Several years ago, while wandering around the Vineland Flea Market, I stumbled upon a small booklet on a pile of miscellaneous items. It was an exciting find! Although no date is printed on it, I guessed that it was probably from the 1880s-1920s. The small publication is titled Dr. John’s Recipe and Dream Book Containing Five Valuable Recipes and Full Interpretation of Dreams. “Dr.” John ran a business that he called “The Wigwam” on 853 N. Eleventh Street in Philadelphia. His office hours were from 9 am to 10 pm. I found very little on “Dr” John and nothing outside of newspapers and one other primary source. (1)
Who Was “Dr” John?
Dr. John was not most likely if not definitely an actual doctor, but rather adopted the title as many individuals who dabbled in patent medicines. His full name was Herbert John Lamon Wellman and he was born around 1839. John was known as the “Indian Doctor,” “The Great Western Clairvoyant,” and the “White Prophet.” He claimed to have been endorsed as powerful and legitimate by indigenous groups out west, with ads reading:
Dr H. John The Great Western Clairvoyant spiritual medium, known among the red men of the far West as the White Prophet, can be consulted on all affairs of life. I am not conceited enough to claim that I am the only medium, to have more power than all the other mediums combined. After you have tried all these wonderful mediums you can call and try Dr. H. John. Discovers minerals, lost, hidden and buried treasures, reunites the separated, changes luck: a visit to his palace wigwam will convince the most skeptical of his wonderful powers… After consulting all other mediums come to the old reliable. (2)
In 1898, John was arrested for fortune-telling, a law still on the books today. The law is as follows:
§ 7104. Fortune telling.
(a) Offense defined.–A person is guilty of a misdemeanor of the third degree if he pretends for gain or lucre, to tell fortunes or predict future events, by cards, tokens, the inspection of the head or hands of any person, or by the age of anyone, or by consulting the movements of the heavenly bodies, or in any other manner, or for gain or lucre, pretends to effect any purpose by spells, charms, necromancy, or incantation, or advises the taking or administering of what are commonly called love powders or potions, or prepares the same to be taken or administered, or publishes by card, circular, sign, newspaper or other means that he can predict future events, or for gain or lucre, pretends to enable anyone to get or to recover stolen property, or to tell where lost property is, or to stop bad luck, or to give good luck, or to put bad luck on a person or animal, or to stop or injure the business or health of a person or shorten his life, or to give success in business, enterprise, speculation, and games of chance, or to win the affection of a person, or to make one person marry another, or to induce a person to make or alter a will, or to tell where money or other property is hidden, or to tell where to dig for treasure, or to make a person to dispose of property in favor of another.
(b) Advertising as evidence.–Any publication contrary to this section may be given in evidence to sustain the indictment.
(c) Competency of witnesses.–Any person whose fortune may have been told shall be a competent witness against the person charged with violating this section. (3)
He was convicted on September 20, 1898, to a year in prison and a $50 fine, roughly $1849.55 today. He barely served two months when he was pardoned and released due to failing eyesight. The pardon’s board reasoning was not driven by sympathy but to prevent John from becoming fully blind and “becoming a charge upon the public.” (4) Furthermore, it was reported that 300 people who consisted of his neighbors and even some individuals who served on his trial’s jury signed a petition for his release. Upon John’s release, he went straight to the hospital, but not before declaring that “if the operation on his eyes was successful he would in the future turn his attention to other pursuits than future telling, leaving the ignorant public to wage their own battles without any advice from him.” (5) It is unknown if the eye treatment worked, but he continued working and was again arrested in 1906 and put on $600 bail for telling people their futures. (6)
Dr. John was arrested again in 1899 along with his housekeeper’s assistant, Theresa Conway, on fornication and adultery charges. Conway’s parents issued the warrant. The situation was resolved with John hiring Conway’s father as his home utility man and allowing him and his wife to board at John’s house. (7)
Dr. John’s Recipe and Dream Book Containing Five Valuable Recipes and Full Interpretation of Dreams
The small publication consists of 24 pages. On the title page, above the title “Keep This Book For Luck” is printed, a similar phrase appears in some of his ads such as “Cut This Out For Luck.” The next page lists the “Points of Interest in Philadelphia” some of them including Betsy Ross’ house, East State Penitentiary, US Mint, Carpenters’ Hall, etc. Then the railroad stations are listed with a short write-up on Dr. John’s Indian Catarrh Remedy, then the booklet’s pages alternate with every other page consisting of dream meanings, except for in the middle in the “Five Wonderful Recipes” section that is comprised of ointments for warts, pimples, hair, and toothpaste. The other pages consist of:
- Hospitals of Philadelphia
- Birth Stones
- Signs of the Zodiac
- Useful Information
- Five Wonderful Recipes
- Hints For the Housekeeper
- The Girl Character
- Domestic Postage, Foreign Postage, and Wedding Anniversaries
- Praising John for his Clairvoyant Powers
- Biography of Dr. John
His biography reads:
Dr. H. John’s wonderful power and his cures of mysterious ills of both body and mind, have made hims famous throughout the United States. He is a half-breed of the Warm Spring Indians. His father was “White Eagle,” renowned for his exceptional knowledge of the past and future; his mother was Jane Blonden, one of the most noted Gyspy queens the world has ever known.
After gaining great knowledge from both father and mother, Dr. John by very close application and study has added greatly to his inherited gifts.
Thousands of people owe a debt of gratituted to Dr. John which they can never be paid, for it is due entirely to his wonderful knowledge that they are to-day alive and well. In his youth the doctor lived and his tribe, and, owing to his physiological powers and ability to foresee coming events, became famous through Northwest as the white prophet. (8)
The likelihood of Dr. John’s connection to the Warm Spring Native Americans being factual is incredibly low. Patent medicine manufacturers used Indigenous and Eastern imagery as advertising techniques to sell their medicines. The images used tended to be linked to power, magic, secret, and ancient knowledge that the public associated with Native Americans and Eastern and Mediterranean cultures. Librarian Matthew Chase unpacks this further, stating that: “‘Traveling medicine shows relied a great deal on the advertising value of racial imagery, particularly in [terms] of ethnic caricature performances.’Entertainers often used blackface and redface during patent medicine performances. In some shows and ads, medicines were linked to Indigenous cultures and traditions or faraway countries such as China, Turkey, and Egypt. Society believed that the appropriation of cultures and traditions of Native Americans, of different countries, and ancient times made the medicines more effective. The use of racial imagery was also used in printed ads for patent medicines. Advertisements, pamphlets, and entertainment spread knowledge of patent medicines to large audiences.” (9) This small publication is an example of a patent medicine advertisement. (10)
Dream books, like patent medicine advertising, adopted languages of other cultures in hopes of making the dream definitions seem valid. Historian Ann Fabian described that “…American divination is written in the language of African-American popular culture. The ‘web of metaphor’ which connected the baffling present of the dream to its realization in the future was spun by the conjures and seers who had once interpreted plantation life for fellow slaves.” (11) The use of different cultural languages once again was used in an attempt to sell the books, persuading the buyer that their questions could only be answered by the books because of their association with ancient knowledge. Dream books were largely “marketed to urban, literate (largely northern) audiences, among whom they may well have competed not only with rational but with storefront fortune sellers.” (12) Dream books were used for many different reasons and were a part of the growth of cheap publications that occurred in the 1830s because of technological advances. (13)
Ultimately, patent medicines, dream books, and Dr. John offered hope and healing. Most people did not have access to medical treatment due to a lack of financial resources which made these medicines another option. Additionally, patent medicines were less intrusive and affordable. Although they did not offer health benefits, they offered hope, similar to dream books that gave answers and peace of mind to many who were afraid due to living in a state of financial uncertainty and instability. However, that hope was founded on fraud and lies.
I hope you enjoy it and thank you so much for reading it!
(1) Dr. John’s Recipe and Dream Book Containing Five Valuable Recipes and Full Interpretation of Dreams
(2) “Dr. H. John The Great Western Clairvoyant,” Philadelphia Inquirer, (Philadelphia, PA), Feb 14, 1897
(3) “Title 18 – PA General Assembly,” https://www.legis.state.pa.us/
(4) “The White Prophet Why the Board of Pardons Released Him from Prison His Failing Eyesight,” Philadelphia Inquirer, (Philadelphia, PA), Nov. 27, 1898
(6) Ibid.; “Indian Doctor in Toils,” Philadelphia Inquirer, (Philadelphia, PA), Feb. 25, 1906
(7) Journal of the House of Representatives of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, Jan. 1899, p. 248
(8) Dr. John’s Recipe and Dream Book Containing Five Valuable Recipes and Full Interpretation of Dreams, p. 24
(9) Matthew Chase, “Cures and Curses: A History of Pharmaceutical Advertising in America,” University of St. Augustine for Health Sciences, https://library.usa.edu/cures-curses-exhibit
(11) Ann Fabian, Card Sharps, Dream Books, & Bucket Shops: Gambling in 19th-Century America, (Cornell University Press, 1990), p. 145
(12) Ibid., p. 145
(13) Ibid., p. 142-152