“Dr.” Sibley, an English patent medicine seller of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, even went so far as to claim that his Reanimating Solar Tincture would, as the name implies, “restore life in the event of sudden death”.
I just added to that number by quoting good ol’ Wikipedia there, but I was quite surprised at the number of times this information is repeated across the web, because:
a.) He was called Sibly, not Sibley. It sounds nit-picky to point this out, but I think it’s important because it doesn’t take an awful lot of effort to verify it, and yet that effort is clearly too much for some. I like Wikipedia – it’s a useful resource as a starting point, but come on people – a few seconds of further investigation aren’t going to bring on, well… sudden death or anything.
b.) He did have an actual medical degree, hence no need for scare-quotes round the word “Dr.” Ebenezer Sibly appears in Officers and Graduates of University & King’s College, Aberdeen MVD-MDCCCLX as having received his MD in 1792. He probably paid for it, but so did many reputable doctors of the time. He was also a well-read and prolific writer on medicine and astrology, on which see A G Debus’ paper, Scientific Truth and occult tradition: the Medical World of Ebenezer Sibly.
So, did Dr. Sibly claim to be able to restore life? At face value, yes – the claim quoted on Wikipedia was indeed the headline used on some of his early ads in the 1790s:
RESTORATION of LIFE in CASES of SUDDEN DEATH.—For this benevolent purpose, Dr. SIBLY’s RE-ANIMATING SOLAR TINCTURE, supersedes every art and invention. In all circumstances of suicide, or sudden death, whether by blows, fits, falls, suffocation, strangulation, drowning, apoplexy, thunder and lightning, assassination, duelling, &c., immediate recourse should be had to this medicine, which will not fail to restore life, provided the organs and juices are in a fit disposition for it, which they undoubtedly are much oftener than is imagined. Let me, therefore, entreat an anxious perseverance in this sublimest of all charities—the attempt to recover perishing lives. Upon all such emergencies, Dr. Sibly will be ready to attend the meanest individual; and in the interim he begs to call the attention of all persons to this Medicine, who labour under any disorders arising from an unwholesome state of the air; whose blood has been contaminated by hot climates or scrophulous taints; whose enfeebled constitutions require immediate aid. They will find it an infallible, and almost immediate cure.
Sold, by the Doctor’s appointment, at Mr. Williams’s, perfumer to his Majesty, No. 41, Pall-mall; at Mevin’s perfumery warehouse, No. 72, New Bond-street; at the Doctor’s house, in Titchfield-street, Cavendish-square; and at the British directory-office, Ave Maria-lane, St. Paul’s price 13s the large, and 7s 6d. the small bottles, duty included.
N.B. A Treatise on the virtues and efficacy of the Medicine may be had gratis where it is sold.
Source: The Times, Monday 4 March 1793
Taken in isolation, the claims are amusingly far-fetched. When you consider, however, the difficulty of determining death, and the contemporary anecdotes about people waking up on the point of burial, they are not as ridiculous as they sound. The advert does clarify that the medicine will work “provided the organs and juices are in a fit disposition for it,” (i.e. still alive!) and subsequently refers to ‘perishing’ rather than ‘perished’ lives. I don’t believe for a moment that the medicine was much good, but the idea behind it is no more outlandish than that of the charitable societies that were being established to rescue people apparently dead from drowning.
Horror stories abounded about people being mistakenly buried alive, and while this issue had not yet reached the level of obsession that it did during the 19th century, it was a genuine and understandable fear for many.
An anonymous correspondent to the Gentleman’s Magazine on July 20 1790 wrote:
It cannot be too much recommended to the world not to be in a hurry to bury their friends and relations. We find that by the assiduities of the Humane Society many persons, apparently dead, have been restored to life…
In short, Mr Urban, it is greatly to be feared that many unfortunate people have actually been buried alive. No man, of the least humanity, can think of such a thing without the utmost horror. I have heard lately of such an unhappy and miserable circumstance.”
Unfortunately (or, rather, fortunately) he doesn’t go on to relate the tale, but calls for legislation to ensure that bodies would not be buried until they showed visible signs of decomposition. A remedy that promised to allay such fears was onto a winner.
After Sibly’s death in 1799 or 1800, his successor, J R Saffell, did not assign the tincture any outright life-restoring properties, saying only that it had “restored multitudes, who were on the verge of the grave, to health.” The medicine was still on sale in the 1870s.
Image of Ebenezer Sibly courtesy of Wellcome Images.