The Quack That Cured The King

This is the story of the Rochdale quack that cured the King of England.[i]

The king was George the Third, the so called mad king who lost America. The quack was John Taylor, one of the so called Whitworth Doctors, an extended family of practitioners based in the village of Whitworth, near Rochdale. The condition causing the King much agony was quinsy, an abscess behind the tonsils. I don’t recommend looking it up on google images.

The Whitworth Doctors bleed multiple patients into a horse trough (1791)

The Taylor family’s cottage health industry dominated the village of Whitworth for decades in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and huge queues of patients would wind through the streets waiting to be treated. The whole family was involved in the prosperous business of pill production, but the doctors also provided that all-purpose treatment for just about any ailment under the sun – bloodletting.

If you wanted this service from the Whitworth Doctors, the best time was on Sunday mornings when it would be provided for free. You would, though, have to join a hundred people at a time sitting in a circle. One by one, the doctors would methodically go round the circle opening the veins of the patients, their hot blood streaming into overflowing troughs. Not a sight for the squeamish.

The head of the doctors, John Whitworth, or Doctor John as he was more familiarly known, had a reputation as a gruff and grumpy no-nonsense northerner. Indeed, these doctors had no formal medical training or university education. They were self-taught health entrepreneurs. If you were less kind, you might call them quacks.

The Whitworth Doctor abandons the bleeding Bishop of Durham in order to treat horse (1791)

In any case, the Whitworth Doctors were in high demand by all levels of society, and this is where King George III enters the picture. George had already used the services of Doctor John to treat an undisclosed ‘complaint in the head’ of his daughter Princess Elizabeth. The treatment Taylor offered the Princess was a snort of his home made extra strong snuff. The violent and lengthy sneezing fit that followed cured her mysterious ailment.

So, when King George was suffering greatly from his abscess, and all the expert treatment of his Royal Surgeon, John Hunter, had failed, Doctor John’s skills were once again required.

When John Taylor arrived and was brought to the King’s bedchamber, he demanded that the assembled doctors and surgeons leave the room. This included John Hunter, the King’s own surgeon, who would not have been happy at this exclusion and was desperate to know what treatment his unconventional rival was about to administer.

King George III

Taylor examined his royal patient and then concocted a bolus of medicine. Sources are coy about what ingredients were in the medicine which Taylor manufactured for the King. We are only told that it was nasty. For some reason, this evil substance was applied to the King’s eye and the eagerly waiting medical men were allowed to return to the room.

The King’s Surgeon was most annoyed when Taylor refused to tell him what was in the goo that had been applied to the King’s eye. Hunter was so keen to know that he stuffed a glob of the concoction into his mouth to try and work out the ingredients by taste. The King, however, had seen what unmentionable filth had been used in the medicine, and on seeing his surgeon put it in his mouth went into such hysterical fits of laughter that his abscess burst and he at last found relief from his agony. Taylor was paid handsomely for his services and given hunting rights for the whole of Rochdale in perpetuity.

John Hunter ~ The King’s Surgeon

There are plenty of other anecdotes told about the Whitworth Doctors, and it’s not clear how many of them are apocryphal. The above story reflects the tension between the emerging credentialed, professional medical men and their rival amateur entrepreneurs, and that’s a theme that also resurfaces in a Halifax related epilogue to this tale…

Epilogue ~ The Halifax Witch Doctor

The Halifax Witch Doctor was the nickname of John Brierley, a quack healer who attracted huge crowds of patients across the north of England in the middle of the nineteenth century. He was cousin to George Taylor, one of the Whitworth Doctors, and although he had not been trained by his cousin, he had ‘watched him a little’.

Brierley came to national attention in 1849 when one of his patients, Sheffield mattress maker Richard Lindley, died two weeks after receiving Brierley’s unconventional treatments. Brierley had told the unfortunate Lindley that his heart was three inches out of its correct position and his lungs were full of water. Then, as some assistants wheeled Lindley’s arms around behind his back, Brierley massaged the patient’s heart back into its correct position.

When Lindley died two weeks later, Brierley found himself under suspicion of being responsible for the death of his patient. Transcripts from the two day inquest were reproduced almost in full in many of the country’s national and local papers and caused a great deal of hilarity.

Brierley claimed that he had been a doctor since the age of twelve, and that his skills were so great that he had set three of his own broken ribs just the day before the inquest after being thrown out of his carriage when his horse shied.

The biggest surprise of the inquest occurred when it became apparent that Brierley had no clue what was in any of the medicines he prescribed. In fact, he couldn’t even read the labels. When the coroner asked Brierley to sign a statement, he fenced and prevaricated for some time spinning a story about having forgotten his glasses, but it soon became clear to all present that the celebrated Halifax Witch Doctor was illiterate.

The coroner ordered Brierley to attend Lindley’s post mortem, but he didn’t show up, blaming his broken ribs. It seems he had exaggerated his skill at doctoring himself and a surgeon had to be called for.

On the second day of the inquest, Brierley came face to face with a representative of the medical establishment, a respected surgeon with the unfortunate name of Mr Payne. It’s clear that Payne was scandalised by Brierley’s eccentric diagnosis of Lindley’s condition being caused by his heart being several inches too low, and he no doubt seethed with humiliation when, in front of the whole inquest, Brierley grabbed the haughty surgeon’s arms and wheeled them around in the air in a most undignified manner to demonstrate what he had done to move Lindley’s heart back into its correct place.

In the end, though, Payne could not say that Brierley’s treatment of Lindley was the cause of his demise, and a verdict of death by pulmonary apoplexy was returned.

In summing up, the coroner confessed that, although he was normally a grave man, he had struggled to keep a straight face during the proceedings, and it’s clear from the transcript that the same was true for the attendees at the inquest, with the exception, perhaps of Lindley’s widow.

The coroner concluded that the crowds waiting to see the renowned Halifax Witch Doctor were ‘imbeciles’ and that ‘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.’[ii]

In trawling newspaper archives while researching Weird Calderdale, I happened on multiple stories of disreputable quacks involving fraud, sexual assault, fare dodging, fighting, infidelity and bigamy…

So, stay tuned for more tales of West Yorkshire quacks behaving badly…

[i] This story is taken from Northumberland Weekly Chronicle , 13 June 1891. It’s a reprinting of an article originally published in the same paper from 1834, which was in turn a summary of an article by William Howitt titled ‘A Visit to the Whitworth Doctors’ published in Tait’s Magazine. For more on the Whitworth Doctors, see Patricia Chisnall, Whitworth Doctors (Whitworth Historical Society: Whitworth, 1959)

[ii] See the full post about the Halifax Witch Doctor for more details and sources here:

Published by Paul Weatherhead

Author of Weird Calderdale, musician and songwriter

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