The idea of electro-therapy inspired me to set Moriarty Takes His Medicine in the world of private electro_therapy2hospitals. Books often start as titles in my mind and I really loved this one: Moriarty Gets a Shock. Think of the possibilities for double-entendre!

I studied it intensively, trying to figure out ways to use that quintessentially Victorian treatment for nefarious purposes. To my growing alarm, I could not find any way to hurt even a fly with the devices of that day. I was in despair until I realized I could just change the title. And now I’m getting a blog post out of all that research.

STEM for novelists

Part of the reason it took me so long to understand the issues is that I allowed myself to learn precious little about math and science as a young person. Sheer mental laziness and entirely my fault, although a slice of blame goes to teachers who let girls slide in math class and schools whose curriculum was so skimpy I could make As without actually learning anything.

voltsIn college, I managed to get away with Self-Paced Astronomy for my science credits. There must have something else… but if there was, I’ve forgotten it. Granted, that was back when I could pay my tuition myself, in cash, out of my tips from the restaurant. What can you expect for $300 a semester?

I had to look up basic facts like, what’s an ohm when it’s at home? My notes have many entries like this: “At 120 volts, the most common household current in the United States, a 100-watt light bulb draws 0.83 amps. To calculate the amperage of a light bulb, one must divide the number of watts by the volts powering the circuit. So a 10-watt bulb would draw 0.083 amps.”

Ten watts is about right for a Victorian light bulb. But is it lethal? Apparently not.

“Amps would be the volume of water flowing through the pipe. The water pressure would be the voltage. Watts would be the power (volts x amps) the water could provide (think back to the old days when water was used to power mills).” (newelectric.com) That’s a great explanation. Thank you!

Then I realized that my devices would be powered by batteries. How dangerous is a battery? Well, a standard C battery has 1.5 volts and 7.5 amps. Cellphones charged from a USB cord have a supply voltage of about 5 volts, not enough to severely harm a person. Curses!

It turns out that electro-therapeutic devices measure current in milli-Amperes (mA.) That sounds very small and indeed it is. One ampere is equal to 1000 milliamperes or 1 volt/watt. You can’t electrocute anyone with a cellphone, much less one-fifth of a cellphone. Foiled again!


The Victorian devices are vividly funny, stimulating the imagination as well as the nerves, but electro-therapy turns out to be a valid medical treatment nowadays. In fact, there are increasing studies demonstrating its effectiveness in treating chronic conditions like pain, depression, and PTSD. More power to that effort, say I.

And of course we have many uses for mild electrical devices for health and grooming, like toothbrushes, massagers, hair trimmers, heart rate monitors, etc. etc. etc. You can even get an electrical abdominal toning belt! Not to mention all the people romping around with ear buds, which are tiny electrical devices too. Harmless, at low volumes.

1000 Questions

There are lots of old manuals for employing electro-therapeutic devices at Google books. Searching for electro-information prompted me to discover the wealth of period information to be found. How not? The Victorians, like us, published guidebooks, manuals, medical handbooks, and the like annually.

A wall plate

These books are fascinating and yield lots of jolly details, like the fact that doctors would test the current on their own tongues before applying it to their patients. That small fact made it vividly clear to me that the devices were wholly unsuitable as murder methods.

My favorite book was published in 1912, a good twenty-five years after my story takes place. Evidently the faith in the healing power of electricity had not diminished. Homer Clark Bennett’s guidebook was meant as a practical manual for ordinary doctors, so it was accessible and handsomely illustrated.

Bennett presents his information in a series of questions, such as those the country doctor might ask. Here’s an example.

What is a wall plate?

Many physicians want some apparatus for the practice of electro-therapeutics, which will be complete, well made and reliable, compact, ornamental and attractive, at the same time reasonable in price. The plate shown herewith contains the essentials. it is mounted in a handsome well-made oak, imitation rosewood, or white enamel case, to be attached to the wall, with glass front door and sides, and a drawer below for electrodes…” The battery cells can be kept in the next room or in a closet.

Bennett starts with some general advice. “Don’t try experiments on patients. Try them first on yourself and see how it goes.” “Use iodine preparations under negative pole in cataphoresis. Use cocaine and alkaloids under positive pole in anaphoresis.”

Decades before Bennett, doctors were even more optimistic about electricity’s potential value. As earlybennett_electro-therapy4 as 1858 doctors were recommending mild shocks to treat mental illness. The shocks they’re talking about are nothing like modern electro-convulsive therapy which is still used sometimes. The electrical stimulus used in ECT is about 800 mA and has up to several hundred watts and the current flows for between one and 6 seconds. Its side effects may include loss of memory, verbal disfluency, and memory impairment.

Back in the late nineteenth century, no one would attempt such a strong current. I’m not sure they could even produce it with any confidence. They were still debating the relative merits of static electricity, galvanic currents, faradic currents, and magnetism.

Alternated current body cage. The guy is lying on a wooden table with the current running through the cage around him, surrounding him with healing electricity.

Here’s a description of one of Dr. Wiglesworth’s cases (his real name, stop snickering): “No. 1, married; aged 23. Acute dementia of six months’ duration. Medium size plates used; kathode to forehead, anode to nape of neck. A [galvanic] current strength of 3 milli-amperes was used to begin with, and this was gradually increased to 25, the average being 15 milli-amperes for ten minutes. Usually there was a daily sitting… After 27 applications the patient became brighter, and in another three weeks had improved considerably…”

Voltage depends on resistance, but 25 mA is equivalent to 5-10 volts. According to instructables.com, that old-timey phone line running into your house has a direct current of around 50 volts. I once touched a phone line when I was sitting in my crawl space installing another phone jack. (Quite the handywoman, I am!) It shocked me enough to not want to do it again, but did me no harm whatsoever.

Your ultra-modern, multi-functional, electro-therapy delivery system.

That ten minutes of seven-volt current probably felt like a pleasant, light, buzzing massage. I’ll bet that woman felt better because Doc Wiglesworth was a cutie with a soothing voice and warm hands.


Bennett, Homer Clark. 1912. The Electro-Therapeutic Guide or A Thousand Questions Asked and Answered. Lima, OH: The National College of ElectroTherapeutics.

Beveridge, A.W. and E.B. Renvoize. 1988. “Electricity: A history of its use in the treatment of mental illness during the second half of the 19th century,” in British Journal of Psychiatry (1988), Vol. 153, pp 157-162.

Bacon's Essays: Of Dispatch

Dispatch is one of those delightful words whose meanings have clung close to their origin, in both theirpony-express nominal and verbal forms. It’s about sending things quickly, so we can dispatch a dispatch with dispatch. Bacon is talking about business: getting things done.

Be thou not hasty!

“Affected dispatch is one of the most dangerous things to business that can be.” He means that pretending to get things done quickly, merely for the sake of appearances, is a terrible idea. This must have happened a lot in Bacon’s day, because he spends a whole paragraph arguing against it.

“Therefore measure not dispatch, by the times of sitting, but by the advancement of the business.” This is the quote used in the OED definition of one of dispatch’s sub-meanings, “Prompt settlement or speedy accomplishment of an affair.” Prompt; not hasty.

cecil-court-of-wardsBacon served in Parliament most of the years of his life (from 1885 – 1607.) He must have served on a lot of committees with a lot of men whose efforts were aimed at something other than the task at hand. (Self-aggrandizement, pushing Puritan ideology, etc.) Many men must also have simply gotten bored with the increasing focus on detail resulting from a century of Tudor monarchs and their university-bred ministers.

But haste makes waste, of everyone’s time and effort. “And business so handled, at several sittings or meetings, goeth commonly backward and forward in an unsteady manner. I knew a wise man that had it for a byword, when he saw men hasten to a conclusion, Stay a little, that we may make an end the sooner.”

Those rooms are chilly, clammy, and stuffy, in my observation as a tourist, although ruffs are more comfortable than you might think.


Neither shalt thou dally

“On the other side, true dispatch is a rich thing. For time is the measure of business, as money is of wares…” An important thing to remember.

Philip II, by Titian

Here’s an example of the hazards of sluggishness: “The Spartans and Spaniards have been noted to be of small dispatch; Mi venga la muerte de Spagna; Let my death come from Spain; for then it will be sure to be long in coming.”

Spain had created a global empire in the sixteenth century. It took several months for a ship to travel to the Americas and back; nevertheless, all major decisions had to be made by King Philip personally. You can imagine what his to-do looked like! Decisions took forever.

This next whole paragraph is useful. “Give good hearing to those, that give the first information in business; and rather direct them in the beginning, than interrupt them in the continuance of their speeches; for he that is put out of his own order, will go forward and backward, and be more tedious, while he waits upon his memory, than he could have been, if he had gone on in his own course. But sometimes it is seen, that the moderator is more troublesome, than the actor.”

Anyone who has ever been in a meeting has seen this. The moderator (or bad teacher) keeps interrupting the poor speaker to hurry them along, succeeding only in getting them more muddled. I can feel a parody of this tickling at my memory, from some movie, a 40’s movie maybe…. Jimmy Stewart? Or one of those great character actors? Dick Van Dyke?

Avoid those long and curious speeches

running-ina-dress“Long and curious speeches, are as fit for dispatch, as a robe or mantle, with a long train, is for race.” Maybe a man couldn’t do it, but women could hike up their skirts and run with the best of them.

Bacon was also well-acquainted with the type we call the Gasbag. The Elizabethan word for self-display was ‘bravery.’ “Prefaces and passages, and excusations, and other speeches of reference to the person, are great wastes of time; and though they seem to proceed of modesty, they are bravery.”

This next analogy needs explanation; at least, I had to look up a word. “Yet beware of being too material, when there is any impediment or obstruction in men’s wills; for pre-occupation of mind ever requireth preface of speech; like a fomentation to make the unguent enter.”

You have to allow some amount of digression, especially to help set up the context. A fomentation is something warm, like a pad of flannel soaked in hot water, that helps the unguent be absorbed by the skin. Now that I understand it, I find the analogy a little creepy.

Make that list

Efficient time managers — people who get things done — make lists. Sorry, non-list-makers; it’s a fact of life. Bacon knew it. He probably made a list every morning, augmenting the weekly list he’d made on Monday morning. Did he check things off or strike them through? History doesn’t tell us, of that I am certain. History rarely tells us this sort of thing, so I am free to make it up in my stories.

“Above all things, order, and distribution, and singling out of parts, is the life of dispatch.”

On the other hand, “he that doth not divide, will never enter well into business; and he that divideth too much, will never come out of it clearly.” Be complete, but don’t split hairs!

“There be three parts of business; the preparation, the debate or examination, and the perfection.” The perfection means the conclusion. 

“Whereof, if you look for dispatch, let the middle only be the work of many, and the first and last thePhoenix_rising_from_its_ashes work of few.” I’ve read this notion somewhere else in his writings. Bacon strongly believed that important matters should be thoroughly discussed by everyone in such a way that everyone knows that everyone knows what everyone knows.

I agree. This is the part that many managers (dictators) want to rush through, impatient to get to the perfection. But consensus, at least of understanding, is important. And it’s crucially important to the ultimate success of the enterprise for everyone to know that they have been heard. Otherwise, they’re more likely to thwart progress than assist it.

He ends this essay atypically with a knotted construction, not the least bit quotable. “The proceeding upon somewhat [something] conceived in writing, doth for the most part facilitate dispatch: for though it should be wholly rejected, yet that negative is more pregnant of direction, than an indefinite; as ashes are more generative than dust.”

It’s a good idea to base your meeting on a written proposal. That will speed things up, because even though the proposal may be rejected, you’ll at least know exactly what it was. You’ll at least get a clear sense of what is not wanted.

I got nothing about ashes being more generative than dust, except that the phoenix arises from its own ashes. Bacon might have been thinking about this. His mind tended to leap first to the classical for analogies, like most well-educated Elizabethans.


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