"Sure Cure": Folk Remedies for Smallpox, Snakebite and More

Preserved in a museum archive, a 150-year-old medical log spells out old remedies that predate our modern understanding of diseases, their causes, and their cures.

  • Folk remedies for many ailments were commonly shared by pioneers traveling the westward trails in the mid 1800s.
    Photo by istock/chamillewhite
  • Elias Slagle collected folk remedies throughout his lifetime, and recorded them in a book that survives today in a Missouri museum.
    Photo by Jim Long
  • The cover of Elias Slagle's book.
    Photo by Jim Long
  • Deciphering Slagle's handwriting and spelling intrigued Jim Long.
    Photo by Jim Long

Old herbal remedies have interested me most of my life. Seven years ago, a friend sent me a newspaper clipping about a medical diary filled with folk cures that had been given to a museum. My interest was piqued, and I made the three-hour trip to visit with the curator and view the manuscript.

Elias Slagle began recording folk remedies in this book (pictured in the slideshow) while he lived in Ohio as a young man in the 1850s. I studied the book carefully, struggling to decipher the gentleman’s penmanship. I used historical texts to research some of the plants and terms that Slagle refers to because many of the terms common to pioneer medicine are no longer in use.

The Slagle diary became, for me, a delightful mystery book. It could take days to track down an archaic term or colloquially named herb. An example is cayenne pepper — spelled alternately as “cian,” “kain,” and “ceyene” — which was brought to the United States on the Santa Fe Trail in the 1830s and 1840s, and appeared in several old remedies. Here are a few quotations from Slagle’s diary (in italics), followed by my interpretation of them.

Smallpox Cure

“By the use of cream of tartar, take an ounce of cream of tartar dissolved in a pint of water and drink at intervals after cooling, is a certain, never-failing remedy. It had cured thousands never leaves a scar — never causes blindness.”

Smallpox was a highly contagious, disfiguring, and often deadly disease. The vaccine, developed in the late 1700s, wasn’t widely available during Slagle’s youth. Newspapers were full of smallpox cures, and Slagle listed several treatment variations in his book. He clearly valued that this formula was printed in a newspaper as proof of having “cured thousands.”


“One gallon of alcohol, one pound of gum Murr, 1 ounce of Cian pepper, 1 ounce of camphoor.”



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