Southern Illinois History Page



The recent features in Springhouse, "The Madstones" (Nov-Dec 1985, Jan-Feb 1986) have sparked renewed interest in the folk medicine of the Ozarks. Many of the region's older residents who personally witnessed or -even experienced! - treatment by the so-called "power doctors" (individuals who claimed the ability to cure certain ailments by paranormal means) are taking the time and trouble to commit their accounts of these matters to paper. And we folklorists are deeply indebted to them for doing so.

Perhaps these old-timers (and I am using the term affectionately!) have begun to realize just what a tragic, inestimable loss it would be to the cultural legacy of southern Illinois if their wonderful memories were forever denied to future generations. In "The Titan of Elm Trees" (Nov-Dec, 1985), I noted that many of the natural wonders of Egypt have been "irretrievably lost;" unfortunately, this is also true of our region's history and folklore. A great deal of the legends, folktales, and customs, which defined and shaped southern Illinoisans for generations have vanished. The remainder will survive only if we care enough to trans-literate the rapidly dwindling oral tradition into the written word. It is a task we cannot refuse.

Undoubtedly, one of the most fascinating aspects of this oral tradition are the tales of the fabled "blood stoppers," a group of healers who claimed the power to halt the "unnatural" flow of blood. Although a great many accounts of the blood stoppers have yet to be recorded, there has been a considerable degree of research on the subject. Nor is the practice of blood-stopping peculiar to the Ozark country of Illinois, Missouri, and Arkansas. Eliot Wigginton devoted much of the "Faith Healing" chapter in the first Foxfire book to blood-stopping while Margo Holden, in her article "The Bloodstopppers" published in the 1982 edition of The Old Farmer's Almanac, observed that "The use of Bloodstoppers was standard practice all over the North Woods of Maine and Canada."

The late Vance Randolph dealt with blood-stopping in the "Power Doctors" chapter of his Ozark Superstitions and related the most commonly-used method employed by the old-time blood-stoppers. All one need supposedly do was read aloud the sixth verse of the sixteenth chapter of the book of Ezekiel while walking toward the East:

"And when I passed by thee, and saw thee polluted in thine own blood, I said unto thee when thou wast in thy blood, Live; yea, I said unto thee when thou vast in thy blood, Live."

The bleeding then purportedly stopped!

This particular method is also cited in Foxfire as having been practiced as recently as 1968 by a woman in Dillard, Georgia, who even claimed to be able to halt bleeding merely by reading the verse silently while on the phone! She also maintained that she possessed the power to stop the bleeding of injured farm animals.

When reading the verse, however, she noted that she always substituted the victim's name for the word "thee" when it appeared in the verse, a device frequently reported among old-time blood-stoppers. One can only surmise what on Earth she did in the cases of those farm animals she claimed to have healed!

One example of blood-stopping contained in the Foxfire chapter on faith-healing almost defies any sort of rational belief. Supposedly, a wellknown blood-stopper had visited a hotel where some skeptics had challenged his purported ability to bring about this extraordinary thing. "All right," they said, "We'll just let ya' try your luck on this beef."

The blood-stopper replied, "All right, but it'll ruin yer beef, man." The Foxfire informant concluded the tale by noting that "They killed it'n stuck it. It never bled a drop. Blood stayed right in th' flesh an' ruined it. Couldn't eat it."

A true story? As I said at the end of my account of madstones in the January-February 1986 Ozark Echoes, "You decide."

But the Biblical method was not the only way to stop bleeding. According to Randolph, an old woman with a reputation as the best blood-stopper in McDonald County, Missouri, simply held up both hands and cried: "Upon Christ's grave three roses bloom,

Stop, blood, stop!"

Margo Holden, in her Old Farmer's Almanac article, told she once asked a blood-stopper how he accomplished this miracle. He candidly replied that he "forgot everything and concentrated on the person hurt," imagining himself "right there holding the blood back and saying, 'It's stopping, it's stopping, it's stopped.'" This particular blood-stopper allegedly did not even have to be present at the scene to work his magic.

Holden also related an astonishing and most touching story of a celebrated blood-stopper who continued her practice from the grave. It seems that she had only recently died when one of her young grandchildren cut himself and all efforts to halt the terrible bleeding failed. In desperation and longing, a family member murmured, "If only Grandma were here now. How I wish she were here to help us." At that moment, the bleeding suddenly stopped!

Yet another tale of a blood-stopper's compassion concerned the mother of a little boy who had suffered from nosebleeds for three days and nights, conventional medical science having failed completely to help the poor child. In a desperate gamble, she drove her son to the house of a well-known blood-stopper. The old man supposedly hobbled out onto his front porch when he saw the car pull up and "took the scene in at once - the wan little boy holding a bloody rag to his nose, the distraught mother. He raised his hand as in salute and said, 'The bleeding is stopped.' So it had. The little fellow did not have another nosebleed for two years."

As a supernatural gift, the art of blood-stopping allegedly could be shared with others but only to a very limited extent; according to the Ozarks blood-stoppers Randolph interviewed, the secret could be passed just to persons of the opposite sex. A few blood-stoppers assured him that it could be "told" to only three people and the third person would "take the charm."

Although I have never seen a blood-stopper perform this wonder, I have talked with a Southern Illinoisan who claimed to have witnessed the phenomenon during his youth in the 1920s. He told me that he and some other men had been constructing a storage shed when one fellow seriously cut his hand while sawing a board. The wound was long and deep, the blood "flowing like a river," as he put it, and all efforts to stop the bleeding were futile.

A man who enjoyed a reputation as a blood-stopper was finally summoned from a nearby farm. As my informant tells it, this blood-stopper apparently used the basic "Ezekiel verse" method, reading the sixth verse of the sixteenth chapter aloud from a Bible he had brought with him, and simply substituting the man's name for the word "thee" when it appeared in the text.

And yes, as this gentleman told me during our conversation, the bleeding from the saw wound indeed stopped. He conceded that he had previously been something of a skeptic in the matter of blood-stoppers but he had seen the "miracle" (his word) occur with his own two eyes. "I wouldn't have believed it if I hadn't seen it myself," he concluded. "I've never seen anything quite like it since."

I have no doubt he was telling me the truth about this long-ago incident -or, at least, what he sincerely believed to be the truth. Whether genuine supernatural gift, some bizarre manifestation of psychic ability, or merely superstition, the practice of blood-stopping virtually begs for further investigation. Perhaps some of our readers have heard tales of blood-stoppers in the Illinois Ozarks or even witnessed a blood-stopper at his or her task! If so, Springhouse would enjoy hearing from you.

As for myself, well, if there is one thing my scholarly research has taught me, it is the sagacity of keeping an open mind in regard to these matters. My love of folklore makes me especially fond of quoting Henry David Thoreau who once poignantly observed, "Men are probably nearer the central truth in their superstitions than in their science." Experience has pretty much convinced me of the veracity of that remark.

[Reprinted by permission. Original source: John J. Dunphy. March-April 1986. "Blood-Stopping." Springhouse. 3:2. 12-14.]

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Created October 9, 2003 by Jon Musgrave © 2003