Friday, March 27, 2020


Donis Casey:
What to Do When You Don't Know What to Do 

In 2017, I wrote a novel called Return of the Raven Mocker, which was set during the influenza pandemic of 1918. No one knows for sure how many died in the flu pandemic, but modern estimates put the number at somewhere between thirty and fifty million people worldwide. Unlike today’s health emergency, the Spanish flu mainly killed young people, and was so virulent that a person would be fine in the morning and dead by nightfall. But like now, once the disease began to spread, whole communities tried to quarantine themselves. People would mark their doors with a red “X” to let their neighbors know the family was infected. There were few doctors available because of the war, so like today, nurses were the absolute heroes, keeping people fed and looked after, and often falling ill themselves.

One of the primary research materials for my novels is always the newspapers of the time, and it was fascinating to see what people knew in 1918 and when they knew it. From the perspective of 100 years on, we know how things turned out. But, like now, they had no cure and no idea what was going to happen. In the early days of the pandemic, the government actually encouraged the press to downplay the seriousness of the situation, because the war was still going on and nothing was to be allowed to interfere with war production! (Substitute “economy” for “war production. Sound familiar?) Eventually, factories all over the United States were no longer able to stay open because most of their workers were ill, and the stories in the papers began to change radically, printing all kinds of weird and generally useless advice about how to avoid becoming sick.

More than a few people died from being dosed with turpentine, coal oil, mercury, ox bile, chicken blood, and other unmentionable home remedies they were given by their well-meaning caretakers. There are modern scientists who believe that some of the deaths in the epidemic were caused by aspirin poisoning rather than the disease. Aspirin was relatively new on the market, and folks may have figured that if a little aspirin was good for fever and aches, then eating whole handfuls every hour was even better if you were really sick.

However, when you have no cure, there are old remedies that can actually be useful.

Garlic really does have antibiotic properties, and was used a lot as a treatment during the 1918 flu outbreak. I found a recipe for garlic soup in an early Twentieth Century cookbook that was guaranteed to cure the flu. (Disclaimer - it probably didn’t cure the flu, and probably won’t cure COVID-19) It called for 24 cloves of garlic to be simmered for an hour in a quart of water. That sounds like it would kill any germ that dares to try and infect you.

Ginger tea is practically a cure for nausea. Boil a slice of fresh ginger in a cup of water until the water turns golden and sip it hot. I like to sweeten mine with honey.

Dry burned toast (just charred on top) is excellent for an upset stomach and diarrhea. Well-cooked, soft rice is easy to digest, and if you simmer one part raw rice in seven parts liquid for forty minutes to an hour, the rice ends up creamy and soft and practically pre-digested. Onion is antibiotic as well. My great-grandmother swore that placing a bowl of raw onions in a sick room would absorb the ill-humors. Here is a story that was told to me by the person to whom it happened: when he was a young boy, he developed such a severe case of pneumonia that the doctor told his mother that he was not going to survive. In an act of desperation, his mother sliced up a raw onion and bound it to the bottoms of his feet with strips of sheet, then put cotton socks on him. In the morning, his fever had broken, his lungs had cleared, and the onion poultice had turned black. Is that what saved him? I don’t know. But that didn’t keep me from using the idea in my book.

In fact, I found a number of remedies that called for binding something to the feet. An 1879 cookbook recommended taking a large horseradish leaf, placing it on a hot shovel to soften if, then folding it and fastening it in the hollow of the foot with a cloth bandage. I also found foot-poultice recipes that used burdock leaves, cabbage, and mullein. All the above are guaranteed to “alleviate pain and promote perspiration”.

Chicken soup really, really does help. Your mother says so, and so does science.

My grandmother’s favorite remedy for fever, cold, or flu, was a hot toddy. She swore that this never failed to break a fever and rouse a sweat. A hot toddy is made thus:

1 teacup hot water
juice of half a lemon
1 tablespoon sugar
1 jigger Scotch whiskey

My grandmother was so enamored of this curative that she made it often, just as a preventative.

As for 2020 and this novel coronavirus, do as the doctors say. Wash your hands, Dear Readers, keep your distance, and stay safe.

Donis Casey is the author of The Wrong Girl, the first episode of a fresh new series starring Bianca LaBelle, star of the silent screen action serial, The Adventures of Bianca Dangereuse. Donis is also the author of ten Alafair Tucker Mysteries, an award-winning series featuring the sleuthing mother of ten children, set in Oklahoma during the booming 1910s.


Anonymous said...

Eating garlic would probably prevent infection by stopping anyone coming close enough for you to catch the disease.

Nancy Lynn Jarvis said...

What a wonderful read. I felt better just reading it.

Marja said...

Fascinating! I'm sure many of us have heard of "unusual" cures, and maybe some of them work. I doubt if I would try most of them, though, except chicken soup. Thank you so much for sharing some of your research.