When the Sequah Medicine Show came to Rochdale

The Cattle Market used to be a cobbled open space where the current Police Station now stands. It was the venue for a series of performances in the early 1890’s which must have both puzzled and amazed the good folk of Rochdale.

Imagine this. Through the streets of the town comes a large painted waggon or golden chariot pulled by a team of horses. Behind it, a group of whooping characters dressed as cowboys and Indians and behind them a brass band in full wild west outfits playing marching music. Driving the chariot was a man in a long tasselled buckskin coat and Stetson hat. A stage is set up at the Cattle Market over which the word ‘SEQUAH’ is emblazoned and a fairground steam organ would be playing to draw the crowds. After the procession, the frontiersman calling himself the Great Sequah, climbs onto the stage and putting himself forward as a medical practitioner, claims to represent The Yankee Company and begins to sing the praises of a rheumatic cure to the milling hundreds who have followed the procession. 

After some entertainment, the crowd would be asked if there was anyone there in need of a cure. Of course a number of troubled souls came forward and – whilst the band played ‘forte’ at the side – one by one they were ‘rubbed’ with Sequah Oil. According to eye witnesses (recalling the event in the Rochdale Observer in 1928) the infirm would suddenly spring around the stage, dance a jig with the Great Sequah and run off into the crowd, cured. Of course this led to much selling of the purported cure, either there or at local chemist shops which had been primed with the ‘cure.’

Of course there have been many medicine shows, quack doctors or snake-oil salesmen, but Sequah seems to have been a popular and regular visitor to Rochdale. In fact, the Sequah Medicine Company had begun as early as 1887 and its ‘patent medicines’ eventually sold across Britain, Ireland, the West Indies and South Africa. There seems to have been some dispute as to who the showman was who visited Rochdale. Some said that his name was Hannaway Roye from Huddersfield, others that he was William Henry Hartley who sold his Sequah Prairie Flower and Sequah Oil. William Hartley, from Silsden in West Yorkshire certainly seems to have been the original ‘Great Sequah’ but due to its popularity, many ‘Sequahs’ toured the country – up to 23 shows at any one time – and it is likely that a Lancashire Sequah landed in Rochdale, drawing thousands of customers who paid hundreds of pounds a day to be rid of their infirmities.

 Sequah would also appear at the Old Circus (later the Hippodrome) in the town, offering to pull teeth from the aching mouths of audiences. This would be done for free, the archives recording that 7 or 8 would come forward and – again the band playing loudly to hide the cries of suffering – teeth would be extracted with little apparent pain being shown, the Great Sequah brandishing huge forceps and – bizarrely – wearing a lightbulb on his forehead ! The finale was usually a man with a particularly swollen face having a tooth pulled and the extraction held aloft over a cheering crowd.

Such medicine shows drew the vulnerable to part with their hard-earned money until the British government declared such activities illegal in the late 1890’s. William Hartley died a bankrupt in 1924 but before that, by the turn of the century, Sequah as a company had gone into liquidation and was seen no more on the streets of Rochdale, or any other, town.