In the early decades of the 19th Century, the area where Swansea’s maritime quarter now stands was home to many colourful characters. One of the more outrageous was a quack doctor called ‘Baron Spolasco’ who had a house in Adelaide Street, where Morgans Hotel now stands.
Despite only a short stay in Swansea between 1838 and 1845, Baron Spolasco became a notorious figure known the length and breadth of industrial south Wales.
We believe that Baron Spolasco was born plain John Smith in or near Manchester during the 1790s. Originally indentured to a druggist, he for some reason failed to qualify and surfaced next as a fully-qualified quack doctor (complete with fake medical and educational qualifications) in southern Ireland in 1836. His quack routine was however very refined by this time and the corrupt pattern of his life established.
Spolasco practised controversially in southern Ireland (he was soundly thrashed by irate Irishmen on at least two occasions) throughout 1836-1838. His stay there culminated in a ludicrously self-destructive incident in the city of Cork which forced him to try and flee the country. Baron Spolasco attempted to leave Ireland with a child he called his son, a maid, a coach and six horses and two pet dogs.
As it transpired, Spolasco boarded the Killarney with only hand luggage and his son, later claiming that shortage of space precluded his equipage being included. On the night of 19 January 1838 and in the teeth of a snowstorm at sea of Turneresque proportions, the Killarney’s boilers were drenched and outed. The Killarney slowly drifted onto the Renny Rocks and foundered, ironically within sight of the shore. Of the 46 passengers and crew on board, only 13 managed to scramble onto the very rocks that had caused their shipwreck before the mountainous seas pounded the 500-ton vessel to fragments. As one of the fortunate survivors, Spolasco had to spend two entire nights and nearly three days clinging to the needle-sharp spiculae of the rocks before a rescue could be carried out.
During his period of recuperation in Cork (and by now regarded as something of a celebrity after his survival of the shipwreck) Spolasco used the enforced period of rest to write an entirely self-aggrandising account of his ordeal entitled “The Narrative of the Wreck of the Killarney Steamer”. The resultant book carried both a portrait of Spolasco and a dramatic print of the survivors’ perilous situation on the rock.
It has not proved possible to trace Baron Spolasco’s activities from March 1838 until his arrival in Swansea later that same year in October. A contemporary eyewitness of Spolasco’s entry into Swansea tells us that:
“His advent was well advertised by the dissemination of small handbills and leaflets for weeks, nay months, and when he arrived the whole district was in commotion thousands of people lined the route, but after all the grandeur was not so extensive and, savoured of the ridiculous; yet, it was in the nature of a Royal progress.
A large, elegant yellow carriage with certainly four, if not six horses, in splendid trappings, with postillions in brilliant colours and cockades, a black manservant in gorgeous livery and shoulder knot yellow silk breeches and white stockings, sitting alone in solemn dignity immovable on the centre of the box seat, the “Baron” inside, bowing left and right, midst the roaring swell of cheering that beset him on all hands”.
By February 1839 he was ensconced in Adelaide Street in the end residence of a small terrace of three Georgia townhouses built in 1802. Prior to the construction of South Dock (which began in 1852) this area of Swansea was known as the Burrows and was a highly respectable district comprised of many similar Georgian buildings.
At this time, he advertised very regularly in the Cambrian newspaper, the Principality’s leading contemporary newsheet. If you were literate and lived in industrial south Wales during the period 1838-1840, you would have certainly been aware of Baron Spolasco of Swansea.
Spolasco was as determined as he was flamboyant, as this account of an incident that took place in 1839 illustrates. The Baron had been asked to block up an entrance to the rear of his property that he had created in order to allow access to a stable:
“He taught his horse a nice docile, well-bred animal to walk up his doorsteps, several in number, in Adelaide Street, and to pass along the hall and passage just three feet wide, and so to the stables behind. The floor of the passage being of wood, the heavy tramp of the hoofs was plainly heard after the door was closed. Poor horse! I often thought him a jolly sight too good for his proprietor…”
In 1839 a girl came to see Spolasco at one of his travelling surgeries in Bridgend. The girl was already terminally ill when Spolasco sold her some of his ‘medicine’ at the Wyndham Arms Inn. While the Baron’s potions were essentially nothing more than laxatives, such was the parlous state of her health that virtually anything she could have ingested would have accelerated her death. At a subsequent coroner’s inquest a verdict of manslaughter was returned and Spolasco was arrested Cardiff and held at the Gaol there. The resultant trial highly publicised and very well attended with crowds thronging the court daily. The Baron Spolasco was acquitted on the basis that no clear body of medical or legal opinion could conclusively prove beyond the proverbial ‘shadow of a doubt the ‘medicines’ had materially advanced her death.
The year 1839 was a decidedly wretched one for Spolasco, for no sooner was the dust settling on the manslaughter case than he was in trouble with the law once more. On the 5th December, 1839 he was once more arrested and this time his house in Adelaide Street was searched too. The charge brought against him this time was for counterfeiting and on no less than 25 counts! When he appeared in court on the 25th July 1840, such was the level of public sympathy for him that upon hearing indictment read out against him, the crowd in the public gallery took up the chant:
“In times of yore ere chivalry went by Knight against Knight his manhood to try. Now under fearful odds the champion mounts To one poor Baron five and twenty counts”
He was accused of falsely putting his own stamp to the patent medicines he sold, instead of Queen Victoria’s, and thereby pocketing revenue due to the crown. He was again acquitted to universal popular approval and left the court with the crowd’s cheers ringing in his ears. He was however exposed in court as being neither a Baron nor a Doctor, but in fact an Englishman.
Far from cultivating a low profile in order to avoid the wrath of powerful enemies, Spolasco strove to do just the opposite. A series of publicity stunts and strenuous press advertising during 1839-1840 contrived to keep his name on everyone’s lips. In early 1839, and to commemorate his survival of the Killarney shipwreck, he had an ox roasted, and distributed among the deserving poor of Swansea.
Another stunt involved the minting of a brass token bearing both a bust of himself and an inscription (5000 cases and cures). The coin should be more accurately described as a ‘pub token’ and such items were given away to individuals in much the same way as discount price vouchers are today.
It seems as if 1840 was the pinnacle of Baron Spolasco’s popularity in Swansea, as for the next four years his newspaper advertising in the principality fell steadily away, until in March 1845 it ceased altogether. During those intervening years he either detected a decline in his popularity or he felt confident enough to try and open up new territories for his particular brand quackery. Either way it appears he spent less time in Swansea than formerly, and also it is rumoured a fourth a Malpractice took place in London. At any rate, he placed a final testimonial in the Cambrian of 29 March 1845 and was never heard from again.
What became of Spolasco from 1845 until his re-emergence in New York in the late 1840’s is open to conjecture. He was reported as being seen in London, observed in much reduced circumstances driving around one of the parks in a small gig pulled by a single horse. In any event he retained ownership of his townhouse in Adelaide Street until 1854, although the 1851 census tells us that he was no longer a resident. So, one is led inevitably to the conclusion that sometime between 1845 and 1849 he decamped to London, and from there to America.
In America he continued to promote himself as a quack and went on to make as big an initial impact as he did in South Wales and Ireland before that. We have few details of his American experiences other than the odd eye witness account of Spolasco seen out and about on the streets of New York:
“You will see that he is got up to attract attention. That hat with it’s curled-up rim is made on a special block for himself. That wig and moustache and those eyebrows are of a preternatural black, which, contrasting with the face painted with Cotard’s best red, make him look somewhat like those ferocious individuals that pop out of little boxes, imperious with carmine and horsehair”.
Spolasco began his North American life in some style, at first renting a good suite at an hotel. But by degrees his accommodation became less and less salubrious and more and more reduced in scale. The Baron Doctor Spolasco died of cancer of the stomach in June 1858, in rented rooms high up on Broadway. He left behind a will worth less than $5000 to two apparently non-existent children, and a grave which can still be seen in a far from select cemetery in old New York.