Bonesetters: Joint Manipulators and Musculoskeletal Fixers

Bonesetters of the 1700s and 1800s were like today’s chiropractors, osteopaths, and physical therapists rolled into one. They practiced joint manipulation and fixed musculoskeletal injuries using manual force. Traditionally, these practitioners did not have formal medical training but rather learned their skills on their own or from their family with bone-setting knowledge being passed down from one generation to the next.

Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Bonesetters of the 1700s and 1800s could be found in many countries. For instance they were readily found in America, the United Kingdom, and France where they were called by a variety of names. For instance, sometimes their names were local or regional variants although for the most part they were “most commonly known as a ‘rebouteur’ or ‘renouneur,’ from renouer, to join together. Other French terms included ‘adoubeur,’ ‘radoubeur,’ ‘remetteur,’ ‘rhabilleur,’ and even ‘ossier.’”[1]

Bonesetters of these times were also primarily male practitioners. Many had long family legacies and had been around for years, but they did not receive praise and recognition for their unique skills until the early 1700s. This praise changed to disdain as medicine began to advance. Bonesetters they became thought of as less than legitimate because they had no formal training. Moreover, the bonesetter’s reputation declined as “orthopedic knowledge became more and more a part of the armamentarium of the general physician.”[2]

By the late 1800s physicians often referred to bonesetters as quacks, and this occurred despite their success. This was indicated in the following article published in the Sevenoaks Chronicle and Kentish Advertiser in 1890:

“A few days ago the Belgian Minister of Justice having injured his knee in the hunting-field, engaged the services of one of the quack bone-setters who seem numerous on the Continent; and about the same time M. Rouvier, the French Minister of Finance, fell from his horse when out riding, thereby dislocating his ankle, and he, too, employed a quack bone-setter. M. Rouvier is reported to be rapidly progressing towards recovery, and it is not alleged that the Belgian Minister has had reason to repent of having placed himself in quack hands, and in M. Rouvier’s case his own regular medical man appears to have condescended to consult with his uncertified rival. But it happens that the laws of their respective countries forbid the unqualified to meddle with the broken or dislocated bones of other people.”[3]

In 1871, a Dr. Wharton P. Hood of England and a member of the Royal College of Surgeons wrote the first book by an orthodox medical practitioner titled “On Bone-setting.” He demonstrated that he and other physicians did not necessarily believe bonesetters were legitimate medical practitioners even while admitting they were sometimes successful. The Sunday Leader provided the following report on Hood’s book stating:

“He called the ‘bone-setters’ quacks, as all his fellow-practitioners have done, but he admitted the success of their form of treatment. He confined his observations, however, to the correction of stiffness of the joints. In fact, he claimed ― and this may be true of bone-setting ― that the ‘bone-setter’ did not re-set broken bones or dislocated joints. The services of such persons, he said, were sought when a fracture set by a regular surgeon remained stiff aft the splints had been removed, the bone-setter by a rapid manipulation would overcome this stiffness, where the regular practitioner would advise rest as the only cure.”[4]

Bonesetters - advertisement

Advertisement and warning against Isaiah Buckman by an American bonesetter S.C. Hewett. Author’s collection.

Another critic of bonesetters was an American orthopedist named A.J. Steele. He wrote an article for The Medical Age in 1893 and discussed what he thought of bonesetters stating:

“The quack has from time immemorial found a large field for his nefarious practices in our department: as the ‘qualified bonesetter’ he has thriven in England as the ‘natural bone-setter’ … There are several [in the United States] … one especially in a small town … derives a large income from an easily gulled public. In early days an Indian fighter, he accidentally learned of his wonderful gifts … uneducated, and without a knowledge of medicine, he has founded a chartered Osteopathic medical college … people, even wealthy and educated, can be found to have faith in this pretender and to submit to his severe manipulations, is remarkable. The qualified bone-setters of England … limit their practice to displaced bones or functionally disturbed joint; but here is one who, finding all disease caused by deformities and dislocated bones, pulls and twists to cure. The peripatetic quack, by insinuating advertisements and promises to cure, secures many cases, much money, and does irremediable harm.”[5]

Another reason why bonesetters were sometimes looked down upon had to do with the fact that many did not strictly devote themselves exclusively to bone-setting. Many bonesetters practiced in other fields. For instance, “farmers, trades, mechanics, sailors, they earned their living largely in ordinary occupations, setting bones only as a sideline.”[6] Some bonesetters were also veterinarians, farriers, or shepherds and they were sometimes accused of prescribing animal remedies to cure men.

Some bonesetters were even more brazen than using animal cures and went far beyond setting broken bones, fixing dislocated arms, or curing damaged limbs. That was claimed to be the case with Frenchman Monsieur Paul Combe, a phenomenally successful bonesetter. Apparently, however, despite his apparent success, he got into trouble with the High Court of Cassation because he refused to stick to bone-setting.

“[Instead he] invaded the province of the faculty, by restoring to sight those whom the doctors had sentenced to eternal blindness, superseding dangerous and painful operations by a simple cataplasm, giving draughts, and powders, after which the patient felt reasonably comfortable; doing all this for the modest fee of one franc, with the additional circumstance of confining his practice to cases which the regular doctors had given over.”[7]

Despite objections from critics and from many in the medical community, large numbers of people relied on bonesetters for treatment in the 1700 and 1800s. They did so partly because bonesetters were cheaper than licensed physicians and partly because bonesetters were easier to find. There was also the fact that bonesetters were often effective in resolving certain types of problems better than physicians. For instance, they had great success with feet turned inwards, fractures, ankylosed joints, spinal dislocations, and sprains.

Advertisement for an English bonesetter, William Butler Fenton. Author’s collection.

Despite critics viewing bonesetters as quacks, there were numerous success stories which were highly publicized. One story that resulted in a wonderful resolution involved George Moore, a merchant, businessman, and philanthropist born in 1806. He wrote about his bone-setting experience after having suffered extreme pain related to a hunting accident in March of 1867. Moore had visited every “eminent” surgeon over a two-year period. It was to no avail as they could not find a cure for his shoulder pain and he continually suffered.

Having exhausted all possibilities and unable to bear the pain any longer, some of his friends advised that he see a bonesetter. Moore was reluctant but finally agreed and called upon a bonesetter named Richard Hutton whose family had a long history of being bonesetters. He advised Moore to rub hot neat’s-foot oil into his sore shoulder for a week. Hutton then met Moore at Kensington Palace Gardens where he had him sign a waiver agreeing “to be satisfied whether failure or success was the result!”[8] Moore did.

“Hutton [then] took the arm in his hand, gave it two or three turns, and then gave it a tremendous twist round the socket. The shoulder-joint was got in! … It had been out for nearly two years! …  Moore was taken to task by his professional friends for going to quack … ‘Well,’ said he, ‘Quack or no quack, he cured me.’”[9]

Advertisement for American bonesetter Isaiah Buckman in 1837. Author’s collection.

Another bonesetter, Robert Motion, helped so many people, villagers of Denhead, Fifeshire decided to honor him. It happened on 13 June 1845 and involved a procession of working men with “music and colours” parading through the village. They then assembled at the local schoolroom where a speech honoring Motion for having been “serviceable” to the people in setting broken and dislocated limbs was delivered by the local schoolmaster. Afterwards Motion was presented with a silver snuff-box that bore the following inscription:

“Presented to Robert Motion by the inhabitants of Denhead and vicinity, as a mark of esteem for his services as an expert bonesetter.”[10]

Although there were many other stories of success, it was not just ordinary people who found relief from bonesetters. Members of Britain’s royalty employed them when their court physicians were inadequate or inefficient. For instance, George II had his own bonesetter, a man named Joshua Ward.

Sometimes bonesetters were as famous or more famous than their clients. One well-known bonesetter in the United Kingdom who gained fame was a woman named Sarah “Crazy Sally” Mapp. She learned her impressive bone-setting skills from her father who had supposedly taught her how to reset almost any bone. Mapp practiced bone-setting in the early 1700s in Epsom and London and achieved fame both by performing remarkable bone-setting acts and by being a woman in a male-dominated profession. The Dundee Evening Telegraph remarked on her amazing abilities stating:

“Mrs. Mapp was the rage in London and was said to have straightened the body of a man whose back had stuck out two inches for nine years, and a gentleman who went into her house with one shoe heel six inches high, came out again cured of a lameness of twenty years’ standing, and with both his legs of equal length. The reported cure of Sir Hans Sloane’s niece by Mrs. Mapp made her the town talk.”[11]

Bonesetters - Sarah “Crazy Sally” Mapp

Sarah “Crazy Sally” Mapp. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Mapp was not the only female bonesetter in the eighteenth century. Another female bonesetter operated in Nièvre, located in the region of Bourgogne-Franche-Comté in the center of France. She was Madame Thevenet and “said to have set to her work like ‘the boldest of men’ (setting broken or dislocated bones before anaethesia and x-rays).”[12]  

Besides Thevenet, there were other bonesetters in France. Some they came from a long line of hereditary bonesetters. Matthew Ramsey, a historian of today on France and medicine and public health, reported on these early generations of bonesetters stating:

“At Sivry in the Ardennes lived one of the many families that handed down the craft from father to son; the member active at the end of the Restoration enjoyed a practice extending through the arrondissement of Vouziers. Another such dynasty could be found at Lentigny in the Loire, where in 1808 Claude Péricard affirmed in a petition to the emperor [Napoleon Bonaparte] that he and his ancestors had practiced [bonesetting] for fifty-eight years.”[13]

There were also some colorful bone-setting families in America where generation after generation practiced the skill. One famous bone-setting family were the Sweets. Although they were also blacksmiths, their legacy involved at least four generations of bone-setting practitioners.

Among the first of the Sweets to gain fame was Job Sweet. He became famous because he “set the [dislocated] hip-bone of Mrs. Alston, Aaron Burr’s daughter.”[14] However, that was not the only story of success for the Sweet family because another story about the Sweets achieving success appeared in The Sunday Leader in 1898:

“A man now living in Boston hurt his knee-joint … and in time the knee stiffened and became mis-shapen. The family doctor told him the case was hopeless. Then he sent to South Kingston for one of the Sweet family. The old man came, dressed in homespun, and gave the knee a quick inspection. He said it could be ‘put right,’ but that it would hurt dreadfully. ‘Go ahead,’ said the owner of the knee. The bone-setter took the thigh in one hand and the leg in the other, and with a sudden, powerful twist threw the joint into position. He repeated the operation several times.

‘Now get up and walk,’ he said to the patient, ‘for if you don’t, the j’int water won’t come and your leg with get stiff again.’

The patient walked, thought it hurt … Presumably the ‘j’int water’ came for his leg was restored to its natural condition.”[15]

Bonesetters - Charles Sweet

One of the Sweet bonesetters, Charles Sweet  (1810-1896). Courtesy of Find A Grave.

Of course, just like in Europe, even the famous Sweet family was sometimes referred to as quacks. It happened after a woman fell down a flight of stairs and dislocated and fractured her hip:

“Two physicians were called in, after a two-hours’ consultation they put the patient under the influence of ether and for a half-hour studied her injury. They decided that her case was incurable, and that her leg would be shortened at least two or three inches. After three weeks of suffering, she asked her family physician about consulting the Sweets, and he replied that they were quacks. Nevertheless, she sent for the bonesetter and within a minute he had set the joint, which he then packed with sand bags so that the leg could not be used. The limb was restored to its natural length and became perfectly well.”[16]

Throughout much of the 1700 and 1800s bonesetters thrived because of the successes of people like Mapp, Thevenet, and the Sweets. That was partially because they were often the only person available to treat dislocations, fractures, or breaks. However, as medicine advanced, bonesetters were replaced, and as licensing laws became more stringent it became less and less easy for them to practice bone-setting. It also resulted in many bonesetters seeking formal medical training, which then did away with most bonesetters.


  • [1] M. Ramsey, Professional and Popular Medicine in France 1770-1830: The Social World of Medical Practice, Cambridge Studies in the History of Medicine (Cambridge University Press, 2002), p. 185.
  • [2] Joy. R.T., “The Sweet Famiyl of Rhode Island: A Study of an Early Phase of Orthopedics,” Bulletin of the History of Medicine 28, no. 5 (1954): p. 422.
  • [3] Sevenoaks Chronicle and Kentish Advertiser, “Quack Bone-setters,” October 10, 1890, p. 2.
  • [4] The Sunday Leader, “Bone-setters by Inheritance,” January 2, 1898, p. 12.
  • [5] A. J. Steele, “The Embodiment of an Idea,” The Medical Age XI, no. 18 (1893): p. 549–50.
  • [6] Joy. R.T., p. 425.
  • [7] Public Ledger and Daily Advertiser, “London,” December 28, 1818, p. 2.
  • [8] S. Smiles, George Moore, 3rd (London: George Routledge and Sons, 1878), p. 320–21.
  • [9] Ibid., p. 321.
  • [10] The Star of Freedom, “Denhead, Fifeshire,” June 21, 1845, p. 16.
  • [11] Dundee Evening Telegraph, “Mrs. Mapp,” October 15, 1881, p. 2.
  • [12] M. R. Hunt, Women in the Eighteenth Century (London: Routledge, 2010), p. 194–95.
  • [13] M. Ramsey, p. 185–86.
  • [14] The Sunday Leader, p. 12.
  • [15] Ibid.
  • [16] Ibid.

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