The world of the eighteenth century was physically demanding.
Those living in the Morgan Log House and their neighbors would have experienced a life full of work. Their bodies, tired from their labor or infected with sickness, were often cared for in their own home. Sometimes by untrained medical persons, sometimes by folk healers, sometimes by clergy and country doctors, and rarely by physicians.
“Leeches, Purging, and Magic: the Care and Healing of the Colonial Body” explores how 18th century people were lived, worked, cared for and healed themselves, entering and exiting a world much more physical than our own.
The exhibit was originally on display at the Morgan Log House in the 2019 season.
Is there a doctor in the house?
While there was medical training available, many practitioners of medicine were not school trained doctors.
Doctors and Physicians
While the first school of medicine in the colonies was founded in 1765 in Philadelphia, encountering a university-trained doctor outside of the city was rare.
Doctors practiced medicine with after receiving a formal education. Physicians practiced medicine without such training. Trained doctors set themselves apart from other physicians, consulting among themselves and disregarding the opinions of other, non-trained practitioners.
Bedside manner was not a consideration in the 18th century.
A contemporary story tells that doctor asked a patient how he was feeling, and they replied, “Much better, thank God!” The doctor retorted, “Thank God? Thank me: it is I who cured you.”
Country and Clerical “Doctors”
Many colonists in rural areas received medical care from country and clerical physicians, who often trained for a season or taught themselves with a medical book. Often, ministers filled the role of doctor for their community because they were the only person who was both literate and had a copy of a book of domestic medicine.
As Henry Melchior Muhlenberg, the father of American Lutheranism and resident of the local town of Trappe said,
“Because genuine doctores medicinae are rare in this country, I had to muddle through as best I could.”
As a result of a lack of trained medical practitioners, many people sought and received treatment from family members, midwives, folk healers, and practitioners of magic.
The Tools of the Trade
Click through this slideshow and see some of the tools and methods that doctors would have used to treat their patients.
Bleeding was when doctors would remove “excess amounts” of blood. It was often prescribed to reduce inflammation, including for redness, swelling, and heat. It was considered to be an essential part of the medical process.
Doctors often used a tool called a fleam for bleeding (see the image to the left) A fleam allowed for an incision to be made (often in the crook of the elbow) but also made it difficult to cut an artery, which could happen with a traditional scalpel or lancet.
Blistering was believed to help cure ailments such as hysteria, gout, inflammation, and fevers.
Doctors would apply a mixture of powdered Spanish Fly and other stimulants such as verdigris, mustard, or pepper in a poultice to the body, where it would be kept for several hours, raising a blister on the skin. The blister would then be lanced. An alternative method for producing blisters was hot irons.
Spanish Fly ( Lytta vesicatoria, seen right) produced a powerful blistering agent.
Leeches (seen at left) were seen as an alternative to fleams and scalpels because they allowed for bleeding of a patient but did not harm arteries or tissues. Often, they were prescribed for those considered too weak or ill for a standard bleeding with a fleam. They work well for bleeding because their saliva contains an anticoagulant.
Leeches are still used in hospitals today.
Amputations were done if a limb was considered to be a total loss or if it could turn gangrenous, which could lead to infection and death. Amputations often lasted less than five minutes. Surgeons would use a tourniquet to stem blood flow, and a series of knives and muscle retractors to get down to bone, which was quickly sawed. In a time before anesthesia or reliable pain relief, surgeons prided themselves on their speed.
Amputations were done with a saw, like the one seen on the left.
Clysters were used to perform enemas on the body, which was thought to cure a variety of ailments. These were performed with water and assorted pharmacological materials.
A device for giving a clyster can be seen on the left.
Many medical practitioners (professional or not) relied on medical treatises that were published to aid them in diagnoses. Such medical treatises were also used by households for their own medicinal care.
Doctors, physicians, and housewives recorded medical recipes (or receipts) for future reference. Home medical recipes were kept with culinary recipes, often in the same book.
Apothecaries provided medical care, acted as surgeons (as did barbers), and proscribed medicines, which were usually given according to their own personal recipes. They could also provide medication for use of medical professionals.
Ash had many uses. They could be used to ease a kidney stone, cure the bite of a rabid dog, stop bleeding, clean teeth, and make soap.
Eggs could be used to cure a headache, stop bleeding, cure jaundice, aid swollen eyes, and for the sting of a bee or wasp, especially in the eye.
Radishes were used to cure warts, cure blockages in the kidneys, heal corns, and help with asthma.
A Beef Steak
A room temperature beef steak was often applied to the skin to cure gout, particularly in the feet and hands.
Nettles could be prepared to cure a variety of ailments, including cramps, jaundice, sciatica, a toothache, and scrofula (an infection of the lymph nodes also known as the King’s Evil).
Chamomile was used for toothaches, upset stomach, diarrhea, kidney stones, swollen breasts, and heartburn.
Hog’s lard (rendered fat from the butchered pig) was used to cure bruises, swellings and lumps, arthritis, scrofula, and burning sensations.
Mercury (also known as Quicksilver) was used to cure a variety of ailments, from parasites, to typhoid and syphilis. Mercury is highly toxic.
Opium, often known as Laudanum or Venetian Treacle, was used in a variety of applications from pain relief to curing diarrhea and was extracted from the poppy. Then, as now, it is highly addictive.
Many of the materials used by medical practitioners were commonly available, and would include materials that could be grown in a home garden.
Others, like opium, would be imported from across the world. This was made possible through English trade and colonialism throughout Asia.
While there is a current opiate crisis, the use of opiates and the destruction they cause is nothing new. The use of opium was common in the eighteenth century.
Folklore and Magic
To the modern mind, there is a separation between medical science and spiritual matters. For the eighteenth century mind, science, folklore, and magic were deeply intertwined. It would appear that in Southeastern Pennsylvania people were consulting trained physicians (be they doctors or otherwise) and practitioners of magic with the same certainty. Additionally, much of folk magic includes a mix of folk belief and Christianity, including reading from the Bible and invoking the saints. This shows a mixing of religious and folk belief and indicates that colonial people lived in a world that had space for both religion and folkways.
We have to think of magic as a system that people put belief into. Like the modern placebo effect, if a sick person believed a pow-wow doctor or a cunning folk could cure sickness, they would begin to feel better after seeking their aid.
Here is a sampling of some of the folkloric healing that was used in eighteenth century Pennsylvania:
Eggs laid on Good Friday (the day of Christ’s death, the Friday before Easter) were hidden in the attic and were believed to protect the home. They were also used to cure some diseases.
At the waxing moon, potatoes could be cut in half and each half rubbed on a wart. The halves would then be joined and buried under the downspout of the house.
The broom held associations with the household. When hidden near a door, it was believed to protect those living there from evil and disease.
In Pennsylvania, folk healing could be done by a variety of people, from trained magical healers to family members who learned passed down knowledge.
Two of the most popular people to receive healing from were practitioners of Powwow and Cunning Folk. Powwow is a system of healing and protective magic among German immigrants of Pennsylvania. It mixes folklore, magic, and Christianity. The ritual is done by a trained pow-wow practitioner. It is still in practice today. Cunning folk relied on a combination of “ancient” philosophy, magical understanding, and folk knowledge to cast spells to cure ailments.
Birth and Death
For many living in rural Pennsylvania, important life events like birth and death occurred in the home. These were overseen by all manner of practitioners of medicine, from doctors and county physicians to midwives, folk healers, and practitioners of magic.
While birth may have been a bonding experience for the pregnant mother and her female relatives and friends, it was also a time for pain and fears of illness and death.
Midwives were skilled at knowing the stages of birth, as well as recognizing and managing health difficulties and assisting with pain management. Midwives were respected in their communities and provided with housing, land, food, and payment for their services. Many served as their community’s herbalist, veterinarian, and nurse. Because of their knowledge of women’s bodies and herbs, at times these women were thought to be associated with witchcraft.
Men (usually a physician, clergyman, or self-trained doctor) only attended births for emergency situations where a fetus may have had to be removed by a crochet or forceps. Otherwise, it was deemed indecent to have a man in the birthing chamber.
Into the nineteenth century, midwifery declined as it competed with increased pressures of education, religious attitudes, economics, gender roles, and the rise of organized and schooled male physicians and doctors.
Pictured to the right is a birthing chair in the Morgan Log House’s collection.
Birthing chairs were provided by midwives and were used by women to give birth. They allowed for delivery to be done with the assistance of gravity in a natural sitting or squatting position.
Death often occurred in the home: and was overseen by women.
The dying person was overseen by watchers. Watchers were women who were neighbors, family, or paid professionals that would watch over the dying, ensuring their comfort and caring for them in their final days. Watchers would also ensure that the person had died and report on the manner of their death to the family. Medical professionals rarely administered to the dying.
After death, the body was also prepared by women, who were either neighbors or professionals. This included washing, closing of bodily orifices, clothing the body, and placing it in a coffin. Often, people were buried in just a funeral shroud as clothing was expensive and passed on.
The better off were buried in their coffin. The less wealthy rented a town coffin to be taken to the cemetery in and were deposited in the earth in just a shroud.
Below are six of the diseases that were often a cause of death in the eighteenth century.
Yellow fever was a deadly disease in the colonies, and was particularly a problem in the city of Philadelphia, which experienced a crippling epidemic in 1793. It is spread by mosquitoes, so outbreaks were common in summer months. It could lead to death in five to seven days. The 1793 epidemic killed over 4,000 people in Philadelphia between August and November of 1793
Also caused by mosquitos, malaria was a problem in warm climates and summer months throughout the colonies. If the initial infection did not kill, malaria could disappear and reappear in the infected person for decades, leading to intermittent bouts of sickness and a weakened immune system.
The disease occurs as a Streprococcus infection resulting in a fever, headaches, sore throat, and scarlet rash. Outbreaks occurred in cities throughout the eighteenth century and was prevalent in the army.
The first known outbreak of influenza in the Americas was in 1647, with continual outbreaks continuing to the present day. Historically, influenza resulted in death in at least 40% of those who contracted it.
Smallpox was a devastating disease that tore through colonists and Native Americans throughout the colonial period. Smallpox epidemics lead to a rise in inoculation, where people would be voluntarily infected with a small dose of smallpox to prevent further infection. Inoculation often lead to a period of sickness that could last for months. George Washington mandated the inoculation of all Continental troops in 1777.
It is hard to know the infection rates of venereal disease throughout the colonies because of the sensitive nature of the topic and the perceived immorality of sufferers. Syphilis and gonorrhea were rampant. Syphilis was often “cured” with mercury. Untreated syphilis lead to destruction of bodily tissues, madness, and death.