I live in rural northwest Missouri. My mother’s family came here by horse-drawn covered wagon in the beginning of the 20th Century. My father’s family came here from Pennsylvania about the same time. Wherever you go – there you are. The two families mixed with the locals – and with some folks from the Missouri Ozarks – the result was a sort of hillbilly/redneck mix. Would that make me a half-breed? At any rate there was a shortage of regular educated doctors so families had to make do with what they had. I remember having some of these stories told to me as a child – and woe be to the person who disputed the ‘yarb doctor.’
As a child I knew there were different kinds of doctors. There were many ‘chills-an’-fever’ doctors. Some folks just ‘picked up doctorin’ by either watching a regular doctor or perhaps by just experiencing the rudiments of doctoring along the path of life. Anyway, most folks did not distinguish education as a qualifier for doctorin. They said, “Hey Doc,” and that was the end of it.
There were ‘yarb doctors’ and ‘rubbin doctors’ and ‘nature doctors’ – each with their specialty. Rubbin doctors used herbs, roots, and barks to make a general poultice made from boiling down natural plant products and applying the hot residue to the affected area. Boils were called risers and were generally treated by applying a hot tobacco poultice to ‘draw the pizen’ out. I don’t remember any mention of what caused risers.
Liniments were usually made of more than one plant or herb. The liniments were generally applied hot off the stove because of the general belief that more suffering equaled more cure. That idea is Biblical after all – and the Bible was often quoted in support of medical applications.
My old Aunt Charlotte claimed that horehound was the best remedy for a cold. She would fill a pot with the plant, immerse it in water and keep it warm on the stove for a couple of days. She removed the palnt and boiled the remaining liquid down to a thick concentrate. The result is a very bitter cough medicine – she said the more bitter the medicine the more effective the cure. Some people would add sugar or honey. Dark honey worked best. With a sugar or honey mix the whole concoction could be poured on a baking sheet to dry. It would become brittle and could be broken into small pieces. That is how the old folks used to make cold lozenges.
Aunt Charlotte said the preacher at her church did some doctorin on the side. That was a powerful combination, faith and medicine. The preacher taught my Aunt that all medicine taken internally had to be prepared with hot water, making an herbal tea. Different herbs of course made different teas – all for different ailments. Like the horehound cold medicine, many of the teas were boiled down and mixed with honey.
Pneumonia was a frightening illness when I was a boy. People were known to die. As I reflect back I wonder if some of those people had tuberculosis. Lung disease was taken very seriously. Internal medicine for lung disease included onion tea. Some of the neighbors made poultices by mixing lard with chicken manure. Different colored chickens determined dosage – but I don’t remember what the colors meant. I remember the poultice was applied hot and regular. Some of the folks around here believed the best cure for lung disease was the drinking of warm blood. There was a big stockyards down in Saint Joseph and people would go there regularly for fresh warm blood for a sick relative. I never saw this myself, but my uncle swore by it.
When making a tea out of bark the conjurer had to be careful how he scrapped the bark off the tree. Fruit trees were best for bark potions. If a person had an ailment above their waste the bark had to be scrapped using an upward motion. Below the waste the bark had to be scrapped down. If the ailment was in the lower body and the bark was scrapped up then the pizen would be pushed up into the heart and lungs and head with violent results.
Some other products used by the hill doctors are:
Skunk oil – rendered from the fat of trapped skunks. This was a sure potion to treat ingested poison – people were guaranteed to vomit.
Rattlesnake weed – the roots were used to make a tea to be served hot. Treated intestinal pain and flatulence.
Red Pepper Tea or Horsemint tea: for bellyaches.
Slippery-elm bark, boiled down – good for stomach problems caused by too much alcohol consumption.
Ragwood Tea – ‘flux stopper’ (diarrhea) – cold ragwood tea is a sure bet.
Chamber lye – (Sweet oil mixed with urine) a sure cure for bellyache, stomach cramps – generally only given to children.
By the time I came along my mother was taking us to a college educated Physician and Surgeon. When I was five years old I was dashing across a street about a block from my home. I was struck by a car and knocked senseless. My older brothers ran home to get my mother. I woke up on our living room couch. The Physician and Surgeon was sitting beside me. There was a policeman in the room taking a statement from my mother. No mention was made of child neglect or such. My mother had sent us to the neighborhood store for cereal – she stayed home with my two younger brothers. The doctor gave me two aspirin. I was just glad my Aunt Charlotte was not around.