Appalachian Medicine Heritage

The Itch And A Witch

Folklore about itching from appalachia

Ever hear of someone having the Itch? When I was a kid it seemed there was always a rumor going around about some poor kid that had the itch. I suppose the correct term would be scabies-which is an aggravating skin ailment caused by mites.

In reality-I’ve never seen anyone who had the itch-only those who scratched due to bug bites or poison oak (been there done that myself). In day’s gone by, the itch was a real aliment that folks had to deal with. Whether it was from poor hygiene or just a lack of hygiene-I’m not sure what caused it. Certainly the days of taking a bath once a week and wearing one set of clothes for a week has drastically changed in today’s world.

The cures for the itch back in the days before modern medicine took over included:

*boiling poke roots-and adding the brewed tea to your bathwater

*slathering the body with lard-and in some cases sulfur was added to the lard

*rubbing the body with kerosene

I’ve read accounts from folks who took the poke bath remedy, they said it felt like they’d been set on fire-I’m sure the kerosene method would feel the same. After taking any of the steps I mentioned-it was customary to wear long handles afterwards-to hold the medicine close to the skin.

You may ask-what in the world caused me to write about the itch-well 2 things brought it to mind:

  1. A very interesting post by Matthew Burns-about lice so big they were named-you can click here to read it.
  2. I woke up with someone on my mind-a girl I haven’t thought of or even seen in over 20 years. She was from a poor family-poor kids that were accused of having the itch on a regular basis. She was quite a bit older than me. One afternoon as we were standing in the bus line she looked down at me and said “I know you’re a witch-cause your eyebrows are grown together.” I didn’t take offense to what she said-even then I knew I was blessed with Pap’s brows. I’m sure she regretted telling me I was a witch-cause she quickly added “don’t worry mine are too-so I’m a witch too.” Sometime in the late 80s I heard she was killed by her boyfriend or husband. Who knows why she was on my mind this morning-but it made me wish I could go back and ask her-“who told you that?” “Was it your mother your grandmother?” “What other old sayings did they tell you?” But mostly it makes me wish I could go back and be nice to her-cause I see clearly now she lived in a drought when it came to showers of kindness.

Ever have the itch? Ever heard the eyebrow witch thing?



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  • Reply
    Sherie Rowe
    May 10, 2011 at 7:28 am

    I remember I worked in the school office in 7th and 8th grade. I can remember kids being sent home from school with the Itch. This was in the late 70’s. Never heard the eyebrow thing but I got my folklore from others, not family members.

  • Reply
    Vera Guthrie
    September 19, 2010 at 6:42 pm

    I have had Poison Ivy/Oak Lord what an itch. The worst was I got Chiggers picking Queen Ann’s Lace, little did I know Chiggers love that flower. Amonia and clear nail polis cured those devils. I have never heard the witch tale before. Mama always used Kerosene for cuts especially from an aluminum can she said it drew the soreness out.

  • Reply
    Garland Davis
    September 19, 2010 at 6:13 pm

    Tipper, the following is my witch story. I previously posted it on Vintage Vera.
    I was three or four years old. I had numerous warts on my hands. Everyone told me that they were caused by playing with toads and letting them piss on your hands. I remember thinking that wasn’t right. I knew that I hadn’t touched any toads. I remember trying to keep my hands in my pockets so that people wouldn’t see my warts.
    My parents tried any number of homemade ‘potions’ to no avail. Some things from the drugstore were tried, but again no remedy for my warts. I remember going to the doctor and him telling them that I was too young to have them “burned’ off.
    We carried my ‘Granny’ Salmons to Yadkin County one Sunday afternoon to visit some friends. I remember that it was late in the day aand Daddy was ready to leave. She told them to wait that she was going to take me to get my warts “witched”.
    She led me for a long distance (probably not that far, but to a little boy, quite a distance) down a path through the woods. We eventually came to a log house. An old (again, old is relative to my age) woman came out and talked with my grandmother. Granny gave her a sack that she had brought. The old lady sat me down on the stoop to the cabin door and started touching the warts on my hands. She then took a piece of cord and tied a number of knots in it (I later realized that she was counting the warts and tied a knot for each one.) She then hung the cord around my neck and led me by the hand around the yard. She then took the cord and went into the woods. She returned and told me that my warts would leave me to look for the cord. She said if I ever tried to find the cord all my warts would return.
    We left and went back home. Within a few days, all my warts, except one, disappeared. I still have that one wart on the knuckle of my ring finger and have had it my whole life. I always figured that she missed counting it.

  • Reply
    Miss Cindy
    September 24, 2009 at 7:12 pm

    Never had Scabies, itch or lice. I heard of them all my life. I don’t think I ever knew anyone who had them. All caused by parasites. Don’t know of any remedies for them.
    I did have a ringworm once they are easy to cure with Clorox or there used to be a cream called Ting. Ringworm is a fungus.
    Never heard of eyebrow shape identifying a witch. That one does not really sound like folk lore. Sounds more like the imagination of a little girl.

  • Reply
    September 24, 2009 at 6:52 pm

    Well, I’ve never had the itch. My son and I do get poison ivy real bad. Seems all I have to do is look at it. As some of the other posters said, head lice is what they talk about around here, thank goodness my kids never came home with it, though.

  • Reply
    trisha too
    September 24, 2009 at 1:58 pm

    no, thankfully not!!!

  • Reply
    laoi gaul-williams
    September 24, 2009 at 5:20 am

    never had that before. i think over here ringworm was a big thing in days past, i remember my mum telling me that she had it and had to have iodine (is it purple?) painted on her. i think it was a mainly ‘poor’ person thing~my mums family were all poor people living in one of the ‘slums’ in portsmouth. when she hurt her knee playing on bombsites after the war she was taken to hospital in a wheelbarrow for none of them had cars!

  • Reply
    September 23, 2009 at 11:29 pm

    There are a number of kinds of “itch” these days, and some are awfully hard to get rid of. For a couple of years I had a spot on my ankle that would not go away no matter what I put on it. Maybe I should have used kerosene. Couldn’t have hurt any worse than the Calomine lotion Mother put on my poison ivy when i was covered with it at the age of six.

  • Reply
    September 23, 2009 at 10:33 pm

    A dermatologist once told me that hygiene has nothing to do with who gets scabies. It is an old wives tale. It is a parasite. Lice can be passed from contact with a person who has them. It also has nothing to do with hygiene. I’d never had either of them until Brandon brought lice home the first year he was in school. The entire family got them. It is a nuisance getting rid of them because they lay eggs everywhere. It took us over two weeks of cleaning carpets, doing laundry…I mean loads and loads.
    I had never heard the old saying about the eyebrows identifying a witch.
    Hope all is well with you and yours.

  • Reply
    September 23, 2009 at 7:40 pm

    Great story about the itch. I didn’t know that one, but the dread of lice was a big deal when I was a kid. And if you needed the treatment for lice, you were considered yucky.
    Interesting experience at the bus stop. She reminds me of a lot of kids who just lack self control and say more than they should before they even realize it.

  • Reply
    September 23, 2009 at 12:14 pm

    Yolanda-yes I’ve heard of the sacred harp singing-a beautiful sound. They support and feature it at the John C. Campbell Folk School.
    Blind Pig & The Acorn
    Music, Giveaways, Mountain Folk
    All at

  • Reply
    September 23, 2009 at 11:52 am

    Petra-yes it’s Chitter and Chatter on the song with Paul-glad you liked it!!
    Blind Pig & The Acorn
    Music, Giveaways, Mountain Folk
    All at

  • Reply
    petra michelle
    September 23, 2009 at 10:28 am

    I remember when I was called a Nazi because of my German heritage by a boy who claimed to “like me”. We were about 12 years old then. Yes, often wonder about those I knew on the road of friendship!
    While I read your post, suddenly this great song came up:
    “There is a Time”–Paul Wilson with the Pressley Sisters? Are they your daughters, Tipper? Love, love, love it! :))

  • Reply
    Pat Workman
    September 23, 2009 at 10:13 am

    Thankfully I have never had the itch. I remember hearing about it when I was young. I enjoy learning about these old remedies.
    In case I haven’t said so enough, Tipper — I just love visiting your blog, it’s TOPS!

  • Reply
    September 22, 2009 at 9:27 pm

    I have had the itch one time when I worked in the nursing home everyone og it. It wasn’t fun.Have you ever heard of sacred harp singing?

  • Reply
    September 22, 2009 at 5:15 pm

    I think I may turning into a witch, if that’s what it takes.
    When my kids were in school the thing that cause the itch was head lice. They never got them, but the school nurse checked everyone. You’d think that would have spread them.

  • Reply
    Amy - parkcitygirl
    September 22, 2009 at 4:59 pm

    Both are new to me! Amazing how one comment can stay with you so long.

  • Reply
    September 22, 2009 at 4:03 pm

    Brings back a lot of memories from early childhood and life near the farm. My great grandmother had all sorts of herbal remedies to offer. My mother feared for our good health if we happened to be diagnosed by Granny Tish and treated with her folk medicine. We survived. My wife’s grandmother used to say my blood was too thick and send me out to get sassafras roots to make a tea to take care of the condition. Actually it was pretty tasty tea. Scaly skin was called the “click-clack” by blacks in our area. I knew some poor kids who probably suffered from the itch. I never heard that folks with “uni-brows” were witches. Great stuff. Pappy

  • Reply
    nancy m.
    September 22, 2009 at 3:52 pm

    I’ll be honest, I did have the itch one time. I spent the weekend with a friend whose family was not that clean when I was young and came home with scabies. It did itch horribly! My mama took me to a skin doctor and I got some cream, I think, that helped to get rid of it. It was a long time ago, but I remember never wanting to itch like that again!

  • Reply
    Granny Sue
    September 22, 2009 at 1:58 pm

    I have not heard about the eyebrow thing. How odd. But my mother used to have many such sayings from her girlhood in England. One I remember was that saying “God bless you” to someone when they sneezed kept out the devil who could enter through the open mouth.

  • Reply
    September 22, 2009 at 1:09 pm

    Wow! Thankfully I have missed all of that!

  • Reply
    September 22, 2009 at 12:02 pm

    Thank goodness I’ve never had the “itch”. I’m blessed to not be allergic to poison oak or poison ivy (yet anyway…I’ve heard folks become more allergic later in life). Maybe that makes me a witch. I’ve never hear the eyebrow thing either.
    Though if Tammy above is right about the second toe then I’m a nag to my husband half the time. I have one longer and one slightly shorter. (ooh, a half naggy witch…that may explain a few things.)

  • Reply
    September 22, 2009 at 11:16 am

    When I was 10 I went to 4H camp. I got some very itchy spots on my stomach. One girl said they were chicken pocks. When I got home my mom took me to the Dr. By then the lone 6 spots were scabbed and the Dr. said I had scabies. I kept getting worse and worse. I thought if I could just get one of those little bugs to become my friend I could tell him how much pain and grief they were giving me and he could convince the rest of them to leave my body. Mom called the Dr. again and when he saw me he laughed and said it was chicken pocks. Somehow I still feel an affinity for scabies.

  • Reply
    September 22, 2009 at 10:36 am

    That itch? I’ve got it now. It’s called poison ivy, AGAIN! And the kerosene treatment, my Dad would do that to my thumbs to make me stop sucking them. I finally quit sucking them when I turned 18 and got a boyfriend!

  • Reply
    Just Jackie
    September 22, 2009 at 9:58 am

    I love this post !!!! I was not aware you were a witch LOL
    I remember kids with the itch. The other worry back then was “trench mouth” I still don’t know for sure what that was but I was told never to drink from a water fountain. I still remember having to sit next to a girl in first grade that smelled. I told the teacher I could not sit next to here for that reason. I have felt bad about that forever. I have no idea how to find her and apologize. She probably wouldn’t remember, it was over 50 years ago. Things do stick with you.

  • Reply
    September 22, 2009 at 9:57 am

    I am very sensitive and allergic to many things and I’ve itched so bad that my whole body was in a twist…sigh!
    Never heard of the witch thing, though I have heard if a woman’s second toe is longer than her big toe then she is a nag to her husband…LOL…LOL!!

  • Reply
    Matthew Burns
    September 22, 2009 at 9:41 am

    I’ve never had the itch but I know people who have had it.
    My granny used to tell about how if your eyebrows grew together, you were a witch. Of course, she also told us about how if your front teeth had a gap in them it meant that you’d move away and live far from home.
    Now that I think about it, I recall Granny also used to tell us how if a man wore a necklace, he’d die of drowning.
    Also, if you got your hair cut, then you’d better gather up your hair and bury it. If you didn’t you could be witched, or at the very least, if a bird made a nest out of your hair, you’d get bad headaches all year long until the nest was abandoned.
    Those old mountain superstitions surely had to have come from somewhere. Any idea’s?

  • Reply
    September 22, 2009 at 9:16 am

    That sounds truly nasty. Never had it and never want it.

  • Reply
    September 22, 2009 at 7:22 am

    No, thank goodness, I’ve never had the itch. And I don’t want it either.
    When I was growing up, certain people were accused of having cooties. Which, I’m sure,is the same thing as your itch or scabies.
    Never heard of anyone being a witch because their brows grew together. It will make me look a people a little differently. I’ll get a giggle.
    So sad about Bobby!

  • Reply
    julie curtis
    September 22, 2009 at 7:07 am

    No, but there was a family like the one you speak of in our community. When the kids got on the school bus we all prayed they wouldn’t sit beside us because they were stinky. I felt so bad for the girl my age, because she tried to fix her hair, put on makeup, etc. She wanted to look nice. But she still smelled.
    Never heard of the witch’s eyebrows.

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