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Benoni Sweet, Bonesetter

December 21, 2014 , , ,

My 7th great-grandfather had an inherited gift for bone setting.  Both he and my 6th great-grandfather relieved suffering by using manipulative medicine.  They had no degree in medicine but believed in their natural ability to pass this gift down to generations of Sweets.

“November 8th, 1724, Captain Benoni Sweet was baptised at St. Paul’s, in Narragasett, by the Rev. Mr. McSparran; and at the succeeding Easter, Captain Sweet was elected one of the Vestry.” [History of the Episcopal Church in Narragansett, Rhode Island, page 94.]
“James Sweet, the father of Benoni, emigrated from Wales [England] to this country, and purchased an estate at the foot of Ridge Hill, so called, in North Kingstown… Benoni had been a Captain in the British service–was well informed, and of polished manners. He was a natural bonesetter and the progenitor of the race in Rhode Island. He was styled Doctor Sweet, but he practised in restoring dislocations only. He was a regular communicant of the church, and officiated as a vestryman, until his death. ‘July 19th, 1751,’ says the record, ‘died Captain Benoni Sweet, of North Kingstown, in the ninetieth year of his age; Dr. McSparran preached his funeral sermon, and buried him in the cemetery of his ancestors.'” [History of the Episcopal Church in Narragansett, Rhode Island, page 94.]
“SWEET, Capt. Benoni, in 90th year, buried in his own family yard.” [Vital Record of Rhode Island, 1636-1850, v.10, page 384]

Benoni Sweet (1663 – 1751)
is my 7th great grandfather
Dr. James Sweet (1686 – 1751)
son of Benoni Sweet
Thomas Sweet (1732 – 1813)
son of Dr. James Sweet
Thomas Sweet (1759 – 1844)
son of Thomas Sweet
Valentine Sweet (1791 – 1858)
son of Thomas Sweet
Sarah LaVina Sweet (1840 – 1923)
daughter of Valentine Sweet
Jason A Morse (1862 – 1932)
son of Sarah LaVina Sweet
Ernest Abner Morse (1890 – 1965)
son of Jason A Morse
Richard Arden Morse (1920 – 2004)
son of Ernest Abner Morse
Pamela Morse
I am the daughter of Richard Arden Morse

The Bonesetter Sweets
Of South County, Rhode Island
By Martha R. McPartland

In colonial America, graduates of medical schools were few and far between. In Rhode Island there were only five medical school graduates practicing in 1800 and the first medical degree awarded in the state was a Brown University in 1814. Prior to that period, from its founding in 1636, Rhode Island had many men called “Doctor” with
little or no qualifications to back up their title. Some were the seventh son of a seventh son, and so believed to be endowed with special healing power; some were charlatans with a smattering of education and glib tongues, who took advantage of misfortune and ignorance; still others had a natural flair for caring for the sick and were able to relieve much suffering. In the last category was a remarkable family from the southern part of Rhode Island called, and still recalled, as the “Bonesetter Sweets.”

The Sweets were an old Rhode Island family whose progenitor, John Sweet, came to the state from Salem, Massachusetts in 1637. Of Welsh extraction, family tradition has it that their forbears in Wales had this innate facility for helping the sick. James Sweet , son of the immigrant, John, was the first of the American “Bonesetter Sweets.” He was born in 1622, came to Rhode Island with his parents, married Mary Greene and settled in what is commonly called South County, and more correctly named Washington County. Of the nine children of James and Mary Sweet, only Benoni , born in 1663, became a bonesetter. Traditionally, Benoni is said to have had a flowery and polished
manner—perhaps a forerunner of the bedside manner possessed by some of today’s medical men! He was called “Doctor” Sweet and his practice consisted of setting bones. He was a respected member of the community and a communicant of the historic Narragansett Church. When he died in 1751, Dr. James McSarren, rector of the
church, delivered a glowing eulogy.  The inherited ability to set bones was not regarded by the Sweets as a vocation, but rather as an avocation. They were artisans by calling—stonemasons, blacksmiths, wheel-wrights, and carpenters. Bone setting was a sideline, as is demonstrated by an advertisement in the Providence Journal of February 16, 1830 and printed at the top or the first page of this article.

The remarkable part of this family was the fact that they never exploited their natural ability. Not one of them sought fame or fortune through this medium. The father usually selected one or two of his sons, probably those who showed a tendency in that direction, and instructed them in bonesetting. The Sweets did not deem this a magical thing, but more of an inherited knowledge acquired from their elders. They handled fractures, sprains, and dislocations with a skill to be envied by an orthopedic physician. Their skill was in the manipulation of bones but they were known to use herbs, ointments, and skunk grease in massaging too. Their knack was thought uncanny, as they so often succeeded where others, more learned and “better trained,” had failed. Instances naming local doctors who failed to relieve suffering that was later relieved by one of the Sweets have become a part of South County folklore.

Dr. Benoni Sweet selected his son, James , to carry on the family art. James was born in 1688 and not too much is known of his successes, but it was Job Sweet, son of James, who gained national recognition and established their bonesetting reputation. Job was born in 1724 and married Jemima Sherman in 1750. He lived all his life in the South County section of Rhode Island.

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I love your genealogy. I find it fascinating to learn about your extended family..


Stevie Wilson (@LAStory)

December 24, 2014

Thank you for posting about the Sweets. Dr. Benoni is a grandfather on one side of my family, and an uncle on another. His wife was a Manchester, and she was an aunt on that side. My line continues with Dr. James, and James, Jr. James Jr’s son John was a Methodist pastor. His daughter was my grandmother Anna Coe. Her daughter Clarissa married into the for mentioned Manchesters.


Brian Burns

March 22, 2021

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