Marcus Lafayette Byrn (1826–1903)
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319 Marcus Lafayette Byrn (1826–1903) Medical doctor,real-estate investor,evangelist,book printer,author of medical pamphlets and booklets imparting useful information, publisher of a newspaper, the United States Gazette, and a medical journal, the New York Medical Journal, and humorist, Marcus L. Byrn was born in Statesville, Tennessee, on September 4, 1826. But Byrn is the only Old Southwest humorist to have resided most of his adult life in the North. Beginning the study of medicine in the office of a doctor near his home, Byrn subsequently received more formal training at the medical department at the University of Louisville in 1848 and 1849, completing his medical training at New York University and receiving his M.D. in March 1851. He then returned to the South, practicing medicine as a frontier doctor in Tennessee and Mississippi for the next two years, an experience that provided the inspiration and subject matter for his books of frontier humor. Though Byrn practiced medicine in New York City for the remainder of his life, from 1853 to 1903, he seemed to be a man of multiple interests and talents. A prolific and versatile writer, some of his most popular books were medical pamphlets, which he printed and marketed himself. His first published medical work, Detection of Fraud and Protection of Health. A Treatise on the Adulteration of Food and Drink: With Plain and Simple Directions for Detecting Them (1852), later advertised under the title Poisons in Our Food, examines the debasement of various foods—flour, salt, tea, coffee, beer, whiskey, starch, and others. He also wrote a pamphlet, The Effect of Tobacco on the Human System Mentally, Morally, and Physically, leveling an indictment on the potential hazardous consequences of using tobacco, citing cancer, tuberculosis, dyspepsia, and an inclination to drunkenness and suicide as some of the likely outcomes. As one who sought to incite popular taste, Byrn also wrote a pamphlet on love and sex and an essay, “Solitary Vice. Of the Secret Habits of Youth, Known as Masturbation, Onanism, or Self–Pollution,”Byrn’s most frequently reprinted medical writing and one that describes the consequences of this “solitary vice” on males as well as females. Besides popular medical pamphlets, Dr. Byrn wrote utilitarian and evangelical books, such as The Complete Practical Brewer (1852), The Handbook of Science 320 Southern Frontier Humor (1867), Twenty Ways to Make Money (1869), and The Singing Evangelist (1883), the latter consisting of thirty-three religious hymns, relating to Byrn’s own personal evangelical experiences. Yet Byrn’s humorous books represent his most important contribution as a writer, particularly important are those recounting the misadventures of David Rattlehead, a physician who narrates his mishaps and scrapes in the first person and who seems a thinly disguised portrait of the author. The Life and Adventures of an Arkansaw Doctor (1851), Byrn’s first and most entertaining book, seems strikingly similar to Henry Clay Lewis’s Odd Leaves of a Louisiana Swamp Doctor (1850), a collection of first-person humorous sketches on antebellum frontier medical practices as told by Dr.Madison Tensas,Dr.Lewis’s alter ego.Presented in a picaresque form, Rattlehead’s adventures provide a mirthful window to the life, society, and folkways of the Arkansas frontier. Byrn uses the conventions of the southwestern humor genre in presenting David’s sometime tall-talish escapades. A young man, David has a natural proclivity for springing pranks on persons with whom he comes into contact. One of his more memorable pranks—involving releasing hornets at a wedding under the door of a church—is an adaptation of a familiar script from frontier humor employing stinging insects to create humor and painful chaos for others. In another episode, David is captured by Indians but successfully effects his escape by putting morphia, laudanum, and paregoric in their whiskey. Two more Rattlehead books would soon follow: Rattlehead ’s Travels: or, The Recollections of a Backwoodsman (1852), which continues David’s adventures as he leaves Arkansas, travels to New York to further his medical studies, and then returns to the South to mock and dupe quack doctors; and Rattlehead’s Chronicles (1852), which focuses on David’s further adventures after leaving the South. While Byrn’s humorous work does not exhibit the level of artistry of that of fellow physician-writers Henry Clay Lewis and Orlando Benedict Mayer, The Life and Adventures of an Arkansaw Doctor is one of only a few books in Old Southwest humor featuring a single character...


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