May 26, 2013

Mountain-ash, the Witch-wood Tree

Here's another interesting factoid from John McNab Currier, the 19th century folklorist and physician.

While he was living in New Hampshire in the mid-1800s he knew a woman who thought all her illnesses, indeed all her troubles in life, were caused by witches. When she was sick the woman would threaten the witches, who although invisible undoubtedly were the source of her suffering.

To keep the witches at bay the woman wore a bead necklace made from mountain-ash (that's pyrus americana or sorbus americana to you botanists out there):

They were cut about three eighths of an inch in length, the bark being left on, and strung on string running through the pith. She was careful to keep them concealed, but sometimes they would work up above her collar and be conspicuous. This species of tree was once quite popular among New England witch-believers as a charm against witches...

Folklorist Fanny Bergen also reports that people in New England carried a piece of mountain-ash, or witch-wood, in their pockets to repeal witches. 

The American mountain-ash is of the same family as the rowan tree, which is well-documented in European folklore. The Norse god Thor was saved from drowning by grasping a rowan tree, while in Scotland householders planted them at their front doors to repel evil. According to Wikipedia, it could also be used to prevent storms at sea, keep the unhappy dead in their graves, and prevent lightning from striking a house. That's a pretty potent tree! It seems likely that the English settlers in New England brought their beliefs about the rowan tree to the New World and transferred them to its American cousin.

Oddly, I've been to Scotland and seen a rowan tree but don't know if I have seen an American mountain-ash. I'll have to take a trip to the Aboretum and track one down!

This week's info is from John McNab Currier, “Contributions to New England Folk-Lore”, The Journal of American Folklore, Vol. 4, No. 14 (Jul – Sep. 1891) and Fanny Bergen, “Some Bits of Plant-Lore”, The Journal of American Folklore, Vol 5, No. 16 (Jan – Mar, 1892).  

May 19, 2013

The Seventh Son Of A Seventh Son

Dr. Isaac Calcott arrived in Providence, Rhode Island in June of 1769. Well-dressed and in his thirties, Dr. Calcott claimed he could treat nearly thirty separate disorders, including "scale heads, St. Anthony's fire, vapors, King's evil, and deafness."

I don't know what most of those ailments are, but apparently they were quite Common in Colonial New England, because Dr. Calcott traveled through the region for the next four years, advertising his "Art of Curing" in all the local newspapers.

Although there were plenty of local physicians in the area in the 1700s, Dr. Calcott was part of a wave of itinerant doctors and healers who appeared in New England at this time. Most were men and came from Europe, although one Native American woman traveled through Essex County claiming to cure cancer through herbal treatments. Like Dr. Calcott, most also advertised through newspaper ads, but some relied just on local word of mouth.

These traveling healers were denounced by the more established doctors and often advocated highly unorthodox treatments. In addition to herbal treatments and elixirs, electrical devices were frequently used, often in front of a paying audience. These electrical demonstrations were part medicine and part entertainment.

Dr. Calcott didn't perform in front of an audience, but he did use a particularly strange technique. Here is an account of how he cured six year old Elizur Belden of blindness:

"Mrs. Belden holding the Child in his Lap, Dr. Calcott ... Licked the eyes, first putting his Tongue into one Eye and then into the other Eye of the Child - it was soon done, - and instantly the Child saw, and ever after continued to see well."

That account was written by Ezra Stiles, the President of Yale, after talking with Elizur Belden's parents many years after the cure. The testimony is reliable. The licking seemed to be effective, but why?

The modern scientific mindset would probably chalk it all up to psychosomatic illness, but Isaac Calcott claimed he had special healing powers because he was the seventh son of a seventh son. In many parts of Europe it was (and still is) believed that the seventh son of a seventh son has special abilities. Often these were healing powers, but in some places seventh sons could also predict the future and find lost objects. Wikipedia has a short but interesting article on this belief. In contemporary America, the seventh son motif is still popular in genre fiction.

The licking was also probably considered effective because spit was known to be a fluid highly charged with personal power. The average person's spit was often used in simple folk magic, but as the seventh son of a seventh son Dr. Calcott's saliva was obviously quite powerful. Jesus spit in a blind man's ear to make him hear; Dr. Calcott licked a blind boy's eyes to make him see.

Unfortunately the old adage "Physician, heal thyself" seems to apply to Dr. Calcott. Despite, or perhaps because of, his amazing powers Calcott was an alcoholic. Once, in Middletown, Connecticut, the good doctor was so drunk that two young boys were able to tar and feather him. He was last seen practicing his medical magic in 1773 in Portsmouth, New Hampshire before disappearing from the historical record.

I found this information in Peter Benes's article "Itinerant Physicians, Healers, and Surgeon-Dentists" in Medicine and Healing. Volume 15 of the Proceedings of the Dublin Seminar for New England Folklife.

May 12, 2013

A Travelling Woman, Coarsely Dressed: Another Witch, Another Footprint

Here's a little story from John McNab Currier, a 19th century physician and folklorist:

In the summer of 1852 I was at a farmhouse in a rural town in Grafton County, New Hampshire, when a travelling woman, coarsely dressed, called to get a glass of water to drink, and inquire the distance to the next village. She drank the water and started on her journey. Scarcely had she gone thirty rods when the woman of the house said she believed the traveller was a witch, and she was going to try her. She immediately took a knitting needle from her work, found one of the traveller's tracks in the path, and stuck the needle into it. Almost immediately the traveller stopped, stood still, and gazed towards us, who were watching the trial. The woman of the house said she would not remove the needle from the track, even if the traveller should never move again; but she turned soon, and went on without stopping. The woman with the needle believed the steel had the power to fasten a witch in her tracks so she could not move, and shen she saw that the woman went on her way, she believed the power was lost by her speaking; so she tried another track with the needle, but without effect. 

It's interesting to compare McNab's story with a similar one I wrote about in March, which had two small children trying to test a witch with a needle, and was recorded in the 1920s or 1930s. McNab's story is a first-hand account of adults trying this form of folk magic 70 or 80 years earlier. In the 19th century witchcraft was not child's play.

Both stories involve women, seemingly poor, walking by houses. Is it their poverty and their mobility that causes such concern? I'm sure there's some sociological reason why these women were suspected of witchcraft.

The magic of steel seems to work in McNab's story, unless you want to be a skeptic and claim the travelling woman just stopped because she was amazed someone was sticking a needle in her footprint.

Even when it doesn't work there's an explanation consistent with the magic: the woman of the house spoke, and broke the spell. Maybe if she had never spoken a word the witch would still be standing in the road today. Silence is a key ingredient in some types of folk magic. Bittersweet root is best harvested in total silence, and a witch can be controlled with her own witch bridle only if you remain silent.

McNab's story appeared in the The Journal of American Folklore, Vol. 4, No. 14, in 1891.

May 05, 2013

Healing the Weapon and the Wound

If you were cut by a sword in 17th century New England, either a family member or a village healer would take care of the wound. They'd clean it with water, bandage it, and possibly smear it with a salve containing herbs and animal fat.

If you were lucky, a highly skilled doctor (like John Winthrop Jr.) would also apply a salve to the weapon that injured you. Putting the salve on the sword would magically heal the wound it made on you.

This seems a little implausible to a modern New Englander, but the so-called weapon salve was grounded in a widely held view of the universe. This worldview claimed that if everything in the universe is connected, then the sword that cut you had a particularly strong connection to you. The weapon salve takes advantage of this connection to heal you at a distance.

This blog has a recipe for a weapon salve from the 16th century text Archidoxis Magia. Ingredients include human fat, moss that has grown upon a human skull, rose oil, linseed oil, and human blood. The ointment should sit for a while after it has been mixed. When someone is wounded, the doctor should dip a stick in their blood and then insert the stick into the ointment. The ointment is now ready for use.

Doctors in Europe and New England debated the efficacy of the weapon salve. Some claimed it didn't work, but those who claimed it did had a variety of reasons as to why. Some claimed it worked through magnetism, while others claimed it was the harmony between the macrocosm and the microcosm. Some thought it was just the work of Satan.

I learned about the weapon salve a while ago and thought it was just another piece of folk magic that had long since disappeared. But I was wrong! The practice, or one very similar to it, survived until at least the 1980s in parts of Vermont.

Jane C. Beck, director of the Vermont Folklife Center, has interviewed many Vermonters about their traditional medicine practices. She collected the following piece of lore from a woman in Hyde Park, Vermont:

Similarly, it was believed that a nail that had been withdrawn from the foot, must be treated as well as the puncture wound itself. While salt pork was applied to the wound, the nail was carefully greased, wrapped up, and put into the warming closet where it would stay an even temperature. Today these supplementary measures are considered in holistic terms - treating the psychological mind as well as the body.

Although no skull-growing moss is involved, the theory is the same. Treating the item that injured you will cure your wound. I have no clue how the weapon salve evolved into this folk magic about the nail, but I think the continuity over 300 years of history is amazing.

I got the information about the weapon salve from Walter W. Woodward's Prospero's America: John Winthrop, Jr., Alchemy, and the Creation of New England Culture, 1606 - 1676 (pages 195 - 196). Jane Beck's article "Traditional Folk Medicine in Vermont" appears in Medicine and Healing. Volume 15 of the Proceedings of the Dublin Seminar for New England Folklife.