A bonesetting illustration from 1871. W. P. Hood/CC BY 4.0
It was along the Old Kent Road, somewhere between the town of Epsom and London, that a mob of 18th-century rabble rousers thought they spotted one of King George II’s hated mistresses riding in a carriage, and decided to harass her.
But as the crowd gathered around the transport, a large, imperious, and possibly drunk woman leaned out to give them hell, shouting, “Damn your blood, don’t you know me, I am Mrs. Mapp, the bonesetter.”
Recognizing her as a respected bonesetter, or shape-mistress, according to a passage in the 1874 collection The Funny Side of Physic, the crowd cheered in delight.
Thus was the life of Sarah “Crazy Sally” Mapp, a remarkable woman who was known for her acid tongue and for her ability to shove bones back into place. Before the rise of contemporary fields such as orthopedics, the practice of bonesetting was common, and typically involved strong but formally untrained tradesmen who would reset broken, slipped, or dislocated bones and joints using brute force.
The skill was often, as in Mapp’s case, passed down among family members. Her father, John Wallin, shared his bonesetting skills with his daughter, allowing her to fill in when he wasn’t available. Eventually her skills surpassed even her father’s.
Known for her temper and brash demeanor (as well as her drinking), Sally often got into fights with her father as she got older. According to a short account of her life in the 1824 book The Cabinet of Curiosities: Or, Wonders of the World Displayed, it was after one such row that she struck out on her own, taking the skills she’d learned and starting her own traveling practice.
Sally eventually gained a reputation for her successful techniques and moved her operations to the wealthy resort town of Epsom around 1735. She found a devoted clientele in the horse-racing culture of the town. Local riders were often in need of her services after falling off their steeds.