Sequah: Medicine Man

‘Photograph: portrait of “Sequah”‘ by Grossmann (probably William Hannaway Rowe). Credit: Wellcome Collection. CC BY

Sequah was a quack doctor who arrived in Auckland, New Zealand in 1894. Dressed like a Native American, he hired a vacant lot on the corner of Queen and Customs Street to set up his business. With a brass band, gilded wagon and his slick patter, witnesses described it as “an event equal to that of any circus.”

Sufferers of rheumatism, stiff joints, lumbago, and other such afflictions were invited to hobble up to a screened platform for a vigorous rubbing with Sequah’s Indian Oil and would descend miraculously cured without the need of their crutches or stick. Another of Sequah’s talents was public dentistry, extracting teeth for free while the band played loudly to drown out any cries of pain from his patients. By the time Sequah left Auckland at the end of March, he claimed to have drawn 7700 teeth over the eight weeks.

Sequah’s show finished with his sales pitch, cajoling the large crowd that had gathered to buy his remedies for half a crown, always ensuring people would return as supply never quite met the demand. Sequah’s Prairie Flower Mixture included “the Cure” for indigestion and liver troubles, and “the Relief” for dysentery and internal pains.

‘I do not profess to work miracles ‘ he told them, ‘or to perform wonders. I never attempt the impossible. But when I think there is a chance for my remedies to do good I never lose the chance, and it is astonishing how successful the remedies have proved the world over.’ (Observer, 10 Feb 1894).

Analysis of Sequah’s nostrums (a man died in England after drinking Sequah’s Indian Oil instead of Sequah’s Prairie Flower) showed a mixture of fish oil, turpentine and camphor in the oil; and a weak alkali, aloe extract, alcohol and capsicum (to give it some bite) in the Prairie Flower water. Sequah was a fine example of a snake-oil salesman, his products were deemed harmless but ineffective.

The Sequah Franchise

The Sequah Medicine Co. was started by William Hartley in England in 1887 and was so successful that by 1890 there were 23 Sequahs on the road. They included Peter Alexander Gordon (alias James Kaspar), William Hannaway Rowe, and Charles Frederick Rowley.

It’s not clear which one of these Sequahs first visited New Zealand, but he arrived by way of India, Java, and spent a year peddling his wares in Queensland, Australia. On 6 May 1893, Anna Cameron (aged 7) was killed by a horse bolting with Sequah’s dogcart in Woolloongabba.

After his lucrative stint in Auckland, Sequah also appeared in Hamilton, Hawke’s Bay, Dunedin, and Christchurch. He was so well known that both a racehorse and greyhound were named after him. A political spat erupted in 1895 when the Leader of the Opposition described the Premier, Richard Seddon, as ‘the Sequah of NZ politics,’ claiming voters had been carried away by a charlatan with the blast of the trumpet and the banging of the drum, who offered them a box of political pills and promised to painlessly cure all their ailments.

Seddon Sequah
Sequah Seddon (at Napier)—Now, then, my military ‘gentleman by training,’ if I am the Sequah of Colonial Politics, let us have those teeth out. After this operation, there will be plenty of room for your wisdom teeth to grow.’ (Observer, 09 February 1895). Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/5002292

In England, however, the fortunes of the Sequah Medicine Co. began to slide when the Inland Revenue caught up with the company over evasion of stamp duty and they were refused a license to sell medicines because they didn’t have permanent premises.

Identity of the NZ Sequah

Nevertheless, one Sequah managed a low-key revival, returning to New Zealand in 1921. Charles Frederick Rowley gave lectures and sold remedies from his office, then later retired to Balfour in Southland. When he died in 1936, there was considerable debate in the Otago Daily Times about whether Rowley was the same Sequah that toured in 1894, until the exasperated editor announced: ‘This correspondence, which has sufficed to show that there was more than one “Sequah,” must now be closed.‘ (O.D.T 21 Mar 1936).

Moses Carpenter
This photograph is thought to show Ska-Run-Ya-Te standing next to a seated Sequah. CC BY-NC 3.0

Sequah 1894

This photograph from of Sequah and Moses Carpenter (whose real name was Ska-Run-Ya-Te, a member of the Canadian Mohawk tribe, who came to Middlesbrough, England with Sequah and died of pneumonia on 15th August 1889) shows the same person as the picture published in The Press 17 Mar 1936 of the 1894 New Zealand Sequah.

The Queensland Police Gazette (2 Jul 1894) identifies the Antipodean Sequah: W. G. Barnsford, alias W. G. Sequah, is charged, on warrant issued by the Toowoomba Bench, with having, on 6th April last, deserted his illegitimate child, born of Ellen Bowaler [sic], care of the Toowoomba police. The offender, who is well known in Queensland as a quack doctor, is now said to be travelling in New Zealand.

Sequah then made a brief visit to Sydney which appeared to resolve the matter and after he left New Zealand in January 1895, with Mrs Sequah (not Mary Ellen Bowdler of Toowoomba), the couple disappeared without a trace.

The Wellcome Library has this illustrated blog post about the rise and fall of Sequah.

A scholarly article from Medical History, 1985, 29, 272-317: SEQUAH: AN ENGLISH AMERICAN MEDICINE-MAN IN 1890 has detailed research about the company, but makes no mention of W. G. Barnsford.

Sequah, never one to miss an opportunity for further publicity, attended Leila Adair’s balloon ascent at Takapuna, Auckland on 3 March 1894 and features in Chapter 18 of The Only Living Lady Parachutist.

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