A nineteenth-century traveler’s book of cures, many of them herbal, offers both entertainment and historical insight.
Old herbal formulas have interested me since I was in the fourth grade. I kept dozens of messy notebooks filled with recipes, formulas, folklore, and ideas that caught my attention. I read and recorded remedies from old books and sometimes clipped them from newspapers.
Seven years ago my lifelong friend Marge sent me a newspaper clipping with a story about a diary that had been given to a museum by an estate. The article described it as a medical diary and gave some history of the man who had kept it throughout his life. My interest was piqued, and I made the three-hour trip to visit with the museum curator.
The diary had been started by eighteen-year-old Elias Slagle while he lived in Ohio. I was especially excited about the early date—1853. The young man had started collecting medical formulas at the end of the Santa Fe Trail era and before the Civil War began. I got permission to make a photocopy.
As Slagle traveled across the country, heading west, he avidly collected medicinal formulas in the towns he visited. For the past several years I have been studying his collected formulas, which include few personal notations.
Of the forty or so pages in the diary, at least three-fourths of the remedies Slagle recorded are herb-based. He has kept the spelling, or the misspelling, used by the author of each formula. For example, in his remedy for influenza, a serious illness at that time, he writes, “Take one ounce of Shugar Candy, 2 ounces Gum Arabic, 1/2 ounce liquorice. Let them be broken in a mortar, then dissolved in one pint boiling water. When the mixture is cold add to it two tablespoons fulls of good Antimonial wine.” He misspells several words, yet in other places the same words are correctly spelled. The flu remedy was basically a cough syrup, of little use beyond easing a sore throat.
I’ve studied the book carefully, getting stuck on the gentleman’s penmanship, stalling on words I don’t recognize. Many of those words or terms are long out of use, which has led me to search through antique bookstores for mid-nineteenth-century texts. I have collected quite a few ancient out-of-print medical texts, which I use to research some of the plants and terms that Slagle refers to. Several of the plant names have changed, and many of the medical terms have gone out of use.
The Slagle diary has turned into a delightful mystery book. It can take days to track down an archaic term or colloquially named herb. An example is cayenne pepper—spelled “cian” in some places, “kain” in some, and “ceyene” in others—which was brought back to the East from the Santa Fe Trail in the 1830s and 1840s and found its way into several remedies of that time.
Some remedies in Slagle’s book seem to refer to even earlier times. For instance, in his “Cure for Rattlesnake Bite,” he offers this remedy: “Take the yolk of an good egg and pit it in a teacup; stir in with it as much salt as will make it thick enough not to run off. Spread it as a plaster and apply it to the wound and we will insure your life for a sixpence.” As far as I can tell, monetary denominations such as the sixpence haven’t been used since Colonial times, which dates the remedy to early America.
Slagle’s “Colory to Cure” (meaning cholera, spelled correctly in another entry) includes no directions, simply the ingredients of 1 quart best brandy, 1/2 ounce kain pepper, one sinnamon (cinnamon) and one of cloves and allspice, each. The formula wouldn’t have done much for cholera but it would have been a pleasant-tasting concoction, and the brandy may have given hope to those in the sickroom.
Hidden within the pages of the crumbling old diary are bits of humor, insights into fear of diseases of that time, and hope found in the plants that might deter or cure a particular illness. I feel close to Slagle because he started collecting his remedies as a young man, much the way I started collecting mine. I continue to read and reread the book for its mysteries and still unidentified herbs, cataloging and explaining as I go.
Jim Long is an herbalist and the owner of Long Creek Herb Farm in Oak Grove, Arkansas.