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Strange Colonial Cures

This blog post is an adaptation of the presentation for the Morgan Log House’s History Happy Hour on Friday, July 12, titled “Weird Cures and What They Do.” Our History Happy Hours are tied in with our temporary exhibit, “Leeches, Purging, and Magic: the Care and Healing of the Colonial Body,” on display at the Morgan Log House until the end of December. Our third History Happy Hour will be on Friday, August 16 at 7 p.m. and will look at folk magic and healing. You can purchase tickets for it here.

Colonial Medicine: a Very Brief Introduction

First a note on colonial medicine. Much of eighteenth century medicine was based on the idea that illness needed to be removed from the body. This could happen through bloodletting, forced vomiting, blistering, enemas, sweating, or by contact with objects that could transfer sickness from a person’s body. Medical care could be done by a wide array of people. Medical doctors received training, but encountering one was rare outside of cities. Other medical practitioners ranged were someone who could read a book and hold a knife, someone who worked with a doctor for a season, a clergyman, a midwife, an herbalist, a parent (most often a mother), or a practitioner of magic. 

This blog post looks at some of the more colorful cures that were attempted. It’s important to remember that, while from our modern understanding they might not medically work, for people in the eighteenth century these were viewed as viable options for medical care. Many had aspects that worked (or at least alleviated symptoms). Others may have worked because people believed they worked: much like the placebo effect.

Animal Cures

Many cures used animals and their byproducts. Most famously, leeches were used for the sucking of blood, especially for the treatment of phlebitis and hemorrhoids. Another slimy animal that was used were snails, which were used for the treatment of tuberculosis. A physician of the time noted that snails were a good option for this because “the reason why they cure a consumption is this; Man being made of the slime of the earth, the slimy substance recovers him when he is wasted.” Likewise, worms, mashed and mixed with milk, were drunk as a medicinal cure all.

Another animal byproduct that was used for the treatment of many things was hog’s lard, which could be applied to treat bruises, to “dissolve” swellings of the joints (which probably was arthritis), scrofula (a disease of the lymph nodes also known as the King’s Evil, which could also be cured by the touch of the king of England or France, depending on where you lived), and whooping cough. 

An adorable animal cure involves holding a live puppy to your chest “constantly” for the cure of a fever: which admittedly wouldn’t hurt much.

Some Bad Ideas

Outside of animal cures, there are some cures and materials were employed that we can say were bad ideas: either because they wouldn’t work or because they could be potentially harmful.

One of these cures is the cold bath, which is innocuous enough. The cold bath was seen as a way to reset the body’s systems. It could be employed for all sorts of things, including: colic, a bleeding leg ulcer, vertigo, numbness of the legs, kidney stones, sciatica, leprosy, hypochondria, hysteria, diarrhea, a fever, blindness, deafness, and (most concerning) breast cancer. While the cold bath might have alleviated some symptoms, medically it probably just made the user cold and wet.

Another material that was used medically was mercury, which we now know can cause neurological disorders (Hat makers, who used mercury, were often said to go mad, which led to the phrase “mad as a hatter”). Other effects of mercury were neuromuscular changes, tremors, and harm to the kidneys and the thyroid. Mercury was used for the treating of all sorts of problems, including worms, to stop vomiting, hysterical disorders, hypochondria, asthma, and syphilis. While we now know the impact of mercury on the human body, we should place ourselves in the shoes of someone who wouldn’t: it’s a metal that flows at room temperature, does not adhere to anything, and seems like something otherworldly: of course it would cure.

A final cure, which we don’t think about as part of the eighteenth century, is the use of electricity, which could be applied to the body with a sort of battery, like a Leyden jar. Electricity was seen as something that was connected to vitality and could restart bodily systems by administering a jolt to the system. It was used for things like toothache, nervous disorders, headache, blindness, earache, and cramps.

For more, visit “Leeches, Purging, and Magic; The Care and Healing of the Colonial Body,” on display until December at the Morgan Log House.