Superstitions as a Window Into Culture: Whooping Cough Cures

As Dragon*Con approached, I gathered my thoughts and made notes for a panel about superstition. As you might imagine, while as a general skeptic I have some opinions about the matter, I found that I was having a hard time conjuring examples on the fly.


Dragon*Con Superstition Panel: Kylie Sturgess, Bob Blaskiewicz, Steve Novella, Stephen King, Barbara Drescher (photo by Maria Walters)

Enter Opie and Tatem’s Oxford Dictionary of Superstitions, which I picked up and started reading a few weeks ago. It opens with a surprising use for adulterers: if you secretly rub your warts on them, you will be cured. Personally, I think that this was more likely an adulterer detection test–rub your warts on the suspected adulterer and if the warts clear up, well, it’s a mixed blessing.

The volume focuses on the folk wisdom and superstitions in the British Isles, but I find that by reading them, really do get a sense of the ways of life of the people who embraced the practices. In fact, the type of superstitions that you encounter can tell you a lot about the region it comes from. In a fishing community, if you saw a bowl turned over, you might be wary of going out in your boat for fear of capsizing. In a mining town, if you found your work shoes tipped over in the morning, you might be excused for not going down in the hole that day. Superstitions reflect the fears, hopes and values of the people who harbor them.

You can tell a lot about the lives from people from what they fear. As most of the superstitions in the Oxford Dictionary date from the 19th century and earlier (there was intense interest in “collecting” folklore in the 19th century), they reflect the concerns of rural, largely agricultural communities, for instance, warding off droughts and keeping your pollinating bees in the loop about the head of the household’s health. Hives were abandoned, however, and droughts still occurred, perpetuating the need for the superstitions. But I found something I was not expecting as I sifted through this tome, something that spawned so many proposed cures and protections in all ages across the British Isles that it must have been a matter of near-obsessive concern–whooping cough.

Now, the compilers of the dictionary did not miss the importance of the themes running through the superstitions, so even though a whooping cough cure might be listed under “caterpillar” and another under “running water,” those two entries will also be found in the subject index under “whooping cough.” This is a very useful index. Now, the dates that I am giving here are approximate–sometimes the source is a printed interview of remembering their childhood–for the most part, however, the superstition was alive within the lifetime of someone living when the reference was made. Also, I should point out that with a single exception, the metaphorical interpretations that follow are my own, though I think that they are realistically plausible speculations.

A number of clear themes in British superstitions surrounding whooping cough emerge from the catalog assembled by Opie and Tatem. One motif that sticks out–and illustrates that everyone knew exactly what was at stake when a child contracted whooping cough–is the theme of burial, which appears in a number of guises. The most straightforward example is the practice, recorded in the 1830s, of “dipping the persons affected nine times in an open grave” (49). Modified versions of this dipping practice–perhaps an allusion to baptism, or possibly trying to “fake out” death by pseudo-burial–appear at other times as well. One that is clearly related is to take a child to a mill and dipping them in the hopper. As late as the early 20th century, people recalled patients being taken to a grain mill during an epidemic, and the miller starting up the mill and saying, “In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost, grind away this disease.” You might have to repeat this several times for optimal results (248). A shallower burial might suffice, when one digs a shallow hole and puts the patient face down to breathe into it, possibly to bury only the disease itself (48). Another version was to take a child into a cave. In the 1810s, one might seek to propitiate the “aerial beings” by taking the child into a cave and chanting: “Hob-hole Hob! my bairn’s got kink-cough: take’t off; take’t off” (67). Opie and Tatem found a machine age variation on this theme, hanging the head of a child out of the window of a train going through a tunnel (321), because if fresh coal smoke doesn’t cure an irritated respiratory system, I don’t know what will.

Cures for whooping cough often involved a surprisingly large amount of cruelty to very small animals. For instance, there is a whole suite of superstitions that involve hanging something from the afflicted’s neck. The whooping cough, of course, constricts the airways of very small children, and the attention to the neck may reflect an application of the magical cure to the site of the problem. In the 1850s, one might take a caterpillar and put it in a little bag around a baby’s neck. As the caterpillar died, so did the cough abate (64). a decade later, you might take a dead beetle, hang it around the neck of a child with whooping cough and as the bug rotted away, the cough vanished too. In the 1890s, one might take nine hairs off the back of a donkey (there’s that number 9 again), put it in a bag around the neck of the sick kid. When I wondered why the hell one would look at a donkey’s back and say, “Hey, that could be a cure for whooping cough!” I found an interesting photo:


Donkeys have dark crosses on their back! Now this is really interesting, and now I wonder if the story of Jesus riding into Jerusalem on a donkey in the Bible might have been inspired by this probably fairly common sight. The cross then becomes a sort of divine butt-print and an ever-present reminder to the faithful of that particular story. Clever that! [Note: see Pacal’s excellent correction below!] Also, this suggests reasons for a really bizarre cure, passing the child underneath a donkey, which was recorded in the 1820s and remembered as late as the 1930s (122-123). This also seems to be related to a few other practices, for instance, passing the baby underneath a piebald horse (305). Also, one might pass the child through the arched roots of a bramble bush, specifically cited as a symbolic rebirth (37). Lacking a donkey, you could pass the child under the belly of a piebald horse, whose breath was also thought to be curative (305-306).

Courtesy Bill Atkinson.

Getting back to things that were traditionally hung around the neck of children, items usually associated with squeezing were also employed, including the corset lace of the child’s godmother (with 9 knots in it!) or the garter of the child’s godfather (174-175).

Getting back to cruelty to small animals, in the 1850s, one might pass small snails between the hands of the afflicted and hang them by a string in the chimney. The cough was thought to leave as the snails died. An earlier version involved wrapping a house spider in muslin above the mantle and letting it die. One might also feed the hair of the sick baby to a dog, hiding the hair in bread and butter. If the dog dies, the baby will recover. Lastly, in the 1850, one might consider “[p]utting a trout’s head into the mouth of the sufferer and…letting the trout the breathe into the child’s mouth.” I wonder if this one too had a symbolic association with asphyxiation, though I could be wrong be wrong about that; it was also thought that putting a live toad’s head in your mouth would transfer the sickness to the toad (170). You could also try a soup with nine(!) frogs in it, as was recorded in Yorkshire. For some reason, it was important that nobody saw the frogs as you carried them home and prepared the soup, especially, I imagine, the person who was sick (170).

Trout were considered an important curative, it seems, for whooping cough. An interesting one remembered in the 1930s suggested that drinking milk a trout has been made to swim in would be beneficial. You could also drown the fish in beer, which you then drank (162-3). Other lactic treatments for the “kink-cough” included drinking new milk from a wooden bowl made of holly (201), though ivy-wood bowls worked too (214), and, in the 1860s, “For the Hooping cough . . . let the patient drink some milk which a ferret has lapped” (148).

An especially innovative cure involved feeding afflicted children either roasted or fried mice. Also you could powder mice and put them into the patient’s morning and evening beverage (268), though, as Barbara Drescher observed at the panel, if you add water to powdered mice, you just get mice. Pliny, by the way, thought that serving a boiled mouse to a child cured bedwetting (267-8). Useful little guys.

There are comparatively few overtly religious superstitions. In a practice that went back to at least the 1770s, those afflicted with whooping cough would go to Catholic Chruches to drink out of the challice after Mass, even Jews, it is reported (93-4). Of course, if you don’t like going into churches, you can always fast on a Sunday and carry a sick child to three parishes (298).

A kid with whooping cough is a miserable creature indeed; how could you possibly make him more miserable? Well, how about forcing him to drink seawater at low tide? When he vomited, the sickness was thought to disperse on the tide with the sick (407).

Lastly, two superstitions that I simply can’t even imagine how they were supposed to work. Porridge made over a stream flowing from east to west was thought to be a better remedy than any old porridge (430). Finally, you could give the afflicted a piece of bread made by a woman who has successively married two men, both of whom shared the same last name; this is apparently a variation on the older tradition of taking the bread of a woman who did not have to change her surname when she married (277).

As you can see, the variety and strangeness of the folk cures for whooping cough reveal how horrible the disease was and suggests the lengths that people would go to to cure it. We don’t have these superstitions anymore. We don’t need them. We have safe and effective vaccinations. Adults who have not had a dTap (or tDap) booster in the last 10 years should plan to get vaccinated during their next checkup. Write that down. You don’t do it for yourself as much as you do if to keep clear the narrow airways of children too young to be vaccinated.

Congratulations to Maria Walters, Jamie Bernstein, and the original MoFo herself, Elyse Anders, for the Women Thinking Freely pertussis booster clinic at Dragon*Con. Special thanks to Bill (“The Amazing Bearded Man”) Atkinson of the CDC and the workers from the Cobb County Health Department who made it possible and to the folks at Dragon*Con who put aside space for us. Thanks to Sanofi who donated 100 doses of flu vaccine to the cause of public health, one dose of which I am currently enjoying with minimal autism–it was very popular and we were out quickly. We managed to give out 250 doses of whooping cough and flu vaccine. Next year, we’re going to rock it even harder!

Bob and Eve get shot at Dragon*Con. FLU shot!



Opie, Iona and Moira Tatem. Oxford Dictionary of Superstitions. New York: Oxford UP, 1996.

5 Responses to Superstitions as a Window Into Culture: Whooping Cough Cures

  1. Pacal says:

    Actually the story of Jesus coming into Jerusalem on a Donkey came from an interpretation of Old Testament scripture and not Donkey’s having a cross on their backs.

    In the Gospel of Mathew ch. 21 v.1-11, which describes Jesus’ enterance into Jerusalem in fact quotes the verse, (not completly), as a fullfillment of prophecy for the coming of the Messiah. The passage in question is from The Book of Zechariah, ch. 9, v. 9.

    Rejoice, rejoice, people of Zion! Shout for joy, you people of Jerusalem! Look, you king is coming to you! He comes triumphant and victorious, but humble and riding a donkey – on a colt, the foal of a donkey.

    In fact for the first couple of centuries Christians avoided, quite strongly using the cross as a symbol. The way Jesus died was regarded as utterly humilating and any visual representation of Jesus’ death regarded as sheer bad taste.

    Death by the cross was regarded in Greco-Roman times as both extraordinarily painful but also as utterly humiliating. It was considered a degrading and lowly way to die, fit only for slaves, criminals, rebels and the lowest of the low. So to die in this fashion was considered one of the most terrible ways to kill someone.

    Jesus dying in this fashion was not considered to be something to celebrate visually but something to not display visually. Only as death by the cross became less common and eventually disapeared did representations of crosses become common. In fact the use of crosses in Churches seems to be relatively late and aparantly postdates the relative disaperance of the cross as a method of execution in the area of the Roman Empire.

    I doubt that the apperance of crosses on donkey’s back was the origin of the story of Jesus entering Jerusalem on the back of a donkey.

    • Ken says:

      Matthew in general is the most prophecy-oriented of the Gospels, perhaps because he was writing for a Jewish audience and trying to convince them that Jesus was the promised Messiah. However he doesn’t seem to have been all that secure with the texts and their interpretation. Some have suggested that he was not a native Hebrew speaker.

      This Matthew 21 passage is an example. The Zechariah passage uses a parallel, common in Hebrew poetry, where a thing is named twice in different ways; in this case “mounted on a donkey, a colt, the foal of a donkey”. Matthew appears to have taken this literally, and in his version the disciples get two animals, and Jesus somehow straddles both on his ride into town.

  2. Bob says:

    I like the idea that he is riding the donkeys like they are water skis.

  3. […] – Superstitions. […]

  4. […] exempted by their parents from getting vaccinations for whooping cough. Hrm. Fortunately, there are plenty of remedies for whooping cough that should satisfy even the most fervent opponent of […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: