Baked Onions and Thimble Blood: Folk Remedies of the Appalachias

Contrary to popular belief, the remedies of the old mountaineers weren’t always smell-good, pretty herbs made into a tea. Sometime’s it was crushed ants or literal shit. As I’ve taken it upon myself to show the truth of Appalachian folklore and charms, I won’t hold back here. You won’t find any sugarcoating, so if you have a weak stomach, ya best stop here.

Healing in Appalachia is a fascinating and phenomenal machine powdered by need, made up of struggle, and plugged into the outlet of poverty. A lot of the old folks didn’t have all these fancy herbs growing everywhere all the time at hand. Ya know, the ones you just had delivered to you in a box from Amazon. No, baby, these herbs had to be sought after and dug up. And it wasn’t likely that you’d find the same herb in the same place year after year, which is why variations of formulas were created much for the same purpose, not solely based on availability, but on what worked and didn’t work. And because of low availability for some things, they got creative. They “talked to God about it” or simply heard about it and gave it a try wether it was a bowl of water or a knife under the bed.

It wasn’t strange for my mother to try one remedy right after another. Once one of them worked, we’d go about our business and my family would still swear by them all still. Many of the following formulas focus on healing ailments, and getting rid of disease, especially those cause by conjure.

*I am not a medical professional and you try these at your own risk if you so choose.*

  • For aching corns on the feet, soak them in a pot of salt water. Afterwards apply a salve of chimney soot and lard (or duck fat).
  • To cure whooping cough in an infant, the mother should nurse the baby while sitting on the threshold of the front door. The babies head should be outside.
  • To cure shingles, bleed a chicken from its left foot. Just enough to sprinkle on the area. Milk from a mare or black cow also works for this.
  • An old remedy for malaria was to boil sheep manure in a pot with chimney soot and spice wood/black pepper (for flavor). The dried patty is set into the water bundled in a couple layers of fabric. This was called “Nanny tea.” Thank heavens, Nana didn’t know about this one or there’d’ve been a container somewhere with sheep shit in it!
  • Sometimes a remedy was simply a method of doing something, usually with the intent to strengthen whatever medicine was being applied, such as one the prescribes the following: the first medicine of any kind taken by a new mother after birth, should to given to her by her husband on a silver spoon. This also allures back to put his shoes or hat on her during labor for strength and support.
  • For teething babies, hang a bag around their neck containing the front right paw of a mole.
  • Other formulas for helping babies teeth was to hang a dime around their neck. If it was a girl, the dime had to come from an uncle; a boy, it came from the aunt. If there either wasn’t an uncle or aunt, then the closest relative of the opposite sex besides the parents or siblings gave it to them.
  • Powdered dirt dauber nest was used somewhat like baby powder and was thought to relief infants of rashes and redness in the nether regions.
  • Chicken feathers burned under the bed of a laboring woman will prevent excessive bleeding.
  • To prevent a baby from being born breeched, every vase, cup, or vessel in the home was turned upside down to “flip ‘em back” according to Nana.
  • To cure insomnia or madness, wear a bag of dried buttercups around the neck.
  • For schizophrenia, make a tea of buttercup roots. Make seven cups (1.75 Qts) and over the course of seven days drink them.
  • To guard against disease, bury a skunk in the front yard. Asafoetida was also used by wearing it in a bag around the neck.
  • For colds, cough, fever, what have you, Mama would always put an onion in the oven wrapped in tin foil and bake it to death. It wasn’t done until you could squeeze it like a sponge. The resulting juice was spiced with a pinch or two or sugar and we were made to drink it.
  • To keep babies from getting sick before they can handle it, a cut was made in their left shoulder blade and the blood was caught in a silver thimble. This was then added to their bottle and given to them to drink.
  • To prevent bad luck and the mother getting a fever after childbirth, the placenta was salted and buried deep enough so no person or animal would dig it up.
  • For snakebite, many things were used and applied based on what was available. Sometimes the snake was caught and split open and the guts applied to the wound or simply killed to sympathetically kill the poison as well. Other times, tobacco juice or soft soap with salt was rubbed on the bite.
  • For inflammation, make a poultice of watermelon seeds, squash, beans and corn mixed with chimney soot.
  • For tapeworms, a decoction of pumpkin seeds was ingested.
  • For worms in children, peach leaves and the inner bark was taken as a tea for about a week or so.

Many more of these might make their way into my upcoming book, named right now Backwoods Witchcraft: the Hoodoos of Appalachia, and my next titles. However, that name is likely to change under the publisher so just keep updated. Did you’re Mamaw every do any of these things when you were a kid or did she do something else? If so, put them in the comments!

*photo found on Pinterest. Pictured is Molly McCarter Ogle with daughter Mattie, photo taken in 1928*

Author: Jake Richards

Jake (Dr. Buck) follows family practice as a Yarb Doctor and Conjure man in the Appalachian Folk Magic tradition. He follows the legacy of his mother (a seventh daughter), that left behind by his grandfather, a baptist preacher who was a blood stopper, wort doctor, and thrush doctor; his grandmother, who was a knowledgeable melungeon woman in these works before Alzheimer’s set in; his great, great grandfather, also Melungeon, who witched for water in Washington County and his great grandmother who taught and worked from her roost at the foot of Devil’s Nest Mountain. Jake is the author of Backwoods Witchcraft: Conjure & Folk Magic from Appalachia; Doctoring the Devil: Notebooks of an Appalachian Conjure Man; and the Conjure Cards deck, all available for order and preorder on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Indiebound. When he's not writing, blogging, reading the bones or trying for clients: he is either traveling, gardening, sewing, book binding, reading, or sculpting. For questions, readings, recommendations for future posts, interviews and the like, you are welcome to email him below:

One thought on “Baked Onions and Thimble Blood: Folk Remedies of the Appalachias”

  1. My great-grandmother used onion juice for coughing. My grandmother and her siblings would drink it as children. My folks crossed through NC Appalachia in the 1600’s (I believe) to settle in NC coastal plain (Scots-Irish stock)

    Liked by 1 person

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