Still reading Veltman’s Приключения, почерпнутые из моря житейского (Adventures drawn from the sea of life), also called Саломея [Salomea], I hit one of those linguistic-cultural mysteries that took enough unraveling I thought I’d make a post of it. The titular Salomea Petrovna has returned in unexpected circumstances to her parents’ house and her mother has fainted; her father “спрыскивал ее водой, натирал виски спиртом, подносил к носу четырех разбойников и, наконец, возвратил к жизни” [sprinkled her with water, rubbed her temples with spirits, brought four thieves to her nose, and finally returned her to life]. (It is amusing that виски [viskí] ‘temples’ looks exactly like виски [víski] ‘whiskey,’ which is a kind of spirits.) Naturally, the phrase in italics puzzled me, but for a long time googling was fruitless, turning up only references to actual thieves. Then I found a quote from Daniil Mordovtsev, “Четыре поименованные генерала напоминают мне письмо Вольтера: он пишет, что уксус, называемый «четырех разбойников», самое есть действительное средство от заразы” [The four named generals remind me of a letter of Voltaire; he writes that the vinegar called “four thieves” is the most efficient remedy against contagion]. Armed with that, I found an actual recipe in William T. Brannt’s A Practical Treatise on the Manufacture of Vinegar: With Special Consideration of Wood Vinegar and Other By-products Obtained in the Destructive Distillation of Wood …, 2nd ed. (H. C. Baird, 1900), p. 174 (image):
Vinaigre des quatre voleurs. Fresh tops of common wormwood, Roman wormwood, rosemary, sage, mint and rue each ¾ ounce, lavender flowers 1 ounce, garlic, calamus aromaticus, cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg each 1 drachm, camphor ½ ounce, alcohol or brandy 1 ounce, strong vinegar 4 pints.
In the former Edinburgh Pharmacopoeia there was contained, under the same name, a somewhat similar but weaker preparation, made with diluted acetic acid (i.e. distilled vinegar), in imitation of the celebrated Marseilles Vinegar, or Vinegar of the Four Thieves[fn. 2] (Vinaigre des Quatre-Voleurs; Acetum quatuor Furum), once supposed to be a prophylactic against the plague and other contagious diseases. It was a very useless preparation.
The footnote (image) reads:
“The repute of this preparation as a prophylactic in contagious fevers, is said to have arisen from the confession of four thieves, who, during the plague of Marseilles, plundered the dead bodies with perfect security, and, upon being arrested, stated, on condition of their lives being spared, that the use of aromatic vinegar had preserved them from the influence of contagion. It is on this account sometimes called ‘Le Vinaigre des quatre Voleurs.’ It was, however, long used before the plague of Marseilles, for it was the constant custom of Cardinal Wolsey to carry in his hand an orange, deprived of its contents and filled with a sponge which had been soaked in vinegar impregnated with various spices, in order to preserve himself from infection, when passing through the crowds which his splendour of office attracted. The first plague raged in 1649, whereas Wolsey died in 1531.” (Paris, Pharmacologia, 6th edit. vol. ii. p. 18, Lond. 1825.)
If you google [vinaigre “quatre voleurs”] you can get plenty more; it’s one of those things that was common knowledge in the nineteenth century but has since been utterly forgotten. (Or has it? If anyone is familiar with it, do speak up.)