233: Boils, Ringworm, and Sores

Dermatological complaints in the Ozarks are never just lumped in together, but have been traditionally cured with separate remedies ranging from the use of certain native plants to complex rituals that would smilingly have no effect whatsoever. It should be noted, however, that many of these cures and remedies did in fact work for the people that used them, but may require more faith that what is found among today’s Ozarkers.

Here are some remedies collected by Vance Randolph and recorded in his “Ozark Magic and Folklore”. They are great examples of historic Ozark folk remedies and while most are generally harmless a professional should always be consulted before using any folk remedy.


“Some people cure boils by soaking a piece of snake skin in vinegar and tying it on the affected part.”

“Sour-dock leaves are also used to bind up boils or carbuncles. Fresh possum-grape leaves are tied on open sores, or on boils which have come to a head.”

“One hillman of my acquaintance treats boils, ulcers, and the like in this wise: he reaches behind him, picks up a stone without looking at it, and spits upon it. Stirring the saliva about with his finger, he repeats the words: ‘What I see increase, What I rub decrease,’ and with that he rubs a little on the growth, which is supposed to disappear in a week or so. All this must be done, however, when the moon is waning; if it should be attempted before the full moon the sore would grow larger and larger instead of wasting away.”

“One way to cure boils, according to an old neighbor, is to rub a greasy string on a rusty nail and then throw the nail away where it will not be found. Hang the string on the inside of the cabin door, and touch the boil with the string several times a day.”

“A near family Noel, Missouri, which is guaranteed to cure boils, old sores, pimples, and even blood poisoning. Just cross your hands behind your back and repeat three times: ‘Bozz bozzer, mozz mozzer, kozz kozzer!’ The old woman who told me this said that originally her kinfolk knew what the words meant, and they were supposed to be Dutch. But somewhere along the line, an ancestor of hers got the idea that the meaning must be kept secret, and therefore died without revealing it. ‘And now,’ said the old woman, ‘there aint nobody livin’ that knows, ‘less’n it would be in one o’ them Dutch countries across the water!’”

“Many healers can cure a sore or a boil by drawing a circle around it with a burnt stick, and marking a cross in the middle of it. Others do the job by sprinkling a little line of dust to form the circle and the cross.”


“Many hillfolk treat ringworm by daubing it with the juice of a green walnut; this smarts a bit but really does seem to arrest the ringworm in some cases. Another way of curing ringworm is to burn a bit of flannel on a flat-iron, so as to leave a tiny drop of dark-colored oil; this oil is applied directly to the ringworm, care being taken not to get any of it on the surrounding tissue.”

“Ringworms are no trouble to an old-fashioned power doctor. He just draws a life-sized picture of the ringworm in the soot on the bottom of a mush pot and burns off the picture in the presence of the patient. I was once in a cabin where this was being done, and the ‘doctor’ himself described it to me a few minutes later, but they would not let me witness the treatment because my unbelieving gaze might somehow spoil the charm. I came back two weeks later to see the ringworm and found that it had almost disappeared.”

“Otto Ernest Rayburn reports a variation of this method of curing a ringworm. ‘Go to a tea kettle of boiling water,’ he writes, ‘rub your thumb in a circle the size of the ringworm on the inside of the lid, and then around the ringworm. Do the same with the forefinger, then with the thumb again. Do this with all the fingers on that hand, alternating each time with the thumb. When through, go away and do not look back at the tea kettle.’”


“Old leg sores, and the condition called milk-leg, are said to be relieved by binding ‘the pup bag of a bitch dog’ on the affected part and wearing it for seven days.”

“Golden-seal root, ground into a fine dry powder and dusted on an open wound or sore, seems to cure it up about as well as anything.”

“Old sores, syphilitic lesions, and skin cancers are sometimes treated with powder made from the bones of a person long dead.”

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