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.

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