Articles by JCS

Early American Bonesette

Early American Bonesetters

By

JCS

In colonial America, graduates of medical schools were few and far between and  many men called "Doctor" had little or no qualifications according to Martha R. McPartland, author of “The Bonesetter Sweets of South County, Rhode Island:”

 Some were the seventh son of a seventh son, and so believed to be endowed with special healing power; some were charlatans with a smattering of education and glib tongues, who took advantage of misfortune and ignorance; still others had a natural flair for caring for the sick and were able to relieve much suffering.  In the last category was a remarkable family from the southern part of Rhode Island called, and still recalled, as the “Bonesetter Sweets.”[1]

Of Welsh extraction the Sweets were an old Rhode Island family whose progenitor, John Sweet, came to the state from Salem, Massachusetts in 1637. Family tradition has it that their forbearers in Wales had this innate facility for helping the sick.  The inherited ability to set bones was not regarded by the Sweets as a vocation, but rather as an avocation.  They were artisans by calling—stonemasons, blacksmiths, wheel-wrights, and carpenters.  Bonesetting was a sideline, as is demonstrated by an advertisement in the Providence Journal of February 16, 1830.

The remarkable part of this family was the fact that they never exploited their natural ability.  Not one of them sought fame or fortune through this medium.  The father usually selected one or two of his sons, probably those who showed a tendency in that direction, and instructed them in bonesetting.  The Sweets did not deem this a magical thing, but more of an inherited knowledge acquired from their elders.  They handled fractures, sprains, and dislocations with a skill to be envied by an orthopedic physician.  Their skill was in the manipulation of bones but they were known to use herbs, ointments, and skunk grease in massaging too.  Their knack was thought uncanny, as they so often succeeded where others, more learned and "better trained," had failed.  Instances naming local doctors who failed to relieve suffering that was later relieved by one of the Sweets have become a part of South County folklore.[2]

Dr. Benoni Sweet, born in 1663 and died in 1751 at the age of 90, was also known as “Captain Sweet” as he was called by his neighbors since in his early days he had been an officer in the British Army where “his skill in bone-setting was of high repute in Rhode Island and in Eastern Connecticut,” as reported in the New York Times on April 4, 1874 in an article “Distinguished Bone-Setters.”

During the Revolutionary War, his son, Dr. Job Sweet, born in 1724 and died in 1840 at the age of 80, was sent to Newport to set the bones of French officers, an operation their own doctors would not attempt.  After the war, Colonel Aaron Burr, later Vice-President of the United States, sent for him to help his daughter, Theodosia, who had a dislocated hipbone.  Dr. Job journeyed to New York and was there greeted by Colonel Burr, their family doctor, and several other learned medical men.  Rather reluctantly, Job was not happy about having an audience.  They suggested that a specific hour—ten o'clock the next morning—be set for the procedure.  After they had left the house, Job talked soothingly to Theodosia, who was in great pain, and explained to her his methods.  When he had eased her fears, he asked her father if he could place his hands on her hip to locate the trouble. 

According to the 1874 The New York Times article:

When the surgeon had left the house, Sweet asked permission to make an examination of the case, saying “he’d like to see just what he’d got to do.” Burr consented and the doctor, after some familiar chat with the little patient, which dissipated her fears, acquainted himself with the precise nature of the dislocation, and his hands compressed the limb more firmly, the sufferer gave one scream, there was a “click” as the bone came to its place, and the doctor said, with one of his droll laughs, “There now! I guess ‘twon’t be worthwhile for me to come back again after dinner.” He would never tell what fee he received for the operation, but he said, “Mr. Burr paid him hansum—very hansum.”[3]

After a few minutes, Job said to her, "Now walk around the room," and much to the surprise of Theodosia and her father she did just that—and without pain. When the medical team arrived the next morning Job was well on his way back to Rhode Island and “Theodosia’s hip was properly set and on the mend.”

In 1813 The New York Times carried another article about Dr. Stephen Sweet who was described as “a heavy, powerful, and strong-armed man, and after placing his hands over the injured parts could at once detect the trouble and repair it in the twinkling of an eye… he had a fine knowledge of human anatomy, and in his time no learned surgeon in this country was held in higher and more universal esteem.”[4]

The Times also reported an incident where highway robbers regrettably tried to rob Dr. Sweet:

It is related of him that while on a journey he once stopped over night in New York City, and was attacked upon the street by a party of three footpads, who were attracted to him by his countrified ways, his homely garb, and a sachel of money which swung from his saddle. They approached him on all sides. He dismounted with the rapidity of lightning, and seizing the first that came to hand hurled him to the ground, twisting his arms as he did so, and leaving him prone on the side-walk with both his arms out of joint. To the second he threw a leg out, and to the third both an arm and a leg. The fellows lay writhing and cursing in their pain about him, and after letting them suffer for a spell the sedate humorist slipped their joints back into place, read them a lecture, and let them go.[5]

The same Time article recounted other interesting aspects of the Sweet’s children who honed their skills on their farm animals:

From their early childhood they practiced their gift upon every fowl and animal upon the farm, and it was no unusual thing to go into the barn-yard and find the hens reclining composedly on their backs, with their legs dropped over, or a cat or calf in the same predicament. A quick movement of the hands in replacing the joints, and the animal would get up and walk away as though nothing had happened.

Generation followed by generation of this bonesetting family and branches appeared in many parts of the country.  Some of them went to Upper New York State and others to Massachusetts and Connecticut, where their prowess as bonesetters comes to light in local histories and genealogies.  The last practitioner bearing the Sweet name in South County was Dr. Benoni Sweet. He was a stonemason and worked at this trade for a number of years, but on the death of his bother, George, in the 1890s he assumed the family profession of bonesetting. The Rhode Island Medical society thought enough of Dr. Benoni and his ability to present him with a certificate to practice medicine in Rhode Island.  He was unusually successful in his practice and on the very day he died, April 21, 1922, reduced the fracture of a boy's wrist.

In later years, some of the Sweets obtained medical degrees. Dr. John Sweet (1884-1950), was a practicing physician in Newport, Rhode Island.  He is quoted in an article by PP Swett in the Connecticut Medical Journal for 1946:

It is my belief that the reputation of the Sweet family for skill in setting bones was often deserved; but quite frequently the blind faith created by popular superstitions covered up many mistakes in the past which would be revealed by x-ray today. The mechanical principles which brought success to the Sweets are the same which are found scientifically sound today.

Folk stories concerning the achievements of the Sweet family have led to the belief that there as a natural gift for bonesetting and that no training for the art was necessary. This belief is in complete variance with the facts.  From early childhood the boys of the family have seen their parents perform bonesetting operations and the principles of the procedures have been explained in careful detail.

            Aside from the notable Sweet family in the Northeast, other bone-setter families appeared on the American frontier.



[1] Martha R. McPartland, “The Bonesetter Sweets of South County, Rhode Island,” YANKEE, January 1968.

[2] Ibid.

[3]Distinguished Bone-Setters,” NY Times, April 4, 1874.

[4] “Suing a Natural Bone-Setter,” The New York Times, December 17, 1883.

[5] Ibid.

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