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  • Newgate in Revolution: Radical Enthusiasm and Romantic Counterculture
  • Iain McCalman

Written at the ebb turn of his radicalism, Robert Southey’s semifictional travelogue Letters from England (1807) diagnosed British quackery as a revolutionary threat. In Britain, reflects his narrator Don Espriella, superstition was more subversive than rationalism: revolutionary menace stemmed less from a European-style conspiracy of philosophes, illuminists, and Jacobins than from the junction of popular enthusiasm and quackery that shared a pathology of mysteriousness. An underground tradition of enthusiastic popular healing had run from early Jewish mysticism through Quaker heresy, Swedenborgianism, and on to Methodism. Wesley’s “epidemics of mind” and fanatic mission “to restore medicine as well as religion” had anticipated mesmerists like John de Mainauduc, a Rosicrucian-style rogue and visionary whose techniques of animal magnetism triggered interior mental processes to derange perceptions and will. Such powers might have generated a popular sect had not the politics of the French Revolution diverted “all the wilder and busier spirits.” 1

Modern medical historians disagree, drawing a sharp divide between innocuous eighteenth-century quackery and Victorian fringe health movements such as phrenology, botanism, and spiritualism. Georgian quacks, Roy Porter typically argues, spruiked in a free-for-all medical market, feeding leech-like off the authority of more orthodox professionals. Their grubby repertoire of advertising, showmanship, and self-publicity produced no “coherent body of alternative popular scientific discourse” to challenge conventional medicine or inform with political radicalism. Adelphi “master quack” and showman Dr. James Graham, who flogged sexual enhancement on a baroque electrical-magnetic bed at £50 a pop, illustrates Porter’s point. Graham generated no Grahamism: along with other eighteenth-century British quack-mesmerists he left no movement, disciples, or intellectual legacy. In France, Mesmer’s cult of animal magnetism opened the way for a political and cultural revolution by furnishing socially marginal intellectuals with a corrosive radical-romantic ideology; in commercial Britain, Porter argues, “half baked” mesmerist ideas were easily discredited by authoritative scientists like Priestley and Hunter, before finally succumbing to wartime revulsion against foreign theory. 2

Such an interpretation, even in its more recent and nuanced versions, 3 seems to me to overlook the nature and prevalence of links between popular scientific heresy and British radical and millenarian circles. As in France, heretical strains of religion and rationalism mingled to produce a culture of British radical-romantic enthusiasm that was more complex, enduring, and revolutionary than historians have allowed. This essay focuses on some notorious London quack-enthusiasts who generated subversive religio-scientific ideas in concert with metropolitan radical groupings centered on Newgate prison in the 1790s. London’s [End Page 95] notorious prison republic generated a congerie of ideas and discourses that, under attack, cohered gradually into an “alternative” culture that appealed to both literati and radical artisans. It was to influence in hitherto unrecognized ways the canonical literature of the Romantic and Victorian periods, as well as a range of heterodox popular political and health movements.

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Figure 1.

Richard Newton, “Soulagement en Prison, or Comfort in Prison,” etching “drawn from life” and published on 20 August 1793 by Newton’s employer, William Holland (seated front, extreme left). Standing above him, Lord George Gordon presides in his Newgate quarters over a salon of radical philosophes, including the two Painite publishers James Ridgway and Henry Symonds (seated at table, front right).

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Figure 2.

Richard Newton, “Promenade on the State Side of Newgate,” etching published on 5 October 1793, features eight prisoners and their guests. Prominent in the center are Lord George Gordon and the celebrated dentist-inventor, Martin Van Butchell. On the far left the satirist Peter Pindar (John Wolcot) peeps in at his radical friends. Near him stands the publisher of the print, William Holland, accompanied by his daughter and wife, who was soon to catch gaol fever and die.

A turncoat in transition, Robert Southey avoided mentioning compromising evidence about radical quackery drawn from personal experience as a pilgrim to Newgate prison in the early 1790s. The scene of his visits had been graphically evoked in late summer 1793 when a seventeen-year-old radical engraver, Richard Newton, produced...