Deaf in Court

In the course of my dissertation research, an aspect of which includes advertisements for “deaf cures,” I come across plenty of newspaper snippets on legal cases against “quack aurists.” These are fascinating because they shed light into how claims about fraud as represented in the legal briefs, tied the cloak of quackery on aural surgery even tighter. I wrote before about the expulsion of “Mr. Lewis,” who was discovered to be a charlatan masquerading as the prominent aurist James Yearsley.

The case, however, played out entirely from the vantage point of the experts—the mayor, the physician, and the aurist. It’s a rare occurrence in the course of my research when I come across voices from users of these “quack” remedies that were not constructed solely to provide a favorable testimonial for a practitioner or by a competitor.

I came across this short article, “Brook v. Perry” in The Times of Saturday 14 May, 1859. The article narrates a court case between the plaintiff, attorney James Bird Brook from Bishop’s Stortford, Hertfordshire, who was suing the defendant, farmer Richard Perry from Essex, for the sum of 41l. 3s. 2d. The sum Brook was trying to recover was the bill of costs he served Perry for another legal proceedings on a retainer, in which Brook represented Perry against a person calling himself “Dr. Watters.”* Apparently, Perry, who was quite deaf, complained Watters defrauded him out of 50s. Professing to be an aurist, Watters examined Perry and then insisted medicines were ineffective and Perry would have to purchase Watters’ specially designed “machine,” which would cost 5l. Not having the money to cover the costs, Perry negotiated the price to 50s.

No machine was ever mailed to Perry. When he complained, Watters sent a box with two bottles of medicine.

The judgment in that case recovered Perry’s 50l. In the Brook v. Perry case, however, the issue came down to whether or not Perry understood the retainer, which he admitted to signing without reading, on good faith of his lawyer—and according to the article, Brook was to obtain his wages from the Watters settlement.  The court found for the defendant, Perry.

Anyways, I thought this case was interesting, for it raises multiple questions about deaf individuals in court. Perry was examined and witnesses testified to the extent of his deafness, a crucial issue in the case. I’m not going to go too deep into legal representations of deaf individuals in court, because it’s beyond my area of expertise—I just found it interesting and worth mentioning! For a read, see Sophia Rosenfeld’s 1997 article, “Deaf Men on Trial: Language and Deviancy in late Eighteenth-Century France.”

A doctor angry with his patient for trying quack medicine as well as his own prescription. Wood engraving by H.M. Brock, 1909. Wellcome Library Collection
A doctor angry with his patient for trying quack medicine as well as his own prescription. Wood engraving by H.M. Brock, 1909. Wellcome Library Collection

*This “Dr. Watters” might be the same as J.H. Watters (or someone representing him) who was heavily criticized for his work on organisms and life forces—that man is but a machine.

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