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Dr Sex and The Electric Love Bed

NPG D16839; James Graham; John Brown; Mr Little; William Cullen; William Bellenden-Ker, Duke of Roxburghe; Alexander Hamilton; John Lamont by John Kay

James Brown, medical reformer, with James Graham just visible in a white suit in the background by John Kay 1786, National Portrait Gallery

A lot of people think  sex was invented in the 1960’s with it’s free-love, orgasms for all, and sex therapy…prior to that people simply pro-created out of a sense of duty.  How dull…..

Well, obviously that’s simply not true (Ok so, maybe the Victorian’s were a bit prudish, but hey, Victoria still managed to knock out nine children so Albert must have been keeping her amused between the sheets).

But what about bad sex? Or no sex? What about infertility? what did people do and where did they go for their sexual healing…?

Enter the eighteenth century’s answer to Dr Ruth:  The first Sex Therapy Superstar and all round crowd pleaser: ‘Doctor’ James Graham! Roy Porter acerbically described in the following terms:

“James Graham, former pedlar of health through sex-therapy and mudbaths, later founded the ‘New and True Christian Church, practiced Adamic nakedness, died insane.”(1)

Welcome to the world of the Prince of Quacks and keen imbiber of ether!

Formative Years

James Graham was born on 23 June 1745 in Edinburgh.  He was of humble origins but not so poor that he could not afford a good education.  He studied at the prestigious Edinburgh University. He left without a degree, however this far from unusual – neither did most of his contemporaries.  At first he tried his hand as an apothecary in Doncaster but a more adventurous spirit was calling him.  In 1770 he set off for America, where he spent the next five years.  It was in America that he came across the cutting edge of scientific discovery that was quite literally setting the world on fire:  electricity.

In Philadelphia Graham was introduced to electrical theory and practice by Ebenezer Kinnersley a close friend of Benjamin Franklin (also famous for his experiments in electricity).  With this new-found knowledge, the proverbial light-bulb (OK, slightly anachronistic imagery) went off in Graham’s brain.

Graham came to believe that electricity was the new panacea and this belief formed the basis for his future medical therapies, philosophy and, of course, his business ventures, he wrote:

“Electricity invigorates the whole body and remedies all physical defects.”

Graham believed that through magnetic and electric therapies, the very fabric of the human race could be improved upon and in improving individuals society as a whole would become more harmonious.

As the War of Independence swept through America, James Graham returned to England charged with these radical new scientific and medical  ideas and armed with an innate flair for self-promotion.

No publicity is bad publicity

Catherine Macauley, c1775

Catherine Macauley, c1775, image by Robert Edge Pine

On return to England, in 1775,  he set up a fashionable practice in Bath, and began a vigorous advertising campaign in the form of leaflets and pamphlets advertising such things as “Effluvia, vapours and applications aetherial, magnetic or electric”. 

His biggest publicity coup however was in catching the most famous Blue-stocking of the day: Catherine Macaulay.  Catherine was unusual in being an eighteenth century woman famed for her intellect rather than who she was sleeping with.  This was soon to change.

Catherine was in her forties in poor health. James Graham, charming, charismatic and opportunist, soon inveigled his way into Catherine’s salon.   Despite her ill-health, Shortly after engaging James Graham as her physician she recovered her vitality enough to marry his 21-year-old brother!  Society was deliciously shocked by the events.  Although Catherine’s reputation was in ruins, Graham used the scandal to prove the efficacy of his methods:  after all he had transformed a frail middle-aged blue stocking into a rapacious cougar!  Banking on this to bolster his reputation he relocated to London within two weeks of the marriage.

London: Electric Ladyland and the Temple of Health

London 1780’s:

“Carriages drawing up to the door of this modern Phaphos, with crowds of gawping sparks, on each side, to discover who were the visitors, but the ladies’ faces were covered; all going incog.  At the door stood two gigantic porters with each a long staff with ornamental silver heads….and wearing superb liveries, with large gold-laced cocked hats, each was seven feet high, and retained to keep the entrance clear.” Henry Angelo, Royal Fencing Master,  recollected of the biggest crowd pullers in London in 1780.

Sex, scandal and excess – welcome to James Graham’s Temple of Health and Hymen.

An expert at creating publicity and marketing his ideas, Graham chose the Adam brother’s uber-fashionable development the Adelphi for the site of his first Temple of Health and Hymen, also called ‘Templum Aesculpium Sacrum’.  Already much talked because the development had nearly ruined the Adam brothers, it already boasted famous residents, the addition of a highly salacious medical/scientific establishment created an immediate buzz.

Emma Hamilton by George Romney

Emma Hamilton by George Romney

The Temple soon attracted crowds of the curious, bustling to see the elaborate scientific implements, the ornate and luxurious interiors, the sexy young ‘goddesses’ (Emma Hamilton, Lord Nelson’s future mistress, briefly caused a sensation as the Goddess  Vestina during her short sojourn in the Temple).

For the price of 2 guinea’s you could even attend one of the  scandalously frank sex talks that James Graham delivered nightly, such as his ‘Lecture on Generation’ which recommended genital hygiene and marital sex, whilst condemning masturbation and the use of prostitutes.  Mind you he did think it was OK for the married ladies to look at dirty mags…(aka erotica).  At the lectures the audience would be treated to music, poetry, fireworks and dance, and as an added bonus you also got a free electric shock thrown into deal (the padding of the chairs had conductors concealed in them!) – so you could quite literally come out shocked rigid!

If you had the reddies, you could really buy into his ideas: the scantily clad nymphs sold patrons Graham’s Electrical Ether, Nervous Aetherial Balsam or Imperial Pills for a guinea or so each; and if you were really rich, you could enjoy some of the electro-therapy equipment itself:  elaborate multi-seater thrones and crowns designed to give light electric shock’s to the patient to cure impotency or barrenness.

Original image by Gnangarra via Wikimedia, adapted by Lenora

Roll up Roll up for the amazing Medico, Magnetico, Musico, electrical bed!

Or to give it its formal title:  The Great Celestial State Bed.  The centre piece, star turn of James Graham’s second Temple of Health and Hymen based in Shomberg House and opened on the 26th June 1781.

Georgiana Duchess of Devonshire by Joshua Reynolds

Georgiana Duchess of Devonshire by Joshua Reynolds

Graham teased the public with pamphlets and soon had the crowd flocking to his new temple.  Duchesses vied with famous courtesans, politicians rubbed shoulders with bricklayers, old Roue’s like the Earl of Sandwich cast their jaundiced eye over the exotic and luxurious interiors.  Acidic commentators like Horace Walpole decried James Graham as a quack.

But James Graham was much more than a quack, he used scientific advances to great visual effect, taking much inspiration from famous theatrical designer Philippe De Loutherbourg and his innovative stage lighting techniques and use of automatons.

A visit to the temple would plunge the visitor into,as Peter Otto describes it:

“A multi-media show [that] combined drama, medicine, science, metaphysics, religion, music, sex and even politics” (2)

Clearly, there is too much there to cover in this post!  So let’s get to the main feature – the Great Celestial State Bed as it seems to embody quite a few of the themes that Otto identifies.

A description is in order I think, I have read various descriptions of the bed, Lydia Syson in her book Doctor of Love provides a great description, however first I will let James Graham describe his crowning glory in his own words:

The Celestial Bed

The Celestial Bed

“forty pillars of brilliant glass, of great strength and of the most exquisite workmanship, in regard to shape cutting and engraving…[and] an abundance of the electrical fire..”

Syson goes into further detail:  the bed had a vast dome above it which contained exotic perfumes and a dash of ether just to get the occupants into the mood.  Music also played from the bed, organ pipes were integrated into it and the music was regulated by the pace and vigour of the nookie going on beneath the canopy!

The dome also had inlaid mirrors, reflecting the couple rolling in the rich bedclothes atop a tilting mattress stuffed with oats, spices and stallion hair and stuffed with 1500lbs of magnets to prevent impotency and aid conception (well a simple feather mattress would have been redolent of effete luxury).  Graham was not alone in using magnets in relation to sex therapy, they had long been connected with love and sex.  The magnets were said to ‘jolt’ the couple as they copulated, however Kate Williams notes that it was probably one of the ‘goddesses’ hidden away and frantically pumping away on a lever (rather a parallel of events in the bed…)

As if this was not enough, the bed was loaded with other diversions and adornments:  Atop the dome where Cupid and Psyche, Hymen watching over them with an electric crown in one hand and torch in the other.  Inside were caged turtle doves, automata (a creepy pastoral show with nymphs, brides and bridegrooms entering the temple of hymen).  And all topped off with an electric message, reading “Be fruitful, multiply and replenish the earth”

Sounds terrifying!  But for £50 a night (close to £3,500 in today’s money) you would want to make the most of it.    James sold it as:

“to insure the removal of barrenness…but likewise, improve, exalt and invigorate the bodily, and through them, the mental facilities of the human species.”

The aristocracy flocked to it, desperate for legitimate heirs.  After 5 and a half years of marriage with no heir to show for it, Georgiana Duchess of Devonshire may well have taken a tumble in the famous bed.

Gaudy and vulgar, and slightly scary as the bed sounds today, in the eighteenth century it embodied cutting edge science and medical theory and it was the acme of technological advancement. The ingenious mechanic Thomas Denton was involved in the creation of the bed (Denton famously viewed some automatons which were on display, decided he could do better, and promptly made a speaking automata and later a drawing one which astounded all who saw them).

The lights go out

Fashion is fickle, and publicity can be cruel – Graham became the butt of satire and innuendo in the popular press and in the theatres.  It can’t have helped his already dubious reputation to note that many prostitutes advertised their use of the ‘Grahamite method’ of sex.  So, despite James Graham’s stratospheric success, his fame and fortune lasted only a couple of years.  Soon both temples were in financial difficulty and by 1784 he was forced to sell his possessions.  He returned to Edinburgh, and became ever more eccentric.  He seems to have developed a Messiah Complex – founding a new religion (he was its only convert).  He eventually renounced his electric therapies in favour of mud and extreme calory counting.  He was partial to giving lectures buried up to his neck in soil, and wearing vests made of turf.  He even did a spell in the Edinburgh Tollbooth after giving one of his saucy sex lectures to the staid and respectable Edinburgh worthies.

Yet in a time of social unrest – Britain was in fear of invasion following Spain and France joining with the Patriots in the American War of Independence and the capital was reeling after the chaos and violence of the Gordon Riots – James Graham offered people the chance to glimpse an idealistic alternative.  And and he gave that very commercial society the chance to buy into it.  He offered a slightly hedonistic opportunity to achieve an almost religious transcendence through sex and he wanted patrons to leave his temple feeling empowered and invigorated.

Many of his theories were not to far removed from contemporary medical advice (and compared to a blood-letting, his methods offered enjoyment). Although some of his sexual theories relied on standard chauvenistic Male/Active/good  female/passive/corruptible dualisms he did hold relatively progressive views on women’s education, nutrition and hygiene.

His reputation as a quack seems to have stemmed from his expert use of self-promotion and marketing.  Syson notes that in the eighteenth century Quackery was identified primarily by use of self-promotion and geographic mobility rather than actual survival rates of patients.  One would imagine that most of James Graham’s patients not only survived, but came out of the procedure with a smile on their face – no wonder the other doctors hated him!

Wellcome Institute Collection

Wellcome Institute Collection


1) Roy Porter, ‘English Society in the Eighteenth Century’ (p182) 2) Otto, Peter,


Cruickshank, Dan, ‘The Secret History of Georgian London’, Windmill, 2010 Foreman, Amanda, ‘Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire’, Flamingo, 1999 James Graham, Otto, Peter, Porter, Roy, ‘English Society in the 18th Century’, Penguin, 1990 James Graham, Quack? Syson, Lydia, 2008, ‘Doctor of Love: James Graham and his Celestial Bed’, Alma Books (Kindle Edition) Williams, Kate, ‘England’s Mistress’, Arrow Books, 2007

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