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Medical ArticlesThe Power Of Words
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Source: Primitive Psycho-therapy And Quackery
VALENTINE GREATRAKES was born at Affane, County of Waterford, Ireland,
on Saint Valentine's Day, February 14, 1628. He was educated a
Protestant at the free school of Lismore near his home, and at Trinity
At the outbreak of the Civil War in 1641, his mother fled with him to
England and took refuge in Devonshire, where he devoted himself to the
study of the classics and divinity. Afterwards Greatrakes served for
seven years in Cromwell's army, holding a commission as lieutenant of
cavalry under Roger Boyle, Earl of Orrery. In 1656 he left the army and
returned to Affane, where he was appointed a magistrate and served as
such with credit.
Soon after the Restoration, in obedience to a divine impulse, he began
practice as a healer of various diseases by the method known as
laying-on of hands, stroking, or touching, which had been employed by
the sovereigns of England, from the time of Edward the Confessor.
Greatrakes's success was immediate and phenomenal. People flocked to him
so rapidly, we are told, from all quarters, that "his barns and
out-houses were crammed with innumerable specimens of suffering
humanity." In 1665 he returned to England, where he performed many
seemingly marvellous cures; and came to be regarded as a greater
miracle-worker than King Charles II himself. But after an investigation
and adverse report by members of the Royal Society, his practice fell
into disrepute, and he retired to his native land, where he sojourned in
obscurity until his death, which is supposed to have occurred after the
year 1682. One David Lloyd, a biographer, issued a tract entitled
"Wonders no Miracles, or Mr. Valentine Greatrakes' Gift of Healing
Examined," wherein he endeavored to show that the famous "Irish
stroaker" was little better than an impostor. In reply to this,
Greatrakes published a pamphlet, vindicating his methods, with
testimonials from persons of quality and distinction.
Greatrakes has been described as a man of unimpeachable integrity, a
highly respectable member of society, and incapable of attempting to
deceive by fraud. Notoriety was distasteful to him, and in this respect
he was above the plane of an ordinary charlatan. An enthusiast, he
believed himself to be invested with divine healing powers. His success
was surely due to forcible therapeutic suggestions communicated by him
to the minds of highly imaginative and credulous people, who reposed
confidence in his methods. It mattered not that they believed the cures
of their nervous disorders to be wrought solely through the physical
agency of laying-on of hands, whereby some mysterious healing force,
magnetic or otherwise, was communicated to them.
In attempting an explanation of the cures wrought by Greatrakes, Henry
Stubbe, a contemporary writer, affirmed that "God had bestowed upon Mr.
Greatarick a peculiar temperament, or composed his body of some
particular ferments, and the effluvia thereof, sometimes by a light,
sometimes by a violent friction, restore the temperament of the
debilitated parts, reinvigorate the blood, and dissipate all
heterogeneous ferments out of the bodies of the diseased, by the eyes,
nose, hands and feet." There is nothing recorded in regard to
Greatrakes's methods (says Professor Joseph Jastrow, in "Fact and Fable
in Psychology"), which definitely suggests the production of the
hypnotic state; but direct suggestion, reinforced by manipulation,
obviously had much to do with the cures.
In 1666 the Chamberlain of the Worcester Corporation expended ten
pounds, fourteen shillings in an entertainment for "Mr. Greatrix, an
Irishman famous for helping and curing many lame and diseased people,
only by stroking of their maladies with his hand and therefore sent for
to this and many other places."
From a letter written by Greatrakes to the Archbishop of Dublin, it
appears that he believed himself to be inspired of God, for the purpose
of curing disease. He received lavish hospitality in many homes, when at
the height of his popularity, and was regarded as a phenomenal adept in
the art of healing by touch.
If there exists such a thing as the "gift of healing," Greatrakes
appears to have possessed it. Dr. A. T. Schofield believes that in
certain rare cases individuals are endowed with the faculty of curing by
touch, to which the terms magnetic, psychic, occult, hypnotic, and
mesmeric have been applied. This power is resident in the operator, and
has nothing to do with suggestion; whereas in so-called faith-healing,
the power is resident in the patient, who, by the exercise of faith,
puts it into action.
Greatrakes has been described as having an agreeable personality,
pleasant manners, a fine figure, gallant bearing, a handsome face,
musical voice, and a good stock of animal spirits. Thus equipped, we may
not wonder that he was ever welcome in merry company. He had an impulse
or strange persuasion of his own mind (says J. Cordy Jeaffreson, in "A
Book about Doctors") that he had the gift of curing the King's Evil. A
second impulse gave him the power of healing ague, and a third
"inspiration of celestial aura imparted to him command, under certain
conditions, over all human diseases." Greatrakes adapted his
manipulations to the requirements of individual cases. Oftentimes gentle
stroking sufficed, but when the evil spirits were especially malignant,
he employed energetic massage. Occasionally the demon fled, "like a
well-bred dog," at the word of command, but more frequently the victory
was not won until the healer had rubbed himself into a red face, and a
It is narrated that when Greatrakes was practising in London, a
rheumatic and gouty patient came to him. "Ah," said the healer,
colloquially, "I have seen a good many spirits of this kind in Ireland.
They are watery spirits, who bring on cold shivering and excite an
overflow of aqueous humor in our poor bodies." Then, addressing the
demon, he continued: "Evil spirit, who has quitted thy dwelling in the
waters, to come and afflict this miserable body, I command thee to quit
thy new abode, and to return to thine ancient habitation."
From among a large number of testimonials of cures performed by
Greatrakes, a single example may suffice.
MR. SQUIBB'S LETTER TO MR. BOREMAN
Whereas you are pleased to enquire after the Cure, by God's
means done upon me, by the stroking of my head by Mr.
Greatrakes; These are thoroughly to inform you that being
violently troubled with an excessive pain of the head, that I
had hardly slept six hours in six days and nights, and taken
but very little of sustenance in that time; and being but
touch'd by him, I immediately found ease, and (thanks be to
God) do continue very well; and do further satisfie you, that
the rigour of the pain had put me into a high Fever, which
immediately ceas'd with my head-ache: and do likewise further
inform you that a Servant being touch'd for the same pain,
that had continu'd upon him for twelve years last past, he
touch'd him in the forehead, and the pain went backward; and
that but by his stroking upon the outside of his cloaths, the
pain came down to and out of his foot: the party continues
still well. These Cures were wrought about 3 weeks before
And thus much I assure you to be true from him that is
Your Friend and Servant
COVENT-GARDEN, April 20, 1666.
At my Lady Verney's, the place of my residence.
While Greatrakes acquired great celebrity on account of the numerous
cures which he performed, he was unable to explain the nature of his
healing powers. In a letter to the Hon. Robert Boyle, he expressed the
belief that many of the pains which afflict men, are of the nature of
evil spirits. "Such pains," wrote he, "cannot endure my hand, nay, not
my glove, but flye immediately, though six or eight coats and cloaks be
put between the parties' body and my hand, as at York House, the Lady
Ranalough's and divers other places, since I came to London."
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