The Rise and Fall of Mrs Mapp, the Bone-Setter

Mrs Mapp, as depicted by George Cruikshank in 1819, based on an earlier Hogarth drawing
Mrs Mapp, as depicted by George Cruikshank in 1819, based on an earlier Hogarth drawing

by Ray Setterfield

December 22, 1737 — “This famous woman’s career may be likened to a rocket. She flashed before the people as suddenly, ascended as brilliantly to the zenith of fame, and fell like the burned, blackened stick.”

Thus, the life of a remarkable woman was summarised in a book published in 1874, The Funny Side of Physic. The lady in question was English country girl Sarah Wallin who lived originally in Wiltshire. She was to become famous as Mrs Mapp, the bone-setter of Epsom.

Little is known about Sarah’s early life though it is thought she was born around 1706, probably in poverty. Her father John was himself a bone-setter – knowledge that he passed on to his daughter.

It is said that as she grew older Sarah developed a temper and a brash approach to people. She often turned to drink and had many rows with her father.

According to a short account of her life in the 1824 book, The Cabinet of Curiosities, it was after one such row that she struck out on her own, taking the skills she had learned and starting her own travelling practice.

Leaning into her reputation for bombastic behaviour, she operated under the name “Cracked Sally – the One and Only Bone-setter.”

Bone-setting or joint manipulation has been known since the time of Hippocrates who lived from 460 to 385 BC. In those days unfortunate patients endured the use of straps, wheels and other devices to apply traction before their disjointed bones could be pushed back into place.

Seemingly not requiring great medical skill, it was a practice that inevitably attracted quacks and charlatans lacking qualifications. And so it continued over the centuries.

Sarah was also known as "Crazy Sally" and "Cross-eyed Sally". She was bulky, very strong, but ugly, with slovenly ways, and an eccentric, quarrelsome nature, according to reports. She was regularly seen reeling from side to side from the effects of gin, shouting obscenities.

Although slovenly in appearance she was neat in her work and took good care of her patients. It is said that she had only a basic understanding of anatomy but nevertheless had the “knack” and the considerable strength required to pull and manoeuvre dislocated joints into place.

In 1736 William Hogarth produced an etching and engraving called The Company of Undertakers, now housed in London’s National Portrait Gallery. It features Sarah who is shown as an ugly, dumpy, round-faced, cross-eyed woman holding what perhaps was the symbol of her trade – a humerus (the upper human arm bone).

She looks mad or angry and is shown wearing a harlequin outfit, Hogarth’s way of saying she was regarded as a quack healer. In 1819, George Cruikshank produced the above coloured etching of Mapp, based on Hogarth's drawing.

Sarah found that business was brisk in the horse-racing centre of Epsom in Surrey where fallen riders often needed treatment.

While in Epsom, her talents became so renowned that she began travelling regularly to London, where she would treat people. According to accounts collected in James Caulfield’s 1824 book, Portraits, Memoirs and Characters of Remarkable Persons, while on these journeys she would travel in a fancy four-horse carriage, carrying with her the crutches of those she had healed, like trophies.

In London she met a man called Hill Mapp who worked as a footman and in August, 1736, against the advice of Sarah’s friends, they were married. It must have been one of the shortest marriages on record, lasting only a week.

A newspaper reported: "We hear that the husband of Mrs. Mapp, the famous bone-setter, at Epsom, ran away from her last week, taking with him upwards of one hundred guineas, and such other portable things as lay next at hand.

“Several letters from Epsom mention that the footman, whom the female bone-setter married the week before, had taken a sudden journey from thence with what money his wife had earned; and that her concern at first was very great; but soon as the surprise was over, she grew gay, and seemed to think the money well disposed of, as it was like to rid her of a husband. He took one hundred and five guineas.”

Despite the apparent setback, Sarah continued to thrive at her trade even if, as the 1824 book, The Cabinet of Curiosities, proclaimed, in most cases her success “was rather owing to the strength of her arms, and the boldness of her undertakings, than to any knowledge of anatomy or skill in chirurgical operations."

But the following reports from the Grub-street Journal and other publications of the day testify to her success:

* October 21, 1736: "On Saturday evening there was such a concourse of people at the Theatre Royal, in Lincoln's-inn-fields, to see the famous Mrs. Mapp, that several gentlemen and ladies were obliged to return for want of room. The confusion at going out was so great, that several gentlemen and ladies had their pockets picked, and many of the latter lost their fans, &c. Yesterday she was elegantly entertained by Dr. Ward, at his house in Pall-mall."

* “On Saturday and yesterday Mrs. Mapp performed several operations at the Grecian Coffeehouse, particularly one upon a niece of Sir Hans Sloane [then the president of the Royal College of Physicians] to his great satisfaction and her credit. The patient had her shoulder-bone out for about nine years.”

* “On Monday, Mrs. Mapp performed two extraordinary cures; one on a young lady of the Temple, who had several bones out from the knees to her toes, which she put in their proper places: and the other on a butcher, whose knee-pans were so misplaced that he walked with his knees knocking one against another.

“Yesterday she performed several other surprising cures; and [then] set out for Epsom, and carried with her several crutches, which she calls ‘trophies of honour’.”

It was during one such trip that a mob of rabble-rousers mistook her for one of King George II’s hated mistresses and decided to harass her.

According to a passage in The Funny Side of Physic: “Her obesity, immodest attire, intoxication and dazzling equipage were, in the eyes of the mob, so sure signs of royalty that she was taken for a Court lady of German origin and of unpopular repute.

“The crowd gathered about her carriage and with oaths and yells were about to demolish the windows with clubs and stones when the nowise alarmed occupant, like Nellie Gwynn, on a similar occasion, rose in her seat and with imprecations more emphatic than polite, exclaimed: “**** you! Don’t you know who I am? I am Mrs Mapp, the celebrated bone-setter of Epsom!”

“This brief address so tickled the humour of the rabble that the lady was permitted to proceed on her way, amid deafening acclamation and laughter.”

Unfortunately, as time passed, Mrs Mapp became more and more dependent upon alcohol and the often drunk practitioner quickly lost her customers. It came to the point when Sir Percival Pott, Assistant Surgeon at St Bartholomew’s Hospital, described her as “an immoral drunken female savage.”

She spent her last days in poverty, wretchedness and obscurity and died almost unattended. Her demise was thus briefly announced in the journals: “Died at her lodgings, Mrs Mapp, the once much-talked-of bone-setter of Epsom, so wretchedly poor that the parish was obliged to bury her.”

Published: December 12, 2019

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