If you are a sports fan, you may want to know something about John D. “Bonesetter” Reese.
Reese was one of the most fascinating figures in sports, although he was really not a sportsman. He was one of the most fascinating figures in medicine, although he was not a physician. Reese fixed aches and injuries with his hands. And if you think that sounds a little whacky, let me just say that his services were in great demand by many athletes of the his day.
Many sources define a Bonesetter as “someone who sets bones.” This definition is not accurate and is perhaps misleading. Going back to a source contemporary to John Reese, Norman D. Mattison, M.D. sheds some light on the practice when he wrote “Bone Setting and Its Modern Revival,” published in the 1916 New York Medical Journal, Volume 104. Mattison quoted another authority, W. P. Hood, who said that bone setting “is the art of overcoming by the sudden flexion or extension any impediments to the free motion of joints that may be left behind after the subsistence of the early symptoms of disease or injury.”
According to Mattison’s review of the literature at the time, a bone setter named James Sweet came to America from Wales and settled in Rhode Island in 1650 to set up shop. Generations of Sweet’s followed suit. It was the same coal mining and iron and steel producer, Wales, that Bonesetter Reese had his origins. Reese arrived with his set of skills in 1887 to find work in Youngstown. His name was spelled in Wales as “Rees” and Americanized later to “Reese.” Wales is part of the UK and is roughly a 200 mile long peninsula that juts out to the west from the center of England. The soil in Wales is generally poor and mountainous, and rich coal deposits have encouraged significant mining and has defined the Welch hardy character that is likewise distinguished in part by their love of music and song.
Reese was a young orphan boy who grew to become an ironworker and learned the medical trade of “Bonesetter” from a fellow worker. His skills would be in great demand in Youngstown, an industrial powerhouse that was part of a region that was called “Steel Valley.” A significant part of our heritage came to be colored in part by the hard-working miners from places like Wales who came to settle here. Mills and factories as well were established. From these places, generations of workers including many athletes would come out and seek new careers that might provide a better life.
Think of workers who would get injured on the job in these mill and mining towns. Back in time before anything like workers compensation or employee sponsored health insurance, an injury could mean financial ruin or worse. In industrial towns, a visit to a doctor could be quite expensive. A visit to the bonesetter who might be one of your neighbors might put you back in the game right away. In Wales, the Bonesetter was someone who worked among his own people. Typically in mining and mill towns.
John Reese was good at his work and quit mill work in Youngstown to focus on his growing bonesetter practice. The trade, as many might see it as opposed to a professional, might be aided by experience of very hard work which assured the strong hands and arms needed. In some cases, bonesetters had worked with animals as well and learned some of the anatomy required by work with them. As you might expect there was friction from authorities and medical doctors who did not take kindly to bonesetters for obvious reasons. Despite the friction, Bonesetter Reese had a flourishing practice—people lined up to see him. Eventually, the official civic community would recognize his work. He would receive approval to practice his trade. Reese would also study the sciences and increase his medical knowledge.
Reese’s legend lives on today as a man who miraculously helped heal a number of prominent baseball players. His patients included Honus Wagner, Cy Young, Ty Cobb, Rogers Hornsby, and Grover Cleveland Alexander. Baseball history books are loaded with references to Reese, but his focus was helping the millworkers in Youngstown where he set up his practice. In many cases when a baseball player would come by, he might see him again for another injury.
But I think Reese always had a soft spot for regular folks trying to make their livings and from time to time suffering from some malady that the “bonesetter” could help heal. In time, Reese established a reputation with athletes and their teams and he often had people stop by to see if he could help heal a sports injury. That might include pros as well as student athletes. Pitchers with arm problems, and athletes with pulled muscles were two such injuries he saw at times. In some case, people who have been experiencing problems for years found relief with his help. People with problems walking and standing up straight might receive immediate relief from his treatments.
In George Halas’s book, Halas by Halas, he mentions that in three instances, two at the University of Illinois and one when he played for the Yankees, Reese helped heal an injury. No doubt, there are many, maybe hundreds of stories in old sports books of such healings. As Reese practiced his trade, it was different option than a trip to a regular MD. Eventually, many people came to him after conventional medicine had offered no relief. In some cases, very wealthy people came to Reese and people who were dancers, artists, and other entertainers. Again, they might have seen doctors first and found no relief.
Some writers suggest that Reese was hired by baseball as a kind of physician for the team. That is not true. Almost everyone came to Youngstown for treatment by Reese at his office attached to his home. Rarely, would he travel to work on an individual, but there were certain trips to made. His fees for services were generally very modest, but at times rich industrialists and other extremely wealthy people would appreciate his services so much, the sometimes would offer very generous payments.
Bonesetters often began their work on the mills and they were generally very strong–it was required to manually maneuver large muscles and tendons, and align joints. Reese practiced until he was in his mid-70s. The work could be exhausting and he was seeing as many an 40-50 patients a day. As he got older he regularly went on a long winter vacation which gave him some rest.
What was his success rate. That’s very hard to say. I suspect most people knew what kind of injuries he was healing. If he could not help people, he would tell them to go seek the attention of a doctor if they had not. He and his own family went to see doctors. I also suspect that in some cases, Reese was able to maneuver a tendon or muscle back in place, but if something was not working to keep it in place, the fix would need to be followed up with surgery or a long period of inactivity while it healed. Reese was always very patient and understanding with his patients. He did have some criticisms of athletes in that they sometimes would not listen to his instructions and advice on their injuries.
In some literature, Reese who had five daughters was said to been training one to become a bonesetter. This is simple not true, one of his daughters helped manage some of his business affairs, and that has been misinterpreted. One of his relatives did come to Youngstown to perhaps offer some help in the practice, but it did not work out long term.
Reese was known for his kindness.
John Reese died on November 29, 1931. Reese’s granddaughter’s husband, David L. Strickler, wrote a book called Child of Moriah that was published in 1984. It has Reese’s story from Wales to Youngstown, but it is very difficult to find.