William Rae – Bloodless Surgeon b1841 – d1907

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A photographic postcard of the time showing Rae standing wearing a cap and wrinkled suit. The postcard caption reads, ‘The Pilgrimage to Blantyre, Mr Wm Rae, Bone Specialist’

William Rae was a ‘bonesetter’ who lived in Blantyre for a time and quietly practised and treated the local people in relative obscurity. In 1904, the popular press became aware of his work, and after they printed stories of his skills and cures, Rae was flocked by patients from the surrounding regions hoping for miracles.

The stories were then copied by newspapers in England, the USA, Australia and New Zealand, and Rae became internationally known, sadly only becoming famous just before his death. His story is an interesting one, largely unknown and researched here in detail:

Early Life

This is really the story of a Larkhall man, the fame part being claimed by Blantyre.

William Rae was born in Larkhall in 1841, the son of Cotton Weaver William Rae Snr and Helen Paterson. Larkhall, was then a sparsely populated village about 15 miles from Glasgow. As a young lad he began to earn his living following his father as a cotton weaver, but when coal was discovered, he started working in a colliery in that area, rising to the position of pithead foreman at Larkhall by the 1880’s.

In his late teens in the early 1860’s, he began to practise ‘bonesetting’, yielding as he says to ‘something that told me aw had it in me’. He gave his services gratuitously at first, but as he gained experience so numerous became his patients that he found that he would either have to relinquish his work as a cotton weaver or abandon the practice of bonesetting. He chose to continue with bonesetting.

Adult Life

On 6th July 1866, he married Marion Smillie at Raploch Street in Larkhall and went on to have several children, all born there. A move to Rutherglen followed in the 1880’s and of course fancy notions of bonesetting did not support his family. It was his job in the mines which did! The family lived in Rutherglen in the 1890’s.

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Around 1895, William and his family moved to the Gorbals in Glasgow and it was there that approaching his mid 50’s, he retired from working in the mines and began to make a living from ‘bonesetting’ putting into practice his self taught ways. The family are still in Glasgow in 1901, pictured here courtesy of their descendants.

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Coming to Blantyre

By the time he came to Blantyre in 1903, William was reputed to have a particular talent for healing bones, aches and joints and was making a living from it. For the next couple of years he practised quietly in Blantyre, treating patients in the poorer districts of Glasgow and the surrounding villages and it may even have allowed him to construct his house on Station Road, Blantyre. By 1904, he was known by the local press as “The Bloodless Surgeon”.

Patients

Word spread of his ‘talents’ when William successfully treated a well-known football player named Seattle of the Bolton Wanderers team. Seattle returned home cured and, because of the popularity of sport, the press became interested. They began telling the story of William Rae, the Blantyre bonesetter, and of his wonderful cures.

This caused hundreds of people to flock to Blantyre and seek care for various ailments. The demands to see Rae became so great that the railway ran special excursion trains to accommodate those who wished to be treated. In one day, 360 patients arrived for treatment! Rae welcomed and treated these patients in his small cottage with the assistance of his daughter.

From 1903, William Rae owned Raploch Cottage, which at the time was a relatively new semi detached house at 7 Station Road. At the turn of the century, this was a very special residence in Blantyre (as i’m sure it is today for the current owners!).

This photo is commonly available as a postcard which was widely available throughout Scotland at the time. The postcard was known as “The Pilgrimage to Blantyre”.

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Raploch Cottage, Station Road, Blantyre c 1904

At one point Rae was so overworked that he became ill in bed and had to temporarily discontinue treatment to recover his own health. Curiously, the local population in Glasgow appeared to have heard little of Rae and his skills. One thinks of the phrase, ‘No man is a prophet in his own country’. The British Medical Journal used this phrase when it wrote of Rae, but rather than attribute the meaning as this writer has chosen, they preferred to see it as proof of the hardheadedness of the Scot!

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The Glasgow reporter who first wrote the story described some of Rae’s physical and personal traits. He found Rae to be tall at six feet with somewhat stooped shoulders, strong framed and rugged of feature, with the appearance of much the same as thousands of other Scots; yet, there was something strikingly intelligent in his homely face. Shrewdness, good humour and kindliness shone from his grey eyes. He had silvered bushy brows, a firm mouth and chin, a short beard and shaven upper lip, which indicated a character of forceful doggedness and clear purpose.

People from all over the country travelled to meet William and to have their aches and pains eased. He had an immense following and shunned money when it was practically thrown at him. He travelled too, visiting Lancashire.

It was not until 1904 that we hear anything in newspapers about the bonesetter William Rae, after which time the popular and medical press began writing about him. First covered by the press in Glasgow, newspaper articles began to appear in England, the USA, Australia and New Zealand, where readers learned of this individual. The stories then suddenly come to a halt. Typically as with other bonesetters, the popular press gave lavish praise to Rae while the medical press condemned and ridiculed him. Mr Rae was widely scorned by the medics of Edinburgh and Glasgow as being a “quack” but the continued delluge of support to local newspapers from “cured” residents and pilgrims, raised more than an eyebrow and curiosity.

The medical press would often attribute the bonesetter’s sudden fame and popularity on the popular newspaper coverage. The following quote is an example:

“While doctors strive to live on the wages of a crossing sweeper, there is a bonesetter in Scotland who is said to be making $500 a day. Some of the newspapers have suddenly discovered this modest philanthropist and are making it their business to spread his fame abroad. They vie with each other in sensational accounts of his performances with large headings like, ‘A Scottish Lourdes’, ‘A Cripples’ Mecca’, and so forth. Never was a bonesetter more trum- peted. Not Lorenz himself was more blatantly advertised, and one is almost tempted to see a nemesis in the fact that the Scotch bonesetter is declared to practice a ‘bloodless surgery’ more successful than that by the Vienna professor. The newspapers give pictures of crowds of the lame and the halt besieging the shrine of the healer of cripples; but they do not give illustrations of the crooked backs on which he has operated, or the dislocated bones he has put back into place.”

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The Manchester Courier reported on 24th June 1904 “Mr William Rae, the miraculous bloodless surgeon of Blantyre, is still drawing crowds to his little cottage. Next week, he comes to Bolton for a fortnight, and then he hopes to have a month’s holiday at the seaside. He is already receiving alluring offers from speculative managers to go “on show” at a big salary. But these things, he treats with all the scorn they deserve.

He often travelled directly to his popular ‘fans’ in Lancashire, rather than having people from Yorkshire visit him in Blantyre (which they did often!). One paper in July 1904 describes, “The visit of William Rae, the Blantyre healer, was yesterday productive of scenes in Bolton quite unparalleled of their kind in the history the town. Two thousand cripples from all parts of England had arrived to consult the well-known Scot, and at bis headquarters they were pnseating themselves at ono o’clock in the morning in order to get a front place in the of six deep which gradually extended in longth throughout the morning until it comprifwd a couple of thousand persons. There was a ballot amongst 1,950 to decide who should see the bonesettcr fiist. The result the ballot created great excitement, and this was increased when Mr commenced work, and the patients, some carried and others wheeled, were taken to his consulting room. About a dozen cases were treated.” It is said upon his return to Blantyre at this time, he had over 2,000 written cases pending.

Of course, Rae was not a bone specialist. He had no professional training and there is no information on how he developed his bonesetting skills. The bonesetting tradition does not appear to have been passed down from father to son, as his father was a weaver, and there is no evidence that Rae passed on his skills to anyone. Bonesetters usually did not record their method. Most bonesetters were not of the educated class. They did not have the necessary writing or academic skills to record this information accurately even if they did wish to share their skills. This view has been discussed by several writers. Hood states that Mr Hutton had received but a plain education and was entirely destitute of anatomical knowledge. Indeed, if the popular press had not sensationalized the story of William Rae, there would be very little known of him today.

The press used very colourful and dramatic descriptions of Rae and his work, referring to him as a surgeon collier, a bloodless surgeon, the miracle worker of Scotland, the miner healer of Scotland, the Scottish amateur surgeon, the born doctor, the Scotch Lorenz and the Blantyre bonesetter, and referring to Blantyre as the Scottish Lourdes. The reports typically had Rae speaking in a heavy Scottish accent; whether they intended to poke fun at his Scottish origins or to actually describe how he spoke is unknown. The newspaper reports reveal that Rae’s understanding of manipulation was typical of how bonesetters viewed their work. The reporter asked Rae for the secret of his treatments and Rae replied, ‘ther’s no secret aboot it, its juist pooting the bones back in the places they belong’. After seeing a youth of 16 with a spinal curvature, Rae exclaimed, ‘Look at tha, noo! He wouldna havea humpit back if his fouks had brought him to me when he was a bairn. No man in the world need ha’a humpit back if it’s taken in hand early enoo’.

Several postcards were produced and are actually still commonly found today. I bought a set on ebay in 2015 rather inexpensively as illustrated in this article.

In 1904, according to The Whitstable Times and Herne Bay Herald “Mr Rae was weak with overwork and could not cope with the masses of cripples that were camped outside his little cottage“. The same newspaper on 2nd July 1904 reported that Mr Rae had been approached by a wealthy statesmen to fix his twisted bones in his leg. The sum offered was famously reported as being £10,000 upon successful healing, which Mr Rae had point blankly turned down the monies”. It is not said if the statesman was seen to or cured.

Rae’s views on doctors and pathology were not very encouraging, showing his total lack of scientific under- standing or training. ‘Doctors. Yes, it’s always doctors. What du they know about these things, eh? Nuthin. Listen to these boys and girls as they come in. What du their farthers tell me? – hip disease, bone disease, pshaw! That’s the doctors fur ye. Did ye ever see a diseased bone in a living man? I never did. Ye can see it when he’s dead. I canna pit that right, na, na. Ye canna pit together a leg that’s been cut off, but ye can tak the thing in the beginning’. When asked how then do we explain all these diseases, his answer was, ‘Bluid, mon, the bluid.

Rae’s bonesetting treatments

Rae appeared to be successful in treating the various con-ditions seen by bonesetters: patients with hip disorders of unknown aetiology; spinal curvatures; muscle pains; dislo cated and broken bones; sports injuries; and various patients using canes, crutches and leg and foot iron braces. As is common in healing centres around the world, many left improved, leaving the canes, crutches and braces behind; whether some needed them again in the days afterwards, we do not know. Rae’s methods of treatment were described by the press. He used his thumb and forefinger, and it was said that his grip was strong. For a spinal condition, he would have the patient lie prone and would work hard over a painful region of the spine, inch by inch with his thumb and finger until relief was felt. For patients with hip disorders, he would suddenly yank on the leg, and they would note improve- ment of symptoms. One report describes Rae treating the 16-year-old boy with spinal curvature by having the youth lie breast to breast with Rae. Then the bonesetter would reach around to the boy’s spine and treat it with the object of pressing it into place. This continued for about five minutes, and when the youth got up he declared himself better. The boy, encouraged, presented his injured thumb to Rae. Rae felt it, pulled it, causing a click, and the boy’s face lit up as he was able to bend the thumb, noting improvement.

There was one case of a man who for years had been treated medically for a spinal complaint when the real trouble, according to Rae, was a dislocated shoulder. Rae, with great difficulty replaced the shoulder, but required the assistance of his son to treat it.

By October 1904, he had a rival. The newspapers say, “Lanarkshire has now two bonesetters who are striving to cope with the invasion of English cripples. William Rae, the Blantyre exponent of bloodless surgery, has found rival in the person of Thomas Gilchrist, of Wishaw, who for years has been practising as a bone expert. His speciality is the treatment of diseased bones, and within the last few days, he claims to have cured Manchester pilgrims whose limbs had been diagnosed by several doctors as fit only for amputation. There abundance of work for both men, however, and popularity which is being attained by Rae’s rival at will much relieve the congestion Blantyre. ”  

Perhaps there was some success. In July 1904, local press ran the story, “William Rae, the Blantyre healer, who Saturday attained his sixty-fourth birthday, dealt with another batch cases. A Burnley youth had his leg lengthened a few inches, and left with his club-foot under his arm. One of Mr. Rae’s most notable successes during the past week was the case of a Rosendale boy, who had one leg shorter than the other and twisted ankle. Mr. J. Styles, a travelling showman, at present at who has for years been treated for hip disease, and undergone four operations, was delighted with the success Mr. Rue’s treatment. His hip was placed in position in a couple of minutes, and his ankle, which was also out, was put right. “

The Visitors Book

Incredibly, the descended family of William Rae have the remarkable visitors book from his house all those years ago, a book packed with visitors hoping to be cured! With thanks to Stuart Craigie for sending me that.

Belongs to Stuart Craigie

Financial Reward

Rae apparently had great success with bonesetting.

How successful in monetary terms is unknown, although the press stated that he charged 10 shillings for his treat- ments. He likely would have been successful in his later years with the huge crowds of patients that came to him. One newspaper stated that Rae was earning £100 a day. One story appeared claiming that Rae had successfully treated a rich Bolton resident. The resident in gratitude wrote a cheque for £100, which Rae refused, as he had already taken his fee of 10 shillings. Rae suggested that the rich donor use the money to assist other patients who could not afford the trip to see Rae.

Another story appeared in the London press in June 1904 stating that a wealthy individual, a millionaire from Regent Square, London, would pay Rae £10,000 if he would come to London and treat him for a deformed leg condition. Rae’s response was that million-aires have to wait their turn just like the rest of the people. When pressed for further details and a name, Rae was silent. The reporter then investigated this so-called millionaire patient, but could find no one in the area who fit the description as no millionaires lived in this poorer part of the region. Meanwhile, perhaps not wishing the offer to be completely removed, he replied to his unknown London correspondent, pointing out that “he could not promise a cure if the bone is cut or tampered with by medical practitioners or others.”

The Grantham journal, in Southern England retold his story in the newspaper of the same week reporting that his cured customers were not only from Scotland and England, but also people who had travelled overseas from America. Whilst his healing marvels were being undertaken and even for several years after his death, Raploch Cottage became known as “The Lanarkshire Lourdes”. It is nice to be able to report also that he retained public adulation and confidence to his dying breathe. 

His Death 

His work was endless and by 1905 William himself fell quite ill (perhaps from exhaustion). On Sunday 28th July 1907, after being confined to bed for 3 weeks by Bronchitis , William died in his own bed at the age of 67. He had lived in Blantyre only for around 4 years.

He left a widow Marion Smillie (died 10th March 1928, aged 88) and grown up family. His daughter Isabella died 26th February 1919 aged 46 years). His son, also William Rae died aged 87 on 19th April 1958. William and his family are buried at High Blantyre Cemetery, the headstone looks as though it has been replaced since the time of his death.

On Thursday, 1 August 1907, the Daily Mail newspaper, wrote that the funeral of William Rae, the bloodless surgeon, had taken place the previous day at High Blantyre Cemetery amid many manifestations of public sympathy. Quite a host of cripples, most of whom had been treated by Rae, attended. At the entrance to the cemetery a number of cripples lined up on either side as the coffin passed laden with wreaths. During the day many people visited Raploch House, the scene of many of the bonesetter’s greatest victories in bloodless surgery.

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However, it was not long that Rae held the title of miracle worker. His fame proved fleeting. On 25 March 1908, only seven months after Rae’s death, the popular press passed on the acclaim to a new bonesetter, S Cliburn of Piccadilly, London, stating, ‘Rae’s records rivalled. Whole generations sometimes pass without produ- cing a man endowed with this wonderful faculty, and in that account the fact that Rae’s rightful successor is now duplicating, nay, rivaling the wonderful feats of the Scotsman will be hailed with popular enthusiasm’

The Hull Daily Mail on 4th January 1908 reported that Mr Rae’s will, aside from his house, left £1,638 in monies, the equivalent today of £170k. A tidy sum to have in any bank!

Raploch Cottage on Station Road is still there today and has recently been renovated.

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Relatives and Legacy

Robert Cormack contacted me in May 2015 adding, “I’m rather proud of my Blantyre birth and connections. My great-grandfather was William Rae (the boneless surgeon). You can find my career in Wikipedia if you type in Prof. Robert Cormack”

Another reader Chris Hadden told me, “My grandparents moved into the house around 1920. My aunt told me that the attic was full of walking sticks, presumably left in the house when Mr Rae’s patients found they no longer needed them!”

Researched by Paul Veverka. From the Blantyre Project small book, “William Rae – The Bloodless Bonesetter” (c) 2020, the book “Blantyre People” (c) 2020. Further, extended detail is available in the reference book, “Blantyre Explained” by Paul Veverka (c) 2016

References:
1 Hood WP. On Bone Setting (So-called) and its Relation to the Treatment of Joints Crippled by Injury, Rheumatism, etc. London: Macmillan and Co., 1871
2 Leysen S. A man of his people. A concise ethnology of a Welsh bonesetter. In: Oths KS, Hinojoza SZ, eds. Healing by Hand. Manual Medicine and Bonesetting in Global Perspective. Lanham, MD: Altamira Press, 2004:237–64
3 Bloodless Surgery in Scotland. The Penny Illustrated Paper and Illustrated Times, London, UK, 2 July 1904
4 Miner Healer of Scotland. Galveston Daily News, Galveston, TX, USA, 22 July 1904
5 Bonesetter in Scotch Highlands Rivals Lorenz in Bloodless Work. The Constitution, Atlanta, GA, USA, 10 July 1904 at issue is their success.Rae apparently had great success with bonesetting.
6  Scottish bone-setter is a rival of Dr Lorenz. Washington Post, Washington, DC, USA, 10 July 1904
7  Miracles in Scotland. The Advertiser, Adelaide, Australia, 10 July 1904
8  A Wonder Worker. Wanganui Herald, Wanganui, New Zealand, 3 August 1904
9  A Wonder Worker. The Poverty Bay Herald, Gisborne, New Zealand, 11 August 1904
10  Some Wonderful Cures by a Scottish Amateur Surgeon. Otago Witness, Dunedin, New Zealand, 10 August 1904
11  Wonderful Feats of Bloodless Surgeons. The Grey River Argus, Greymouth, New Zealand, 11 September 1904
12  Miracle Worker. Extraordinary Scenes in a Scottish Village. Star, Putanga, New Zealand, 25 August 1904
13  A born doctor. Wonderful cures in Scotland. Ohinemuri Gazette, Paeroa, New Zealand) 22 August 1904
14  The boom of the bonesetter. BMJ 1904;1:1505
15  Cases which bonesetters cure. BMJ 1904;2:32
16 Jones HW. The bonesetter and his ilk. St Louis Med Rev 1904;50:103 17 The boom of the bonesetter. BMJ 1906;2:447
17 Our London letter. A rival to Lorenz. Medical News 1904;85:229 19 Marsh H. British Medical Association Proceedings. On bone-setting.BMJ 1882;2:663 – 6
18 Romer F. Modern Bonesetting for the Medical Profession. London:William Heinemann, 1913
19 Hood WP. The Treatment of Injuries by Friction and Movement.London: Macmillan and Co., 1902
20 Cyriax J, Schiotz EH. Manipulation Past and Present. London: William Heinemann Medical Books Ltd., 1975
21 Paget J. Cases that bonesetters cure. BMJ 1867;1:1 – 4
22 Jones R. The problem of the stiff joint. BMJ 1931;2:1022
23 The Blantyre £10,000. Searching for a lame millionaire. Camperdown Chronicle, Camperdown, Australia, 30 August 1904
24 Bloodless surgeons’ funeral. Daily Mail, London, UK, 1 August 1907 27 A master of bonesetting. Rae’s records rivalled. Daily Mail, London, UK, 25 March 1908

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