Snake Bites and Turpentine

[imgbelt img=Copperhead.jpeg]There are all kinds of folk remedies. One saved my father’s life. It’s a story that involves a copperhead snake and turpentine.


First, I would like to preface the collection of remedies with a true story of an old time remedy—turpentine—used by my dad’s family. 

I only heard my dad tell this story one time, on a cold-snowy winter’s night when three or four of his coalminer, hunting buddies gathered at our house, as they usually did, to tell hunting and fishing stories. 

On this particular night I was doing homework in an adjoining room at the dining table. I could see Dad reared back on his ladder back chair with only two legs touching the floor. The men had gone through a couple of rounds of stories and it was Dad’s turn again. 

He didn’t start immediately but first whistled an entire stanza of  The Wildwood Flower. Then, he cleared his throat. Silence fell over the room—Dad was about to tell his story. I will tell his story as if he were telling it to you.

Copperhead by Earl Dotson

We lived on a large farm in Buchanan County, Virginia. We kept two or more milk cows. On this particular summer evening, my parents had gone to a church gathering. My sister Rose and I were all alone at home. She was around 17 and I was seven or eight.

[imgcontainer left] [img:buchanan.jpeg] Buchanan County, Virginia, on the border of Kentucky, around 1895.

Rose told me to go the field and drive the cows home so she could milk before dark. We all knew there were many rattlesnakes and copperheads in the area, especially in the cow pasture. When Pa cleared the timber to make a cow pasture, he cut tree stumps as close to the ground as possible with the remains left to rot – the perfect hiding place for snakes.

I was soon able to hear the cowbells far back near the timber about a mile from the house. When I climbed the hill and got near the cows, I came close to an old stump with a fresh groundhog track on the upper side. My older brother Frank often talked about hunting and trapping groundhogs and I thought that would be a good place.

Big Ed

Buchanan County, Virginia.
Well, I thought while I am here, I will smooth the dirt out and pack it down, and make a place to set a trap. When I stuck my left hand back in the hole something stuck hard. My hand was bleeding and burning real bad.

Now, just to think how foolish a boy can be, I thought the groundhog had bitten me. So, I thought, I will carry rocks and stop up the hole and tomorrow Frank and I will come and dig him out. I carried a few rocks but my tongue began getting stiff and swollen. My hand and arm were swelling. The two small holes in my hand were oozing black blood.

I tried to unbutton my shirtsleeve but I could not. I started walking toward the house but I kept staggering and falling down like a drunken man. All I could see was a blur. 

I got close enough to see the house and I tried to holler out for help but I could not. My tongue was so swollen it was choking me to death. My legs gave way. I fell and could not get up. I knew I would not make it.

Rose had come hunting for me. She carried and dragged me to the yard. Rose knew it was a bad snakebite but did not know what to do—no phone, no car, no neighbors close by, no doctors within miles. The only sound I remember was my sister Rose crying and praying—my heart was pounding and fluttering like it would tear out of my body. I went into shock or a coma.

My fate was in the hands of Rose, the good Lord — and turpentine (obtained by the distillation of resin obtained from pine trees). 

I’d always wondered what plans the good Lord had for me—why he did not just let me go away and save my family the agony they went through for the next four days. But on day four, the strong smell of turpentine woke me up. Rose was by my bed. She was the first to notice my eyes were open and I was looking at empty bottles of turpentine on the floor. She began to cry. My hand was in a pail of cold water laced with the home remedy. She said that she changed the water often and poured in turpentine each time.

My family was all there. I could hear them talk. I heard them say, “He may be a cripple. The poison may settle in his joints or in his brain, but thank God he is alive.”

I told Frank where it happened. He took his rifle and found the place. He said that he found a very large copperhead snake coiled up on the stump sticking out her ole black tongue.

She would bite no more.


Old-Time Home Remedies

Freckle Paste – Take a teacupful of sour milk; scrape into it a quantity of horseradish; let it stand for several hours; strain well, and apply with a camelhair brush 2 or 3 times daily.