ISO an old family remedy: Florida, gopher grass, prostrate sandmat/spurge?

My mother suddenly remembered that her grandmother, who lived in Pensacola, used to pick what she called gopher grass to take off warts. She said it grew in her backyard and she used to apply the little roundish leaves directly to warts, but she wasn’t sure how she made them stick – “maybe spit,” she said. Well, my search for “gopher grass” wasn’t turning up anything too promising as a match, but my mother said she would recognize it if she saw it again.

Well, she thinks she found some today and she sent me a picture. I believe this is Euphorbia prostrata, prostrate sandmat or ground spurge. In poking around, I found a very few plants in the Southeast that have been called “gopher grass,” but none of them look anything like this.

So I’m hoping the internet can help me out, and I’m especially keen to hear from folks in the Southeastern U.S. and most especially in/around northern Florida. Anybody heard of a gopher grass that looks anything like this? Or heard anything *else* being called gopher grass in that area? Anybody heard of it being used for warts?

Drink Whiskey, Pray, and Set the Bed on Fire: A Glimpse into Pandemic Life 120 Years Ago

This was originally posted in my personal blog a few years ago, but besides being a glimpse into how people dealt with pandemics 120 years ago, it references a few things some of y’all might find especially interesting, including folk remedies, patent medicines, home and herbal remedies, speculations about cats and/or comets being the cause of yellow fever outbreaks, and rural Alabama life at the turn of the century. Since my personal blog is mostly dedicated to family and regional history, I approached via the avenue of family history and focused on the areas where I had ancestors at the time *and* access to some actual records, which is mostly along the Gulf Coast from Florida to Louisiana.

It looks like the Florida Memory site won’t let you link directly to pages within its exhibits – I tried, but everything seems to spit you out a level or several above where I wanted to link to. Sorry about that.

Florida Memory has an online exhibition called Pestilence, Potions, and Persistence: Early Florida Medicine which is fascinating (and disgusting, too – don’t forget disgusting). There’s a lot of cool stuff here, including sections on midwifery, yellow fever, hookworm, and an outbreak of bubonic plague in Pensacola in the 1920s, which I didn’t know about ’til I read this. But poking around that got me thinking about how huge a presence yellow fever was in so many of my ancestors’ lives.

Yellow fever, so called because of its tendency to cause jaundice, could be a killer, and medical understanding of it in the 1800s still had a ways to go. If you grew up around it — as you might if you lived in East Africa or Barbados — it might only make you mildly ill for a few days. But if you didn’t have acquired immunity — if, say, you were a European colonist in Barbados, or New York, or Philadelphia, or Santo Domingo, or the Mississippi River Valley — it could kill you and half the people you knew very quickly.

And nobody really understood what caused it. Until the early 1900s, nobody knew it was a virus spread by mosquito bite. Medical understanding of it more than slightly resembled medieval medical understanding of plague – maybe the air in an area basically got miasmic, infected, dangerous. [1] Maybe infected people could infect you, somehow, too, so you’d better stay away from them just in case it’s spread that way. Maybe herbs or fumigation could help. Or maybe you should just relocate until the whole outbreak blows over – hope you can afford to!

Some blamed yellow fever outbreaks in the New World on the wrath of God. Some blamed it on newcomers to the area or unsanitary neighbors. Some blamed it on convergences of things like insect populations, filth, global volcanic behavior, the presence of lots of dead cats, the “putrid exhalations” of a coffee shipment spoiled during import, and/or comet activity. [2] Medical colleges advised burning gunpowder and using vinegar and camphor. [3] People were urged to avoid intemperate consumption of alcohol at the same time they were surrounded by newspaper advertisements for things like Duffy’s Pure Malt Whisky, “A Scientific Remedy, not a Beverage!” [4]

During a Florida outbreak in 1888, Dr. John P. Wall wrote of its “having its origin probably in the filth of the slave ship” and warned about “the necessity and importance of sanitation,” explaining that “the atmosphere of the city where it is prevailing sooner or later becomes infected – poisoned with its morbific agent.” [5]

Wall quotes United States Army surgeon Dr. Sternberg who wrote in 1884 that yellow fever, “like cholera, is contracted in infected localities.” He characterized it as a poison: “In infected places the poison seems to be given off from the soil, or from collections of decomposing organic matter.” [5]

This was your prevailing medical opinion – these were the experts. Nobody knew yet. So how did ordinary people deal with yellow fever outbreaks? Well, that could depend on where they lived, whether urban or rural, whether there was any kind of local health official or not, and whether they had the resources to do things like burn all their bedding or relocate for a while or whether they had to stay put and make do.

Continue reading “Drink Whiskey, Pray, and Set the Bed on Fire: A Glimpse into Pandemic Life 120 Years Ago”

Red Eyes (and Black Dogs and Water Spirits)

red eyes pic from national cryptid society

[This was originally posted in 2019 on my personal blog that’s mostly about family history projects. I’m reposting it here because it references a few things that might be of interest to some of y’all.]

Red Eyes was one of my great-grandmother Mae’s stories to scare the crap out of children with, along with Sackabilly, the Apple Lady, and the Seacanamarampus. Red Eyes lived under Mae’s house in Pensacola, Florida. So obviously, the children didn’t go under the house.

I’m pretty sure Red Eyes was a Mae-specific creation, like many of her creatures. While there are beings with similar names in folk tales all over the world, Mae’s house, which she lived in for almost 100 years and which served as the gathering site for sprawling generations of her descendants, was the center of something strong and dynamic enough to function as its own culture with its own lore for a remarkably long time. And Mae’s lore reflected the concerns and enforced the mores of that familial culture. Some of it was Pensacola-specific, like the Axe Man from Axe Alley, which really happened. Some of it fit pretty common patterns – X would get you if you misbehaved – but for the overwhelming majority of her lore, I haven’t had much luck finding it outside of the family. I really think she put her stamp on this stuff (and in some cases simply conjured it as  needed).

Reading about a mid-20th century Mississippi tale of Sackabilly in which he was associated with Rawhead and Bloody Bones [1] got me thinking that maybe Mae’s Red Eyes is more of a suburban version of Bloody Bones, a monster under the stairs/cupboard sitting on a pile of bones of children who said bad words or lied. I don’t really remember it being that specific in our family, though. In fact, most of Mae’s stories weren’t all that specific, weren’t actually really *stories.* She’d just *mention* this stuff and leave the rest to your imagination. And if she were still here for me to ask, and I asked her where she first heard the tale of Red Eyes, I guarantee you she wouldn’t give me a straight answer anyway. Mae was kind of a smart-ass, and she knew better than to take the juice out of something with a bunch of boring facts.

But here are a few tidbits to gnaw on.

Red Eyes in Lore and Literature

There are other stories of creatures or ghosts called Red Eyes or Old Red Eyes that I’ve been digging into, but as folk tale types go, they so far have pretty much nothing in common with our family’s Red Eyes, and I doubt there’s a connection aside from a name similarity.

But really, various bogeymen and ghosts and creatures with red eyes aren’t uncommon at all. After all, what color would be more effective to scare the hell out of you in the dark, more evocative of hellfire and the devil and blood? How do you know if you have a friendly ghost or a malevolent bogeyman? Well, does it have red eyes? That’s a pretty sure sign of the latter!

Old Red Eyes – Kingsley Plantation, Jacksonville, Florida

I got really excited when I saw that S.E. Schlosser had a chapter about Old Red Eyes in her Spooky Florida: Tales of Hauntings, Strange Happenings, and Other Local Lore, because Red Eyes is another one I’ve never heard of outside of my family. I finally got hold of the book, and alas, it’s not much to do with our Red Eyes, but I’ll tell you about it anyway. Schlosser’s is a Jacksonville story concerning a slave overseer who was a murderer and a rapist. In her version, the plantation master hanged him after he raped and murdered three women in one go and left their bodies lying around in a blood-filled house in the slave village, but then people started seeing his ghost around on the road at night by the oak tree where he was hanged, and the ghost had glowing red eyes. It would assault women and whisper threats at them and pull on their clothes, trying to pull them off the road.

It’s told from the point of view of a young enslaved woman on a plantation who’s studying with her auntie to become the village’s next conjure woman. She uses conjure to basically seal the ghost off behind a wall of light protecting the road so it can’t attack anybody else and all anybody ever sees of it after that is those glowing red eyes in the darkness. It’s quite imaginative and it’s entertaining and well-told. Don’t expect scholarly work or take anything about the spiritual practices of the characters as representative of actual conjure practices – this is fiction and it doesn’t pretend not to be, and I wouldn’t hit a hog in the behind with the portrayal of some of the “conjure” in here, but as a short story, it’s pretty good.

She doesn’t cite any sources – again, it’s not trying to be scholarly work – and while she doesn’t indicate what resources, written or oral, she used in writing these short stories, she does have a bibliography at the end. But as it stands, I have no idea where she heard the story of Old Red Eyes and how much of her tale is part of the larger oral tradition versus detail she added for narrative purposes to make a short story work, so it didn’t really get me anywhere in my search for Mae’s Red Eyes. But as a collection of spooky stories from Florida, it’s worth reading for sure. She’s pretty good at finding a way into these old legends without just repeating/rehashing, and she fleshes them out into actual stories with believable characterization and period details. If you like ghost lore, you should like her books – and she has a slew of them based on lore of different regions.

Continue reading “Red Eyes (and Black Dogs and Water Spirits)”