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.

Related posts:

Advertisements

Short-Arm Bill Parker and the Last Indian Fight In Berrien County

In 1836, a band of Indians raided the homestead of William Parker, pioneer settler of Berrien County.  Since the spring of that year, pioneers all across Wiregrass Georgia had been facing increasing hostilities from the Native Americans who were being forced out of their ancestral lands.

A previous post recounted a story by Martha Guthrie, and the role of her family in the last Indian encounters in Berrien County (see Martha Guthrie: Babe of the Indian Wars).  Her parents, Dred Newbern and Bettsy Sirmons, were the nearest neighbors of William Parker. The Newbern’s homestead was located on the east bank of Five Mile Creek, perhaps about eight miles northeast of Ray City. This was probably somewhere in the present day vicinity of the Highway 168 bridge over Five Mile Creek. The Parker place was located a few miles further to the east, at the Alapaha River.

Coffee County historian Warren Preston Ward gave the following 1922 account of the raid on the Parker place, which was a prelude to the Battle of Brushy Creek.   According to Ward, the timing of the event was in the winter of 1836, but the letters of Levi J. Knight state the engagement occurred on July 12, 1836:

Short-Arm Bill Parker and the Last Indian Fight In Berrien County

The Atlanta Constitution
Warren Preston Ward
December 6, 1922 pg F15

About the year 1836 William Parker, (Short-Arm Bill) as he was called, and the father of C.G.W. Parker, and later a well-known doctor, was living in Berrien county on the old Patterson place. 

One winter day when Mr. Parker was away from home, several Indians appeared at the foot of the hill, at a spring, where the family got water. It is said that the Indians began to beat on logs, thereby attracting the attention of the people.  It appears that the Indians meant to rob and not to murder, but as there were no men at home the women ran through the field , a back way, a distance of five miles to the home of Dread Newborn. The Indians robbed the house, broke open a trunk and got $300 in cash, cut the feather beds open, emptied the feathers out and took the ticks with them.  A company of men soon collected together, under the command of George Peterson, Dread Newborn, William Parker, and others.  The Indians were overtaken at the Allapaha river and three were killed, others made their escape but were overtaken at the St. Illa river, at what is now known as Indian Lake, about two miles northeast of the town of Axson, Ga.  They were all shot and killed, except one squaw; it was reported that she was captured and shot.  Dread Newborn, the son of Dread Newborn, who followed the Indians, informs me that the Indian woman was kept in prison for a while and then by direction of the government was returned to her own people. About this time a whole family by the  name of Wilds was killed by the Indians, near Waresboro, Ga.  One little boy, Reuben Wilds, made his escape.  Of course there are a great many Indian stories, but the narratives I have given you are facts testified to by living witnesses and most worthy tradition, for the first time they are put into history of the Wiregrass country.

1927 Atlanta Journal account of the massacre of the Wildes family, 1832.

1927 Atlanta Journal account of the massacre of the Wildes family, July 22, 1838.

The Wildes Family Massacre

I will tell you one more incident, because it puts the ingenuity of white men to test against the cunningness of the Indians.  It is only through tradition that I have been able to get this story, which  runs thus: Way back in the early days people living in south Georgia had no markets near and so the people would gather their little plunder together, go in carts to Centerville on the St. Maria river, in Camden county, Ga.  The Indians robbed and killed a good many of these people going to market, at a point near the Okefenokee swamp.  A company [under Captain Elias Waldron] of brave pioneers decided to put a stop to this nefarious business, and, if possible, make it safe for people to go to market.  And so with guns and such other necessaries as they would need, they went to the point near the Okefenokee swamp and pitched their camp, they cut small logs into pieces five or six feet long, about the length of a man. They laid the logs around the camp fire and covered them over with quilts and blankets. On the ends of the logs they placed hats and fixed it up in such a manner as to make it look very much like a bunch of travelers lying around the camp fire.  The men, with their guns, went a short distance from the camp fire and concealed themselves in the woods.  Away in the midnight hour, as the fire burned low, the pioneers saw the heads of Indians beginning to peep out from behind trees and stumps and from over logs. In a minute there was a volley of shots fired and the Indians sprang to their feet and with the war-whoop charged upon the campfire. As they pulled off the hats at the end of the logs, instead of finding the heads of white men they saw the joke.  For a moment they stood still in bewilderment; at that moment every Indian was shot dead, not one of them made his escape.  Every hat had a bullet hole in it. That was the last of the robberies committed at Centerville by the Indians…
By the year 1841 there was not an Indian in Georgia, who had a right to be here.  The people of Georgia, and especially south Georgia, were happy indeed to be rid of the Indians and to have the Wiregrass land without fear of molestation.  Some one wrote a song, about this time, which reads as follows:

“No more shall the sound of the war whoop be heard
The ambush and slaughter no longer be feared,
The tommy hawk buried shall rest in the ground.
And peace and good will to the nation round.”

More about the Wildes Family