A "Cavalier" Doctor and Fraudulent Impersonator, who continued his Cheats even after his Death in 1700
WILLIAM MORELL was born at Banbury, in Oxfordshire, of very reputable parents, in 1650. He was put apprentice to a surgeon as soon as his father thought him fit for servitude. He went through the usual time, with abundance of satisfaction to his master and honour to himself, having acquired a knowledge beyond what is commonly found in young theorists. He understood anatomy very well, and would reason finely upon all the systems of the human economy. All this knowledge was afterwards confirmed and increased by practice when he came to set up at Banbury, on the death of his master, where he continued some time in very great reputation, which he really deserved both for his penetration and diligence. What put an end to his living here was his running beyond his income, though that was large, and exposing himself daily to vexatious suits and arrests, till at last he was obliged to leave the place and seek his fortune.
The first means that presented itself to his thought was turning quack and travelling the country as a mountebank; for which profession he was the more fit as he was very capable of performing such manual operations as these impostors generally pretend to, and of letting the judicious see that he understood something, if the family should ever challenge him to a trial of skill, as it frequently happened. He was resolved, however, not to do any hurt with the medicines he sold, as a great many ignorant fellows do, who destroy the lives of others purely to maintain their own. To this end he made up a quantity of very innocent pills with a little fine flour and treacle, making use of the same powder to roll them in as other physicians do. These pills were a sovereign remedy for all internal distempers whatsoever. They were the only specific under the sun, and took up, as he said, a great deal of time, as well as expense, in preparing. For all green wounds, bruises and pains he had a plaster altogether as harmless, having no other quality than that of sticking to the skin, wheresoever it was placed. He had, moreover, a little spring water, tinctured with something that changed the colour without altering the property in the least, and this was to cure all the blind people in the kingdom. For agues, colds and such diseases as are most common among the country people he had plenty of amulets, which were to be disposed of to those who had most faith and least reason; for such people prefer remedies of this kind to those that operate in a natural way and give some rational ground for our expecting a good effect from them.
Being thus prepared he set out, without any retinue at all, designing to be only a "cavalier" doctor, which was far less expensive than keeping a stage would be, and far more honourable than travelling on foot. He had still two or three good suits of clothes left, in all of which he appeared at several times in every place he came to. By his rhetoric he prevailed upon the poor ignorant country people, so that they bought up his remedies as fast as he could wish. It was not, however, to his interest to appear above two or three times in a place, which he was sensible of; and therefore he shifted his ground very often, living all the time in splendour, admired and even adored by his deluded patients. Besides what he professed to do by his medicines already named he also had a great deal of practice in surgery, in which he was really expert, as has been before noted, and this served to raise his character upon other accounts, as his operations were skilful and worthy of the best surgeons.
Being in the north of England, and having quacked it from town to town as long as he could with safety, he had a mighty inclination to come up to London, but had not at that time money enough to pay the expense of such a journey, nor even to discharge his lodging where he now resided. How to get out of this scrape he could not for some days tell; for it was impossible to come at his horse without money, unless he broke open the stable, which was a remedy worse than the disease. What did he do at last but take several sheets of clean paper, folded them up, and sealed them very carefully in the form of letters, directing one to my Lord Middleton, another to another nobleman, and so on to all the officers of King James's Court at St Germains. Everyone knows that in the reign of King William it was high treason to hold any correspondence with the abdicated monarch, and consequently with any in trust under him. These blank letters, if I may so call them, he laid carefully on one corner of a table in the room where he lay, and went out, as about business,
While he was gone, the maid went, according to custom, to make his bed, and being able to read writing she had the curiosity to look on our gentleman's letters, when she was surprised to see so many great names upon the outside of them. Downstairs she runs as soon as ever she had done her work and tells her master what great men the doctor was acquainted with. Our host was like his servant, and, indeed, like all of the same profession —- very inquisitive. He was, moreover, pretty well acquainted with the national affairs of that time, by reading the news and hearing the conversation of gentlemen; all which Morell had before noted, and concluded from it that the consequence of what he had done would be as he desired it.
The landlord goes up as fast as he could and takes hold of the papers; but what a consternation was he in when he beheld to whom they were directed! Treason with- out dispute! "Oh, Mr Doctor, we see now what you are; you don't travel to heal the bodies of people only, but to corrupt their minds and converse with the enemies of the nation. These shall all be opened, my boy, and I warrant I shall lose nothing by making such a discovery. My Lord Middleton and my Lord Middleton's master may wait long enough before they have any news from you. 'Tis like indeed that they may hear of you soon, when you are drawn in state up Holborn Hill on a sledge."
The next thing was to apply to the chief magistrate of the city (for it was at Carlisle) for a warrant to secure the person of William Morell as a dangerous man to the State. This, to be sure, was readily granted, and a messenger sent to the Secretary of State with an account of the whole affair, who immediately dispatched a proper officer, with orders to bring up both prisoner and papers to town, that they might be examined in form.
Now had Morell all he desired —- the allowance of a State prisoner and a safe conduct up to town; where he was kept on his arrival at the house of a Messenger of State till next day, when he was carried to the Secretary's office. The secretaries were as much surprised at the inside of the letters as our landlord had been at the outside, when they saw nothing there but blank paper. All the ways they could think of to make the writing appear were made use of, for they imagined he had found out some art to conceal his business if the letters should happen to be intercepted. At last, when everything else was found in vain a free pardon was offered him upon condition that he should discover all the secrets of his correspondence, and tell the persons who were concerned in it here in England, that they might be apprehended.
To make short of the story, he now frankly confessed the whole truth, begging pardon of their honours for giving them so much trouble, and professing he was as loyal a subject of King William as anyone in the three kingdoms: adding, that he had been reduced to extreme necessity and could think of no other way of coming up to London. Those who examined him could see no reason for disbelieving what he said; and therefore, though they were a little offended that such an insignificant fellow should make free with men in their high station, yet, as there appeared something so masterly in the invention and execution of this piece of policy, they could not help forgiving him, and laughing at the affair among themselves, while they dismissed him with an air of severity and abundance of threatenings, which they were to execute if ever he did such a thing again. But Morell knew as well as they could tell him that once was enough to play such a trick as this upon secretaries of State.
This man was as great a gallant as anyone we have ever heard of, for his story informs us that he had no less than six wives living at one time in different parts of the kingdom, it being customary with him to marry for the sake of enjoying his desires when he could prevail upon the woman he had a fancy to no other way.
There was scarce a character to be thought of in which Morell did not at one time or other appear, and always with success; sometimes he was a fortune-teller and astrologer, sometimes a decayed gentleman, sometimes a clergyman, and sometimes a foreigner who left his own country for the sake of religion. There was no shape, no pretence that might move pity but he put on, and never failed of gaining belief. Not a few times he was a man of great fortune, and made love to the richest young ladies he could hear of, having his servants at his heels, like our modern Irish fortune hunters, there being always men wicked enough to assist in such enterprises, with a view to sharing in the booty. Two or three virtuous women he married and ruined by these means, besides making a great many cuckolds, and winning abundance to his desires who never submitted to the common ceremony, most of whom he wheedled out of a pretty deal of money and afterwards blasted their characters, taking care to let their husbands know their foibles, if they were married, or, if they were single, to send an account of his success to their friends or sweethearts, if they had any. He continued these practices so long in every part of the country that it was become dangerous for him to continue them any longer. Several gentlemen made inquiry after him, in order to have him punished for personating them in places where they had interest and were not personally known, by which means he imposed upon abundance of tradesmen and cheated them of their goods. In short, he had no hopes left of hiding himself anywhere but in London. Being in town, and having got such information as was necessary for his proceeding, he applied himself for lodging to a rich baker in the Strand, telling him that his name was Humphry Wickham, Esq., of —-.
The baker knew the family of the Wickhams very well, being their countryman, though he was not acquainted with the gentleman who at present enjoyed the estate, as he had not been in the country for a great many years. However he made no scruple of entertaining our sham esquire. Nay, he was so far from it that he caressed him, and returned him a thousand thanks for doing him so much honour as to reside at his house. Morell told him that he had a private affair in town, which would detain him for some time, and that he came in such an obscure manner because he was not willing to be known; his own family, all but his steward and the man who waited on him, being ignorant of the place of his residence. He added that when the business was over he would inform him of the particulars, and take him down to his country seat with him for a month or two. Several days passed, and still our baker was satisfied, never mentioning a word to any of his friends concerning Mr Wickham, lest he should injure him in the business of which he spoke. A fellow in a livery came every morning, cap in hand, to receive his worship's commands, and was very diligent in dispatching everything he set him about. After about a week our good-natured host heard Mr Wickham talk aloud to his man about the steward's neglect in not sending up the linen and money which he had written for. Proud to make a merit of this carelessness of the servant, he took the first opportunity to tell his worship in a very submissive manner what he had overheard, desiring him to make use of what he had till his own box came, and complaining that he did not honour him so far as to let him know his necessity. Our pretended esquire protested he was ashamed to abuse his generosity. However, as he had understood how things were, he would accept of his love. Upon this the baker in a minute fetches down half-a-dozen of his best holland shirts, one of which Mr Wickham put on, and prevailed on his worship further to accept of fifty guineas till his money arrived.
The next day after this Morell fell sick, and now is the time that we are to see him play such a farce as was never before heard of. As soon as his illness was known, a doctor was sent for, who found him in a high fever, and wrote a prescription to the apothecary, in conjunction with whom he waited on him every day afterwards. The baker asked him if he should write into the country, but Mr Wickham said no, for he had never a wife, and servants would but disturb him, so that he had rather they should know nothing of the matter till he saw how it was like to go with him. The fever began to increase, and after a few days his life was thought in danger. The doctor told him his sentiments freely, and he desired Mr Baker to send for an attorney to make his will, which was accordingly done, and the writing lodged in the hands of our landlord, whom he enjoined to open it as soon as he was dead, which was no longer than the next day. Now the neighbours are sent for and the will is unsealed. The baker is constituted one of the executors; a considerable estate is given him, besides abundance of plate, linen and jewels to his wife, and large legacies to all his children; several sums are allotted to charitable uses; all the servants are rewarded according to their places and merit. He is to be interred in town, and the whole management of the funeral is left to the care of his good friend the baker, who is over and over again mentioned with a good deal of respect. To complete all, the lawyer is named who has all the writings of his estates, and who is to produce the several sums of money at the time specified.
The baker knew the lawyer whom he mentioned, and was certain that he used to do business for the family. He did not, however, go to him directly, as he had money in the house to defray necessary expenses, and as he was willing to show as much respect as possible to the deceased. His house is hung with mourning, a leaden coffin is made, the body is embowelled, and laid in state. The best of cloth and silk is bought for himself and family, besides rings and other particulars. An undertaker is agreed with, and in short everything is got ready for solemnising the obsequies on such a day, till when wax tapers are continually burning in the room where the corpse lies.
The day before the interment was to be, our baker goes to the lawyer and invites him, telling him the particulars of Mr Wickham's will, and desiring he would let him have some money in a few days to pay such things as were not paid, because he had exhausted all his cash. The lawyer was startled to hear him talk of Mr Wickham's death, he having received a letter from him but the day before on some special business. It was a pretty while before they could come to a right understanding. At last all was found to be an imposture, and confirmed by a letter from the fellow who had waited upon Morell, and who was willing to make some merit of discovering a cheat which he could no longer carry on. The body was now stripped of all its finery and thrown with little ceremony into a common grave in St Clement's Churchyard.
This was the end of Morell, in the year 1700. An account of the affair was soon sent to the real Mr Wickham, who, being a man of honour and generosity, made up the baker's loss, telling him that though he had been thus imposed on, he looked on the deed as though it really had been done to himself. The undertaker and all who had furnished anything towards the funeral considered the case, and took their goods again as they were.