Sarah Wallin was born around 1706, daughter to a bonesetter, and took up her father’s trade. In 18th Century England bonesetters were medical practitioners found in many towns. They reset dislocated hips and shoulders, re-broke and set poorly mended fractures, and sometimes effected various other kinds of cures through bone manipulation, anticipating chiropractic. Resetting of dislocated limbs required a great deal of strength and in many towns the job was given over to the strongest man, usually the blacksmith.
Sarah was very strong. She was also cross-eyed, very fat, and “hideously ugly” from contemporary reports. Well aware of her appearance, Sarah capitalized on it, calling herself Crazy Sally or Crosseyed Sally in her public reports. Her very attractive sister (possibly not from the same father), Lavinia Fenton, followed a different career path from child prostitute to actress — she played Polly Peachum in John Gay’s Beggar’s Opera — and married into the aristocracy. Sarah had different gifts but was also in the public eye.
By 1735 Sarah was established at Epsom and famous as one of the “three great quacks of England”. She was pictured at the top of Hogarth’s satiric design for a medical coat-of-arms between the other two Great Quacks, John Taylor and Joshua Ward. Taylor was a superb showman who claimed to be able to cure blindness; Joshua Ward experimented with chemistry to concoct nostrums for just about any illness. In the days before antisepsis, anaesthesia, and wonder drugs, when the germ theory of disease was just coming on, doctors were a source of great dissatisfaction. People often turned to traditional healers when the medical profession could provide no cure. One doctor of the day remarked that Sarah’s own claims of success were “by no means equal to the expectations and credulity of those who ran after her”, people of all classes and stations in life, who believed “the most extravagant assertions of this ignorant, illiberal, drunken female savage”. Other physicians took a more measured view. A hundred years later, Joseph Paget advised doctors that their chief competition would be a bonesetter and said that they should look to what this healer was doing that was worthwhile and copy it. In 1857, Hugh Owen Thomas, who came from a long line of Welsh bonesetters qualified as a member of the Royal College of Surgeons. He then wrote various books on treatment of skeletal problems, especially those resulting from tuberculosis, invented splints whose pattern is still copied today, and he is generally regarded as a great pioneer of orthopedic medicine. Bonesetters are still found in rural and undeveloped areas around the world and doctors in these regions have learned to work with them.
You surgeons of London, who puzzle your pates,
To ride in your coaches, and purchase estates,
Give over for shame, for pride has a fall,
And the Doctress of Epsom has outdone you all…
Dame Nature has given a doctor’s degree —
She gets all the patients and pockets the fee;
So if you don’t instantly prove her a cheat,
She’ll loll in her carriage, whilst you walk the street.
Sarah began travelling to London once or twice a week where she set up shop in the Grecian Coffee House. She travelled by “chariot”, it is said, drawn by four horses. Once a crowd stopped her carriage, thinking that it held an unpopular mistress of the king. Sarah emerged, “Don’t you know me?”. The crowd did and cheered her on to London.
1736 marked the height of Sarah’s fame. Afraid that they might lose her, the town of Epsom awarded her a salary of 100 pounds a year. Sarah accepted and soon after a shady gentleman named Hill Mapp married her. Sarah’s wedding day was marked by several healings, including that of a little girl whose spine was sharply curved to one side. Meanwhile, Sarah’s friends suspected that Hill Mapp’s intentions were to rob her and tried to stop the wedding. The couple drove about until they were assisted to marriage by some of Sarah’s upper-crust followers. A week later, Hill absconded with his wife’s savings, a hundred guineas.
Crazy Sally did not mourn the loss of a husband for very long but soon arranged a horse race with a ten guinea plate as first prize. The first heat was won by a horse named Mrs. Mapp. The delighted Sarah offered its jockey a hundred pounds if the horse would win the race but it did not. Sarah now set up shop in London. She received the great and well-to-do and was entertained by the Great Quack John Taylor. She was the subject of plays and ballads, known all over England. But Sarah was also a heavy drinker, something that her success seemed to aggravate. She began to lose her customers and by the end of 1737 she was penniless. Sarah Mapp died in December, 1737 at her home “so miserably poor, that the parish was obliged to bury her.”