ODD TRUTHS: JOHN EVANS, THE SINISTER ASTROLOGER OF FETTER-LANE
“He was the most saturnine person my eyes ever beheld…”
-from History of His Life and Times by William Lilly (1715)
There is a guilty pleasure in picturing the Early Modern era as a time of taboo-defying dynamos and charismatics. Personalities like Giovanni Pico, Paracelsus, Giordano Bruno, and John Dee are arguably the best known exemplars of this trope. Humanistic and aspirational, they pursued knowledge using any means necessary. In some sense their actions were self-sacrificial. They were prepared to cede all for their ideas. Each inspired generations of freethinkers to come, but it was Paracelsus the reactionary physician and critic of Scholasticism, who became a kind of forefather to chemists and theosophers.
Among other things, Paracelsus infamously declared that true knowledge was obtained, not by book-learning but by direct experience. Even though Paracelsus antagonised the Academy, his most ardent followers, such as Jan Baptist van Helmont and Robert Fludd, became highly respected collegians. But the Paracelsians were not all shining examples of scientific enquiry. Many, such as Reverend John Evans of Gunpowder Alley (near modern-day Fetter Lane in Farringdon) took the Swiss adept’s advice about creativity and self-reliance a little too literally.
John Evans was an opportunist with a mystic side. In the early 1600s he was an everyman, an Oxford graduate and Church of England preacher who lived with his family on a quiet plot of land in Enfield. From here he published almanacs and taught the liberal arts to worthy students who could afford it. At some point, Reverend Evans crossed the line in his pastoral duties and was reprimanded for his “disreputable conduct”. He then moved to Gunpowder Alley in East London, where in 1632, he took on William Lilly (the future parliamentary magician and “prince of prognosticators”).
Lilly studied with Evans for several weeks. In his autobiography Lilly describes his teacher as mad, bad, and dangerous to know—much like Paracelsus. Evans liked to get drunk, and his house was like “the wilderness”. Nevertheless, Lilly refrains from denying that Evans was a wizard. On the contrary, Lilly admits that the former preacher was “well-versed in the nature of spirits and had many times used the circular way of invocating”.
Overall, Lilly’s description of his mentor creates a picture of a man both shrewd and manipulative. Evans eventually went on to start earning money through more deceptive means. Delving into the dark recesses of his mind, which were already full of astrological and alchemical notions that he’d known since his university years, he hatched up an idea that would ultimately lead to his downfall: Antimonial cups.
Antimonial cups or (Antimony cups) were the “alternative medicine” of Early Modern fringe medical practitioners. They were advertised as purgative cure-alls that used magnetic power to remove toxins from the body. Essentially the treatment involved ingesting wine that had been left overnight in a goblet of pure antimony. Evans set up shop in the 1630s and got away with his scam with impunity until 1635, when he officially became a persona non grata in the eyes of the Royal College of Physicians after publishing The Universal Medicine; or, the virtues of the Antimonial Cup. The medical body, having received a number of complaints about the poisonous treatment, informed the Archbishop of Canterbury, William Laud. Laud in turn ordered the remaining copies of Evans’s book to be destroyed.
The official censure probably dealt a significant blow to Evans’s business, but it certainly didn’t stop him from writing. He re-published his book a few years later and, in quite an immoral fashion, stuffed the book with endorsements from prominent physicians, such as Richard Napier and Robert Fludd. Evans’s later life is a mystery, and to this day, the number of casualties he caused through the sale of his “life-saving” treatment, much like the details of his “under the radar” way of life, remains unknown. On this point Bernard Capp, writing in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography has highlighted the fitting words of Anthony Wood, Evans’s biographer:
“…he lived in several places, and in obscure conditions.”
Still, Evans was one who took Paracelsian doctrines to an extreme, combining unaccountability, narcissism, and hocus-pocus to better his own livelihood. His life, like the lives of countless other quacks, shows the darker heritage of the “high culture” of Renaissance idealists. It also illustrates how easily sublime concepts can be distorted and exploited by frauds and charlatans.