Archived Story

Moonshine with herbs cured pellagra

Published 10:00pm Tuesday, April 22, 2014

In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, pellagra (a severe Vitamin B3, or niacin, deficiency) was very common among poor Americans whose diets included an abundance of corn, salt pork and molasses.
This was particularly true of many Dark Corner families of that era. All three of the popular food items were poor sources of niacin.
Consequently, family members of all ages developed extreme cases of pellagra, which affected the skin, digestive system and nervous system. This resulted in thick and scaly pigmented rashes on skin that was exposed to sunshine; swollen mouths with inflamed gums or tongue; vomiting and diarrhea; fatigue; depression or disorientation. Sometimes, there was memory loss.
Untreated, the condition could lead to death.
The most effective treatment in the Dark Corner was an herbal tonic of six roots and bark mixed with moonshine, a favorite recipe of a white “medicine man” everyone called Uncle Bill Clayton. He was, in truth, a devout herbalist, who believed that God provided a natural herb to cure every disease and malady that man could develop.
When he found someone suffering from the dreaded pellagra, he would take his pick mattock and herb sack and head for the woods and streams of the upper part of the Corner.
Here, he would gather roots and/or bark from sassafras and ginseng, then roots of blood root, rats bane and yellow root.
He would clean and scrub all the roots and bark, then place them in an outdoor wash pot with three gallons of clean, fresh water. A hot fire underneath the wash pot would boil the mixture down to a concentrated three quarts.
To this, he would add one quart of moonshine, preferably the chartered variety that had been aged underground in kegs or barrels that had been charred inside.
The moonshine was added for two reasons: to add taste and flavor to the somewhat bitter taste of the roots as it was being taken medicinally; and to keep the herbal mixture from souring.
Uncle Bill’s cure has rarely been used in the last forty years, since many of consumed food items now are good sources of niacin: red meat, fish, poultry, fortified cereals and breads, enriched pastas and peanuts, in particular.
There are a large number of niacin supplements on the market today for dealing with niacin deficiency and provide the recommended daily allowance (RDA) for niacin of sixteen  milligrams per day for men and fourteen milligrams a day for women.
But there was something magic about the way Uncle Bill made his diagnosis, went hunting for the curative roots and barks, ceremoniously prepared the mixture and added the God-given “water of life” to preserve the brew and aid in getting healing into the bloodstream quickly.
Swallowing a tablet from a supplement bottle just doesn’t cut it, somehow.

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