The rubbing doctors of West Texas

Clay Coppedge

July 7, 2023

cotton

The Milling Brothers—Roscoe and George— billed themselves as rubbing doctors and utilized elements of massage therapy, magnetic healing and hypnosis in their respective practices. They eventually added mineral water to their list of treatments at a number of popular West Texas sanitariums in the early 1900s. 

Both brothers were profoundly influenced by the techniques taught at Sidney Weltmer’s Magnetic Institution in Missouri, which drew heavily on the practices of Franz Mesmer. Mesmer believed that we have an invisible magnetic fluid—animal magnetism— that causes sickness when it’s blocked. He used magnets, touch and eventually hypnotism (which gives us the word “mesmerized”) to unblock the patients’ animal magnetism and make them well. 

Roscoe and George wore their hair long to accentuate their Cherokee heritage, billing themselves as the “Indian Adept” or the “Long-Haired Doctor.” They operated (not literally) in out of the way places like Glen Rose and Putnam, running what today we’d identify as a spa or clinic. 

They couldn’t legally call their businesses hospitals without proving they were doctors, which required a medical license, and, yes, it’s true that some of their patients turned into plaintiffs. Roscoe argued in court that guests paid only for room and board— the rubbing and the magnets and mineral water were all gratis

The late Texas writer Larry L. King grew up in Putnam and recalled that “for three dollars a day you could bathe in Putnam’s mineral waters, have meals in your rooms, and take treatments from the well-known rubbing doctor Roscoe Milling.”  Historian John Berry wrote of Roscoe in 1963: “Dr. Milling was a picturesque character and willing to put forth effort and time to add to the picturesqueness and to remain a character.” 

Roscoe, who claimed to have healed his mother of phlebitis when he was but a mere lad, opened his first sanitarium in Stephenville in 1890. In Glen Rose he saw a Hindu hypnotist in action and before you could say “snap out of it” he was mesmerizing his own patients. 

Younger brother George was a good deal more rambunctious than Roscoe, prone to breaking up religious gatherings, threatening people and waving guns around. He was arrested five times on charges related to that particular pastime, including “unlawfully shooting a gun across a public road.”  Glen Rose cops once pulled him over for driving his Hupmobile through town at the ungodly speed of 18 miles per hour. 

A couple of years after he set up shop in Glen Rose, in September of 1914,  he was murdered, some say by a jealous husband who believed George was rubbing his wife the wrong way. The Stephenville Empire reported that the killer’s bond was “furnished in a few minutes by several Glen Rose parties.” 

Skeptics doubted that the rubbing doctors did anybody any good and their harshest critics accused them of being dangerous and/or immoral. But they had a loyal clientele. When Roscoe went to trial in Abilene for practicing medicine without a license, a prominent Abilene woman testified that Roscoe had restored the use of her withered arm. But the organized opposition to his unconventional treatments compelled him to look for other means of survival. He tried farming but the ailing masses camped out on his farm, pleading for treatment. His own beliefs in the treatments never wavered. 

Roscoe Milling died in 1962 after unsuccessful surgery to cure a kidney ailment. His son, H.H. Milling, operated a sanitarium in Mineral Wells for many years. The Millings brothers’ descendants and others who married into the family practiced various forms of medicine in more than a dozen Texas towns over the next several decades, including a third-generation descendant who served as Dean at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas. 

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