Thursday, October 25, 2012

Of Magic and Medicine

Dr. William B. Leonard Brings Elizabethan Arts to Early Marietta
Among the rare books in Marietta College’s Special Collections is a volume entitled The Secretes of the Reverende Maister Alexis of Piemont, translated from French into English by William Warde, and printed in London in 1562.  The well-worn copy measures about 5-3/16” x 7” and contains infrequent marginal notations.  Inside the loose front cover is a bookplate bearing the inscription, “Hildreth Cabinet Library. Marietta College.”  Prior to his death in 1863, Dr. Samuel Prescott Hildreth transferred many of his books and papers to the College, and this interesting volume appears to have been part of his collection.

In an article entitled, “Biographical Sketches of the Early Physicians of Marietta, Ohio,” published in The New England Historical and Genealogical Register,” Vol. III (1849), Hildreth states that he had preserved many of the “curious relics” from the estate of Dr. William B. Leonard of Marietta.  “Amongst them,” he says, “is a small quarto volume, printed at London in the old black letter, in the year 1562.  It is entitled ‘The Secrets of Master Alexis of Piemont,’ and is filled with curious recipes in the arts, with odd, fanciful remedies for various diseases, such as were in use three hundred years ago.”

The original work is attributed to Girolamo Ruscelli, a sixteenth-century Italian alchemist who wrote under the pseudonym, “Alessio Piemontese.”  The contents are described as containing “excellent remedies against divers diseases, wounds, and other accidentes, with the maner to make distillations, parfumes, comfitures, dyinges, colours, fusions, and meltinges.”  As well as medical instructions, such as a remedy “to heale the Emorhodes or Piles in a nighte, a rare secret and very excellent,” and a prescription to “make a woman beare Children,” the book provides recipes for making cosmetics, perfumes, and soaps, while guaranteeing a method for conserving youth and holding back old age.  One can discover how to make a “Candell of Ice to burne,” and mix “a water that wyll make a whyte and pale persone well coloured.”  To curl hair, “take the ashes of sheepes hornes burned, and mire it with oyle, and rubbe your head often tymes with it.” Also revealed are “reciptes against the Plague,” that instructed one to eat three little branches of rue, a walnut, and a fig, to ensure one’s safety during a dangerous time.

Although many of the prescriptions rely largely upon faith and perhaps a little magic, a respectable amount of science was also involved.  In the preface, Alessio describes his search for the secrets of nature, which inspired many others to similar experimentation.  At least some of the recipes must have had favorable results, for Alessio’s volume was translated into five languages, published in over 100 editions, and continued in print through the 1790s.  Dr. William B. Leonard, who brought this book to Marietta, may have relied on some of Alessio’s methods in his own medical practice through the years.

 Dr. William Bouchier Leonard was born in London in 1737, trained as a surgeon, served in the British navy, and later practiced as an apothecary or pharmacist. A framed diploma displayed on his wall proclaimed him an associate of Apothecaries’ Hall, a renowned center for the manufacture and sale of drugs.

Apparently, the manufacture of wool was also of interest to the doctor.  About 1784, following the death of his first wife, he decided to immigrate to America and establish a woolen factory.  With the models and plans of machinery and some necessary equipment secretly packed in his baggage, Dr. Leonard attempted to board a ship at York, but was arrested by customs officers for the illegal exportation of materials related to England’s important woolen industry.  He was fined 200 pounds and sentenced to a year’s imprisonment, with no release until the fine was paid (New England Genealogical Register, Vol. VI, No. 2, April 1851).

By 1793, Dr. Leonard had been discharged from the English jail and had made his way to Newburyport, Massachusetts, where he first appears in records by posting an ad in the Newburyport Herald, December 27, 1793:



Dr. Leonard respectfully acquaints the inhabitants of this Town and Environs that after an extensive Practice by sea and land, and in many Hospitals in London, and other parts of Europe, where he has been Practitioner in Physic and Surgery, Midwifery, &c., upward of 35 years, and with good success in many great operations . . . Mr. L. entreats for a share in the favors of his fellow citizens, and he humbly hopes that his abilities and experience with the faithful discharge of his duty to the lives and limbs of his employers will commend him to future favors . . .

 While living in Newburyport, Dr. Leonard married for his second wife, Susanna Lindsey, in 1799.  She died not long after, and Leonard attended to her burial.  It was said that he obtained a carriage on which to place her coffin, and covered the coffin with a blanket in order to use it for a seat.  The cemetery was in a nearby town, and one of his neighbors was invited to share the melancholy seat during the journey.

Arriving in Marietta, Ohio, in 1801, Dr. Leonard’s unusual manners and peculiar appearance attracted considerable attention in a town of less than a thousand inhabitants.  He boarded with the family of William Moulton, a silversmith who had also moved west from Newburyport.  In 1802, Leonard married Moulton’s daughter, Lydia.  In the aforementioned 1849 article on Marietta physicians, Samuel P. Hildreth provides a colorful description of Dr. Leonard:

He appears to have been a skilful surgeon, but was rough and coarse in his manners and language, retaining the habits acquired in his naval service, at a period when profanity and rudeness occupied the place of the genteel manners of the present day.  He still retained and kept up the fashion of the showy dresses, such as prevailed in the days of Queen Elizabeth, which in the backwoods of Ohio excited the curiosity of a people accustomed to the most simple attire.  He was thin and spare in person, with very slender legs, on the borders of old age.  His favorite costume was a blue broadcloth coat trimmed with gold lace, and enormous gilt buttons, a waistcoat of crimson velvet, with large pocket flaps, and small clothes of the same material, a pair of silk or worsted stockings drawn over his slender legs, with large silver buckles at the knees and in his shoes.  On his head he wore a full flowing periwig, of which he had six or eight varieties, crowned with a three cornered or cocked beaver hat.  Over the whole, when he appeared in the street, unless the weather was very hot, he wore a large scarlet colored cloak.  This dress, with his gold headed cane, always called forth the admiration and wonder of the boys, who followed close in his train, and were often threatened with his displeasure in not very civil language.  When travelling on horseback to visit his patients, he rode a coal black steed with long flowing mane and tail, the saddle and trappings of which were as antiquated and showy as his own dress.  The shop furniture, surgeon’s instruments, skeletons, and books he brought out with him, were as odd and ancient as himself.
If a cure for consumption, or tuberculosis, was to be found among Alexis of Piemont’s secrets, it did not work for Dr. Leonard.  He died of that disease at Marietta in 1806, at the age of 69.  Before his death, a copper plate was engraved with the following lines and later attached to his tombstone:
Friend! For Jesus’ sake forbear
To touch the dust enclosed here;
Blest is the man that spares this urn,
And he’s a knave that moves my bones.


Linda Showalter
Special Collections Associate
Marietta College Library