Eighteenth and Nineteenth-century Bonesetters’ Tales
Eighteenth and nineteenth-century bonesetters were like today’s chiropractors, osteopaths, and physical therapists rolled into one. They practiced joint manipulation and fixed musculoskeletal injuries using manual force. Because eighteenth and nineteenth-century bonesetters were cheaper than regular physicians and because they could be easily found within local communities there are a lot of stories, both good and bad, about them.
One story of success involving eighteen and nineteenth-century bonesetters involves the Sweet family, a generation of American bonesetters. They became famous because Aaron Burr’s daughter, Theodosia Burr Alston, who disappeared on the Patriot, dislocated her hip as a child and it was a Sweet bonesetter who successfully fixed her injury.
City surgeons tried everything to help her but were completely baffled. Burr had heard of Job Sweet and his amazing bone-setting abilities and requested that he come and help his daughter. Job was leery to come because smallpox had broken out at the time but Burr alleviated his fears and so Job boarded a Newport packet to attend to Theodosia. The incident was later published in the Middlebury Register:
“[W]hen he [Job Sweet] arrived, Col. Burr’s coach was in waiting at the wharf for his reception. Having never rode in a coach, he objected to being transported in a vehicle that was shut up. He was fearful of some trick and further he did not like to ride in a thing over which he had not control, but fearing the small pox, he was induced to enter it. He said he never was whirled about so in his life; at last he was ushered into the most splendid mansion he ever saw. The family surgeon was introduced, and he proposed that operation should be performed the succeeding day, and 10 o’clock was agreed to … But [Job Sweet] meant to avoid their presence if he could; he did not fancy learned men. In the evening he solicited an interview with his patient, talked with her familiarly, dissipated her fears, asked permission, in the presence of her father, just to let the old man put his hand upon her hip; she consented, he in a few minutes set the bone; he then said, now walk about the room, which to her own and her father’s surprise, she was readily able to do.”
The next morning when the doctors came to witness Job’s operation, they were surprised. There was nothing to witness. Instead they found Theodosia walking about and Job Sweet already on his way home in a sloop.
Although there were many eighteenth and nineteenth-century bonesetters in England, probably one of the most famous was Sarah “Crazy Sally” Mapp. She received all sorts of good press about her success after she began practicing in the early 1700s in Epsom and London. In fact, one of her most famous cases involved fixing the spinal deformity of Sir Hans Sloane’s niece, who had her shoulder-bone out for about nine years before Mapp repaired it at the Grecian Coffee-house.
Another case that Mapp successful resolved involved the son of a Mrs. Freeman, wife to a plate engraver who had a shop at Gutter Lane. The Freeman’s son had been born lame and to get around he was “forced to walk with an iron.” Mrs. Freeman had heard about Mapp’s amazing abilities and decided the only way her son could ever be cured was by visiting her. Thus, in 1736 she left with her son on a Monday to visit Mapp and returned the following day with him “perfectly cured of the lameness.”
Another tale related to eighteenth and nineteenth-century bonesetters where success was achieved involved a rider thrown from his spirited horse in 1838. In this case a Timothy Wilson of Dockray, Matterdale suffered a dislocated shoulder when he landed on the ground. Hoping to set things right he called John, the son of George Denison, bonesetters in good standing in Stainton near Penrith as noted by the Carlisle Journal:
“[Their] invaluable services rendered to the public … cannot be too much extolled and we think have never been sufficiently appreciated by the public, for whom [they] has wrought so many wonderful cures: and in this case through the judicious treatment of father and son, Mr. Wilson has been perfectly restored to health again.”
Not all eighteenth and nineteenth-century bonesetters achieved the same success that Sweet, Mapp, and Denison did. Some eighteenth and nineteenth-century bonesetters were accused of being quacks, mountebanks, or charlatans. One story about failure was reported in 1826 and involved the case of Milnes v. Taylor where a poor stone mason named Milnes brought a case again the affluent Taylor, who was a celebrated bonesetter in Whitworth and known as one of the “Whitworth doctors.”
Milnes was seeking compensation for damages after he sustained injuries because of “ignorance or neglect” by Taylor. Milnes story began in November 1825 when he was working in a stone quarry in Huddersfield. He was asked to assist in removing a spinning jenny from a nearby mill and agreed. Unfortunately, things went bad:
“The scaffold on which he was standing, 13 feet high, broke, and … [he] was precipitated to the ground, with the jenny upon him. On being raised from the ground it was discovered that his leg was broken, just above the ankle, and that a bone protruded through the skin.”
After the accident, Milne insisted on a “Whitworth doctor” to attend to his injury. Taylor was called for and arrived. According to the Oxford University and City Herald Taylor proceeded as follows:
“He drew a handkerchief tight round the sufferer’s leg, which he tied in a knot, and then got two men to pull it tighter still, to the great pain and danger of the plaintiff without removing the handkerchief, [Taylor then] … tied splints upon the broken leg, saying that it was set, and that only thing to be done was to dress the wound; to accomplish which he had left a vacancy in the bandage.”
For five night Milnes suffered excruciating pain. He sent for Taylor and asked him to loosen the bandage, but Taylor refused claiming that everything was going well. Two surgeons also visited Milnes and told Taylor the bandage should be removed, but he refused to listen to them. Moreover, Taylor claimed the surgeons knew nothing about setting bones and that as he was a bonesetter he had set hundreds of bones and knew what he was doing. Unfortunately, Taylor was soon proven wrong:
“The smell from the leg at last became so offensive, that another surgeon was called in, five weeks after the accident, when he found the leg and foot in such a state of mortification that the leg was obliged to amputated above the knee, when the foot actually dropped from the leg, by the side of the bed. The knot in the handkerchief, it appeared, had greatly provoked the mortification.”
When an inquest was held the jury determined that Taylor had been negligent. They noted that Milnes would not have lost his leg if Taylor had attended to the break properly. Thus, ultimately, Milnes was awarded damages of 120l. from Taylor.
Taylor was not the only bonesetter accused of wrongdoing. Two bonesetters found themselves in trouble after a farmer named Thomas Scruton died in 1891. He had been injured when his pony stumbled, and he was thrown. After the accident he visited a bonesetter in Harrogate named Adamthwaite whose methods did not resolve the injury. When Scruton called upon him a second time, he promised he would fix the problem when he came to Scrunton’s house. Instead, another bonesetter appeared named Wharton from Otley. Unfortunately, he did not fix the problem either and the injury became worse:
“On the 29th of July  Drs. Sedgwick and Leadman were called in … found the left shoulder dislocated, the arm useless and almost paralysed. Dr. Teale was sent for, and he thought amputation was the only course left … The operation was successfully performed … The deceased lingered … [and then] died.”
An inquest was held, and after the jury heard the evidence, they decided that Scruton had been “ill-treated” by the bonesetters. Ultimately the jury also determined that Scruton died from the dislocation of his shoulder. They also noted that “he having been unskilfully treated caused traumatic aneurism amputation and blood poisoning ending in exhaustion, and censured the bone-setters for having unskilfully treated the deceased.”
Of course, not all eighteenth and nineteenth-century bonesetters who got in trouble were found negligent. That was the case when a John Doran died in 1849. It all began after he fell into the hold of a vessel at the Waterloo Dock and suffered severe injuries. A surgeon named Kelly was called. He examined Doran and found that he was severely injured in the back, sides, and chest and therefore applied a plaster to Doran’s chest and sent him home to recover.
A surgeon named Richard Hutchinson then called and found Doran in a weak state but decided everything Kelly did was appropriate and left. Despite Hutchinson’s assessment, Doran’s brother decided to call in a bonesetter named Evan Thomas. He decided to remove the plaster and bleed Doran by applying a dozen leeches, a common procedure that other people like Eliza de Feuillide, her mother (Philadelphia), and her aunt (Cassandra Austen), had prescribed for them.
Hutchinson returned a day or two later to check on Doran and found him in a weakened state. He learned that the bonesetter Thomas had removed the plaster and applied leeches and was unhappy with his treatment. Hutchinson therefore countermanded Thomas’ orders:
“[H]e ordered the leeches to be discontinued and stimulants, such as beef tea, &c, to be given. He considered the bleeding decidedly improper – nothing could have been worse.”
Doran died soon after and an inquest was held to determine fault. Hutchinson testified that Thomas had shown “gross ignorance” and “culpable rashness” and that Doran had two fractures of the sternum and therefore required a plaster. Hutchinson claimed that if “Thomas ordered leeches, and removed the plaster, exposing the breast to the cold,” that condition combined with congestion of the lungs and the shock that Doran experienced to his nervous system was enough to accelerate Doran’s death.
Other doctors at the inquest disagreed with Hutchinson’s findings. They claimed that Doran died because of his injuries and that the bonesetter Thomas removing the plaster and applying leeches did not accelerate or contribute to his death. The jury having heard all the arguments agreed and ultimately found the bonesetter “not guilty” and not responsible in the “slightest degree.”
Even though eighteenth and nineteenth-century bonesetters were often successful, as the nineteenth century advanced critics became more vocal against them. They wanted anyone practicing bone-setting to be a licensed physician and they therefore tried to prevent bonesetters from practicing without medical degrees. That was case in 1897 when the Chicago state board of health began doing everything possible to prevent an English bonesetter named Atkinson from operating in their state.
He had been extremely successful in England where reputedly he had aided and fixed many injuries of sportsmen, such as footballers, jockeys, and prize fighters. Atkinson’s success also resulted in his fame spreading far and wide. He ultimately traveled to the U.S. where he was plagued by critics who bitterly argued that he had no medical degree and therefore should not be practicing bone-setting. However, despite the critics, The Gazette of Cedar Rapids, Iowa seemed to support him and therefore reported on Atkinson’s skills stating:
“He uses no medicine, resorts to no trickery, but simply performs the most wonderful and miraculous cures by manipulation with his hands. Thousands of cripples, persons suffering with every ailment possible imagine in the way of deformed limbs, flock to him for treatment. The poor are charged nothing. He cures them free. “
Supporters of “professor” Atkinson, as he was called, claimed that it was an attack on liberty to prevent him from practicing. They also claimed that the Illinois board of health was attempting to prevent him from “curing” cripples. They thus appealed to the people to protest against those trying to prevent him from practicing the art of bone-setting. Moreover, to whip up the people The Gazette cited instance after instance where Professor Atkinson had cured someone. The paper also noted that wherever he appeared flocks of cripples and the lame came hoping that he would cure them:
“Hastily throwing aside his coat the professor rolls up his shirt sleeves above the elbow … he selects the patient nearest him, a man carrying his left hand close to his side, the elbow bent and the whole arm useless form rheumatism. For three years the cripple had not moved even a finger of that hand and the muscles were almost atrophied from disuse. … Atkinson begins a gentle manipulation of the fingers of the useless hand. … One by one the fingers are separate and then Atkinson begins slowly moving them back and forth, opening and closing the hand. The joints are all right and like the hinge of a door are there to be used if only the patient has sufficient muscular power to move them. … The rheumatic can hardly believe his eyes as he sees the hand he has so long carried straight and stiff before him opening and closing under the manipulation of Atkinson. When the hand has been loosened up the professor slips his hand up to the elbow, and after assuring himself by feeling that the joint is in good condition he begins moving the forearm gently back and forth. If it sticks he uses force … He does not cause the patient too much pain … Gradually the elbow joint resumes its functions … When the elbow is in working the professor slips his hand under the arm and tried to raise it in the air. … Meanwhile he has been pushing strongly against the arm and holding one hand over the shoulder joint to feel how it is working. Slowly the joint beings to move and the long helpless arm goes up in the air, up the shoulder, up above the head, straight up until the hand points at the ceiling and the astounded and delighted owner of the arms looks up in blank surprise.”
Atkinson’s successful bone-setting methods were repeated over and over and those with crippled feet, fingers, necks, backs, hips, knees, and even “crippled brains” reported that they were cured. Although Atkinson’s supporters argued that everyone should prevent “palpable frauds” and that quacks should be jailed, they also argued that Professor Atkinson practicing bone-setting resulted in no harm to anyone and therefore they maintained:
“And if he only casts off the burden from one poor cripple and turned a life of distress and pain and anguish, into joy and happiness, … he should be honored … and not treated in a shameful manner.”
Ultimately, however, eighteenth and nineteenth-century bonesetters found it hard to practice. They were therefore replaced with “legitimate” medical professionals as licensing laws became more stringent for anyone practicing medicine. It also resulted in many bonesetters seeking formal medical training, which then further diminished people using them and resulted in more licensed physicians.
-  Middlebury Register, “The Natural Bone-setters,” August 17, 1847, p. 1.
-  Derby Mercury, “-,” August 26, 1736, p. 3.
-  Ibid.
-  Carlisle Journal, “Accident,” February 17, 1838, p. 3.
-  Oxford University and City Herald, “The Whitworth Doctor,” July 29, 1826, p. 1.
-  Ibid.
-  Ibid.
-  The Yorkshire Herald and the York Herald, “Boroughbridge,” January 16, 1892, p. 11.
-  The Yorkshire Herald and the York Herald, “Local and District,” January 20, 1892, p. 3.
-  Liverpool Standard and General Commercial Advertiser, “Charges Against a Bone-setter,” December 11, 1849, p. 6.
-  Ibid.
-  The Gazette, “A Medical Monopoly Attack on Liberty,” December 11, 1897, p. 4.
-  Ibid.
-  Ibid.
Very interesting! I’m guessing that modern medicine took over SOME of what Bonesetters did, especially with advance imaging like X-Rays, MRIs, etc; but would you say the modern-day Chiropractor has any similarities to Bonesetters?
I think so.
Wow this is fascinating.
Having just finished watching Outlander, where a 1940’s nurse ends up transported back to 1740’s Scotland, a lot of the series focused on her trying to use medical treatments without being deemed to be using witchcraft.
Anyone in the medical profession hundreds of years ago who performed treatments that were new would have suffered doubts and rejections I am sure. Stories of bonesetters could make an intriguing television documentary for sure, but maybe a fascinating television series. Who knows.
I totally agree Tony.
Hello, I am trying to reconstruct my bibliography for a short piece of mine called “Theodosia and The Bone Setter.” Due to a hard drive failure, I have been unable to find the URLs of websites I consulted for this piece. Specifically, I have recounted the story of how Job Sweet cured the hip displacement of Aaron Burr’s daughter and, as you also recount, took off before having to confront the bigwigs. I had a source which quoted Job Sweet as saying “Mr. Burr paid me hansum, very hansum!” but I’m unable to find the attribution for this.
Does this ring a bell for you?
I would appreciate any lead on this.
Sorry it doesn’t ring a bell. Good look finding the quote. If I come across it at a later date, I’ll let you know.
Thank you, Geri.