British History, Celestial Bed, eighteenth century history, electricity, emma hamilton, Georgian Society, James Graham, medical history, sex therapy, temple of heath
A lot of people think sex was invented in the 1960’s with it’s free-love, orgasms for all, and sex therapy…prior to that people simply pro-created out of a sense of duty. How dull…..
Well, obviously that’s simply not true (Ok so, maybe the Victorian’s were a bit prudish, but hey, Victoria still managed to knock out nine children so Albert must have been keeping her amused between the sheets).
But what about bad sex? Or no sex? What about infertility? what did people do and where did they go for their sexual healing…?
Enter the eighteenth century’s answer to Dr Ruth: The first Sex Therapy Superstar and all round crowd pleaser: ‘Doctor’ James Graham! Roy Porter acerbically described in the following terms:
“James Graham, former pedlar of health through sex-therapy and mudbaths, later founded the ‘New and True Christian Church, practiced Adamic nakedness, died insane.”(1)
Welcome to the world of the Prince of Quacks and keen imbiber of ether!
James Graham was born on 23 June 1745 in Edinburgh. He was of humble origins but not so poor that he could not afford a good education. He studied at the prestigious Edinburgh University. He left without a degree, however this far from unusual – neither did most of his contemporaries. At first he tried his hand as an apothecary in Doncaster but a more adventurous spirit was calling him. In 1770 he set off for America, where he spent the next five years. It was in America that he came across the cutting edge of scientific discovery that was quite literally setting the world on fire: electricity.
In Philadelphia Graham was introduced to electrical theory and practice by Ebenezer Kinnersley a close friend of Benjamin Franklin (also famous for his experiments in electricity). With this new-found knowledge, the proverbial light-bulb (OK, slightly anachronistic imagery) went off in Graham’s brain.
Graham came to believe that electricity was the new panacea and this belief formed the basis for his future medical therapies, philosophy and, of course, his business ventures, he wrote:
“Electricity invigorates the whole body and remedies all physical defects.”
Graham believed that through magnetic and electric therapies, the very fabric of the human race could be improved upon and in improving individuals society as a whole would become more harmonious.
As the War of Independence swept through America, James Graham returned to England charged with these radical new scientific and medical ideas and armed with an innate flair for self-promotion.
No publicity is bad publicity
On return to England, in 1775, he set up a fashionable practice in Bath, and began a vigorous advertising campaign in the form of leaflets and pamphlets advertising such things as “Effluvia, vapours and applications aetherial, magnetic or electric”.
His biggest publicity coup however was in catching the most famous Blue-stocking of the day: Catherine Macaulay. Catherine was unusual in being an eighteenth century woman famed for her intellect rather than who she was sleeping with. This was soon to change.
Catherine was in her forties in poor health. James Graham, charming, charismatic and opportunist, soon inveigled his way into Catherine’s salon. Despite her ill-health, Shortly after engaging James Graham as her physician she recovered her vitality enough to marry his 21-year-old brother! Society was deliciously shocked by the events. Although Catherine’s reputation was in ruins, Graham used the scandal to prove the efficacy of his methods: after all he had transformed a frail middle-aged blue stocking into a rapacious cougar! Banking on this to bolster his reputation he relocated to London within two weeks of the marriage.
London: Electric Ladyland and the Temple of Health
“Carriages drawing up to the door of this modern Phaphos, with crowds of gawping sparks, on each side, to discover who were the visitors, but the ladies’ faces were covered; all going incog. At the door stood two gigantic porters with each a long staff with ornamental silver heads….and wearing superb liveries, with large gold-laced cocked hats, each was seven feet high, and retained to keep the entrance clear.”
Henry Angelo, Royal Fencing Master, recollected of the biggest crowd pullers in London in 1780.
Sex, scandal and excess – welcome to James Graham’s Temple of Health and Hymen.
An expert at creating publicity and marketing his ideas, Graham chose the Adam brother’s uber-fashionable development the Adelphi for the site of his first Temple of Health and Hymen, also called ‘Templum Aesculpium Sacrum’. Already much talked because the development had nearly ruined the Adam brothers, it already boasted famous residents, the addition of a highly salacious medical/scientific establishment created an immediate buzz.
The Temple soon attracted crowds of the curious, bustling to see the elaborate scientific implements, the ornate and luxurious interiors, the sexy young ‘goddesses’ (Emma Hamilton, Lord Nelson’s future mistress, briefly caused a sensation as the Goddess Vestina during her short sojourn in the Temple).
For the price of 2 guinea’s you could even attend one of the scandalously frank sex talks that James Graham delivered nightly, such as his ‘Lecture on Generation’ which recommended genital hygiene and marital sex, whilst condemning masturbation and the use of prostitutes. Mind you he did think it was OK for the married ladies to look at dirty mags…(aka erotica). At the lectures the audience would be treated to music, poetry, fireworks and dance, and as an added bonus you also got a free electric shock thrown into deal (the padding of the chairs had conductors concealed in them!) – so you could quite literally come out shocked rigid!
If you had the reddies, you could really buy into his ideas: the scantily clad nymphs sold patrons Graham’s Electrical Ether, Nervous Aetherial Balsam or Imperial Pills for a guinea or so each; and if you were really rich, you could enjoy some of the electro-therapy equipment itself: elaborate multi-seater thrones and crowns designed to give light electric shock’s to the patient to cure impotency or barrenness.
Roll up Roll up for the amazing Medico, Magnetico, Musico, electrical bed!
Or to give it its formal title: The Great Celestial State Bed. The centre piece, star turn of James Graham’s second Temple of Health and Hymen based in Shomberg House and opened on the 26th June 1781.
Graham teased the public with pamphlets and soon had the crowd flocking to his new temple. Duchesses vied with famous courtesans, politicians rubbed shoulders with bricklayers, old Roue’s like the Earl of Sandwich cast their jaundiced eye over the exotic and luxurious interiors. Acidic commentators like Horace Walpole decried James Graham as a quack.
But James Graham was much more than a quack, he used scientific advances to great visual effect, taking much inspiration from famous theatrical designer Philippe De Loutherbourg and his innovative stage lighting techniques and use of automatons.
A visit to the temple would plunge the visitor into,as Peter Otto describes it:
“A multi-media show [that] combined drama, medicine, science, metaphysics, religion, music, sex and even politics” (2)
Clearly, there is too much there to cover in this post! So let’s get to the main feature – the Great Celestial State Bed as it seems to embody quite a few of the themes that Otto identifies.
A description is in order I think, I have read various descriptions of the bed, Lydia Syson in her book Doctor of Love provides a great description, however first I will let James Graham describe his crowning glory in his own words:
“forty pillars of brilliant glass, of great strength and of the most exquisite workmanship, in regard to shape cutting and engraving…[and] an abundance of the electrical fire..”
Syson goes into further detail: the bed had a vast dome above it which contained exotic perfumes and a dash of ether just to get the occupants into the mood. Music also played from the bed, organ pipes were integrated into it and the music was regulated by the pace and vigour of the nookie going on beneath the canopy!
The dome also had inlaid mirrors, reflecting the couple rolling in the rich bedclothes atop a tilting mattress stuffed with oats, spices and stallion hair and stuffed with 1500lbs of magnets to prevent impotency and aid conception (well a simple feather mattress would have been redolent of effete luxury). Graham was not alone in using magnets in relation to sex therapy, they had long been connected with love and sex. The magnets were said to ‘jolt’ the couple as they copulated, however Kate Williams notes that it was probably one of the ‘goddesses’ hidden away and frantically pumping away on a lever (rather a parallel of events in the bed…)
As if this was not enough, the bed was loaded with other diversions and adornments: Atop the dome where Cupid and Psyche, Hymen watching over them with an electric crown in one hand and torch in the other. Inside were caged turtle doves, automata (a creepy pastoral show with nymphs, brides and bridegrooms entering the temple of hymen). And all topped off with an electric message, reading “Be fruitful, multiply and replenish the earth”
Sounds terrifying! But for £50 a night (close to £3,500 in today’s money) you would want to make the most of it. James sold it as:
“to insure the removal of barrenness…but likewise, improve, exalt and invigorate the bodily, and through them, the mental facilities of the human species.”
The aristocracy flocked to it, desperate for legitimate heirs. After 5 and a half years of marriage with no heir to show for it, Georgiana Duchess of Devonshire may well have taken a tumble in the famous bed.
Gaudy and vulgar, and slightly scary as the bed sounds today, in the eighteenth century it embodied cutting edge science and medical theory and it was the acme of technological advancement. The ingenious mechanic Thomas Denton was involved in the creation of the bed (Denton famously viewed some automatons which were on display, decided he could do better, and promptly made a speaking automata and later a drawing one which astounded all who saw them).
The lights go out
Fashion is fickle, and publicity can be cruel – Graham became the butt of satire and innuendo in the popular press and in the theatres. It can’t have helped his already dubious reputation to note that many prostitutes advertised their use of the ‘Grahamite method’ of sex. So, despite James Graham’s stratospheric success, his fame and fortune lasted only a couple of years. Soon both temples were in financial difficulty and by 1784 he was forced to sell his possessions. He returned to Edinburgh, and became ever more eccentric. He seems to have developed a Messiah Complex – founding a new religion (he was its only convert). He eventually renounced his electric therapies in favour of mud and extreme calory counting. He was partial to giving lectures buried up to his neck in soil, and wearing vests made of turf. He even did a spell in the Edinburgh Tollbooth after giving one of his saucy sex lectures to the staid and respectable Edinburgh worthies.
Yet in a time of social unrest – Britain was in fear of invasion following Spain and France joining with the Patriots in the American War of Independence and the capital was reeling after the chaos and violence of the Gordon Riots – James Graham offered people the chance to glimpse an idealistic alternative. And and he gave that very commercial society the chance to buy into it. He offered a slightly hedonistic opportunity to achieve an almost religious transcendence through sex and he wanted patrons to leave his temple feeling empowered and invigorated.
Many of his theories were not to far removed from contemporary medical advice (and compared to a blood-letting, his methods offered enjoyment). Although some of his sexual theories relied on standard chauvenistic Male/Active/good female/passive/corruptible dualisms he did hold relatively progressive views on women’s education, nutrition and hygiene.
His reputation as a quack seems to have stemmed from his expert use of self-promotion and marketing. Syson notes that in the eighteenth century Quackery was identified primarily by use of self-promotion and geographic mobility rather than actual survival rates of patients. One would imagine that most of James Graham’s patients not only survived, but came out of the procedure with a smile on their face – no wonder the other doctors hated him!
1) Roy Porter, ‘English Society in the Eighteenth Century’ (p182)
2) Otto, Peter, http://www.erudit.org/revue/ron/2001/v/n23/005991ar.html
Cruickshank, Dan, ‘The Secret History of Georgian London’, Windmill, 2010
Foreman, Amanda, ‘Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire’, Flamingo, 1999
http://www.general-anaesthesia.com/images/james-graham.html James Graham,
Otto, Peter, http://www.erudit.org/revue/ron/2001/v/n23/005991ar.html
Porter, Roy, ‘English Society in the 18th Century’, Penguin, 1990
http://quackscharlatansandfakers.wordpress.com/2011/10/05/hello-world/ James Graham, Quack?
Syson, Lydia, 2008, ‘Doctor of Love: James Graham and his Celestial Bed’, Alma Books (Kindle Edition)
Williams, Kate, ‘England’s Mistress’, Arrow Books, 2007
Author Ingrid Hall said:
OMG Lenora – What an amazing article!!! I love this guy.
Author Ingrid Hall said:
Reblogged this on Author Ingrid Hall and commented:
Ok peeps. Lenora’s article over at haunted palace on Dr Sex is hilarious!!!
I know – what a fabulous eccentric! And of course some of his methods are still with us today: ECT, magnetic beds and of course sex therapy!
Brilliant article, really funny. I had read a little bit about him so it was great to know more about Graham’s background. You also wrote about one of my heroines, Catherine Macauley, so thanks for that!
There was so much more detail I could have gone into! Oh, and the marriage between Catherine Macauley James Graham’s brother seems to have been a success despite the age difference.
Blau Stern Schwarz Schlonge said:
Oh my Lenora what a wonderfully funny yet true story of an infamous eccentric, and well told with your allusions, and great old pics too. I had to Wiki what a blue-stocking was though. And the quote – “A multi-media show [that] combined drama, medicine, science, metaphysics, religion, music, sex and even politics” – sounds like the Blogosphere at times now, lol.
Blau Stern Schwarz Schlonge said:
Reblogged this on Blau Stern Schwarz Schlonge and commented:
I love these historical oddities Lenora writes about at her blog. Enjoy!
Thank you so much for the re-blog! I love your blog and am really chuffed to have been re-blogged on it!
I wonder if Blue-stocking is not a term in common use in America? In eighteenth century Britain it was quite usual (and initially meant to be a bit dismissive or insulting) to call a learned woman a blue stocking.
I certainly think James Graham would have loved the blogsphere – it would have been a media that suited him well!
Blau Stern Schwarz Schlonge said:
You are welcome dear. Hmmmm, “chuffed”, another English word i have never heard. And “blue-stocking” i had never heard, though i am not in the academic world. Yes i can see us getting spam emails from Dr Graham’s electric sex products, lol.
Fantastic. I’m imagining an alternate history, steampunk style, where Graham’s methods were somehow validated, and he became the father of a movement of Electric Sex Hippies which expanded through the 19th century and eventually took over the world in a series of clashes that came to be called the Happiest Wars Ever.
OMG I LOVE it – you MUST write it!!!!
Rachael Hale aka the 'History Magpie' said:
This is a fantastic post, Lenora. As a bit of a Georgian fan I have come across the bed before but your background detail and descriptions are brilliant – who needs ’50 Shades’ when you can go to the ‘celestial bed’!
Loved reading about Graham giving lectures buried in soil too – he sounds like an amazing man.
Thanks Rachael, it was fascinating researching him, I could have written so much more about him he was such an interesting man. And very modern in his use of media and advertising to promote his ideas!
Freaky Folk Tales said:
Lenora, what an absolutely marvellous article. Again your writing and historical research is thoroughly enlightening and sheds a whole new light on our Georgian forebears. It’s quite amusing to think that the likes of Merlin got pulled into this sexological hotbed! Even moreso, how the delicate sensibilities of the Victorians ( the likes of John Ruskin and Dr Kellogg) would have looked back on this naughty netherworld but a few decades later! Regards, Paul
I’m glad you enjoyed it! It was great to research. I would imagine the Victorian’s would have been absolutely horrified by the exuberance of Dr Graham’s sex theories…but strangely tittilated at the same time (not that I’m implying that the Victorian’s might have had double standards when it came to sex…of course not… ;0)
Freaky Folk Tales said:
Hush your mouth Lenora; as if the Victorian morality could ever have coped with a duplicitous straying from strict sexual restraint! 😉
Lydia Syson (@LydiaSyson) said:
What a lovely and lively synthesis of Graham’s life! So delighted that others find him as fascinating as I do. And I think you’re spot on about the internet/blogosphere/twittersphere – it would have been right up his street.
Just a few clarifications: in the John Kay portrait at the top, the paunchy figure in black is actually gout-ridden John Brown, a slightly more effective medical reformer and founder of Brunonianism – you can just see James Graham as a ghostly figure in the background on the left, dressed in his trademark white linen suit, and looking rather more trim and handsome than Brown. Although I’m sure his ideas contributed to the inspiration for the Celestial Bed, the wonderful John Joseph Merlin didn’t have anything to do with it, nor did he work for Graham. A s I wrote in my book, ‘Doctor of Love: James Graham and His Celestial Bed’ (Alma Books, 2008) Merlin was the genius responsible for the ‘Celestial Harp’, a complex mechanical musical instrument which sounded like a one-person orchestra!
Thanks so much for the references and do visit my website to find out more about Graham: http://www.lydiasyson.com/books/doctor-of-love-james-graham-and-his-celestial-bed/
Thank you so much for taking the time to read my article and for providing such fascinating and constructive comments. I thoroughly enjoyed your book, Dr Graham was such a fascinating character and I did think it was quite odd that the picture I thought was of him was of a chubby fellow and not the slim and handsome character that I came to know from your book! I will amend the caption in the picture accordingly :0)
Thanks also for providing the clarification surrounding Merlin (what a unique man!) I thought I came across something linking him to the bed, but I can’t remember the source and I am more than happy to defer to your superior knowledge of all things Graham!
Thanks once again for stopping by my blog – I will definitely check out your website.
Lydia Syson (@LydiaSyson) said: