blood in, blood out; or, when quackery goes wrong

Postbellum Bostonians suffering from consumption, scrofula, and respiratory ailments were importuned to visit the offices of C.L. Blood, M.D. There, they would be administered something Blood called “oxygenized air” and advertised, confusingly and redundantly, as “A CURE IN ANY CURABLE CURE.” Oxygenized air was merely laughing gas, which was neither a cure nor air, but was said by Dr. Blood to operate—in properly pseudoscientific onomastics—by “decomposing the impure matter in the blood and expelling it through the pores.”

It was Blood’s first foray into quackery. Things escalated.


Charles Lewis Blood was born near Boston in 1835, the son of an upper middle-class farmer/timber baron. C.L. maintained that both he and his father were doctors, although his father wasn’t and neither was he; contemporaneous newspaper accounts meticulously refer to him as “Dr.” C.L. Blood—quotes included. That is about all that is known of his life prior to hanging out his shingle in Boston around 1865. In fact, perhaps the most salient feature of Blood’s biography—secondary to and probably related to his long career in the defrauding arts—is his almost ghostlike presence in historical accounts, except in those cases where he screwed up enough to anger the local constabulary.

Oxygenized air was a financial, if not medical, success. Blood advertised extravagantly, sometimes taking out entire pages of ads in the local paper. Business boomed and Blood soon moved into an opulently appointed clinic where he saw a steady stream of patients—or perhaps some were paid shills meant to give the appearance of a bustling establishment; it’s hard to tell. In addition to his patient load, Blood also sold the rights to administer oxygenized air to other physicians. By all accounts, he was making a tidy profit, helped along by a $4500 capital investment from a man named Whitney Cummings, who, of course, never saw any of his money again and died a year later supposedly in poverty.

Then, in late 1866, a fellow physician named Jerome Harris fired a shot across Blood’s bow. In a bravura marketing gambit, Harris began offering the following treatment: superoxygenized air. This reminds me of a business plan I have: there’s a place near me called Lamps Ltd, and I intend to open a shop next door called Lamps Unlimited. QED. Blood’s talents as a quack-slash-grifter are called into question by his inability to foresee Harris’s maneuver, and it would seem that he took the affront personally.

Sometime in early 1867, Harris administered a superoxygenized air treatment to a man named Carvill. Carvill began to foam at the mouth and roll on the floor, apparently gripped in an epileptic fit for nearly an hour before recovering enough to be sent home by the doctor. Once there, Carvill called for the assistance of his primary physician: C.L. Blood. Blood ensured that local papers were afforded every grisly detail of Carvill’s supposed poisoning by the superoxygenized air, and his rapid and complete recovery at the hand’s of Blood’s treatments. Carvill, with a mysteriously large bankroll, sued Harris, who left town. Blood’s business then “continued in high feather.” The extortion scheme was presumably cooked up after the initial plan—offering “oxygenized air times infinity”—didn’t work, and it would not be Blood’s last foray into extralegal means of persuasion.

Blood then entered a mysterious decade-plus in which his various machinations are not entirely known. He definitely sold his medical practice in Boston for $3,000 (and was later sued by the purchaser as the tinctures and tonics were worthless). He definitely was seen being extradited from Boston (or to Boston from New York? Again, unclear) by US Marshals, apparently for charges related to selling patent medicines without the appropriate tax stamp, and although at least one report suggests he was held on $50,000 bail for this, he was apparently never convicted and vanished. He moved from city to city under an alias: “his reputation is not always credited to the name of Blood, but is distributed among a variety of names and over a large share of the prominent cities of the country.” Whatever he was doing, it was definitely unwholesome.

An interloper’s advertisement


In 1880, Blood self-published a book/cyclopedia called A Century of Life, Health, and Happiness; or A Gold Mine of Information. The title page lists it as “A FIVE DOLLAR BOOK FOR ONE DOLLAR” whereas the preface suggest it is “in every respect such a book as publishers usually place at three dollars,” which has to be some kind of a record for contradicting yourself but also tells me it was a great deal.

Apparently in the interim between the oxygenized air and the book, Blood had turned his attention from gas inhalation to homeopathy. Great chunks of the confusingly-organized book are devoted to slagging “allopathic” (i.e., standard) doctors for overmedicating, interspersed with exhortations to write or visit Blood’s clinic for treatment of the various diseases being discussed. And at the end: pudding recipes! Of particular importance was Hemorrhoids and Piles, which is the the name of three separate sections (they can be cured, with “no cutting, no ligature”).

Blood had evidently come to regard one particular habit as the worst of vices: the eating of undercooked meat. If there is a topic covered in more detail than hemorrhoids, it is the eating of rare meat, the health hazards of which are described in terms usually reserved for masturbation or other forms of sexual derangement. “A sickening disgust pervades my whole being…” Rare meat “furnishes a feast of carrion to the human vulture;” mankind has become “walking hearses for dead animals…the human buzzards and condors who eat rare flesh are more depraved in their appetites than the birds who subsist on carrion .. even the savage cannibal is more refined and civilized in his cravings for dead flesh than our modern epicure.”

Some other highlights:

  • In a section entitled “Reader, Wash your Feet,” he suggests deodorizing your tootsies so “they will not offend your friends when you pay your respects to them in a warm room.”
  • Deafness may be caused by “the incautious use of ear-picks”
  • “Mucous dyspepsia occurs in persons of sluggish temperament and slow animal sensations.”
  • In the section “Functional Nervous Derangements,” tea is said to cause “hypochondriacal despondency,” whereas coffee increases “glandular secretion.”
  • The section “Noises in The Bowels” says “…there is nothing more mortifying to a lady than the occurrence of these diabolical rumblings when, perhaps, she is entertaining her sweetheart…Suddenly, while the lady is in transports over the last opera, this intestinal concert begins.”
  • The book begins with a section titled “Death in Baking Powder” lamenting the “thousands dead” and rendered “mental wrecks” by “vile adulterations” of baking powder (buy his for assured purity).
  • This delight:


Sticks in my craw…

The good doctor employed a novel sales technique: he advertised that random buyers would be given prizes of up to $500, just for buying his book. That one got him arrested in 1883, but as per usual nothing came of it, except a newspaper referring to him as a “philanthropic swindler.” In the text of the book itself, he also suggested people purchase in bulk and sell it themselves—sort of a proto multi-level-marketing scam—and was shortly thereafter sued by a man who’d purchased $210 worth of books but never received them. This is just a minor blip in Blood’s exemplary history of receiving money for phantom goods and services.


Blood’s final run-in with the law was the gruesome murder of a Boston fruit vendor named Hiram Sawtelle in 1890. Sawtelle was shot, decapitated, partially mutilated, and buried in a shallow grave in the remote wilderness of New Hampshire (it’s a shame…my uncle went the same way). According to Hiram’s brother Isaac—who was eventually convicted of his murder but died before being executed—the murder was the result of an extortion/blackmail scheme gone wrong. While imprisoned for rape, Isaac befriended our good doctor, and described how his brother Hiram was holding family property that he wanted. Blood, according to Isaac, agreed to help him recover it.

The “recovery” plan involved kidnapping Hiram, taking him to some remote location, and working him over until he signed away the deed. Which apparently did not go as planned, given the aforementioned beheading. After the body was found, some New Hampshire innkeepers recalled Blood requesting lodging near the time of the murder. He was, they said, carrying two packages—one of which was just the right size for a severed head.

Isaac was arrested; Blood was never even questioned despite his name being bandied about in the papers, and being what we’d now call a “person of interest.” Of course Isaac’s story alternately did not involve Blood, only involved Blood in the planning, and blamed Blood for the entire thing, while also suggesting that Blood owed substantial monies to Hiram, so who knows what actually happened, although it seems hardly out of character for “Dr.” Blood.


Blood died in 1908. Perhaps his most successful con was not oxygenized air, but his seemingly preternatural ability to be infamous enough for newspapers to note his confidence games, quackery, use of aliases, fake medical degree, bunk peddling, extortionary practices, and potentially murder, but somehow able to fade into the cracks of history for years (decades) at a time. He’s like a cicada on a 7-year quackery/blackmail/murder cycle.

If you’d care to read more, contemporaneous newspaper reports can be found here, here, and here. Blood’s book, which is a fun read, can be found in its entirety here.


One thought on “blood in, blood out; or, when quackery goes wrong

  1. I mean, TECHNICALLY breathing laughing gas will cure what ails you because you won’t care about what ails you any more …

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