As mentioned in previous articles, I found a wonderful pamphlet titled “Life & Work” with the sub-heading “Ardrossan New Parish Church” which had been hidden beneath the floorboards of the Barony St. John church gallery since 1893.
Inside the pamphlet were some fantastic advertisements and one of the more eccentric was this one for Harness’ Electropathic Belts.
The outlandish claims to cure almost all ailments prompted me to investigate the history of this product and uncover the world of the Victorian quack doctor.
The original Dr. Scott’s Electric Corset was a magnetic device rather than electric. It had magnetised steel plates at the front that attached together to fasten the corset.
Cornelius Bennett Harness was initially a distributor for this famous American invention, but by 1891, he was selling his own version out of his opulent premises, Harness’ ‘Electropathic and Zander Institute’ in London’s Oxford Street.
Harness’ Electropathic Belts contained zinc and copper plates that were somehow supposed to generate a health giving current and as electro-magnetism was only discovered in 1820, the Victorians loved these allegedly health giving devises.
A supposed visitor (sounding more like a paid review) to Harness’ Institute described it as follows;
“It seemed to me that I was standing in a Temple of silence. Outside was the rush and roar of London life. Inside, all was calm and peaceful. The interior, in its blend of colours and graceful hangings, and its rich carpeting, reminds one of Oriental times. The attendants move so softly and speak so gently. Here and there, young women, in neat print dresses and caps, move gracefully about. You yourself feel hushed and awed, as if some magician were about to appear.”
This quote is from a feature article in The Pall Mall Gazette of 5th August 1892, just the year before this advertisement was published in the Barony St. John’s sermon pamphlet. It goes on to describe the numerous diplomas on display in Harness’ consulting room and the huge number of testimonials confirming that the electropathic belt worked wonders…..but, this very year, things were set to get very much worse for Mr. Harness.
Earlier in 1892, a customer named Mr. Jeffrey had consulted the company’s hernia specialist (a former salesman of Oriental furniture, believe it or not, so hardly a medical expert) and was predictably prescribed a Harness’ Electropathic Belt.
Still feeling back pain, he consulted a doctor and got fitted with a proper truss and feeling rightfully conned, he refused to pay the balance for his belt of £3 3 shillings.
In July 1892, Harness sued him but lost and had to give back the £2 2 shillings Mr. Jeffrey had already paid – and this was the beginning of the end of Harness and his company.
The Electrical Review reported on the court case and described Harness’ activities as “one of the grossest cases of misrepresentation of the present day”.
In response, Harness sent a circular to newsagents warning them that he would hold them responsible for these “malicious libels” should they continue to sell the Electrical Review and many, including W.H. Smith & Co., did stop selling it. This resulted in the owners of the Electrical Review taking Harness to court and they were granted damages of £1000 (a huge sum in it’s day – especially when you think that the cost of building Ardrossan’s Barony St. John hall, including furnishings, was the same price – £1000).
In October 1893, The Pall Mall Gazette stopped accepting advertisements from the Medical Battery Company and printed a series of articles headed ‘The Harness “Electropathic” Swindle’, which stated;
“The Medical Battery Company has for years past been fattening on a system of fraud and imposture which is absolutely unequalled in the annals of swindling.”
Harness himself (pictured opposite) was described as;
“… a man of no pretensions whatever to scientific or medical knowledge, but [is] a common, illiterate and unscrupulous charlatan.”
The articles resulted in a lot of customers demanding their money back and in early November 1893 (just four months after our Barony St. John advert was published), he and his business associate, Dr. James McCully (originally a qualified physician but now struck off the Medical Register), were arrested and charged with unlawfully conspiring to defraud.
Dr. McCully was found not guilty but the jury couldn’t agree about Harness. The courts ordered that the company be wound up but almost immediately, Harness tried to resurrect it as the Medical Electrical Institute and was allowed to do so on condition that it was under control of a qualified doctor.
The creditors and shareholders of the old company unanimously agreed that it should go ahead and Harness became manager of the new company on a huge salary of £600 a year. (And they say crime doesn’t pay?)
But, in spite of considerable advertising, the damage was done and with Harness’ reputation was in tatters, no one would buy his products and within a few months he went bust.
After that, Harness moved to the other side of the world and died in Christchurch, New Zealand in 1921.
I thoroughly enjoyed investigating this story and found the history of this product and Harness fascinating – I hope you did too.
I’ll post another link to the past and Barony St. John soon, in the meantime, f you would like to know more about our charity or how you can get involved in helping us save these iconic Ardrossan buildings, please comment below, peruse our website www.ScotCPS.org.uk or look us up on Facebook.
Goodbye for now.