Professor Hartley’s tooth-show

14 Nov

Coincidence. I want straight from the dentist to the library, and started reading the Bulletin‘s theatrical pages from 1886. And there was a review of a ‘tooth-show’, a particular variant of the medicine show, performed by ‘Professor’ W H Hartley in an oversized tent at Sydney’s Belmore Park.

‘We have seen as many shows as most people, from dog-shows to barmaid exhibitions, but we confess to having but a limited experience in tooth-shows’, wrote the Bulletin‘s redoubtable reviewer. The show began in a blare of music and ‘some really good singing’, he added sarcastically – after all, how much music does a man want, who has the jaw-ache? The good professor then took his stand on the plank, ‘and having fixed an electric-light on his forehead, declared he was ready to remove all teeth of every make, shape, and state of decay’.

Now, it seems, a great line of men, women, and children appeared, queueing to take part in ‘the tooth-drawing procession’ on stage. Each patients’ treatment was over in twenty seconds: ‘the Professor cast his light down upon the cavity, gave a nod, smiled, touched something, and the tooth was out. Any attempt at an encore was sternly repressed by the patient, but there was no end to his satisfaction’.

This frightening review brings to mind an account of the career of Edward Irham Cole, an Englishman who ended up performing travelling Wild West Shows in Australia after the turn of the 20thC. Cole, ‘the Australian Barnum’, began his theatrical life as a cheapjack, lecturer, and medicine-cum-dental-treatment showman. He would discourse upon scientific wonders &c., perhaps deliver a song and dance, and then offer to relieve his audience of a tooth or two.

(On Cole, see Barbara Garlick, ‘Australian Travelling Theatre, 1890-1935’, PhD thesis, University of Queensland, 1994).

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