From the April 28, 1939 edition of the Vineyard Gazette:

The vigor and general physical toughness of the early Vineyarders is a matter of tradition. Their feats of strength and endurance and their almost miraculous recoveries from injuries and illnesses have been the subject of many an interesting tale. These stories sound almost unbelievable today, but as a matter of fact, the old Vineyarder had to be tough in order to survive the treatment that his body received.

These earnest people did everything in the way of relieving the sick and injured so far as their knowledge permitted, and weird indeed were some of the practices. Tradition and folk tales alone have preserved the details of some of these cases.

Old tales relate how “Bill Athearn had his leg crushed under a falling boat, and old Uncle Bige Nickerson chopped the leg off with a hatchet and cauterized the stump with boiling pitch.” And Bill recovered, strangely enough, and went about his daily occupation for many years, hobbling on a wooden leg made by another of his neighbors.

The written record kept by one of the Island preachers tells of the application of fried oats to the swollen abdomen of a patient evidently suffering from serious organic trouble. Aching teeth were pried or knocked out of the sufferer’s jaw with a hammer and chisel, and wounds were stitched with cobblers’ “waxed-ends” even up to a comparatively recent date, when attended by the handy men of the neighborhood.

“Aunt Samanthy Tilton, suffering from shingles, swallowed a spoonful of crushed sow-bugs,” so tradition relates. And she recovered to live to a ripe old age. Science may yet discover that the sow-bug contains a valuable drug or vitamin.

But the real medicine came from the woods and swamps, and miraculous indeed were the cures effected by the use of herbs prepared by the old people and the Wampanoags. Fever, smallpox, organic diseases, even to cancer, if the tales can be credited, were successfully treated by them. There was living on the Vineyard, a few years ago, a man of great age, who told of having cancer on his lip. An old Wampanoag woman told him to cut a notch in a raw onion, and fit it over the growth, keeping it there as much of the time as possible. This he did, but impatient because of the slow progress of recovery, he finally went to the mainland and saw a doctor. The doctor declared that the cancer was indeed disappearing, and advised the continuance of the treatment. Eventually it disappeared, never to cause further trouble.

Such are the tales of medical practice in early times. Leeches could be found in the swamp pools, when bruises had to be treated. Nearly every house contained among is treasures, eyestones, pink and white ovals, which were slid beneath the eyelids and which were supposed to slide around and collect any foreign matter that might have lodged there. Splints, hewn out with a hatchet and scraped smooth with broken glass, were to be found in many homes, kept in case of need, and home-made salves of questionable potency were nearly always to be found.

The amount of tea, brewed from thorowort, kidneywort, tansey, catnip and penyroyal, consumed by the oldtimers, was sufficient to float the traditional ship and several small boats besides, while each particular faction or locality had its own particular cure-all, which was guaranteed to “do anyone good,” regardless of the complaint. Thus some pinned their faith to red pepper tea, others a concoction of marsh rosemary, still others used sassafras root and twigs and not a few a syrup made from the root of mullein. This last was supposed to be very effective in cases of consumption or tuberculosis.

Liniments, used extensively by all people, were concocted on a base of rum or alcohol, usually the former. Balm of Gilhead buds, pungent, sticky and allegedly poisonous, were soaked in the rum, and applied to bruises, lame joints and rheumatic limbs.

Poultices were a popular remedy for everything from pneumonia to toothache and everything was used in them from bread and milk to crushed snails, pulverized insects and the entrails of animals, depending on the ailment to be treated.

Objects lodged in the throats of children or careless diners were extracted with anything from a fishhook to the fireplace tongs, and when those appliances had failed, the sufferer was tickled with feathers on the theory that “if ‘twould do no good it would do no harm,” and causes were recorded in memory, at least, when the curious treatment caused laughter or convulsions that loosened the object and saved the patient.

But the race survived, in spite of such abuse, and the very great hardships of those times have implanted a characteristic respect in Islanders for the trained doctor an surgeon, who came into the Island picture to relieve a situation that had become difficult for even the most hardy people to endure.

Compiled by Hilary Wallcox