Month: April 2014

Pyramids of the Fraternitas Rosæ Crucis

Not far from Philadelphia stand four Rosicrucian pyramids dating back about a century.[1]

Topless pyramid in Quakertown, Pennsylvania.
Topless pyramid in Quakertown, Pennsylvania.

Rosicrucians burst onto the scene in the early 17th century with a couple manifestos laying out the tenets of this secretive brotherhood: Fama Fraternitatis RC and Confessio Fraternitatis. The texts struck a nerve, and soon Rosicrucians were turning up in all sorts of texts. Some people, like Thomas Vaughan and Michael Maier, seemed eager to be associated with the Rosicrucians (or to call themselves Rosicrucians). Other people were more critical, e.g., John Wilkins dismissed Rosicrucians as offering

only a kind of Cabalisticall or Chymicall, Rosicrucian Theologie, darkning wisdome with words, heaping together a farrago of obscure affected expressions and wild allegories, containing little of substance in them….

Henry Stubbe was equally dismissive of the Rosicrucians. Despite the numerous pamphlets and texts written to, about, and against the Rosicrucians, the order seems to have been rather ephemeral and perhaps even an elaborate hoax. Rosicrucians have, however, survived.

Another small pyramid, one of four.
Another small pyramid, one of four.

Rosicrucians burst into the scholarship on history of science in large part thanks to Frances Yates’s work, who mentioned Rosicrucians in her book on Giordano Bruno and made them the subject of her The Rosicrucian Enlightenment.[2]

Philadelphia apparently has a long tradition of Rosicrucian activities. Sometime in the late 17th century a German mystic came to Philadelphia to establish a colony of Rosicrucians (of the Ancient Mystical Order Rosae Crucis sort). A group of revolutionaries, including George Clymer, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Paine reportedly formed a Rosicrucian group in Philadelphia. In the 19th a physician, Paschal B. Randolf, founded another order of Rosicrucians, the Fraternitas Rosae Crucis. When he died toward the end of the century, a Philadelphia physician took over the order.

One of the pyramids is a a fountain at the center of a garden.
One of the pyramids is a a fountain at the center of a garden.

The pyramids are on land owned by The Franternitas Rosæ Crucis. The order has a complicated, labyrinthine, and contested history. It claims a variety of famous people as members, including George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, and Abraham Lincoln. I suspect there is a rich and entertaining history to be told about Rosicrucianism in the Philadelphia region.

Like the early modern Fraternal Order of the Rosy Cross, which generated so much speculation, these pyramids continue to bring out conspiracy theories and stories of occult worship (even, in extreme cases, suggestions of nefarious activities). Unfortunately, conspiracy theories are always more fun than reality: the pyramids seem to be largely decorative and symbolic now.[3]


  1. Most of the stories on the internet, sometimes accompanied by video and ominous voiceovers, are fanciful at best. Conspiracy theories abound, as do exaggerations. Even seemingly reputable sites get carried away speculating about these pyramids.  ↩

  2. This is not a post about Yates, the infamous “Yates Thesis,” her influence, or the problems with her work. Yates does make an interesting comment that the writers of the current Cosmos perhaps should have read. After quoting part of Bruno’s apparent endorsement of Copernicanism, she says:

    These are the passages which used to throw the nineteenth-century liberals into ecstasies as the cry of the advanced scientific thinker breaking out of mediaeval shackles, and they are indeed very striking, very thrilling words. What do the mean?

    Bruno’s heliocentrism is not astronomical or mathematical but “a new Hermetic insight into the divinity of the universe, an expanded gnosis.” Hmmm. Yates might have overstated the role of Hermetic philosophy in early modern Europe, but her identification of Bruno as a “prophet” in search of the divinity of the universe seems closer to Bruno’s project than the picture offered by Cosmos.  ↩

  3. I confess, I trespassed onto the property to look more closely at the pyramids. They are not “covered in Rosicrucian symbolism inside and out” (only one of the pyramids (not pictured here) is large enough to enter, but the doors were locked). They have very little decoration—a couple plaques with names is about it. And there is no evidence of nefarious activities. They seem rather peaceful standing silently amongst rose bushes and ponds.  ↩

More Medical Recipes from Thomas Scattergood’s Diaries

Thomas Scattergood copied a number of recipes into one of his later diaries, one that dates from just after the turn of the 19th century. As he notes on one page, he took many of these recipes from “the Countess of Kent.” The “Countess of Kent” was Elizabeth Grey. Shortly after she died in 1561, her medical recipes were collected together into a book published in two versions:

  • A choice manual of rare and select secrets in physick and chyrurgery collected and practised by the Right Honorable, the Countesse of Kent, late deceased ; as also most exquisite ways of preserving, conserving, candying, &c. (London, 1653)
  • A choice manuall, or rare and select secrets in physick and chyrurgery collected, and practised by the Right Honourable, the Countesse of Kent, late deceased. Whereto are added several experiments of the virtues of gascon pouder, and lapis contra yarvam, by a professor of physick. As also most exquisite waies of preserving, conserving, candying, &c. (London, 1653).

The Countess of Kent’s recipes were clearly popular. Expanded versions of the book were published at least nine times before the end of the century, 1654, 1659, 1661, 1663, 1664, 1667, 1671, 1683, and 1687. More than a century later her recipes were still circulating such that Scattergood could copy them.

The Countess of Kent’s A choice manual of rare and select secrets in physic was a popular recipe book in the latter 17th century.
The Countess of Kent’s A choice manual of rare and select secrets in physic was a popular recipe book in the latter 17th century.

He copied four plague recipes directly from the Countess of Kent:

Plague
Take 1 lb of green walnuts 1/2 an Ounce of Saffron 1/2 an ounce of London Treacle beaten together in a Mortar and with a little Carduus or some such Water, vapour it over the Fire…

One of the many recipes for the plague Scattergood copied from the Countess of Kent.
One of the many recipes for the plague Scattergood copied from the Countess of Kent.

To preserve a Man from the Plague
Take aloe Apaticum, & aloe Succatrine, fine Cinnamon & Myrrh of each of them 3 drams—Cloves, mace, Lignum aloe, Mantick, Bole Armoniack, of each of them 1/2 a dram, let all these things be stampt in a Mortar mingle them together, and keep them in a close vessel, take of it every morning 2 penny weight in half a glass of white wine with a little water, and drink it in the morning at the dawning of the day, an so by the grace of God you may go into all infection of the Air and Plague.

An Eluctuary for the Plague
Take the weight of ten grams of Saffron 2 ounces of the kernels of Walnuts, 2 or 3 Figs 1 Dram of Mithridate, & a few sage leaves stampt together, with a sufficient quantity of Pine kernal water, make up all these together in a lumb or mass & keep it in a glass or pot for use, taking the Quantity of 12 Grains fasting in the Morning, & it will not only preserve from the Pestilence but but expel it from the in fection

Another plague recipe from the Countess of Kent.
Another plague recipe from the Countess of Kent.

A most certain & approved Medicine against all manner of Pestilence & plague, be it never so vehement
Take an Onion, & cut in 1/2 then make a little hole in either piece the which fill with fine Treacle & set the pieces together as they were before, after this wrap them in sine white linnen Cloth putting it to roast, & covered in the embers or Ashes, and when it is roasted enough, press out all the Juice of it, and give the Patient a spoonful, and immediately he shall feel himself better, & without fail be healed—

For some reason he did not copy the other dozen or so plague recipes from the Countess of Kent’s A choice manual.[1] He did, however, copy other recipes from the her book:

Scattergood copied medicines for the yellow jaundice and “dead palsey.”
Scattergood copied medicines for the yellow jaundice and “dead palsey.”

A proved Medicine for the Yellow Jaundices
Take a pint of Mucadine a pretty quantity of the inner bark of a Barbarry Tree, 3 spoonfuls of the greenest goose dung you can get, and take away all the white spots from it, lay them in steep all night on the morrow strain it, and put to it one grated Nutmegg, one penny worth of Saffron dryed & very finely beaten, & give it to drink in the Morning.

Dead Palsey or those who have lost their speech
Take Borage leaves, Marigold leaves or Flower, of each a good handful boyl it in good Ale posset, the person must take a good draught of it in the morning, & sweat, if it be in the arm or Legs, they must be chafed for an hour or two, when they be grieved & at meals they must drink no other drink till their speech comes to them, if the herbs be not to be had the seeds will do.

Scattergood claimed to copy a recipe for kidney stones from Digby’s Medicine, though I have been unable to find Digby’s original recipe. Scattergood also copied recipes from other authors. Perhaps more likely, the source he was using collected together recipes from diverse other authors (I have not found sources for these recipes):

A French Cure for a cancer and to cure a “whenn.”
A French Cure for a cancer and to cure a “whenn.”

For a Cancer A French Cure
Pound Garlick fine on a puler plate, mix it with honey and apply it as a poultice repeating it. And if [??] in a hole, take a piece of Fresh lining [?] beef dip it in the Oyntment and lay it in the hole repeating it

Although the Countess of Kent offered a recipe to cure a wen, Scattergood did not copy out her recipe:[2]

To cure a Whenn
Mix powdered blue Vitriol in a sweet oil, make a plaster & apply it, until it breaks and runs out continuing the plaster until cured.

To make green salve or Ointment—
Into a clean pipkin that holds about a Quart put the bigness of a Pullets Egg of yellow rosin when it is melted over a midling fire add the same Quantity of Bees was, when that is melted pu t in 1/2 a pound of hogs lard when that is melted put in 2 ounces of Honey, when that is melted put in 1/2 a pound of common turpentine, when that is melted put in 2 ounces of Vardigrease, take off the pipkin or else it will [??] in the Fire in an Instant; put it on the Fire again and give it two or 3 wabbles & strain it through a course Sive into a clean Vessel through the dreggs away—An Extraordinary Ointment for a wound or a bruise — Nothing takes the Fire out of a Burn or scald so soon.

Finally, bed bugs seem to have been a problem. Fortunately, this last recipe not only killed the little critters, it also put a fine polish on the furniture and didn’t stink:

A recipe for killing bed bugs and polishing furniture.
A recipe for killing bed bugs and polishing furniture.

Destroying Buggs
Take 6 d worth of Quick silver and the whites of 6 or 8 Eggs heath them together until the Quick silver appears like a black sediment at the bottom of the basin, then rub it over the Joynts and crevices of the Bed stead with a Painters Brush
It will certainly have the desired effect with the addition of giving a varnish to the Furniture, and have not the least smell.

What we can’t tell from Scattergood’s diaries if he used any of these recipes or if he found them effective. We also can’t tell if he adapted them to reflect the ingredients available to him locally. Maybe clues to those questions are hiding in some of the other Scattergood papers.


  1. It is possible that he he was copying recipes from a copy that did not include these other plague recipes.  ↩

  2. “Whenn,” or “wen” as the Countess of Kent labels it, seems to be some sort of skin disease. Her recipe is:
    A Medicine for a Wen.
    Take black Soap and unquencht Lime, of each a like quantity, beat them very small together, and spread in on a woollen cloth, and lay it on the Wen, and it will consume it away.  ↩

Thomas Scattergood’s Medical Recipes

At the end of the 18th century Thomas Scattergood spoke out against what he considered the harsh treatment people suffering from mental illness and advocated for the “humane treatment” of patients in asylums. Scattergood was an influential local Quaker who traveled extensively in the states and in England. In the early 19th century, he suggested to the Philadelphia Yearly meeting that they should do more to care for members who suffered from mental illnesses, who “may be deprived of the use of their reason.” He worked with other members of the Philadelphia Yearly meeting to establish the Friends Hospital, an asylum

for their insane brethren, which would furnish besides the requisite medical aid, such tender and sympathetic attention, and religious oversight as may sooth their agitated minds and thereby under the divine blessing, facilitate their restoration to the inestimable gift of reason.[1]

The Friends Hospital is often celebrated as the U.S.’s first mental hospital.

Special Collections here at Haverford College has a large collection of Scattergood Family Papers. We recently acquired 17 volumes of Scattergood’s diaries, from late 1779 to 1811.

The earliest of the Scattergood diaries.
The earliest of the Scattergood diaries.

Along with all sorts of notes about travel, daily life, and personal reflections. He also records many of his dreams—in one diary, he seems to be troubled by a recurring dream about fishing: He hooks a fish and can bring it to the wharf, but he fails to land the fish even with the help of his friends. But when the fish escapes, it never seems to swim away but lingers near the wharf as if taunting him.

Interspersed through these diaries are various medical recipes. In his early diary, from winter 1779–80, he lists recipes for palpitation of the heart, tooth pills, and a violent tooth ache.

Recipes for generic problems, like tooth aches.
Recipes for generic problems, like tooth aches.

For the Palpitation of the Heart
Take 1/4 oz: Castor, 15 Grains of Salt of Amber 1/4 oz Galbanum 1/4 oz Myrrh & 1/2 an oz of assafectida Pound altogether in a Morter tip well mix’d Then add as much Honey or Mollasses as will make them into Pills. Take of these One or two after the Fit at going to Bed

Tooth Ach Pills
Burn an Oyster Shell red hot, & without slacking pound it to a fine Powder, Mix it up with powder’d Rozin, soften’d a little with clean Grease. Make it into Pills, & put one into the Hollow of the Tooth & it will eat out the Marrow

For a Violent Tooth Ach
Heat a Brick red hot, quench it in water wrap it up in a Cloth, & lay it to the Feet in Bed. It relieves by Sweating. or Skin & Bruise Garlick & apply to the Soles of the Feet

Sometimes Scattergood indicated his source. He copied a number of recipes from the “Countness of Kent” and from “Digby’s Medicine”.

Scattergood copied a bunch of recipes from “the Countess of Kent.”
Scattergood copied a bunch of recipes from “the Countess of Kent.”

His recipes range from the generic, such as those for wounds or tooth aches, to the specific. Unsurprisingly, there are a number of recipes for the plague, for “dead palsy,” and for the “Yellow Jaundice.”

Scattergood was particularly worried about the plague, judging by the number of plague recipes.
Scattergood was particularly worried about the plague, judging by the number of plague recipes.

An Eluctuary for the Plague
Take the weight of ten grams of Saffron 2 ounces of the kernels of Walnuts, 2 or 3 Figs 1 Dram of Mithridate, & a few sage leaves stampt together, with a sufficient quantity of Pine kernal water, make up all these together in a lumb or mass & keep it in a glass or pot for use, taking the Quantity of 12 Grains fasting in the Morning, & it will not only preserve from the Pestilence but but expel it from the in fection

Other recipes seem to apply less to illnesses per se and more to conditions. So Scattergood records a recipe for “old stiff joints” and for childhood worms and “the itch in Man.”

Recipes for old, stiff joints, worms in children, and “the itch in man.”
Recipes for old, stiff joints, worms in children, and “the itch in man.”

To Drive away Worms in Children
Take Human Hair & chop it very fine & give in Mollasses or Wine— The shaving of a Mans Beard Lather & all taken brought abundance away—

For the Itch in Man, & Scratches in a Horse
Take 2 Ounces of Venice Turpentine well washed add to that one pound of Butter from the churn stir in one Ounce of Red per [sic] cipitate of Murcury, take a long time to stir it well

The itch in man was a type of scabs or scurvy,[2] which appeared in sheep and horses.

One way to look at Scattergood’s recipes is to see them as reflecting the diseases that worried him. If we understand that plague and pestilence did not pick out unique diseases but were rather related to epidemics of various sorts, and we recall his having lived through the Yellow Fever epidemic in Philadelphia—at one point in a diary he laments that he has left his wife and children to suffer in a lesser epidemic (perhaps another Yellow Fever outbreak)—we can understand his interest in the many plague recipes. Generic recipes for cleaning and treating wounds shouldn’t surprise us.

Equally interesting are the ingredients Scattergood lists: butter, walnuts, mithridate, red precipitate of mercury, Venice turpentine, quick silver, saffron, oyster shells, galbanum, and asafeotida. Many of these ingredients are found in most herbals of the time. Others seem more exotic and probably harder to obtain. Others must have been purchased from apothecaries or chemists, e.g., Venice turpentine or red precipitate of mercury.

Perhaps spending more time with Scattergood’s diaries will reveal when and how he used these recipes. In any event, they offer a glimpse into late 18th-century life and medicine.


  1. Scattergood has become closely associated with mental and behavioral health. See, for example, Scattergood Foundation and Scattergood Ethics. The quotation is taken from Scattergood Ethics : Thomas Scattergood.  ↩

  2. Clearly what Scattergood and contemporaries understood scurvy to be and what we call scurvy are not related. Scurvy seemed epidemic in 17th-century England.  ↩

A Call for Historical Accuracy

If we inveigh against people who distort science and ignore facts to prove their point and we label them dogmatic knuckleheads, we should at least guard against committing the same missteps in our criticisms of them.

Phil Plait recently drew attention to and rightly criticized a pseudo-documentary promoting geocentrism.[1] The same day, Lawrence Krauss—a theoretical physicist and cosmologist, and one of the experts who appears in the movie—proposes plausible ways he ended up, apparently, a spokesman for geocentricism. Yesterday, Graham Slaughter, staff reporter for The Toronto Star, reported on the pseudo-documentary and the various experts and former Star Trek actor who appear in the film: “Why do prominent scientists and a Star Trek star appear in unscientific ‘documentary’?

I have no doubt that this latest piece of quasi-scientific[2] claptrap is rubbish, but getting the history wrong—or, to put it more bluntly, ignoring facts and evidence[3]—mars both Krauss’s and Slaughter’s critiques (to be clear: Plait does not get the history wrong in his post).

In lamenting the persistence of old and false ideas, Krauss propagates an old and false idea.
In lamenting the persistence of old and false ideas, Krauss propagates an old and false idea.

Krauss repeats the flat earth myth. Lamenting his celebrity status, Krauss says

I get bombarded regularly by all sorts of claims, and have become painfully aware that ideas as old as the notion that the Earth is flat never seem to die out completely.

Krauss dredges up once again that past when the benighted humans roamed an earth they believed was flat. Unfortunately, there’s no evidence that such a past ever existed.

The evidence offers up just three people, three, who claimed the earth was flat (or at least not a sphere): Lactantius—an early Christian author and advisor to Emperor Constantine I, Severian—a fourth-century Bishop of Gabala, and Cosmas Indicopleustes—a sixth-century Byzantine monk.[4] And there is no evidence that their opinions were widely accepted. Instead, the overwhelming vast majority of evidence reveals that people—Christians and pagans alike—believed the earth was a sphere. Most of this evidence provides reasonable philosophical and sometimes empirical arguments for the sphericity of the earth—more than two millennia ago Eratosthenes calculated the circumference of the earth, which circumference scholars continued to cite for the next 1700 years.[5]

The evidence does not support the inference that people believed the earth was flat. To be sure, we cannot infer what the uneducated “person on the street” might have believed—that person might have believed the earth was a potato chip—but we can say the evidence supports the conclusion that people argued for a globe-shaped earth. If the evidence reflects contemporary beliefs, then the overwhelming vast majority of people throughout history have believed the earth was a sphere.

Yet this flat earth myth persists. While I might forgive President Obama when he invokes it, it’s harder to forgive purportedly fact-based science journalism for propagating the flat earth story. I find it more regrettable when Krauss repeats it. He rightly lambasts people who propound a geocentric model of the cosmos for ignoring evidence and facts. I would like to see him apply the same standard to his own claims about the past the believed in a flat earth. In both cases evidence and facts demonstrate that these claims—the geocentric model of the cosmos and the flat earth past—are wrong.[6]

Krauss didn’t need to invoke history to make his point. But since he did, he should strive to get his facts right. I suppose that’s what bothers me most. Krauss is an expert in cosmology and theoretical physics. His domain of expertise does not extend to history. Just as people invoking cosmology or theoretical physics should consult an expert about about their statements, so too should Krauss consult an expert—in this case, a historian of science—when he invokes history.

Slaughter hits all the high points of the Copernican Revolution myth in his attack on a pseudo-documentary.
Slaughter hits all the high points of the Copernican Revolution myth in his attack on a pseudo-documentary.

Graham Slaughter too should consult some historians of science. Slaughter opens his article by saying:

In the 16th century, Nicolaus Copernicus turned the scientific world on its head when he presented a controversial theory: the sun, not the earth, is the centre of our solar system.
The church was scandalized. How could God’s greatest creation be under the orbital control of a giant, burning star? Many Protestant scholars blasted Copernicus, saying his writings flew in the face of the Bible.

Here we have all the set pieces of the Copernican revolution myth: we see the hero, the revolution, and the villain.

As historians of science have long noted and widely discussed (and Thony C. has colorfully pointed out in various posts), the “scientific world” of the 16th century largely ignored or was ignorant of Copernicus’s “controversial theory.”[7] Moreover, the church was not scandalized. Late in the game, the Catholic Church placed Copernicus’s book on the Index, but that was in the 17th century after Galileo and Paolo Foscarini antagonized the Church by challenging its authority (again, see Thony’s post). And the Protestants were some of the earliest supporters of Copernicus’s theory.[8]

Slaughter didn’t need to appeal to Copernicus in his criticism of the pseudo-documentary. But since he did, he should get the history right. Alas, the history is once again wrong, and wrong in all the same ways that the pseudo-documentary is wrong: both ignore evidence and disregard facts.

I am not defending the producers of this latest quasi-scientific, geocentric dross or the film itself. I am, instead, calling for greater attention to facts and evidence in our criticisms of such dreck, especially if we are going to assume the moral, factual, and evidential high ground. We can do better.


  1. Plait provides the title, so click through if you want to know. I, like Lawrence Krauss, would rather not provide additional coverage for the film.  ↩

  2. It might not even rise to the level of “quasi-scientific.”  ↩

  3. Or distorting them or not doing the work to check them.  ↩

  4. Polemical writings accuse two other authors of denying the sphericity of the earth, but this is indirect and problematic evidence that cannot be taken at face value.  ↩

  5. Sometimes scribal errors corrupted the value reported for this circumference, as was the case in the sources Columbus was using. He argued for a much smaller number than was commonly accepted. He and his detractors argued over the how big around the earth was, not whether the earth was round.  ↩

  6. Accessible, and short, scholarly articles are readily available, e.g., Lesley Cormack’s “That the Medieval Christians Taught That the Earth Was Flat” in Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths about Science and Religion (Chicago, 2009), as are popular books on the subject, e.g., Christine Garwood, Flat Earth. The History of an Infamous Idea (New York, 2008) or Jeffrey Russell, Inventing the Flat Earth (New York, 1991). A quick Google search will turn up both the wikipedia page and my various rantings about it.  ↩

  7. Historians of science typically claim there were 10 Copernicans in the 16th century. Owen Gingerich has argued that more 16th-century scholars than previously thought might have encountered Copernicus’s De revolutionibus through the teachings of a small group of university masters, but this is indirect and inconclusive evidence. See Gingerich’s The Book Nobody Read.  ↩

  8. Robert Westman pointed this nearly 40 years ago in “The Melanchthon Circle, Rheticus, and the Wittemberg Interpretation of the Copernican Theory,” Isis 66(1975): 165–93. For a considerably more thorough analysis of the so-called Copernican revolution, see Westman’s The Copernican Question (Berkeley, 2011)  ↩