From the moment of his sudden rise to fame in Portsmouth in 1887, Sequah knew how to win friends and influence people. He built up an almost cult-like following by giving the crowds what they wanted – miraculous cures, affordable medicines, and a lot of Wild West-style entertainment.
Handbills and extensive newspaper advertising built up the hype, so that when Sequah arrived in town, a curious crowd would be waiting for him. His painted wagon, brass band and entourage of assistants dressed as cowboys and Indians made for an unusual spectacle, and his displays of speed dentistry would get even cynical audience members cheering.
For all Sequah’s Western get-up and claims about the traditional Native American origin of his recipes, he was a Yorkshireman called William Henry Hartley. About a year after he began his shows, demand for his products – Sequah’s Prairie Flower and Sequah’s Oil – proved so high that he needed to be in two places at once, so Hartley recruited some more ‘Sequahs’ to cover different areas of the country. By late 1890 there were 23 of them, and Sequah grew to be a big-business brand name throughout Britain and Ireland.
Getting the audience on side was a vital part of Sequah’s modus operandi. The entertainment provided by his apparent tooth-drawing expertise was just the prelude to the main part of the show. Rheumatism sufferers would be carried up on stage to undergo a theatrical process of massage with Sequah’s Oil. Afterwards, they walked jauntily away, apparently cured.
It sounds a con, but these patients were not shills – they were local people known to others in the crowd. One example is Michael Casby of Sheffield, who informed Sequah that he had suffered from rheumatism for 16 years. Consultations with numerous doctors had been to no avail so Sequah’s attendants carried him forward for treatment. Soon the pain had gone, and Casby and Sequah danced a jig together.
One audience member, John Roadhouse, was suspicious. He asked around and discovered that Casby was an outdoor labourer on the Duke of Norfolk’s Sheffield estate. He had missed only half a day’s work in the past three months, and his colleagues expressed surprise that he had been carried onto the stage, as they had never known there was anything wrong with him. Casby later tried to explain away his actions by saying he had knee pain. His motivation appears to have been to buy into the hype surrounding Sequah and become part of the performance. For other patients, the collusion with the theatrical atmosphere was probably subconscious – caught up in the excitement, they might exaggerate their condition and play to the audience’s expectations of a cure.
Above: Sequah pulls a tooth while his brass band plays in the background. The bulb on his forehead is an electric light. Cheshire Observer 15 March 1890
Sequah also insinuated himself into influential people’s good books by giving money to local charities, but there was one group he did not get on with – medical students.
In Edinburgh in 1888, a note travelled round the University’s medical department suggesting a demonstration against Sequah (the original one). At Waverley Market that night, according to the Dundee Courier & Argus, Sequah was ‘greeted by a considerable number of young men with jeers and cries of “Quack.”’ Allegedly, one of them leapt forward and coshed a performer (possibly Sequah himself) with a stick. The assaulted party retaliated and knocked him out, to the delight of the crowd, who began shouting ‘Down with the students!’ The disturbance must have been anticipated, however, because the police were out in force and used ‘energetic measures’ to quell the kerfuffle and haul the students away.
Police involvement was a regular occurrence at Sequah shows, but they were not always so heavy-handed. In 1889 a police sergeant managed to rescue one unfortunate young man when the crowd turned ugly on him. The show included a ‘thanksgiving’, where former patients were invited to testify to the power of Sequah’s treatment, but once the man got up on stage, he said what he really thought about its failure to cure him. On his return to the crowd, he was set upon and had to be pulled back onto the wagon, where the sergeant also scrambled up to protect him until the show was over. Afterwards, a mob followed the wagon as far as the police station, shouting ‘Lynch him!’ Once inside the charge office, the frightened chap managed to escape via a side door, having learnt that upsetting a quack’s loyal followers can be a matter of life and death.
There is a vast quantity of surviving evidence pertaining to Sequah and his medicine company – enough, in fact, to fill a whole book rather than a blog post, so it’s possible that Sequah will show up again on The Quack Doctor. For further reading, however, I can highly recommend W. Schupbach’s paper, Sequah: An English “American Medicine” Man in 1890, which is available at PubMed Central.