The grand central avenue of Kensal Green Cemetery is a fascinating place, full of pompous mausoleums and monuments to minor royalty and celebrities of the mid-19th century. One of the most noticeable features at the expensive end of the avenue, near the chapel, is this slender rotunda sheltering the statue of a goddess, probably Hygieia, the personification of health.
But when you read the inscription on the base, you are taken aback.
It is the fate of most men
to have many enemies, and few friends.
This monumental pile
is not intended to mark the career,
but to shew
how much its inhabitant was respected
by those who knew his worth,
and the benefits
derived from his remedial discovery.
He is now at rest
and far beyond the praises, or censures
of this world.
Stranger as you respect this receptacle for the dead
(as one of the many who will rest here,)
read the name of
John Saint John Long
Of course, when I saw this fiercely defensive epitaph I went home and looked him up, and this is what I found.
John St John Long was born in Dublin in 1798, the son of a basket weaver. He showed an early talent for drawing, and friends of the family clubbed together to send him to art school. He aspired to a career as a painter, and at the age of 24 moved to London to seek his fortune.
He wasn’t much good. One painting of his, The Temptation in the Wilderness (1824), is in the collection of the Tate Gallery, where it is not on display.
He also worked as an assistant to more famous artists, and in this work he developed some skill in working with pigments for oil paint, and in devising new ones. This led him to believe that he had a talent for chemistry.
He abandoned art and looked for something more profitable. An attempt to become a chiropodist led nowhere. Then he had the idea that would shape his life and make him rich. He thought that his home-made chemicals could be used to cure disease, and devised a system of therapy.
This was not an entirely new one. If you have been watching the Olympics you will have seen that some athletes have angry red circles on their backs caused by ‘cupping’, an old and worthless medical practice of using a vacuum to make a blister that is supposed to suck out ‘toxins’ from the rest of the body.
Long thought that if he applied a caustic chemical to his patients’ skin, it would create an irritation that would concentrate and draw off his patients’ ailments. His slight knowledge of chemistry made it easy to devise such a substance. It was powerful enough to eat through the skin and produce an open suppurating wound. Long supposed that the discharge from this represented the disease being drawn out.
It’s amazing what the placebo effect will do, especially if the treatment is arduous and painful – ask any witch doctor about this. Long was soon successful enough to rent space in Harley Street, and to attract rich patients.
His treatment rooms contained large wooden boxes, which evidently enclosed a heater for producing a vapour from some unknown liquid. Patients inhaled this through a tube. Then they were passed on to nurses, who rubbed their chest or back with Long’s corrosive compound. This was continued every day until it caused a wide suppurating lesion. Then the wound was dressed with cabbage leaves (I am not making this up), and when it had healed the patient was pronounced cured.
He claimed that his treatment was effective against, among other diseases, consumption, gout, rheumatism, measles, cancer, smallpox and mental illness.
Of course the wound might not heal, and the infection might kill the patient. His first victim, a Mrs Lloyd, died in 1830 after she had first consulted him for an intermittent cough. Long refused to treat the spreading lesion he had caused, advising her to drink brandy and water and keep her head under the bedclothes. Other doctors were called but came too late, and she died of septicaemia three weeks after starting her treatment.
Somehow Long escaped censure at the inquest. But he was not so lucky with another patient, a young woman named Catherine Cashin. She was in perfect health when her mother brought her in, worried because her younger sister was suffering from consumption. Long declared that the girl had ‘the seeds of consumption’ in her, and applied his usual treatment with the usual result. Soon she had a huge infected wound, and was vomiting uncontrollably.
According to The Newgate Calendar, ‘The wound daily increased, and appearances soon presented themselves which so alarmed Mrs Roddis, the landlady, that she felt herself called upon to adopt measures on behalf of the young lady. She wrote to Mr Long, and in a day or so he called. Mrs Roddis humanely urged that danger might arise from symptoms which appeared so violent; but the doctor laughed at her apprehensions, declaring that the wound was going on remarkably well, and that he would give a hundred guineas if he could produce similar favourable signs in some other of his patients.’ He recommended mulled port wine.
Eventually the family called another medical man, a Mr Brodie of Savile Row, but Miss Cashin died the following day.
Mr Brodie testified at the inquest. He didn’t know how the wound had been caused – naturally Long kept his methods secret – but he was certain that the treatment had caused her symptoms and her death. Eight other doctors present at the inquest concurred with his opinion.
Several of Long’s patients spoke in his defence, including the Countess of Buckinghamshire, Guy Lenox Prendergast, MP for Lymington, and a wealthy brewer called Higgs, all declaring that his treatment had cured their ailments.
The coroner’s jury delivered a verdict of manslaughter against Long. He was tried at the Old Bailey on 30 October and found guilty. But amazingly, he was sentenced only to pay a fine of £250, which he did on the spot and left the court as a free man to resume his practice.
The case attracted a good deal of comment and publicity, including this cartoon.
Only a few days later, on 10 November, there was an inquest into the death of another of his patients, Mrs Colin Campbell Lloyd. It was held at the Wilton Arms in Kinnerton Street off Knightsbridge, a pub which still exists. Again, the jury returned a verdict of manslaughter. But at his trial on 19 February 1831, Long was found not guilty. Again according to The Newgate Calendar, ‘Several ladies, elegantly dressed, remained with the prisoner in the dock throughout the day, to whom this verdict appeared to give great satisfaction.’
Long remained in practice for several more years, and died in 1834. He was buried in an expensive plot in the newly opened Kensal Green Cemetery, and his former patients contributed to the handsome memorial which still stands over his grave. It is not known who composed the inscription.