Mermaids & medicinal compounds

In The Undrowned Child, the mermaids are fierce, greedy and speak rough as guts. You can read more about the feisty Venetian ‘sirene’ in the Mermaids, Sharks & Curry section of The Undrowned Child website.
           But in The Mourning Emporium, it turns out that their London counterparts are rather posh, not to say prim and prissy. Once upon a time, the London mermaids were famous for their bravery and archery skills. But they have been brought low by taking too many ‘patent nostrums’. These were drugs that were sold to women in Victorian times, when it was claimed that ladies were weaker than men, and needed ‘dosing’ with all kinds of syrups and tonics with very picturesque names, often sold in beautiful bottles with detailed labels.
           Unfortunately, many of these drugs were not only useless but sometimes dangerous as they contained alcohol and even cocaine. So it is not surprising that the London mermaids in this book are suffering from feebleness and ‘brain fag’.

Lussa explained, ‘Seashells have arrived from our Sister-Mermaids on the Thames. The London Mermaids insist that their Troubles have a Venetian Flavour and that We must rush to their Aid. They dare not leave their Cavern after what befell the Melusine. More Shells arrive each Morning, each increasingly Desperate. Yet behold their Script, Lorenzo. Is it not strangely Languid? Almost Drunken?’



Pucretia urged, ‘Bile Beans positively cure headache, constipation, despondency, fatty and waxy degeneration of the liver, debility, lack of ambition, buzzing in the head and stomach ailments.’
       ‘Don’t do nuffink to save ye from Bajamonte Tiepolos, do it, though?’ blustered Flos. ‘Ye know? Da kind what is intent on murdering Undrowned Childs and Studious Sons? And layin’ waste to whole Cities? Thought not.’

           There were so many strange medicines for women that it was not possible to put them all in the book. Here are some left out for space reasons. Also included are some of the advertisers’ claims.

Nurse Powell’s Corrective Mixture (with Chloroform)
Dumas’s Paris Pills (calculated to at once grapple with and overcome the most obstinate case)
Bradfield’s Female Regulator: Woman’s Best Friend
Fournier’s Hygenique Mixture for Females (Extra Strong)
Mother Siegel’s Syrup
Steedman’s Soothing Powders
Princess Bust Cream Food
Doan’s Backache Kidney Pills
(This medicine has restored to health thousands  of  women)
Veno’s Seaweed Tonic
(If it fails, no other medicine will ever succeed)

Kaputine Headache Cure (Nothing as good. Nothing similar)
Absorbit Reducing Paste and J.Z. Obesity Tablets
Dr Niblett’s Vital Renewer
Dr Wrightsman’s Sovereign Balm of Life
Marchisi’s Uterine Catholicon
Brown’s Vegetable Cure for Female Weakness
Dr Coonley’s Radical Pile Cure
Dalby’s Carminative
Pendleton’s Calisaya Tonic Bitters
Mrs Stafford-Brookes’ Pelloids
Gavin’s Cocaphos (Puts New Life Into You)
Rowland’s Kalydor of peculiar value for the complexion, eradicating eruptions of all sorts. For the Cutaneous visitations that prevail in the winter seasons
Dr Gordon’s Elegant Pills for the Too Fat
Sozodont to make Your Teeth glitter like Orient Pearls!
Yeatreuse Warming Temperance Drink
Glycerine Jujubes
Heliotrope Cachous
Father Arent’s Rheumatic Herbal Plasters
La-Mar Reducing Soap to Wash Away Fat

           By the early 1900s, the selling of fake nostrums was under attack. Journalists and scientists were exposing the true contents of some famous medicines. In 1905/6, in Collier’s Weekly magazine, Samuel Hopkins Adams published a series of damning articles about ‘The Patent Medicine Trust, Palatable Poisons for the Poor’ in America.
          In Britain, the British Medical Association fought back against the quacks with its 1909 publication Secret Remedies – What they cost and what they contain (followed by More Secret Remedies). Scientists analysed the contents of some of the most popular proprietary medicines and revealed their actual contents. The authors contrasted the small monetary value of the ingredients, and their lack of any true usefulness, with the high prices at which the medicines were sold.


There’s a little poem about quack doctors that just about sums up their practices:
His fullest practice is amongst fond women that have more money than wit;
he first persuades them that they are not well,
and then gives 'um Physick which shall infallibly make
um sick.


The Electropoise

The London mermaids also use a device called an Electropoise (see picture). The Electropoise sat in a bowl of ice or cold water. A cord with a small plate on a buckle issued from one end of the cylinder and was fastened around the wrist or ankle of the ‘sufferer’. (In this book, ‘wrist’, as mermaids don’t have ankles.) According to the advertising, it was supposed to infuse electricity into the body of the user, allowing her to absorb more health-giving oxygen through her skin and thereby ‘cure Nervous Prostration, Insomnia, Rheumatism, Debility, La Grippe and many other things’.
           The Electropoise was first manufactured by Hercules Sanche in 1893. Despite the fact that the contraption was completely useless, he sold it with great success for at least forty years.





Another item worn by the London mermaids is the Electropathic corset, and this really existed too. Doctor Geoffrey A. Scott sold several different models of his ‘unbreakable electric corset’, which he described as ‘charged with electro-magnetism’, asserting: ‘They quickly cure in a marvellous manner, Nervous Debility, Spinal Complaints, Rheumatism, Paralysis, Numbness, Dyspepsia, Liver and Kidney Troubles …’ Each corset came with a compass for testing its electro-magnetic response.
         Corsets tortured women right up until the early twentieth century. One of the death knells to the corset was a piece of research published in London in 1904 by Dr Arabella Kenealy. She ordered a set of miniature replica corsets of the time and had them strapped onto monkeys, who reacted with great distress that according to the doctor ‘did extreme credit to their perception and sagacity. The physical results were as disastrous as they are instructive. For it was found that those which were corseted and laced at once to the regulation V-shape of fashionable woman died in the space of a few days’.

The London mermaids’ waists were encumbered with stout buckled corsets with labels that read: Harness Electropathic Belts for the Weak and Languid: Imparts New Life and Vigour.
        Flos, in a voice heavy with sarcasm, explained, ‘Our droopy sisters seem to think dem crimpin’ contrapshuns keep dere arms and tails from droppin orf, or da like. Once da mermaids of London was famous for dere archery. Great strong forearms like a haunch of hog. Now look at dem!’
        The arms of the London mermaids looked too delicate to lift an arrow, let alone a bow. The palest mermaid explained smugly, ‘Indeed, the Harness Electropathic Belt stimulates the function of various organs, increases their secretions and relaxes morbid contractions ... while preserving the feminine delicacy of the upper arm.’
      ‘Pigs’ ribs!’ observed Flos, under her breath. ‘And flapdoodle.’
      ‘In flam-sauce,’ agreed Catalina, with feeling.


'Antispasmodic Tea, anyone?’ offered Nerolia. She proceeded to dispense into tiny china cups a faintly yellow liquid from a squat object she proudly announced as ‘Royle’s Patent Self-Pouring Teapot: “No more aching arms”.’
      ‘Caulk me dead lights!’ moaned Flos.



One particularly pale mermaid cried, ‘Dirty street children! And a dog! Look at those sallow complexions! They’re sure to have brought some dreadful disease in with them. Or some eruptive condition! A dose must be taken!’
       Turtledove sneezed voluminously. ‘We bulldogs is very suscepterbul to damp an’ cold.’
       ‘Yes!’ called the pale mermaid’s sisters, ‘a dose! A dose!’
Mrs Dinsmore’s Great English Cough and Croup Balsam!’ ‘Or some Hale’s Honey of Horehound and Tar?’
      ‘Thankee kindly,’ spluttered Turtledove, ‘but ...’

      ‘Not for you, filthy dog! For us! You sneezed in our direction.’

      ‘You never know what the dirty beast might have. It’s probably rabid! We should take some precautionary
Charles Forde’s Bile Beans for Biliousness.’
      ‘Nerolia, no!’ protested her lanky companion. ‘
Dr Blaud’s Capsules! They produce pure, rich blood without any disagreeable effects.’
      ‘Which is why, Gloriana, they are recommended by the medical faculty as the best remedy
for bloodlessness.’
      ‘But I haint even bitten one of yew ladies,’ protested Turtledove, his back leg starting to rise from the floor. He growled, ‘Yet ... ’

Worm treatments

The unfortunate crew of the Scilla are subjected to doses of horrible worm medicines.
         Worm treatments for children were very popular in Victorian times and earlier. An American manufacturer explained the workings of his product in graphic style on his trade card:
The Rev. William Roulatt, a well known Methodist clergyman residing at Naples, draws the following amusing but apt comparison between Dr. C. McLane’s Vermifuge prepared by Fleming Bros. of Pittsburgh, Pa., and a ferret.
A ferret when placed at the entrance of a rat hole, enters the aperture, travels along the passage, seizes upon the rat, exterminates its existence, and draws the animal’s defunct carcass to the light. And in like manner have I found Dr. C. McLane’s Vermifuge to operate upon worms, those dreadful and
dangerous tormentors of children. This remedy, like the ferret, enters the aperture of the mouth, travels down the gullet, hunts round the stomach and lays hold of the worms, shakes the life out of the reptiles, sweeps clean their den and carries their carcasses clear out of the system. This, at least, has been the effect of the Vermifuge upon children.'


About the book   Meet the cast   The floating orphanage   Unspeakable eatables  London in 1901   Victorian mourning   Quack cures and corsets