In 1891, a quack doctor arrived in Sligo with much fanfare. Sequah products were sold using a travelling medicine show. The newspaper announced, Sequah, the famous medicine man, has come to town with his brass band and gilded carriage which parades around the town daily.
These shows consisted of a warm-up act of music with cowboy and Indian themed entertainment. It arrived like a circus coming to town and the events were held after dark to add to the atmosphere. It attracted a large crowd ensuring the travelling salesman had an audience to begin his pitch.
Prairie oil became very popular in Ireland and Britain through a mix of mass hysteria and the acting skills of the salesman. The first Sequah, William Hartley, a self-proclaimed medical man and entertainer, got his inspiration from the American medicine shows that followed the pioneers across America. By todays standard this is very much an example of cultural appropriation, Hartley tapped into the native american culture by claiming that the medicine was an ancient Native American formula that would cure all manner of ills. Hartley also grew his hair long emulating an Indian chieftain and wore a wild west style tassel suit. Hartley’s business flourished as the masses believed his wild claims, Hartley employed other ‘Sequahs’ to travel around in Prairie wagons accompanied by wild west themed entourages. Its unclear if it was the original Hartley Sequah who visited Sligo in 1891 or one of his assistants.
One highlight included tooth extraction, where a customer would step up on the wagon and with the aid of the Prairie oil would have a tooth removed pain-free, meanwhile, the band would strike up to drown out the customers cries from the nearby crowd.
By 1895 the show was over and the company was wound up as the government outlawed selling medicine at sales shows. By 1897 Sequah’s products were exposed as quackery. The main ingredients in the medicine were found to be fish oil, turpentine and camphor which is a terpene a organic compound. It is used in creams which may have provided mild pain relief to Sequah’s customer, it wouldn’t have cured rheumatism or provided relief for a tooth extraction.
Background sources and further reading:
Irish Newspaper Archives – The Sligo Champion 1891
Wellcome Library (wellcomelibrary.org)
Magic Lantern (magiclantern.org .uk)
Hampshire History (hampshire-history.com)
Old Dublin Society – Irish Quacks and Quackery – John F. Fleetwood, Dublin Historical Record, Vol. 43, No. 2 (Autumn, 1990)
The Quack doctor (thequackdoctor.com)