Epidemics, Institutions, and a New Wim-Wam

The opioid “epidemic” in the United States has seemingly provided the corpus delicti for many — on both the political right and left — to convict libertarian thought and promote regulation. Opioids are generally legal, and the current problem is the result of a process that is — at least somewhat — regulated. If that process were removed and access were increased, the problem would clearly be far worse. And thus the answer to this problem is to increase the current restrictions in order to decrease access.

History can — and should — act as a laboratory with which to test theories, particularly theories that demonstrate a facile sense of reasonableness because such theories often cause the most damage when put in action. And so, we can explore a previous “epidemic” to better understand the potential for the proposed solution. We shall go back further than Prohibition (that example is perhaps weakened by the lack of true epidemicity) yet not as far as Catharism (an epidemic that would eventually find surer footing once Martin Luther distilled the impurities and general weirdness from Catholic dissident thought). Instead, an exploration is in order of the decades when distilled alcohol, the press, and the free market were simultaneously loosed on the English to produce an effect that, at the time, was occasionally mistaken for the apocalypse.

Nathaniel Mist secured a printing press in 1716 and promptly entered the race for most oft jailed English pressman. Mist was of particular interest to the government because he not only owned a press but also practiced the political witchcraft of Jacobinism that sought to conjure the deposed Catholic House of Stuart into Kensington Palace. There had been a Jacobite rebellion in Scotland in 1715, the highlights of which were James The Pretender promptly falling ill in the Scottish winter and the Scots surrendering nearly as quickly as they had been roused for war. King George secured his victory by flogging the Scots with several new Presbyterian churches. In order to keep tabs on the Jacobite with ink-stained fingers, the government paid an informant to work on Mist’s papers: Daniel Defoe. Defoe would claim to have thwarted many of Mist’s more incendiary articles from going to press, but the net result of his espionage was to make some wary of government intent and many wary of Defoe.

And yet within four years of owning a press, Mist had been arrested and convicted six times, spent several months in jail, and had been fined fairly large sums. After his sixth conviction, he published a description of the King as “a cruel ill-bred uneducated old Tyrant.” Mist began what would become a standard response among journalists by refusing to divulge the author of the ill-bred article. Remarkable was not how often Nathaniel Mist found himself in a dark jail but rather how often he rose each day from his own bed. And whether Mist occasionally stepped over the line on purpose is debatable; each arrest was but an attestation of Mist’s apparent brutal honestly, and each conviction served only to increase his paper’s circulation, which peaked at about 10,000. By 1727, Mist had been arrested several more times, most recently for libel against the King, and was imprisoned until he could deliver a bond for a lifetime of good behavior. Faced with the impossible, Mist relocated to France and continued his invectives against King George.

One of Mist’s greatest feats in his perpetual pursuit of scandal occurred less than a year before his exile to France when this notice was printed in his Weekly Journal on November 19, 1726:

From Guildford comes a strange but well-attested Piece of News. That a poor Woman who lives at Godalmin, near that Town, was about a Month past delivered by Mr John Howard, an Eminent Surgeon and Man-Midwife, of a creature resembling a Rabbit but whose Heart and Lungs grew without its Belly, about 14 Days since she was delivered by the same Person, of a perfect Rabbit: and in a few Days after of 4 more; and on Friday, Saturday, Sunday, the 4th, 5th, and 6th instant, of one in each day: in all nine, they died all in bringing into the World. The woman hath made Oath, that two Months ago, being working in a Field with other Women, they put up a Rabbit, who running from them, they pursued it, but to no Purpose: This created in her such a Longing to it, that she (being with Child) was taken ill and miscarried, and from that Time she hath not been able to avoid thinking of Rabbits. People after all, differ much in their Opinion about this Matter, some looking upon them as great Curiosities, fit to be presented to the Royal Society, etc. others are angry at the Account, and say, that if it be a Fact, a Veil should be drawn over it, as an Imperfection in human Nature.

Rumor and superstition had been pacing the creaky floorboards of the dark attic of civilization for millennia, and the press now afforded these apparitions the means to quickly descent to the main floor and speed from the countryside to the cities. One such apparition was loosed on England by Mary Toft in Godalming, a village about twenty miles southwest of London.

Mary was a 25-year-old illiterate peasant, mother of Mary, Anne, and James, and wife of journeyman clothier Joshua Toft. In 1726, she was again pregnant and gave birth to part of a rabbit. John Howard, a local man-midwife with decades of experience, was called upon to assess the situation. And over the next two months, Mary birthed several more bits of rabbit and three legs of a cat and part of an eel. After reports were exchanged among scientists, Nathaniel St. Andre, a Swiss surgeon and anatomist to his Majesty, and Samuel Molyneux, secretary to the Prince of Wales, were dispatched. Arriving on November 15, they were taken by John Howard to witness Mary’s vagina produce a rabbit’s torso. St. Andre concluded that rabbits were breeding in Mary’s fallopian tubes. The king dispatched another surgeon who concluded the entire episode was a hoax. But Howard and St. Andre were convinced and gathered witness statements — not so much as to Mary’s ability to birth rabbit and cat parts but rather to discredit the surgeon who found it all quite implausible.

Howard and St. Andre began writing a short book that would be published in early December entitled A Short Narrative of an Extraordinary Delivery of Rabbets. And St. Andre invited physician John Maubray to opine. Maubray had previously authored The Female Physician in which he hypothesized that pregnant women who were friendly with animals had children who looked like animals. Maubray further argued that infants may reflect the dreams of their mothers. Maubray was the authority who perfectly lacked any objectivity because in Mary Toft he would find the living proof of his fantastical fetal development theories. And Maubray found exactly such proof. By early December, the press, with the substantial assistance of supposed experts, had transformed Mary Toft’s curious fetish into a national fascination.

William Hogarth, with the aid of a ready press, transformed printmaking into social criticism and quickly produced Cunicularii — The Wise Men of Godliman in Consultation, which offered to the public the image of learned doctors rapt with theories about how Mary could produce rabbits from under her bed dress. Mary confessed on December 7. She had invented a story about being obsessed by rabbits that conveniently confirmed Maubray’s theory of fetal development. Mary blamed everyone, from her husband to her mother-in-law to a traveling woman (who claimed that inserting rabbits would make her wants disappear) to the authorities for desiring a mystery. She was charged on January 7, 1727 with being an “abominable cheat and imposter.” Nathaniel Mist continued to publish on the fallout.

The cycle of public credibility created and destroyed by the press would become a permanent feature of mass media. Maubray had gained famed, in part, by publishing a book promoting fantastic ideas of fetal development. Mary gained famed by the press quickly reporting her fantastical egressions. St. Andre attempted to capitalize on the lagomorph virgin births by promoting his own scientific authority through the press. And while the press was a force multiplier for all these efforts of self-promotion and credibility, it likewise was a force multiplier for efforts to ridicule. And just as the press could — and would be — targeted at the ancien regime of churchmen and oligarch, and had been likewise targeted at those doctors who sought to supplant them. Another engraver, George Vertue, followed Hogarth in publishing a satire of St. Andre entitled The Doctors in Labour, or a New Wim-Wam in Guildford. St. Andre was an easy target for Jacobite sympathizers because it was rumored that he only held his position at court because he spoke German — the native tongue of the ill-bred King. St. Andre was humiliated beyond employability and retired to the English countryside.

Sir Manningham, a well-established obstetrician, published his diary of observations just a few days after Mary’s confession hit the newspapers. Manningham was desperate to distance himself from the fraud and sought the press to remedy his reputation. In a desperate bid to save their profession, several doctors unconnected to the mania published statements confirming that they had never fallen victim to Mary’s tales or Maubray’s theories. Articles, poems, pamphlets and broadsides egressed from the press like so many rabbits from Mary Toft that a mixture of satire and morbid despair descended on Robert Walpole’s ministry and King George’s Britain until it seemed the country in December 1726 was mesmerized by the tawdry fantasy. Voltaire took to the press to blame Protestantism, while others focused on Mary as morally and mentally bereft and the gullible doctors as something worse. Molyneux received the brunt of the ink-stained blows, as evidence by The Discovery; or, The Squire Turn’d Ferret, likely penned by Alexander Pope, which opens with

Most true it is, I dare to say,
E’er since the Days of Eve,
The weakest Woman sometimes may
The wisest Man deceive.

Hogarth would riposte few years later on the rabbit ex nihilo story with another engraving satirizing the educated professions titled Credulity, Superstition, and Fanaticism. But as the press proved a fickle yet potent weapon that could be turned against the author as quickly as it could against those in or attempting to ascend to power, there were, it was discovered, perhaps good uses for it.

As the Mary Toft saga moved expeditiously through a narrative cycle that would become a media standard, Britain was in the grip of yet another moral outrage. When William of Orange landed on English shores on November 5, 1688, he asserted that “the liberties of England and the Protestant religion I will maintain.” Among these liberties was not French brandy. King William’s primary policy objectives included general opposition to King Louis and general promotion of Dutch values — which included dutch courage. King William’s government passed a series of acts in the 1690s that restricted brandy importation and encouraged local gin production, and in 1690 the monopoly of the Guild of Distillers was broken. The 1690s was the decade that feudal monopoly rights ceded to the open market. England’s Press Licensing Act — officially, “An Act for preventing the frequent Abuses in printing seditious treasonable and unlicensed Bookes and Pamphlets and for regulating of Printing and Printing Presses” — was enacted in 1662 in order to curb the wanton publishing enthusiasm of Puritan authors (John Milton among them). The Archbishop of Canterbury objected to what he perceived as subversive portions of Milton’s Paradise Lost (to no avail; it was printed in full), and all newspapers save for the London Gazette were effectively closed. The London Gazette was the official newspaper of the government and mostly published the limited and tiresome journal of government activities. In 1685, the Act was renewed for seven years, and the 1689 English Bills of Rights made no mention of freedom of the press. The Act was renewed again in 1692 until 1695, when tremendous public pressure caused Parliament to abandon it. Thus the grip on spirits — from the still and the press — was loosed.

By 1700, gin began to flow from the streets of London to village roads across England. Over the next few decades the deadly combination of declining food prices and increasing incomes generated discretionary income at a time when one of the primary discretionary purchases was alcohol. Further, gin production had the added benefit of vastly more flexible requirements for the quality of its ingredients; so barley not good enough for beer could be used for gin, and turpentine could suffice when juniper berries were too expensive.

The government attempted to curb the excesses with the Gin Act of 1736, which taxed spirits and required prohibitively expensive licenses to operate. Gin consumption temporarily dropped as legal gin producers were predictably replaced by illegal producers, at which point the markets were flooded with gin of dubious quality and occasional lethality. Early Victorian reformer Francis Place observed a century later that the poor — often illiterate, sometimes unemployed — had only two primary means of entertainment: “…sexual intercourse and drinking … drunkenness is by far the most desired….” His summation was typical of a Victorian: dour but more true than not. By the late 1740s, London’s West End was thoroughly infested with gin shops, which conveniently were often also whorehouses and pawn shops.

Amidst the turbulent gales of Toft and gin, the press rediscovered itself. The press’s origins were as a producer of Bibles and now the press become a social force for moral guidance and suasion. Richardson’s Pamela, a bestseller published in 1740, told the story of a lower class girl who thwarted seduction and rape and was rewarded by marriage to her upper-class employer. The book spawned the greatest publishing merchandizing effort since the Bible with prints, hand fans, playing cards and other items printed with scenes from the novel (though no royalties returned to the author due to a lax legal environment). The following year, Henry Fielding’s Shamela and Eliza Haywood’s The Anti-Pamela rolled off the presses. Both novels present a protagonist who is a devious schemer who uses feigned virtue to manipulate her master — both skeptical of the potential virtue of the lower class. The Marquis de Sade followed a few decades later in typical French fashion with Justine, who is enslaved and raped and earns nothing in return. Contemporary criticism of Pamela targeted Richardson’s use of lower-class idioms and the heroine’s ability to transcend feudal boundaries with her steadfast morality. Richardson formed a focus group of ladies of distinction and included revisions to Pamela’s vocabulary — now quite middle class — and lineage — now unfortunate poor gentlefolk instead of fortunate gentle poor-folk. The key to Pamela’s social force was not entirely its message of moral conviction overcoming accidents of birth but rather its status as mass communication.

Pamela was, in essence, a The Pilgrim’s Progress for the masses: easily accessible narrative with little figurative language, common vernacular, moralism veiled in an acceptable level of prurience without preaching. It was a kind of moralistic soap opera. And The Pilgrim’s Progress was itself a more accessible version of John Foxe’s 1563 Acts and Monuments, which depicted courageous Protestant suffering under cold Catholic rule. The three books encapsulated a progression that would be repeated throughout centuries: the narrative evolves from grand drama to individual pathos and devolves from rational moralism to some admixture of didactic entertainment. Acts and Monuments was a combination of religion, politics, and history, and served to justify and solidify the culture of the newly Protestant England. Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress transformed the struggle from political and national to personal. In The Pilgrim’s Progress, the battleground was not for the soul of the nation but rather for the soul of the individual, a perspective that demonstrated the focus of the Protestant spotlight. Pamela presented a similar argument from a slightly different angle: the political and doctrinal became the kitchen-sink moral.

Hogarth’s pictorial efforts to combat what seemed like the collapse of Western civilization began in 1731 with the engraving A Harlot’s Progress, the cartoon of a young country girl who arrives in London seeking work, becomes a well-paid prostitute, finds herself in prison and eventually dies of venereal disease at age twenty-three. The sequel, A Rake’s Progress, depicts a wealthy young man who finds himself ruined by gambling and prostitutes. Both engravings reflect obvious inspiration from The Pilgrim’s Progress to create a kind of mass media social-reformer stain glass window. Hogarth followed these prints with Industry and Idleness, which in twelve engravings show how industry — the English Protestant work ethic — produces wealth whereas idleness eventually makes one a whore-monger, highwayman, and, in the end, sentenced to death by the morally industrious. Hogarth next directly addressed the gin craze with two widely circulated engravings: Gin Lane and Beer Street. Gin Lane depicted a confection of inebriated zombies — toothless, breasts exposed, gnawing on bones and selling their last possessions to the pawn broker. By contrast, Beer Street depicted sensible drunkenness: an artist painting, workmen sitting around a table covered in the day’s newspaper, a young woman having her breast fondled but not exposed — all something of an improvement over Gin Lane.

Hogarth had helped push through the Engraving Copyright Act 1734 that afforded copyright protection for engravers, and for Hogarth, the result was in part charitable. By allowing engravers to legally protect their work, they could sell their prints for less, and thus the poor could learn the difference between Gin Lane and Beer Street as their forebears learned of righteousness from cathedral stained glass windows. The cost of Gin Lane and Beer Street was still beyond the means or interest of most of Britain’s poor, but the Act — and Hogarth’s intent to sell his prints as inexpensively as possible — meant that the grounds were laid for the mass of this communication to expand. Hogarth’s Gin and Beer prints were published a month after Henry Fielding published An Inquiry into the Late Increase in Robbers — an inquiry that led straight to gin. Engravings — which appeared much like modern storyboards — now took to the press along with pamphlets and newspapers to create a moral force in the place of the seemingly compromised Church.

The Mary Toth imbroglio, Pamela and A Harlot’s Progress were one cycle of something new: a media trial — guilt and innocence, evidence and argument, all weighed by the public. These were also a significant manifestation of public morality debated largely outside of the church, mostly only loosely tethered to religion. And given the inherent neutrality in the machinery of the press — it was available to anyone who could operate it — the counter argument — something not broadly available when the church monopolized morality — would be presented to the people.

Acts and Monuments, The Pilgrim’s Progress, and Pamela were published over generations, but the one that found a home in colonial America was the story of the distinctly Protestant, individual journey. The Pilgrim’s Progress served as the Puritan narrative framework for avoiding the seeming miasma of immortality that Britain had become. As Britain was in the throws of printed pornography, awash in gin, and entertained by Mary Toth’s curious fetish, the North American colonies were gripped by the Great Awakening. North America’s major cities — Boston, Philadelphia and Charleston — were supported by a sense of moral seriousness and civic purpose that had not been severed from their institutions. The centers of urban licentiousness had not yet developed. New Orleans was still a small, largely homogenous pre-Haitian-refugee French colony. And while New York was growing as a trading port, its pirate past was increasingly behind it and its chaotic immigrant future was still decades in front of it; New York, with almost half of all households owning slaves, looked more like Charleston than London. In the colonies, the Great Awakening would alter the relationship between church and society by placing substantial responsibility on the individual. Such responsibility was not limited to social or financial status, as all bore the weight of decent moral and civil behavior.

The British solution wouldn’t emerge until the Victorian Era a century later and largely began as an effort by William Wilberforce to reattach the church to public discourse and followed by the Representation of the People Act 1832, which nearly doubled the number of eligible voters. Literacy, voting rights and the drumbeat of civic righteousness were sobering on the British. In order to understand the nineteenth century solution to this farrago of British problems is to first expel from the analytic toolkit the Victorian urge to simplify, label, and prescribe, which serves to gild an illusion of control over a complex human problem. We employ this reductionary toolkit today by treating the opioid epidemic as a disease, relying on a label (chemical dependency) and the obvious solution. We rest easy on the progress that has given us such superior scientific (and generally analytical) capabilities, which are our tremendously self-evident until either the next generation casts our ignorance aside for their own progressive genius or we take a short review of history — whichever comes first. History, though, must be fundamentally rejected because it only offers complexity to those who seek easy affixable labels and readily prescribable solutions as desperately as a junkie looking for another fix. History is not an easy label machine but rather reality, which, if approached correctly, offers a glimpse into the vast complexity of humans and societies.

The British solution to their epidemics was no solution at all; solution suggests humans intentionally engineering a social outcome like so many self-assured communists sharing brie in a faculty lounge. The British averted an eighteenth century apocalypse not by re-establishing an explicit connection between the church and the public rather by leveraging mass media to promote morality and decency and by growing opportunity through an expanding economy and education system and franchise. By giving people a moral framework with which to make good choices — about their lives, their free time, and their discretionary income — a nation can, as the British did with Pamela, relieve the skepticism of the potential virtue of the lower class and transcend boundaries with steadfast morality.

Epidemics seem to provide a perpetual source of policy profundities with the requisite intellectual onanism that each pundit contributes — the exegesis lies in policy or economics or anthropology depending on the echo chamber the prophet inhabits, all of which inevitably devolves into some kind of cognitive self-gratification. The American eighteenth century diverged so much from the British precisely because the break from seventeenth century Puritan individualism never occurred in America and as such, the conversations in the colonies were not about the soul of the nation but rather focused on the soul of the individual. So while Blackstone was publishing a guide that fundamentally applies law by class, the descendants of Puritans were summoning individual moral courage to declare that it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government. The libertarian position, though, is not a policy prescription; it is a recognition that policy is not a salve for those who attempt to temper existential crisis with a pill — and that no regulation, apart from those that buttress institutions, can be. The history of England’s eighteenth century apokalyptein reveals the need for individual moral courage developed and supported by a nation’s institutions, not the blunt hammer of regulation or narcissism of pundits.

About Nathan Allen

Formerly of Xio Research, an A.I. appliance company. Previously a strategy and development leader at IBM Watson Education. His views do not necessarily reflect anyone’s, including his own. (What.) Nathan’s academic training is in intellectual history; his next book, Weapon of Choice, examines the creation of American identity and modern Western power. Don’t get too excited, Weapon of Choice isn’t about wars but rather more about the seeming ex nihilo development of individual agency … which doesn’t really seem sexy until you consider that individual agency covers everything from voting rights to the cash in your wallet to the reason mass communication even makes sense….

Agitator.