Today I’m finishing up the introduction to the magic of Appalachia by looking at “yarb Doctors” and some of the other magical oddities of the mountains.
The final part of the mountain magical triumvirate is the “Yarb Doctor.” These are often seen as the male counterparts to the Granny women already discussed. These were folks who knew enough herbal medicine to make cures and remedies for all manner of ailments. Vance Randolph describes them thusly:
“Besides the regular and irregular physicians, who live mostly in the villages, the backwoods country swarms with ‘yarb doctors’…who have never studied medicine at all. Some of these nature doctors are women, others are preachers who do a little doctorin’ on the side, and many of them are unable to read or write. They rely mainly upon herbs, barks, roots, and the like. For internal medication these substances are steeped in hot water, and “horse doses” of the resulting teas are administered at frequent intervals. In some cases the tea is boiled down to a thick paste called ooze, or mixed with strained honey to make a syrup” (OM&F, p.92)
Often, this is what we think of when we talk about “snake oil salesmen.” The yarb Doctor basically dealt in herbal formulas for treating common ailments. Some of these formulas became fairly well-known. When a particular yarb Doctor’s formula reached a particular level of renown (and often even if it didn’t and an unscrupulous “doctor” was simply chasing a dollar) these medicines would become a famous “patent medicine.” This is not to say that the yarb Doctor (variously known as an “herb doctor,” “rubbing doctor,” or “nature doctor”) was simply a quack making money off of ignorant mountain folk. In most cases, these were locals with a knack for making formulas and medicines from the indigenous flora of the area, including roots, barks, flowers, and leaves. Some of the mixtures are still in use today, albeit changed much from their original purpose. Root beer is a prime example of what happens when you make a patent medicine out of sarsaparilla and sassafras roots and mix it with a little sugar and soda water. Appalachian yarb Doctors had good reason to make medicines: they lived in the pharmaceutical breadbasket of the country. According to Dave Tabler’s Appalachian History blog:
“Big Pharma had not yet perfected the widespread manufacture of synthetic drugs in 1932. Instead, the industry relied on ‘western North Carolina, southwestern Virginia, eastern Kentucky, and eastern Tennessee [to] furnish 75% of the crude botanical drugs which the continent of North America supplies to the drug markets of the world,’ according to an article in Economic Geography that summer”
The remedies proffered by yarb Doctors were not limited only to plants and their components, but often included a few more unusual ingredients. For example, dealing with a toothache was a common enough problem in the mountains, where access to regular dental care was limited or non-existent:
“There were many treatments for a toothache. Some of the more common ones were holding tobacco smoke, a sip of red oak bark decoction, or whiskey in the mouth; chewing ragweed leaves; applying cinnamon or clove oil, camphor, or persimmon juice to the tooth and gum; placing a ball of cotton soaked in paregoric, camphor, turpentine, or kerosene on top of the tooth; and holding a bag of warm ashes or salt against the cheek. If a large cavity was present, it was stuffed with soda, salt, cow manure, spider webs, aspirin, burned alum, dried and pulverized buckeye skin, or crushed puff-balls” (FMSA, p.107)
There are a number of remedies used by these mountain medicine men which are still in common practice. Clove oil, for example, is still used to numb the pain of a toothache. Some methods, though, such as packing a cavity with cow dung, seem to have fallen by the wayside (I’ll not say whether I think that a good or bad thing, though I’m less than eager to put cow dung in my own mouth if I’m being entirely honest).
Other Aspects of Mountain Magic
There are, of course, many areas of mountain magic which don’t fall neatly into the three categories I’ve laid out here. yarb Doctors and Granny women had much in common and there is a great deal of crossover in their particular lines of work. Likewise, one who could dowse for water could usually also perform some other occult action, such as simple curing. I have an in-law whose great-grandfather (the seventh son of a seventh son, no less) could dowse and “buy” warts off of people in order to effect a cure, for example.
Other aspects of mountain magic have already been touched on in this blog. Some of the areas we’ve covered here which have a huge place in the folk magical practices of Appalachian peoples include:
One of the biggest areas I’ve not yet covered in detail is the Appalachian preoccupation with death, dying, corpses, and graveyards. Edain McCoy’s In a Graveyard at Midnight includes a great deal of this lore in her chapter on “Death, Dying, and ‘Haints,’” which focuses mostly on the rituals surrounding death and burial as well as protection from the dead. At some point, I’ll be doing a bit more on this topic, but for now I think the most important thing to note is that death and birth were—and are—the two most important events in a human life, and the mountain folk treated them with respect, awe, and not a little fear.
A final area of interest for mountain dwellers where the occult was concerned had to do with divining the future. Rather than foreseeing events having to do with money or fame or anything like that, almost all Appalachian divinations performed in the home had to do with love. This is, again, a topic I’ll be delving into with more depth at another time. But often the “games” played by young girls in the mountains revolved almost entirely around divining the name, appearance, or attributes of a future husband. And there are also plenty of tales which deal with the terrible consequences of treating these sorts of divinations lightly (such as the story of the “dumb supper” which eventually leads to a young girl’s brutal murder). Suffice to say, Appalachian folk know that life has its dark side, and they aren’t afraid to talk about it.
That’s it for mountain magic this week. I hope this has been a useful introduction. This, like many of the other topics here, only scratches the surface, and I hope to return and look at Granny women, yarb Doctors, dowsers, power doctors, signs and omens, death lore, and just about everything in more depth at a later date. But for now, I’ll wish you a happy weekend.
Thanks for reading!