Elizabeth J. French
Elizabeth J. (Poorman) French (1821-1900) was among the best-known mid-nineteenth century American Spiritualists and practitioners of galvanic medicine.
French was born in 1821 in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania, to a farm family. She married an engineer, Joseph French, in the 1840s, moved to Pittsburgh, and had four children, Elizabeth, Mary (May), Newton (who died when young) and Isabella. Only a few years later, Elizabeth French left her husband and moved to New York, where she established a practice as a spirit medium.
With her assistant and lover Thomas Culbertson, she connected with leaders in the Spiritualist movement such as Robert Owen and Benjamin Coleman. French soon achieved notoriety for her spiritual practice, however, when a prosperous Queens farmer named George Doughty sued her for fifteen thousand dollars for fraud. Her career survived the lawsuit, and she continued to work as “clairvoyant and healing physician” and an organizer of séances through the 1860s. French’s esoteric and scientific practices were fundamentally connected: electrical currents were the medium, she contended, for the spiritual world.
In the late 1850s, French began to mentor Emma Harding, an English actress affiliated with the New York Spiritualist community, as a medium. She and Harding, who, by the 1870s, practiced as Dr. Emma Hardinge Britten, were pioneers of galvanic medicine. They opened free clinics in New York City and Philadelphia where poor women could receive electrical treatment for illness.
In the 1870s, French became active in the Philadelphia temperance movement, and continued to popularize “electronic therapeutics” through publications and the lecture circuit. In 1873, French published A New Path in Electrical Therapeutics, which described how “electrical cranial diagnosis” could be used to cure a variety of diseases. In the book, French claimed that she discovered the healing powers of electricity as a child. Around 1833, she wrote, a stroke of lightening killed her brother and sister and paralyzed one-half of her mother’s body. Using “certain rude batteries,” precocious French “restored to life” her mother’s disabled side.
French continued to develop these technologies through her practice. In 1875, she was granted a United States patent (Number 167162) for an “Electra-Therapeutic Appliance” made of a triple strip composed, in turn, of “strips of zinc, copper and brass.” The device would be “an electrode for the conveyance of currents from a separate source of electricity to any desired part of the body.”
By the last decade of her life, French apparently turned away from galvanic medicine and became a Christian Scientist.
Her 1900 obituary in the New York Times claimed that her medical research earned her “a fame almost world-wide,” leading to “commendation from the most distinguished members of the medical profession in her age and time.” A recent historian, Marc Demarest, has called this legacy into question, doubting the originality of her electrical medicine and arguing that much of the public saw it as quackery. Rather, Demarest argues that French was “a working opportunist” who exemplified the path taken by women seeking an independent career in the spiritual profession of the nineteenth century.
“Dr. Elizabeth J. French Dead,” N.Y. Times, Jan. 11, 1900.
Marc Demarest, “The Trajectory of an Opportunist, and the Writing of History: The Real Life of Elizabeth J. French (1821-1900)."