A Regency Scam ?

alchemyIn the classified section of the London Times for October 12 1820 appeared this intriguing advert:

AN INCOME of from £200 to £400 per annum may be OBTAINED by a CHYMICAL PROCESS on certain Mineral Matters as taught by a respected private individual, a professed Arcanist in docimastical philosophy residing near town: the manipulations not inconvenient to, nor militating against, the life and habits of a gentleman: the premium for instruction will be 200 guineas, for which security will be given till the full satisfaction of the party as to the verity and yield of the process, which will be imparted to only a select few. Applications by letter only, post paid, with real name and address, will meet with attention; to be left for W.,care of Mr Cartwright, 79, Long-Acre.

Are we taking about alchemy here? It sounds like it. Although the word arcanist is nowadays associated with the occult, back in 1820 most educated people would have linked it to something less devilish, such as alchemy; and the word ‘ docimastical ‘, though absent from many dictionaries of the time, was a serious technical term connected with the assaying of metal, which was borderline alchemy. We should also remember that Michael Faraday, one of the greatest scientific intellects of the nineteenth century, believed sincerely that alchemy should not be dismissed entirely, although this opinion was probably influenced by his admiration for Sir Isaac Newton, who had spent years of his scientific life on doomed alchemical experiments. In the absence of a personal address we will probably never know who this ‘W’, the respected private individual ‘ in question was. Moreover,among the various Cartwrights listed in Boyle’s Court Guide for 1819 no one of this name lived at 79, Long Acre. It’s all a bit reminiscent of the Susannah Clarke novel, Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, which was dramatised on TV not long ago. [R.M.Healey]

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