Whooping Cough or purtussis, something today that can brings fear and trepidation into peoples hearts as it is an easily transmitted infectious disease. When outbreaks occur the condition can quickly spread amongst the local population and tends to a rise in cycles. In 2012 there were 9,711 cases reported in England and Wales whereas the following year, 2013, the number was 50 percent lower at 4,835. Today there are preventative measures such as antibiotics and in some cases hospital treatments readily available. However, back as recent as 100 years ago whooping cough, especially amongst babies and the young children, could well mean death. One factor that led to the prevalence of Whooping Cough on Dartmoor was the size of the families, often with several children and the overcrowding in their homes. This would mean that should one person contract the disease it was easily spread amongst the large numbers of inhabitants. The other huge problem on Dartmoor was the lack of access to medical treatment due to in many cases the remoteness of settlements and more importantly the lack of money to pay for it. So in a lot of people would resort to visiting their local ‘Charmer‘ or ‘White Witch’ for treatment. As you will see below some of the cures these mysterious people would recommend verged from the plausible to the incredulous.
In the early 1800s one cure that was sometimes used across Devonshire was to take the patient, normally a youngster or baby to visit three different parishes in one day. Your guess is a good as mine to how this worked but maybe it was a simple fact of getting out into the fresh air? On a similar theme it was thought to gallop a horse through three counties in one day would also cure whooping cough although where the suffer sat is unknown. Likewise to walk a child or baby three times around Blackingstone Rock could produce a miraculous recovery although if the Blackingstone Ravens were about this might be a tad risky. Another ‘cure’ found across Dartmoor would take a bit more stomaching as it involved catching a mouse, frying it up and then get the patient to eat it.
Crossing puts forward another cure whereby children suffering from whooping cough were taken to the Whooping Rock on Easdon Down in order to be near the sheep that frequented the area. It was believed that by being left for a time near the sheep would in fact cure whooping cough, in a way one can see the idea, just sit for a while amongst sheep and smell the ammonia from their urine and see what happens,. p.264. A variation on this was to take a morning when the dew was heavy, find a sheep and turn it away from where it was laying then place the baby/child face down in that very spot. Unfortunately it does not state for how long but again had this anything to do with the ammonia from the sheep’s urine and moist dew? It was also said that if the patient was too ill to get to the sheep then a friendly farmer would bring the sheep to the patient.
My thanks to Andy Burdon for letting me use his photograph of the Whooping Rock.
If you could lay your hands on a Donkey the you had a sure cure for Whooping Cough. Simply bring the donkey to your front door, shove a piece of fresh bread into its mouth and the pass the sufferer under and over its body and the job’s a good ‘un. Why a donkey is anybodies guess as is the fresh bread? Another cure would be to take three hairs from the ‘cross’ of the animals coat, sew them into a linen pouch and hang around the suffer’s neck for three days after which the whooping cough would have gone. There was only one problem with this cure, once the three hairs had been taken from the donkey it would die. Possibly the relevance of a donkey stems back to the fact that Jesus rode one on his final journey and ever since the donkey has some sacred connection?
If you haven’t got a donkey then a dead horse will do, just take out one of its teeth and rub it over the mouth of the baby/child and the cure will surely follow. If the horse happened to be alive you had to place a bucket of water near it and keep a close eye on it until the animal took a drink, once it had make the patient drink from the bucket and all would be well. A similar result could be reached by using a ferret. It was also believed that if one took a bowl of milk to a fox’s earth and waited until the animal had had its fill and then take the remainder back to the patient to also drink a cure would soon follow. Not sure what happened if the fox drank all the milk?
If you ever come across a ‘brimble‘ bush that has formed an arch by rooting both ends of it then you have a cure for whooping cough. This barbaric ‘cure’ involved passing the suffered through the arch and back over it nine times. Imagine doing this today, I think the ‘Childline’ would be interested to hear about that?
Today the NHS’ advice on Whooping Cough treatment naturally involves at best antibiotics and at worst hospital treatment, they also advise plenty of rest and the administration of fluids to avoid de-hydration. It goes without saying that there was a time when antibiotics and modern-day hospital treatments were not available. But what about getting plenty of rest and drinking lots of fluids? Looking at the above cures there is really nothing that involves rest but maybe drinking water/milk from horses, ferrets and foxes bowls/buckets would to some degree get some liquids into a patient?
What amazes me is that all the above ‘cures’ have been documented in one form or another and so how could people firstly try such things and secondly believed they actually worked? Whooping Cough is sometimes referred to as the ‘Hundred Day Cough’ as in normal circumstances it prevails for around 3 months. So could it be that in some cases these ‘cures’ were administered at the end of the 3 months and the condition naturally cleared up but coincided with the treatment. This then led folk to think the remedies actually worked?