280: Black Draught

Black Draught, famed laxative known throughout the Appalachians and Ozarks during the late 19th early 20th century. My grandpa mentioned having it in the cabin when he was growing up. Dolly Parton even sang a jingle about the medicine:

Smile from the inside out,
Smile from the inside out,
Black Draught makes you
Smile from the inside out!

But what exactly is Black Draught and why is it called that? Well, there are lots of old recipes and copycats out there, one common recipe was from Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management:

2587. The Common Black Draught.– Infusion of senna 10 drachms; epsom salts 10 drachms; tincture of senna, compound tincture of cardamums, compound spirit of lavender, of each 1 drachm. Families who make black draught in quantity, and wish to preserve it for some time without spoiling, should add about 2 drachms of spirits of hartshorn to each pint of the strained mixture, the use of this drug being to prevent its becoming mouldy or decomposed. A simpler and equally efficacious form of black draught is made by infusing 1/2 oz. of Alexandrian senna, 3 oz. of Epsom salts, and 2 drachms of bruised ginger and coriander-seeds, for several hours in a pint of boiling water, straining the liquor, and adding either 2 drachms of sal-volatile or spirits of hartshorn to the whole, and giving 3 tablespoonfuls for a dose to an adult.

The common element in all the recipes for Black Draught is senna, either the commercialized Senna alexandrina which was commonly used in both Europe and America, or the less used but still somewhat common wild senna which is generally identified as Senna hebecarpa.

Senna acts as an effective and gentle (somewhat) laxative, commonly used among the white settlers and indigenous peoples of America. In Cherokee the name for the wild senna is gv:hnáge? ú:dhan(a) according to enthnologist Jack Frederick Kilpatrick, or u?agéi according to James Mooney in The Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees. Both have their origin in the Cherokee word gvhnage ᎬᎿᎨ (or gvhnagei ᎬᎿᎨᎢ) meaning “black”. It’s possible that the plant got this name because of it’s seed pods that turn pitch black when mature, but there’s also another theory which goes back to a set of Cherokee diseases known also by the name gvhnage ᎬᎿᎨ. According to Kilpatrick there are four types of gvhnage ᎬᎿᎨ or “blacks” which can fall upon a person, the greatest of these is gv:hnáge? ú:dhan(a) which shares its name with the botanical cure for the sickness, wild senna. It seems that the main cure for the “black” in all its forms is the use of certain laxatives, at least partially consumed by the patient, but also blown by the healer onto their naked body (as per traditional Cherokee healing techniques).

Taking this association into consideration it’s not unfounded that the patent medicine known to whites as Black Draught might in fact take its name from the Cherokee word for senna, which is always at least one of the active ingredients in the formula. It’s interesting to see in this association the important interaction between traditional indigenous medicines and those of the colonizing population.

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