Redneck Medicine

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:

Rattlesnake Weed

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.

Ohg Rea Tone

Ohg Rea Tone is all or nothing. He is educated and opinionated, more clever than smart, sarcastic and forthright. He writes intuitively - often disregarding rules of composition. Comment on his posts - he will likely respond with characteristic humor or genuine empathy. He is the real-deal.

2 thoughts on “Redneck Medicine

  • April 10, 2016 at 2:45 pm

    I enjoyed this tale, very much. I had no idea that anyone other than myself paid any attention to what we kids were being fed for our ills. At our house no one went to the doctor unless there was threat of bleeding to death or bones were broken and protruding or we were unable to breathe and a special trip for me because my nose would erupt violently spewing blood everywhere. We were given Cod Liver Oil to keep well. Castor Oil to get well, didn’t matter what the illness was, because purging took care of just about everything. We had Grandma Bessie’s soap poultice(a combo of either Ivory type soap or Fels Naptha or powdered soap like Tide, mixed with equal amount of sugar and enough water to make a paste. I have actually used this on boils, it does work. I gave this to a neighbor girl many years ago and gained a reputation of area healer. If one had a few pennies you could buy Prid Salve which was an old home remedy gone commercial and is what I use for boils and such as needed. Made with pine tar and Vaseline. I used to know how Vaseline was made but have filed that in the don’t need to know anymore section of the brain. Another stay well remedy from Grandma Bessie was Sassafras tea in the Spring. All children needed a Spring tonic. I don’t know what it was curing, but sure enjoyed the sweet wonderful smelling treat. I carried this tradition on until the government disallowed the sale of Sassafras bark or root. Some years ago I found Sassafras trees on some property we were clearing and made a point to get some root and told my husband we would not be clearing these treasures. Another standby for many years was Lysol. It was supposed to cure head and/or body lice, dandruff cuts and scrapes on humans and animals alike and in many far gone years was used as a spermicide. I remember the onion soup. We had to stand with a towel over our head and breathe in the steam. It was cooked in chicken or beef bouillon and then we must sip on that to cure a cold. There was no discussion about seeing the doctor for cuts. No matter how deep, Mom would clean it, squeeze it together tightly and make a butterfly bandage for it. The medicine chest always had Iodine, Merthiolate, Mercurochrome and rubbing alcohol. Fevers were cured with aspirin and I never heard of anyone who died from the practice. Sore throats were painted with Iodine, at home or sometimes the school nurse. If you were so very sick that Mom felt a doctor was required, she would call and the doctor came to the house. Any child raised today in such a manner and discovered by the public, well hello foster home and bye bye Mom and Dad.

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