A Sight for Sore Eyes: The Strange Tale of Mr. Williams the Oculist and His Kingston Connection

mr. williams occulist Kingston choronicals

“Mr. Williams the celebrated English Oculist,”  – Chronicle and Gazette (Kingston On), October 20, 1841

It was October 20th, 1841, and the town of Kingston, Ontario, was bustling. Big changes were afoot— Kingston’s police force had just been introduced and was seeking out constables, the well-known Lord Sydenham had died  the previous month, Kingston had recently become the first capital of the United Province of Canada, and just a few days earlier, Queen’s University had been chartered. Amid all these important events, one may not have noticed this small, inconspicuous advertisement in the Kingston newspaper Chronicle & Gazette heralding the arrival of one Mr. Williams.[1]

But who was this English Oculist, and why was he apparently so celebrated? Who was this man that his arrival warranted notices in October 23rd’s newspaper from mayors John Counter of Kingston and Peter McGill of Montréal?[2] A little bit of historical inquiry reveals a man who had myriad run-ins with important people, and a notorious past of cross-continental quackery.

Not-So-Humble Beginnings

It appears that Mr. Williams was indeed English, as his oldest known claim to ocular fame occurred in London in 1808. This claim was made by Kingston’s own George Webster, a tailor living on Grave Street (today Queen Street).[3] Webster wrote in a letter to the Editor of the British Whig that after treatment from Williams, “in the course of seven weeks [he] could see to read and work”, and that he saw “hundreds if not thousands of blind people cured, or greatly benefitted by Dr. W.”[4] Whether or not this statement was true, it was certainly more credible coming from a first-hand account of a member of the public.

Indeed, Mr. Williams took great care throughout his career to make very few outlandish claims himself, instead having others share their testimonials and use language that he could not. For instance, Williams always humbly called himself “Mr. Williams,” but never stopped anyone else, like George Webster, from calling him “Doctor.”[5] A letter from Mr. Williams himself appears just down the newspaper column from Webster’s letter, in which he defies a man who had stood against him to “prove, during [his] successful practice of between 40 and 50 years” that he had ever “called [himself] the celebrated Oculist.”[6]

oculist treating
An ocultist treating a man’s eyes (Picture Courtesy of the Wellcome Collection)

However, Mr. Williams has not always demonstrated such humility. In March of 1817, in The Repository of Arts, Literature, Fashions, Manufactures, &c., an advertisement for his services and remedies began

“Mr. Williams, Oculist, Proprietor and Director of the Royal General Dispensary, […] Honorary Oculist to H.M.C. Majesty Louis XVIII; Member of the College of Physicians of Paris, Marseilles, Cambray, Thoulouse, Chalons, Clermont, and of many other learned Societies, most respectfully informs the Inhabitants of Europe, Asia, Africa, and America, […] that he has commenced, and will continue the sale of his invaluable remedy, (the efficacy of which is well known and established in every quarter of the globe […])”.[7]

To make his claims even more suspect, all of this was written shortly after the French government had ordered his arrest in September of 1816.[8] It is unknown whether or not he was actually arrested, but in the French newspaper Journal de Débats of November 1816, a notice states that he was “called upon to visit another Kingdom.”[9] More than a decade later, having remained in Europe and returned to France, despite his “call” to another Kingdom, Williams was condemned again and fined in 1833 by the tribunal of police of Rouen, France, for “selling his nostrums in that town,”[10] Finally, in 1836, Mr. Williams crossed the Atlantic, leaving behind his troubles in Europe for the land of opportunity: America.

London times of mr williams
Part of The London Times report on the arrest of Mr. Williams in France in 1816

Mr. Williams Goes to Washington

“Next he took himself and his remedies to Washington, where, knowing the prevalence of blindness among the high in office, he anticipated a capital harvest. Here he was doomed to new disappointments […] He was duly arraigned to appear in open court […]”.[11]

If Mr. Williams had been expecting a warm welcome in the United States of America, he would have been sorely disappointed. Though there were still those in America who seemed to support him— publishing the same kind of  glowing testimonials he had received in Europe— there were many who opposed him, publishing scathing jokes and satires instead of supportive reviews.[12] Even Edgar Allan Poe, the famous American author, called Williams “a belied man” (meaning disguised or contradictory) in his story “The Man that Was Used Up,” and wrote the following joke in Alexander’s Weekly Messenger in 1839:

“Why is Dr. Williams’ cash, the oculist, like a divorced wife’s pension? Because it’s all eye-money. — alimony.”[13]

edgar allan poe
Daguerreotype of Edgar Allan Poe in 1848 (Photo Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Shortly after his arrival in the United States in 1836, Mr. Williams was indeed called to appear in court for practicing the medical and chirurgical (surgical) arts, and for receiving payment for his services without a license from the county and the District of Colombia. He received fifty dollars apiece from four men: John Mitchell, Joseph S. Wilson, Samuel Carr, and Samuel Peach.[14] In addition, he was accused of impersonating the famous English oculist John Williams and pretending to be someone skilled in the cure of the eyes, thereby defrauding citizens of their money.[15] The notoriety of the lawyers who worked on both sides of the Williams case almost substantiated the oculist’s claims to have hobnobbed with kings and gentry. The attorney for the prosecution was none other than Francis Scott Key, author of the American national anthem, and Mr. Williams’ lawyer was James Hoban Jr., son and spitting image of the White House architect James Hoban.[16]

James Hoban speach of william trial
Title page of James Hoban’s published final speech of Williams’ trial. 

 

More than just the son of a distinguished architect, James Hoban must have been a lawyer worth his salt, for the trial of the United States v. Williams ended in an acquittal, and Hoban’s final speech to the jury was published.[17] Hoban accused the prosecution of persecuting Williams and using ridicule and sarcasm in their arguments against him, saying that Williams had “nothing to sustain him but the justice of his cause.”[18] Hoban claimed that Williams’ “antipathy to doctors” was simply the result of the “acrimony and venom [with which] the profession have pursued his every footstep, from the moment that he first touched the soil of [the United States].”[19]

The jury, and the bar, were impressed by this speech and Williams was set free. He was not, however, free from the ridicule of the public. In July 1837, a few months after the trial, The American Monthly Magazine published a section called “Notorious Characters and Characters of Note,” and the first of the characters featured was none other than John Williams, “Occult Oculist.”[20] It was a sarcastic, biting biography filled with eye related puns and insults, and a caricatured illustration of Mr. Williams. The section ended with this short report of Williams’ trial and subsequent acquittal:

Caricature of John williams
Caricature of John Williams (Notorious Characters)

 “What a spectacle! Think of him who cured all eyes, turned himself into a spectacle! Behold the oculist of majesties a prisoner at a democratic bar! […] the judge had delivered his charge, and the jury had retired! Awful moment of suspense! What must have been the emotions of the illustrious individual thus ignominiously arraigned for conferring benefactions on the human race in general and the citizens of Washington in particular. […] Fortunately for the accused, [the jury was] starved into a verdict of ‘not guilty,’ which was rendered to the surprise of no one so much as the Doctor himself.”[21]

The Secret Remedy

“Upon the trial, Mr. Key, for the United States, asked Peach, the witness, to produce the two phials of wash or eye-water which the defendant had prescribed for the eyes of his daughter. But the witness objected that he had made a solemn promise to the defendant not to suffer the wash to be examined.”[22]

Samuel Peach’s solemn promise, which the court did not require him to break, prevents us from knowing the exact contents of the “eye-wash” with which Mr. Williams treated his patients. However, a short report published in The Edinburgh Medical and Surgical Journal in 1822 asserted that “the itinerant oculist, Mr. Williams, uses the belladonna indiscriminately.”[23] Despite being poisonous, belladonna has long been used to treat a vast array of ailments, from eye diseases (particularly cataracts) to asthma, pain, and inflammation.[24] In an 1849 article in the London Journal of Medicine, W. White Cooper, Esq., F.R.C.S. wrote that some patients with cataracts were able to forego an operation if the dilatation of the pupils with belladonna allowed them to see past the cataracts, as the effect of belladonna did not decrease with constant use, even over the course of many years.[25]

What Happened Next?

So what does all this mean for Mr. Williams, and where did he go after leaving Kingston? It appears that there may be some validity to his claimed ability to cure the blind— at the very least, he was probably able to help some patients with cataracts, but most likely unable to successfully treat those who were blind due to other causes.

Homepathy tincture
Homeopathic Tincture of Belladonna, c. 1860-1890 (Museum of Health Care at Kingston, Acc. No. 01622012)

According to the Chronicle and Gazette, Williams remained in Kingston until at least November 13th, 1841.[26] After that, he reportedly continued into Western Canada until his reputation caught up with him, and in 1842 he returned to the United States.[27] Subsequently, there appears to be no further record of Mr. Williams’ whereabouts. He could have been arrested again, or in hiding. Or, perhaps more likely, he may have died, being nearly seventy-one years old in 1842.[28] Whatever happened to him after he left Kingston, Mr. Williams’ nearly forty year career in quackery remains an intriguing episode in history over 150 years later.

According to the Canadian National Institute for the Blind, it is estimated that today 500,000 Canadians are blind or partially sighted, and the leading cause is cataracts, affecting 3,541,000 of those people. Surgery is usually recommended and is proven effective— a far cry from Mr. Williams’ mixtures.[29]

Timeline of Mr. Williams’ Known Whereabouts

timeline of mr williams


About the Author: Shaelyn Ryan

Shaelyn

Shaelyn Ryan is an undergraduate student in the department of History at Queen’s University, starting her third year this fall. She is a summer student at the Museum of Healthcare at Kingston from 2018 -2019 and works at the museum during the year too through a Work Study Program. This summer, Shaelyn helped catalogue and research the museum’s collection of artefacts as a Collections Technician.


Citations

[1] “Mr. Williams the celebrated English Oculist,” Chronicle and Gazette (Kingston, ON), October 20, 1841.

[2] John Counter. Public, letter to the editor, Chronicle and Gazette, (Kingston, ON), October 20, 1841; Peter McGill. Public, letter to the editor, Chronicle and Gazette, (Kingston, ON), October 20, 1841.

[3] George Webster. Public, letter to the editor, Chronicle and Gazette, (Kingston, ON), November 13, 1841.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] “A Card”, The Repository of Arts, Literature, Fashions, Manufactures, &c, (London: R. Ackermann, March 1817).

[8] “It appears the French Government has had the ingratitude to order the arrest of WILLIAMS, the oculist,.” Times, 19 Sept. 1816, p. 3. The Times Digital Archive, http://tinyurl.galegroup.com/tinyurl/AHqNP1. Accessed 13 Aug. 2019.

[9] Translated from the “Journal de Débats,” French Paper, Dated 14th November, 1816, “Paris”, La Belle assemblée: or, Bell’s court and fashionable magazine, 36.

[10] “Quacks”, The Lancet London, Vol II, (1833): 87.

[11] “Notorious Characters and Characters of Note,” The American Monthly Magazine, July 1837, pg. 6.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Thomas Ollive Mabbott (E. A. Poe), “The Man that was Used Up,” The Collected Works of Edgar Allan Poe — Vol. II: Tales and Sketches (1978): 376-392. Clarence S. Brigham, “[Contributions for 1839],” Edgar Allan Poe’s Contributions to Alexander’s Weekly Messenger (1943): 12-19.

[14] William Cranch, “United States v. Williams,” in Reports of Cases Civil and Criminal in the United States Circuit Court of the District of Columbia, from 1801 to 1841, Volume 5, (Washington: William M. Morrison and Company, 1842): 64.

[15] Ibid., 66, 67.

[16]  J. Mark Powell, “Francis Scott Key’s life was a lot more complicated than just writing The Star-Spangled Banner,” Washington Examiner, September 13, 2017.; “Civic Contributions and Family,” The White House Historical Association, accessed August 24, 2019, https://www.whitehousehistory.org/construction-of-the-white-house/james-hoban-architect-of-the-white-house/civic-contributions-and-family.

[17] James Hoban, Speech of James Hoban, Esq., One of the Counsel of John Williams, Oculist, (Washington: 1837).

[18] Ibid., 3.

[19] Ibid., 4.

[20] “Notorious Characters and Characters of Note,” The American Monthly Magazine, July 1837.

[21] “Notorious Characters and Characters of Note,” The American Monthly Magazine, July 1837, pg. 7.

[22] William Cranch, “United States v. Williams,” in Reports of Cases Civil and Criminal in the United States Circuit Court of the District of Columbia, from 1801 to 1841, Volume 5, (Washington: William M. Morrison and Company, 1842): 63.

[23] Ninian Hill, M.D., “On the Use of Belladonna in Diseases of the Eyes,” The Edinburgh Medical and Surgical Journal 18, no. 72 (1822): 485.

[24] “Belladonna leaves, Accession Number 1969.235.1,” Museum of Health Care at Kingston, https://mhc.andornot.com/en/permalink/artifact5854; “Homeopathic Tincture of Belladonna, Accession Number 016022012,” Museum of Health Care at Kingston, https://mhc.andornot.com/en/permalink/artifact14619.

[25] W. White Cooper, “Congenital Cataract Mistaken for Myopia and Amblyopia,” London Journal of Medicine 1, no. 6 (1849): 509. http://www.jstor.org/stable/25493743.

[26] Chronicle and Gazette, (Kingston, ON), November 13, 1841.

[27] Eric Ross, Full of Hope and Promise: The Canadas in 1841, (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University press, 1991), 112.; “A Portrait,” Brother Jonathan, vol 3, (September-December 1842), Google Books.

[28] “A Portrait,” Brother Jonathan, vol 3, (September-December 1842), Google Books.

[29] “Blindness in Canada,” CNIB Foundation, accessed August 29th, 2019, https://cnib.ca/en/sight-loss-info/blindness/blindness-canada?region=on.; “Cataracts,” CNIB Foundation, accessed August 29th, 2019, https://cnib.ca/en/sight-loss-info/your-eyes/eye-diseases/cataracts?region=on.


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