This blog originates on the banks of the Atchafalaya River, in Louisiana. It proposes to share the things that happen on and by the river as the seasons progress. As the river changes from quiet, warm, slow flow to rises of eighteen feet or more, there are changes in the lives of the birds, fish, amphibians and reptiles that use the river. And the mood of the river changes with the seasons. I propose to note and comment on these things.

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Location: Butte La Rose, Louisiana, United States

I transitioned a few years ago from a career as a water-pollution control biologist. I want to do this blog to stay in touch with a world outside my everyday surroundings, whatever they may be. I like open-minded company and the discussion of ideas. Photo by Brad Moon.

Friday, March 06, 2009

Basin Medicine

For people who lived in the Atchafalaya Basin, medicine was delivered in one of two methods, either the issue was immediately life-threatening and some means to get to a doctor was employed, no matter how long it took, or the situation was thought to be treatable using local techniques. Health-related issues that required a long trip to a doctor were things like appendicitis, persistent toothache, bone felon, stroke and typhoid fever. In the early part of the 1900s, this involved long boat rides to Morgan City. After 1950, the Myette Point community was settled and doctors in Franklin were accessible over land. Many things did not seem to be strictly life threatening. These things that did not seem to be considered a trip-to-town emergency were sunstroke, pneumonia, boils, colds, fevers, tetanus, infections, bad cuts including near amputations, nail punctures, unknown serious bites, snakebites, and croup. Two of these, pneumonia and tetanus, will be discussed below.

Pneumonia, or what was considered pneumonia, was treated at home. The treatment is described this way by Agnes Bailey and her daughter Dorothy Couvillier. They talk about how Myon Bailey, Dorothy’s father, would treat his children for pneumonia symptoms.

DC: But you see, then, you couldn’t jump in the car and go to a doctor. You had to go to Morgan City. [when] We caught pneumonia and stuff, Momma used to keep what they call flannels. Yeah, and I remember them things.

JD: What was it like Dot?

AB: A piece of material.

DC: Yeah, and it used camphor.

JD: About a foot by a foot? Piece of material? Like a piece of carpet square?

AB: Yeah, you could buy it by the yard in them times. You can’t…you don’t see it no more, now.

DC: And they’d soak that in camphor. That’s what it was, eh Mom, camphor?

AB: Umhm. And turpentine.

DC: And they’d treat pneumonia with that.

JD: How?

DC: Put it…put it in that hot stuff…turpentine and camphor…

AB: Myon would put it in a skillet, and he’d put all his stuff in there. And he’d, Jim, I seen him get his hands so burnt, that he couldn’t hardly do nuttin with em, they were so burnt. Messin with those kids.

JD: Tell me about how he would treat with that, though…

AB: He’d put his, uh, cloth in the skillet, and he had two. He’d put one [on their backs] and he’d take one hot, hot, hot and then he’d stick it on em. It’d get cold, he’d come back and get that one, and put the other one.

JD: For pneumonia. That’s all he treated was pneumonia, not….

DC: Well, and bad cold, and things like that. Milton had pneumonia one time, and uh, we was, uh, at Blue Point. And he treated him all night. We kept that. We kept that medicine all the time. And, uh, next morning he told his daddy, “Daddy? What you did with those dirty rags you had?” He say, “Well, don’t worry about them dirty rags”. [chuckles] We saved those dirty rags.

JD: Why did you remember em so badly [strong memory].

DC: Because I had pneumonia several times, and they treated me like that.

JD: It wasn’t pleasant?

DC: It was hot! And it stink to high heaven. I can remember em treating me with that.

JD: Did it bring you any relief that you could tell, when they were doin it?

DC: Oh yeah! The next morning…if you…they could tell we had pneumonia by pressin…I could tell now if I have pneumonia now… by pressin on the back and the breathing. And they’d start that, all night maybe, and all day. But in a couple days you was up and around.

JD: Is that right? Well, did you have fever with that too?

AB: Sure.

Something else that would be of serious concern was tetanus. People doing fishing for a living will always stick things into themselves – hooks, fish fins, nails of various kinds, etc. A remedy for tetanus and other infections that was heavily used in the Bailey family was something called whiskey roaches. It was used as an antiseptic as well as taken internally for tetanus-like conditions like red streaks on the limbs extending from the infected site, and sometimes the clamped-jaw symptom defining the name “lockjaw” for the disease. In the memories of all the interviewees, no one could recall anyone dying of tetanus, but they could recall some who had the symptoms and were treated with whiskey roaches and got well. The preparation of the mixture is very simple. Just catch some of the large, outdoor mostly, roaches and drown them in a bottle of whiskey. Ten roaches in a pint of whiskey was typical. As they drown you can see a clear, viscous substance releasing from their bodies and dissolving into the alcohol. Whether there was some factor in the roaches that was an antimicrobial agent is unknown, but the treatment has strong advocates. Certainly the alcohol in the mixture would have been somewhat antiseptic. Sometimes a poultice of lard and roaches was prepared with whiskey and this was applied to infections to “draw the head”. It is also said to have been very effective on boils. The origin of this roaches and whiskey preparation is uncertain but it is known by the Canary Islanders in St. Bernard Parish. Myon Bailey was the first member of his family group to begin using it and urging others to do so. He may have learned of it from the Chitimacha Indians at Charenton, though this is speculation. Although no one would be advised to use this remedy in today’s world where tetanus prevention is just an injection away, his surviving children still maintain the preparation to be used as an antiseptic. His daughter Lena Mae and her husband Edward Couvillier give this information about treating tetanus-like symptoms, and other infections, with whiskey roaches.

LC: That roach and whiskey, that’s something we never run out of. And I still use it.

JD: But, for what?

EC: Infection.

LC: You infection yourself, or something…get blood poison…you can see the red streak comin up, you know, on your arm or anywheres You start rubbin with that roach and whiskey.

JD: …you don’t drink it?

LC: If it don’t stop you drink it too. Yeah, and uh, [Milton had an infection and] he couldn’t get a doctor, you know, so they had to go to Medric’s [Medric Martin’s store], call a doctor and wait for him there to come to the Point [Myette Pt.]. … Milton did, I guarantee you he had lockjaw. So Daddy went and got the roaches and whiskey… says “Son, I hate to make you take this”. He couldn’t open his mouth. So Daddy kind of pried his [jaw open] a lil bit…enough…and dropped two teaspoon [of the medicine in his mouth]. [by the] time the doctor got home, he didn’t have no more lockjaw. [the doctor] he say “I don’t know what yall done”.

JD: How long did it take the doctor to get there, after that, you think?

LC: I guess about an hour and a half, two hours.

JD: It would work that fast, eh?

LC: And uh, when he got home he say “He ain’t got no more lockjaw, what yall did?” And we told him what we did, he say “Well, yall did the right thing cause he don’t have no more lockjaw”.

JD: And you still make whiskey roaches for a disinfectant, like? Is that what you’re talking about, for a disinfectant? You get a cut or something, you spread…put in on there? [she nods]

LC: You take tallow, you get one of them roaches out of there? You want to put it on a wound, or something, you know? And you take that tallow and mix it good with that roach and keep dropping a lil whiskey as you mix it And make you a poult [a poultice?] with that, put that on a rag, put that on there. Next day you get up you ain’t got no more red streak, you ain’t got nothing.

EC: Honey is good too.#. Aw yeah. Good for a lot of things. #.

JD: Well, I’ve told the whiskey roaches to some people and nobody’s ever heard of that. That’s something that…

LC: Never heard of it? Who was it not too very long ago that…not too very long ago. And I told em about that, he didn’t believe me. I went and got the bottle… I say…Fanny [that’s who it was], she had a thing come up on her knuckle. It was red, and hard, hard, hard. And uh, she come here with that and boy one day it was bad. She had a red streak coming up her hand. “I got to get to the hospital” she says. I say “Wait”. I got my bottle of roaches and whiskey…we settin on the swing, in fact…I poured some on there…I say “Rub it in”. Started rubbin it in. A little while later I went and put her some more, she rubbed it some more. She got ready, she went home, I say “Here, take the bottle with you”. And I say “Do like we doin here” She took it with her, she did. And next morning she come, and she told Bonita [LC daughter], she say “Look at it”. Bonita looked at it, she tooked a needle, and she just touched it, and all that pus come out of there, got better, she ain’t had no more problems with it. I don’t know what it is about it, but something pullin infection out.

JD: …you always known about…about whiskey roaches? I mean, your momma did it, your daddy did it…

LC: Oh, Daddy believe in that! Ho man, he believed in that!

As to whether it was a widespread remedy, it appears that maybe it was not. People in the Blue Point/Myette Point area of Grand Lake seem to have used it but people like Edward Couvillier’s family from farther north in the Hog Island area did not.

In our time, when the treatment of a minor skin irritation requires the attention of someone with ten years of specific training, it is good to have a reminder of what we may do if left to our own inventiveness. Home remedies for serious things did have good results and the continued use of them resulted from beneficial outcomes most of the time. No doubt there were some disappointments too. Russell Daigle spent much of life, and all of his childhood, in the Basin on a houseboat, and he had these words to share with us.

“I guess, uh…aw hell, Jim, there ain’t nobody really got sick them days. When, uh, right now they get a cold, run to the doctor, or they get to feel bad they go to the doctor. Them days you just set and waited it out, let the body heal itself. That’s what we used to do. I caught the flu one time, uh, remember that time we brought that lumber, to that mill to have sawed to build that barge? I caught the flu right there. And I stayed in bed for about 10 days. And I didn’t go to no doctor. And uh, we didn’t run to the doctor for every lil thing that would…now they tell you eat this, don’t eat that, that ain’t no good for you! People lived just as long then, as they do now, if not longer. And now they tell you what you can eat, what’s good for you and what ain’t no good. They tell you you got high cholesterol, everybody got high cholesterol these days. They never had no such a thing like that them days! [laughs] I guess they had a few deaths that could have been avoided, but most people lived to be a ripe old age.” [Russell Daigle, 1996]


The pictures here are all native plants that had some use in home therapies.

The river is at 9.2 feet on the Butte La Rose gauge, staying there for a week or so. The Mississippi and Ohio are kind of morose.

Rise and Shine, Jim


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