Though he ended up infamous in Taranaki, Abraham Walley Mohammed Salaman's story really begins in India. Born at Amritsar in the Punjab around 1885 or 1886, his parents were Muslim and his father an herbalist. Perhaps that's what made him decide to go into the same kind of business.
But first, at the age of 14, he set out to travel the world. When he arrived in New Zealand around 1903, he became a silk merchant in Wellington and married Scottish born Marjory Cardno. By the time their first child was born, Salaman was producing the dyes for khaki uniforms worn by soldiers during World War Two.
The couple divorced within five years. Salaman turned to selling herbal remedies in Auckland's Khyber Pass Road and soon called himself a chemist. His standard reply when asked about his lack of proper qualifications was, 'I know, that's all'.
People recommended the tall, well-built man to friends and Salaman's business grew. In 1924 he married Gladys Richards and had two more daughters.
But trouble began in 1924, when one of his patients nearly died. His mixtures were discovered to be hardly herbal - most had little herbal in them and some were opium based.
New Plymouth's Dr Alan Hayton believed people were being deceived. “Dick Christie the chemist told me Salaman would buy the cheapest pill by the gross, Blaud's Pill, ferrous sulphate, and paint them with gold paint and sell them at great profit” he said.
Sal ammoniac, used for soldering irons, was purchased from Dr Hayton's father, a plumbing merchant. “When he asked Salaman what he used that for, he was told it went into his remedies” the doctor said.
At a dramatic hearing, Salaman's patient was so weak she had to be stretchered in. Agnes Stewart told the court how Salaman had treated her for goitre for almost a year, after first examining her by putting a stethoscope to her neck and pronouncing her kidneys and lungs were failing. After giving her several mixtures to take, not only was she not cured, but she'd become addicted to opium.
But just two weeks after winning the case and being awarded £600 Agnes Stewart died. Salaman was found guilty of falsely pretending to be a doctor and was sent to Mount Eden prison for a month. Though he petitioned Parliament for compensation, the committee came back with no recommendation, and no money was awarded either.
When Salaman's youngest daughter died of diphtheria and his wife developed tuberculosis, he moved to New Plymouth to start a new life. Again he hit the headlines when another patient died. Six year-old Lyall Christie had been a diabetic. Salaman said he'd treat him only if his insulin stopped. Sadly, the boy died in a coma, which resulted in a guilty verdict and harsh words from the judge.
The Taranaki Herald of 25 September 1930 reported under the headline ‘Salaman Guilty’: “...Addressing the prisoner, his Honour said he would take all these matters into consideration. ‘I cannot, however,' he said, 'lose sight of the fact that this is not an isolated case of charlatanism. The prisoner is plainly a charlatan.' Referring again to the English case which his Honour cited during the hearing of the case, he said that the learned Judge, in delivering the judgement of the court in that case, said it was essential that such quacks as the prisoner should not be allowed to go free. 'With those sentiments, I am in complete agreement,' added the Chief Justice, and the sentence of the court is that you be detained to prison and kept to hard labour for a term of twelve calendar months.”
More than 500 outraged New Plymouth citizens got together at several public meetings to read testimonies from satisfied patients. Salaman wasn't to blame, they said, but a medical profession intent on shutting down the competition. Crowded meetings at Moturoa, Eltham and Woodville followed. Even the Prime Minister was approached to ask his cabinet to reverse the court decision but the cabinet wanted nothing to do with it and opted not to get involved.
When Salaman's wife died of tuberculosis soon afterwards, he decided to go back to India to live. He returned in 1933 and married Annie Perreaux. At 24 she was much younger than Salaman. He took his new wife and remaining children back to Amritsar and set up a medical practice. However, his family found they couldn't adjust to the strange new environment and they came back to his house on Gill Street in New Plymouth.
In 1940, worried by his own bad health, Salaman put his affairs in order. As a Muslim, his death would fall under the teachings of the Quran, which made it necessary to be buried on Muslim soil. Since none was available at Te Hēnui Cemetery, he created his own. He designed an exotic resting place which covered 10 plots and needed special planning permission. He contracted Jones and Sandford workmen to build it at a cost of £2500.
Te Hēnui Cemetery records show it as being made of painted concrete, sitting nearly 15 feet square, with a large blue dome on top and four blue corner plinths for ventilation. The entrance had both double iron gates and double wooden doors, each decorated with a star and a moon design. Two beige clay urns with BISMULLAH engraved on their rims were placed inside and the inscription above the door carried Salaman's name in full and the date he died.
Three marble steps led down inside the tomb. Coffin supports, like park benches, ran around the walls. A red circular table held two wreaths, also in the shape of a star and moon, plus two brass vases and an ornate brass dish filled with incense ashes. Two candles lay on the table top and set at the bottom of each table leg were porcelain wreaths in glass domes. On the floor, scattered around the room, were several more vases and a large green clay frog, and the only light in the room came through the door.
Salaman died on February 8, 1941 at the age of 59 and he took his copy of the Quran and his reading glasses with him to the grave. His embalmed body lay in state at home for a week in a white satin gown and silver-patterned green wrap. More than 2000 mourners turned his burial into a public event, complete with a picnic-like atmosphere and the service was conducted in both Arabic and English.
As the Reverend Wilson later told the Taranaki Herald: “It might seem strange to some of you - a Christian minister conducting the funeral of a Mohammedan but no clergyman of his faith is in New Zealand and we should like to think that, were we to die in some land of Islam, similarly situated, there might be found some Sheikh of their religion who would give us a Christian burial.”
In 1943, Annie Salaman married Kwong Simpson and together they set up another herbalist business, trading as Salaman-Simpson until the early 1970s.
Though Salaman's estate was valued at £8000 and his will asked that his tomb be kept in a rightful manner, neither prevented vandals from attacking it. The brass star and moon disappeared and thieves also stole the hefty gates which were likely sold for scrap.
Though the television program Epitaph brought a flurry of renewed attention in 2003, like any other grave it needs family permission to be opened.
Today Abraham Walley Mahomed Salaman's tomb stands as a rare memorial to a man who so obviously wanted to be remembered. It's a shame it was more for his notoriety than for his healing talents.
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