Richard Elkanah Hoyle was not a famous surgeon. He never invented a new operation, or contributed to a medical journal, or belonged to a learned society. But he was responsible for one of the most unusual tales you’ll ever hear.
In May 1845 a local newspaper, the Lincolnshire Chronicle, reported a mystery:
An intense sensation has been created in Lincoln by the extraordinary disappearance of Mr. Hoyle, surgeon, of Heighington, a village about 3 miles from Lincoln. On Friday morning last it was rumoured that this gentleman had either been thrown or had fallen into the Witham, and been drowned; and on making enquiries we find that he came to Lincoln on the Friday morning, being in his usual good spirits, and after transacting some business in the town, dined and spent the evening with Mr. East, of Motherby-hill. Between 10 and 11 o’clock at night he mounted his pony, and took his departure for home, going along the river bank towards Heighington, a privilege allowed medical gentlemen by the Witham company.
A strange sort of privilege. Imagine the signs: ‘Riding along this riverbank is prohibited, unless you are a doctor.’
About 4 o’clock in the morning, a man of the name of Footit, (usually called “Tom Otter”, from the circumstance of his home being situated at the end of the lane where “Tom Otter” was gibbetted)…
Tom Otter is worth a blog post on his own. A notorious bigamist who murdered his second (and therefore not legally-recognised) wife, Otter was hanged in 1806. Bizarrely, he killed a second victim after his death: his body fell from the gibbet and crushed a bystander, who died. Anyway, that’s the original Tom Otter. Mr Footit, aka “Tom Otter”…
…was proceeding in his keel down the Witham to Boston, and found a pony grazing on the bank a short distance from Washingborough bridge, and near the pony he found a hat, two silk handkerchiefs, together with a small pocket pistol, and a card case, all lying nearly together on the bank. The man picked up the things and caught the pony, and throwing one of the stirrups over the back of the animal, he fastened it to the last row of rails crossing the bank before coming to Washingborough bridge, and noticed at the time that the other stirrup was broken off.
Mr Footit did not bother, however, to tell anybody what he had found. It was not until some hours later that a labourer spotted the pony tied up, apparently abandoned, and raised the alarm.
Shortly afterwards the matter was taken up in earnest, and men have been incessantly employed from Friday morning until the present time in dragging the river, but hitherto without avail. The whole affair seems shrouded in the deepest mystery, although the general impression is that the unfortunate gentleman has been thrown into the river, and, as a motive for such violence, it is stated that he had commenced legal proceedings against several parties who were indebted to him, and in consequence was in bad odour with various individuals.
Mr Footit was later found to be in possession of the surgeon’s hat, and was questioned by magistrates on suspicion of having murdered Mr Hoyle, but soon discharged. The whereabouts of the surgeon were still unknown.
The unfortunate gentleman, who was much respected, had a wife and four or five children, and the state of anguish and intense anxiety of his family may be imagined but cannot be described.
A reward was offered for any information about Mr Hoyle’s whereabouts, but it was generally assumed that he had been murdered and his body dropped in the river. The magistrates pursued their inquiries for a little while longer, but the mystery remained unsolved. And then in August, three months after Mr Hoyle’s disappearance, came this extraordinary update:
On Monday last, the good people of Lincoln were astonished to see the lost gentleman driven into the city in a post-chaise. He presented a very odd spectacle, being dressed in sailor’s clothing, and having his head shaved and his whiskers off. The account he gives of the cause of his sudden disappearance and long absence is a specimen of the marvellous, and a large draft upon credulity.
A roundabout way of saying that the author doesn’t believe a word of it.
He states that he came up to Lincoln, bringing with him £140, for the purpose of calling at several shops and making payments: having been driven too late to fulfil his purpose, he went up to the residence of Mr. East (a gentleman who had befriended him), to get his pony and go home. He stopped to supper, and about 11 at night started down the Witham bank. When near the last gate-posts, he saw in a boat three men, who rowed ashore, and one ran up with an oar and knocked him from the pony. He fired, but did not blow out the man’s brains. He was then beaten about the head again, and became insensible.
At this point Mr Hoyle’s narrative takes a swerve into adventure-story territory.
When his wits returned, he found he was in a cabin in a vessel out at sea, and therefore he must have been taken down through Boston in the open boat. He inquired, and was told it was then the 24th of June – so that he had been insensible for a month.
A month? That’s a coma.
His head had been shaved, &c. The men on board deliberated about murdering him, but one who appeared to be the captain refused to allow them to shed human blood. At last the captain told him they were smugglers, and offered to allow him to become one of their gang, if he would take the oath: for some time he refused, but eventually consented, and a dreadful oath was administered to him – he was duly initiated, and installed in a sailor’s dress.
It’s a funny sort of smugglers’ gang that recruits new members by abducting them on the inland waterways of Lincolnshire.
Some time afterwards, they neared the coast, and a boat was put out for shore. He solicited leave to accompany the captain; was allowed, and played Robinson Crusoe’s dodge when bent upon escaping from the Moors, in seizing hold of the good gentleman and pitching him overboard. He then got ashore and ran for it, but the captain and the men gave chase over ditches and dikes, till he outstripped them and reached Spilsby – without money.
This was the story told by the absentee surgeon. But the local priest was having none of it:
The Rev. H. W. Sibthorp, of Washingboro’, having expressed his determination to sift it to the bottom, Mr. Hoyle has been compelled to give way to his keen inquiries, and to admit that he has been trying his hand at romance – that the whole story is a fabrication.
Alas, we shall never know where Mr Hoyle spent those three missing months of his life, during which his unfortunate wife and children believed him dead. But the reason for his disappearance is not difficult to guess. A recurring theme of his story is payments due or owed, and it seems that debt was a leitmotif of his career. A notice published in the Lincolnshire Chronicle two years later describes him as an inmate in the Queen’s Prison, a debtor’s prison in Southwark. It appears that he was estranged from his family, as he had been living in London for some time before his arrest.
But he must have paid his debts somehow – and all seems to have been forgiven, because before long he was back in the marital home in Lincolnshire, and again practising medicine.
And here we encounter another inglorious episode in the biography of Richard Elkanah Hoyle. On October 14 1859 the Lincolnshire Chronicle reported two cases at a local magistrates’ court involving surgeons with the same family name. In the first, a Thomas Elkanah Hoyle (perhaps Richard’s brother) was convicted of assault, and fined 5 shillings. He had attacked a man who accused him of practising medicine without a licence – an interesting fact, given the nature of the very next case the magistrates heard.
The next defendant was Richard Elkanah Hoyle. As the British Medical Journal reported, he was charged with
having wilfully and falsely practised as a surgeon, and with having used the name of a surgeon, without being duly qualified.
This sounds a serious matter, and it was – but there’s some important historical context. The previous year the government had introduced a significant new piece of legislation, the Medical Act of 1858, the first successful attempt to regulate exactly who was allowed to practise medicine. For the first time it became a criminal offence for anybody to describe themselves as a doctor or surgeon unless they were on a central register of licensed practitioners. To ensure inclusion on the register it was necessary to hold a suitable qualification; only those who had begun to practise before 1815 were exempt from this requirement. A ‘suitable qualification’ might be a medical degree, or membership of one of several professional bodies – notably the Royal Colleges. Another option was obtaining a licence from the Society of Apothecaries in London – or its cousin in Dublin.
For legitimate practitioners, who already held such a qualification, registration was a simple matter. They had simply to pay a fee to the newly-created General Council of Medical Education and Registration (known today as the General Medical Council or GMC), and provide evidence of their qualifications, and they would be included on the register. But for the minority of physicians and surgeons who had learned their trade through the old-fashioned system of apprenticeships – or entered the profession without having done the requisite study – they would either have to go back into training or seek another career.
And it turned out that Mr Hoyle had no qualification – but he got away with it. His barrister cleverly pointed out that the Medical Act stipulated that the register of practitioners should be ‘correct’ and ‘alphabetical’, and it was neither of these things – the preface to the document admitted as much. The magistrates agreed that this fact made it impossible to continue with the prosecution. They did, however, manage to extract an assurance from Mr Hoyle that he would not practise medicine until he was legally qualified. The British Medical Journal concluded its report with the observation that
It is to be trusted that, when the next edition of the Register appears, there will be no room whatever for any quibbles as to its correctness.
Richard Elkanah Hoyle was as good as his word. On December 22 he sat his examination ‘in the science and practice of medicine’ at Apothecaries’ Hall and was awarded a certificate to practise.
His patients seem to have been devoted to him, since the news was greeted with joy back in Heighington. A few weeks later the Lincolnshire Chronicle had this heartwarming story:
On Tuesday evening last, the testimonial to Dr. Hoyle, of Heighington, was presented to that gentleman at a very numerous meeting of his friends, at the Waggon and Horses Inn… After the dinner, and the usual loyal toasts had been heartily given, the Chairman presented to Mr. Hoyle the testimonial, which had been purchased with the free-will offerings of many a grateful heart. It consisted of a beautiful and most elaborately chased inkstand, bearing the following inscription : “Presented to Mr. Richard Elkanah Hoyle, by the inhabitants of Branston, Heighington, Washingborough, Potterhanworth, and the neighbourhood, as a mark of their respect and esteem for his invaluable services to all, and especially to the poor, January 3, 1860.” The testimonial was enhanced by a purse (manufactured by the ladies), containing 25 sovereigns, the humble testimony of no less than 163 persons to the worth and integrity of Mr. Hoyle. After the presentation Mr. Hoyle responded in an address which did him much honor, he reviewed most fully the circumstances which had called forth this spontaneous ebulition of feeling, and delivered an address, which although very lengthy, was full and freely expressive of the feelings of a grateful heart.
Reading between the lines, it sounds as if Mr Hoyle gave a long, exceedingly tedious, and self-congratulatory speech.
But the surgeon’s woes were not yet over. Two years later he was again declared bankrupt, with debts exceeding £1000; and in 1866 his name appeared once more in the list of insolvent debtors.
And that is the last that we know of Mr Hoyle. A sometimes colourful life, but not always for the right reasons. It would be easy to think the worst of him – that he was a feckless spender, a gambling addict and drinker, perhaps, who repeatedly got into debt and on at least one occasion ran away from his troubles instead of confronting them. But he may simply have been a devoted local doctor who got into financial difficulties because he cared more about his patients than his bank balance. Whichever of these things he was, Richard Elkanah Hoyle knew how to spin a yarn.