The Wroeites, William Chidley and the British Medical Association: Bizarre sex cults in nineteenth century Australia
Seminar paper given to History Department, Australian National University, Friday 26 March 2004
Outline and introduction
The Wroeites were an ascetic millennial sect with a penchant for Old Testament rhetoric and Jewish ritual. William Chidley was a lifestyle reformer who thought he had found the key to human happiness on earth: it could be attained by a revolution in the mode of sexual intercourse. The British Medical Association, promising its own millennium in the form of perfect health, represented the mainstream of orthodox and increasingly scientific medical practice. A central plank of this was the proposition that masturbation was a major cause of organic and mental disease in both men and women, and the single most important cause of spermatorrhoea, impotence and inexplicable wasting illnesses – often referred to as debility – in men. What these three nineteenth century cults had in common is that they placed male sexuality, and more specifically the male genitals, at the centre of their world view and action program. Indeed, it was not just the male genitals, but the penis that was their focus, and in the case of the Wroeites and the BMA, a specific part of the penis known to anatomy as the prepuce, more commonly referred to as the foreskin, or forey, as lucky Queenslanders say.
I therefore warn you now that the content of my paper is adult in nature. If you do not wish to hear explicit talk about the male genitals and sexual acts, please don’t attend.
I cannot claim that this is a particularly coherent or polished paper. It consists of a few bits and pieces hewn from the work I have been doing over the past four or five years on male sexuality, and more particularly on changing attitudes to male sexuality and the male genitals in Britain – and the anglophone world more generally – from the seventeenth to the twentieth century. This began as a more limited project to write an account of the rise and fall of routine male circumcision in Australia, from the late nineteenth century to the 1990s, by which time it seemed as though it was going the way of such valued therapies as bleeding, phrenology and frontal lobotomy. To understand the emergence of circumcision in Australia, however, it was necessary to go back to the British home base, and once I got there I found that the key to the whole question lay in the masturbation phobia – a phenomenon which reached its peak in the late nineteenth century, but which had its origins in the late seventeenth, and even before then in Jewish and Christian religious teaching. After that, among other finds, I discovered the importance of syphilis and the purity movement. In this way my intended introduction on the British background grew into a book in its own right which, I hope, is to be published by an American university press some time next year.
What these cults further had in common was a tendency to pathologise male sexuality as a major source of physical, mental and moral decay, and in this they were part and parcel of the Victorian construction of sexuality as a nest of problems, very different from the generally positive attitudes which had prevailed in the Georgian age. Indeed, looking at the evolution of medical knowledge of sexuality over three centuries I found a curious pattern. In the libertine eighteenth century, medical authorities were not much concerned with sex, except in relation to venereal disease, but they knew that most men and women desired sexual relations with each other, that such connections were mutually pleasurable and beneficial to the health of mind and body, that normal genitals required no modifications for optimum function and appearance, and that the foreskin specifically was a valuable feature of the male package. In the nineteenth century they knew that many women did not enjoy sex, and some regarded it with revulsion, that men were governed by animal passions, that sexual activity was always risky and “too much” of it positively harmful, that both the male and female genitals were frequently in need of surgical improvement, that the male foreskin was a menace to both health and morals, and that a host of diseases and social problems were directly related to sexuality. For all their moralism, Victorian doctors were obsessed with sex.
And not just doctors, as I hope my three exhibits will demonstrate.
I would like to thank Dr Chris Forth for encouraging my research and Professor Frank Lewins for inviting me to be a Visiting Fellow in the School of Social Sciences in 2004.
The Wroeites, William Chidley and the British Medical Association
E.P. Thompson has warned us not to condescend to the poor deluded followers of Joanna Southcott,  but it is hard to have much sympathy with the most deluded of them all, the self-appointed prophet John Wroe, founder of the Christian Israelites. Southcott offered a fiery brand of millennial preaching and visions of the Last Judgement, and she attracted a large following in the south-west of England in the 1790s and up until her death in 1814. Hers was one of several millenarian movements which attracted the poor and dispossessed of the Industrial Revolution, and their inspiration was the blood and thunder of Old Testament, and thus the rites and practices of the Jews. They readily identified themselves with the children of Israel, oppressed by the ungodly, but sustained by divine promises of eventual victory and bloody revenge against their modernising enemies, certainly involving a great deal of smiting. John Wroe (1782-1863) was one of Southcott’s followers, and after her death he set himself up as a prophet in whom the Judaizing tendencies already apparent were greatly intensified. He began by actually trying to convert to Judaism, but decided to establish his own religion after being rebuffed by the Liverpool synagogue. His own creed was an ascetic regime based on Mosaic Law, including a ban on pork, shellfish, alcohol and tobacco, elaborate rules about dress, the requirement to wear a beard, Sabbath observance and the adoption of male circumcision. Wroe himself was publicly circumcised in 1824, and later that year he circumcised a young convert. Like many evangelists in our own day, he had some trouble with sexual temptation, and he was charged with an offence against a 12-year old servant girl, though acquitted. Later his own followers set up an inquiry into his “indecencies” with three young women of the congregation. It does not seem to take long for an adult who has chosen a bodily alteration like circumcision for himself to try to force it on others, and in 1824 one of Wroe’s followers was charged with manslaughter after a boy whom he had circumcised in Bedford died from the wound. Another convert was James Smith (1801-57), known as Shepherd Smith, who wrote an autobiographical account of the sect in which he wrote of himself as follows:
He was now a Jew or Israelite bodily and spiritually. … He kept the law of Moses as faithfully as any modern Jew. He abandoned the use of pork … or fish without scales. He abandoned even the occasional use of spirits, tobacco or snuff, and adopted all the cleanly, chaste, and orderly habits which were enjoined. 
The last reference is of particularly interest, suggesting that the adoption of a Jewish lifestyle was another route to the work-focused sobriety of the Protestant ethic: cleanliness, chastity and orderly habits were exactly the values being enjoined on the Victorian middle class at that time, by doctors and clergy alike. Wroeism flourished in the new industrial towns of Yorkshire in the 1820s and 30s, though it is not clear whether all adherents underwent circumcision, and from there emigrants took the new creed to the Australian colonies.
The Wroeites did not attract a strong following in the Antipodes, and what I know of them comes from a pamphlet by a regretful convert, with the uncompromising title, The abominations of the Wroeites (or Christian Israelites) fully and completely exposed, published in Melbourne in 1863.  The author, Allen Stewart, was an apprentice carpenter who reports that on his Sunday rambles he met "some of Wroe’s preachers, listened to their sermons and read their tracts, which gradually worked upon my mind, till I really thought I had met with the best and purest people on earth, who could assuredly show me the way to heaven."
To join their society Stewart had to wrote out a full confession of his sins, and then to undergo what he described as “the unpleasant rite of circumcision”, in which ordeal he was told that he would be “divinely supported”. In the event it did not turn out to be the uplifting spiritual experience he had been led to believe: “I found it to be a terrible operation, which cost me three weeks of agony before I recovered from it”. Stewart also reported that the Wroeities practised a strange penitential rite in which the man leaned over a table and confessed his sins, while a woman massaged his buttocks and “private parts”. One ex-convert reported to John Milton MD (presumably John Laws Milton, a leading authority on spermatorrhoea) that she “began to manipulate his private parts till he was afraid he would not be able to contain his … [sic]”. This did not happen to Stewart himself, and the ritual seems oddly at variance with the ascetic trend of the cult; it may be that he was retailing hostile gossip rather than giving an accurate description of its practices. Calling himself a fool and madman to get involved with the sect, Stewart concluded with a warning to parents:
Remember that your children … may be deluded by these people, that the atrocities which I have witnessed may be practised upon them – then happy will they be if … they are rescued … even [if it is] with a shattered constitution, a shaken mind and life-long remorse.
I wonder here whether Stewart was referring mainly to circumcision, or whether it was to the apocryphal masturbatory rite, since the consequences he enumerates – shaken mind, shattered constitution and life-long regret – are exactly the results which, according to nineteenth century doctors, flowed inevitably from that shameful indulgence. Of course, the life-long remorse could just as easily refer to his allowing the amputation of his foreskin.
I also wonder whether my next exhibit, William Chidley, might have heard a Wroeite sermon in his youth, since in his autobiography he recalls an itinerant preacher asserting that the snake in the Garden of Eden was really an erect penis. It sounds like the kind of comparison an adherent of the cult might have made, and the thought leads me into the program of Australia’s best known sex reformer and most famous eccentric.
Of all the claims made by Victorian specialists in male sexual problems, the one that seems most improbable to us is that men were troubled by erections. That some Victorians did find their erections a source of anxiety rather than pride, and actually sought means to discourage them, as though they were a malfunction like toothache, is a tribute to the doctors’ success in convincing the public that normal male sexuality was a chronic disease. An extreme case was William Chidley (1860-1916), whose sad life might be used to illustrate many morals, including Pope’s warning that a little learning is a dangerous thing. After reading a pamphlet on the dangers of masturbation as a teenager he became convinced that all his subsequent health and personal problems were the result of self-abuse. When he grew up he learned from William Acton and other standard works on sexual physiology that excessive intercourse could have the same effect, and he embarked on a vigorous personal crusade to practise continence and encourage it in others. Eventually he became convinced that erections themselves were the problem and wrote pamphlets in which he advocated what he called “natural coition” – that is, with a flaccid penis which was sucked by vacuum force into the vagina. Attempting to sell these ideas in the streets of Sydney between 1912 and 1915 he was gaoled repeatedly for indecency and eventually confined in a mental hospital.
Chidley’s views were only a slight extension and distortion of the medical mainstream, and his advocacy of sexual restraint – he would permit sexual intercourse only for a couple of months each year, during Spring – were very much in tune with both medical and theological orthodoxy. But he caused offence by his social origins (an itinerant labourer), by talking about sex explicitly in public, by intruding into a domain that doctors considered their own, and by wearing a toga-like tunic which magistrates judged obscene. Chidley has been the subject of some interesting research, but its focus has been the reception of his ideas and his persecution by the authorities, rather than the sources and content of his teachings.  The assumption has been that if he was gaoled by the establishment he must have been some sort of progressive or radical, but he invites reinterpretation as an extreme puritan rather than a libertarian, and as an impressionable autodidact who took the teachings of Acton and others all too seriously. 
Chidley’s theories went through three stages of development. First he thought that self-abuse would produce the dire effects predicted in a pamphlet on the harm of masturbation issued by “a medical man in Melbourne” which he read when he was a teenager. This offered the usual line-up of physical and mental ills, including “shattered nerves, madness etc”, as Chidley recalled in his autobiography.  The pamphlet did not stop him from masturbating, though it naturally caused intense anxiety and guilt which carried over into his later sexual affairs. The second stage was when he went to the public library to learn more about sex and found that there were books on the subject of excessive coition, in one of which he read the following: “There is little or no difference between the results of excessive coition and those of self-abuse”.  Chidley did not identify the precise source of this quotation, but it could be from any one of many works on sexual physiology published during the nineteenth century. From this point Chidley regarded all health problems, diseases and the effects of ageing itself as caused by excessive indulgence in sexual intercourse, and he claimed to find that by practising restraint his own health and appearance improved markedly. He wrote in his later pamphlets  that the shock of coition caused bodily degeneration and
Heart disease, paralysis, epilepsy, diabetes, rheumatism, neuralgia, asthma, consumption, madness and – directly or indirectly – all diseases and deformity. And cancer I am convinced. Only men and women who have accumulated the shocks of coition for twenty or thirty years – until they are one mass of perverted functions – have cancer. I am sure from over twenty years close observation, and for the reason mentioned by Acton, i.e. that all these improve on abstinence and get worse on indulgence. 
Before we laugh at Chidley’s naivety, we should remember that doctors as prominent as Simon-Andre Tissot, Claude-Francois Lallemand, Acton and the Australian James Beaney, on the basis of their own lengthy clinical experience and medical expertise, confidently attributed these same ailments to masturbation. During this phase of his life Chidley eagerly sought medical knowledge and studied many standard works on human sexuality,  including Acton’s Functions and disorders of the reproductive organs, William Carpenter’s Principles of physiology, and texts by E.A. Schafer and Michael Foster.  From Carpenter and Acton he learnt that “The high degree of nervous excitement which the act of coition involves produces a depression of spirits to a corresponding amount, and the too frequent repetition of it is productive of consequences very injurious to the general health”.  From Schafer’s and Foster’s books Chidley learned that protoplasm contracts in response to shock, a principle which he interpreted as authorising his view that the shock of intercourse caused the brain to shrink and facial features to contract. As time went by and shocks accumulated
lesions would appear in the brain itself, in the blood and lymph, and in all glands and secretions. The normal waste and repair would become perverted, and either fat or consumption ensue. That is why people get fat or thin after marriage. … And that is why people get bald and wrinkled and blind and deaf and pigeon-toed and epileptic and criminal and finally mad. 
Like many discoverers of hidden truths, Chidley believed he had found the master-key to all illness.
In the third stage of his theory Chidley decided that the problem was not too much sex but erection itself. In this development he relied heavily on Acton, whom he praised for identifying the harmful results of sexual indulgence and criticised for not taking his insights far enough.  Dr Acton’s book is full of the evils accruing to our present sexual coition”, he wrote. “Acton was “surprised at the improvement in his patients … when they abstained from coition. … Had he followed that up he would have made my discovery”.  Chidley was most interested in Acton’s discussion of a major issue in nineteenth century sexual medicine: which was the key factor in the harm of sexual activity? Was it the shock of orgasm to the brain and nervous system, as predicted by the dominant nerve force theory of disease? Or was it the loss of semen from the system, as maintained by the fading but still influential humoral or Galenic paradigm? Acton inclined to the former view, thus giving Chidley the lead he needed to transform shock of orgasm into shock of coition, caused by the erect penis. It was perhaps only a small slide from Acton’s shock of orgasm (a nervous spasm affecting the male more severely than the female) to Chidley’s shock of coition (a vaguely defined event affecting both male and female equally), but Chidley was a trifle dishonest in this particular borrowing from and extension of current sexual physiology. He included two long passages from Functions and disorders, one dealing with debility arising from marital excess, the other with the shock of orgasm/loss of semen problem mentioned above as evidence for his argument. But from both these quotations he omitted crucial phrases which indicate Acton’s real concern: the disease of spermatorrhoea, or loss of semen, the cure of which was his specialism. Statements that ill-health was caused by seminal loss were no use to an innovator who wanted to show that the problem went right back to erection in the first place, so the offending and unhelpful text was quietly suppressed. 
There were two reasons why Chidley rejected Acton’s theory that the problem was mere excess. First, there was his failure to define excessive when discussing the harm of excessive intercourse (except retrospectively, after illness had ensued). Secondly there was Chidley’s own romantic belief that something as natural as intercourse could not be indulged in to excess, with its implication that there must therefore be something wrong with the method.  This consideration might have led him in a libertarian direction, to question the very doctrine that sexual activity was debilitating, but his prior and unshakeable conviction that all illness was caused in this manner sent him further in the other direction. There is a dreamlike quality to Chidley’s reasoning in which the ideas he has picked up from his wide reading reappear in grotesque form. Although Chidley was condemned for preaching immorality, he was actually advocating a degree of puritanical restraint even more severe than Acton and all the other moralists who insisted that sex was permissible only for reproduction. He went further to argue that erections themselves were permissible only for reproductive purposes, and that tumescent manifestations in any other circumstances were wrong.
Having decided that erections were the root of all evil he was such a sound “Victorian” that he needed to argue that they were unattractive and unnatural as well, and accordingly asserted that the erect penis was “an ugly thing” of which “we are all ashamed”  and “a weakness, the same as a stiff neck or knee”.  It was “an inherited weakness” or lesion, arising from loss of nerve and muscle tone. That erections were also unnatural was proved by the “fact” that “babies and boys have erections”, even though they “serve no purpose with boys” and, on the contrary, “may often ruin the boy’s life”.  Conventional medical wisdom was that masturbation ruined a boy’s life, so Chidley was only going a little further in blaming the erection which led to the act. Indeed, these comments are remarkably close to the view of Lallemand, who deplored erections before puberty as an unhealthy sign of sexual precocity, likely to give rise to predictable bad habits.  Although he had not read Lallemand, Chidley imbibed his suspicion of juvenile penile restlessness through Acton, whose baleful comments on priapism and satyriasis he triumphantly quoted in his pamphlet on erection. He was also impressed by Acton’s remark that the principal cause of erection was “nervous irritation” – further evidence of the evil inherent in our mode of coition. 
Commentators on Chidley have claimed that his views on sexual intercourse were really an attempt to moderate male sexual aggressiveness and “phallocentrism” and thus to increase female pleasure.  He did appeal to some “purity feminists”, such as Rose Scott and Marion Piddington, who believed that the “double standard” on sexual morality should be evened up by imposing the rule of extra-marital chastity on everybody, but as far as the sexual act was concerned, Chidley took a stricter line than Acton. He had stated that it should be approached cautiously by the strong and be got over with quickly – “some few minutes” only;  for Chidley, the only purpose of an erection was to facilitate a rapid ejaculation with a view to impregnation. Going one better than his mentors yet again, he wrote: “there is no reason given why the penis should become erect and then wait. On the contrary, when the erection has reached its full, ejaculation should follow on immediately”.  The disappointing implications of this scenario for female pleasure hardly need to be stressed. That Chidley was no libertarian is further indicated by his desire to ban alcohol, tobacco and opium,  and by the list of perversions he condemned in the course of defending his theory of the unnatural erection.  In condemning juvenile and adolescent sex, masturbation, homosexuality, wet dreams and naughty pictures, Chidley was as extreme a Victorian wowser as you could hope to meet. He even advocated the use of chastity devices: Dr Andrew Davidson (a Sydney practitioner to whom he sought to explain his views) reported that he recommended “putting a wire cover over the testicles and penis in order to stop erection”.  As he told the court during the appeal against his committal for insanity, his aim was not to inflame lust (as the police claimed), but the opposite: “my book lays the axe to the root of all lust”. 
It is important to appreciate how close Chidley was to the medical mainstream, and particularly to the theories of nervous disease then current. Even the doctors who attested his insanity were forced, under questioning, to agree with many of his points. The Chief Government Medical Office (who had certified him) conceded that “sexual excess” was a reality, that it had harmful effects and “a very important bearing on the individual and society”, and that it could be a factor in the genesis of general paralysis of the insane.  Dr J.M. Creed agreed that intercourse could damage the nervous system because orgasm caused “a brainstorm” and “nervous shocks in high degree”; he added that “nerve disturbance consequent upon coitus might lead to heart trouble”.  The superintendent of the Hospital for the Insane, at Kenmore,  insisted that Chidley was mad, ridiculed the idea that coition caused shocks to the brain, but agreed that masturbation was a “contributory cause” of insanity, and admitted that he adopted methods to prevent it among inmates “when necessary”.  Dr George Thompson, a Sydney GP recently arrived from England, went so far as to agree that coition did cause nervous shocks which could lead to exhaustion in the “nervous centres”; that erections were sometimes pathological; and that cancer was caused by irritation – and therefore that violent intercourse provoking irritation in the vagina could indeed give rise to it.  If Chidley was mad, it was a very fine line that divided him from the medical professionals who had certified him.
Chidley’s case exemplifies the truth of the adage that there’s nothing worse than a reformed smoker/drinker/gambler etc. After a lifetime of exuberant indulgence in sex, alcohol and meat (interrupted, it is true, by spasms of guilt) he reached fifty and suddenly decided it had all been a mistake. He then developed an elaborate system of self-regulation aimed at eliminating these evils from his life, and he turned to vegetarianism, temperance and chastity – much to the bewilderment and displeasure of his de facto wife, Ada, who had enjoyed his studly qualities.  So far it was a personal theory. But after Ada’s death (from kidney failure arising from alcoholism, according to the hospital, though Chidley blamed their sex life) he began to manifest a syndrome identified by Alan Hunt in Governing morals: that those who seek moral regulation of themselves soon want to reform everybody else.  He thrashed his adoptive son (Ada’s son Donald, then a boy of about twelve) for masturbating and scolded him harshly even for getting erections.  His subsequent career as pamphleteer and public speaker was the result of such an obsession, and his treatment of children under his care offers a disturbing glimpse of how he would have liked to order other people’s lives. All Victorian doctors condemned sexual excess, but Chidley went one further to blame the ills of humankind on penile tumescence and to assert that the answer to the world’s problems lay in its elimination from daily life. In this he was more ambitious than even Big Brother and the Anti-Sex League in Nineteen eighty-four, which aimed merely to abolish the orgasm. Just before he died Chidley wrote that he had endured an unhappy life, but that he knew that all his misery came “from that ‘erection’ in boys and men”. Perhaps he showed greater insight when he added: “Sometimes I think books have been the curse of my life.”  Donald might well have thought that they had been the curse of his life.
Quackery and orthodoxy
It is perhaps surprising that Chidley did not cotton on to the strengthening identification of the foreskin as the major risk factor for masturbation, spermatorrhoea, and other sexual problems. As in Britain and the US, the phobia against masturbation was the main driving force behind the introduction of widespread circumcision in Australia at end of the nineteenth century. David Walker has examined the fears surrounding seminal loss and their connection with conceptions of manhood and national development in three important articles , but there are several areas in which his studies need to be extended. As Walker points out, nineteenth century medical orthodoxy held that any seminal loss weakened the system, but that masturbation was especially dangerous, partly because it was so easy to do and partly because it was indulged in mainly by the young, who needed all their energies for proper growth and development.  He did not, however, pick up the debate over the role of the shock of orgasm, and the whole question of nervous irritation, in this process, and was thus not alert to why Victorian doctors were so keen to target the foreskin. In concentrating on irregular medical practitioners who offered various quack cures for seminal loss and other “private diseases”, moreover, Walker leaves the impression that concern with masturbation was a fringe preoccupation and that orthodox practitioners (those trained in medical schools and usually members of the British Medical Association) were less worried by the problem. This is far from the truth: the danger of masturbation was an unquestioned axiom of the regular medical profession, and the quacks were only trying to take advantage of the fears already generated by its own advice and propaganda. Nor is it possible to draw a hard and fast line between the regular doctors and the quacks; the former exhibited plenty of evidence of ignorant faddism and eccentricity, while the latter frequently offered more humane and less damaging treatments. Ineffective they might have been, but when you are dealing with imaginary diseases it is to the advantage of the patient if the cure is not too heroic. I shall deal with each of these points in turn.
The views of the quacks were little different from those of the mainstream medical profession, though they did tend to be cast in more lurid language. Two of Sydney’s most prominent specialists in the “nervous and private diseases” of males, Drs Freeman and Wallace, referred to masturbation as a “pernicious habit” which caused a whole brood of diseases, a “disgusting subject”, a practice alarmingly widespread among the young, and a problem which must be overcome; their own cures (not detailed in the publicity) were always efficacious in this respect.  Even more colourful language was employed by another practitioner, Dr W.B. Towle, who mixed moral and scientific condemnation in a manner typical of the period:
The general effects of seminal weakness, nocturnal and diurnal emissions, impotence and sterility, caused by self-abuse in early life, or excessive indulgence in later years, if not relieved by appropriate and thorough treatment, are most deplorable. This malady is one of the most widespread and destructive experienced by man. Few, except physicians, have any conception of the prevalence of self-abuse, or of its disastrous effects on both mind and body. This habit, according to the experience of the most renowned medical men, degrades man, poisons the happiness of his best days and ravages society. … Many maniacs owe their loss of reason to no other cause. In the tabulated reports of every lunatic asylum are a great number of cases in which the cause of insanity is set down as “masturbation”. 
Given their generally more hellish scenarios, you might think that the quacks would be more enthusiastic about the heroic approach to male sexual problems, and masturbation specifically, than the regular doctors. In fact, the reverse is true: it was the mainstream professionals who favoured modern scientific methods of treatment, such as mechanical restraint, infibulation of the foreskin, cauterisation of the urethra and circumcision. The remedies proposed by the quacks were altogether gentler and less punitive. Freeman and Wallace did not recommend circumcision for any genital complaint and discouraged it even in cases of phimosis; as they reassured nervous clients: “Slitting the foreskin or circumcision is frequently adopted by some surgeons, but we never resort to such measures unless ... absolutely necessary”.  They made their own attack on quacks who offered fake cures, especially cauterisation of the urethra with caustic substances such as silver nitrate, a treatment recommended by Acton and widely practised by orthodox professionals.  Freeman and Wallace were vague about their own methods, but not Dr Towle: he specialised in electro-therapy, offering a range of electrical appliances designed to cure female complaints, liver and kidney problems, joint disease, nervous debility and impotence. The “Hercules Life Renewer” could even treat self-abuse successfully, though in cases where spermatorrhoea was also present, supplementary remedies would be required.  There is not a word here about surgical intervention. Indeed, if published testimonials from successfully treated patients may be believed, there is evidence that some men resorted to quacks precisely to avoid the surgical remedies proposed by regular physicians. Towle quotes the example of a young man suffering from paraphimosis:
A surgeon had told him he would have to undergo an operation; that the prepuce would have to be cut through. Shrinking from this prospect he decided to consult me. I administered at one some medicine, the effect of which was to relax the constricted muscles ... [and] the patient awoke to find himself quite well. He wrote saying: “I am doubly grateful to you for having not only cured me so easily, but for having saved me from having to undergo a surgical operation, which would have been very painful, and would have left its mark upon me all my days”. 
Given this sort of resistance to the operation, it is not surprising that the circumcision lobby learned to target its propaganda at parents rather than the subjects of the procedure. As David Gollaher has commented, the benefits of circumcision were to be enjoyed only by those who were too young to object.
For all the embarrassment they caused the regulars, it is thus not so easy to draw a firm line between the quacks and the medical profession proper. The practitioner who diagnosed a case of tinnitus as stemming from masturbation and who treated it by means of electric shocks and a long course of urethral dilation was not a quack, but Dr W.F. Quaife BA, MB etc, who described his cure in the journal of the Australian branch of the British Medical Association.  Indeed, the campaign against quackery was part of a wider effort on the part of doctors to establish their own professional standing and assert a monopoly over the management of bodily (and some mental) functions.
The mainstream doctors had been vying with the irregular practitioners since at least the 1860s, and one of the main issues on which the struggle was fought was their competence to provide better treatment for “nervous and private diseases”. Acton had taken numerous swipes at the quacks, and another significant writer on spermatorrhoea, F.B. Courtenay, had fired a broadside called Revelations of quacks and quackery (1860s) in which he emerged as a crusader against the irregulars, and particularly against their claims to cure spermatorrhoeic and related diseases. In his own work on that subject he expressed the usual views on masturbation but was fairly relaxed about involuntary nocturnal emissions and critical of the cauterisation treatment advocated by Acton and others. He attacked the quacks and deplored the reluctance of the medical profession to take spermatorrhoea seriously, thus driving men into their hands.  He was one of the influential English writers whose ideas James Beaney had sought to popularise in Australia back in the 1870s.
Beaney’s treatise on Spermatorrhoea was explicitly part of a campaign to wrest the treatment of these diseases away from the quacks and vest it with qualified doctors; as he writes in the Preface, it was “designed to lead those who are afflicted by them to abandon the pretentious quacks” and turn to “legitimate and honourable practitioners” like himself.  Like Courtenay, he was critical of his profession for its “culpable neglect of one of the most important and serious … diseases to which mankind is subject”, thereby driving “a large section of the community … into the hands of the vilest imposters”. By refusing to take the disease seriously and treat it like any other medical complaint, the profession was in fact responsible for sending “thousands of wretched sufferers … into imbecility and the madhouse and even the grave”. Rejecting the prudish and old fashioned view that medical science was too delicate to be concerned with the genitals, Beaney asserts its claim to management of the whole body: “Are not the functions of the surgeon … to embrace all the maladies to which the body is liable?”, including those afflicting the genitals. His audience here is twofold: he wants to convince the public that victims of spermatorrhoea should seek the help of professionals like him, not patronise the irregulars; but he also wants to persuade his conservative colleagues that they should accept spermatorrhoea as a real and serious disease which demanded their professional attention. Quoting from Copland’s Dictionary of practical medicine and other English authorities, Beaney regretted that too few doctors took the problem seriously, thus relinquishing it to the “unqualified empiric”, but he was pleased to note that this state of affairs was changing, and that doctors were making amends for their neglect. The nub of the case was that spermatorrhoea was too grave and complex a disease to be treated by anybody except the experts:
These several phases of spermatorrhoea require special treatment and suggest the folly of trusting their management to the pretentious charlatans and ignorant quacks who parade their nostrums in the daily journals. The disorder … is too serious in its character and consequences to be carelessly dealt with. … the question … calls forth the highest faculties of the surgeon or physician, and taxes the powers of his art often to their limit (1870, p. 103).
Yet the sad fact is that there was very little that even the most conscientious physicians could do about these diseases that would distinguish them sharply from the quacks they so bitterly despised. Their treatments for various forms of spermatorrhoea consisted largely of bathing, exercise, diets and “medicines” like potassium, phosphorous and strychnine; their rivals offered much the same regimen, including the application of electricity. Beaney derided them for making use of an “Electro-Galvanic Vital restorer”, apparently forgetting that he himself was an exponent of galvanism and Faradization.  There was not much in any of this to grab the attention of the public and persuade it to abandon the irregulars; something dramatic was needed, something that only the medical profession proper could offer, some sort of magic bullet.
The years 1881–1914 were a crucial period in the emergence of the modern medical profession in Australia. A five-year degree had been introduced at Melbourne University in the 1860s, and Sydney followed suit in 1883; the New South Wales branch of the British Medical Association was established in 1881. The emergence of the profession was largely a process of differentiation; as Milton Lewis and Roy Macleod have shown, doctors were struggling on two fronts: against chemists, druggists and “quacks” for control over health care; and against the friendly societies over conditions of work and fees.  Doctors had sought since the 1860s to get legislation which would define and secure their position. Their efforts were opposed as an attempt to gain sectional privilege and knocked back several times, but in 1900 the NSW parliament passed the Medical Practitioners Act, which made it an offence for anybody without recognised qualifications to use a medical title and empowered the Medical Board to debar practitioners on a range of grounds. This victory recognised the new prestige of scientific medicine: as Lewis and Macleod comment, “the orthodox practitioners finally won legislative endorsement because they had established a cultural authority superior to that accorded ‘alternative’ practitioners”,  though it might be more precise to say that this legislative sanction created the very categories of “orthodox” and “alternative”: before then it had been pretty much a free-for-all. Apart from beating the quacks in the lobbying game, however, it is hard to see what medical achievements underlay the doctors’ triumph, though the promise of the new germ theory of disease may have been part of it: in 1899 the Sydney Morning Herald looked forward to the conquest of cancer and even gout.  As Herbert Moran’s memoirs make clear, however, the moral and even confessional role of the doctor increased along with the growth of his scientific status,  and the new scientific spirit did not lead to any immediate questioning of the links which had been drawn between masturbation, immorality and disease.
The case of one of Chidley’s respectable defenders, Dr Richard Arthur (1865–1932), is instructive. Born in England and educated in Scotland, he settled in Sydney in 1891 and became director of a number of major city hospitals. He lived and practised in Mosman and was an independent member of the NSW state parliament for various north shore electorates from 1904 to 1932 and briefly Minister for Health in the Bavin government in 1927.  He inveighed against the deceitful machinations of the quacks, yet he was himself a fervent purity campaigner who wrote numerous pamphlets for the Australasian White Cross League on the necessity of youthful continence; he was a keen practitioner of hypnotism and an advocate of vegetarian diets; he warned boys against the dangers of self-abuse and advised parents to circumcise their sons as a preventive measure. It was only the last point which distinguished him from Freeman et al. Arthur agreed with the quacks that masturbation led to severe physical and mental illness:
The seed is a very valuable substance, and if it is drained away continually, all the strength and vigour leave the body. The boy or man who practises this vice becomes stunted in growth and enfeebled in mind. he becomes unfit for games and athletics of any kind, and he is not able to study or devote his attention to any object. ... He may so lower his health that he falls an easy victim to that terrible malady, consumption, or he becomes subject to epileptic fits, or, worst of all, he may so injure his brain that he develops insanity in one or other of its dreadful forms. 
He did not mention circumcision in pamphlets directed at boys, but in one addressed to adults he advised parents to watch carefully for signs of self-abuse and to consult a doctor immediately if a child displayed “any tendency to objectionable habits”. In accordance with the medical wisdom of the day, he added that “this vice in the young is sometimes brought about by the existence of some local irritation ... [and] the operation of circumcision is needed”. 
Arthur was a leading light in the Australasian White Cross League, itself an affiliate of the English organisation of the same name and a direct descendant of the groups that waged the English purity campaign of the 1880s which, among other achievements, pressured parliament to raise the age of consent, restrict the circulation of pornography, ban nude bathing and criminalize mutual masturbation among males.  In this capacity Arthur urged moral purity in the young and the strict avoidance of sexual activity before marriage. It was this obsession which led him into disagreement with the quacks, whom he criticised for scaring boys with the claim that even involuntary seminal emissions (such as wet dreams) were harmful and in need of special treatment. He reassured them that “in most cases this emission is not unnatural. It is merely a sort of overflow of the semen, and if it do not occur oftener than once in ten days or a fortnight, there need be no cause for anxiety”. If, however, they are frequent or are followed by “languor and depression”, the sufferer should “seek the advice of some respectable doctor, who will probably soon cure the condition”.  Arthur’s qualified and reluctant acceptance of nocturnal emissions was a consequence of his insistence on chastity; if adolescents and young men renounced masturbation and sexual intercourse, their pent-up energies would have to find release somewhere, and wet dreams were less harmful than “artificial” stimulation. Arthur appears to have held a pretty low estimate of the average adolescent sex drive: to the modern mind, a teenager needing no more sex than one wet dream a fortnight would be a sorry specimen indeed. The more hot-blooded Philip Muskett was willing to allow boys two wet dreams a week before apprehension need be felt . 
In summary, then, it was not the quacks like Freeman and Towle who offered circumcision as a cure for masturbation and other male complaints. They offered the medical stock-in-trade of Dr Beaney and his colleagues from the previous generation – bathing regimes, proprietary medicines, electrical devices, special diets etc – but they were reluctant to perform surgical procedures and were losing the right to perform them. It was the university-trained and properly accredited medical practitioners who urged circumcision and other surgical interventions as effective, scientific treatments which embodied the latest advances in modern medical understanding and which they alone could provide, in opposition to and in competition with the fringe practitioners. Some patients might have resorted to quacks expressly to avoid the harsh remedies proposed by the regular physicians. In this context it is possible to see the doctor’s campaign against quackery as part of a battle for professional turf, indeed, as part of the struggle to establish their own professional identity, and the circumcision cure as one of the weapons in their armoury.
1. E.P. Thompson, The making of the English working class (Pelican 1968), 13
2. J.F.C. Harrison, The second coming: Popular millenarianism 1780-1850 (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1979), 144. For the Southcottians and Wroeites generally see Chap 5, esp. 138-52, and Thompson, Making, 420-28; also mentioned in Michael Mason, The making of Victorian sexual attitudes (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), 136.
3. Allan Stewart, The abominations of the Wroeites (or Christian Israelites) fully and completely exposed (Melbourne: Abbott, 1863)
4. Mark Finnane, “Sexuality and the social order: The state versus Chidley”, in What rough beast? The state and social order in Australian history (Sydney, 1982): 192-219; Mark Finnane, “The popular defence of Chidley”, Labour History, No. 41 (1981): 57-73; S. McInerney, Introduction to The confessions of William James Chidley (St Lucia, Aust., 1977); G.A. Edwards and Wayne Hall, “The case of William Chidley: A study in psychiatry, morality and lunacy law”, Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry 14 (1980): 133-9
5. Although he was not persuaded by Chidley’s theories, Havelock Ellis listened to them without ridicule and sought to encourage his gift for poetic expression. He deplored Chidley’s persecution by the authorities, admired his courageous persistence in the face of police harassment, and described him later as “the most original and remarkable figure that has ever appeared in Australia”, with the moral potential to be another Socrates. That was certainly going too far: although he called him an ascetic in the mould of Augustine and Bunyan, Ellis seems to have appreciated neither the derivative character nor the coercive content of Chidley’s doctrines. See Havelock Ellis, The dance of life (London, 1923): 72-3
6. Confessions: 40. Chidley left a very full account of his life in a revealing autobiography which he wrote during the 1890s. He sent a copy to Havelock Ellis who printed extracts from it in two volumes of his Studies in the psychology of sex, preserved the manuscript and later gave it to the Mitchell Library, Sydney. Apart from its frank account of the author’s sexual experiences and fears, it offers a remarkable window into working class life in Australia during the late nineteenth century. The autobiography was published in 1977 as The confessions of William James Chidley, with an introduction by Sally McInerney. Extracts from the autobiography were printed in Ellis’s Studies in the psychology of sex (two volume edition, New York, Random House, 1936) as follows: History III, Appendix B to Sexual selection in man, in Vol. 1, Part 3: 246-59; and History V, Appendix to Erotic symbolism, in Vol. 2, Part 1: 260-73
7. Chidley, Confessions: 137
8. Chidley published several editions of a pamphlet setting forth his theories. These are: The answer: A philosophical essay (Sydney, 1912); The answer: An essay in philosophy (Sydney, 1914); The Answer: or the world as joy: An essay in philosophy, Complete edition, with an introduction by Francis Anderson (Sydney, 1915). There is also a typescript version in his papers in the Mitchell Library, Sydney: ML MSS143/6. In addition, Chidley prepared an article called “Erection”, which he hoped to get published in the British Medical Journal, but eventually printed as a pamphlet (now very rare): The phenomena of erection (Sydney, n.d. ), copy in Mitchell Library; the TS is in the Chidley papers: ML MSS143/6
9. Answer 1912: 27
10. Chidley could have read all these books at the State Library of Victoria, which still holds numerous works by Carpenter, including his Principles of human physiology (1881); several editions of Beaney’s books; three texts by E.A. Schafer (Textbook of physiology (1900), Essentials of histology (1907), Experimental physiology (1912)); and Michael Foster’s Textbook of physiology (1888 and 1893 edns). The library does not now hold a copy of Acton’s Functions and disorders, but it used to hold a copy of the first edition, now missing. (Information from SLV, 24 April 2003)
11. (Sir) Michael Foster (1836-1907) was the first professor of physiology at Cambridge, and successor to Carpenter as Britain’s leading authority on the subject. His Textbook of physiology was first published in 1876. See Oxford Companion to Medicine (New York, 1986): Vol. I, 403
12. Answer 1912: 12. Although Chidley attributes this statement to Schafer, it is actually a quote from Carpenter.
13. Answer 1915: 165, 166-7; see also Confessions 169, where Chidley cites Foster’s texts on physiology.
14. Erection: 3-4; MS: 9
15. Answer 1915: 163
16. Answer 1915: 196-7 misquoting Functions and disorders (3rd edn): 125 and 170
17. TS draft of The answer, ML MSS143/6: 83-4
18. Answer 1912: 48
19. Answer 1912: 40
20. Answer 1915: 158
21. Claude-Francois Lallemand, A practical treatise on the causes, symptoms and treatment of spermatorrhoea, trans. and ed. Henry J. McDougall, 3rd American edition, (Philadelphia: Blanchard and Lea, 1858): 135
22. Erection: 3-4; Functions and disorders: 153
23. Finnane, “Popular defence”: 68, 72
24. Functions and disorders: 115, 117-18
25. Erection: 2; MS: 4
26. Answer 1915: 196
27. Answer 1912: 50
28. Transcript: 619
29. Transcript: 386
30. Transcript: 519
31. Transcript: 99, 102-3
32. A mental hospital in the country to which Chidley had been transferred to put him beyond the reach of his friends in Sydney.
33. Transcript: 583, 594, 598-9
34. Transcript: 104, 162, 175, 126-7
35. Confessions: 169, 197
36. Hunt, Governing morals
37. Confessions: 249-50, 254
38. Chidley’s last message to the public, quoted in Confessions: xiv
39. Walker, David. Continence for a nation: Seminal loss and national vigour. Labour History 1985; No. 48:1–14; Modern nerves, nervous moderns: Notes on male neurasthenia. Australian Cultural History 1987; No. 6:49–63; Energy and fatigue. Australian Cultural History 1994; No. 13.
40. Walker, David. Continence for a nation: Seminal loss and national vigour. Labour History 1985; No. 48: p. 7.
41. Freeman, Howard and Dr Wallace. Rescued at last: Being clinical experiences on nervous and private diseases. Sydney; No publisher or date of publication [1898?]. Chapter 4, pp. 30–51.
42. Towle, WB. The sexual system in health and disease. Sydney; No publisher or date of publication [1898?]. 11th edition. pp. 107–8.
43. Freeman, Howard and Dr Wallace. Rescued at last: Being clinical experiences on nervous and private diseases. Sydney; No publisher or date of publication [1898?]. p. 98.
44. Freeman, Howard and Dr Wallace. Rescued at last: Being clinical experiences on nervous and private diseases. Sydney; No publisher or date of publication [1898?]. pp. 199–205.
45. Towle, WB. The sexual system in health and disease. Sydney; No publisher or date of publication [1898?]. 11th edition. p. 108.
46. Towle, WB. The sexual system in health and disease. Sydney; No publisher or date of publication [1898?]. 11th edition. p. 161.
47. Quaife, WF. Tinnitus connected with onanism. Australasian Medical Gazette 1896; XV:20–22 . Discussed in Walker D. Continence for a nation: Seminal loss and national vigour. Labour History 1985; No. 48: pp. 8–9.
48. Courtenay, FB. On spermatorrhoea and certain functional derangements and debilities of the generative system: Their nature, treatment and cure. London: Bailliere, Tindall and Co.; 1882; 12th edition.
49. Beaney. Spermatorrhoea in its physiological, medical and legal aspects. Melbourne: Walker publishers; 1870. p. x. Further references in this paragraph are inserted in the text.
50. Beaney. The generative system and its functions in health and disease. Melbourne: FF Bailliere; 1872. p. 146.
51. Lewis, Milton and Macleod, Roy. Medical politics and the professionalisation of medicine in New South Wales, 1850–1901. Journal of Australian Studies 1988; No. 22:69–82
52. Lewis M and Macleod R. Medical politics and the professionalisation of medicine in New South Wales, 1850–1901. Journal of Australian Studies 1988; No. 22: p. 79.
53. Lewis M and Macleod R. Medical politics and the professionalisation of medicine in New South Wales, 1850–1901. Journal of Australian Studies 1988; No. 22: pp. 78–9.
54. Moran. Viewless winds: Being the recollections and digressions of an Australian surgeon. London: Peter Davies; 1939. pp. 102, 203–6.
55. Australian Dictionary of Biography. Vol 7. p. 103.
56. Arthur, Richard. Purity and impurity. Sydney: Australian White Cross League; n.d. [c.1900]. p. 8.
57. Arthur, Richard. The training of children in purity: A booklet for parents. Sydney: George Robertson; n.d. [c.1900]. p. 15.
58. Hyam, Ronald. Empire and sexuality: The British experience. Manchester: Manchester University Press; 1990. pp. 65–71.
59. Arthur, Richard. Purity and impurity. Sydney: Australian White Cross League; n.d. [c.1900]. pp. 10–11.
60. Arthur has evidently read his Acton, who had described nocturnal emissions “occurring once every ten or fourteen days” as “in the nature of a safety valve”, but that if they were more frequent or “attended by symptoms of prostration” the “patient” should seek medical advice (William Acton. The functions and disorders of the reproductive organs. 6th edition. London: J. and A. Churchill; 1903. p. 105). The more hot-blooded Philip Muskett was willing to allow boys two wet dreams a week before apprehension need be felt: Muskett, Philip. The illustrated Australian medical guide. Sydney: William Brooks; 1903; 2 vols. II, p. 203.