Taking the Cure

Never Cut Your Nails on Sunday

And other peculiar remedies from our quaint American past

By Nan Graham

We are doing all we can to ward off our modern pandemic monster: COVID-19. Masks, social distancing, Purell, even our homemade version with alcohol and aloe vera are standard in homes worldwide. This isn’t new. Epics of plague and pestilence begin with recorded history . . . a fascinating mélange of myth and medicine.

We speak of disaster of Biblical proportion recorded in Exodus. Egypt was beset by the 10 plagues of frogs, locusts, lice, and ultimately death to the firstborn. Bizarre cures for victims of smallpox epidemics, as well as the disease itself in times of the last emperors, contributed to the fall of the Roman Empire. The Black Death in the Middle Ages wiped out one-third of Europe’s population. Possibly 200 million souls.

Early legend has it that upon stepping out of the Garden of Eden after Adam and Eve’s hasty exit, Satan inadvertently created garlic and onion. From the left footprint sprang garlic and from the right . . . onions. Both eventually came to be common cures for stricken plague victims. The fatal flaw in this story: If Satan in Eden presented as a serpent . . . how could he leave a footprint? Just sayin’.

Nevertheless, garlic and onion combined with honey have both been touted as medicinal miracles in times of epidemics. During the Bubonic plague, these remedies with other ointments and syrups added mystical elements to the mixtures: spells, incantations, most were rhymes. Think “Ring around the rosie, pocket full of posies” — an ineffective strategy, since this baleful ditty ends with “Ashes, ashes, we all fall down.”

Some of the sick souls endured the holistic treatment of putting a living frog in the patient’s mouth to inhale the disease. Happily, for the patient and frog, both were released when the patient’s mouth finally opened and the unhappy amphibian escaped to his lily pad, hoping to turn into Prince Charming one day.

Such panaceas, especially those rhyming ones, may have eased the patient’s mental suffering, despite having zero organic effect on the actual disease. Contrary to modern science, sneezes were considered lucky for the sneezer. Not so much for the sneezee. The claim was that an achoo blew off plague, evil and pestilence.

There was even an ancient prophecy to sort out what to expect of a sneeze by each day of the week:

Sneeze on Monday . . . get a letter; Sneeze on Tuesday . . . something better; Sneeze on Wednesday . . . sneeze for danger (poor Wednesday: “full of woe” day to be born and for sneezing”); on a Thursday . . . meet a stranger; sneeze on Friday . . . for some sorrow; on a Saturday . . . see friend tomorrow. Note: Apparently, no sneezing permitted on Sunday. The day doesn’t even make an appearance in the rhyme.

Superstitions from those days are endless. Never cut your nails on a Sunday, the saying goes, or you will be in danger of ill health all week. To help a patient sleep, roll cobwebs into a pill-size ball and encourage to swallow. Actually, cobwebs have long been used to stop minor bleeding from small cuts. Garlands of the plant Rue were worn around the neck to protect the wearer from the Black Death. A wild pansy boutonniere is an old charm for “gladdening the heart,’’ something we could all use these days. The problem is, where do we find a wild pansy confined in our own home practicing “shelter in place”?

Sadly, plagues are not new to Wilmington or North Carolina. The yellow fever epidemic here during the worst of Civil War days in 1862 caused nearly 700 deaths. In the tiny graveyard behind our county’s oldest surviving church structure, Lebanon Chapel in Airlie Gardens, rest victims of the yellow fever epidemic.

In more modern times, the 1918 influenza pandemic, also called the Spanish Flu or Spanish Lady, wiped out families and was particularly severe among young people. But on September 14, 1918, Wilmington, then a prospering town of 30,000 souls, thought it to be “the common cold” until patient numbers began to double every day. Fevers soared to 104 degrees. Within four days, 400 native Wilmingtonians had the “Blue Death,” another grim nickname for its oxygen-deprived victims. Even with lockdown, influenza case numbers exploded. More than half who contracted the disease died, 250 Port City residents. Suddenly, it was over.

Scarlet fever frequently raged through the population, even during my lifetime. My great uncle Johnny was stone deaf after a severe case of scarlet fever. I had it during World War II, when I was 6 years old. The family was quarantined in the house. I was stuck alone in a bedroom. An official printed sign from the Health Department was nailed to our front door:

NO ENTRY HERE! QUARANTINED!

BY ORDER OF THE HEALTH DEPARTMENT

My older sister was confined to the house and even today complains about the severity of her siege. My best friend Nita caught the fever from me and ended up losing all her hair from her high fever. Her mother made her a cunning little white muslin cap to wear until her hair grew back. I was pea green with envy. My cousin Matt came by to visit and stood outside my closed window in his Army uniform and sang to me. Even better, he was a wizard with a yo-yo . . . this handsome young man performed astounding tricks: Walking the Dog, Round the World, and my favorite — Rocking the Baby. An indelible image seared into my memory. Later we got word that he was killed in the Battle for Brest in France. He was 26 years old.

Polio was a lifestyle-changer in my childhood. No one knew what caused the crippling summertime disease. So summers meant statewide lockdown. We were forbidden to go to the swimming pool or the movies. It was early “social distancing.” With no immunization for the dreaded disease, the outcome was usually severe. I paged through photographs of patients in Life magazine, mostly bedridden children, some on crutches or worse still, in iron lungs. Terrifying!

Mama’s mantra to us emerging from a romp under the backyard hose: “Take those wet bathing suits off right this minute. Don’t forget, FDR got polio from sitting around in a wet bathing suit!” (This warning is to be filed with Mama’s litany of questionable medical advice: “Don’t use that new-fangled roll-on deodorant. It causes cancer of the armpit. Only use MUM!”)

It amazes me when people today say no one knew FDR was crippled by polio. In first grade we bought March of Dimes stamps with our meager allowances because our dear president had contracted polio and was lame. Everyone did know, but in deference to FDR, photos were not taken. Roosevelt wanted to maintain the image of strength as the leader of our country in World War II and so soldiered on despite his infirmity. It was a lesson to us all.

So, we are in for the test. When this is over, let’s grade our reaction to our own 21st-century pandemic. “Social distancing,” instead of garlands of Rue; sheltering at home, instead of frogs in the mouth; and gratitude to our courageous first responders instead of continuous whining, is our goal. Together, now, let’s earn an A plus. We’ve got this.

Nan Graham gives special thanks to the long-suffering Molly Graham Allred for her extraordinary transcription skills.

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