Witchy Women and Wiregrass Medicine

Among the earliest trained medical men at Ray’s Mill was John Thomas Clower (1830-1893), the son of a Revolutionary Soldier who immigrated from Germany to fight for American independence. A graduate of Atlanta Medical College, John Thomas Clower, served as a military surgeon during the Civil War. Afterwards he came to Ray’s Mill (now Ray City), GA where he practiced medicine in this community from 1870 until 1887.

There were the Medical Men of Ray’s Mill, and there were the home remedies. Ray City had its faith healers, too. In the 1930, one such healer was Stella Wright ~ Seeress of Ray City, GA.

In the earliest pioneer days of Wiregrass Georgia, medical science was little known, and the people depended more on home remedies and faith than doctors.  In 1922, Warren Preston Ward, of Douglas, GA wrote a series of sketches of early Wiregrass Georgia, and among these was a narrative on medical practices of the early pioneers:

Another thing that entered very largely in the economic life of the people was the question of sickness, medicine and the doctor.  There were no doctors in this section of Georgia when it was first settled, for the reason that there were not enough people to support a doctor; but in every neighborhood there was always someone who knew how to give such medicine and plain remedies as were used at that time.  Among the common remedies then in use were oil and turpentine, for colds; red oak bark as an astringent; elderberry bark as a purgative and an astringent.  The wise ones said scrape the bark down for a purgative and scrape the bark up for an astringent.  For cuts and to stop blood, use cobweb; that is spider webs hanging about the walls covered with smut.  Sweet gum and mullen was used for fevers, pepper tea was used for colds; for sprains, use a mixture of clay and vinegar; for stings, use tobacco; for snake bite, use whisky or poultice made of salt, tobacco and onions; for pneumonia, bleed the person during the first stages; for burns, use the white of an egg mixed with flour;  many people thought that fire could be talked out and there were always many old witchy women ready to talk it out; warts, moles and cancers were conjured (whatever that means). Sage, thyme and rosemary were given by nearly all the people and were used for teas.  Another peculiar remedy was for the hives; the remedy was for any person who had never seen their father to blow their breath in the child’s face and the hives would leave right now, so it was said.
     In these good old days old Uncle Stafford Davis was a celebrated cancer doctor of the conjure kind.  People came to see him for hundreds of miles.  They also wrote him letters for his absent treatment.  Many people thought he was gifted from God.  The old man did not charge anything for his services, if you had anything to give him he accepted it with thanks.  He lived to be 106 years old and died soon after the civil war.  Before his death he undertook to transfer his gift of healing to his grandson, Joseph Ward.  Some of the first doctors to practice in this section [Appling] of Georgia were Doctors Rambo and Smith; old man William Ward also done a little homespun practice.  Dr. C.G.B.W. Parker did a large practice, but people relied mainly upon their home remedies and upon advice of the men and women in the neighborhood who had experience in giving medicine and in nursing the sick.

About 1815 calomel came into general use among the common people.  Many persons got salivated and were afraid to use it.  But sure as you called a doctor he used calomel.  If it salivated, so much the better in some cases. During this time of hot discussion, pro and con, some one expressed his disgust at the use of calomel in these lines-

“Mr. Wade was taken sick,
Go, call a doctor and be quick,
The doctor comes and remembers well
To bring a bottle of calomel.

“He turns to the patient’s wife,
Have you a clean paper and a knife?
I think your husband would do well
To take a dose of calomel.

“The patient grows worse quite fast indeed,
Go call a council and make speed:
The council comes, and remembers well
To double the dose of calomel.

“The patient says to his weeping wife:
This nasty thing has got my life.
I bid you all a long farewell,
Let me do so without the use of calomel.”

    One of the sad features of sickness and death in these old days was that each family often had to doctor and nurse their own sick, and when they died they had to make their own pine-board coffin and put them away in their last resting place, often with no friend to offer a word of sympathy, or a minister of the gospel to offer a word of prayer or to point sad hearts to the better day and better time when they should all meet again in the morning of the resurrection.

During the “Age of Heroic Medicine” (1780–1850), educated professional physicians practiced aggressive techniques including bloodletting, intestinal purging (calomel), vomiting (tartar emetic), profuse sweating (diaphoretics) and blistering, stressing already weakened bodies.  Heroic medicine was strongly advocated by Benjamin Rush (1745–1813), trained in medicine at Edinburgh University and one of the “fathers” of American medicine, who also signed the American Declaration of Independence.  While well-intentioned, and often well-accepted by the medical community, these treatments were actually harmful to the patient.

Calomel, a compound of Mercurous Chloride, became a popular remedy for a variety of physical and mental ailments during the age of “heroic medicine.” It was used by doctors in America throughout the 18th century, and during the revolution, to remove “impurities” from the body. Calomel was given to patients as a purgative or cathartic and was often administered to patients in such great quantities that their hair and teeth fell out, along with other horrific side effects.  One characteristic effect appeared in the well-known phenomenon of mercurial salivation –  a profuse flow of saliva in the body’s effort to rid itself of the deadly a poison.  For many patients the cure of Calomel was suffering and death resulting from mercurial poisoning.

According to Steve Spakov, Loyola University, “It is toxic and its toxicity is compounded because mercury accumulates as a poison. It acts as a purgative and kills bacteria (and also does irreversible damage to their human hosts). Some treatments are of historical interest. The three physicians atttending Gen. Washington’s final hours administered calomel to the dying President. Lewis and Clark carried it on their expedition and used it to treat their men’s STD’s. Louisa May Alcott (author of Little Women) suffered from its effects.

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