"Sure Cure": Folk Remedies for Smallpox, Snakebite and More

Preserved in a museum archive, a 150-year-old medical log spells out old remedies that predate our modern understanding of diseases, their causes, and their cures.

Herbs

Folk remedies for many ailments were commonly shared by pioneers traveling the westward trails in the mid 1800s.

Photo by istock/chamillewhite

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Old herbal remedies have interested me most of my life. Seven years ago, a friend sent me a newspaper clipping about a medical diary filled with folk cures that had been given to a museum. My interest was piqued, and I made the three-hour trip to visit with the curator and view the manuscript.

Elias Slagle began recording folk remedies in this book (pictured in the slideshow) while he lived in Ohio as a young man in the 1850s. I studied the book carefully, struggling to decipher the gentleman’s penmanship. I used historical texts to research some of the plants and terms that Slagle refers to because many of the terms common to pioneer medicine are no longer in use.

The Slagle diary became, for me, a delightful mystery book. It could take days to track down an archaic term or colloquially named herb. An example is cayenne pepper — spelled alternately as “cian,” “kain,” and “ceyene” — which was brought to the United States on the Santa Fe Trail in the 1830s and 1840s, and appeared in several old remedies. Here are a few quotations from Slagle’s diary (in italics), followed by my interpretation of them.

Smallpox Cure

“By the use of cream of tartar, take an ounce of cream of tartar dissolved in a pint of water and drink at intervals after cooling, is a certain, never-failing remedy. It had cured thousands never leaves a scar — never causes blindness.”

Smallpox was a highly contagious, disfiguring, and often deadly disease. The vaccine, developed in the late 1700s, wasn’t widely available during Slagle’s youth. Newspapers were full of smallpox cures, and Slagle listed several treatment variations in his book. He clearly valued that this formula was printed in a newspaper as proof of having “cured thousands.”

Painkiller

“One gallon of alcohol, one pound of gum Murr, 1 ounce of Cian pepper, 1 ounce of camphoor.”

This much-reproduced old pain remedy was fairly common in numerous mid-1800s newspapers and publications. The remedy evolved into a patent medicine at the turn of the 20th century.

“Gum Murr” refers to myrrh (Commiphora spp.), which is gum resin from a tree native to Africa and the Middle East. It has been used for millennia in perfume and incense, and as an antiseptic and to reduce swelling and inflammation.

This remedy is strikingly similar to a pain rub from the mid- to late-1800s, still available today from formulating pharmacies and health markets. A variation of this liniment was published in Jethro Kloss’ classic book on herbal medicines, Back to Eden (1939). To make the modern version of Kloss’s liniment, you’ll need 1 ounce powdered Echinacea root (Echinacea spp.), 1 ounce powdered goldenseal root (Hydrastis canadensis), 1 ounce powdered myrrh (Commiphora spp.), 1/4 ounce finely-ground cayenne pepper (Capsicum annuum), and 1 pint rubbing alcohol (or inexpensive vodka). Mix the ingredients well and store in a cool, dark place, and the liniment will be ready to use in two weeks. Always shake well before using. Note that this liniment will stain skin and cloth, although the stain goes away fairly quickly with washing.

Ague

“Take a piece of muslin or any thin goods (cloth) and cut it so it will cover the back from neck to hips, and cover to the back; then take common cotton batting and tack (sew) it on so it will be about an inch in thickness; Secure it on to the necked back and wear it there for 2 or 3 months and you will have no more ague. Never know it to fail.”

Once known as ague (pronounced AY’-gyoo), malaria was also called “intermittent fever” due to the fact the patient would appear to get better, and then be stricken again weeks or even months later. Often this cycle repeated for a year or more until the person, so weakened, died. Numerous “sure cures” for intermittent fever were published. Because the patient would appear to recover, even briefly, people would swear by their favorite remedy.

A reliable preventative for malaria, which is transmitted by mosquitoes, was already in use during Slagle’s youth. Dr. John Sappington of Missouri is credited with making travel on the Santa Fe and Oregon trails possible because of his pioneer medicine, “Sappington’s Anti Fever & Ague Pills,” which contained quinine. Even though his remedy was touted as a miracle preventative by westward-bound settlers, both the U.S. military and medical schools of the time continued to treat malaria with purging and bloodletting.

Rattlesnake Bite

“Take the yolk of a good egg and pit it in a teacup. Stir in with it as much salt as will make it thick enough not to run off. Spread it as a plaster and apply it to the wound and we will insure your life for a sixpence.”

Travelers worried about snakebite, believing that every rock, field, and stream west of the Mississippi River crawled with poisonous snakes. Bites from deadly rattlesnakes and copperheads, while relatively rare, were fatal about half the time regardless of the treatment. Therefore, cures such as the one recorded by Slagle had a fifty-fifty chance of working. If the patients lived, they were convinced of the effectiveness of the cure.

Dropsy

“A tea made of chestnut leaves and drank in the place of water will cure most obstinate cases of dropsy in a few days.”

We know “dropsy” today as edema, an accumulation of fluid in the tissues. Historically, dropsy was treated with a diuretic. In The Compendium of Everyday Wants (1908), Luther Minter wrote, “Chestnut leaf tea is a sure remedy for some cases of dropsy. A lady said she cured herself by drinking freely of this tea. I know it has been tried in many cases of dropsy, and proved successful.”

The Diary Lives On

Elias Slagle recorded the folk remedies and formulas he encountered over a period of many years. He worked for the Navy most of his life, first on the East Coast and then in Texas. Slagle moved to Fort Scott, Kansas, and worked for the military there until he retired.

After his son passed away in the 1990s, Slagle’s papers and writings were offered for sale at auction. No one purchased the box of papers containing the book, and the auctioneer couldn’t bear to throw it away. He delivered the book to the Bushwhacker Museum at the Vernon County Historical Society in nearby Nevada, Missouri, where it remains today.


Jim Long’s book, It Will Do No Harm to Try It, records the entirety of Elias Slagle’s log and its pioneer-era medicine, with explanations of the plants and terminology. The book is available on his website, www.LongCreekHerbs.com.