Bloodstoppers
Of the St. John Valley in Northern Maine and Western New Brunswick
Dena Lynn Winslow, Ph.D.
Copyright 2015 – All rights Reserved

Abstract

Dr. Dena Winslow examines the traditions of magical healing in the St. John Valley region of northern Maine and Western New Brunswick, Canada with a particular focus on bloodstopping.  These practices, known as “Secrets”, have been around for centuries and involve the magical stopping of uncontrollable bleeding through the use of incantations and rituals.  The bloodstopper need not be present where the individual is bleeding for the magic to work, and it has been done remotely as well as over the telephone in more modern times.  While not unique to the St. John Valley, this paper analyzes the practice as it relates to the same practice elsewhere.  In addition, it traces the possible origin of the practice, as well as examining the religious and social connotations.  Transmission of the “secrets,” primarily orally through a trans-gender process, is also examined.

Introduction

“Do you know any secrets?”  The smiling sparking-eyed friendly old gentleman asked me in a very heavy French accent the first time I met him.

“Excuse me?” I questioned, not understanding what he meant.

“Secrets,” he repeated, as if I should KNOW.  “I know three secrets,” he added, and then went on to tell me he could stop bleeding, cure colic in babies, and heal burns. (Interview, Reginald Thibodeau (not his real name and any connection to a real person with that name is unintentional), 2009)

This was how my introduction to St. John Valley bloodstopping traditions began.  I was fascinated and I wanted to know more.  I asked Mr. Thibodeau if he could teach me the “secrets”.  He said he could because I was female, and they could only be taught to someone of the opposite sex.  Thus, since he was male, he could teach me.  However, he cautioned, I couldn’t reveal the “secrets” until I had used them successfully, and then, only to a male.  These restrictions provided more interest to the ritual of the folk magic involved in bloodstopping and the other folk cures he told me about.

Since I first learned of bloodstopping in 2009, I have informally asked a wide variety of people with a wide range of ethnic backgrounds in the Aroostook County and New Brunswick, Canada area if they know about “secrets” or “bloodstopping”.  I was not able to find anyone outside of the St. John Valley region (including both sides of the International Border) who knew of the practices. 

In addition to talking formally (with tape recorder and signed permission forms) and informally with individuals, I also completed a review of the limited academic and popular material available on bloodstopping and the other magical cures Mr. Thibodeau told me about.  There was one unpublished document in the Acadian Archives at the University of Maine at Fort Kent which will be referred to in this paper, along with some tape recorded interviews in which bloodstopping was mentioned.  However, interestingly enough, the Northeast Folklore Archives at the University of Maine in Orono reported to me that they had nothing on the subject.  This made sense given that the practice appears to be limited to the St. John Valley region in Maine and New Brunswick.  In addition, I checked with the New Brunswick Archives, but they also had nothing on the subject. 

A review of the literature revealed a classic work by Richard Dorson, Bloodstoppers & Bearwalkers, Folk Traditions of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, as well as the equally classic collection edited by Elliot Wigginton, The Foxfire Book.  Both of these books contain sections or chapters on bloodstopping.  Bluenose Magic, Popular Beliefs and Superstitions in Nova Scotia, by Helen Creighton contains a few references to the practice; and an article in the Old Farmer’s Almanac for 1982 by Margo Holden titled, “The Bloodstoppers,” provide further references to the practice in the “North Woods of Maine and Canada,” in which she refers to bloodstopping in the lumber camps.  There were also a few websites with information on bloodstopping, but those were mostly references to Dorson and Wigginton’s books described above.  In addition, my review of the literature located a few scattered references to the practices in several academic journals and published books.

Although there has been research on magical folk cures in other geographic areas, and spanning many years, so far as I can learn, this paper represents the first time that the bloodstopping traditions in the St. John Valley have been specifically examined, although, as mentioned earlier, there are a very limited number of scattered references to the practices in the literature on the region.

I will answer the anthropological question of why people do what they do from a theoretical functionalism point of view, in other words, how the activity functions in this society.  I was also interested in the psychological and symbolic aspects of the practice, as well as the group dynamics that supported these magical healing traditions in the St. John Valley. 

Literature Review

There has been a great deal of academic and popular material published describing general folk magic practices, particularly with regard to magical healing.  References to folk cures similar to those my informants told me about are scattered throughout the literature, but perhaps the best known of these is Richard Dorson’s book, Bloodstoppers & Bearwalkers, Folk Traditions of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.  This classic book, reprinted several times, was originally published in 1952 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College.  It is an entertaining and gritty account of Dorson’s field work in Michigan in 1946.  In it he devotes an entire chapter to bloodstoppers under the sub-heading, “The European Tradition.” 

A second classic book is The Foxfire Book, edited by Elliot Wigginton with sections of the book originally published in Foxfire magazine in 1968 and 1969.  This book was originally published by Anchor Press/ Doubleday in 1969 and has been reprinted several times.  Wigginton’s high school students in rural Rubun Gap, Georgia collected folk ways of the Appalachian community where they lived in the 1960’s.  In a chapter titled, “Faith Healing,” Wigginton’s students describe folk cures for four areas:  burns, warts, bloodstopping, and Thrush. 

Similar to my original informant, both of these books also include references from the informants to the requirement that the healer could only teach someone of the opposite sex the cures, although a few also could teach it to same-sex individuals in their own family.  This cross-gender transmission tradition is also discussed in other sources, such as an article by Violetta Halpert in the Journal, Hoosier Folklore, from January – March of 1950.  In this article pertaining to Indiana, Ms. Halpert discusses various folk cures, including those for healing burns and stopping blood.  One informant reported by Halpert said, “a woman cannot tell a woman or a man cannot tell a man what this verse is;” and another stated it had to be passed, “from a man to a woman to another man through many generations of one family…” (Halpert, 1950, p. 7)

In his book, Herbal and Magical Medicine:  Traditional Healing Today, published in 1992 by Duke University Press, edited by James Kirkland, these same kinds of magical folk cures are discussed as they relate to the rural North Carolina culture. 

Similar traditions from the Pennsylvania Dutch area are explored by David W. Kriebel, Ph.D., in “Powwowing:  A Persistent American Esoteric Tradition”, (http://www.esoteric.msu.edu/VolumeIV/Powow.htm).  The practice, which is described by Dr. Kriebel is, “a magico-religious practice whose chief purpose is the healing of physical ailments in humans and animals…”  Although given the descriptive title of “Powwowing” rather than “Secrets” these practices are very similar to the folk cures described to me and which I have found reported in other sources.  The generally required cross-gender transmission my original informant told me about is also reflected by Dr. Kriebel when he quotes an informant who told him, “Of course, I can tell a woman, but not a man, except my oldest son.  Man tells woman, and woman tells man.  In this way these powwow secrets are passed from one to another…”  (Kriebel, 1014)

There are two authors who refer to bloodstopping in the northeast.  Helen Creighton, in Bluenose Magic, Popular Beliefs and Superstitions in Nova Scotia, refers to several informants in Nova Scotia in her chapter titled, “Home Remedies,” who tell about individuals who were known for their abilities to stop bleeding.  And, Margo Holden, in “The Bloodstoppers,” in the 1982 Old Farmer’s Almanac, who describes the bloodstoppers in the lumber camps of northern Maine and Canada, which includes the St. John Valley area.

Magical cures have been used throughout the history of mankind.  These magical folk cures remain strong in Northern Maine with the tradition of certain people being able to stop bleeding (Squire, 2014, Lesson 14, pg. 4).  However, as the literature shows, similar practices have also been documented in other specific regions of the United States and the world, although, no thorough investigation of the practice has been done to date.  As John Dunphy stated, “…the practice of blood-stopping virtually begs for further investigation.” (Dunphey, 1986, p. 14)

Content Discussion

As a child growing up on a farm in the 1950’s in rural central Aroostook County in Maine, basic medical care was provided by my grandmother, Addie Winslow.  Cuts that needed cleaning, scrapes and bruises were all lovingly tended to by Grammie.  Each spring, we were all provided a dose of Golden Oil poured over a spoonful of sugar (to make it taste better, we were told), given by my Aunt Marilee Winslow Smith as a tonic to prevent us from catching colds.  This was something that my Great -Grandmother, Ida Winslow gave her children, and my grandmother in turn gave her children, and my Aunt, carrying on the tradition gave us as children.  (My family has three contiguous farms which included three generations of the family located next door to each other – thus our families had daily interactions as we all worked the farms together, which explains why my Aunt gave us children the spring tonic each year.)

When I had severe ear aches, my Aunt’s husband, who was the only smoker in the family, would blow cigarette smoke in my ears to try to stop the hurt (unfortunately the treatment never worked).  And my mother, Wilma Tompkins Winslow, used to tell of having a “wart charmed off her finger” by an old man who “rubbed the wart and mumbled something under his breath which caused the wart to disappear.” 

My father, Carl Winslow, told about caraway (which was grown in the area) cookies prepared for the family in the spring by my great-grandmother, Ida Winslow, to replenish nutrients that had been missing in the family diet over the winter.  Likewise, dandelion greens were also dug and prepared for the family to provide a spring tonic.  The same was true of the tasty spring treat, fiddleheads, which were picked and enjoyed by most families at that time.  Salt pork was another staple.  In addition to being used to flavor and season foods, it was also used for applying to infected wounds to “draw out the poison.”

Thus, I had heard of, and had participated in folk medicine and cures.  However, when I met Reginald Thibodeau in the Spring of 2009 in New Brunswick, Canada, I learned of a whole new dimension of folk medicine I had previously been unaware of.  Mr. Thibodeau’s magical cures for burns, colic in babies, and for bloodstopping, all involve incantations and rituals which were reported to be very effective. (Interview, Reginald Thibodeau, 2009)  As I was to learn, these kinds of magical cures are known in specific local areas throughout the United States.  However, almost nothing has been previously recorded about these types of cures in the St. John Valley region of Maine and New Brunswick, Canada.

“Secrets”

Humans have always sought ways to cure diseases and deal with medical emergencies of one sort or another.  Healers were an important part of the fabric of society in every culture.  In its various forms, much of this healing was supernatural until more modern times when scientific methods brought about the medical world we know today.  Although, it is not a stretch to think about modern day medical practices as still in their infancy with regard to actual cures for many diseases.

These magical healers were integral to their communities, and were sought out in times of need.  In the St. John Valley, in the northern Maine and Western New Brunswick region, they were highly respected members of society and deeply ingrained in the culture of the region.  Shirlee Connors-Carlson told me that the bloodstoppers in the Allagash area in northern Maine, “weren’t considered ‘spooks,’ they were called ‘gifted,’ or ‘odd.’”  She went on to explain that “odd” didn’t have the negative connotations it has today, rather it was a compliment of sorts.  She said that people would describe the healers by saying, “She’s an odd one, she can stop blood all right;” and “There’s them that say she was always odd.” (Interview, Shirlee Connors-Carlson, 2014)

In describing the very similar magical healing practice of the Pennsylvania Dutch “Powwow,” which he described as, “…magico-religious practice whose chief purpose is the healing of physical ailments in humans and animals…” (Kriebel, http://www.esoteric.msu.edu/VolumeIV/Powwow.htm, p.1.), Dr. David Kriebel classified these ritual healing acts as involving three types of categories:  “verbal (incantations), somatic (gestures and body position), and material (manipulation of physical objects) components.” (Kriebel, p. 8)  The magical cures reported to me by my informants and those I was able to find in the literature do fall within these three categories, with many involving all three.  Verbal incantations were present in virtually all of the “secrets” I learned about in the St. John Valley area, with some also involving the other two components.

According to an unpublished paper by Carleen Violette from 1974 in which she gathered information from two residents of Eagle Lake, Maine (her grandparents), Ms. Violette indicated that one of her informants (her grandfather) told her that he was a bloodstopper.  Her other informant (her grandmother), told her that there are “7 secrets on this earth.  She said that an old Indian woman who lived on the farm told Grandpa this.  My grandfather wanted to know them but the Indian woman told him that anyone who knew all 7 would see the devil.  She herself only knew 6 and she never would tell Grandpa them.  She said she could have found out the 7th anytime but she didn’t want to.” (Violette, 1974, p. 3)  This was the only reference I found that specified there were seven “secrets,” or that it was dangerous to know more than six of them.

Ms. Violette went on to report that her “Grandma said that she knew of someone who knew the “secret” of fire.  That was Father Marcotte who was the priest who first built St. Mary’s Church in Eagle Lake.  She said that at one time there was a big fire in the lower part of town and it looked like the whole town would go because the wind had picked up.  The townspeople went to get Father Marcotte to stop it and he did.  He went up to a house that was sure to burn next and ignite the whole town, and said the fire would stop there and it did.” (Violette, 1974, p. 3)  Thus, “secrets” were useful for more than just medical curing.  In fact, I found reports of their use for animals as well as humans throughout the literature.

In addition to my informant, Mr. Thibodeau, another researcher, Violetta Halpert, writing in Hoosier Folklore in 1950 reported healers in the Indiana area who could heal burns.  She reported individuals “with the power of lessening the pain of burns by rubbing their hands over them and saying certain mysterious words.” (Halpert, 1950, p. 7)  Other researchers also reported healers with cures for burns, such as Elliot Wigginton, (Wigginton, 1972, 359-363) and Richard Dorson. (Dorson, 2008, p. 162)

Among the “secret” (all of my informants referred to them as “secrets”) cures I gathered from the St. John Valley informants, which included, curing colic in babies, curing burns, and stopping bleeding (Interview, Reginald Thibodeau, 2009; Interview Shirlee Connors-Carlson, 2014); bloodstopping was by far the most prevalent and well known.  I would caution the reader however, that perhaps this is not because the other “secrets” were less prevalent in every day healing, but rather that bloodstopping has been more often researched and reported in the literature.  It is also more dramatic, and its success is more easily observable by others.

The term is defined as follows:  “Bloodstopping refers to an American folk practice once common in the Ozarks and the Appalachians, Canadian lumbercamps and the northern woods of the United States.  It was believed that certain persons, known as bloodstoppers, could halt bleeding in humans and animals by supernatural means…” (Wickipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bloodstopping)

Shirlee Connors-Carlson reported two bloodstoppers in the Allagash, Maine area.  Jane Hafford and Amelia “Meelie” Mullins were both known throughout the area for their abilities to stop bleeding.  Both women, she reported, were able to stop bleeding remotely.  In other words, they didn’t need to be in the presence of the person bleeding in order to be able to stop the bleeding.  Distance from the healer didn’t matter for the magical cures to work.  That was the same thing I was told by Mr. Thibodeau and the same thing other bloodstoppers reported in the literature.  Shirlee didn’t know of any other healers in the area, and didn’t know of any men who were healers. (Interview, Shirlee Connors-Carlson, 2014)

Margo Holden, reporting in The 1982 Old Farmer’s Almanac observed, “The use of Bloodstoppers was standard practice all over the North Woods of Maine and Canada.” (Holden, 1982, p. 154)  Helen Creighton refers to “a Newfoundland charm for stopping blood.  It goes, ‘The blessed Lord Jesus Christ who was baptized in the River Jordan for us and rose again and commandeth the blood to cease.’  Her informant, from Ship Harbor, added, “I was giving the man first aid and the usual methods wouldn’t work.  He knew the charm [incantationhttp://mentalfloss.com/article/23987/lost-art-bloodstopping">http://mentalfloss.com/article/23987/lost-art-bloodstopping)

Violetta Halpert reported that in Indiana, “When wounds involve bleeding, there are special cures to stop the loss of blood…five bloodstopping cures… involve some magic, particularly a verbal charm [incantationhttp://www.illionishistory.com/bloodstopping.html">http://www.illionishistory.com/bloodstopping.html)

Elliot Wigginton’s students reported speaking with healers in the Ozark Mountain region who had four primary areas of skill in healing.  They could cure burns, cure Thrush in babies, cure warts, and stop bleeding.  One healer, Mrs. Andy Webb, reported she could perform three of the cures.  She described how she stopped bleeding:  “To do it, you don’t have ta’ touch the person.  I can just talk t’ th’ Lord and it’s all right.  And when y’blow fire [cure burnshttp://www.illionishistory.com/bloodstopping.html">http://www.illionishistory.com/bloodstopping.html)

Creighton refers to another informant from Ellershouse, Nova Scotia, who told her, “There was a man down the road who could stop blood.  It was considered a gift and people would go there.  When a fellow got hurt in the quarry they took him there and he cured it.  He could cure it without the man actually going to his house, as long as he knew about it…”  Another of Creighton’s informants from Bear River who was a Micmac Indian told her about Margaret Lexie who was a bloodstopper.  “She used a charm and said words softly.  She was not called a witch; she was a good woman.”  (Crighton, 1968, p. 197)

Charley Tyler, another of Wigginton’s informants who was a bloodstopper (and knew several other cures as well), reported, “Doctors don’t like it (performing the magical cures).  They just plain don’t like it.  They just plain tell you it’s not so.  You can’t do it.  But they’re wrong.  It can be done.  An’ y’ can show a doctor that y’ can do it and still he’ll argue with y’ that it’s just not right…” (Wigginton, 1972, p. 364) 

Religious Incantations and “Non-Religious” Incantations

From my research I observed that there were two “types” of verbal incantations used by bloodstoppers, one with definite Christian religious components, which often included quoting Ezekiel Chapter 16, Verse 6 from the Bible; and the other magical incantations with no religious connotations.  Jeffrey Russell explains, “The distinction between the magical invocation of a god and religious prayer to a god is not clear, but the tendency of magic is to attempt to compel, or at least assure, the god’s assistance, whereas the tendency of religion is to implore or beseech his cooperation.” (Russell, 1987, p. 190)   Dr. Mariella Squire adds, “magic is more active behavior.  It gives control to the people, some or all can control supernatural power and the outcome of reality for personal or group agendas.” (Squire, 2014, Lesson Week 9, p. 17)

Bonita Freeman explains, “Magic separates from religion at the point where men believe they have some control over unknown elements.  In other words, when a man can use formula and ritual and be certain that if his work is carefully followed through, a patient will get well, that he is dealing with magic not religion.  A magician trusts his own powers while religious man must trust the unknown.” (Freeman, 1968)

Howard Kee blurs the distinction and defines magic as, “included in what may be broadly designated as religion.”  He goes on to say, “magic is defined by cultural anthropologists… as a technique of action or the use of a formula effective for producing certain desired results.” (Kee, p. 122)

Wikipedia defines the practice of faith healing as, “…overt and ritualistic practices of communal prayer and gestures (such as laying on of hands) that are claimed to solicit divine intervention in initiating spiritual and literal healing.”  The distinction between faith healing and spiritual healing is described, “unlike faith healing, advocates of spiritual healing make no attempt to seek divine interventions, instead believing in divine energy.”  The author goes on to explain, “faith healing is an example of pseudoscientific magical thinking.” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Faith_healing)

Dr. Mariella Squire explains that magical healers, “manipulate the supernatural on behalf of the client.” However, she goes on to say, “some religious healers conduct what appear to be miracles on demand, healing people at specific times and places.” (Squire, 2014, Lesson 14)  These two practices of faith healing and magical healing are not necessarily divergent paradigms.  In reporting Don Yoder’s research on powwowing Dr. Kriebel reports, “Don Yoder considers powwowing to be based on ancient religious healing traditions sanctioned and even blessed by the Roman Catholic Church, but driven underground among Protestant populations… and placed into the hands of lay practitioners.” (Kriebel, http://www.esoteric.msu.edu/VolumeIV/Powwow.htm, p. 18)

In part, the St. John Valley healers who did not use specifically religious incantations can, in part, be accounted for by Ronald Labelle, whose research showed, “Acadians, who are traditionally Roman Catholic, tend not to use literal interpretations of the scriptures as a basis for their actions.”  Labelle also referred to “widespread belief in the supernatural” among Acadians.  (Labelle, http://id.erudit.org/iderudit/019949ar)  My informants in the St. John Valley were all Acadians.  Although not all of them referred to religious themes in their incantations and rituals for bloodstopping, they all gave the credit for their “gifts” to God. 

St. John Valley informants were much like Elliot Wigginton’s informants whom he described as, “the elderly healers with whom we talked are quiet, simple, strong and sure.  They are people with faith of such quality that the differences between them and us were abundantly clear.  They have faith in themselves, and they have faith in their God, believing that it is through Him that their words carry weight… They work with neighbors and neighbors’ children individually, when asked to help, and they respond as a gesture of friendship and concern.” (Wigginton, 1972, p. 346)  Perhaps, though the incantations and rituals are different in the degree of inclusion of specifically religious components, all of these bloodstoppers are more alike than different.

Who Could be a Bloodstopper

There are various explanations about who can become a bloodstopper.  Mr. Thibodeau indicated to me that anyone could learn it, but they had to be of the opposite gender from the person teaching them (more will be said on this topic below).  In addition, the student had to actually successfully use the cure before s/he could teach it to anyone else or even reveal it to anyone else, otherwise, it would stop working for everyone.  (Interview, Reginald Thibodeau, 2009) 

Other researchers found that people could teach others, but some folks believed they could teach only a limited number of unrelated individuals, “usually two of the opposite sex not related to him by blood.”  However, the same informant said he had “taught many people with no ill effects to his own abilities.” (Wigginton, 1972, p. 347)   Aunt Nora Garland said, “one person can tell one, y’see, and that other person that y’told can tell someone else.  Sorta like these chain letters.” (Wigginton, 1972, p. 352) 

Shirlee Connors-Carlson explained to me that the women she knew who were bloostoppers had “gifts” and it was apparently not something that was inherited because the sister of one bloodstopper “did not have the gift.”  She added, “this was work ordained by the Almighty.” (Interview, Shirlee Connors-Carlson, 2014)  Mrs. Andy Webb agreed, saying her power to heal was “a gift from God.” (Wigginton, 1972, p. 352)  Helen Creighton concurs.  She said, “People who had this healing gift were regarded with great respect.”  (Creighton, 1968, p. 193)

Being the seventh son of a seventh son or the seventh daughter of a seventh daughter also conferred the “gift” of magical healing to an individual.  (Wigginton, 1972, p. 359)  (Dorson, 2008, p. 156)  Helen Creighton’s informant, reporting on a bloodstopper said, “He was the seventh son of a seventh son.  When he was young he was chopping and cut his leg in the woods.  At that time it came to him – what he could do – and he could do it from that time.  He was always known as Dr. Flemming.”  (Creighton, 1968, p. 198)

Babies born with a “caul” or membrane over their faces (a very rare occurrence) were thought to have the “gift” of healing.  Herm Manette reported, “babies born with veils over their faces, like tissue paper, which choked them and had to be cut off by the doctor, would receive the power when they grew to a certain age.”  (Dorson, 2008, p. 155)

Some healers benefitted from both of the above circumstances as did Jonas Corvette described by her nephew, Jeff Corvette, “she was the seventh daughter of the seventh daughter.  She was born with a veil.” (Dorson, 2008, p. 160)

Trans-Gender Transmission

Of one thing nearly all informants, as well as the literature agreed on, is that the incantations and rituals could only be passed from male to female and female to male.  This cross-gender transmission was described by Charley Tyler, “…I’ve taught all women.  I wouldn’t teach a man.  I didn’t undertake that ‘cause they was s’much of that said by nearly everybody that knew anything about those things.  A man teach a woman and a woman teach a man…” (Wigginton, 1972, p. 365)

Harley Carpenter said, “…I could learn two women, or three I think it is, and then one of ‘em that I’d learnt could learn a man person…” (Wigginton, 1972, p. 367)  Richard Dorson’s informant said, “I’ve heard Archie Clark say that a man could tell a woman the prayer, or a woman could tell a man, but that one man couldn’t tell another.” (Dorson, 2008, p. 152)

George MacDonald agreed, “a man can learn a woman and a woman can learn a man.” (Dorson, 2008, p. 153)  Herm Manette concurred, “the gift is handed down from man to woman and woman to man.” (Dorson, 2008, p. 154)

A Nova Scotia informant told Helen Creighton, “There was a charm for nose bleeding but you must believe in it.  The man who did it didn’t need to come to the person but could say the words to himself.  It had to be passed on from a man to a woman.”  (Creighton, 1968, p. 224)

Compensation for Providing the Service to Others

Generally speaking, bloodstoppers and other magical healers don’t receive compensation for their work beyond the possibility of having any expenses they incur in performing the work covered.  Shirlee Connors-Carlson explained it this way, “this was work ordained by the Almighty and you couldn’t take money, couldn’t make a profit for doing the work.”  However, she added, “today they could take money for their gas or they could take a pail of potatoes, turnips, carrots – anything that could be kept in the sand in the cellar.”  (Interview, Shirlee Connors-Carlson, 2014)  One informant told Richard Dorson, “you’re not supposed to thank him (the healer) or anything” (Dorson, 2008, p. 154)

Not everyone felt this way, however.  Miss Bessie Phillips, describing a healer named John Buddo, reported, “his reward for his services was by donations.  He would make a charge for his services and the medical doctors tried to have him stopped with his cures, but he carried on; and as a joke by his friends he was known as Dr. Buddo.” (Dorson, 2008, p. 157)

Effectiveness of the Magical Healing

These magical cures were reportedly very effective at stopping bleeding, not only in humans, but also in animals.  They were so effective that Lester Norton told the story of Uncle Joe Teague who was challenged by some folks at a local hotel, “’They say you can stop blood.’

“He said, ‘Yeah.’ 

“‘All right,’ (they) said.  ‘We’ll just let ya’ try your luck on this beef.’

“He said, ‘All right, but it’ll ruin yer beef, man.’

“’Aw Shuck.’

“They killed it’n stuck it.  It never bled a drop.  Blood stayed right in th’ flesh and ruined it.  Couldn’t eat it.  He shore could stop blood.” (Wigginton, 1972, p. 349)

Nearly all of the informants and the literature give credit for the effectiveness of the magical healing performed by bloodstoppers to God.  There are a few, however, who also attribute it to the human mind.  Shirlee Connors-Carlson said she believed the cures worked “because of the power of positive thinking.”(although she also credited “the Almighty”)  Similarly, James Smith wrote, in describing the belief in witch doctors that the witch doctor’s mission, “…spoke tellingly of the power of ideas to construct reality…” (Smith, 2005, p. 156)  The power of suggestion is also credited with a successful cure by one of Richard Dorson’s informants.  (Dorson, 2008, p. 150-151)

Wim van den Dungen cites four reasons for the efficacy of healing practices:  “(a) a shared world view by healer and patient, which makes the diagnosis or naming process possible; (b) certain personal qualities of the practitioner that appear to facilitate the client’s recovery; (c) positive client expectations that assist progress; and (d) a sense of mastery that empowers the client.” (http://www.sofiatopia.org/maat/healing.htm)  Claude Levi-Strauss has outlined essentially the same reasons for the overall effectiveness of magical healing.  (Levi-Strauss, 1963, p. 169)

Howard Kee adds, “…efficacy depends on the formula rather than on the performer’s understanding of the factors involved.” (Kee, P. 123)

Dr. Kriebel provided statistics pertaining to powwowing in Pennsylvania (which includes other types of magical healing in addition to bloodstopping).  He reported, “…there are numerous accounts that the practice has been effective in accomplishing its therapeutic purpose.  Out of 89 cases in which the outcome of treatment was known, healing is reported to have occurred in 80 of them, a success rate of 90 percent.”  He provides possible explanations for this result as follows:

            “1. Spontaneous remission;

              2.  Placebo effect (effect of belief upon the body);

              3.  Effect of concurrent (but unreported) biomedical treatment; and

              4.  Healing through supernatural intervention.”

Ultimately, he chooses to “leave the question of causation open…” (Kriebel, http://www.esoteric.msu.edu/VolumeIV/Powwow.htm)

As Dr. Kriebel did, I will leave the issue of the reason for the reportedly very high rates of effectiveness of these magical “secret” cures by the bloodstoppers “open”.  Henry David Thoreau once observed, “Men are probably nearer the central truth in their superstitions than in their science.”  And, as bloodstopper Harley Carpenter reasoned, “if it had’n a’been true, it wouldn’a been handed down through th’years.” (Wigginton, 1972, p. 367)

 

Origins of Bloodstopping “Secrets”

Kate Ravilious quoted Marion Gibson of Exeter University who is a specialist on 16th and 17th-century Paganism, “every village would have had people thought to be skilled in magic in one way or another and people in the area would go to them for their specialist services just as we might go to a lawyer or plumber today.” (Ravilious, November/December 2008)  I would argue that this was not only true of the 16th and 17th-century, but continues to the present time in many locations such as the St. John Valley area of northern Maine and Western New Brunswick.

But, where did the practice known today as “bloodstopping” originate?  Although the origins are no doubt lost to the mists of time, there are a few hints available.  William Monter described a priest in Normandy who was convicted of witchcraft and ultimately hanged and his body burned after people reported he had “a booklet with twelve or fifteen pages of recipes for curing spells,” as well as other “evidence.”  (Monter, 1997, p. 576)  This was in 1603 which would appear to indicate that magical incantations were being written down, and possibly used, at least by that time period.

Perhaps the most likely source, aside from oral transmission over long periods of time, is the book of cures known as Egyptian Secrets and attributed to Albertus Magnus (ca. 1193-1280).  However, as Joseph Peterson has indicated, the collected cures first appear in Cologne in 1725 and had nothing to do with Albertus Magnus, nor with Egypt.  He goes on to explain that, “’Egyptian’ is used to refer to Gypsies – more properly the Roma – based on the mistaken belief that this diverse ethnic group originated in Egypt.  Its connection with actual lore of the Roma is also tenuous, and ‘Egyptian’ is used more as a generic term for ‘magic.’ (In exactly the same way ‘Magic’ originally meant ‘of the Magi’ to refer to Eastern wise men or wizards.)” (Peterson, 2006, http://www.esotericarchives.com/moses/egyptian.htm)

This collection, containing hundreds of cures, includes those for stopping blood, curing colic, and curing burns much like what my informants told me about and those that are reflected in the literature.  They require that all incantations and rituals be performed three times.  This requirement was something that several informants referred to as well (Interview, Reginald Thibodeau, 2009) (Wigginton, 1972, p. 354, 357, and 367), although not all informants referred to the necessity of repeating the incantation three times.

Egyptian Secrets also requires that, “the highest name of God…should always be added in conclusion” after repeating the incantations three times.  (Peterson, 2006, http://www.esotericarchives.com/moses/egyptian.htm

Examples of magical cures from Egyptian Secrets include the following: 

            “31.  For Wounds and Stopping Blood:  Blessed is the day on which Jesus Christ was born; blessed is the day on which Jesus Christ died; blessed is the day on which Jesus Christ arose from the dead.  These are holy three hours; by these, (full name of the victim), I stop thy blood.  Thy sores shall neither swell nor fester; no more shall that happen, than that the Virgin Mary will bear another son.  In the name of God (repeat three times).

            32.  To Stop Blood:  Upon Christ’s grave three lilies grow.  The first is named Youth; the other, Virtue’s Truth; the third, SUBUL.  Blood stop in the name of God (repeat three times).”  (Peterson, 2006, http://www.esotericarchives.com/moses/egyptian.htm

In addition to medical cures, Egyptian Secrets also provides some practical magic such as the following (the second example will be useful to all the treasure hunters out there):

            “89. To compel a Thief to return Stolen Property:  Obtain a new earthen pot with a cover, draw water from the undercurrent of a stream while calling out the three holiest names.  Fill the vessel one-third, take the same to your home, set it upon the fire, take a piece of bread from the lower crust of a loaf, stick three pins into the bread, boil all in the vessel, add a few dew nettles.  Then say:  Thief, male or female, bring my stolen articles back, whether thou art boy or girl; thief, if thou art woman or man, I compel thee, in the name of God.

            91. To make a Magnetic Compass which will serve to Discover the Treasures and Ores in the Bowels of the Earth:  For this purpose a magnet made of the plusquam perfection, accompanied by the prime material of which all metals grow is requisite:  with this, the magnet of the compass must be strengthened.  Around the compass are engraved the characteristic signs of all the seven metals.  If it is desired now to ascertain what kind of a metal is most likely to be found in a hidden treasure or in ore beneath the earth, it will be only necessary to hie to that particular spot, where the magnetic rod has given the indication, but you must put your foot there where the perpendicular shows its attractions, and take of every metal a small piece, that is, one as heavy as the other, and lay it upon the resp. character and the needle will rotate to that metal which predominated under the surface of the earth, and there it will stand still.

            179. To prevent Persons doing Evil unto you, whom you suspect of bearing Malice, or designing Evil against you:  Welcome, in the name of God, ye brethren true and God, we all have drank of the Saviour’s blood.  God the Father be with me; God the Son be with you; God the Holy Spirit be with us all.  Let us meet in union and part from each other in peace in the name of God.  (repeat three times).” (Peterson, 2006, http://www.esotericarchives.com/moses/egyptian.htm

Egyptian Secrets was widely published in Europe and appears to be the source of numerous broadsides and pamphlets, many of which made their way into the United States in the 1700’s and 1800’s.  In addition, these magical healing traditions came with immigrants from such places as Norway (http://paranormal-corner.blogspot.com/2010/09/blood-stopping-lsing-will-to-stop.html), Ireland (http://marie-mckeown.hubpages.com/hub/Irish-FolkloreTraditional-Beliefs-and-Superstitions); and the Indigenous peoples of North America were also very familiar with magical cures (Labelle, 2008, p. 138). 

Mr. Thibodeau told me that he had learned the “secrets” in about 1984 from a woman in St. Leonard, New Brunswick who appeared to be a First Nations person.  He estimated her age at the time to be about 75 years.  She wrote the “secrets” down for him and he carried the paper in his wallet.   He didn’t ask the woman where she learned the “secrets.”

Shirlee Connors-Carlson attributed the Allagash, Maine bloodstoppers with being born with the “gift.” Although, she informed me that June Hafford was “part Indian.”  Shirlee also attributed the magical cures to culture of the large Irish community who settled in the Allagash.  She speculated that bloodstopping may have originated in Ireland.

While there does appear to be a centuries old tradition of magical cures, and they come from many regions of the world, I believe that the “secrets” reported in the St. John Valley represent a blend of many of these sources, just as is the case in other areas where bloodstoppers continue to practice even today.

Analysis and Conclusions

James Kirkland has explained that American healing systems are numerous and varied, and that they co-exist with each other:

“In the United States today there exist a great variety of traditions of healing.  Some of these have the relief of physical disease as their primary goal; examples of such systems are modern conventional medicine and homeopathy.  Others focus primarily on the prevention of disease, for example, conservative chiropractic; and others on the enhancement of health, for example, health foods and organic farming.  Still others have a completely different primary goal; most religious healing practices exist within the traditions in which salvation is the primary goal, while the healing of physical and mental disease is prominent but clearly of secondary importance.

 

Some of these systems occupy firmly established ‘official’ positions in our society, such as conventional medicine and osteopathy.  Others are definitely unofficial or ‘folk’ in their status, as is the case with Pennsylvania German powwowing or the North Carolina burn-healing tradition…  Some are necessarily in conflict because they are based on diametrically opposed sets of assumptions, as Christian Science and medical science.  Others, such as the tradition of prayer for healing in most Christian denominations and most forms of physical treatment of disease, are so accustomed to one another that neither clergy nor health care personnel normally think of themselves as in competition.

 

Some of these systems appear relatively new, but most of them are historically related to older traditions, as chiropractic is related to traditions of ‘bonesetting,’ much of the modern health food movement is related to the ancient folk herbalism, and conventional medicine is the culmination of many strands of official and folk healing traditions spanning centuries.  The current tension among these systems, especially between modern conventional medicine and most other healing traditions, is sometimes characterized as a distinctly modern situation, but it too is a continuation of past struggles and requires a historical perspective to be properly understood.  …The fact is that we live in a pluralistic health culture…” (James Kirkland, 1992, p. 15-16)

 

The bloodstoppers of the St. John Valley in northern Maine and Western New Brunswick are part and parcel of the cultural health resources of the region.  Not in competition with medical science, they enhance it and add to the services available by meeting the immediate critical needs of their communities.  In this sense, the magical folk medicine practiced by the bloodstoppers is not marginal.  Rather, they are an integral community and cultural resource.

As Dr. Mariella Squire has said, “through using physical actions and symbols, the magical healer controls the anxiety and restores some sense of control to the ego and the community… The healer removes the threat, controls it, and defeats it, restoring the community equilibrium.” (Squire, 2014, Week 8 Lecture, p. 8)

It is important to understand that these magical healers are an integral part of the community.  James Kirkland views a “pluralistic health culture,” and in some ways there exists such a pluralistic health culture in the St. John Valley.  However, these folk healers are not on the fringes of society as a Witch might have been, and they are not feared or hated in any way.  Rather, they are important, valued, and respected members of the community. 

Although there has been a cultural concept of dualism between good and evil among practitioners of magic, bloodstoppers and other magical healers are perceived as practicing “good” magic.  The bloodstoppers of the St. John Valley region in Northern Maine and Western New Brunswick, who refer to their incantations and rituals as, “Secrets,” have integrated age-old magical healing practices into the community and serve an important function in the rural Northeast borderland region.

 

 

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