LENOX — After more than 100 years of lying undiscovered, the most complete example in existence of an "electric cylinder" used by the Shakers to cure coughs and colds, was turned up recently by James Corbett, antique dealer of the Lenox-Pittsfield road.

The "shocking machine" as the Shakers called it, was unearthed accidentally by Mr. Corbett while he was rummaging for antiques in a New Lebanon barn. Still not knowing what the machine was, but intrigued by its appearance, he purchased the contraption and went to work to discover its purpose.

As Mr. Corbett explains, "an antique dealer is constantly picking up articles which he doesn't know anything about, and needs to do a lot of research to discover what it is." More than "a lot" of research was necessary in this case, he says, as the Shakers, who usually kept copious records of their activities, had little to report on this subject.

The clue to his machine finally came to him in two paragraphs written by Edward D. Andrews, temporary curator of the New York State Museum, in his pamphlet "The Community Industries of the Shakers."

Mr. Corbett compared his apparatus, which consists of a glass cylinder which revolves against a large chamois rubbing pad, producing frictional electricity, with the description reported in a medical register of 1827. There it was written that $5 was charged to William Hull and Oliver Hull for the use of an "electric cylinder" for therapeutic purposes. Curator Andrews also reported another entry from another Shaker journal of 1827 which said "Elder Sister remains feeble but is relieved of some of her cough by vapor bath and electricity" … and later … "Elder Sister is much better; we keep her in, and continue shocking her."

According to the Lenox antique man, only one other example is known to exist. It is at the New York State Museum in Albany and is far less complete than his own machine.

Still a mystery is the method by which the Shakers transmitted the frictional electricity from the chamois pads to the patient. Mr. Corbett believes there was some gadget, such as a glass tube — not now on his machine — which brought the shock to the patient; but as far as he can discover, the final answer is unknown. However, the theory of using electricity for therapeutic purposes has been proven something short of modern.

This Story in History is selected from the archives by Jeannie Maschino, The Berkshire Eagle.

Community News Editor / Librarian

Jeannie Maschino is community news editor and librarian for The Berkshire Eagle. She has worked for the newspaper in various capacities since 1982 and joined the newsroom in 1989.