Open main menu

Popular Science Monthly/Volume 70/February 1907/Magical Medical Practise in South Carolina

MAGICAL MEDICAL PRACTISE IN SOUTH CAROLINA
By JOHN HAWKINS

AS chemistry began in alchemy and astronomy in astrology, so medicine, to a great extent, has grown out of magic. Its first professors were sorcerers and priests; and its beginnings are to be looked for in the juggleries and mummeries of holy men and women who, by fastings, narcotics, or other means, enabled themselves to communicate with the benignant or malevolent spirits which savage philosophy finds in every object of nature. Among rude peoples the physician is often a priest and always a magician.

Alchemy is dead and astrology as it exists to-day is no longer to be considered seriously by the student of culture; but, owing perhaps to the religious factor in its origin, the science of medicine, as it is understood by a very large number of persons, is still encumbered with the dead husks of its earliest growth. Even in the most enlightened countries physicians are constantly confronted with the idea that disease is a sort of demoniacal possession which is to be relieved by prayer, or that it is some mysterious entity which can be removed only by the use of some equally mysterious remedy. Charms, medals impregnated with virtue by ecclesiastical benediction, and so-called electric and galvanic belts, pads, rings, brushes and other appliances are sold by thousands; and patent panaceas, compounded of drugs brought from strange lands or discovered in some unusual way, are bought and used by millions of credulous and afflicted persons in all parts of the world.

In view of these facts it is not remarkable that one occasionally finds in the United States, as well as in secluded nooks of the Old World, regions in which superstitious medical practises, handed down from father to son for no one knows how many hundreds of years, not only survive, but also show an astonishing degree of vitality.

Such a region occurs in the central part of South Carolina. It is a strip of country about one hundred miles long and from thirty to fifty miles wide, lying along the Santee, the Congaree, Broad and Saluda rivers, and embracing parts of the counties of Orangeburg, Lexington, Newberry and Saluda. The early European settlers of this region were Germans who came, about the middle of the eighteenth century, from the Lower Palatinate, Baden, Würtemberg and Switzerland. At a little later date small groups and isolated families of Scotch-Irish, of English and of French from the Huguenot settlements of the coast region established themselves among these peasants from the banks of the Rhine. But, broadly speaking, this part of Carolina was in the early days a bit of Germany transplanted bodily into the new world; and, undisturbed by subsequent immigration, its inhabitants have retained to the present day many of the traits and characteristics of their ancestors. The existing surnames of the people are still largely German; the Lutheran faith is strong; the language of the fatherland has fallen into disuse almost within the memory of living men; and the customs and superstitions which prevail are, to a great extent, those bequeathed by the pioneers to their descendants.

Until ninety or a hundred years ago, according to local historians, there were no physicians in this region. Besides the stock of medical lore in the possession of the old women of every country neighborhood, the sick had recourse only to a system of practise known as 'using' which consisted in rubbing the affected part with the hands of the operator, blowing the breath upon it, and repeating over the patient certain ancient charms or incantations, in the efficacy of which both doctor and patient had unbounded faith.

At the present day physicians are here plentiful, and in learning and skill they compare favorably with those of any country district. Many of them have enjoyed the advantages of the best schools in America, and some have studied abroad. Yet here extremes meet, and the highest and the lowest join hands. The skillful modern physician, armed with all the resources of science, sometimes finds himself face to face with a method of medical treatment as old as humanity itself; and he must pit his pills and powders against magical charms, some of which bear on their face the marks of a time when Thor an 1 Woden were realities and not myths in the minds of men.

It must not be understood that 'using' is very generally practised. Its employment is now uncommon and exceptional. As a rule the Teutonic Carolinians are fairly intelligent, having schools, churches and newspapers, and superstition is dying out. But a stubborn conservatism, seemingly innate in human nature, makes such things die hard. There is still a class of people which clings tenaciously to the old beliefs; and this class is apt—especially when regular physicians fail, as they sometimes must, to relieve the afflicted—to have recourse to some old man or woman who enjoys a local reputation for skill in magic. Whether a cure is thus effected or not, belief in the method is not shaken, for, as Bacon remarks, men count the hits but not the misses. An occasional success offsets many failures, and so faith in the formulas which age and the authority of the elders have rendered sacred remains unimpaired.

As one star differeth from another in glory, so, too, the practitioners of 'using' differ from one another in skill and in extent of knowledge. Some are acquainted with the methods, but have little success in practise. To some who are successful only one or two of the charms are known; others possess a half dozen or more. Skillful or unskillful, however, (users 'are by no means numerous, and when emergencies arise that demand their services it is sometimes necessary to send to considerable distances before one is found. Their scarcity is due to the fact that the formulas are jealously guarded, since the promiscuous disclosure of the secrets is thought to take away the possessor's influence over the powers which bring disease and death. The ethics of the profession demand that when an adept at 'using' feels the approach of age and death he shall divulge his magical knowledge to some one (and to one only) who is worthy to possess it; and this one is bound to transmit it in like manner to a single successor.

It is not altogether impossible, however, as this article will show, for one of the uninitiated to obtain possession of the formulas. One may sometimes find a possessor of the mystic charms who is not unwilling to communicate them to another for a money consideration. Of those grouped together below, eight were secured in this way. The remainder, with one exception, were then obtained by a system of exchange, charm being given for charm.

So much by way of preface to the formulas themselves, which are here given in italics, the directions for their use being printed in ordinary type. The authorities are followed verbatim:

For Cataract: I rub you with my right thumb, that you may move and depart. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen. Rub it with the thumb from the nose outwards until you say the above words, blowing first three times. This must be done three mornings and evenings, every time three times.

For a Film over the Eye: Eye, I do not knoio what ails you; I know not whence it is. There shall it go. In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. Amen. Hub the eye three times with the right hand and repeat three times.

For a Blister in the Eye: Joseph begat Anna, Anna begat Mary, Mary begat our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ. This is most certainly true. Blotch, blister, go away. Do this man's [woman's] eye no harm. In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Amen. Say it three times.

For a Burn or Scald: O! you hot and burning flame, you are so hot and dark! With God, the Father, I drive you; with God, the Son, go you away. In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Amen. Blow the breath three times upon the burn, pass the hand thrice over it, and say these words three times.

For a Burn or Scald: The Holy Woman goes out over the land; what carries she in her hand? A fire-brand. Eat not in you, eat not around you. In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. Amen. Say these words three times, rub three times upward and downward, and blow three times—every time three times.

For Inflammation: St. John came over with all his congregation; St. Mary came over with all her communication; Christ is mighty to cure mortification and all other complaints. In the name of the Father and Son and Holy Ghost. Amen. Say it three times.

For the Liver-Grown: Liver-grown and Heart-bound depart from thy ribs, as Jesus went out of the manger. In the name of God, the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Amen. Dip your thumbs in fat and rub three times upon the breast and three times upon the back as you say the above words, every morning and evening for three mornings and evenings, three times. This must be done at odd hours—one, three, five, seven, nine or eleven o'clock.

For the Night-brand or Scrofula: I forewarn you that you shall no longer burn, but be you cold as a dead man's hand. In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. Amen. Take the middle finger of your right hand and rub three times around as you say these words. Do this, morning and evening, three times, for three mornings and evenings.

For Fever: Jesus went over the mountain, and he saw a great fever and he cured it with his hands. In the name of God, the Father; in the name of God, the Son; in the name of God, the Holy Ghost. Amen. Rub three times, blow three times, and repeat three times.

For Epilepsy, or Falling Sickness: Take a new broom and sweep from three corners of a room. Throw the sweepings over the person who has the sickness, while you say these words: In God's name, Falling Sickness, you must depart till I these seed do cut. So do it three times.

For a Worm in the Finger—Whitlow: As he [she] went over muddy bagger's branch he [she] met three worms; one was a white one, one was a black one, and one was a red one. I command this to die, in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen. Say it three times.

For Stopping Blood: Say the name of the person, then: Holy is the day and holy is the hour wherein happened the wound. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen. Say the name of him that has the wound first; and if the wound is on the right side lay your left hand thereupon, and if on the left side lay your right hand thereupon. If you know the name of the person you may stop the bleeding though the person be three or four miles away.

For Colic, or Rising of the Mother: Lay your hand on the person's stomach and say three times: I stand on wood and I see wood. For one glassful of cold red wine. Rising of Mother, or Colic, let this griping alone. A. B. G. May God help you. In the name of God, the Father; in the name of God, the Son; in the name of God, the Holy Ghost. Amen, Amen, and Amen.

For a Boil, or Imposthume: The Boil and the Dragon went over the creek. The Dragon drank, the Boil sank. In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Amen. Lay your right hand upon the boil as you say these words. Do it three times, and the boil will soon decrease.

For the Wild-fire (Erysipelas): Wild-fire, move away; the tame-fire is over you. Take a coal of fire or a fire-brand and rub three times around it morning and evening, each time three times, as you say these words. It will soon be better.

For Greedy-worm:When our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, was upon the earth he met a greedy-worm, and he said, 'Where are you going, greedy-worm? In the child's stomach or no? You shall not do that. That I forbid you, by sulphur and pitch, that I may never see you any more. Do you go in the green wood. There is a well deep and cold. Out of that well you may drink, and of this child nevermore think.' In the name of the Father, in the name of the Son, and in the name of the Holy Ghost. Amen, Amen, and Amen. Blow your breath three times on the face and say these words three times over.

For Open Head: Head, I squeeze you together for [name of patient]. In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Press together three times each way and say these words three times.

A Cure for Bots:

There was a man
Rode over the land
With three worms in his hand.
One was white, another black, the other red,
And in an hour they were dead.

Stand the horse with his bead toward sunrise. Take your right hand and rub from the nose over the head, neck, and back, down to the end of the tail, as you say these words. Do this three times in two or three hours, every time three times. Give some purgative medicine.

There are two more formulas which, though not strictly medical in character, are so nearly akin to those already given that they may be appropriately included in the same list. One of them is used when the first collar is placed upon a colt's neck, and it is supposed to prevent the equine vice known as 'balking,' and to cause the animal to work satisfactorily. It is as follows:

Refuse not to pull while the Jews keep Saturday for Sunday. In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. Amen.

The other is used to prevent the depredations of thieves and burglars and the approach of deadly enemies. If one has a house or a field which he wishes to protect he should walk around it three times, repeating the incantation each time. It is thought that any one attempting to cross the line thus made will be paralyzed, in his tracks, and will have to stand there until released by the sorcerer. This must be done before sunrise; otherwise the offender may die. The charm is as follows:

When Mary lay in child-bed and Joseph was about to flee away, Joseph cried out and said: 'There goes a thief in our house who wants to steal the child.' And Mary said: 'St. Peter bade, St. Peter said, "I have bound him in God's hand." Whosoever would, in twenty-three hours, steal from me or do any hurt to my life shall stand there till I tell him to go away.' In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. Amen.

About seventy years ago the writer's grandfather removed his family from South Carolina to the west, and on the eve of his departure a neighbor gave him this charm for the protection of the wagon-camp at night, but its virtue was never tested. In South Carolina it seems still to be used, and there are two or three recent stories of watermelon thieves having been caught in this way. One relates that at daybreak the thief was seen standing, unable to move or even to drop the bag of stolen melons on his shoulder.

There are also formulas for the cure of cancer and for the removal of warts, but these the writer has not been fortunate enough to secure. A very old lady of his acquaintance, Mrs. R, from whom some of the formulas mentioned were obtained, says that she was cured of cancer many years ago by one Adam Boland, of Newberry County, who was a famous 'user' in his day. In her case the 'using' was done when she was not present. She says that Boland, after repeating the charm and the name of the patient three times, always took an axe and cut into the heart of a pine tree in order to ascertain whether the treatment would prove successful. If the tree lived the patient would recover; otherwise, the charm was powerless. Mrs. R gives some further particulars of interest. Her daughter learned a few of the formulas when a child and used them frequently and successfully to relieve her father's illness, although he had no faith in the practise. The charms lose their force if taught by a younger person to an older one; the learner should always be younger than the teacher. The point of view from which many persons look on these superstitious methods of treatment is well illustrated by a remark of Mrs. R. She says:

I don't see why 'using' shouldn't be as efficient as prayer, since the three highest names [Father, Son, and Holy Ghost] are always used. At any rate it can do no harm, if it does no good; and in this respect it differs from the drugs used by physicians.

If we look for practises analogous to these mentioned here the abundance of material is found to be overwhelming. The use of charms and incantations for the cure of disease may be noted in all ages since the dawn of history and among peoples of all grades of culture. Pepys gives several, current in his day, which are very similar in character to those given above; for example, the following, for stopping blood:

Sanguis mane in te
Sicut Christus fuit in se;
Sanguis mane in tua vena
Sicut Christus in sua poena;
Sanguis mane fixus
Sicut Christus quando fuit crucifixus.

He also gives one for a burn which is almost identical with one of those now in use in South Carolina:

There came three angels out of the East;
The one brought fire, the other brought frost.
Out, fire; in, frost.
In the name of the Father, Son, and
Holy Ghost.Amen.

Reginald Scot in 'The Discoverie of Witchcraft,' published in 1584, records an accredited method:

To heale the King's or Queen's evill, or any other sorenesse of the throte: Let a virgine, fasting, laie hir hand on the sore and saie: Apollo denieth that the heate of the plague can increase where a naked virgine quencheth it, and spet three times upon it.

This is interesting as showing the survival of a formula dating from pre-Christian times. There is very good reason' for believing that the incantations of the 'users' of the present day may claim an equal antiquity. Like some of the festivals of the church, they had their origin in heathen times, and the introduction of Christianity did not suffice to shake their hold on the popular mind. In old Germany neither Charlemagne's conquest nor the priest who followed it could put a period to the use of staves carved with mystic runes and devoted to the purposes of divination and incantation. The oak, the ash and the willow preserved their sacred character; and in the old heathen formulas for the cure of disease, the only change effected by Christianity was the substitution of the 'three highest names' (Father, Son and Holy Ghost) for those of Thor, Woden and other heathen deities. The following heathen and Christian versions of a popular charm for sprains will illustrate the change effected:

Old Version.

Phol and Woden
went to the wood;
there was of Balder's colt
his foot wrenched;

then Sinthgunt charmed it,
and Sunna her sister;
then Frua charmed it,
and Volla her sister;
then Woden charmed it,
as he well could,
as well the bone-wrench,
as the joint-wrench,
as the blood-wrench;
bone to bone,
blood to blood,
joint to joint,
as if they were glued together.

Christianized Version.

Our Lord rade,
His foal's foot slade;
Down he lighted,
His foal's foot righted;
Bone to bone,
Sinew to sinew,
Flesh to flesh.
Heal, in the name of the Father,
the Son, and the Holy Ghost. Amen.

Examples of similar formulas might be multiplied indefinitely from all parts of the world, and from the remotest times to the present, but this is unnecessary. It is enough to note the curious fact that if the practise of the Carolina 'users' of the present day could be witnessed by Egyptian physicians of four thousand years ago, by Druid priests from the Gaul described by Cæsar, and by American Indian medicine men from the time of Columbus, it would appear to all of them a perfectly natural and philosophical method of treatment, however unintelligible the language of the formulas might be.

Besides the superstitions already cited, there exists in this region a number of other magical healing practises. These, however, unlike 'using,' can not be said to belong exclusively to that part of the population which is descended from the early German settlers. Africa is certainly the native land of some of them. The others form a part of that vast body of popular lore, of mixed and uncertain origin, which is the common property of the people of northern and western Europe and their descendants.

A prescription for rheumatism is closely allied to some of the 'using' practises, although no words are to be repeated over the patient. It is compounded of a teacupful of sweet cream, thickened with salt, seven buds of brier, nine of rosemary and eleven grains of black pepper. When these have been allowed to simmer together the mixture is to be skimmed, and with the remaining ointment the rheumatic parts are to be rubbed 'downward and outward on three Fridays in the dark of the moon.' Simpler remedies for rheumatism are rattle-snake oil; grease fried from toads; and a sharp knife or razor taken to bed with the patient to 'cut the pains.'

To cure cramp it is only necessary to wear garters of eel-skin, or to invert the sufferer's shoes under his bed at night. Herpes, or shingles, should be rubbed with blood from a black cat's tail or from a black fowl's neck. Treatment should be prompt, as it is thought that the patient will certainly die if the inflammation completely encircles the body.

Negroes seem especially subject to inflammation of the uvula, an ailment known among them as 'falling palate.' In Orangeburg County the favorite treatment consists in pressing the uvula upward with the back of a silver spoon, at the same time pulling strongly at a tuft of hair on the top of the head. Many negroes cultivate a tuft of hair, for this purpose, over the middle of the forehead. In another mode of treatment the uvula is supposed to be driven up into its proper place by smart blows administered with a stick upon the soles of the feet.

Warts and corns are everywhere the object of many superstitious practises. In South Carolina the owner of these excrescences may take his choice of several remedies. He may select a broom straw having as many joints as there are warts to be removed, pick the warts until they bleed, and put a drop of blood from each wart upon a joint of the culm, then bury the straw under the eaves of the house. Or he may count the warts and tie in a string the same number of knots, and bury the string. Another method is to rub each wart with a pea, and bury the peas in the same way. Still another is as follows: Tie as many knots in a string as there are warts to be removed; blindfold the patient and lead him about until he is lost; then give him the string, which he should bury in the ground, unobserved by any one. As the string decays the warts will disappear. Corns may be removed by rubbing them with a grain of corn and then feeding the grain to the oldest fowl in the yard. This last remedy comes from a very old negro woman, still living, who was brought from Africa in her childhood; but this may not mean that the remedy is African in origin.

An old lady, whose parents were Scotch-Irish, gives the following remedy for bleeding of the nose: Let the nose bleed on three pieces of cloth, put these in three holes bored into as many different kinds of fruit-bearing trees, and stop the holes. This will result in a permanent cure. A gruesome drink for epilepsy is a tea made of a piece of rope with which some one has been hanged. Equally repulsive is a reputed remedy for chills and fever, consisting of pills made of dried and pulverized earthworms. Risings and boils may be cured by the touch of one who has crushed a ground-mole to death in his hands.

Either from the great number of ailments to which they are subject or from their helplessness, or possibly from both causes combined, infants claim a large share of magical medical practise. When a baby is born an axe is sometimes placed under the mother's couch with the blade upward to cut the 'after-pains' of childbirth. To render teething easy and painless the infant's gums are rubbed with a 'cooter' bone, the ear or bone of a rabbit, or the warm brains of the same animal just killed. It is thought that nine live wood-lice tied in a bag and suspended from the neck of a child having thrush will soon give relief. The touch of a posthumous son is recommended for the same complaint. As a preventive of croup a black silk thread or a string of 'electric' (amber) beads is placed around the neck.

In the little city of Newberry a few years ago an infant was supposed to have been cured of a disease known as 'stretches' by passing it through a horse-collar warm from use. Some authorities say that shoe-sole tea should first be administered, to be followed by the horse-collar treatment. In the same county an infant who had a case of umbilical hernia was passed by his father through a cleft in a living young white-oak tree. The theory was that the child would recover if the tree lived; if it died the hernia would remain. The tree and the patient, both of them living and whole, are still here to convince unbelievers of the virtues of magical medicine.

The passing of children through rings of various kinds is comparatively common. One of the 'using' formulas already given in this article is for the cure of 'liver-grown,' an ailment known also as 'growed-on' and 'grow-fast,' in which the liver is supposed to adhere abnormally to some other organ. This is also treated by passing the patient through a horse-collar or between the rungs of a ladder. In still another method the afflicted infant is passed between the legs of a table, after which it is held by the feet and tossed upwards towards each of the four corners of the room, care being taken, however, to prevent it from falling or from striking the walls. In Newberry County, several years ago, a negro mother, misunderstanding the directions given her by an old woman for this treatment, killed her child by throwing it forcibly against the four corners of her log house.

It is not always easy to explain the philosophy of superstition, but in these cases the thought underlying the treatment is sufficiently evident. The idea seems to be that disease is caused by an evil spirit which may be misled and puzzled by mazes of rings and tortuous passages. Thus, interlaced cords are still sold in Italy as charms, and Persian carpets are woven in intricate patterns to bewilder the evil eye. Analogies to the Carolina practises cited are abundant and they lead us back to very remote times. Mr. Edward Clodd, the English author of several works on custom, myth and religion, is authority for the statement that the practise of drawing infants through the cleft trunks of trees (usually ash) still prevails in remote rural districts of England. Scotch witches in effecting magical cures used to pass their patients nine times through rings or garlands of woodbine; and from Scotland comes also the custom of passing young chicks through the orbits of a horse's skull to keep the hawks from catching them. The perforated monoliths of Great Britain and northern Europe are known generally as 'Odin Stones,' probably because, according to the Norse mythology, Odin in the shape of a worm bored his head through a stone to get at the 'mead of poetry'; and babies have been drawn through them from ancient times to cure them of various ailments. These monoliths, as well as the small perforated 'Odin' stones still used as amulets in the same countries, are closely related to the salagrama, or holy stone, common, curiously enough, to Italy and India. In Italy the salagrama is a stalagmite which is believed, on account of its resemblance to the mounds thrown up by earthworms, to be such a mound petrified. The people carry it in a bag with some magical herbs, and repeat over it an incantation which recites that its cavities and irregularities are potent to bewilder the evil eye. The Indian salagrama is a kind of ammonite about as large as an orange and having a hole through it. A legend relates that Vishnu, the Preserver, when pursued by the Destroyer, was changed by Maya into the stone, through which as a worm the Destroyer bored his way. It is believed that the evil eye is blunted by the perforation and by the irregularities of the stone's surface.

The survival in the midst of a high civilization of these Carolina practises, allied as they are to practises and beliefs of almost primitive times, affords a pertinent illustration of the manner in which magical arts cling to life. We have seen how heathen charms and incantations not only failed to disappear before the coming of Christianity, but even gained a new lease of life by hastening to enlist themselves under its banner. It is the same way with superstitions in general. Adapting themselves from age to age to the changed conditions which surround them, here receding and there advancing, dying out only to reappear under changed and scarcely recognizable forms, they yield almost imperceptibly to the advance of sound learning and common sense. Their retreat, however, has been more rapid since science has begun to shed her rays into the dark places where such things hide themselves; and in proportion as this great light becomes more generally diffused magic in medicine, as in all other departments of human thought, will fade and finally disappear.