Patent and magnetic medicine as well as a surge in practicing clairvoyants was one of the sadder sides of the Civil War and its aftermath. Because of the post-battle photographs taken by mid-19th Century photographers, showing the dead where they fell, modern minds tend to think of these as the catastrophic casualties of the war. However, disease (syphilis, tuberculosis, dysentery, malaria, and typhoid fever) killed more combatants than did actual fighting. Compare the 110,100 Union troops killed or died of injuries while fighting to the 224,580 dead from disease – it is shocking to discover that over twice the number who died fighting were killed by disease. [The National Park Service, https://www.nps.gov/civilwar/facts.htm]
American medicine was in its infancy prior to the war, and just about anybody who wanted to could hang out a shingle calling themselves a doctor, or worse, a surgeon. There were medical schools and diplomated doctors, but the traditions of the various schools were as varied as the methods they taught. Some favored a hydro-therapeutic approach, the so-called “water-cure,” while others took the straight forward anatomical approach we would recognize today, and still others, called “eclectic schools” merged the various theories. All these schools granted the degree “M.D.” but that degree, in the mid-19th century, represented a mixed bag of help for most patients. None of the medical schools, nor their graduates, understood disease pathology, even in a limited way, until much later in the century — a real problem when tuberculosis and infectious disease were common afflictions. To make matters worse, traditional medicine, with its blood-letting and insistence on toxic drug therapies, actually drove the public to seek the care of non-invasive alternative medicine. Water-cure physicians, for example, taught their patients that hygiene, diet, and exercise would improve conditions that doses of mercury and blood-letting could not.
Along with the various medical schools of thought that arose in antebellum America, the rise of the Spiritualist movement led to still more “therapies,” chief among them magnetic healing, clairvoyant healing, and the use of mediums to intervene with the spirit world to effect a cure.
The outbreak of the Civil War led to both the growth of medical knowledge and its reverse — a stunning rise in quack therapies only designed to part the desperate from their money. During the war field doctors, pressed under extreme conditions of the battlefield and their sick wards, quickly learned their trade. During the war, doctors did not need the freshly dead corpses dug from cemeteries to study anatomy, that science was clarified in the classroom of the field as the doctors had to amputate limbs – sometimes all that a soldier had – in order to save a life. Coping with the rampant disease in the field was a constant battle, especially without antibiotics, an understanding of disease pathology, and the knowledge of sterility. And, of course, the soldiers, lonely and far from home, visited camp followers and prostitutes, and contracted what would become fatal diseases.
Once released from the military, the wounded and sick came home. Because of a genuine fear of the invasive treatments of traditional medicine, often already experienced first hand in the field hospitals, the returning wounded turned to the fringe theories of the water-cure, magnetic healing, and clairvoyance. All were tremendously appealing to the desperate patients. Alternative medical theories promised, but rarely delivered, hope. Charlatans had a wide-open market to capitalize on the suffering.
Buck Claflin, who had seized upon and promoted his daughter’s, Tennessee’s, apparent clairvoyant abilities when she was only nine, saw the profit potential in the increasing interest in Spiritualism and quickly morphed his daughter into a clairvoyant healer at the outbreak of the war in 1861. Prior to 1859 she was merely advertised as a clairvoyant able to read the future and find lost objects (and future husbands), but after the war broke out she also healed with a “clairvoyant eye.” Arrested with the family in Pittsburgh in 1861 for “humbuggery” Tennessee ran off, leaving Buck with no viable income.
Buck didn’t miss a stride. He started promoting himself as the “Cancer King,” whose “patented” salve would remove the cancer, “root and branch, with no pain or blood being spilled.” Of course, it was entirely safe, and only made from vegetable ingredients. His son, Hebern simultaneously began to do the kind of same self-promotion, with a similar product. The two men were rivals; how and where they found their miraculous salve is no where documented, but undercurrents point to Canning Woodhull, Buck’s son-in-law who had been marketing his “Turkish Cancer Salve” earlier. All three men promoted themselves as being able to cure cancer and other incurable diseases (most notably tuberculosis), but only Canning added the part about having a clairvoyant ability.
For Buck, it was simply a stop-gap measure until he could rein in his rebellious daughter and bring her back to the lucrative family business. For Hebern, it became a cash cow that he exploited for years; he made a lot of money: the lavish Italianate Quincy, Illinois, home he built is today a landmark. In Canning’s case, as his alcoholism and morphine addictions ate away at his life, the business was a life-line and a futile attempt to keep his family together. Margaret Miles, after separating from her husband, took up the business. Mary Burns, after remarrying B.F. Sparr, went into the business with her husband. Sparr, who had been a river flat boatman when they married, had quickly seen the potential profit through observation of his new in-laws. Mary was the only member of the family to continue the business into the 20th century. At her death, her identification as being "Mrs. Dr. Sparr" was even legitimized in her obituary which claimed, falsely, that she had graduated "in the 60s" from St. Louis University's Medical School [Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 19 March 1924, p. 3]. A Jesuit institution, the medical school was separated from St. Louis University in 1854 and not reestablished for 59 years!
After separating from Canning, Victoria practiced magnetic healing as a means of support and it was through this business that she met her second husband James H. Blood, a devout Spiritualist. When he was divorced by Victoria in 1876 and until his death in 1885, Blood continued to both practice and seek magnetic healing, the latter from noted, and diplomated water-cure doctor, Juliet Severance.
As the 19th century closed, conventional medicine rapidly closed the gap of knowledge versus belief. Immediately after the war, fakirs such as Buck, Hebern, Tennessee and the rest of the family, while often regarded as charlatans, still managed a lucrative business that afforded them stays in upper echelon hotels as well as to take a lease on the posh 17 Great Jones Street residence in New York. However, after 1870, the business became less and less lucrative and more publicly derided. Despite pressure from her family, Tennessee saw this trend, and her venture into Wall Street with Victoria and her husband marked the end of their “clairvoyant and magnetic healing” career. The two women never returned to its practice.