Edinburgh has always been a city of innovators, adventurers and free-thinkers. Men like Adam Smith, David Hume, Dugald Stewart and James Hutton (to name but a few) have embraced the city and in turn been accepted as its sons. One man who has no statue or memorial here, but surely deserves a similar honour, is Dr. James Graham.
James Graham was born in the Grassmarket in June 1745, the son of a Fife saddler and an English lady. He studied medicine at the university but seems to have quit before finally qualifying. This minor setback did not stop him from calling himself ‘Doctor’ Graham.
Sometime before 1770 he moved to Yorkshire, married and then set off for America. For a while he had a practice in Philadelphia, where he learned about the electrical experiments of Benjamin Franklin and from these became convinced that electricity was the new panacea. Extolling the virtues of these discoveries he wrote, “Electricity invigorates the whole body and remedies all physical defects.”
In 1775, as the American War of Independence ignited the former colonies, Graham returned to England where he continued to practice medicine with the emphasis on ‘Effluvia, vapours and applications aetherial, magnetic or electric’. Among his patients was Catherine Macaulay, famed as an intellectual in a period when women were more usually famous for who they were sleeping with. Whatever the nature of her illness, James Graham must have tackled it with some success, for in 1778, at the age of 47, she scandalised Georgian society by marrying James’ brother, William, who had just turned 21!
In 1780 James arrived in London and swiftly opened his ‘Temple of Health’, an opulent and lavishly furnished set of rooms in the newly completed and ultra-fashionable Adelphi. Entrance cost a crown, and clients were entertained with music from hidden musicians, perfume wafting through the air and the attentions of the ‘Goddesses of Health’ – Graham’s young female assistants, dressed in diaphanous classical costumes. They would listen to lectures, try out the ‘medico-electrical apparatus’ and purchase Dr Graham’s patent medicines.
A year later, in 1781, he opened his next venture, ‘The Temple of Hymen’, in Pall Mall, a clinic devoted to the needs of couples having difficulties in conceiving. The highlight of this new establishment was the Celestial Bed.
Graham had been working on this for some years, and the finished product was worth the time he had devoted to it. The frame of the bed was decorated with gilded dragons, glass columns and ‘erotic illustrations’. Above, there was a canopy, within which were dispensers of exotic perfumes (mixed with an invigorating dash of ether), and a large mirror. The mattress of the bed was filled with the hair of stallions and “sweet new wheat or oat straw, mingled with balm, rose leaves, and lavender flowers”. It could also be tilted, so that couples could find the most advantageous positions. An electrical current was run through copper coils in the headboard, to fill the air with ‘magnetic fluid’ that encouraged “the necessary degree of strength and exertion to the nerves”. The bed would also create music via a set of organ pipes, triggered by the couple’s movements. All this was yours for just £50 a night. For comparison, the average workingman’s wage at the time was 8/- (40p) a week.
For two guineas, you could hear Dr Graham give his astonishingly frank lectures on sex and procreation, (a matter he regarded as a patriotic duty), as well as the evils of prostitution and masturbation. He would end the lectures with a free electric shock. There were brass connectors concealed in the padding of each seat.
Despite a client list that included some of the wealthiest and most noble families in the land (the Prince of Wales had a go on the Celestial Bed) Graham was not universally popular. His fame inevitably brought him enemies. A London newspaper of the day, the Morning Herald, denounced him as a quack and launched a campaign against him. In 1783 he sold his goods, closed the Temple of Hymen and returned to Edinburgh.
Back home, Graham once again started lecturing, giving his fellow citizens those candid views on matters sexual. The Edinburgh magistrates it seems were not quite so sanguine as their contemporaries in London. They deemed such things to be improper for public discussion and banned him from speaking. The doctor then published ‘An appeal to the Public’, in which he attacked the magistrates for silencing him. They countered with a complaint against Graham and took him to court. Bearing in mind that his accusers were also his judges the outcome was inevitable – he was fined £20 and imprisoned until the debt was paid.
Following his release, he undertook a final series of lectures. Presumably these were sufficiently ‘watered down’ so as not to upset the Bailies. One surviving advertisement cautions ladies to get to the hall early, in order that they may get a seat.
He also continued to treat patients with his electrical equipment and sell copies of his book, The Guardian of Health, Happiness and Long Life but his popularity was waning as his behaviour became increasingly eccentric. He would wear no woollen clothes but dressed almost entirely in white linen. As he walked through the streets, he would take off his clothes and give them to the poor. A noble gesture perhaps but also one that got him arrested again.
He took to sleeping naked, with no blankets or cover and all the windows open, saying that excess heat was to blame for most illness. He sought permission to build a house atop Arthur’s Seat, in order that he might get the full benefit of an Edinburgh winter. He took up ‘earth-bathing’, essentially being buried in soil up to the neck, claiming that by this means the body could absorb all the nutrients needed for life.
Finally he decided that he was a messenger from God and founded the New Jerusalem Church in Lochend Close. After this, he would sign letters, ‘Servant of The Lord, OWL’ (which stood for Oh Wonderful Love). He would remain the only member of this church.
By 1794, he was not only earth bathing but had had taken to wearing clothes made from cut turves and fasting for long periods. The magistrates decided that once again he should be confined, but this time for his own good and in the gentler surroundings of his own home on Buccleuch Street, opposite Archer’s Hall. It was there that he died, quite suddenly, at the age of 49. He is buried in Greyfriars Kirkyard.
From the distance of two and a quarter centuries, it is easy to dismiss James Graham as a quack, a trickster and a charlatan, but that would be unfair. Contemporaries spoke of him as being warm, friendly and generous. His patients recorded him as attentive and caring. There is no reason to suppose that he thought his treatments were doing anything but good, despite their bizarre aspects.
His life contained a bold mix of drugs, drama, money, sex, religion, royalty, science and scandal. Not bad for a lad from the Grassmarket. Thinking of which, wouldn’t that be the perfect spot for a memorial to the creator of the Celestial Bed?