Amid legal cases for libel and manslaughter and rumours of spying and espionage, a self-proclaimed “famous” herbalist once spent his whole working life plying his trade across four states of Australia. This week marks the 112th anniversary of what turned out to be the beginning of the end in this amazing tale. I told a version of this story on West Bremer Radio.
The herbalist Hermann Emil Kugelmann was born in Adelaide in South Australia in 1858. His father was a herbalist, and it’s said that his parents eloped from Prussia and his grandfather was a major in the Prussian army.
From 1886, Kugelmann advertised his herbal consulting visits across Australia. At first appointments were free but he later charged £2 a time, plus the cost of treatment.
He claimed to cure things like catarrh which is an excessive discharge of mucus from the nose or throat, and hydatid which is a cyst that contains a tapeworm larva. Other alleged cures were for asthma, deafness, heart and liver complaints, epilepsy, tuberculosis, and even cancer – basically everything.
John Frederick Byng from North Melbourne, Victoria, said that he was cured after suffering for seven years from chronic bleeding piles. Byng appears to have been the same man who was convicted fifty years earlier of scuttling a ship at the time of the gold rush.
Then there was James Brockie from Tivoli in Ipswich, Queensland, who claimed his daughter Olive was cured of withered legs and as a result she had walked for the first time when she was four-years-old. Brockie was later fined for indecent and threatening language. This included waving his cocked and loaded Lee Enfield rifle at his neighbour.
Kugelmann visited the Palais Royal Hotel in Ipswich for the first time on Tuesday the 13th of June 1899. Not long after this, he sued the editor and proprietor of the Truth newspaper for libel and claimed £1,000 damages. This came after the newspaper had questioned the efficacy of his cure for cancer. The jury pondered a verdict for twenty-seven days but failed to reach a decision, so the case was dismissed.
The national headlines didn’t do any harm because Kugelmann’s popularity actually increased, resulting in more frequent visits to the Palais Royal Hotel in Ipswich, three times a year.
But in 1908 there was a manslaughter charge brought against Kugelmann in South Australia. The father of a patient had died after taking herbs that were prescribed for his daughter. Kugelmann was found not guilty but the publicity took its toll.
Just weeks later, his visit to Ipswich on Saturday the 9th of January 1909 proved to be his last. After a decade of growing his business there, this was the first sign of trouble.
Kugelmann had purchased an estate, near Rutherglen in north-eastern Victoria, called ‘Gooramadda’ which was previously owned by the father of world-renowned soprano Dame Nellie Melba. Once the First World War started, unsavoury rumours began circulating. It was whispered that Kugelmann’s herbs would be used to poison Melbourne’s water supply, his irrigation power plant was being used to send signals to German U-boats, mysterious heavy cases seen there were storing German arms, and that he was even hiding a field gun to be used for shelling the local railway line. Investigations came to nothing but the rumours had an effect.
Kugelmann curtailed his touring and didn’t visit Queensland for four years until after the war in 1919. It was then that he advertised his herbs as “All British” cures. When Kugelmann died in Melbourne 1932, he owed thousands of pounds and his estate paid creditors just ten shillings to the pound. This was just half of what was owed. The Queensland city of Ipswich had proved to be the beginning of the end for the herbalist.
Despite the troubles and a highly unusual history, there is still a Kugelmans herbalist business that operates in Victoria to this day.
Kugelmann hair photo – Melbourne Punch, 5 December 1912, page 19
Palais Royal Hotel – Ipswich City Council & Woodcock & Powell 1887
Kugelmann trial illustration – Sydney Truth, 10 December 1899, page 5