’, Russell demanded that the nation’s youth be put in charge of everything, and encouraged to play outside all day in the nude instead of being treated as mere ‘indoor products’. As he said, ‘the ancient Greeks fought naked’, and so ‘naked bathing on beaches or in rivers ought to be universal’. School and work were just Establishment conspiracies aimed at forcing adolescents to stay inside all day instead of romping through fields as nature intended; ‘Leisure is the point and working is wrong, being in any case the curse visited by God upon Adam and not to be blessed.’ He approved of bored schoolboys burning down their schools, as it was obvious (to him) that if they were being taught properly by their teachers then the spirit of Sir Isaac Newton would have been reincarnated in one of them by now. Surely we should instead all follow the example of the old cartoon-character ‘Little Audrey’ who, he said, had ‘laughed and laughed because she knew that only God could make a tree’?

    So embarrassing was this episode that a myth has since arisen that it is the only speech ever made in Parliament which was not recorded in Hansard. This is not true, but I think I can explain the misunderstanding; Earl Russell had not finished talking when he was forced to give way to Lord Wells-Pestell, and, seeing as the rest of his speech was not actually spoken in the Lords, Hansard had no business printing it. Russell had planned to end his oration with the surprisingly understated assertion that ‘It may be expected that most people will support these proposals, because they are, after all, in everybody’s own interest.’ In this, as in so much else, I fear he may have been mistaken.


    S. D. Tuckers new paperback edition of his book Great British Eccentrics is available for purchase now.

  • Forgotten Science by S.D. Tucker

    They tried to make a Monkey out of you

    In an extract from his new book Forgotten Science: Strange Ideas from the Scrapheap of History, SD Tucker explores some of the strangest tales from Soviet science, including Stalin’s alleged attempts to create a race of invincible monkey-soldiers to serve in the Red Army.

    The phrase ‘human guinea-pig’ is often used these days to describe the way that science sometimes makes use of human beings as convenient test-subjects during trials of new medical procedures and so forth. The very idea of human-experimentation can seem off-putting and disturbing to many people, but these days such trials are strictly regulated and often performed only as a last resort, and for the greater social good. However, this state of affairs has not always been the case, as can be seen by the sometimes horrible, sometimes comic – and always highly unethical – abuse of human guinea-pigs in the name of science during the early days of the old Soviet Union.

    Take the disturbing history of Soviet research into toxins. Various secret laboratories-cum-prisons were established in Russia, where convenient inmates were taken to be poisoned in the ‘noble’ cause of advancing the State’s ability to carry out assassinations more efficiently. One of the main men to pursue such research was Grigory Mairanovsky (1899-1964), a biochemist who ran his own lab in Moscow to which were attached several cells whose doors were fitted with peepholes for observational purposes. Each day, new consignments of prisoners were shipped in and fed poisons in the guise of medicine, or hidden within food. Then, Mairanovsky’s men would time how long it took them to die. Sometimes it took minutes, sometimes weeks. To test out all variables, Mairanovsky got hold of any and all physical types to murder; tall people, short people, thin people, fat people, those who were already ill, and those in perfect health. To block out the screams of agony, the lab assistants bought a radio and played it full-blast. These trials were considered to be justified and ‘not illegal’ by those behind them on the grounds that they were ‘being performed on people sentenced to execution as enemies of the Soviet government’. In other words, they were expendable lab-rats – literal ‘non-persons’, as the old saying went.

    Such thinking had existed for some time prior to Mairanovsky setting up his lab, though; in 1933, the Russian writer Maxim Gorky (1868-1936), celebrating the creation of Stalin’s new Institute of Experimental Medicine, commented that ‘hundreds of human units’ would be required to be experimented upon within. By describing them as ‘units’, Gorky reduced such people down to a status even lower than animals.


    Incredibly, so prevalent did the idea of using human beings as experimental animals become in the USSR that at one point attempts were made by scientists to actually cross people with apes, supposedly in order to create a race of man-monkey super-soldiers for enlistment in the Red Army, a story partly true and partly exaggerated. Its origins lie with the work of a genuine Russian scientist, Ilya Ivanovich Ivanov (1870-1932), who gained great success artificially-inseminating horses around the year 1900, then moved on to cross-breeding various closely-related species, such as zebras and donkeys. In 1910, he speculated it might even be possible to cross-breed humans with apes, but in 1917 came the Revolution, and Ivanov fell from favour. In the 1920s, though, the atheistic Soviets finally gave Ivanov the go-ahead to try out his proposed scheme – reputedly in order to prove Darwin right and the Church wrong. By 1926 Ivanov was in Guinea, where he made three separate attempts to inseminate native female chimpanzees with human sperm (not his own). This failed, so Ivanov tried a different tactic; rather than men impregnating female monkeys, maybe women could be impregnated by male apes instead? Making the astonishing suggestion that he just try and squirt some monkey-sperm inside female patients at a nearby hospital without their knowledge or consent, Ivanov found little local favour for his plan. Returning to the Soviet Union, Ivanov set up a primate-lab in the Black Sea port of Sukhumi, where most of his specimens died from cold. Only one ape survived, an orang-utan named ‘Tarzan’. Ivanov found a woman willing to have Tarzan’s baby, but before fertilisation could take place, Tarzan died too. After he asked a Cuban ape-breeder to sell him some monkey-semen, the American Press got hold of the story and Ivanov again lost support from the Soviet authorities, being exiled to Kazakhstan, where he died in 1932. Ivanov’s primate-lab survived him, though, later becoming the prime source of monkeys for Russia’s space-programme.

    This much is apparently true. However, in 2005 The Scotsman, citing certain unnamed ‘secret documents’ supposedly just found in Moscow, sensationally reported that Josef Stalin himself had personally ordered Ivanov to make a race of unconquerable monkey-men to serve as slave-labour shock-troops in his army. According to the article, Stalin desired ‘a new invincible human being, insensitive to pain, resistant and indifferent about the quality of food they eat’. It’s an incredible story ... but it appears untrue. No Russian-language newspapers reported the tale prior to The Scotsman’s revelation, and nobody seems to know what these alleged ‘secret documents’ actually were, or where they came from. There is no evidence that Stalin ever met or spoke to Ivanov, nor that he even knew specifically what he was up to. In 1980 The Times had reported that the Chinese Communist Party had allegedly tried and failed to inseminate chimps with human sperm in order to ‘found a race of helots for economic and technical purposes’, and it would seem that the story of Stalin’s ape-soldiers is really just an updated variant of that old yarn. The people really being made monkeys out of here were gullible members of the public who believe everything they read in newspapers, not 1920s Russian soldiers.


    Forgotten Science: Strange Ideas from the Scrapheap of History by S.D. Tucker is available for purchase now.

  • Great British Eccentrics - BBC History magazine feature

    Great British eccentrics: 7 of the most peculiar people in history

    From the Scottish physician who pronounced lobsters as being capable of love and ‘damned crabs’ as having hearts of stone, to the peculiar aristocrat who invented a tiny gun for shooting wasps, Britain has long been a stronghold of eccentricity and peculiar behaviour

    In his new book, Great British Eccentrics, SD Tucker introduces readers to some of the most unusual people ever to have been eligible to hold a British passport. Here, writing for History Extra, he explores seven particularly noteworthy eccentrics…

    1) Lieutenant-Commander Bill Boaks

    My personal favourite eccentric in history is Lieutenant-Commander Bill Boaks (1904–86), a comically obsessive road-safety campaigner and politician.

    A Royal Navy man, Boaks returned to civilian life in 1945 in need of a new foe to fight, and found it in the rise of the motorcar. He was soon out canvassing on behalf of his ADMIRAL (‘Association of Democratic Monarchists Independently Representing All Ladies’) Party, of which he was the sole member.

    Boaks’s aim was to cause such traffic chaos that citizens spontaneously gave up their cars and began travelling by bus or helicopter instead – landing-pads for which he insisted be installed in every city. To this end, Boaks took to holding up traffic by repeatedly walking up and down zebra-crossings wheeling a pram full of bricks, or sitting in the middle of the A40 in a deckchair reading The Daily Telegraph.

    Ironically, Boaks’s death in 1986 was a result of injuries sustained in a traffic accident – he fell off a bus and banged his head.

    2) Sir Tatton Sykes

    Some of Britain’s most famous eccentrics were aristocrats – men like Sir Tatton Sykes (1826–1913), who had such a pathological hatred of flowers so extreme if he ever saw one while out walking he would immediately flog it to death with his walking stick. Tenants on his lands in Yorkshire, meanwhile, were expressly forbidden from growing any such “nasty, untidy things” in the gardens of their cottages. “If you want to grow flowers, grow cauliflowers!” was his habitual mantra.

    As he aged, Sir Tatton became a miserable old hypochondriac who obsessively followed various bizarre health-fads of his own invention. He lived on an almost exclusive diet of cold rice pudding and, so the story goes, in 1911 refused to leave his mansion of Sledmere House during a blazing fire until he had finished his bowl. “I must eat my pudding!” he is said to have told his servants as the flames consumed his property.

    Feeling that it was imperative to maintain a constant body temperature, Sir Tatton used to order his coats in sets of six to eight, all of slightly different sizes, and then wear them on top of one another in layers, like a living Russian doll. Then, when he began to get too warm, he would simply remove one coat at a time and discard it on the ground, relying on local boys to pick them up and bring them back to Sledmere for a small reward. Apparently, he had a similar arrangement with his trousers ...

    3) Lord Clancarty

    Equally strange were certain members of the House of Lords, such as one Lord Clancarty, also known as Brinsley le Poer Trench (1911–95), former editor of the world’s leading UFO publication, Flying Saucer Review.

    Prior to inheriting his earldom in 1976, Clancarty had penned a series of books with titles such as The Sky People, explaining his unusual view that alien beings had emerged through tunnels (including those at the North and South Pole) from a civilisation that still existed beneath the Earth’s crust.

    In 1964 Clancarty helped found a body called Contact International, which linked up ufologists from across the globe. Originally called the International Sky Scouts (pictured below) in order to appeal to children, the name had to be dropped after the real Boy Scouts threatened Clancarty with legal action!

    Clancarty was particularly popular in Japan, and in 1966 was invited there by a saucer-cult named The Cosmic Brotherhood to take part in a ceremony on top of a ‘sun-pyramid’ – his hosts thought an alien astronaut had descended to earth thousands of years ago to teach people how to grow vegetables.

    Clancarty was particularly interested in the issue of UFO propulsion-systems: in 1983 he said that an official from the Japanese car giant Honda had paid him a visit in London, asking to be let in on his secret knowledge about the matter. So, if Honda ever do manage to create an affordable family-saloon spaceship, you know who to thank.

    4) Henry de la Poer Beresford

    Some of our strangest aristocrats have been less neurotic, however. A good case in point is Henry de la Poer Beresford, 3rd Marquess of Waterford (1811–59), a notorious Anglo-Irish wild-man, drunkard and scrapper who enjoyed beating up night-watchmen and playing sick jokes on people, such as the time he wrote to the London and Greenwich Railway Company offering them £10,000 if they would arrange a deliberate train crash for him to observe so he could laugh at the victims.

    Known as ‘The Mad Marquess’, Beresford was known to do anything for a thrill. On one occasion he took several large casks of gin and stood in London’s Haymarket handing out mugs of the stuff to random passers-by for free to see what would happen. Eventually, everyone got so drunk that a riot broke out and Beresford had to be arrested for his own safety.

    Even more outrageous was Beresford’s alleged conduct after being summoned before a magistrate after riding his horse at high speed through a crowded street, heedless of any injuries he might cause. The story goes that he turned up at court on horseback and demanded his steed be questioned in the dock – after all, he explained, “Only he knows how fast he was going”. The case seems to have been rapidly dismissed.

    5) Colonel Thomas Thornton

    If these stories sound a little unbelievable to you, then they are nothing compared to the yarns spun by Britain’s greatest-ever liar Colonel Thomas Thornton (1757–1823), a former leader of Yorkshire’s West Riding Militia.

    It was blatantly obvious that Thornton’s tales were falser than those of Baron Münchausen, but that only added to their appeal. There was the time, for instance, he claimed to have fallen from his horse headfirst onto a scythe. According to Thornton, he was “the only man in Europe” to whom this calamity had ever happened, the scythe causing his head to literally split in two right down the middle, each half drooping down over either shoulder “like a pair of epaulettes” – quite how he managed to survive this catastrophe, he never fully explained.

    Drink, it has to be said, may have played a role in all this boasting, but a stranger would still have to be careful about dismissing all of Thornton’s boasts as false – if, for example, he tried to tell you that his wife was a champion jockey; that he had met Napoleon; or that he had invented a special shotgun with 12 barrels for shooting multiple targets at once with, then he would actually have been speaking the truth!

    6) Gerald Hugh Tyrwhitt-Wilson

    Generally known as Lord Berners, Gerald Hugh Tyrwhitt-Wilson (1883–1950) showed signs of eccentricity from an early age. As a child, he once threw a pet dog out of the window in an attempt to teach it to fly – a test the canine apparently failed. As an adult, Berners made his home at Faringdon House in Oxfordshire, and transformed it into his own personal playground. He dyed the feathers of the estate’s pigeons bright pink, and displayed various bizarre signs around the place. His most legendary notice was placed upon a tall tower in the grounds: “Members of the public committing suicide from this tower do so at their own risk”, it cautioned.

    Berners also liked to travel in style – his own style. He would drive around wearing a pig’s-head mask in order to disturb the locals, and, when forced to use public transport, would go to great lengths to secure a train-compartment for himself.

    Getting into empty carriages first, he would don a black skullcap and dark sunglasses before leaning out of the window and beckoning sinisterly to strangers on the platform, exhorting them to come and join him for some fun and games on the journey. Those few fools who took him up on the offer were then treated to Berners producing a large rectal-thermometer and constantly shoving it into his mouth while pulling anguished faces.

    7) John Tallis

    Some eccentric lives, however, seem more sad than amusing. In 1724, for instance, a 48-year-old man named John Tallis, (1676–1755) from the small village of Burcot in Worcestershire, decided that he had had enough of the outside world and retreated away from it forever. For some inexplicable reason, Tallis had arrived at the erroneous conclusion that the cause of all ill-health in humans was the very air we breathe.

    As such, Tallis ordered the windows in his bedroom to be bricked-up (although according to some sources he had an entirely new room built with only one window, which had glass three times thicker than usual), and then retreated permanently to his bed, tucking himself in tightly so that his head was the only exposed part of his body.

    Then, Tallis had his entire head wrapped in various coverings, caps and bandages made up of around 100 yards of flannel, like some kind of living Egyptian mummy, and fitted stoppers into both of his nostrils. A piece of ivory placed within his mouth also acted to lessen the inflow of ‘deadly’ air to his lungs and Tallis often had a piece of woollen cloth laid over his bandaged face, just in case.

    Tallis stayed locked in this peculiar tomb for nearly 30 years, during which time his sheets were never once changed – instead a new bed was brought into his room once per annum. His servants had to roll Tallis into it, his leg-muscles eventually having atrophied from lack of use.

    Written by Emma McFarnon for BBC History Magazine on Friday 9th October 2015


    S. D. Tucker's Great British Eccentrics is available for purchase now.

  • Meet the Great British Eccentrics by Steven Tucker

    To celebrate the publication of his new book Great British Eccentrics, author SD Tucker provides some edited highlights from the lives of three of Britain’s most lovable lunatics ...

    That Magnificent Madman with his Flying Machine

    Charles Waterton, the Squire of Walton Hall in Yorkshire, was a prominent nineteenth-century naturalist who developed the strange belief that he could fly. He even manufactured himself a pair of home-made wings, but found there was one thing which prevented him using them properly; his legs. No matter how “symmetrically formed”, said Waterton, a man’s legs were “inconveniently long and heavy” for an “atmospheric trip” and kept on bringing him back down to ground. He could have chopped them off, but this would have proved inconvenient in other ways; another solution would be to float them on some kind of artificial cloud, but he never worked out how to make one. As a result, when he jumped off a platform to test his wings out, he plummeted straight down to earth like a stone.

    Maybe the Squire had simply enjoyed an uncharacteristically heavy meal that day; for, such was the light nature of his diet, he claimed to be able to float down from heights quite naturally, due to his belly being full of wind and air. For example, when cutting off a rotten tree-branch one day, Waterton’s ladder slipped, causing him to suffer a 12 foot drop to the ground. However, in his own words: “I had just presence of mind, in the act of falling, to forcibly restrain my breath, and from fasting, being meagrely supplied within, when I reached the ground I may say with truth that I literally bounced upon my feet in an instant. My transit from high to low merely produced a stiffness in my neck and right leg the following day. Had I been full of beef at the time, I assuredly should have fared worse.” Yet another benefit of going on a diet!

    The Mad Hatter of Newton Burgoland

    Had you visited the small Leicestershire village of Newton Burgoland during the 1850s or 1860s, then you may well have encountered a very strange gentleman named William Lole, who was happy to welcome visitors into his own personal secret garden. Here sat a large tub, acting as a pulpit, and next to it stood a home-made gallows, from which dangled a stuffed effigy of the Pope. Lole viewed the Pope as evil and, whenever he had managed to lure enough visitors into his garden, would climb into his tub and begin to deliver what was called by one witness “a long rambling tirade”, telling his visitors that the Vicar of Rome was really the Anti-Christ.

    Just as strange as Lole’s garden was his appearance. He owned at least twenty special symbolic hats, each bearing various mottoes he felt were of the utmost importance to humanity. It appears these hats were shaped like the objects they were meant to symbolise – so, when wearing a hat entitled ‘Bee-Hive of Industry’, he presumably walked around with a fake bee-hive on his head. Lole’s ‘Patent Tea-Pot’ hat must have looked the strangest, being, I suppose, short and stout, and coming complete with a handle and a spout. It seems that, when wearing this particular item, Lole wished to pour out the sweet tea of social justice into the world; its motto was ‘To draw out the flavour of the tea best – Union and Goodwill’. I wonder how much goodwill he would encounter if he tried on such antics today, though?

    The Nutty Professor

    Probably the most eccentric scientist in British history was Sir Francis Galton, a half-cousin of Charles Darwin whose interests included statistics, anthropology, currency reform, the best way of flashing signals to Martians, inherited lunacy amongst cats and the fluctuating weight of British noblemen. As an experiment intended to illustrate how easy it was to convince yourself to believe in falsehoods, he decided to see if it was possible to convince himself that a puppet of Mr Punch was in fact God. By sheer force of will, Galton eventually managed to convince himself that Mr Punch did indeed possess divine powers, feeling it impossible to look upon his hook-nosed and red-cheeked face without feeling a mixture of awe and reverence.

    Every bit as bizarre were some of his many weird and wonderful inventions, like the so-called ‘Gumption-Reviver’, which dropped water onto his head to maintain alertness during periods of study. By placing pressure-gauges under the legs of chairs at dinner-parties, meanwhile, he aimed to record scientifically how much his guests fancied each other, his theory being that, the more each male leaned towards each female at the table, the more suitable marriage-partners they were. Best of all was a special hat Galton invented to prevent the wearer’s brain overheating during periods of strenuous thought. Claiming to have once ‘sprained’ his own brain whilst studying Mathematics at Cambridge, Galton was determined that his head should never again become too warm through over-use, leading to cerebral malfunction. To this end, he devised a special ‘ventilating hat’, whose top featured a valve which opened and closed whenever a rubber-bulb dangling down from its brim was squeezed, thus preventing disaster. The fact that this aim could have been achieved rather more easily by simply not wearing a hat at all seems never to have occurred to Sir Francis ...


    Great British Eccentrics by SD Tucker is available now from Amberley, and features dozens of strange tales about dozens of equally strange people.

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