A Melbourne medicine show

19 Jul

In his charming memoir, An Actor Abroad (1880), the American actor Edmund Leathes describes a Melbourne medicine show. Sometime during the 1860s, a snake charmer came to Melbourne, he writes, ‘who advertised a wonderful cure for snake-bites’. Picture him in the nineteenth-century equivalent of a fake tan, kohl beneath the eyes, colourful tat tied turbanlike at the forehead, fingers gaudy with rings. This charmer rented one of the halls in town, and set out a Medusa’s array of venomous snakes in his nightly show. Before those assembled he would regularly induce a cobra to bite a dog or a rabbit, Leathes tells us. He would then apply his miraculous cure to the insensible animal, and in a short time it would revive. One night the snake charmer asked if a member of the audience wanted to be practised on in the same way. Extraordinarily, someone volunteered.  (Could this be true?). The punter was fresh-off-the-boat, Leathes says, as if this was enough to explain his credulity. He came onto the stage and was duly bitten and soon after died.

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