An Unusual Use for a Scorpion: Folk Medicine in the Dorson Collection

By Katherine Reed, PhD candidate, University of Manchester

The Lilly library has a wonderful collection of folklore field notes taken by Richard Dorson (the “father of folklore” who was a professor at IU from 1957 to 1981), his students and colleagues.  They range from ghost stories and drinking songs to wince-inducing jokes based on long-gone stereotypes.

Angelina Flaccadori
Angelina Flaccadori O’Berti outside her home in New Swanzey in 1946 . Dorson mss. Box 56, f. 17.

Delving into the collection as part of my PhD research on immigration history, I came across an intriguing list of folk remedies recounted by a first-generation Italian immigrant named Angelina Flaccadori O’Berti.  Born in Bergamo, in Northern Italy, Mrs. O’Berti came to the United States at age 27 in around 1908.  Although not trained in medicine, she was “an indispensable friend to everyone in the neighborhood” because of her skills in midwifery and practical nursing.   Moreover, the field notes, taken by researcher Aili Johnson, comment that Mrs. O’Berti was “a gifted teller of tales.”   During the interview, Mrs. O’Berti went into her garden and collected some of the herbs needed for the cures – malva, bitter grass and tansy – which 70 years later are still taped to the page.

Here are some of Mrs. O’Berti’s suggested remedies (these are not endorsed by the Lilly Library!):

Field notes about Mrs. O'Berti's folk remedies.
Field notes about Mrs O’Berti’s folk remedies by researcher Aili Johnson . Dorson mss. Box 56, f. 17.
  • Removing warts requires patience. First, rub with salted pork.  Second, tie a string around the wart.  Third, bury the string.  Once the string has rotted, the wart will go.
  • Painful boils should be smeared with honey.
  • Her teacher, back in the 1890s, used to trap scorpions he saw in the classroom (“very carefully with the coal tongs lest he get bitten”) and soak them in a jar of olive oil. After several years, the oil would thicken.  This was used as a lotion for cuts.
  • Laundry soap rubbed on a sty “brings it to a head.”
  • Mrs O’Berti had a robust faith in garlic (“even the smell of garlic will kill pinworms”), while watered-down linseed could be used for both stomach complaints and hair setting lotion.

Katherine Reed is a History PhD student from the University of Manchester taking part in the John Rylands Research Institute/Lilly Library Doctoral Research and Training Programme. Read more about the exchange program here.

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