'Dr' Bodie's Electrifying Perfomance!

By Michel E. T. D. Vlasto, F.R.C.S., 1972

In 1972, for no particular reason, my grandfather Michael Vlasto recalled a curious incident from his days as a medical student (1905-1910) at University College Hospital, London.

The story, which concerned a rather sinister entertainer who styled himself 'Dr Walford Bodie MD', was published in the 1972 Rag Week magazine published by UCH medical students.

Soon after, Michel Vlasto was invited by BBC Radio 4 to record the following broadcast account of an attempt – which went horribly wrong – to unmask a fraudulent showman who was drawing huge crowds at London's Edwardian music halls...

Sadly the BBC destroyed most of its recordings in those days, including this one, but the following comes from a transcript...

By Michael Vlasto with help from Christopher Long

See Michel E.T.D. Vlasto's Obituary

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Now at the age of 84, I vividly recall an episode of over sixty years ago when I was a medical student at University College Hospital. The experience was distinctly unpleasant and served to show that the eye cannot always be trusted in recording events.

In the days of which I am speaking, students were not in the habit of organising demonstrations to advance particular political viewpoints. They preferred to leave such matters to the government of the day.

But our ebullient spirits erupted when an opportunity arose to support or oppose a cause which was within our competence to judge.

Now at this time there was a certain self-styled 'Dr' Bodie – born I believe in South Africa – who had established for himself a reputation as a healer of the deaf, the blind and the lame. One of his further claims was that he could withstand the effect of electrical shocks not tolerated by ordinary mortals.

He was obtaining considerable publicity in the press and by his numerous music hall appearances. In fact he established himself as some sort of 'Messiah'. The medical world knew that he was a fake, but so convincing were his methods and patter that it was not easy to 'pin him down'.

So we students formed a committee to devise a scheme for putting an end to his activities. We were soon to learn that this was easier said than done.

It had come to our knowledge that on a specified day Bodie was due to appear at a certain music hall in the East End of London and we decided to put a noisy end to his activities.

We made our first mistake in delegating to a single student the task of booking the seats, which filled the first two rows of the orchestra stalls. The fact of this massive booking must have been communicated to the management by the box office and thus reached Bodie's ears. This must have aroused his suspicions and enabled him to organise a counter-attack.

When D-Day arrived, we students converged on the music hall from our various hospitals and our second mistake was to overlook the fact that there was an unusual number of policemen in the vicinity of the hall. This might have given us a clue that our plan was not quite as secret as we had imagined it to be.

I remember little or nothing of the earlier turns of the performance, but at last the great moment arrived. The music ceased and Bodie advanced front stage and proceeded to address the audience. He told them that it had come to his knowledge that a number of ill-mannered and ignorant students had come to the hall with the expressed purpose of interrupting his performance and, by so doing, interfere with the good work he was doing for humanity.

He added that he was now going to teach them a lesson that they would take a long time to forget and invited the audience to witness their discomfiture. He told the audience that professional secrecy forbade him from revealing his powers of healing. He would demonstrate to their entire satisfaction that he could withstand massive electrical shocks with complete indifference.

He then proceeded to invite five students (of whom I was one) to the stage platform. In order to guarantee fair play, he also selected from the audience six hefty adult males to join the party. This was our third mistake because the selected males – who had of course been briefed on the roles they would have to play – all rose simultaneously.

Seated backstage were two men operating an electrical vacuum contraption which was emitting fearsome sparks and very loud crackling sounds. Front stage, we were spread out in a single line in the following manner. Bodie was on the extreme left with his right hand on a gleaming chromium knob. Next to him, clutching his left hand, was a stooge. Then a student with each hand imprisoned by a stooge and so on down the line.

The soft music died away and at Bodie's word of command the drums rolled and suddenly ceased. At this moment we felt our hands squeezed so tightly by the stooges that we danced and yelled about in pain. We tried to disengage our hands to no avail.

Later we were informed that the illusion was set to perfection. Bodie stood smiling with his hand on the knob whilst we and the stooges were careering all over the stage. Not a particle of electricity ran through the line.

We were soon released and reached the auditorium where we were greeted with boos and hisses by the hostile crowd. We were never given an opportunity to explain the hoax and our colleagues in the audience were convinced at the time that Bodie had proved his point.

We thought it best to leave the hall in a body and no arrests were made...

Michael Vlasto, F.R.C.S.

See Michel E.T.D. Vlasto's Obituary

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Bodie (1869-1939) was in fact born in Aberdeen, Scotland, and not South Africa as stated above. With his assistant La Belle Electra, he became a famous but controversial exponent of magic, ventriloquism and hypnotism in music halls throughout Britain. He became best known, however, for acts involving electricity which, by the turn of the 20th century, was capturing the public's imagination and powering an ever widening range of new technologies. Calling himself the 'British Edison', the climax of his stage act during this period included passing what appeared to be 30,000 volts through his body. This current apparently illuminated sixteen incandescent bulbs and two arc lamps held in his bare hands.

Show business apart however, he was a fraudulent conman who exploited the gullible with his claims of 'bloodless surgery' using electricity and 'cures' for the sick involving Electric Life Pills and Electric Liniment. These quack treatments, coupled with his use of MD after his name, angered increasing numbers of people and especially infuriated medical students such as those in Glasgow who, in 1909, hurled 'ochre, peasemeal, eggs and decayed herrings' at him. They chanted 'Bodie, Bodie, quack, quack, quack' as he fled the stage.

The failed attempt by students at University College Hospital to expose Bodie must have occurred around the same time as the more successful attempt in Glasgow. Indeed, it's quite possible that it was the Glasgow experience which prepared Bodie for a similar protest in London from which, by skillful stage-management, he could emerge triumphant!

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