I’ve been quiet on the blogging front, largely because I’m working on so much material right now. There’s the Folger book, and a fiction semi-commission or two (if you know much about Special Forces in Europe, please leave a comment), but one of the other ones is a project I think it’s time to discuss.
In the past, we’ve thought of the history of science and magic as one of slow encroachment, with charms and other practices taking a back seat as education and technology filtered across class and geographic lines. To some extent, this is true – the ready availability of medical practitioners has led to a sharp decline in the use of magical cures for illnesses and diseases. For the most part, what seems to have happened is that science and magic continued to interact and inform each other in interesting ways. Mr. Bellhouse is a key example of this.
William Dawson Bellhouse (1814-1870) spent most of his life in Leeds, though he was most prominent in the public eye during his time in Liverpool. The son of a farmer and a clothier’s daughter, the number of titles, both self-bestowed and potential, that he could have used is astounding – shopkeeper, professor of electricity and galvanism, magician, elected member of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, surgeon, astrologer, galvanist, medical electrician, botanist, bath proprietor, author, and manufacturer of electrical apparatus and medical vats.
Bellhouse was best known publicly for his embrace of galvanism, the use of electricity as a therapeutic technique. At the time, electricity was still a mysterious force that was not entirely understood, especially with regard to its effects on the body. Although some research was going on in hospitals, doctors were outnumbered by practitioners outside, who sold devices they built themselves, gave themselves over to grandiose claims about the benefits thereof, and were not above occasionally shocking someone to make a point. Bellhouse was one of the latter, and he made quite an effort to promote and sell his electric baths. A bath with an electric current hooked up to it doesn’t sound like the best idea, but apparently he received some testimonials and no accusations of electrocution.
At the same time, Bellhouse also was a cunning man, a practitioner of folk charms and remedies. He was also involved in spirit summoning, though it’s uncertain as to quite how far he took it. He certainly was known as a caster of horoscopes, and he also initiated crystal gazing experiments with his clients to view spirits and the future.
The man seems also to have been of a slightly criminal intent. He seems to have steered clear of the law for the most part, but he was taken to court once for kicking out a tenant (and former client) and selling her furniture, at which time his astrological ways came to light. In addition, he was accused of using his crystal gazing sessions as an excuse to seduce young women.
All in all, Bellhouse is a fascinating figure on whom I’m happy to be working. I’ve got parish records, newspaper accounts, a copy of one of his pamphlets, and his personal grimoire, all of which I hope to bring together to publish in the next couple years. A great deal of work remains to be done, and I’d be happy with any suggestions or questions you might have.