Hawthorne’s humor and satire, more contemporary than this rarely read tale lets on. The narrator is on a slow boat to Niagara, traveling on a canal boat to Utica. He’s forgotten to bring a book. He’s bored. He finds one and gets all engrossed in it until awoken from a “dreamy state” by the self-reproaching moans of a man calling himself a murderer. So we’re not sure this isn’t a continuation of the narrator’s dream. The man is Hyppocrates Jenkins. He was apprentice to a quack, a man who “was no more a doctor than his jack-ass,” working out of an office whose “single window commanded a view of the church-yard, in which, it was said, many of the Doctor’s former patients were quietly slumbering.” The “doctor” dies, Jenkins picks up the practice, becomes sought after for his crazy concoctions until one old woman, wonderfully described, falls ill and imbibes one of his inventions. The description of the woman has that touch of Balzac’s portraits:
“I dare say you have met with that species of old women, so frequent in all country towns, who, seeming to have outlived the common enjoyments of life, and outworn the ordinary sources of excitement, seek fresh stimulus in scenes of distress, and appear to take a morbid pleasure in beholding the varieties of human suffering, and misery. One of the most noted characters in the village was an old beldame of this description. Granny Gordon, so she was familiarly denominated, was the rib of the village Vulcan, and the din of her eternal tongue, was only equalled by the ringing of her husband’s anvil. Thin and withered away in person and redolent with snuff, she bore no small resemblance to a newly exhumed mummy, and to all appearance promised to last as long as one of those ancient dames of Egypt. Not a death, a burial, a fit of sickness, a casualty, nor any of the common calamities of life ever occurred in the vicinity, but Granny Gordon made it her especial business to be present. Wrapped in an old scarlet cloak–hat hideous cloak! the thought of it makes me shudder–she might be seen hovering about the dwelling of the sick. Watching her opportunity, she would make her way into the patient’s chamber, and disturb his repose with long dismal stories and ill-boding predictions; and if turned from the house, which was not unfrequently the case, she would depart, muttering threats and abuse.
She takes the concoction and seems to die. Jenkins panics, thinks he’s killed her, throws out all his inventions in the river and disappears from town, now finding himself next to this stranger on a slow boat to Niagara and seeing the ghost of the old woman haunting him. “I plainly saw that he was a little disordered in his intellect,” goes the narrator. “To comfort him, however, I told him, that if he had killed fifty old women, they could do nothing to him, if he had done it professionally.” Once there, the sheriff and a posse are at the docks. He thinks they’re there to arrest him. They’re there because they’ve been looking for him, thinking he was kidnapped, and were ready to try the old woman’s husband for murder for having spoken of wanting to kill him. The old woman never died. “She was only in a swoond.” They celebrate him, bring him home, where he resumes his quackery.
It’s as fitting a tale for modern health care as any: Medicine as quackery, as superstition, and doctors as misplaced heroes. And malpractice.