Wednesday, June 22, 2016

The Golden Age of Medical Quackery

By: Peggy L Henderson

On my recent vacation, it was fun to buy a few potential research books that might come in handy for future historical western romances. From famous mountain men, to Indians, and Prostitution and women in medicine in the 1800’s, these books make for some interesting reading, regardless if I use any of the information contained within or not. 

One such book was filled with “granny medicines,” or medicine used during the time. Among the many chores women were charged with on the wagon trains, they were also responsible for the overall health of their family members. Their supplies contained not only ingredients for cooking supper, but also herbs and journals handed down through the generations with home remedies. Items such as juniper berries, garlic, and bitter root were used to treat anything from nausea to typhoid. These remedies were usually a combination of advice passed down through the generations, to superstition, to religious beliefs.  

Advise such as “rinse your mouth each morning with urine to preserve your teeth and prevent mouth odor,” or “mold scraped from cheese will heal open sores,” to “wrap a piece of bacon sprinkled in black pepper around your neck to cure a sore throat,” was common.

Some medicines, such as poultices or teas might have brought some relief, but most often they were of no use, and at worst, did more harm than good. 
The Missouri State Historical Society has compiled a list of frontier medicines, which shows that the 1800’s were truly the “golden age of quackery.” Here is a short sample:

-       The hot blood of chickens cures shingles
-       Carry a horse chestnut to ward of rheumatism
-       To remove warts, rub them with green walnuts, bacon rind, or chicken feet
-       Owl broth cures whooping cough
-       Warm brains of a freshly killed rabbit applied to a teething child’s gums will relieve the pain
-       Carry an onion in your pocket to prevent smallpox
-       Brandy and red pepper will cure cholera
-       Mashed snails and earthworms in water are good for dyptheria.

The list goes on, but you get the idea. 

Peggy L Henderson
Western Historical and Time Travel Romance
“Where Adventure Awaits and Love is Timeless”

Author of:
Yellowstone Romance Series
Teton Romance Trilogy
Second Chances Time Travel Romance Series
Blemished Brides Western Historical Romance Series


  1. Peggy, I'll never complain about taking medicine again! Ugh, those "remedies" were horrible. Don't you pity the people who used them?

  2. "Thank you" isn't quite what I want to say for that interesting list of nasty remedies. Although it could certainly come in handy for future books. We are so lucky to have antibiotics!

    1. I agree... I love the old west, but the age before antibiotics was definitely scary.

  3. This last weekend I was in Silver City, Idaho, a ghost town (sort of). While there I visited the old drug store and photographed shelves full of old, old, medicines. It was fabulous.

  4. Oh, my, gosh! Of course some of these might cause more harm than good..such as rinsing your mouth with urine? Holy Cow.
    But I do love this kind of information. I remember checking a book from the library years ago about all these home remedies, and they were fascinating.
    Some treatments were brutal, too. I notice in the first episode of the new season of Hell on Wheels, Bohannan sprinkled black gun powder onto his thigh wound and put a match to it. That's the second time I've seen this lately in a tv show. I suppose it's the same as cauterizing a wound with a red hot knife blade.
    When I was a small child, my granny and papa lived in a house with no running water--and did till the day they died. If I or my sister got a wasp or bee sting, Papa would chew a little tobacco and spit the juice on the bite. We thought that was the grandest thing. I have no idea if it worked, but I loved my Papa for it.
    I'm sure Granny had others, but can't recall what they might be. Thanks for this information.

  5. Oh my goodness. Gag!!! Poor teething baby. That's the worst! Enjoyed the post, Peggy.

  6. The rabbit brains and urine are the worst! Although sometimes I wonder if my mefs work any better than what they had!

  7. The rabbit brains and urine are the worst! Although sometimes I wonder if my mefs work any better than what they had!

  8. Probably even to this day families carry down remedies from their ancestors. My husband's mother would wrap rags soaked in vinegar to bring down a fever. Sometimes there is logic in these remedies, but I haven't discovered what would make vinegar reduce a fever. My dad was curious about home remedies. He said the elders would place an opened onion on a wart and then bury the onion. I get it. The acid from the onion was enough to remove the wart most likely, but burying the onion makes no sense to me as far as purpose.
    Honey or sugar on a wound that will not heal, will help it heal. That is a fact. It may not be enough to cure all such wounds, but it is backed by science. Early in my nursing career we used to paint wounds that wouldn't heal with bismuth and bourbon. It worked in most cases except extreme diabetics. Since we were using liquor, we had to lock it up in the narcotic box. Still, that bourbon would mysteriously disappear.
    There is no way under Heaven I would put urine in my mouth for any reason what-so-ever. Gross.
    This was certainly an interesting article, Peggy. Nice research.


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