Today we visit a prismatic, if unhygienic healer in St. Louis, Dr. William Hotchkiss. Dr. Hotchkiss seems to have been part magnetizer, part cunning-man, and part alchemist, with a dash of dervish and Native American shaman thrown in for good measure. We are introduced to the good doctor by a luminary of the St. Louis Spiritualist scene, a Mr. Miltenberger, who describes his visit in 1859 to the man he called
A Color Doctor.
Editors of the Age .—At No. 61, North 17th street, St. Louis, lives a Dr. Hotchkiss, whom the spirit of investigation that tries all things led me to call upon. He receives only on Wednesday of each week, until 11 o’clock, A. M.; after which the door is shut. I was charged $3 at the door and was told that this amount paid five times entitled me to a season ticket for any length of time without further charge. The rooms were all darkened; the chairs, door-knobs, lounge, etc., had different colored strings tied to them in abundance; and the floor and walls were likewise plastered with colored muslins. I was shown into the “inner sanctuary,” and there, crouching before a few hot embers, I saw an old man, quite bald and very dirty, with a well-developed head, only lacking in [the phrenological bump of] self esteem to make a superior one. He had on a dirty checkered linen coat—pants the same—and this was his entire wardrobe. He twisted and turned, jumped and gyrated around very promiscuously—as he termed it, “charging up” for the circle—he the while expounding his philosophy to me. He used good language, and appears to have a reason for the faith that is in him;—his theory being that of the primary colors, white is reflective, and black absorbent, as the extremes; and that all disease is but an excess of one color or deficiency of another. He obtains the knowledge of what is wanting through sympathy; i. e., he feels the pains just where and as the sufferer feels them; and his applications of color are his science developed by experiment. He also has several “keys,” (which are negative women) whom he will charge with magnetism, and let them discharge upon the patient (somewhat like a Leyden jar,) by placing the hand on the head. Certainly, a strong effect is so produced. He moves from one sufferer to another without any apparent system, but entirely by impulse. He ignores soap and water—the former giving him alkali and grease to absorb, which he does not require; but occasionally refreshes himself by washing in undiluted muriatic acid, of which his body gives good evidence.
Coming to me he was seized with a pain in the kidneys (where mine was); he laid upon the floor, face downwards, while a “key” held my hands. He requested me to jump on him as hard as I could. “Try to break my back,” said he. With 170 lbs. and all my elasticity, I did the best I could for perhaps twenty times; when he cried out “enough!” he protesting that he did not feel me, and only stopped me when he did feel me, and the pain was gone out of him. I did the same several times, also on his neck and lower bowels in front. I also saw three men at once on him, and had testimony that five had done the same all at one time. This part of his practice will have but few imitators. He would at times cough, and choke, and eject phlegm in large gouts very painful to see and hear; but the effect would be to relieve a lady present thus affected.
I could not detail all that the doctor seems to suffer; yet he alleges he feels no pain. I saw several there who protested to being cured by him without any medicine whatever, and others much relieved. He certainly has strong magnetic powers, but does not in any way identify himself with Spiritism. I felt when he put his hand on my shoulders, a thrill that moved me to my boots; and yet he seldom touches any of his patients. At the close of the day, he ties around his neck a “rag,” as he calls it, which is to continue the “rapport” till the patient comes again—which rag is of colored woolen cloth, differing as the cases seem to require. Mine is yellow. Perhaps green would have been nearer the mark. But we shall see hereafter about that. My impression is that he is a sympathetic, of strong magnetic powers, assisted by spirits on his plane. They do some foolish things; but if cures grow out of them, I for one don’t care how they come. Mankind suffer enough, and pills only make the disease worse instead of better. I am thankful for any light—and will not quarrel with the candle that gives it….
St. Louis, May 1.
The Spiritual Age 21 May 1859: p. 3
The raggedy Doctor’s colorful motley evokes the Trickster. The “keys” were “two young women, attired in short skirts and jackets, the one pink and the other blue.” Did holding hands with the “keys” complete some circuit or was it the same notion of placing your foot on a visionary’s shoe to see what they were seeing?
The “keys” in their short skirts (as well as the word “discharge”) suggest to my gutter mind the attendants at Dr. Graham’s electrifying Celestial Bed in his London Temple of Health, so ably filled by Emma Hamilton.
Mr. Miltenberger on another occasion accompanied Emma Hardinge to the “Hotchkissonian Institution.” After describing the squalor of the Doctor’s quarters, clothing, and body Hardinge continued:
The doctor then attempted to explain, for the edification of his guests, his belief that all diseases were occasioned by the plus or minus of certain rays of light, which the human system absorbed in different proportions.
He said that these rays, containing different quantities of the prismatic colours, constituted component parts of the human organism, and that some persons exhibit the predominance of the ray of their special colour, by their partiality for it as an article of dress; others by their indifference to, or incapacity to distinguish colours, &.; in short, that this predominance or lack of special colours in the organism of each individual caused corresponding peculiarities of temperament, while the plus or minus of the organic ray was the primary cause of disease.
Acting on this theory, he wore various strips of parti-coloured rags to keep himself “in sympathy” with his patients, to whom he gave a corresponding strip and colour to wear during the remedial process.
In addition to this treatment, the doctor occasionally required the said patients to jump or pound his body after the manner above described, whilst the whole method of treatment included various gyrations, snappings, turnings, twistings, rollings on the ground, and a series of eccentric motions equally indescribable and strange.
To those who had witnessed the processes by which Eastern ecstatics, such as dervishes, santons, or fakeers, induced the magnetic condition, it would have been apparent that similar principles were here involved and unconsciously operated in the “colour doctor’s” performances. The singular gambols of the erratic little figure not only fascinated or spell-bound the eye of the observer, but succeeded in liberating such a vast charge of magnetic aura from his highly electrical body, that it became next to impossible for a “sensitive” to remain in his presence during these curative exercises, without coming under his psychological influence, an effect which generally become manifest either by a deep trance, or in the subject’s sympathetic imitation of the operator’s fantastic movements. This was the effect produced upon the author [Hardinge], who, from first watching the remarkable actions of the ecstatic with simple curiosity, at last became spell-bound beneath his strong magnetic influence.
No sooner did the doctor perceive this than he directed towards her all his further operations.
He first diagnosed her temperament, and correctly intimated that her favourite colours were blue and white, the former of which he pronounced, to be her representative,
He then, by silent Will, commanded her to remove her bonnet and cloak, after which, placing her in a passive attitude in the inner chamber, he passed into the outer, ranging his visitors near the open door of communication so that they could see what transpired in both apartments.
He then, standing in the outer room, and entirely beyond the line of vision of any one in the inner chamber, took in his hand, one after another, strips of various colours, and the instant he touched these his subject in the inner chamber, wholly unable to see him, had she even looked that way, started up, and in highly significant pantomimic action, proceeded to represent some passion of the human soul, such as joy, grief, devotion, despair, hatred, rage, &c.
In every case a certain passion or scene was represented in correspondence with a special colour. Sometimes a piece of one coloured rag would be dropped by the operator, and others tried; then he would return to the first colour experimented with, but however often or quickly he would vary his action the pantomime of his subject would just as rapidly vary to suit the special colour held by the doctor. In this way, and for a period of two full hours, a vast number of pantomimic actions were gone through without pause or a single variation in their strict adaptation to special colours. Even when the doctor accidently touched a coloured rag the action of the subject instantaneously changed. Ever be it remembered the operator was in the outer apartment; the subject in the inner. The doctor, absorbed in conversation with his guests, often failed to regard what was going on within, whilst the subject, with eyes fixed and vacant, never looked once to the outer chamber. Thus it was evident it was neither a matter of will on the part of the operator, nor of sight on that of the subject. The whole scene was observed and reported upon only by Mr. Miltenberger and his friends. As an example of the spontaneity of the motions of the subject, it may be named that the doctor happening to touch a grey coat of one of the visitors in the outer room, Mrs. Hardinge immediately began to imitate the hiss of a snake to represent treachery. Taking a piece of gold moulding to illustrate what he (the doctor) was saying, the subject fell on her knees and represented adoration of the sun. One of the company threw a red handkerchief on the doctor’s arm, when Mrs. Hardinge, quite removed from any place where she could see this action, began to imitate all the movements of a warrior engaged in battle.
The specialties of this remarkable scene were, first, its entire spontaneity, neither party having prepared for it, or in expectation of such results; indeed, notwithstanding Dr. Hotchkiss’s vague theory that colours corresponded to passions, temperaments, and organic conditions, he had never attempted to reduce his theory to a system, and declared that he was totally unprepared to expect what results would proceed from the various colours he touched; furthermore, he admitted that he had never before witnessed such a scene, and, therefore, that his will, or any psychological influence on his part, was entirely out of the question. The next noteworthy feature of the scene was the curious effect produced upon the subject, who, commencing by repulsion towards her operator, suddenly found herself spellbound, and though in perfect possession of consciousness, fell so hopelessly in the power of this involuntary enchantment that she subsequently declared, had the doctor willed her to commit a murder under that influence, she would certainly have been compelled to do so.
At this point, Mr. Miltenberger, as president of the Lecture Committee, felt himself responsible for the welfare and sanity of his charge who was then the lecturer for the St. Louis Association of Spiritualists; besides this, he felt greatly disturbed at the influence the weird operator exerted; hence, he attempted, first by appeals, and finally by remonstrances, and even threats, to compel him to relinquish his terrible power. The operator, however, delighted to find “such a good subject,” insisted on pursuing an experiment, so novel to himself, as well as interesting to the whole party, save the harassed president and the helpless subject. At length Mr. Miltenberger seized the lady by the arm, and attempted to lead her out of the enchanted circle.
The operator, instead of remonstrating, quietly bade him “take her,” They quitted the inner room, and had advanced half way through the outer chamber, which was very dark, when the lady paused, and, with wild stories, refused to advance one step further. Upon this the operator triumphantly cried, “Take her if you will, but if you force her onward you may kill her. I have placed a green ray on the ground and she cannot pass over it.” It was so dark that the observers had to examine the ground to ascertain the truth of this assertion, and yet the medium, without the possibility of being informed of the fact by natural sight, had detected the presence of the obnoxious ray, across which it seemed impossible to drag her. The doctor explained that, having noticed her aversion to green, he had placed it on the ground by way of continuing his experiments. But this new experience suggested a happy thought to Mr. Miltenberger, who had also remarked the medium’s predilection for blue. Observing that her cloak was lined with that colour, he suddenly resolved to throw it across her shoulders. Whether the charm lay in the colour or the substance, which was silk, we cannot decide; certain it is that as soon as the garment enveloped her form, the spell which held the subject was broken, or rather, became polarized, or reversed; for whilst she passed into the happy and exalted condition of trance that usually attended her lectures, the hitherto powerful operator crouched at her feet, manifesting all the submissive action of a dog, and obviously changing places with his late subject…
Since the occurrence we have noticed the “snapping doctor ” is not only renowned for his success as a healer, but he maintains in sympathy with him a number of disciples, who, by similar manifestations, make cures of an equally unaccountable and effective character. It is said that Dr. Hotchkiss, by a process peculiar to himself, could so charge his disciples with his powerful magnetism that they became reservoirs, whom he could send abroad to perform service in lieu of himself.
The Two Worlds 3 February 1888: p. 181-83
The Color Doctor sounds like he was using the standard magnetisers’ suggestion handbook to control his patients and devotees, embellished with color therapy. One wonders about his antecedents. The medical title was used without portfolio by phrenologists, magnetizers, herb doctors, and pow-wowers. The nineteenth century medical school system was also not as regimented as it became later. But where did Hotchkiss come from? His obituary attempted some few answers, but gave rise to even more questions.
GREW YOUNGER WITH AGE
REMARKABLE CHARACTERISTICS OF THE LATE DR. HOTCHKISS.
He Possessed a Strange Control Over the Vital Forces of Nature, Prolonging His Life Far Beyond the Century Mark
His Secret Drawn From Alchemy.
Back of the death of Dr. William Hotchkiss, which occurred early last Wednesday morning, is a story as strange as it is unusual. It deals with an existence prolonged beyond the century mark by the vital energy of a man whose whole life was given over to the search for a universal panacea, and the development of the peculiar ideas entertained by the mediaeval Rosicrucians, a man who coupled an absolute indifference to money with the most improbable and seemingly characteristic practices, and who, despite his manifold eccentricities and quaintness of dress and manner was able to inspire deep faith in his theories in many undeniably sensible people.
He was a man of many striking peculiarities, one of which was his steadfast refusal to talk about himself. All that is positively know of him is that he came to St. Louis 40 years ago, and at once began the practice of medicine after his own original ideas. His patients, or, as he termed them, the “members” of his “circle,” were unable to learn anything of his past life, further than that he was born in the latter half of the last century in Dinwiddie, Va., and that, ere he began the study of materia medica, he had practiced law and taught school.
One of “the circle,” prompted by curiosity as to the doctor’s age, wrote to the Virginia village asking some information about the strange man and received and answer that was startling. It was to the effect that Dr. William Hotchkiss was remembered there by many of the oldest inhabitants as an uncommonly queer individual, that he was born in 1765, had joined the Masonic order in the beginning of this century, being then an old man, and had finally drifted away from the village, and gone West. When the patient questioned the mysterious physician, he smiled significantly and did not deny that he was the one to whom the letter referred. The claim that he was a Nineteenth Century rival of “Old Parr” is borne out by his remarkable memory of events that happened many, many years ago, and by the fact that so long as he has lived in this city no additional sign of age set itself as a seal upon his face or body. According to Mr. Hoffman, who was one of his first patients years ago, the dead physician looked even younger a week before his demise than he did 15 years before the Civil War.
The complete story of Dr. Hotchkiss’ life, of his researches into the dark realms of alchemy, thaumaturgy and other occult sciences, and of his power over his disciples would be remindful of the outlandish stories of the philosophers of the Middle Ages. Yet, while his quest for the elixir vitae is strongly suggestive of Beppo Balsamo, Paracelsus and St. George, the Formosan, it is certain that this idiosyncrasies were not assumed for mercenary motives, and that he did possess some strange control over the forces of nature is proved by the fact that when his end found him he was many decades beyond the three-score and ten years allotted as the period of man’s life. Among those impressed with his theories he was best known as “the dirty doctor,” an unpleasant sobriquet that arose from his repugnance to good clothes, and the fact that he eschewed water for the purpose of cleansing his body. Like St. Anthony of Padua, who dwelt 29 years in the Libyan Desert without ever undergoing an ablution, Dr. Hotchkiss held the uses of water in abhorrence, and, it is said, went for over a score of years without permitting the fluid to touch his body.
In addition to this he held that the vital principle could be best obtained from the smoke of certain chemicals and several times a week he treated himself by standing over a burning brazier which emitted a dense cloud of smoke and allowing the sooty flakes to settle upon his body. Notwithstanding this, he is said to have kept himself clean by some mysterious process, which may have been the scrubbing of his body with sand, a method of cleansing much in vogue among the Arabians. Whenever necessity forced him to purchase a new suit of clothes he immediately tore it into strips so that the freedom of his motions might remain unhindered. The fluttering pieces were tied with gayly-colored ribbons, which also figured in his cure, and his gray hair was matted and bound in elf-locks.
Dr. Hotchkiss lived at 2204 Washington avenue, with Misses Sallie Pentecost and Lily Riley, who kept house for him and were known as his adopted daughters. Other friends of his were the Guerdan family, David Goldsmith, J.L. Isaacs and Judge Portis. Besides the local circle there were others in various adjacent towns, which were visited at periodical intervals by the old physician. His cures are said to have been marvelous and were brought about by what he termed his vital electro-magnetic treatment. He formed his adherents into “circles,” free from all religious bias, for he was an orthodox Christian, and noncommittal on all questions involving controversy. His “proposition,” as set forth upon his business card, was
“Life or vitality is the result of motion; motion is a continual change of place, that which causes motion is called force. Electricity and magnetism are both alike properties of force but when employed conjointly are identified as electro-magnetism, hence vital electro magnetism is a term used to convey the idea that life, health and longevity result from the joint action and mutual cooperation of these two properties of force…”
In his later years the remarkable man added to his other quaint remedial theories by practicing the smoke cure and the snapping of fingers, by which he claimed to generate an electro-magnetic power within himself capable of combating the most malignant maladies. After rendering such treatment, he would be completely exhausted, and would lie upon his bed for hours, twisting and jerking as if he were a victim of St. Vitus’ dance, or, on other occasions he would spin around like a wheeling dervish [sic] snapping his fingers and making strange motions with his head and arms.
He was taken sick upon his return from a visit to a “circle” at Havana, Ill., about two weeks ago, and never recovered, the cause of his death being pronounced heart failure.
Until the last he retained the most extraordinary energy. Among his effects is the manuscript of a book he intended publishing upon longevity. He held that Christ had promised all men who fulfilled the laws of God and nature everlasting life, and that no one need die who followed the precepts laid down by him.
So far as known he leaves no relative. Taken all in all he was one of the strangest beings that ever lived in a strange word, and it is unfortunate that so little is known of his life and extraordinary doctrines.
St. Louis [MO] Republic 29 March 1895: p. 3
The Virginia Medical Monthly printed a memorial squib that added a decade to the Color Doctor’s already colorful life.
One Hundred And Forty Years Old?—Dr. William Hotchkiss died in St. Louis, Mo., April 1st, 1895. A letter received from his old Virginia home over a year ago said that he was born there in 1755. His Masonic record has been traced back one hundred years, showing conclusively that he was at least 121 years old. He went to St. Louis forty years ago, and has always been known as the “color doctor.” In his peculiar practise of medicine, he termed his patients members of his “circles,” and claimed to treat them by a magnetic process.—Nat. Pop. Rev. August, 1895.
Virginia Medical Monthly Vol. 22 1895: p. 641
I’ve written before about a healer who claimed an extraordinary longevity, Dr. Charles Smith and his Fountain of Youth of Egg Harbor, New Jersey. He, too, had Masonic records proving his age.
More details about the colorful Dr. Hotchkiss, his methods, that “green ray,” or his smoke bath? chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com
Chris Woodyard is the author of The Victorian Book of the Dead, The Ghost Wore Black, The Headless Horror, The Face in the Window, and the 7-volume Haunted Ohio series. She is also the chronicler of the adventures of that amiable murderess Mrs Daffodil in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales. The books are available in paperback and for Kindle. Indexes and fact sheets for all of these books may be found by searching hauntedohiobooks.com. Join her on FB at Haunted Ohio by Chris Woodyard or The Victorian Book of the Dead. And visit her newest blog, The Victorian Book of the Dead.