FOLK MEDICINE

by B.W. Dortch, [email protected]

While folk medecine continues to flourish until this day and mid-wifery is enjoying a great resurgence, alternative medicines for the discriminating sick person are alive and well in many parts of the world today.  Whether it be witchcraft, hocus-pocus or herbal medicine, made no difference to a deathly ill person as long as it was known that the person had The Gift. In the early days, folk medicine was not an alternative, it was the primary treatment for most hill people.  Frequently, your only choice when illness, pregnancy or a debilitating accident occurred was to send someone as fast as a mule or horse could run to fetch a neighbor with The Gift who just happened to be a bonafide practioneer of the healing arts or lie flat on your back and die, which you were quite apt to do anyway.

Back during the ice age and well before my time, the big ice mass or whatever moved across the face of the deep shaping the landscape, played a ghastly trick on our part of the world. The entire county it was said, consisted of a series of two hills and a hollow, pronounced holler by local folk for its entire length and breadth. Of course, it is a commonly known fact that you simply cannot have a holler with two supporting hills.  The very nature of this terrian, being mostly vertical,  created a lot of water shed in a relatively small area. Naturally, water rushing down two hills to a central point between could not be dissipated through normal absorption and so formed many rivulets, branches, creeks and temporary rivers in these hollows. This misshapen terrian simply  aggravated and confounded the isolation we already enjoyed in our part of the world.  From December to the following March  when the heavy rains came, these branches, creeks and rivers literally filled the hollows through which they ran from one hilltop to the next.  Since there were scarcely any roads and no bridges at all in those days, the doctor from the county seat, no matter how dedicated he might have been, simply could not safely reach many of the houses to which he might be summoned  Thus the field of folk medicine flourished.  The parctioneers of this art always arrived just before the onset of the patients death rattle. Of all the many harbingers of the grim reaper, the death rattle was considered by most to be the absolute worst and most irreversible.

Numbered among those hearty souls who practiced the healing arts without benefit of scientific training, was my maternal grandmother.  Granny had no particular speciality, midwifery, whooping cough, measles, mumps, thrush diaper rash or the colic, she treated them all with efficiency and promptitude. In short, she would have been in today's world, a general practioneer in the truest sense of the word, never refusing the challenge that any of these common maladies presented. In short, Granny had The Gift. In those days, there were two different types of people with The Gift. First there was the person, who would intone scriptural incantantions over the ailing person, normally someone who had been cut with an ax or was otherwise bleeding profusely or who had been severely burned.  It is thought that these types were able to commune with the occult and that they were able to call on divine intervention to stop the bleeding or take away the sting from a burn. The other type of course, used the abundance of the local forest and the roots, herbs, barks and blossoms that it had to offer up to compound their remedies and therefore cure sick people. Both were quite effective in their own speciality so I have been told.  At least for the former speciality, one could obtain The Gift in two ways: One, and everyone knew this to be true, the seventh son of a seventh son was known to have The Gift   and two, a male child who had never seen his father was known to grow up in possession of The Gift. Kindly not that neither of these individuals ever did  one thing to earn their gift. As to the herbal doctor, they generally obtained their skills and knowledge by dent of hard work and observation of another older practioneer of the art.

Obviously Granny was not the seventh son of a seventh son nor even a male child who had never seen its father, she was simply of the wrong gender; thus, she could not have acquired the gift via these routes. Everyone knew these individuals were possessed of great healing powers, but Granny's prowess had come about the old fashioned way, she worked for it.  It was generally agreed by everyone in the surrounding communities that Old Granny truly had The Gift of healing and that she knew her medicine and could cure anything known to man or mule. No finer compliment could be paid in those days. Granny's reputation was further enhanced by the fact that the night never grew too dark or the distance too great for her to arise from her bed and make a house call when summoned.

I will relate as best I can a story that Granny passed on about the night Lonzo Edward, twelfth child and seventh son of Delbert Clyde and Stella Lucille Askew, (herinafter referred to as DC and Stel) was born in 1909.  The time was approximately 2:00 AM on a cold mid February night. In anticipation of a new mouth to feed, old DC, on the previous day had just put in twelve hours digging stumps form a patch of new ground he was clearing.  People engaged in this occupation were not known to suffer from insomnia and old DC was enjoying the sleep of a tired but untroubled soul. Suddenly a sharp elbow stabbed him in the back like a swift kick from a mule. Being suddenly aroused from a deep sleep, old DC did the natural thing, he levitated and clung tenaciously to the ceiling like a blue-tailed lizard and inquired of Stel, "who let the mule in this house?"  Stel, still a bit groggy from sleep, nonchalantly said, DC you better go fetch Granny, Lonzo Edward is coming. Since this would be number twelve, Stel could be nonchalant at a time like this. One might ask how she knew it was Lonzo Edward, obviously a name for a male child? Simple, the older women in the commuunity noticing during her seventh month of pregancy that she was carrying the baby high had already advised her that it was going to be a boy. Thus, armed with this bit of intelligence a name for a male child was selected and bestowed upon the unborn child at that time.

Relaxing his grip, old DC came down from the ceiling, donned his overalls and shoes, grabbed his blanket lined blue denim jumper from a peg on the wall, shrugged into it and headed for the barn. Old Jack, most docile of the families fleet of swift mules, not accustomed to being awakened at such an early hour, required a bit of soothing talk before he could be caught and bridled.  This accomplished, DC mounted, sans saddle and headed for Granny's house just over the line in the next county.  Along the way, he encountered four creeks to be forded. All of them were greatly swollen from recent rains and old Jack had to be persuaded with the aide of a stout hickory stick to take the plunge and swim them.  These minor obstacles overcome, DC arrived tired, wet and half frozen at Granny's residence an hour later and well before sunup

His "hallo the house," was answered by Granny who had been up for two hours, fed and milked the cows, put on a kettle of soap to start cooking, had a pot of coffee gently perking and was slicing bacon for breakfast. Having been expecting a summons from DC for several days, Granny needed no further explanation. Slipping into her coat and shawl, grabbing her ever present doctor's bag from a table, she strode out into the yard, jerked old Jack's reins from DC, mounted and rode away. Exiting the yard at a hearty gallop, Granny yelled over her shoulder for DC to bridle her mule and follow her after he had thawed himself out with a cup of her robust coffee. Granny devoutly believed that God had only given us so much time on this earth and that it was a sinful thing to waste. No one could fault her sense of urgency at times like these.  Granny was a true professional care giver before the term became known.

She retraced DC's earlier ride and arrived at his cabin a few minutes after the sun had peeked over the eastern horizion. Steam spewing from their mouths like run away locomotives, teeth chattering in the cold, the eleven Askew children were huddled together on the front porch of the cabin for warmth.
Dismounting, Granny commenced barking orders at the older children before her feet had touched the ground.  Get the fire to roaring, put on a pot of water to bile, get me some freshly washed flour sacks, (to be used as towels) boil these here herbs and make me a strong pot of coffee she ordered as she strode confidently across the porch to the cabin door. Now be about it, you hear. Removing her wraps and glancing about to see that her orders were being complied with, she approached the bed to have a look at the expectant mother. Yep, goin to have another baby I see. If Granny was anything, she was astutely observant and skilled in the art of small talk to set the patient at ease. Stel was lying on her back, stomach expanding and contracting as if it contained an unborn child which desperately wanted to be born and get it over with.  Them thar herbs biled yet? inquired Granny of an excited twelve year old daughter. Yessum they be biled right good Miz Granny responded the girl. Granny then stretched a clean flour sack over a dish pan picked up the boiling pot and dumped it's contents over the cloth. Picking up the still steaming cloth, she gave it a vigorous squeeze, unfolded it and spread the dregs evenly over its surface as though gauging their quantity and depth before making her next move.  Satisfied with the results, she took the steaming potion and returned to Stel where she placed it on Stel's bloated belly and again spread them evenly. Just lay right still for a minute or two and everything will be allright said Granny in her most soothing bedside voice.  Observing that her command had been obeyed and that Stel was resting reasonably well, Granny dragged a rocking chair over by the bed, pulled out her lower lip and dumped in a thimble full of  Bruton's snuff, took her seat and began her lone vigil. Thanks to the powerful potion with which she had plastered Stel's gigantic stomach, her patience was soon rewarded.

Squirming like a fresh caught eel and screaming like a gut shot bear, Lonzo Edward announced his arrival with great gusto. Granny calmly took her scissors from her medical bag, made a couple of deft snips and hoisted old Lonzo Edward high for his mother and siblings to view in all his natural glory.  Tempering a pan of the boiling water, she submerged him head and ears for his very first bath. Drying him off near the roaring fireplace, she tightly affixed a four inch wide cloth band around his girth, pinned on a diaper and pulled a neatly hand sewn gown over his head and delivered him safely into his mother's waiting arms.

Little did anyone know that at the exact moment of his birth, little Lonzo Edward was being set up to become a famous healer. Never before in the annals of local lore had another child been born with a double measure of The Gift. Not only was he the seventh son of a seventh son, he was about to become a male child who had never seen his father.  This account of old DC's sudden departure from this old vale of tears was given by an eye witness to the event.  Old DC after quaffing a few cups of Granny's coffee, felt sufficiently revived to start the long journey home. Going to the barn, he placed a side saddle on Granny's favorite mule and took off at a steady, ground eating lope. Before arriving at the first swollen creek, rather than follow the road, where the mule could have gradually waded out into deep water and safely swam to the other side, old DC mistakenly chose a short cut and aproached the creek from a bluff.

Upon arriving at the brink of the creek, the mule shied and tried to avoid plunging off the bluff into the raging maelstrom below.  Applying encouragement vigorously with a stout hickory pole, DC soon convinced the dumb animal to take the final plunge. This singular mistake was DC's worst, most irreversible and his last.  Upon striking the water, the mule continued straight on down to the bottom, forty feet below. At this point DC and the mule severed their relationship and DC was left to his own resources which were woefully inadequate for the task at hand, saving his hide.  Then as the eyewitness tells it, along came a log, being hurtled through the water like a misguided missile and just as DC surfaced, coughing and spluttering, it struck him a direct blow to the head. DC's badly bruised body was retrieved from a hackberry bush two days later after the creek had receded.  Quite naturally, this act made Lonzo Edward a male child who had never seen his father, on top of which he was already the seventh son of a seventh son. While people possessing either of those two characteristics were healers of some renown, they tended to work within narrow specializations. Lonzo Edward. on the other hand was a general practioneer in the truest sense who tended every ailment brough to him with equal aplomb.  Lonzo Edward died in 1989 after a long and fruitful career as a healer, although he had about outlived his own time due to the arrival of many doctors in the local region.

While this was far from a typical day for Granny, these happenings occurred with sufficient freauency to keep her in a state of constant readiness at all times. Naturally, Granny found it necessary to take a week off in spring and again in the autumn to commune with nature and replenish her cornucopia of roots, herbs, barks and blossoms that she found so essential to the healing process in man or beast. Certain unusually harsh seasons of the year, foretold when her services as a midwife would be needed. An extremely cold and snowy January was the sign of a busy late September or early October to come. Likewise, a rainy July that kept farmers indoors and out of the fields, foretold a busy March to come. Although, Granny had not recieved a great deal of formal education, her math skills were unequaled. Much has been written about the practice and wonders of folk medicine and its
practioneers, much less is known about the healing powers with which the seventh son of a seventh son or a male child who had never seen his father were endowed.  Collectively, these individuals had the power to perform miraculous healing feats for every ailment known to man or beast, few of them could handle everything. Then as now, the specialist stood supreme. Some of these healers could, take the smarting from a bee sting in a hurry with a simple scriptural incantation. Just what these incantations were was a subject of much scholarly debate well into the 1930's.

Lonzo Edward Askew, being the seventh son of a seventh son as well as a male who had never seen his father was a rare exception to this rule and was thought by many to be possessed with a double portion of The Gift. He was known far and wide as a man who could heal anything, be it consumption, constipation, TB, whooping cough, back door trots or a boil on the butt of one's favorite mule.  People possessing all these ailments were laid at his feet at one time or another and without exception they all left with the confident feeling that they had indeed been healed.  As a result, they stopped worrying and many lived for several weeks and even months after the treatment. While the true facts about these individuals were never known, people living in communities where one of them resided  took great confort from the nearness of good health care for their families and livestock. Too bad the republicans did not get into the debates or that to would have been ruined  On the other hand, the republicans did much to make folk medicine flourish, they created the deplorable economic situation that caused people to rely on it in the first place.

Just how the male child who had never seen his father came into possession of his healing powers remains a mystery to most people, others never question it. I do not remember much about the procedure for curing thrush, a malady which attacked the mouths of nursing babies as I was quite young when I had it. However, I have been told and have often marvelled at its very simplicity. For this procedure, so the story goes, the afflicted infant was stretched out in a prone position on the knees of the healer, with his head facing away. Then, bending low over the patients face, the healer blew a mighty draught of air from his mouth into the mouth of the baby.  My sister Willard Sue, a skeptic still, claims she would rather her baby receive a blast from the rear end of a mule than from the mouth of most of the tobacco chewing healers she knew. This blast from the healers mouth, to be most effective, was generally followed by a few scriptural incantations and presto, in no more than a few short months the victim of this dreaded scourge was healed. Left untreated, this ailment was known to have caused tooth and gum disease in later years. Perhaps this early treatment is why you rarely met a toothless person under the age of 20 in those days.  This very fact is a living testimonial to the effectiveness of that state-of-the-art medical procedure. A much less serious ailment and one that caused great public embarassment to the victim, because he was known to have played with frogs, was warts. Eradicating these unsightly appurtenances was a sub-speciality of the seventh son of a seventh son.  This procedure while requiring some knowledge of the occult, also required physical contact with the warts by the healer.  The theory here being that upon making physical contact, the warts would select a place on the healers body and later depart for these environs to establish a residence. The practioneer, so it was told, was so powerful that the warts were never successful in establishing a beachhead and so died of malnutrition. Logical.  Never one to apprecite the merits of frogs as hosehold pets, I never had the opportunity to experience this cure first hand. Stopping hemorrhaging from cuts and open wounds was another common speciality of certain healers whose services were in great demand as many people of that era, commonly used axes and saws during their day-to-day activies of making a living. This procedure it was said, could only be accomplished successfully by a person with The Gift. Granny had never practiced this branch of the healing arts, had never been known to stop bleeding by a patient and was just a wee bit skeptical of those who did.

It happened that one day, Mr. Sam Gunson, a respected citizen of the community and a lay minister in the local Primitive Baptist Church, was hewing railroad crossties in a fine stand of virgin oak timber when the boradaxe he was using slipped in his hands and neatly sliced three toes from his left foot. His mule tethered to a nearby tree, Mr. Sam mounted and swiftly rode for home as fast as the mule could gallop. Upon arriving at his domicile, he dismounted, rushed into the house and immediately assumed the prone position on his old straw matress.  Summoning his eldest son Lathan he sent him to fetch old aunt Mag, a local resident who was alleged to have The Gift. Mounting the still panting mule his father had ridden home on, Lathan didn't dally, he literally flew to aunt Mag's house as fast as the poor winded mule could gallop. He arrived only to be told by a family member that she had recently taken to her sick bed with an acute consumptive disorder and had, just that very afternoon started her own death rattle and was not expected to make it through the night.  Being respectful to a flaw, and not wishing to interrupt an old ladie's death rattle, Lathan prepared to remount, return home and tell his father that he had failed him in his hour of need.  Overhearing the conversation from her death bed, aung Mag interrupted her own death rattle and slowly raised herself on one elbow and bade Lathan be brought into her presence.  Now listen to me youngun, aunt Mag said, I want you to ride hell bent for election to Granny's house and beg her to come and doctor Sam afore he dies. I have learned old Granny a bit of what I know and I am confident she can cure old Sam and make him as good as new. Now get you hear. Lathan did not have to be told twice, remounting the mule once again he rode swiftly to Granny's house. When Granny was informed of Sam's condition, she hemmed and hawed for all of ten seconds before deciding to accept the challenge.  Grabbing her medical bag, she followed Lathan into the yard and swung up on the mule behind him and they set out to retrace his steps home.

Seeing Granny enter the room, Mr. Sam flew into a moderately severe rage. Dog nab the thunder, who sent fer you old woman? I didn't send for no doctering woman, what in tarnation air ye doing here anyway.  Here I lay with this here straw matress sucking out my juices and this dumb youngun goes off and drags in a old doctorin woman.  What I wanted was a old woman with The Gift that could stop this here foot from bleeding.

Let me give you a sound piece of advice Sam Gunson said Granny. Shut your blasphemous mouth before I take a hickory stick and shut it for you. I come over here to save your worthless hide, now just shut up and let me get on with it before I take a stick of firewood to your worthless back.  Having no desire to tangle with Granny in his weakened state or any other state, Mr. Sam did as he was told.

Granny then chased everyone from the shanty and started the procedure as she remembered aunt Mag had taught her. After many false starts, she finally got through a few scriptual verses that she remembered. Completing this ritual, she noticed a mule harness conveniently hanging from a peg in the wall. Striding over to the harness, she carefully extracted a belly band from the maze, a thick canvas strip approximately four inches wide. Stepping back to Mr. Sam, she carefully encircled his thigh with this belly band and deftly secured it wih a knot. Then grabbing a thin piece of kindling from a box bythe fireplace, she carefully inserted it between the belly band and his thigh, and started twisting to tighten the band around Mr. Sam's leg. My how old,Granny grunted and groaned as she twisted and heaved over that old belly band squeezing it tighter and tighter around his thigh.  Then as Granny told it,,all of a sudden those scriptual verses kicked in and the blood spurting from his toes miraculously diminished to trickle and then completely stopped.

Mr. Sam was back on the job in three weeks and except for a trench like indentation around his thigh, in his own words, "he was fitter than a fiddle." From that time until Mr. Sam crossed the bar in his 97th year, one had only to pooh-pooh Granny's ability as a healer to incur his undiluted wrath and receive a stern admonishment. After all, didn't Granny save his life. Mr. Sam truly believed.

While I have dealt at great length on the subject of folk medicine and its practioneers, I have said little about the particular medicine they employed in the practice of their healing arts. Then as now, children were prone to catch colds during periods of enforced isolation in the winter months and develop lingering coughs. Granny had a favorite remedy for this malady and as I remember it was as effective as the modern over-the-counter cough remedies sold in stores today. She simply striped the bark from a wild cherry tree, placed it in a pan of water, threw in a dab or two of sugar or honey and boiled it for an hour or two until only a thick syrup remained, laced it with a dollop of corn whiskey and doled it out to her patients by the tablespoonful.  Not only did this concoction taste good, but it was known to cause euphoric flights of fancy among patients who were not closely supervised and had unlimited access to it. Another common malady among people of all ages were ulcers or open sores in the mouth, thought to be caused by lying or eating too much cornbread. The cure was simple, just chew on the dried root of the golden seal plant. Although it tasted bad, I can attest to its effectiveness and wish I might obtain some now so that I could eat more cornbread and lie with impunity. Yet another ailment of that era, and caused  by a dietary deficiency was boils that frequently manifested themselves over various parts of the human anatomy, as I recall, generally on the backside.  The cure for this malady was a simple poultice made from the pounded leaves of the ubiquitous jimson weed. This poultice when applied directly to the offending boil, was said to work wonders. The simple act of cutting teeth, then as now caused considerable stress for the affected infants and their mothers as well. A simple aid to overcoming this natural phoenomena merely specified that one obtain the brains from a freshly killed rabbit place them in a small spice bag and gently massage the gums of the affected baby for a few moments twice a day.  Results were often noticed immediately after the first treatment.  Certain schools of thought held that the baby willed his teeth to come on through so that he could be healed and avoid further treatment.  I might also add that this treatment was never very popular among the rabbit population. A dollop of corn whiskey, taken internally was generally all that was required to get over a bad case of snakebite. This was usually the remedy of choice among male adults, who were often known to imbibe in the cure before the snakebite was inflicted. Two snorts of prevention is better than a pint of the cure," these individuals were often heard to say. Tierd, aching feet was also easy enough to cure. Simply wear a pair of your younger brother's shoes all day. Favorable results were often noticed on the evening of the first day when the too small shoes were removed. Bed wetting especially among male children was quite prevalent in those days.

A simple tea made by boiling red clover leaves and blossoms and ingested twice daily by the patient for five or six years normally stemmed the tide. Yet another common ailment of that era was extreme sluggishness in the early spring of the year after an especially hard winter.  This condition as everyone knew, but not everyone could cure was caused by physical inactivity during the winter months, a practice that allowed the blood to thicken and slow one's movement.  The best jump start one could take in the spring to thin the blood was a teacup full of sorghum molasses heavily laced with powered
sulfur.

I personally got the desired results from one of Granny's home remedies without ever tasting the stuff. The entire family, including both parents came down with the measles at the same time. Naturally, Granny was summoned to stay with us for the duration of the epidemic, do the cooking, laundry, churning and all other normal household chores in addition to doctoring the entire clan. Although, I got to stay home from school, I felt good and the measles had not broken out on me. Consequently I continued my normal routine of reading the corset ads in the Sears Roebuck catalog, sneaking outside to kick road apples and in general keeping old Gran at her wits end.  I would later learn that Granny did not take too kindly to defeat, especially by an upstart grandson. Coming down the stairs for breakfast one morning, I noticed my mother was sufficiently recovered to take her meals at the table and that she and Granny had their heads together in serious conversation.  Ambling over to the wood stove, making a pretense of warming my front side, I listened intently to what was being said, Yes said Granny, that boy just refuses to stay in bed long enough to permit the measles to break out on him. Is that so bad? asked mother. Oh! yes indeed it is intoned Granny.  If we don't get those measles broken out on that lad, he will never get over them. This sounded pretty good to me, staying home from school every day, what could be so bad about that. I immediately fell to fantasizing about making a career out of the measles. Well, what can be done about it whispered mother conspiratorially? Only one thing replied Granny as she rolled her eyes heavenward, twisted her neck like a wise old owl and pursed her lips at the very shame of the only cure that was available to me. Oh no cried mother, not that. Yep quipped Granny, only a strong dose of my famous sheep manure tea tea will break the measles out on that boy unless he decides to stay in bed. This solemn pronouncement caused my second career change in as many minutes. You see, I did go to bed in a darkened room without being told, the measles broke out on me and in short order I was over them. Now don't tell me those home remedies didn't work. Yes, I believe.

I can hear the doubting Thomases now, "do those hillbillies really believe that crap, its a miracle those hayseeds ever reached voting age, do you suppose those idiots were really stupid enough to believe in that voodoo stuff?" Well, I can only tell it as I remember seeing it. As I set here three months after my 68th birthday, intently staring into my computer screen and waiting for inspiration, I can honestly say that I have not hosted a single case of measles, whooping cough, thrush, warts or even had so much as a mild case of diaper rash in more than 60 years, so there. Note that after I went to great length to state the qualifications of persons for The Gift, it seemed that only males could possess it, while two of my prime practioneers were both female.  No scientific explanation has yet been offered as to why they have The Gift or how they might have acquired it.  This merely proves the point that certain things defy scientific scrutiny and one would be well advised to follow the old adage, "don't knock it if you haven't tried it.

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