Day 120: A Remedy for Shingles



It’s interesting to look at similar cures between American healing traditions. For instance today we’re looking at one specific cure for the skin condition known as “shingles” or “erysipelas” as it’s sometimes called. This is an awful condition that doctors can now vaccinate for, but in the past people just had to try and use whatever remedies they could find.

The remedy I want to look at involves the blood of a black chicken as a cure, and appears in both the Ozark and the Louisiana Creole healing traditions. One possible means of transmission is with the French Canadian settlers in the Missouri Ozarks. These were trappers (and later miners) who left the Mississippi river valley and settled in the hills and hollers of Southern Missouri. They came to be known as the “Pawpaw French” by European explorers in the area because it’s said that the “Ate pawpaws in the summer and possum in the winter,” alluding to the poverty of the French hillfolk. Some of these Pawpaw French settled in other parts of the Ozarks, so it’s certainly possible that the cures and remedies they had got disseminated into the other folk knowledge of the area.

The Pawpaw French came from Canada, from the same population that the Cajun people came from. So not only can you can see a lot of similarities in traditional folk remedies between the French Canadians and the Cajun/Creole populations, but this knowledge would have also been with the French communities in the Northern Ozarks.

It’s interesting for me to look at the similarities in these remedies. It helps clarify certain population migrations in America, i.e. we can see that the French culture wasn’t just in Canada and Louisiana, but spread out far and wide from the Mississippi Valley. It’s also a personal interest of mine because I have Creole-French ancestors who lived in the Missouri Ozarks in the 1700’s and 1800’s.

Vance Randolph has an example of this remedy in his “Ozark Magic and Folklore”:

“Most Ozarkers are much afraid of the painful disease called shingles, since it is commonly believed if the inflamed area ever completely encircles the body, the patient will die. Regular physicians say that this never happens, since shingles always follows certain nerve sheaths, which do not quite come together in front. The old-timers insist that they have seen men die of the shingles, and they continue to fear this ailment above many more serious diseases. A lawyer in Joplin, Missouri, tells of being awakened in the middle of the night and induced to drive forty miles into the country to make a will for a dying man. When he got there he found that his client had shingles, and since the red spots came near meeting in front, the poor fellow was convinced that he had only a few hours to live.

“A power doctor near Fayetteville, Arkansas, says that in order to cure shingles one has only to cut off the head of a black chicken and smear the blood thickly over the affected parts. Wrap the patient in sheets and let the whole mess dry. Next morning you just soak the wrappings off, and the shingles will be gone.”

Now let’s look at the Louisiana French version:
“To prends di sang ein poule noire, et to fair ein rond autour rézipèle-là. Là, to mette di sang partout en haut li. Di sang-là empêche li marcher. Quand t’apé mété di sang-là partout en rézipèle-là, i’ faut résité je vous sali Marie. Là to gain pou griller la farine français jaune et poudrer li. Là to prend des bourgeons feilles siro et to fane yé dans ein chaudierre et mette ça en haut-là. Changez li quand ça vient sec, et poudrez li tout le temps.”

In my own translation the remedy reads:
“You take the blood of a black chicken and you make a circle around the erysipelas. Then you put the blood all over it. The blood will keep it from spreading. When you have put the blood all over the erysipelas you must recite a ‘Hail Mary.’ Then you can roast some wheat flour and powder it. Then you take some elderberry leaves and wilt them in a kettle and put them all over it. Change them when they dry, and powder it all the time.”

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