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”

Jesus Malverde Community Altar Service starts tonight

Have a vigil light set and worked on my Jesus Malverde altar in community altar work service beginning on Monday, May 3rd, which serves as the feast day of this folk saint. There is some wiggle room and you can join up after the work starts as long as you see that there are still spots left and it doesn’t say “sold out.”

Jesus Malverde, also known as the Angel of the Poor or the Generous Bandit, is a folk saint who is said to have lived and died in late 19th/early 20th century Sinaloa, Mexico. His reputation as a sort of Robin Hood figure began before his death, as the legend has it; he targeted the rich, redistributed the money and goods he stole to the poor, and basically spent his life on the wrong side of the law but by all accounts on the right side of morality.

While many details of his life and death are the stuff of legend and as such unverifiable and certainly prone to dramatic embroidery, what’s undisputable is that he has a solid reputation for responding to the prayers and petitions of his devotees, especially those who find themselves running afoul of the law due to poverty and corruption. 

Since the 1970s, he’s gained greater notoriety in the public eye as a narco saint — the patron saint of drug dealers and smugglers — and that is how many folks beyond the borders of Mexico who hear of him categorize him, increasingly so since the 1990s. But to dismiss him as merely a narco saint and his devotees as drug kingpins and criminals is to ignore the lived realities of the faithful in a complex world where things aren’t always so black and white – where sometimes breaking the law is the right thing (or the only thing) to do, where justice isn’t blind, where the distribution of wealth is immoral, where there is government corruption and the police aren’t always on the right side of the law – humanity’s or God’s.

His devotees petition him to have enough food for their children, for safety in dangerous lines of work (including but definitely not limited to smuggling), and to get them out of legal difficulties, as you might expect from a bandit folk saint. But they also tell of how he miraculously cured their illnesses, returned lost or stolen property, even helped them get *off* drugs and get their lives on firmer footing. 

His reputation as a narco saint has blossomed only over the last 40 or so years and not without a good bit of help from the media. His reputation as the Angel of the Poor and the Generous Bandit, however, long predates the sensationalist “narco saint” appellation, and as a folk saint, there’s a lot more to him than this. So it would be appropriate to petition him for pretty much anything related to living a life that is in some way “on the margins” or precarious or dangerous. It would also be suitable to use this service as an opportunity to “introduce yourself” to Jesus Malverde if you’ve been thinking you wanted to learn more about him but haven’t begun working with him yet.

If you are experiencing financial difficulties, you do not have to pay for a spot in the vigil service in order to have your name and petition included in my prayers and offerings to Jesus Malverde on May 3rd. You can simply submit your name and petition via the intake form and in place of the service/order #, type “jesus malverde prayers only.” There is no cost for the prayers-only option, though if you’d like to, you can make an optional donation in any amount you wish to help offset the cost of time and materials used, and in this case, I will set at least a votive light for you to burn for a few hours, depending on the number of reduced rate/pro bono requests I get for this service.

I’ve been doing some sort of pro bono or reduced rate/pay what you can service every month since COVID began to help those who need spiritual help but can’t afford to book private services. And I’m happy to present your petitions and pray for you as part of my own thanks to Jesus Malverde. Remember, when Jesus Malverde answers your prayers and grants your petitions, you should “pay” the saint by making a donation to the poor. Don’t protest that you are the poor and therefore you’re exempt from this duty – there’s *always* someone poorer than you. You must participate in the spiritual economy, which with Jesus Malverde is always already a financial one as well, and approach him with open rather than closed hands. Make sure you keep your side of the bargain!

Please note that community altar work services do not come with individual readings/reports, though I will post at least one photo of the work to the Discord “forum” for clients, which you’ll receive an invitation to after you book your vigil service spot.

Read more or book your spot at SeraphinStation.com.

If you’d like to make a donation to help offset the cost of pro bono and reduced rate services that I provide for folks experiencing income instability and career challenges during this COVID mess, you can do so here. (Offsite PayPal link)

16th century Aztec charm to cross water safely

This slightly complex charm to cross a river or running water safely requires the traveler to apply juice from the plants called yauhtli [1] and tepepapaloquilitl [2] to the chest, to have the stones beryl and sardonyx as well as an oyster [3], and to keep the eyes of a large fish enclosed securely in the mouth.

The beryl is to be held in the hand. It’s unclear to me from the manuscript whether the sardonyx and the oyster are also held in the hand or kept in the mouth with the fish eyes.

Near as I can tell, these herbs are specified because they are sacred to the god Tlaloc, the lord of rain and celestial waters.

I think I’d need a charm to help me be brave enough to try this charm.

Tagetes lucida at Botanischer Garten Erlangen. By manfred.sause@volloeko.de – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons

Notes

[1] Mexican marigold, Tagetes lucida

[2] lit. mountain butterfly weed; could be another type of marigold, or Porophyllum punctatum, or one of a number of plants called deer herb depending on who you ask.

[3] Probably. The translator was not entirely sure. If it’s an oyster, it would be sans shell.

Sources

The De La Cruz-Badiano Aztec Herbal of 1552. William Gates, trans. The Maya Society, Baltimore: 1939, p. 103.

“Four Hundred Flowers: The Aztec Herbal Pharmacopoeia, Part 1, Yauhtli and Cempoalxochitl.” Mexicolore. 27 Jan. 2008. Accessed 25 April 2021. Available at http://www.mexicolore.co.uk/aztecs/health/aztec-herbal-pharmacopoeia-part-1.

Nixtamal99. “Porophyllum punctatum.” Masa Americana. 27 July 2019. Accessed 25 April 2021. Available at masaamerica.food.blog/2019/07/27/porophyllum-punctatum/.

Nixtamal99. “Tepepapaloquilitl.” Masa Americana. 27 July 2019. Accessed 25 April 2021. Available at masaamerica.food.blog/2019/07/27/tepepapaloquilitl/.