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

The Surveyor’s Shed at Ferry Farm

Surveyor's Shed in Spring

The “Surveyor’s Shed” at George Washington’s Ferry Farm.

It isn’t known when the myths about the small white building called the Surveyor’s Shed at George Washington’s Ferry Farm began, or why it was believed by so many that the structure existed during George Washington’s childhood. It was long-held myth was that Augustine Washington taught his son, George, how to survey in this building but, in truth, the structure was built after the Civil War. As with many historic structures, the years have not been kind to the little frame building. Repairs and renovations over the years have periodically exposed its architectural secrets, revealing the true story of Ferry Farm’s oldest standing building. The collection of myths about this structure, referred to as the “Surveyor’s Shed” or “Surveyor’s Office” are of equal importance to its documented architectural history. Valuable oral histories from the people who once lived, worked, or visited at Ferry Farm include their own interpretations of the land on which George Washington spent his boyhood. Collected by Ferry Farm staff, these oral histories offer insights into the myth of the Surveyor’s Shed and give us clues as to why the story has remained so entrenched, regardless of the fact that the structure was built a century after George’s mother, Mary, left the property.

The Myth

For decades, the Surveyor’s Shed was believed to be and indeed was introduced to visitors as George Washington’s first surveying office, where his father, Augustine, taught George how to survey. Having purchased the property years earlier, James B. Colbert built a large Victorian-style farm house at Ferry Farm in 1914. This farmhouse changed hands multiple times and was occupied for most of its existence. The house burned down on the morning of September 26, 1994.

James B. Colbert

James B. Colbert

It is believed that Mr. Colbert began the Surveyor’s Office myth, since the building was not referred to by that name before Colbert owned the property. In Where the Cherry Tree Grew, Philip Levy, describes the relationship between J.B. Colbert and the Ferry Farm myths:

“Was it Colbert’s idea to serve up these stories in aid of his own ends, or were visitors bringing their beloved Washington tales with them? There is no way to know for sure,  but J.B. was orchestrating these stories- adding to them, accommodating them, making the most he could of them, and seeking ways to profit from them. He may not have set this Ferry Farm Weemsian renaissance in motion, but he certainly kept it rolling along and was its principal beneficiary.”[1]

In an oral history interview, Charles Linton, a later resident of the home, remembered that Belle Colbert — J.B.’s daughter — came to pay her respects once a year at the Surveyor’s Office.

The Linton family continued to share Ferry Farm’s most famous myths with visitors to the property during the 1940 and 50s. While the Linton’s lived at Ferry Farm, tourists were welcomed. Charles Linton recalled two or three guests showed up unexpectedly in a single day. The family kept a guestbook inside the Surveyor’s Office and greeted anyone who showed up to visit. When guests arrived, they were offered a tour that included the Surveyor’s Office and a cherry tree stump purported to be descended from the tree George cut down with his little hatchet. This stump was revered by visitors and treated as a shrine.  The Lintons never questioned the authenticity of the shrines.

Boy with Cherry Tree Shrine

A young boy stands proudly by the cherry tree stump. The rear of the Surveyor’s Shed is visible in the background.

Additionally, a trunk of a cherry tree was housed inside the Surveyor’s Office, and the Linton children cut off pieces of its bark to sell as souvenirs. Charles Linton remembered in his interview, that when one trunk was used up, he and his brother, Tayloe, crossed Kings Highway to cut down another cherry tree and sell parts of that trunk, as pieces were in such high demand.

Paul Millikan moved into the Colbert house with his wife and children in 1962. He recalled during an oral history interview that upon moving in, most of the downstairs of the home was used as a museum and the upstairs was the family’s living area. He also noted that the Surveyor’s Office had surveying equipment on display, although the equipment was not of the Washington’s era. Like the Lintons, Millikan did not immediately question the authenticity of the Surveyor’s Office at first. Over time, he began to question the possibility that the building was not of Washington’s time, but remained inspired by those who revered this land and its shrines as authentic Washington era relics.

The Truth

The Surveyor’s Shed was officially listed as “George Washington’s First Surveying Office” in the Historic American Building Survey of 1935 but this listing was accompanied by a note stating that the claim was not supported with written proof.  In 1972, the Surveyor’s Shed was added to the National Register of Historic Places. Its nomination form (PDF) described the building as a 13’ x 12’ frame house sitting on loose stones, 20 feet to the south of where “George’s mother’s house stood”.  While the structure was referred to as “George Washington’s surveying shed” on the NHRP application, this document clearly stated the building was not of colonial origin.

In reality, the construction of the shed likely began when the Carson family owned Ferry Farm in the late 19th century; a full 100 years after Mary Washington left the property.  To build the structure, the Carsons used materials from other structures owned by the family on the property. Machine-cut lath in the original plaster walls and ceiling, the cut nails holding the structure together, and the platform framing are all evidence the building was constructed after 1870. The onslaught of the Civil War and the occupation of Ferry Farm by Union soldiers would have almost definitely caused major damage, if not complete destruction, of a small building like the shed if it had been standing pre-war. The war’s destruction was immense as evidenced by letters and photographs of Ferry Farm from the Civil War show a land denuded of trees or wood of any kind. Soldiers used every scrap of wood they could find to fuel fires for cooking keeping warm.

Surveyor's Shed in Winter

The Surveyor’s Shed in winter.

Nevertheless, the Surveyor’s Office was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1972, and was again carefully recorded and repaired by historic preservationists after suffering damages from weathering, aging, and even wildlife.  Ferry Farm’s oldest building, while not from George Washington’s times, is still an important part of George’s boyhood home, and is considered an important American shrine by Fredericksburg locals. The myth of the structure being from the Washington era has been dispelled, but the little building is close to its sesquicentennial year as a symbol of the importance of the property it sits on. The myth behind the Surveyor’s Shed has become valuable in its own right, similar to the Cherry Tree Story. Both myths have affected the way we look at George Washington’s formative years. Had it not been for this little white building, and J.B. Colbert propagating these myths as facts, the narrative of the Surveyor’s Shed might not be as well-known, and Ferry Farm itself might not have been saved and protected as it is today.

Elyse Adams, Archaeologist
Artifact Cataloger & Field Monitoring Technician

[1] Levy, Philip. Where the Cherry Tree Grew: The Story of Ferry Farm, George Washington’s Boyhood Home. New York, St. Martin’s Press. 2013: 148.

 

“I wonder if this was mine?”: Robert Bailey’s Ferry Farm

We have a unique situation here at the Ferry Farm Archaeology Lab.  One of our volunteers, who has spent hundreds of hours washing, sorting and labeling excavated artifacts, is oddly enough, also partially responsible for creating some of those artifacts in the first place!

Robert Bailey 1

Robert Bailey

Robert Bailey, his father Ray, mother Peggy and older brother Ray Jr., lived here at Ferry Farm from the late spring of 1957 until August of 1959.  His parents rented what was referred to as the “Colbert house,” a large three-story home built in 1914 by James Colbert, a farmer and businessman.

Colbert House 1

Colbert House

Robert was only five years old when he moved to Ferry Farm.  He vividly remembers playing in the many barns, running through the fields and woods that surrounded the farmhouse, and swimming in the stream that runs alongside the historic Ferry Road on hot summer days. He and his brother also showed visitors stopping to see George Washington’s boyhood home around the property and invited them to sign the guest book located inside the small late 19th century building called the Surveyor’s Shed.

Young Robert

Robert as a child (foreground left in the rocker) in the Colbert House back yard.

He also remembers playing with lots of toys typical of the time, most notably glass marbles, plastic army men, toy cars and trucks, and especially a new toy called Play Doh, a wallpaper cleaner compound that had just been reinvented as a moldable clay product for children.

DSC_0071

Collection of 20th century items excavated at Ferry Farm. Clockwise from left: portion of a Playdoh canister lid, marbles including a large green shooter, green plastic army man, red plastic Indian, blue plastic Civil War soldier, four .22 caliber shelling casings.

Over 800 toy-related artifacts have been excavated and catalogued in our artifact database.  As a collection, these toys span all time periods, from colonial clay marbles, to Civil War-era dice, to a Cold War-era Sputnik ring, and most recently, Dora the Explorer sunglasses! We have also catalogued fragments of bicycle parts, dominoes, board game pieces, dolls, plastic figurines, toy guns and planes, toy cars and trucks, and dishes and tea sets.

Of course, Robert and his brother were not the only children who lived on or visited this site. Other children lived in the Colbert house before and after the Baileys resided there, and hundreds have visited the site on field trips and for special events, such as our annual Fourth of July celebration.

Robert cannot say with any certainty that any of the marbles he has washed in the lab once belonged to him, but the conversations that those marbles start are an important part of the oral and archaeological history of the site.  Robert Bailey has participated in the Foundation’s oral history program with a detailed accounting of his memories of the house and grounds.  Because he experienced living at Ferry Farm, he can tell us about not only the events and activities his family took part in, but also of the perceptions that visitors to the farm had about the importance of this site as Washington’s boyhood home.

Another vivid childhood memory that often comes to Robert’s mind is of his mother shooting at the black snakes that appeared in and around the house and yard.  According to Robert, one day a snake came out of a hole in an old gnarled tree located near the Surveyor’s Shed.  His mother dutifully brought out her rifle and proceeded to, as Robert says, “blast away” at the snake. Despite the countless number of bullets expended, she missed and the snake eventually slithered back into its hole.

Colbert House 3

Surveyor’s Shed in the foreground left with Colbert House in the background right.

While washing artifacts in the wet lab, Robert has come across a lot of .22 shell casings.  Just this past week he washed seven.  Each time one appears in an artifact bag, Robert chuckles and says “this shell casing might be one that my mom shot at the snake in the tree – and missed!”

Robert Bailey 2

Robert looks over some of the 20th century items excavated at Ferry Farm that, who knows, might have belonged to him in his youth.

Sixty years have passed since the Bailey family first came to live at Ferry Farm, but the past certainly comes full circle and is alive again when Robert empties another artifact bag onto the tray and begins to sort its contents.  His connection with our archaeological site provides staff with many opportunities to record and analyze more about Ferry Farm in the 20th century. Robert’s deep commitment to helping preserve George Washington’s boyhood history, combined with his own unique insights, creates a new understanding about Ferry Farm for Robert too.

Robert’s history lies mostly in the topmost soil layers of the site as not enough time has passed to deeply bury his things. Although Robert’s lost marbles and plastic army men are mixed in with excavated toys dropped by other boys and girls, it’s fun to hear him say “I wonder if this was mine?”

Judy Jobrack, Archaeologist
Assistant Lab Supervisor