Tricksters, rogues and charlatans
Not all those who laid the foundations of today’s New Zealand character were honest hard working people. Some were tricksters, rogues and charlatans.
Among these was Abraham Wali Mahomed Salaman, known to many as Walley Salaman, who became one of New Zealand’s first, so called, alternative healers.
Today we have a subculture of these people peddling all manner of untested remedies and offering spiritual interventions for almost everything imaginable but Salaman was among the first. He was born into a Muslim family in Punjab, India, in 1885 and arrived in New Zealand in 1903 where he was an Auckland silk merchant by 1914.
A year later he had moved to Wellington, married 18-year-old Marjory Cardno and won a contract to provide the khaki dye for soldiers’ uniforms of World War I.
The couple divorced in June 1922 and Salaman returned to Auckland where he commenced business as a herbalist in Khyber Pass Road.
Two years he was trading as a chemist in Mount Albert with no known training or qualifications.
In 1923 Salaman married again, this time Gladys Louisa Richards and his business, particularly herbal remedies was thriving. Then disaster struck when one his patients became ill under his treatment. She was 30-year-old Agnes Stewart who had sued Salaman for negligence and for failure to exercise reasonable skill and care in his treatment of her, claiming £2284 in damages. She had developed exophthalmic goitre in February 1923 and was hospitalised in April in order to gain strength before undergoing an operation. When she was discharged in June, much improved, friends told her that Salaman could cure her without the operation. Salaman, with no medical training, did little more than place a stethoscope to her neck and then pronounced that her kidneys and lungs were the problem, that the goitre was only a minor ailment. He prescribed several mixtures and concoctions for her which she took according to his instructions.
Over the next few months Agnes Stewart’s health deteriorated but Salaman repeatedly dismissed her concerns and continued to provide her with his mixtures, at some expense. Nearly a year passed before it was discovered that the basis of his treatment, and most of his mixtures, was opium.
By this time Agnes Stewart had become a hopeless addict. A subsequent inquiry found that only 15 of the 26 medicines he had prescribed were herbal.
The rest were various cordials laced with opium. His patient was now so weak she had to be carried into court on a stretcher to give her evidence. Salaman was found guilty of falsely pretending to be a doctor skilled in the treatment of physical diseases, and sentenced to one month’s imprisonment at Mount Eden prison.
Agnes Stewart was awarded £600 in damages. Two weeks later she died.
Salaman petitioned Parliament for compensation and an inquiry into various prosecutions against him without success. A few months later his wife was diagnosed with tuberculosis, and the following year their two-year-old daughter died from diphtheria. By 1930 he was living in New Plymouth.
In spite of his conviction for falsely claiming to be a medical practitioner Salaman continued to diagnose illness and prescribe medicines.
Within a year of setting practice in New Plymouth Salaman was responsible for another death. The second patient to die was six year-old Lyall Christie who died in a diabetic coma caused by the withdrawal of insulin ordered by Salaman. He was again convicted of manslaughter, with a recommendation to mercy, noting that the child’s mother did not hold him to blame. Justice Michael Myers said he could not lose sight of the fact that this was not an isolated case. ‘The prisoner is plainly a charlatan’, he said, and sentenced Salaman to 12 months’ imprisonment with hard labour.
Some of his patients called a public meeting to call for his release claiming the local medical profession was responsible for the severity of the sentence. Nothing came of the petition.
Gladys Salaman moved with her children to live with her parents in Nelson where she died of tuberculosis in 1931.
At the completion of his sentence Salaman returned to India and built a house and clinic at Amritsar, intending to settle permanently but returned to New Zealand and married 24-year-old Annie Perreaux in 1933, at New Plymouth. He returned again to India but came back to New Zealand. In 1940, aware that his health was failing, Salaman designed a large tomb in Te Heni cemetery which occupied 10 plots and cost £2500.
Salaman died on February 8 1941 at his home in Gill Street and lay in state for a week and after which more than 2000 people gathered at the cemetery for the funeral in Arabic and English.
Annie Salaman carried on his herbal business and after marrying Kwang Simpson in 1943 traded as SalamanSimpson until the early 1970s. Over the years Abraham Salaman’s tomb has been vandalised. A brass star and moon have disappeared and the bronze entrance gates were stolen in 1992. It remains a monument to one of New Zealand’s first alternative healers who was respected by some and reviled by others.
Amongst the early unmarked graves in Alexandra Cemetery, Pirongia, is that of Maria Pohlen, the wife of Heinrich Pohlen, who died in childbirth when he failed to fetch medical help in time. Exonerated from any blame on that occasion, Pohlen served time in prison for assault on a neighbour and was later charged with the murder of another neighbour, Patrick Corcoran.