Faith healing has a long and varied history but certain cases still have a special fascination. So it was with Valentine Greatrakes, the Stroker. Born in 1628 in to a prominent Irish family, Greatrakes (also spelled Greatorex or Greatraks) was caught up in the volatile politics of the time. He fought in the English Civil War as part of Oliver Cromwell's army before returning to his family estate in 1654. Aside from his prominent role as one of the interrogators in a witchcraft trial in 1661 (he and other judges were obliged to "prove" that the defendant was a witch using the recommended tortures of the time), there seemed little else in his life to provide a hint of what came later.
It was in 1663 when Greatrakes was struck by an "impulse, or strange persuasion" in his mind. He came to believe that God had given him the power to cure "the King's evil" (as scrofula, or tuberculosis of the lymph nodes, was known in those days). He reportedly told his wife who categorically denounced him as a fool. Despite her objections (and she was hardly the only one), he approached a young boy named William Maher who was disfigured by severe scrofula. According to Greatrakes' own later account, "I laid my hand on the place affected, and prayed to God for Jesus' sake to heal him". Greatrakes took great satisfaction in reporting that the boy had become completely healed within a month. That was the beginning of his healing career.
Over the course of the next two years, Greatrakes, motivated by "further impulses from on high", began healing numerous other diseases including epilepsy, ulcers, ague (chills and fevers), and paralysis. His fame spread quickly and he was swamped by requests for healing. Due to conflicts with his own farm work, Greatrakes established regular hours (three days a week, twelve hours each day) in which he saw patients. He became known as "the Stroker" through his habit of stroking his hands on each invalid as part of the healing session. The explanations that he provided on how his healing worked, which mainly involved casting out the evil spirits causing the disease, did little to reassure the local clergy and physicians. He was finally summoned to a local Bishop's Court and ordered to stop his healing activities. While Greatrakes gave in at first, he quickly began healing again (it was God's will, after all).
In 1666, Greatrakes was contacted by Lord Edward Conway for help in treating his wife's severe migraines. Lady Anne Conway, a brilliant philosopher/writer of her time, was often incapacitated by her headaches and none of the other physicians that she had consulted had been able to help. Greatrakes lived on their Warwickshire estate for months but his stroking sessions did nothing to relieve her pain. As Lady Conway and her husband were prominent in English society, a group of distinguished scholars and physicians gathered at their castle to witness the sessions. Despite his failure with Lady Conway, he still attracted a steady stream of patients who came to the estate to be healed.
Greatrakes then went to London at the request of King Charles II who had asked for a demonstration. Despite a testimonial from Robert Boyle (then president of the Royal Society), Greatrakes failed to impress the court with his healing powers. There seems to be a certain irony in that since the king himself was not shy about holding healing audiences demonstrating his own Royal Touch. Still, Greatrakes spent months in London at a private house at Lincoln's Inn-Fields that reportedly became "the daily resort of all the nervous and credulous women of the metropolis". In that same year, he published a pamphlet titled A Brief Account of Mr. Valentine Greatrakes and Divers of the Strange Cures by him lately performed. Written by himself in a letter Addressed to the Honourable Robert Boyle, Esq. Although Greatrakes then returned to his family farm, he continued to revisit London until his death in 1682. His healing career dwindled over the years and he faded into obscurity.
Writing about Greatrakes In his classic Extraordinary Poplar Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, Charles Mackay agreed with most contemporary observers that there was no conscious deception involved. The Stroker genuinely believed in his healing gift even though his successes seemed mostly due to suggestion. Mackey added that: "So great was the confidence in him, that the blind fancied they saw the light which they did not see – the deaf imagined that they heard – the lame that they walked straight, and the paralytic that they had recovered the use of their limbs... Those who saw through the delusion kept their opinion to themselves, knowing how useless it was to declare their disbelief to a people filled with prejudice and admiration". These same words can apply to just about any other "healer" that has come along since Greatrakes' time. Whenever a new healing marvel comes along, skeptics are still forced to deal with the cult of adoration that goes with it.
Fighting miracles is never easy.