19 Jul 2021


Lost Capitol Hill: Vapor Baths in the Capitol

I have previously written about how the Capitol was used (and abused) for private enterprise. However, discovering that an entrepreneur had set up shop in the sub-basement to give Congressmembers (and others) vapor baths surprised me a bit.

Boyd Reilly was born in the early 1780s in Ireland. He came to the United States as a young man, settling in Pennsylvania. He was naturalized in 1805, married and had children. In the 1830s, Reilly invented a new way of giving vapor baths. Applying possibly toxic gases to the skin of patients had been used for some time, and was considered treatment for all sorts of ailments, but Reilly’s apparatus allowed for “irrespirable gases [to] be applied to the body in a recumbent posture, and with sufficient security to the patient and attendants against the introduction of the vapor or gas into the lungs.”

In short, toxic vapors could be applied without killing either the patient or the people giving the treatment.

While Reilly was perfectly happy to set up shop and treat patients, the real money would come from a government contract. His first attempt came in 1836, and was voted down immediately. In 1838, a bill instructing the United States to purchase “the perpetual right to use his improved apparatus” was introduced, and a select committee was appointed to study Reilly’s apparatus. Representative Alexander Duncan of Ohio drew the short straw and was put in charge of writing the report. He was quite enthusiastic, if slightly wordy:

Your committee confidently believe that the use of the pungent gases, applied by means of this improved apparatus, will be admirably adapted to the treatment of a great portion of the diseases to which persons in the military and naval service of the United States are liable, and they thin will, in the end, prove the most speedy, economical, safe, and pleasant mode of treatment in all cutaneous diseases, which are numerous and frequently obstinate of cure in those exposed to the duties, hardships, and privations of the camp and the navy, as well as diseases of a rheumatic character, and those of a congestive form, common to the soldier and the sailor.

There followed some twenty pages of laudatory prose from various members of the military, including Joseph Lovell, surgeon general of the US army, whose portrait can be seen above. Unfortunately for Reilly, this was not enough. About six months later, with almost no debate, the bill was voted down and the inventor was forced to fend for himself. Four years later, he was in business, both selling his baths as well as seeing his patients in his offices near 12th and Pennsylvania Avenue NW or “in the chamber of the sick” as his advertisement ran.

In 1843, his case was taken up again in Congress, this time passing the Senate, but seems to have died in the House. Reilly then departed for a grand tour of the “Old World,” including a lengthy sojourn in the Turkish empire. He would lecture about what he had learned a number of times in 1846.

Advertisement for Reilly’s services in the Capitol, published August 17, 1852 in the Washington Daily Union (LOC)

Six years later, he was back to vapor baths. His advertisement still promoted his baths and promised that they also prevented cholera, but most importantly indicated that the cure could now be taken in the Capitol itself. The exact location was given with the slightly cryptic “See front in rear of fountain,” i.e. on the west front, the central section, in the sub-basement and near the Tripoli monument.

His advertisements continued to appear regularly in D.C. papers until 1854, when they abruptly disappeared, along with Reilly’s name, from the historical record. Steam vapor baths, however, continued to be used well into the 20th Century, but have since gone the way of Mr. Reilly.

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