Nails have been used in Ozark folk healing and magic in a variety of ways. There’s a belief among Hillfolk that the object that hurt the individual was just as important to the healing process as the medicine put onto the wound. Knife blades, bullets, and nails were often treated with healing salves and plants alongside the puncture or cut itself. Rusty nails were added to tonics to prevent tetanus or to treat illnesses like tuberculosis. Water made from soaking new nails was seen as a sure treatment for anemia and iron deficiencies, and sometimes the sickness itself could be taken off the patient and nailed to a tree. Nails were driven into footprints to deal lethal blows to foes and witches alike. Coffin and gallows nails were carried by Hillfolk as an amulet to ward of certain venereal diseases.

Curing a boil – “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.” ~Randolph OMF 125

Nail thrust into a bar of soap to prevent tetanus – “Boys in some parts of Arkansas carry the nail home and thrust it into a bar of soap, to the same depth that it was accidentally stuck into the foot; it is not clear exactly why they do this, but it is evidently connected with the idea of preventing rust, which is associated in the hillman’s mind with tetanus, or lockjaw.” ~Randolph OMF 158

In the doorway to protect from witchcraft – “Some of the old-timers drive three nails into the outside of a door, in the form of a triangle, to keep witches away from the cabin; one man told me that the three nails represent the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost and were particularly efficacious in protecting an expectant mother from the powers of evil.” ~Randolph OMF 283

Gallows nails against venereal disease – “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.” ~Randolph OMF 152

“Nails taken from a gallows are supposed to be effective for warding off venereal disease.” ~Parler FBA III 3492

Nails driven into a witch’s footprint – “Mr. G. H. Pipes told me a witch story, which he had from Grandmaw Bryant of Reeds Spring, Missouri, in the early 1920’s. It seems that some carpenters were building a house, and the work was going very well until a certain old woman walked slowly past. From that moment everything went wrong. The workmen couldn’t hit nails but hammered their thumbs instead. They dropped their tools repeatedly, and one narrowly missed falling off the ridgepole. After two or three days of this, they called in a witch doctor. He found the old woman’s trail in the dirt and drove a big nail into one of her heel prints. As soon as this was done, the carpenters went to work again, and the building was completed with no further difficulty. The old witch had a very sore foot and limped around with a bandage on her heel nearly all winter.” ~Randolph OMF 288

Taking a spell off of a gun – “There is an old story of a famous hunter whose rifle suddenly lost its accuracy. He believed that the weapon was witched by an old woman who lived near his cabin. All smiles, the hunter went to see this woman and borrowed a nail to fasten the heel of his boot, which he said was loose. Returning home, he drove the nail into the stock of his rifle; instantly the spell was broken, and the hunter could shoot as well as ever.” ~Randolph OMF 293-294

Coffin nail to make a gun deadlier – “Some old-timers believe or at least pretend to believe that the man who drives a coffin nail into the butt of his gun will never fail to kill an enemy. The coffin nail must be one which has been used and buried in the ground, of course.” ~Randolph OMF 294

Coffin nails used in ritual against a witch – “There is one case reported from the Cookson Hill country of Oklahoma, just across the Arkansas line, where a prominent citizen died in rather strange circumstances. Some of his backwoods relatives got the idea that a witch was the cause of this man’s death and decided to avenge him in the real old-time tradition. The first step was to secure three nails from the dead man’s coffin; these may be drawn before the coffin is buried in the ground, but not until after the body has been placed in the coffin. The nails must not be replaced by other nails, and the three holes in the wood should be left open. After the funeral the old-timers killed a goat, removed the heart, and thrust the three coffin nails into it. The goat’s heart with the nails in it was then enclosed in a little basket-like cage of wire and suspended out of sight in the big chimney of the dead man’s house. The theory is that, as the goat’s heart shrivels and decays, the witch will sicken and die. If she does not sicken and die, it is regarded as evidence that she was not responsible for the man’s death, after all.” ~Randolph OMF 298-299

Red oak, cherry bark, and nails for a spring tonic – “Take red oak bark and cherry bark and place in a container. Boil down, then add whiskey. Let this boil for a while and drop a handful of rusty nail…The nails…add iron to tonic to build up the blood.” ~Parler FBA II 1361

Nail in tree for bronchitis – “Go outside and drive a nail in a tree the same height that you are. If you outgrow the nail you will outgrow your bronchitis.” ~Parler FBA II 1606

Nail water for gall bladder – “When Mr. Jones was a boy in Fayetteville and had gall bladder trouble or needed iron, their father would gather up a lot of nails, rusty ones preferred, put them in a jug with water, and they would take this like medicine.” ~Parler FBA II 2293

Nail in oak tree for toothache – “If you drive a nail in an oak tree, it will cure your toothache.” ~Parler FBA III 3431

Rusty nail water for tuberculosis – “To cure tuberculosis, soak an old, rusty nail in water until the iron is out and drink this.” ~Parler FBA III 3478


Parler, Mary Celestia Folk Beliefs from Arkansas (FBA)

Randolph, Vance Ozark Magic and Folklore (OMF)