Day 220: Charms and Amulets

The Ozark hillfolk inherited a whole host of charms, talismans, and amulets from Europe, the New World, and Africa alike. The principle purposes of these charms were to heal the bearer, prevent illness, or to attract love and/or luck. Most of these amulets were held in the utmost respect by hillfolk, especially by the bearer of the charm who often would keep the object hidden away for fear that it might lose its power by being seen.

Amulets and charms took on many shapes and sizes, and incorporated everything from metals to certain parts of plants or animals. Most charms were worn on strings or pinned to the inside of the wearer’s clothing. On rare occasions the charm would be wrapped in buckskin and carried in the pocket.

Here are some anecdotes on charms and amulets from Vance Randolph’s “Ozark Magic and Folklore”:

Healing Amulets

“Years ago, many an Ozark girl collected buttons from her friends and strung them together into a sort of necklace called a charm string. A charm string not only brought good fortune to the owner but also served as a sort of memory book for women who could not read one button recalled a beloved aunt, another a friend’s wedding, still another a dance or a quilting party or an apple-peelin’ or some other pleasant occasion.”

“A prostitute in Little Rock, Arkansas, always wore two or three turns of fine wire around her leg; she said this was a protection against venereal disease. I observed, however, that she also used the conventional prophylactic measures favored by the girls who do not wear wires round their ankles.”

“A copper ring, or a piece of sheet copper carried next the skin, is believed to ward off attacks of rheumatism as well as venereal infection. I have seen old men in Arkansas with long pieces of copper wire wound round their ankles, under their socks. In the early days it is said that the telegraph companies had considerable difficulty with hillfolk who cut off pieces of telegraph wire for this purpose. Some young people now contend that an ordinary brass finger ring works just as well as pure copper, but the old-timers still cling to their wire anklets.”

“Nails taken from a gallows are supposed to protect a man against venereal disease and death by violence. Country blacksmiths used to secure these nails and hammer them out into finger rings. As recently as 1943 there were boys in the Army wearing rings of metal taken from a gallows at Galena, Missouri, where ‘Red’ Jackson was hanged for murder in 1936.”

“I have known hillmen to spend hours and even days searching the rivers for very large crawpappies in order to get the two circular lucky-bones found in their bodies. These are carried in the pockets to ward off syphilis. The bigger the bones the better, and really large lucky-bones are rare.”

“Some mountain men wear wide leather cartridge belts, not to carry cartridges in, but because they believe that the wearing of such belts prevents rheumatism and arthritis.”

“One school contends that a potato carried on the person keeps off rheumatism as well as anything.”

“Others think that a buzzard’s feather is best of all, a belief attributed to the Cherokees; an old woman near Southwest City, Missouri, painfully bent and twisted by rheumatism, assured me that the black feather she always wore in her hair ‘had done more good than twenty year o’ doctorin’!’”

“A man in Washington county, Arkansas, credited his freedom from rheumatiz and neuralgy to a nutmeg which he carried for many years; he had induced a jeweler to drill a hole through the thing and wore it on a black shoestring round his neck. ‘In central Missouri,’ says Fanny D. Bergen, ‘rheumatism is prevented by carrying in the pocket a nutmeg or a walnut, Juglans nigra.’ I have inquired about this, but have never found an Ozarker who used a black walnut as a pocket piece.”

“Many Ozark hillmen carry buckeyes in their pockets, and this practice is not confined to the backwoods districts. The two most important bankers in Springfield, Missouri, are buckeye carriers; so is the head of one of the biggest corporations in St. Louis, and also a recent mayor of Kansas City, Missouri. At least one governor of Arkansas not only carried a buckeye but was also known to flourish it publicly on occasions of great emotional stress.”

There is an old saying that no man was ever found dead with a buckeye in his pocket, but this is not to be taken seriously. Most people who carry buckeyes regard them as a protection against rheumatism, or hemorrhoids. One of the most successful physicians in southwest Missouri always carries a buckeye; when it was mislaid once he was very much disturbed and let an officeful of patients wait until his pocket piece was recovered. It is very bad luck to lose a buckeye. I asked this doctor about it once. ‘No, I’m not superstitious,’ he said grinning, ‘I just don’t want to get the rheumatism!’”

“To some people the buckeye means more than mere protection from piles and rheumatism. I once saw a young fellow with a very old truck, about to attempt the crossing of Bear Creek, in Taney county, Missouri. The water was high, and the ford was very bad. The boy looked the situation over carefully, then set his jaw and climbed into the driver’s seat. ‘Well, I’ve got a buckeye in my pocket,’ he said quite seriously. ‘I believe I can make it!’”

“Wearing a green penny in a sack round the neck is supposed to prevent ‘lung trouble’ which usually means tuberculosis.”

“A large bullet hung at the throat wards off catarrh, but it must be an old-fashioned bullet of solid lead; the modern bullets with copper or steel jackets are worthless for this purpose.”

“A piece of rhubarb root, worn on a string round the neck, will protect the wearer against the bellyache. It is said that a pair of crawpappy pincers sewed into a man’s clothing has the same effect.”

“Dr. C. T. Ryland, of Lexington, Missouri, told me that he was called to see a sick infant in a family from south Missouri. The child had what was called ‘summer complaint,’ with a high
temperature. Noticing a string of yellow wooden beads around the baby’s neck, Dr. Ryland was told that ‘them’s bodark, to keep fever away from the brain.’”

“Some Ozarkers believe that epileptic fits may be prevented, or at least made less violent, if the afflicted person carries a human tooth in his pocket, but the tooth must be that of a person not related to the patient by ties of blood. It is believed in some quarters that an epileptic may postpone his attacks by ‘packin’ a flintrock,’ especially if he can find a lucky flint with a hole in it.”

“Ozark children, in many isolated sections, still wear little packets of asafetida all winter to protect them from the common diseases of childhood. When spring comes, with sassafras tea and other internal prophylactics, the child is permitted to discard the asafetida. Small boys are sometimes forced to wear little bags of camphor sewed to their shirts, to prevent their catching meningitis or infantile paralysis. Others have flat leather bands or red woolen strings round their necks, or even dirty socks under their collars to ward off colds and influenza. A little iron wire worn as a necklace, according to some power doctors, will protect a child from whooping cough. A piece of black silk around the neck is regarded as ‘liable to keep off croup.’”

“Many backwoods women wear red yarn strings about their abdomens. Some say that this is in order to prevent cramps. I am not sure that this is the true explanation, but it is a fact that red woolen strings are worn, particularly by young unmarried women.”

“Some say that the dried skin of a mole, stuck fast to the chest with honey, will prevent or even cure asthma. I once persuaded one of my neighbors to try this, but it didn’t seem to do him any good. Women sometimes wear a mole skin, or the dried foot of a mole, between their breasts in the belief that it prevents cancer.”

Love Charms

“Many mountain damsels carry love charms consisting of some pinkish, soap like material, the composition of which I have been unable to discover; the thing is usually enclosed in a carved peach stone or cherry pit and worn on a string round the neck, or attached to an elastic garter. I recall a girl near Lanagan, Missouri, who wore a peach stone love-charm on one garter and a rabbit’s foot fastened to the other.”

“Ozark girls sometimes carry little wasp nests in the belief that they somehow attract men. These objects are usually pinned to the lady’s undergarments if she wears any undergarments.”

“It is said that if a girl steals the band from a man’s hat and makes a garter of it, the original owner will fall in love with her at once.”

“Mountain girls sometimes carry the beard of a wild turkey gobbler concealed about their clothing. Rose O’Neill, of Day, Missouri, asked a neighbor about this once and was told that ‘we use it to clean the comb with.’ Probably the gobbler’s beard does make a satisfactory comb cleaner, but there is no doubt whatever that some backwoods damsels regard it as a love charm.”

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