Monday, February 18, 2013

The Bonesetter Sweets

of South County, Rhode Island
by Martha R. McPartland

In colonial America, graduates of medical schools were few and far between.  In Rhode Island there were only five medical school graduates practicing in 1800and the first medical degree awarded in the state was a Brown University in 1814.  Prior to that period, from its founding in 1636, Rhode Island had many men called "Doctor" with little or no qualifications to back up their title.  Some were the seventh son of a seventh son, and so believed to be endowed with special healing power; some were charlatans with a smattering of education and glib tongues, who took advantage of misfortune and ignorance; still others had a natural flair for caring for the sick and were able to relieve much suffering.  In the last category was a remarkable family from the southern part of Rhodes Island called, and still recalled, as the "Bonesetter Sweets."

The Sweets were an old Rhode Island family whose progenitor, John Sweet (1)*[this asterick means nothing to me as it is not included in the notes I, Allyson Wood, copied], came to the state from Salem, Massachusetts in 1637.  Of Welsh extraction, family tradition has it that their forbears in Wales had this innate facility for helping the sick.  James Sweet (2)*, son of the immigrant, John (1), was the first of the American "Bonesetter Sweets".  He was born in 1622, came to Rhode Island with his parents, married Mary Greene and settled in what is commonly called South County, and more correctly named Washington County.  Of the nine children of James and Mary Sweet, only Benoni (3) born in 1663, became a bonesetter.  Traditionally, Benoni is said to have had a flowery and polished manner - perhaps a forerunner of the bedside manner possessed by some of today's medical men!  He was a respected member of the community and communicant of the historic Narragansett Church.  When he died in 1751, Dr. James McSarren, rector of the church, delivered a glowing eulogy.

The inherited ability to set bones was not regarded by the Sweets as a vocation, but rather as an avocation.  They were artisans by calling - stonemasons, blacksmiths, wheel-wrights and carpenters.  Bonesetting was a sideline, as is demonstrated by an advertisement in the Providence Journal of February 16, 1830 and printed at the top or the first page of this article.

The remarkable part of this family was the fact that they never exploited their natural ability.  Not on of them sought fame or fortune through this medium.  The father usually selected one or two of his sons, probably those who showed a tendency in that direction, and instructed them in bonesetting.  The Sweets did not deem this a magicaal thing, but more of an inherited knowledge acquired from their elders.  They handled fractures, sprains, and dislocations with a skill to be envied by an orthopedic physician.  Their skill was in the manipulation of bones but they were known to use herbs, ointments, and skunk grease in massaging too.  Their knack was thought uncanny, as they so often succeeded where others, more learned and "better trained" had failed.  Instances naming local doctors who failed to relieve suffering that was later relieved by one of the Sweets have become a part of South County folklore.

Dr. Benoni Sweet (3) selected his son, James (4), to carry on the family art.  James was born in 1688 and not too much is known of his successes, but it was Job Sweet (5), son of James, who gained national recognition and established their bonesetting reputation.  Job (5) was born in 1724 and married Jemima Sherman in 1750.  He lived all his life in the South County section of Rhode Island.  During the Revolutionary War, Dr. Job, as he was called, was sent to Newport to set bones of French officers, an operation their own doctors would not attempt.  After the war, Aaron Burr, later Vice-President of the united States, sent for him to minister to his daughter, Theodosia,Who had a dislocated hipbone.  Dr. Job, rather reluctantly, journeyed to New York and was there greeted by Colonel Burr, their family doctor, and several other learned medical men, Job was not happy about having an audience.  They suggested that a specific hour - ten o'clock the next morning - be set for the operation.  After they had left the house, Job talked soothingly to Theodosia, who was in great pain, and explained to her his methods.  When he had eased her fears, he asked her father if he could place his hands on her hip to locate the trouble.  Colonel Burr consented and, after a few minutes, Job said to her, "Now walk around the room" and much to the surprise of Theodosia and her father she did just that -- and without pain.  When the medical team arrived the next morning Job was well on his way back to Rhode Island and Theodosia's hip was properly set and on the mend.  Two of Job's (5) sons were natural bonesetters, Benoni (6), born in 1762 and Jonathan (6), born in 1765.  Benoni married and lived in Lebanon, Connecticut, where he continued the Sweet tradition of amazing people with his propensity for healing.  Jonathan settled in Sugar Loaf hill in South Kingstown.  He married Sally Sweet and pursued his trade of blacksmithing.  He trained his son, Job (7) in both smithing and bonesetting.  The only "hinderance" they asked for their bonesetting services was enough to pay for the time lost in shoeing a horse!

"Shepherd Tom" Hazard (recollections of Olden Times by Thomas Robinson Hazard, J. N. Sanborn, pub. Newport, R. I. c. 1879), a South Kingstown diarist who knew Jonathan Sweet (6), once inquired of him, when he was setting the thigh bone of a colored boy, just how it was done.  Jonathan replied that he could not explain it, but that in his mind's eye he could see every skeletal bone and knew just where it should be placed.  This same knowledge was displayed by Dr. Job (5) of Aaron Burr fame, when he was being shown through a medical science hall in Boston by a learned doctor.  Glancing at a skeleton exhibited there, Dr. Job remarked that he had never seen a "tominy" before but that there was a little bone upside down in the foot of that one.  His learned friend protested  but on closer examination admitted that such was the case.

Many South County people recall incidents relating to this remarkable family.  "Shepherd Tom" Hazard, considered a reputable historian to illustrate the complete lack of avarice in the Sweet family.  Hazard met William Sweet (7), son of Jonathan, on the street in Peacedale, South Kingstown and while chatting with him, discovered that he was returning from a visit to Newport where he had been called to set the arm of a  man who had fallen from a haymow.  "How much do you charge for a visit across the bay?" inquired Hazard.  "Why," answered Sweet, "I have been very unlucky.  In going I was detained all night and most of the next day on Conanicut Island by bad weather, and I got over so late I was obliged to stop all night at a tavern in Newport.  Then I had to walk six miles out of town to fix the man's arm, and had to stay another night in Newport.  Now it is nearly sundown, and I have not got home yet, so I had to charge him pretty bad - eight dollars".  Hazard figured that from his eight dollars, William Sweet had to deduct four ferry fares of 40 to 60 cents each and two tavern bills for food and lodging, to say nothing of traveling some 20 miles on foot and losing four days work!

In some instances the bonesetting was performed by Sweet descendants not bearing the family name, as was the case of Edward (Bunk) Harvey (9) in South Kingstown, whose mother was Frances Sweet (8), daughter of William, Edward Harvey was a crossing tender who plied his bonesetting trade in South County.  An admirer told of his cousin who, while playing baseball in 1917 as a youngster of 13, was struck in the leg by a ball, which resulted in a large, painful swelling of his lower leg.  He was under the care of the most skilled of local doctors and after three months, was still in the same condition.  One of his doctors recommended that he consult "Bunk" Harvey, with the admonition not to tell of the referral.  The boy, some 40 years later, gave the following account of the treatment:  "BGunk ran his hand up the front of my leg from the ankle to the knee, then with one quick snap of his thumb he twisted the bunch on my leg.  It hurt like Hell for a minute, then the pain disappeared, and the lump was gone.  Bunk told me that two cords had become twisted one on top of the other.  That leg hasn't bothered me since."

Generations followed by generation of this bonesetting family and branches appeared in many parts of the county.  Some of them went to Upper New York State and others to Massachusetts and Connecticut, where their prowess as bonesetters came to light in local histories and genealogies.  The last practitioner bearing the Sweet name in South County was Dr. Benoni Sweet (8), son of William (7) and Martha Tourgee Sweet.  Benoni was born in South Kingstown on September 23, 1840.  He married Eliza Eaton and settled down in Wakefield, Rhode Island.  He was a stonemason and worked at this trade for a number of years, but on the death of his brother, George (8), in the 1890's he assumed the family profession of bonesetting.  The Rhode Island Medical society thought enough of dr. Benoni and his ability to present him with a certificate to practice medicine in Rhode Island.  He was unusually successful in his practice and on the very day he died, April 21, 1922, reduced the fracture of a boy's wrist.

In late years the Sweets have gone on to obtain medical degrees.  One of these, Dr. John Sweet (1884-1950), was a practicing physician in Newport, Rhode Island.  He is quoted in an article by P. P. Swett in the Connecticut Medical Journal for 1946:  "It is my belief that the reputation of the Sweet family for skill in setting bones was often deserved; but quite frequently the flind faith created by popular superstitions covered up many mistakes in the past which would be revealed by x-ray today.  The mechanical principles which brought success to the Sweets are the same which are found scientifically sound today.  Folk stories concerning the achievements of the Sweet family have led to the belief that there as as natural gift for bonesetting and that no training for the art was necessary.  This belief is in complete variance with the facts.  From early childhood the boys of the family have seen their parents perform bonesetting operations and the principles of the procedures have been explained in careful detail."

Dr. John Sweet's statement bears out modernization and conversion of the natural bonesetting Sweets into licensed and reputable physicians, as he became a member of the American Board of Orthopedic Surgeons, thus combining his inherent ability with professional knowledge.  So, be it North, South, East or West, any orthopedic surgeon named Sweet may well be a descendant of that unusual and fascinating clan of "Bonesetter Sweets" of South County, Rhode Island.


The Natural Bonesetters with Special Reference to the Sweet Family of Rhode Island by Robert J. T. Joh, M.D. from the Bulletin of Medicine Vol. XXVIII, No. 5, Sept-Oct 1954.

Orthopedic Surgery in Connecticut by P. P. Sweet, from the Connecticut State Medical Journal, 1946.

Recollections of Olden Times by Thomas R. Hazard, Newport, R.I. Sanborn, 1870.

History of the Episcopal Church in Narragansett, Rhode Island by Wilkens Updike, Boston, Mass, Merrymount Press, 1907.

Newspaper clippings, photgraphs, and valuable genealogical information were furnished most graciously by George Sweet of Wakefield, R.I. and Mrs. George Crandall of Cranston, R.I., both descendants of the "Bonesetter Sweets," and by the Pettoquamscutt Historical Society of Kingston, R.I.

Article written in the January 1968 YANKEE


  1. Hello, and thank you for this posting. My name is Jim Gilkeson. My grandmother was Susan Sweet Gilkeson, a descendant of the Sweet family you write about. I became aware of the bonesetters in the family several years ago. This of particular interest to me because of the direction I have gone professionally, namely craniosacral therapy, which is a branch of osteopathy and has more than a little resonance with the art of bone setting. I ran across your post while researching the Sweets and the story about Theodisia Burr. Would you be open to correspondence if I have some questions? Thanks very much! ~Jim Gilkeson, Ashland, OR

  2. PS: My email address is I am also on the Internet at