Weird Calderdale Bonus Chapter ~ The Halifax Witch Doctor

Here’s a chapter about a strangely comic episode from the mid 19th century that didn’t make the final edition of the book due to space considerations….

The Halifax Witch Doctor

‘The plaster and the pills, and the bottle that I gave him would fotch t’ watter from him. The pills are harmless. I know what they would do. There is not a better pill made. I would give them to a child a month old. I have had them twenty years. I will allow anybody to analyse them.’

(John Brierley, the Halifax Witch Doctor)

John Brierley, known as the Halifax Witch Doctor, attracted large crowds across the north of England. People would queue all day and longer for a consultation and to benefit from his unorthodox treatments. Travelling healers like Brierley were seen as quacks by the medical establishment, yet people demanded their services. Brierley himself hit the headlines nationwide when one of his patients died shortly after receiving an odd diagnosis and bizarre treatment at the Witch Doctor’s hands. The subsequent inquest found Brierley and his methods under scrutiny from the coroner and representatives of the medical establishment, led by surgeon, Mr Payne. This was no laughing matter for Brierley: if Payne determined Brierley to be the cause of death, he could face a prison sentence. It was a laughing matter for the rest of the country, though. Reports of the inquest were widely published featuring lengthy transcripts of the farcical proceedings with Brierley’s speech in broad Yorkshire. Much of this dialogue has been reproduced in this chapter with original spelling and punctuation.

Death of a Mattress Maker

Richard Lindley was not a well man. The 48-year-old mattress maker from Sheffield suffered from a range of chronic lung and chest complaints, and it was these conditions which, against the advice of his wife, led him to seek the help of a hugely popular unorthodox (some would say quack) healer known as the Halifax Witch Doctor who had been attracting crowds of patients across the north of England.

          So, on Friday 13 May 1849, Lindley set off from his home in Duke Street, Park, to try and secure a consultation with the ‘Witch’. Unfortunately, though, the crowds jostling to see the famed healer were so great that, despite waiting for much of the day, Lindley was unable to obtain a consultation. Lindley returned in the early hours of the following morning and finally got to meet the renowned doctor, who had set up his consultancy in a tavern in Townhead Street, Sheffield.

          After examining the patient, the Halifax Witch (whose real name was John Brierley) reached a singular diagnosis. According to Brierley: ‘I put my hand on his breast and told him his chest was filled with water, and his heart was beating in the wrong place.’[1] Brierley gave Lindley some medicine, some tablets and a plaster for his chest, but he also had to tackle the problem of Lindley’s heart being three inches too low. In order to rectify this, some volunteers held Lindley’s arms behind his back while moving them around in circles and at the same time Brierley massaged Lindley’s heart until it had moved back into its correct place. Lindley was cured, or so the Witch assured him (providing, he added, dropsy did not set in). Two weeks later, Lindley was dead.

The Halifax Witchdoctor at the Inquest ~ Day 1

The inquest into Lindley’s demise provides a fascinating and sometimes hilarious snapshot of the conflict between unorthodox, eccentric ‘quack’ doctors and the medical establishment. The nineteenth century was a golden age for the quack as transport and technological developments meant they could expand their patient base, but the scrutiny they were facing from the press and the medical establishment meant there was an increased suspicion of some of the ‘treatments’ they offered. For the Halifax Witch Doctor, though, stakes were high: if the inquest jury decided that his treatment had caused the death of his patient, he would face criminal proceedings, probably the end of his lucrative career and reputation and perhaps even prison.

During the inquest into Lindley’s death many details about the Witch Doctor and the way he practised emerged, much to the amusement of the press. The transcript of the hearing was widely reported around the country, though curiously, not in Halifax. The coroner was Thomas Badger.

CORONER: Well, Sir, what is your name?

BRIERLEY: My name is Mister Brearley [sic].

CORONER: Your name is not Mister, is it?

BRIERLEY: Yes, it is: Mister John Brearly [sic] is my name.

CORONER: Very well. Where do you live?

BRIERLEY: I live at Cross-Hill House, Halifax.

CORONER: What are you?

BRIERLEY: I am a doctor.

CORONER: To what college do you belong?

BRIERLEY: I belong to no college, only the Whitworth doctor, I do the same as the Whitworth doctor does.                                                                                     

The Whitworth Doctors were an extended family of practitioners based in the village of Whitworth, near Rochdale. Their illustrious career began one evening when their founding father blacksmith James Taylor (1708-1777), who was also adept at treating horses and other animals, found his skills were just as in demand for human patients. A cottage industry was born with many of Taylor’s family being involved in the manufacture of pills and other treatments. The sick came from all over the country and the doctors achieved widespread fame. Taylor’s patients included royalty and anecdotes are still told about the Taylor family and their exploits.[2] John Brierley was, so he claimed, the cousin of George Taylor, one of the Whitworth Doctors who succeeded James, and though he was not taught how to doctor by him nor received any training, he had ‘watched him a little’.[3]

The coroner goes on to ask about how Brierley became a doctor:

CORONER: What trade were you brought up to?

BRIERLEY: I have doctored eight and twenty years [the witness replied indignantly], and I was brought up to nothing else.

CORONER: How old are you?

BRIERLEY: I am forty-two years of age. I was brought up to the trade of doctoring and bone-setting.

CORONER: Were you apprenticed to anyone?

BRIERLEY: I had no need to be ‘prentice. I started doctoring when I was twelve years of age. I put a knee to rights when I was twelve years of age.

CORONER: What was the matter with it?

BRIERLEY: It was dislocated.

CORONER: But how were you trained? Were you at college?

BRIERLEY: I have nivver tacken no college, but I have doctored for eight and twenty years.

          Having established that Brierley had been working as a doctor since he was twelve years old and had never had any training, the Coroner went on to ask about the treatment of the hapless Richard Lindley.

CORONER: What did you do to him [Lindley]?

BRIERLEY: I put my hand on his breast and told him his chest was filled with water, and his heart was beating in the wrong place. I gave him a small bottle to take five drops in lump sugar, four times a day, and I gave him a box of pills. The bottle on the table is what I gave to him.

CORONER: What does it contain?

BRIERLEY: Oh, nothing but the oil of juniper. He was to take two pills every night. The pills are anti-bilious.

CORONER: What are they composed of?


CORONER: What are they made of?

BRIERLEY: I don’t exactly know what the anti-bilious is made on; I buy them of Dr Howorth, of Rochdale. I don’t make them; I haven’t time. He told me they were anti-bilious, and that’s good for digestion, I know. I never heard on grumbling on ‘em.

CORONER: Then if you don’t make them, how do you know they are anti-bilious?

BRIERLEY: Why, they are.

CORONER: But how do you know that?

BRIERLEY: Because he calls ‘em so, and they are so on top o’t’ box. I know by the feeling, from them and ‘tothers, that they’re anti-bilious.

CORONER: We will test your knowledge. Do you know any of the ingredients of which they are composed?

BRIERLEY: Yes; they are composed of anti-bilious.

CORONER: But do you know any one ingredient in them? Can you tell what they are made of?

BRIERLEY: Yes, I can. There’ll be a little saltpetre and soap, and there’s other materials that I don’t know. There’s soap in all pills. Pills could not be made without.

CORONER: You say the deceased had water in the chest; what did you do to him?

BRIERLEY: I put a plaster on his chest and telled him to keep it on.

CORONER: What else did you do to him?

BRIERLEY: I put my finger on his chest.

CORONER: But what did you and the three men do at him?

BRIERLEY: We put his arms out behind him, and I placed my thumb on different parts of his chest, and pressed gently. I told him to take that bottle of stuff.

CORONER: What had the other three men to do?

BRIERLEY: They were there to stick to him, and keep his arms moving, but not to punish him.

CORONER: Did you tell him that his heart was out of place, and three inches too low?

BRIERLEY: Yes, I did sir.

CORONER: What did you do to get it into its right place?

BRIERLEY: I just pressed his heart till it beat into its right place. Two men were then holding his arms back, and another man was behind, but he did nothing. I put his heart right.

CORONER: Did you tell him he would then be a sound man?

BRIERLEY: Yes, I told him he would be a sound man provided that dropsy did not take place.

CORONER: What sort of plaster did you put on him?

BRIERLEY: It’s one of my own.

CORONER: What is it?

BRIERLEY: One of my own plasters.

CORONER: Yes, but what is it made of?

BRIERLEY: It’s made of stuff on purpose. I don’t know that I’m compelled to tell all t’ stuff it’s made of.

CORONER: But, probably, you will have to tell.

BRIERLEY: Well, then, it’s nothing but beeswax and rosin, and a little lard, coloured, and nothing else. It is spread on a skin.

CORONER: When did you see the deceased again?

BRIERLEY: He came again on the following Tuesday, and I grumbled at him for taking the plaster off. He said he would not do so any more but he did.

CORONER: Did you explain to him what it was for?



BRIERLEY: I explained to him that it was to fotch t’ watter out of his chest, which it did do.

CORONER: Did it?

BRIERLEY: Well, shoo’s here (the widow), shoo knows. The plaster and the pills, and the bottle that I gave him would fotch t’ watter from him. The pills are harmless. I know what they would do. There is not a better pill made. I would give them to a child a month old. I have had them twenty years. I will allow anybody to analyse them.

CORONER: I will find out tomorrow what they are.

A JURER: Did you think his lungs were affected?

BRIERLEY: Yes, and drownded with watter.

CORONER: Then the deceased only visited you twice?


CORONER: What did he pay you?

BRIERLEY: I can’t speak to that.

CORONER: Was it four shillings?

BRIERLEY: It might be.

CORONER: Why did you not attend him afterwards?

BRIERLEY: Because he did not come. He should have written to me, and then I would have seen him or anybody else.

CORONER: Have you anything more to say? We shall have the man opened, and then we shall see whether you put his heart into its right place.

BRIERLEY: Well, if his heart has gone back out of its place, it’s nothing to me. I told him to be gentle with it.

CORONER: Did you ever see a man’s heart?

BRIERLEY: Yes, many a one. I have seen men opened.

CORONER: Were you apprenticed to the Whitworth Doctor?

BRIERLEY: No; George of Whitworth and me was cousins.

CORONER: Did you get your education from him?

BRIERLEY: I watched him a little. He never taught me, because he died before I commenced business.

          At this point in the inquest a juror asks whether Brierley would have visited Lindley had he sent for him. Brierley’s reply, if it is to be believed, gives us an indication of his success.

BRIERLEY: Yes, I would. I have people under me in the Isle of Man, and in Liverpool, and all over, and when a letter comes I go. I know by t’ telegraft when they want me, and I go directly if there is danger. The telegraft often costs me £4 a week. I have above a thousand patients under me at the present time, and they bide a good deal of looking after, so many of ‘em as there is.

          It was becoming increasingly apparent that the Halifax Witch Doctor himself was not at all well, having been thrown from his horse and carriage the previous night:

CORONER: I understand you were thrown out of your gig and hurt last night; were you much hurt?

BRIERLEY: Oh no; I had only three ribs broken. I set them myself this morning, and plastered them up. I was driving a proud mare, and she shied, and no one could help it. I once fell three storeys, and had my shoulder broken, and I set that myself. I set my own shoulder. I never had no one else.

          If Brierley is to be believed, his medical skills were great indeed. However, his injured ribs would return to the spotlight when the inquest resumed.

          The evidence so far was read out to Brierley and he was asked to sign it. He refused, saying he had forgotten his spectacles but would take the paper home and return it signed. To the great amusement of the crowds present, he continually refused to affix his signature and ‘fenced with the question a considerable time.’ The amusement and astonishment of the spectators only grew as it became obvious to all that the great healer was illiterate and not even capable of signing his own name. Eventually, Brierley made his mark on the paper and the inquest was adjourned to the following Tuesday to allow for a post-mortem with Brierley being instructed to attend.


The Halifax Witchdoctor at the Inquest ~ Day 2

The following Tuesday, the inquest took up where it had left off, this time at the Coroner’s office in Bank Street, Sheffield. The Coroner’s first question was as to why the Halifax Witch Doctor had not attended the post-mortem as he had been instructed to do.

CORONER: Had you notice given you to attend the post mortem examination?

BRIERLEY: I was not fit. I should have died if I had offered to go.

CORONER: What I ask is, did you receive notice when the examination was to be made?

BRIERLEY: Yes; and I sent word I could not attend. I had to send for Mr Cheetham to attend me…

CORONER: Who is Mr Cheetham – a surgeon?

BRIERLEY: Yes; and I had to send for a physician to see what must be done at me. He sent Mr Turton, who bled me…

CORONER: Was that in consequence of the accident you had on Thursday, when you say you had three ribs broken?


          At this point the healer put his hands to his chest and grimaced, perhaps ostentatiously, with apparent pain.

CORONER: You appear unwell now. Are you still suffering from the effects of the accident?

BRIERLEY: Yes. I am not fit to be here now. I’ll allow any doctor or physician to examine me.

          There was clearly some scepticism among the jury as to Brierley’s claims. One member asked if he was not actually in Sheffield on Saturday attending to patients, something that would not be possible if he was in as infirm a state as he claimed. Brierley replied that he was riding round Sheffield in a cab but only on the doctor’s orders to take some air.

          At this point in the inquest, the unorthodox healer comes face to face with the representative of medical orthodoxy: the rather unfortunately named surgeon Mr Payne. Payne had treated Lindley for numerous conditions including pleurisy, bronchitis and lumbago and it was Payne who was first called for when Lindley was found dead. Payne was also the lead surgeon in Lindley’s autopsy which found Lindley to be in an advanced state of decomposition. His lungs were darkened and engorged with blood. The Coroner felt compelled, no doubt, to ask about the position of Lindley’s heart which Brierley had claimed had been several inches too low.

CORONER: Where did you find the heart?

PAYNE: [With great indignation, as if he thought the Coroner was trifling with him] In its proper place.

CORONER: Was it drowned in water?


CORONER: Having detailed the appearance of the body presented, I would now ask you what was the cause of the man’s death?

PAYNE: Pulmonary apoplexy.

CORONER: Arising from what causes?

          At this moment, one can sense Payne’s inner conflict between his professional outrage at Brierley’s ludicrous treatments and his honesty as to whether this treatment was the cause of Lindley’s death:

PAYNE: I understand that the deceased had undergone certain manipulations….

CORONER: [Interrupting] From what do you understand that?

PAYNE: From the evidence taken before you last Friday.

CORONER: You must not go upon that. Every case must stand on its own merits. Speaking from the appearances you found on examining the body, what, in your opinion, was the cause of death?

PAYNE: There was nothing in the appearances presented on the post-mortem examination but what might have arisen from natural causes…

CORONER: From your statement, it would appear that the man was asthmatic?

PAYNE: Yes, he has suffered from bronchitis.

CORONER: Would it be proper for such a man to have his arms extended, and pressed back, and thumbs pressed upon his chest to lift his heart into its proper place?

PAYNE: I should say it was highly improper, and calculated to do serious injury.

CORONER: Can you say that the treatment has caused his death?


          The glimpses we have of Payne in the proceedings suggest that he is outraged at the treatment his former patient had received at Brierley’s hands. And yet, though he states that the treatment was ‘highly improper’ and likely to cause ‘serious injury’, he does not go so far as to say the Witch Doctor’s quackery caused Lindley’s death. One senses he is struggling with this.

          Payne showed indignation at the questions the Coroner asked him, but this was no doubt nothing compared to what he felt next. Brierley suddenly grabbed Payne’s arm and began lifting it up and down. ‘That is all the punishment the man had inflicted upon him,’ Brierley exclaimed while pumping the furious surgeon’s arm.

          Interestingly, Payne claimed that one of the doctors involved in the post-mortem believed that Brierley’s treatment had in fact accelerated Lindley’s death. This opinion was based on what he had heard from witnesses to the treatment. The Coroner could not, though, accept any evidence that was not based on the inspection of the corpse. As Mr Payne summed the matter up: ‘I think, at the same time, that the treatment was injurious; but I cannot say that Brierley has accelerated his death, and I think that no one else could say so.’


          And this was the end of the matter, as far as the Coroner was concerned. Lindley’s cause of death was pulmonary apoplexy and a verdict to that effect was returned. In summing up, though, the Coroner let his feelings be known as to the crowds of patients queuing up for Brierley’s services. They were simpletons, he said, pulling no punches. He continued: ‘For such numbers to put their lives in the power of a man of so little education that he could not write his name, and did not even know the composition of the medicines he prescribed, he thought did not say much for the discernment of John Bull.’ Finally, the Coroner added that although he was normally a grave man, Brierley’s extraordinary statements had left him struggling to keep his gravity and a straight face.


[1] Sheffield and Rotherham Independent 5.5.1849

[2] Patricia Chisnall (1959) Whitworth Doctors Whitworth: Whitworth Historical Society

[3] Westmorland and Kendal Advertiser 12 May 1849

Published by Paul Weatherhead

Author of Weird Calderdale, musician and songwriter

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