Take a Look at Vance Lauderdale's Personal Shock-Treatment Machine

Various biographies mention that I "probably" am the only person on the Memphis magazine staff (if not the entire city) who has his own personal shock-treatment machine.

I can't say if that is absolutely true, because I have not visited the tumbledown shacks along the railroad that are occupied by my co-workers, and since I rarely invite my colleagues to the Mansion, it's not like they have ever spotted my own device and claimed to have one just like it.

But never mind about them. This blog is about ME, and since several people have actually asked if this claim is true, here's the proof.

I obtained this interesting item more than 30 years ago, from a fellow who had purchased it (or so he said) from a now-closed mental hospital somewhere in North Carolina. It's an impressive gadget, that's for sure — encased in a dark wooden cabinet, with a thick and very heavy glass lid covering the dials and switches and knobs that the doctors used.

And it did all sorts of marvelous things. Various switches allow you (meaning: me) to attach electrodes that perform "diathermy" and "auto condensation" and even something rather gruesomely called "electro-coagulation." And when it's switched on, it looks like a device you'd find in Dr. Frankenstein's laboratory. Electric blue sparks jump across gaps that you adjust by turning four dials, and you control the power with the lever that swings from o to 10, and that's when you understand why the machine has such a heavy glass lid — to protect the operator from instant electrocution while this thing is running (though too bad for the poor patient).

But there is so much voltage running through it that the spark-gap modulator is actually balanced on inch-thick glass rods, for insulation, and all the top-mounted controls are attached to an inch-thick slab of white marble, for even more protection from electrocution. Beneath that marble is a maze of diodes and transformers and capacitors and magnets and wires. It's an incredibly complicated device, and all that glass and marble and metal means it's also an incredibly heavy device — the whole thing probably weighs 300 pounds.

I haven't really researched it that much, but a nice engraved plate on top says that it was manufactured in Cincinnati, Ohio, by the Liebel-Flarsheim Company. It gives the model and serial number, but doesn't tell me the date of construction. Early 1900s, I'd say.

I have lots of wonderful curiosities in the Mansion, but this is still one of my favorites. And oh, after a hard day of answering "Ask Vance" questions, it's such a relief to come home and get a good half-hour of diathermy. There's nothing quite like it.

Here are a few other photos of the machine, just for the curious.

Reader Comments:
Aug 16, 2012 01:52 pm
 Posted by  warbirdali

I think you got ripped off, Vance... this is what you see if you take the turntable and the big horn thingy off a Victrola. Allegedly.

Aug 16, 2012 02:18 pm
 Posted by  Anonymous

This looks exactly like what was wheeled in to my room while in the psych ward at Methodist Hospital in 1965. I was only 17 and suffering from deep depression, and shock therapy was given to me every other day. Insulin shock therapy was administered on the alternate days. With the electro shock therapy, I was fitted with a "straight" jacket, I was given a round stick to bite down on, and two people held me down. Then the shock came. It would knock me unconscious, and when I awoke my jaws would hurt and I felt awful the rest of the day. My doctor was trying to erase whatever it was that was bothering me (he did not know), and he told me that most of my memory would come back. Well it didn't erase any of the thoughts of torture at the hands of my father, and rape and incest by my brother and his buddies. It only made learning anything from that point on a real struggle.
Just thought you might like to know a little more about that little (torture) machine.

Aug 21, 2012 12:19 pm
 Posted by  Anonymous

I thought you were rather wierd. Now I know why. However, keep your column going.

Aug 28, 2012 04:18 pm
 Posted by  Anonymous

Hi Vance,
maybe you should take this article off?
It brings back to many BAD memories.

That "torture machine" was used on my late wife in 1958 in the Psych ward here in a Memphis hospital. The shocks made it worse. She would cry for days afterward. Later she committed suicide because she did not want to go through the torture machine anymore.
We also never had any children, because she took our only child with her when she jumped off the Hernando bridge. She was 4 months pregnant.

Please remove this article. It makes me so sad.

Thank you.

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About This Blog

Ask Vance is the blog of Vance Lauderdale, the award-winning columnist of Memphis magazine and MBQ: Inside Memphis Business.  Vance is the author of three books: Ask Vance: The Best Questions and Answers from Memphis Magazine's History and Trivia Expert (2003), as well as Ask Vance: More Questions and Answers from Memphis Magazine's History Expert (2011) and Vance Lauderdale's Lost Memphis (2013). He is also the recipient of quite a few nice awards, the creator of several eye-catching wall calendars, and the only person we know with a vintage shock-treatment machine in his den. 

You can find him from time to time in the pages of the Memphis Flyer and MBQ, on WKNO television, and on Facebook. When he is not exploring the highways and byways of Memphis, he spends his time sleeping, napping, and dozing.

Got a question for Vance?  Email him here.

Find Vance's old blog posts (pre-April 2011) and comments here.

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