July 24, 2016

When Nature Was the Only Drug Store (Updated)

During the 19th century, every region of the country had its own home-spun remedies that depended on that area's herbage. Today, these so-called "cures" seem to span between the humorous and the ridiculous.

This article, based on oral histories, focuses on the treatments that were unique to Arizona.

Before we start, the author's attorney, (Harvey the Rabbit,) has suggested the following "Don't sue me; I warned you!" paragraph:

Do not self-medicate using 19th century medical science! When it comes to these so called remedies, most are dubious, many have been proven false and a few are even poisonous! Do not take any of these without consulting a doctor.

 Actually, when it comes to the availability of doctors in the pioneer days, Prescott was blessed. "Doctors accompanied the original troops to Fort Whipple in 1863 and were able to attend to the general population as well as the troops. Consequently, Prescott was not plagued with quack practitioners and charlatans as were many other frontier towns." (*1)

Yet pioneers in the outskirts of Yavapai County often had to fend for themselves and not everyone could afford a doctor. Additionally, many trusted what nature had to offer over the opinion of doctors, anyway.

Some of the remedies were fantastical:
A supposed cure for cancer, for example, meant "boil(ing) a lizard's tail and drinking the broth." (*2) (If only it were that simple!)

If one were bitten by a snake, the cure was to "roast mescal heads; scrape out (the pulp from inside; place it) hot onto a cloth; and apply (it) to (the) wound." (*2)

Although the oral history swears that this cure had been "proved true," it's hard to imagine a situation when it even could be successfully tried:
Sorry you got bitten by a snake, George. Let me go find some firewood--let it burn down 'til we get some good coals going. Then I'll find some mescal heads and we'll roast them for an hour, so I can apply the pulp hot...
Perhaps the necessity for applying the pulp hot, was because by the time one prepared the antidote, the victim would have been stone cold!

Prickly Pear Cactus
This particular treatment was also employed to fight blood poisoning. While some swore by the pulp of mescal heads, others preferred the pulp of the roasted prickly pear cactus. Both of these were also employed as general poultices. (*3)

Some of the cures sound more like dinner recipes:
If one is suffering from pneumonia, he should "cut slices of fat pork; baste them on a cloth and cover the chest up to the throat. Dust pepper onto the pork to make it hold stronger. This may be kept on 2 or 3 days if a thick cloth is placed over it." (*4)

If one was suffering from "Quinsey" (tonsillitis), he should "pound green frogs; stir in 1 lb. fresh butter; bake in a dutch oven til dry. Strain and mix the oil with honey or molasses. Hold this in the mouth and swallow some." (*2)

If one was losing their hearing, he should "pound a house leek; squeeze out the juice; (and) add equal parts honey. (Pour this) in a vial; (and) stop with a cork--make hole with awl in cork. Enclose in head dough and bake." Then, when cooled, pour this salve into the ear. (*2)

A lady suffering from cramps should get a "piece of lard as big as a walnut; divide (it) into thirds and roll in sugar. (Eat) one every 20 minutes." (*2)

Yerba Santa plant
One local plant that was used for many medicinal purposes was the Yerba Santa leaf. This was used to treat: asthma (as an incense); for nose and throat discomfort when smoked; sucked on for a sore throat; or swallowed for stomach problems. (*5)

Yerba Mansa plant
The Yerba Mansa plant was used to fight colds and coughs. (*5) Boiling it into a tea was supposed to cure diarrhea. (*2)

In fact, oral histories include several cures for diarrhea. One could drink the tea of "mansita" leaves (*5) or wild geranium plants. (*3) If these were not handy, one might try drinking "finely pulverized charcoal given in milk 3x a day," or try "raw beef cut very thin and laid across the bowels." (*4) If there was still no relief, one should "insert an opium pill into the anus." (*4)

RELATED: Back When Prescott Was "Opium Central"
True story of the grip of opium upon Prescott, Arizona. Eventually, the city would become a hub of manufacture for the drug.

It wasn't just about medicine, it was also about hygiene:
It seems that people of the 19th century were just as concerned about their hair as people today.

It was found that shampooing with the juice of the Yucca root "made the hair very soft and shiny." (*5)

A prescription for dandruff shampoo included "1 pint alcohol & 1 tablespoon castor oil + scent of oil of lavender." (*4) (So then, scent was just as important as getting rid of the flakes.)

Soapweed or "Yucca Glauca"
If one was suffering from balding, they should shampoo with "soapweed juice." (*4)

To keep their teeth bright and shiny, folks brushed with fine salt. (*4)

To help bleach the laundry, peach tree leaves were added to the wash. (*5) (Yes, believe it or not, people tried to grow peaches in Yavapai County back then.)

In the past, Yavapai Indian women "always wore red clay mixed with oil or fat from venison for sun, wind, and cold protection for the skin." (*5a)

Some remedies had nothing to do with hygiene:
To relieve rope burns, cowboys would soak their hands in urine. (*1)

"Fresh cow manure was daubed on open wounds." (*1)

Problems with sore and cracking nipples? One family suggests "bathe with the black sweat that gathers on the stone pipe in rainy weather." (*2) Perhaps cracking nipples ran in that particular family.

Strange teas were often brewed and consumed:
Apple bark tea was used for colic in pregnant women. (*2) (Yes, just like peaches, there used to be apple orchards here.)

Snakeweed or "Gutierrezia Sarothrae"
To reduce fever, people made tea out of snakeweed. (*3) Or, a "teaspoon of finely powdered eggshell mixed with molasses" was employed.  (*4)

It was believed that tea made from pumpkin seeds would kill tapeworms. (*3)

"Strong tea made from common smartweed" was supposed to cure a "urine stoppage." (*4)

If one suffered from "thrash" (a mouth infection,) he should "saw a deer's horn; save (the saw-) dust; boil it in a rag; (and) drink the tea." (*2)

A few last remedies of note:

  • Convulsions were treated with "salt and water enemas." (*4)
  • For cases of rheumatism, a teaspoon of salt peter was mixed into a cup of gin. A tablespoon was to be taken three times a day. (*4)
  • The cure for warts was to "split green beans and rub them on." (*2)

One wonders if future generations will look at any of our medical practices with the same disbelief we have for our past.

The astonishing story of a frog that survived millions of years embedded in sandstone.

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(*1) A Brief History of Health Care in Prescott: Part I by David Perkins
(*2) Sharlot Hall Museum Archives. Vertical File: Places & Things: Folk Remedies; "Old Time Remedies".
(*3) Sharlot Hall Museum Archives. Vertical File: Places & Things: Folk Remedies; "Remedies".
(*4) Sharlot Hall Museum Archives. Vertical File: Places & Things: Folk Remedies; First paragraph is titled: "Dysentary & Nausea".
(*5) Sharlot Hall Museum Archives: "Tales of Prescott Pioneers" as told to Prescott Senior High School Students; 1949, pp 37-38.
(*5a) "Viola Jimulla, The Indian Chieftess" by Frank Barnett; 1968. Southwest Printers, Yuma, AZ. Library of Congress Cat. card # 68-22443



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