Finding a Boyd’s Battery: An “Electrifying” Ferry Farm Story

“THE BLOOD IS THE LIFE!” ACCOMPLISHED AT LAST! THE EFFICACY OF ELECTRICITY!! Nearly all Diseases Effectually Cured by BOYD’S MINIATURE GALVANIC BATTERY!

This is the opening pitch of an 1879 advertising circular for a popular medical medallion called a Boyd’s Battery.  The battery was a disc, about 1¼ inch in diameter, meant to hang from one’s neck on a cord and that used the “soft and gentle” galvanic action of electricity to purportedly cure a host of diseases.

The medallion consisted of a flower-shaped central disc of copper and brass, surrounded by twelve smaller discs of various metals, all encased within another metallic band. These adjoining metals, using the humidity of the wearer’s skin, would supposedly produce a gentle electrical charge that was transferred to the wearer’s bloodstream. “By electrifying the blood, it stimulates the entire system, so that it enables nature to throw off nearly all diseases, and causes the blood to become youthful and vigorous in its action,” the advertisement claimed.

Boyd's Batteries

A complete Boyd’s Battery (left) next to a portion of one (right) excavated at George Washington’s Ferry Farm.

Boyd's Battery Reverse

Reverse of a Boyd’s Battery showing it’s patent date as Jan. 17, 1878.

Part of a Boyd’s Battery was excavated in 2006 at George Washington’s Ferry Farm during the summer excavations around the site of the 18th century era Washington home.  The only surviving part of the battery found was the rosette-shaped innermost disc, stamped with “BOYD’S BATTERY.” Jane and John Corson, who bought the property in 1872, owned Ferry Farm during the late 19th century during the height of popularity for Boyd’s Batteries. John Corson’s death notice in the April 1, 1887 Fredericksburg Free Lance mentioned that he suffered a shock of paralysis a couple of years before his death from a stroke.[1] We’ll never know for sure but perhaps Mr. Corson was trying to relieve or cure his symptoms of paralysis by wearing a Boyd’s Battery?

“Professor” James C. Boyd, a man of dubious legitimacy in the real academic world, patented Boyd’s Batteries in 1878. Each medallion cost just 50 cents and results were guaranteed or your money back. The instructions specified a battery should be worn day and night directly on the skin, though it was recommended that children under six should wear a battery only at night. In certain extreme cases, two batteries could be worn at the same time, one on the chest and the other between the shoulder blades.  The batteries lasted a lifetime but the ad circular cautioned that “under no circumstances should the same Battery be used by two different persons, as the disease from one would be conveyed to the other.”

The list of diseases and conditions that allegedly could be cured by wearing this medallion was impressive and wide-ranging.  Patients suffering from the following conditions were encouraged to wear it: paralysis, restless nights, gout, sciatica, fainting spells, disordered conditions of the liver, blood and kidneys, loss of confidence, loss of manhood, female complaints, asthma, deafness, ulcers and tumors, chills, vertigo, and the list goes on.  Boyd did add a disclaimer to his product that also listed diseases or conditions the battery could not cure, such as yellow fever, cholera, congestion of the brain, gleet, influenza, worms, whooping cough and consumption.

Advertising circulars and testimonial books extolled the merits of the product. One book, titled “Boyd’s Battery” listed numerous testimonials from satisfied patients that were meant to sway unconvinced customers.  Boyd also used the circulars in his search for agents to sell his products.  Boyd’s Batteries were sold to the public either door to door, by mail order, or through businesses such as druggists.

Electricity has a long history of being used for the treatment of pain and disease.  Roman, Greek, and Egyptian doctors treated patients with arthritis, epilepsy, and migraines by touching or attaching electric eels or fish to the affected areas.  In one case a live torpedo fish, also known as a “narce”, was placed on the head of a patient suffering from migraines and left there until the area was numb.

The use of electricity as a therapeutic procedure gained momentum during the late 18th century after scientist Luigi Galvani observed twitches in the legs of dead frogs when they were touched by an electrical current. Further electrical experimentation by fellow scientists followed and by the early 19th century a small number of hospitals had organized their own electrical therapy departments.

By the 1870s, there were numerous self-help products sold to the general public touting the healing effects of electricity and Boyd’s Battery was not the only medical medallion to capitalize on this trend.  There were a number of direct battery knock offs produced under the names of Sagendorph, Elias, Richardson, Flanigan, and Downing, differing only in their battery design.

J.C. Boyd went into the battery business in 1878 with his partner, Ellis H. Elias. Boyd supplied the startup money and Elias ran the daily business.  Interestingly, Elias, and his brothers William, Henry, and Richard, were well-known con men of the time, running a number of different scams and swindles in New York City and Cincinnati during the 1870s and 1880s.  They were constantly being hounded by the authorities who were trying to shut down their many illegal schemes. Even Ellis Elias’ death notice in the New York Times [PDF] noted “his connection with various enterprises of a doubtful character” and referred to him as “the chief of the gang of sawdust swindlers.”

Boyd’s Batteries clearly fell into the category of a “scheme or swindle.” In fact, there was some question as to exactly who was the original inventor of “Boyd’s” Battery.  In a case before the New York Supreme Court, Boyd testified that he wasn’t sure who invented the battery but that it wasn’t him.  In fact, Richard Elias testified that his brother Ellis initially used George Sagendorph’s name in the battery business before using Boyd’s name in 1878. The circulars for the Sagendorph and Boyd Batteries were practically identical and it was a common practice at that time to simply slap a new name onto a previous business and continue on with the swindle.[2] Even though journalists at the time exposed such schemes as frauds, they were still surprised that “people will believe that the wearing of the thing does them good.”[3]

People today are still looking for self-help treatments that don’t involve doctors or medically-approved medicines and treatments and there are a multitude of dubious products out there right now to fill this need.  Surprisingly, even George Washington placed his trust in a similar product of his time called Perkins Metallic Tractors.

Perkins Metallic Tractors

Perkins Metallic Tractors, c. 1800. Credit: Hugh Talman / National Museum of American History

The Tractors were patented by Elisha Perkins in 1797 and consisted of two metal pins, one brass and one steel, that when rubbed together over an affected area would supposedly cure rheumatism, gout, burns, boils, cramps, and even cancer. Even though the efficacy of this product was promptly debunked by scientists, Perkin’s Metallic Tractors like the later Boyd’s Battery continued to be a popular product.

Judy Jobrack, Archaeologist
Assistant Archaeology Lab Supervisor

[1] Fredericksburg Free Lance, April 1, 1887, page 3. Death notice of Mr. John D. Corson.

[2] John C. Boyd vs. Richard H. Elias and Jennie C. Elias. 329. Supreme Court of New York. 1882. https://books.google.com/books?id=87qtRL2WrTAC

[3] American Agriculturalist, Volume 39, page 133. 1880.  Google Books. Retrieved 4/3/2018.  https://books.google.com/books?id=RRhOAAAAYAAJ

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