Saturday, 9 April 2016

44 'Baron' Spolasco

44 Baron Spolasco (photos: portraits of Spolasco, panel on the arch) – 9 April 2016

Apart from the sound that a duck makes, a ‘quack’ is defined as a person who sets himself up as having skill (particularly medical) that he does not possess.  Since the formation of the National Health Service in 1948 there has been no need to consult a ‘quack doctor’, but in former times, and especially among poor people, it was a different matter.

In the Marina, near the gold-painted post-box in Trawler Road celebrating the gold medals of Ellie Simmonds at the 2012 London Paralympics, is an arch leading to the promenade.  This contains 25 panels about a larger-than-life character calling himself ‘Baron Spolasco’, who visited Swansea from 1838 to practise as a quack doctor.  Inevitably he was a fine self-publicist, who advertised in newspapers and on handbills with bogus testimonials as to the alleged efficacy of his medicines: some of those claims are on the panels beneath the arch in Patagonia Way. 

He was probably born around 1800 in the north of England, possibly named John Williams, and fraudulently practised as a doctor and a surgeon in various parts of Ireland.  Perhaps in order to exploit a fresh area, he intended to cross from Cork to Bristol in January 1838 in the paddle-steamer ‘Killarney’.  There were 37 people on board and 600 pigs, but - with similarities to the ‘City of Bristol’ shipwreck two years later in Rhossili Bay - the vessel was wrecked in a violent storm.  This wreck was infamous, due to the survivors having to cling to a storm-battered pinnacle of rock for two days awaiting rescue.  Spolasco was among the thirteen who survived: among those who perished was his eight-year-old son.

Spolasco set down an account of this in a pamphlet ‘A Narrative of the Wreck of the Steamer Killarney’, which he brought out soon after settling in Adelaide Street in Swansea, near present-day Morgan’s Hotel.  To mark the first anniversary of his deliverance from drowning, he paid for a whole ox to be distributed among the poor - while making sure this act of generosity became widely known. 

But in 1839 he was charged with manslaughter following the death of 23-year-old Susannah Thomas, who had consulted him with abdominal pain.  From her aunt’s testimony at the inquest it emerged that Spolasco claimed that he had no need to hear about her symptoms, for he merely supplied her with two pills and some powder (which he evidently administered to most of his patients), for 22s 6d - a considerable sum in those days.  At his trial, the surgeon could not say with complete certainty that his medicines had caused her death, so Spolasco was found not guilty.

The following year he had another brush with the law for forging government stamps on his pills, yet after some months in jail he was again acquitted.  After these setbacks Spolasco moved on to London, and thence eventually to New York, where he fell on hard times before he died, probably aged in his mid fifties.  In spite of the prosperous appearance he tried to create, Spolasco was one of the people mercilessly lampooned by Walt Whitman – “what a bald, bare, wizened, shriveled old granny he would be” - in the poem ‘Street Yarn' published in 1856.

While such eminent medical people as Louis Pasteur are among those who have been accused of being quacks, Spolasco intentionally produced bogus testimonials and false medical test results.  He played on people’s gullibility, using medicines which were basically laxatives.  The improvements in the health of some of those consulted may have come through the placebo effect, whereby confidence in the cure and in the physician can contribute to the sick person recovering, or that with certain ailments recovery is inevitable, given time. 

We have good reason to appreciate our National Health Service, and are thankful that we need not consult the likes of Baron Spolasco!  

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