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.  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.  Medical colleges advised burning gunpowder and using vinegar and camphor.  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!” 
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.” 
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.” 
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”
recent reading roundup: poison, atchafalaya ethnology, faith healing in Louisiana
I don’t have time to summarize anything right now, but I’m hoping if I leave this here, it’ll spur me to do so later.
James H. Diaz. Atlas of Human Poisoning and Envenoming, 2nd ed. Boca Raton: CRC Press, 2014.
Hilda Roberts. “Louisiana Superstitions.” Journal of American Folklore 40: 156 (1927), 144-208.
- We’re gonna have to talk about this one when I have some time. This sure does have some… stuff in it. I mean, totally aside from its being “a product of its age” and all that. The blanket conflation of hoodoo doctors and Cajun traiteurs is a pretty humongous one. This would never get published today, and it’s not because of the language. It’s because of shoddy scholarship / painting with too broad a brush.
F.A. de Caro. “A History of Folklife Research in Louisiana.” Louisiana Folklife: A Guide to the State. Nicholas R. Spitzer, ed. Office of Cultural Development, 1985.
John L. Gibson. Archaeology and Ethnology on the Edges of the Atchafalaya Basin: A Cultural Resources Survey of the Atchafalaya Protection Levees. Center for Archaeology Studies, University of Southwestern Louisiana. Final report to the Department of the Army, New Orleans District, Corps of Engineers, Jun. 1979 – Jan. 1982.
Maida Owens. “Louisiana’s Traditional Cultures: An Overview.” Swapping Stories: Folktales from Louisiana. Carl Lindahl, Maida Owens, and C. Renée Harvison, eds. University Press of Mississippi and the Louisiana Division of the Arts, 1997.
Alec Sonnier. Cajun Traiteurs: Faith Healing on the Bayou / The Cajun Traiteur and Transmission of Cajun Folk Healing Knowledge. Master’s Thesis, Dept. of Anthropology. California State University Northridge, May 2020.
- A quick note that Alec Sonnier’s preface reprints two prayers that a Louisiana traiteuse shared on her Facebook page in early 2020 as the coronavirus epidemic was spreading across the country. You really, really gotta love at least a couple of things about the 21st century – at least a traiteuse sharing healing prayers from her personal practice on social media.
- I don’t know if that was her private Facebook page or what, so I haven’t posted those prayers here. I don’t know if everybody’s the same way about this, but a lot of times those prayers are not for public consumption. I’m not gonna be the one to assume they are. But in his conclusion, Sonnier prints a prayer shared by another traiteur, Mr. George, who received it in a dream. Mr. George said it “can be used by anyone who wishes to be healed of an ailment” and he encouraged people to use it “to help themselves in the healing process” (131). It goes like this:
“Heavenly Father, I call on You right now in a special way. It is through Your power that I was created. Every breath I take, every morning I wake and every moment of every hour, I live under Your power. Father, I ask you now to touch me with that same power, for if You created me from nothing, You can certainly recreate me. Fill me with the healing power of Your spirit. Cast out anything that should not be in me. Mend what is broken. Root out any unproductive cells, open any blocked arteries or veins, and rebuild any damaged areas. Remove all inflammation and cleanse any infection. Let the warmth of Your healing love pass through my body to make new any unhealthy areas, so that my body will function the way You created it to function. And Father, restore me to full health in mind, body and spirit so that I might serve You the rest of my life. I ask this through Jesus Christ Our Lord. Amen.”(Mr. George qtd. in Sonnier 131)
He cites a 2008 article on traiteurs by one Julia Swett, too, which is a name one or two of y’all might know :). But careful, y’all, look – this Sonnier’s father is kin to those Heberts, and you know you gotta watch out for those Heberts!
(Just teasing an Hebert – I’m only playing 🙂 )
recent reading roundup: Becca the traiteur says this shit is real
Here’s journalist Aaron Millar on his 2017 trip to Louisiana, featuring some jazz, some swamp hunting, and a visit to a traiteur, from his Nat Geo UK story “Louisiana: Hoodoo and Voodoo, Ghosts and Graves.”
“Becca Begnaud is a sassy, sweet-looking older woman with warm hugs, gentle eyes and a mouth like a trailer park — surely the only faith healer on the planet to say the words ‘holy shit’ every other sentence. I like her instantly.”
He gets a treatment – for what he doesn’t say, none of our business I guess.
“And then, the strangest thing; for just a moment, it’s as if the river is real, the world disappears and I’m in a kind of peaceful, lucid dream. Afterwards, I open my eyes, but Becca’s already smiling: ‘See, I told you,’ she says. ‘This shit is real.'”
I think I’ll be quoting Becca the traiteur all the damn time.
For a more academic but still quite accessible look at traiteurs, see Julia Swett’s article “French Louisiana Traiteurs” in Folklife in Louisiana. Once I finally get this ship floating on its own again, so to speak, I’m gonna start doing interviews, and Julia’s gonna be one of my first ones.