I’m starting my journey with warts. Yes, warts. It’s a big category within Ozark folk healing. Vance Randolph in his Ozark Magic and Folklore says he interviewed a woman who had collected 125 individual wart cures. My uncle Bill, one of my grandpa’s brothers, was a known wart charmer. If you had a wart you’d just casually tell him, then he’d look it over and say, “I’ll give ya a penny for that wart.” Of course you’d take the penny, then within a day or so the wart would go away. This type of wart charming falls under the “buying” subsection. Buying illnesses in general might be a topic for another time.
Here are some quotes from Vance Randolph on wart charming:
Conjuring warts: using silent prayers and touching to remove warts.
“John Proctor Gentry, in Springfield, Missouri, assured me that he could ‘conjure’ warts. He refused to tell me how it was done, but Mrs. Gentry says he just touches the wart and mutters something which begins ‘hocus-pocus’ and ends in ‘unintelligible gibberish.'”
“Mr. Rube Cummins, of Day, Missouri, eighty-five years old, tells me that he has been curing warts in the neighborhood since he was a boy. ‘I just tetch ’em, an’ then I say a little ceremony to myself. I don’t never tell nobody what the ceremony is.’ Asked if the ceremony was something out of the Bible, he said emphatically that it was not.”
Tying off warts: using a string to “tie off” warts. The string is usually then destroyed.
“There used to be a wart witch at Seneca, Missouri, who tied a string around the wart, muttered a few words under her breath, and pulled the string off with a great flourish. Then she presented the string to the patient and told him to bury it in the ground where nobody could find it. If the string lay undisturbed for nine days and nights, she said, the wart would soon shrivel and gradually disappear.”
“Another old-timer tells me that it is only necessary to tie a woolen string around the wart, then spit on the wart and rub it with the fingertip. This done, remove the string and burn it secretly.”
Wart buying: symbolic “buying” of a wart by a Power Doctor, the wart then disappears.
“Some specialists go through a kind of wart-buying ceremony, but no money actually changes hands. You show the man your wart, and he says: ‘Want to sell it?’ You answer ‘Yes, sir.’ Whereupon the wart taker produces a big safety pin with many buttons strung on it. He selects one of these and hands it to you saying: ‘Carry that there button in your pocket till the wart’s gone. Hit’s mine now, ’cause I done bought an’ paid for it.'”
“Warts may be disposed of by hiring some boy to ‘take them off your hands’ two or three more warts don’t matter to a chap who has a dozen or so already. Just give the boy a penny or a nickel for each wart, – and they will pass from you to him as soon as he spends the money.”
Wart passing: symbolic “passing” of a wart onto an object. When the object is cast away or destroyed the wart disappears. Warts can be passed to other people, meaning they will get the wart and yours will disappear.
“Another way to ‘pass’ a wart is to spit on it, rub a bit of paper in the spittle, fold the paper, and drop it in the road; the wart is supposed to pass to the first person who picks up the paper and unfolds it. Children are always trying this, and one can find these little folded papers in the road near most any rural schoolhouse.”
“Some hillfolk prefer to lose their warts at a crossroad, or better still at a place where the road forks three ways. Take a grain of corn for each wart and place each grain in the road under a small thin stone. The warts will be taken over by the person or animal that moves the stones and uncovers the grains of corn.”
“Or you may put as many pebbles as you have warts in a paper bag, walk down the road alone and throw the whole thing backward over your right shoulder. Whoever picks up the bag and counts the stones will fall heir to the warts.”
Warts and cloth: “passing” a wart onto a cloth, sometimes specifically a stolen cloth.
“An old man near Bentonville, Arkansas, had quite a local reputation as a wart specialist, though he made no secret of his method, and said that anybody could perform similar cures if they only ‘knowed how.’ He told me that he just fastened a bit of cloth to the wart, blindfolded the ‘warty feller,’ and turned him around seven times; then he buried the cloth in the ground, and very seldom did the wart last more than three or four days thereafter.”
“One school of wart catchers place their trust in dirty dishrags, and some healers say that they require stolen dishrags. After touching each wart with the rag, one either buries it secretly in the earth or hides it under a flat rock, being careful to replace the rock in exactly the position in which it was found. Sometimes the patient is told that the wart will disappear in three days, or seven days, or nine days, or twelve days. More conservative practitioners say rather that as the dishrag decomposes, the wart will grow smaller and finally disappear. A variation of this procedure is to steal a dishrag and burn it secretly, then rub the ashes on your warts, and rest assured that they will soon be gone. But it is essential to avoid telling anybody that you have done this, else the warts are likely to come back.”
Warts and notches: using notches made in wood to represent warts. The notches are then destroyed or allowed to decay with the idea that as the notches disappear so will the warts.
“The stick-notching treatment used for many other ailments is also adapted to the removal of warts. A little boy near Hot Springs, Arkansas, showed me a green switch with four notches in it, tied to the end of an old wooden gutter; each notch represents a wart, he said, and as the water rushes over the notches, it gradually dissolves away the warts.”
“Other hillfolk say that it is best to use an elderberry stick, and to cut the notch carefully so that it just fits over the wart to be cured. Then bury the stick on the north side of the cabin and never mention it to a living soul.”
“A prominent Arkansas lawyer tells me that in his boyhood the essential thing was to cut big notches in a stranger’s apple tree with a stolen knife, one notch for each wart to be removed. This was quite an undertaking, for knives were highly prized and hence difficult to steal. Even more serious was the fact that the people in the neighborhood were all acquainted, so that a boy had to travel a considerable distance before he could find a stranger’s apple tree.”
Warts and animals: using the help of animals, dead or alive, to cure warts.
“I know several healers in McDonald County, Missouri, who pretend to do the job by letting a big grasshopper or katydid bite the wart. They just hold the critter’s head up to the wart, and he’ll bite it all right. It is painful for the moment, but they tell me that the wart soon dries up and falls away.”
“A group of old-timers in Phelps County, Missouri, contend that the best way to dispose of warts is to carry a black cat, freshly killed, into a graveyard at night. Some say that the dead cat must be placed on the grave of a person buried the same day, and if this person has led a wicked life, so much the better.”
“Or one may kill a toad, rub its intestines on the wart, then bury the entrails under a stone. All this must be kept secret, otherwise it won’t work. The boy who acquainted me with this method still had several large warts; when I asked why the toad’s guts hadn’t cured them, he explained that he had told his mother what he was doing, in order to escape punishment for killing the toad. The mother was opposed to killing toads in the dooryard; she said it was an unlucky and senseless practice and might make the cows give bloody milk.”