The Drouet Institute’s Tribe of Petty Rat-Swindlers

Sometime in the early 1880s, a man by the name of J.H. Nicholson, who called himself an “aural specialist,” introduced himself to a French doctor by the name of Drouet. Hospitalized for tuberculosis aggravated by alcohol, the doctor was once an obscure general practitioner operating in the tough Belleville district in Paris. It appeared that Nicholson convinced the doctor to lend his name to a new business he was establishing; tying the new “Institute” to a worthy French name, he insisted, would add an element of mystique and credibility to the firm. And more so, would ensure that the Drouet name would live after death.

Nicholson had relocated to London from New York in 1885 with a capital of £1000. Settling in Bedford Square, he soon established his business selling artificial eardrums: a small device constructed of a magnetized steel rod with a soft rubber disc on each end, held in place by gold washers. As the advertisements boasted, the gold eardrums were a necessary and vital cure for deafness. In addition, the gold properties of the eardrums were markers of luxury, rendering the design more superior than other variations of artificial eardrums available for purchase through mail-order.

Advertisement for Nicholson's Artificial Eardrums in Macmillian Magazine, 1888.

Advertisement for Nicholson’s Artificial Eardrums in Macmillian Magazine, 1888.

But the business wasn’t enough. Nicholson needed to do more to grow his reputation and worth. In 1888, he printed new advertisements, declaring that Drouet was a renowned specialist in the diseases of the ear, who, through his extensive work in Paris, had discovered methods of curing deafness that were unknown to the rest of the medical profession. This secret knowledge promised to cure all kinds of deafness, which would now be shared in the new Drouet Institute for the Deaf. Interested “patients” were encouraged to visit the Institute’s offices at 72 Regent’s Park in London, where they could receive a free examination and diagnosis by Nicholson, or other “qualified aural specialists. And if they were still discouraged, they could take a look at scores of favorable testimonials from previous clients—indeed, the Institute supposedly even had a room singularly devoted to exhibiting these letters to those who doubted their veracity. Some of the letters were even framed.

All sorts of flamboyant and extravagant claims were made in advertisements for the Drouet Institute. Nicholson claimed that his drive to establish the Institution was the outcome of a “rich lady’s wishes.” Impressed with the Nicholson’s artificial eardrums, the lady donated $1000 to support Nicholson’s founding of the Drouet Institute, so poor deaf persons unable to afford the Nicholson eardrums or the fees of a medical practitioner, could receive treatment or eardrums free of charge. This claim to fame however, frequently fluctuated: other advertisements for the Drouet Institute reported the donation was £5000, $10,000, or even $100,000!

Advertisement, “The Curse of Deafness,” Illustrated London News, 1900.

Part of full-page advertisement for the Drouet Institute in llustrated London News, 1900.

The Drouet Institute spent upwards of £10,000 a year on advertising. Ads on horse-drawn omnibuses, billboards, flyers, leaflets, and scores of periodicals invited deaf persons to write a letter to the Institute, upon which a “physician” would diagnose the nature of the hearing loss and prescribe treatment. There was no need to visit the offices, for it was easy and beneficial to diagnose and treat through the postal service. Hundreds of people wrote in, hundreds of replies were sent, nearly all suggesting the Drouet secret “cure-all” as a remedy. Advertisements disguised as journalistic articles described the benefits of the Drouet cure and promising incentives for purchase, including money-back guarantees, easy payment schemes, and half-price offers. The cure was a “special” plaster to be placed over or behind the ears, supposedly to enact miraculous penetrating powers. Drops, gargles, and anti-catarrhal snuff were also prescribed.

In 1889, Nicholson old his company to the shareholders of Nicholson’s Patent Ltd., and supposedly relocated to Melbourne, where more advertisements for Nicholson’s Artificial Eardrums appeared in local periodicals. Some years after, the Institute relocated to 10 Marble Arch. Nicholson was eventually caught as a fraudster and swindler in 1902, and sent to prison.

The history of the Drouet Institute after 1900 became notoriously tied with another swindler. In 1901, a young aspiring singer named Ethel Clara Le Neve (1883-1867) was employed as a typist at the Drouet Institute. Soon afterwards, she became the assistant of the Institute’s new “Chief of Medical Staff,” Hawley Harvey Crippen (1862-1910). Previously employed at the Sovereign Remedy Co., where he worked as a consulting physician until the company went out of business, Crippen was familiar with mail-order treatments. In 1902 he was hired at Drouet and guaranteed a minimum salary of £6 pounds a week, roughly £600 in today’s values, but he earned more with a series of mail-order schemes he conducted on the side.

Crippen’s job was to reply to the correspondence letters sent by deaf customers. He diagnosed by means of interpreting the questionnaire the customers were required to fill in. As Tom Cullen explains in his book, The Mild Murderer (1977),

In reality, Crippen, by means of a lightly pencilled mark in the corner of the questionnaire, would indicate which of several form letters was to be sent. The letter would then be typed for his signature. The ‘diagnosis’ made use of such medical terms as ‘Post Otorrhea and Tinnitus’ or ‘Rhinitis Chronica Rhino Pharyngitis Eustachian Salpingitis,’ and prescribed the anti-catarrhal plasters or gargle plus nasal spray plus anti-catarrhal powders, as the case might be.

Despite glowing testimonials from “satisfied customers,” the Drouet Institute raised suspicion of fraud and quackery. In the early 1900s, Evan Yellon, the editor of The Albion Magazine, a newspaper for deaf persons, conducted a series of exposes into “quack deafness cures” that endangered the deaf. His experiences visiting the Drouet Institute, including the furniture and décor, the framed letters, and the dirty instruments indicating all signs of a “quack’s den,” were published In his 1906 book, Surdus in Search of his Hearing. Campaigns by newspaperman Henry Labouchère also raised questions about the validity of the Institute and its “treatments.”

By 1909, Crippen left the Drouet Institute, which was publicly scandalized after a coroner’s inquest into a death of a Straffordshire locksmith. The inquest revealed that the locksmith died from a serious ear abscess brought about by the plaster treatment dispensed by the Institute. Post-morterm examination pinpointed that the skull bone above the right lobe of the brain was so damaged and diseased. Crippen then worked for the Aural Remedies Company at Craven House in Kingsway, where he peddled another deafness cure that was eventually proven to be useless.

Letter from H.H. Crippen to a clinent from the Aural Remedies Co., dated 4 April 1910. Wellcome Images Collection.

Letter from H.H. Crippen to a clinent from the Aural Remedies Co., dated 4 April 1910.
Wellcome Images Collection.

Although Crippen didn’t find a lasting career at Drouet, he did find love. True-crime buffs know that Crippen fell for Miss La Neve and took her as a mistress around 1908, and in 1910, murdered his wife Cora Henrietta Crippen. Eventually captured by wireless telegraphy while escaping to the United States, Crippen was hanged in Pentonville Prison.

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