In the first half of the 18th century magic and medicine were bedfellows. The great scientific advances of later years - vaccinations, antibiotics and anaesthetics - were well over a century off, and would-be physicians drew on whatever knowledge and folklore was available at the time. Back then there were no rules and regulations to govern how doctors practised, no General Medical Council to differentiate quackery from quality.
Centuries before the NHS there was no treatment free at the point of need, so there was an incentive to provide definite diagnoses and dispense dubious medicines in exchange for payment.
Debate continues to this day as to whether Orton's William Fairer was a magician, an astrologer, an anti-conjuror or simply a benign doctor working within the limits of the natural sciences at the time. The scant official records that exist simply show him living at Redgill near Orton and Tebay, while local poetry and prose excitedly associates his name with the black arts.
Thomas Gibson's ballad Our Village written in 1887 describes Fairer in flowery verse:
'For just across the Lune's broad stream
A man once lived could solve a dream
Or by the stars could fortunes tell;
Circumvent a witch; love philters sell;
Old Dr Farrar's bones amongst us lie,
Who read black art, which others mystify,
Malevolent spirits held in check,
And laid them low in nearest beck.'
An account written less than fifty years after Dr Fairer's death in the Monthly Magazine and British Register provides a less sensational but more detailed account, based apparently on eye witness testimony. The problems he was called in to solve went well beyond the casebook of the modern GP.
Estranged hearts and lost cattle feature alongside consultations for sickness and deranged intellects. While 'balsamic medicines' might be appropriate in some cases, other treatments would certainly not find their way into today's text books. A farmer who had lost his herd would engage Dr Fairer to sprinkle the walls of his house with purifying water if the doctor attributed the loss to 'small parcels of heterogeneous matter deposited in the walls and consisting of the legs of mice and the wings of bats; which he affirmed to be the work of witches.'
In fact there was little that the doctor could not (or, at the right price, would not) diagnose. The published account suggests that 'Very few things appeared to be too arduous for this gentleman’s abilities.... If a person was desirous of knowing the issue of any event he repaired to Mr Fairer who failed not to satisfy him in this particular.' Although not claiming to have discovered the secrets of alchemy, Dr Fairer appears to have had few qualms about making his efforts pay as 'by the power of his occult sciences he attracted gold from the pocket of his customers and by this mean contrived to acquire for himself and his family.'
Fifty years later Jeremiah Sullivan describes an inscribed volume 'Dr Fairer's Book of Black Art' as showing some knowledge of astronomy but with the more eye-catching comment that 'until very lately it was believed there was great danger in opening this book.' The passage of time appears to have exaggerated rather than diminished Fairer's reputation.
Today's visitors to Orton churchyard may still feel a slight shiver of otherworldliness as they read the inscription that the vicar insisted on being applied to Fairer's tomb. The reader is reminded that even the mightiest and most knowledgeable folk of an era cannot escape death.
The inscription reads: 'Under this stone lie the remains of Dr William Fairer, of Redgill, whom long experience rendered eminent in his profession and who was an instance that knowledge in the ways of death doth not exempt from its approach. Reader, in this thy day live well, that thou mayest have hope of a joyful resurrection, He died July 31st, 1756, aged 75 years.'