1851: Folk cure practitioner Zebulon Blakeslee

Sepia Saturday 462. Fifth in a series on the early life of my paternal great-great grandmother Mary Elizabeth (Blakeslee) Bull, a Union Civil War widow.

During the 1850s, in addition to farming, my great-great-great grandfather Zebulon Blakeslee — Mary Elizabeth (Blakeslee) Bull’s father  — had side jobs as a postmaster and possibly a tavern owner.

And in 1851 he advertised one more calling in the Binghamton, N.Y. newspaper: providing a cure for stuttering or stammering through appointments at his home.

When I first read his ad, I had to wonder — was Zebulon a charlatan taking advantage of people with speech difficulties or simply a well-meaning individual implementing a proven method he’d been taught?

https://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47de-c717-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99
A still from the film The Doctor’s Orders (1913). In 1851, my ggg grandfather Zebulon Blakeslee advertised a cure for stammering and stuttering through appointments in his Conklin Centre, N.Y., home. Was he a charlatan or a simply well-meaning practitioner implementing a proven method he’d been taught? Image: NYPL Digital Collections

The newspaper ad

In the Broome Republican newspaper ad below, dated 3 July 1851, Zebulon claimed to be able to cure stuttering and stammering in “40 to 60 minutes” through a system he purchased from S. Carleton Matthews — whose endorsement appeared on the ad. So what more could I learn about this?

Ad from the Broome Republican, Binghamton, N.Y. (July 1851). Zebulon advertised his folk cure practice, which carried an endorsement from S. Carleton Matthews. Image source: Old Fulton N.Y. Postcards

No miracle cures

I consulted the FAQs web page of The Stuttering Foundation to see if there might be any scientific basis for a “cure” in 1851 — particularly one that could take less than an hour. Not likely even today, according to the foundation.

There are no instant miracle cures for stuttering. Therapy, electronic devices,  and even drugs are not an overnight process. However, a specialist in stuttering can help not only children but also teenagers, young adults and even older adults make significant progress toward fluency.

However, an 1850 book On Stammering and Its Treatment describes a method developed by Dr. Arnott that was moderately successful at the time — and may have been the technique Zebulon used.

Dr. Arnott’s well-known remedy is to dilate the closure of the glottis by some little auxiliary expiratory sound, whenever an obstacle to free speech occurs, such a sound as is made by the e in the word “berry;”…[and] his remedy has been the means of curing many slight impediments, and of relieving many of a severer character.

A physician’s endorsement

Zebulon’s ad says, “No pay is required until utmost satisfaction is given” — certainly the statement of an honest man who, moreover, held a responsible position as postmaster of Conklin Centre.

And with only 2,232 people living in Town of Conklin in 1850, word would have gotten around pretty fast if Zebulon’s treatment technique fell short.

His ad carried an endorsement, too — and this got me wondering about S. Carleton Matthews and his credentials.

Who was S. Carleton Matthews?

During the 1850 U.S. Census1S. Carleton Matthews, 18, was living in Broome County’s Town of Chenango, not far from Conklin.

Listed as a physician, he lived in The Lewis House hotel with 40 others — including  a dentist, a printer, a railroad clerk and another physician. Turns out that’s not the only hotel he lived in.

Repeating ads in the Utica, Clinton and Syracuse, N.Y., papers circa 1850 show Matthews seeing patients in various hotels to implement his “cure” for stuttering and stammering . The ads look remarkably like Zebulon’s, including doctor endorsements — except Matthews’ “cure” took only 5 to 20 minutes.

Ad in the Oneida Morning Herald, a Utica, N.Y. newspaper (circa 1850). S. Carleton Matthews stayed in various upstate New York hotels circa 1850, where he saw patients seeking relief from stuttering and stammering. Image source: Old Fulton N.Y. Postcards

Best practices circa 1850

In the years before modern medicine, treatment modalities were limited — and scientific study as we know it today was still in the future.

So folk practitioners like my great-great-great grandfather Zebulon Blakeslee — and his mentor S. Carleton Matthews — may have been using the best practices of their era to help those they treated.

That neither man required payment unless treatment was successful seems to support the idea that they were legitimately trying to do their best for their patients — even if the techniques they used may not have been up to today’s standards.

Up next: Schoolgirl Mary Elizabeth (Blakeslee) Bull. Meanwhile, please visit the blogs of this week’s other Sepia Saturday participants here.

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4 thoughts on “1851: Folk cure practitioner Zebulon Blakeslee”

  1. Remedies for speech impediments are certainly needed for many people, usually starting at childhood if possible. But they aren’t often available. Speech therapy is now a valid profession. A century ago there were almost no people who worked with therapies of any kind. Physicians did not cure illnesses often either. It was a time before big pharmacology blared ads on TV that could “fix” so many issues. I’m glad to see that some people were helped by these techniques, even if there are many (better?) ones now, and certainly quick fixes were always to be disbelieved.

  2. That’s a fascinating side job for Zebulon. Mr. S. Carleton Matthews seems awfully young to be a physician. Perhaps this was a kind of chain system for a franchise medical mail order which might have appealed to a postmaster. I agree with La NG that singing may have been part of the therapy.

  3. I wonder if their treatments included music of some kind? It’s well known today that stuttering and stammering disappear when an affected person sings. Music has a lot to do with more fluid speaking which we have learned through our daughter’s recovery from traumatic brain injury. During a music lesson one day (she plays alto sax) her instructor mentioned that her halting speech became more fluid after she’d been playing for a while. So the next time she began speaking in a halting manner I asked her to stop and hum for a minute – a familiar song or just idle humming – then start speaking again, and the results were amazing!

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