My grandmother (and my informant) learned this folk remedy in her twenties when her mother-in-law, who was born in Italy, noticed my grandma had warts on her hand. It was something she taught me as a young child, and although I’ve never tried it, she claims she did and the warts on her hands have never come back.
In a natural setting, this piece of folklore is almost exclusively passed from one who has had warts and used the remedy, to one who currently has them and is in need of a remedy. And when being carried out, is only performed by the individual with the ailment. My informant also noted that when she practiced the remedy, she was traveling and in a place she knew she’d never go again, making it easier for her to find a spot she wouldn’t revisit.
“You have to tie a string around each digit with a wart on it–and you can only use one hand. You have to wear it for a whole day, and at the end of the day you have to take a walk to a place you’ll never go again. On the walk you gotta bury it, and make sure you never-never-ever go back to that spot or the warts will come back!”
The other day, I was retelling this remedy to a friend of mine because she was curious about the project that I’ve been working on. As I told her about how the cure is conducted, she started asking things like, “why a place you’ll never go to again?” and “why do you have to bury the string?”. After taking some time to think about it, I believe this cure is a practice of sympathetic magic. In sympathetic magic, actions are taken which are representative of the change one wants to be made. In this case, each string is representative of a wart, wearing the string(s) for a day corresponds to the time one had already had the wart(s), and therefore burying the string in a place one will never visit again indicates the wart(s) disappearing and never returning.
My informant is fond of this superstition because of his love of astronomy. It was passed to him by a friend, who received it from his mother. They lived in Denver, Colorado, at the time.
This superstition originated and probably only existed during the passage of Halley’s comet in 1910. The mother of my informant’s friend was around 5 or 6 years old when the superstition was being practiced.
“It was believed throughout history that comets were a sign of doom and destruction. Halley’s comet was pretty spectacular in 1910–it was really impressive. And scientifically they knew at the time that the comet’s tail was releasing cyanide gas. But people were afraid of being gassed by cyanide from the comet’s tail, so at night they would put wet towels under their doors and windows to protect themselves from it.
This superstition around the passage of Halley’s comet gives us an interesting look into how the American public uses scientific information. My informant tells me that in 1910, during the passing of the comet, scientists had already figured out that its tail was releasing cyanide gas and that the release of this gas would have no effect on us. Instead of using the information they were given to make an informed choice, the people of Denver started the practice of protecting themselves with wet towels because it gave them a false sense of security. I find this interesting because it relates to issues we face in present times, with people who publicly argue against the COVID-19 vaccine. These people are given the same information as everyone else but refuse to acknowledge the science behind vaccines and take cover behind the illusion that they’re safer without it. The most comical thing, however, is that if Halley’s comet were to poison people with its cyanide release, they would have all died anyway. After all, the comet was present in the daytime during its passage, too.
My informant for this piece is my grandmother, who learned this song from her father and passed it on to her children and grandchildren. She grew up up in North Central Wisconsin and suspects that it came from one of the men’s groups, likely a fraternity, that her father was a part of there.
My grandma sings this tune quite often in times of relaxation when joking around is warranted. I specifically remember her performing it down by the water on our family vacations to Lake Kathrine, Wisconsin, during summers when I was growing up.
“I’m a devil, a dirty rotten devil, put poison in my mother’s cream of wheat! I put a blotch on, the family escutcheon, and I eat *slurp noise 2x* raw meat!”
While this piece of lore could be looked at as great example of how dark comedy can play an important role in the relationships between an individual and their loved ones, I want to consider it through the lens of a parent who’s child is mad at them. Given that a the rhyme uses the word “escutcheon” (the spelling of which I had to Google), I think it’s unlikely that it was written by a child. With that in mind, the parent in this situation is able to satirize the childs anger at them by joking that the child wishes to poison them–while that may not be completely true, it’s possible that the parent feels there’s some truth in the statement. Nonetheless, in noting the amount of chaos that children can cause at times, this rhyme shows the wisdom of a parent accepting that fact in their ability to make light of it.
Every summer during my informant’s childhood she went camping in Yosemite. Among the many other camping traditions that people may hold, it always seemed to her that everyone who regularly attended Yosemite was in on this piece of lore. While she didn’t understand why people did it at first, she eventually learned the story from her parents. Now, she enjoys the idea of the tradition because it reminds her of her childhood.
While this call-and-response is usually only performed and passed between campers in Yosemite Valley, I was lucky enough to have my informant share it with me during an interview that was being conducted to collect folklore.
“Some years ago a kid named Elmer was lost in the woods. Every summer from then on someone would shout “ELLLLLMEERRRRR” and every camp through the whole valley would echo the name back.”
Whether or not Elmer ever really existed, I was able to find out by looking further that people have reported hearing his name throughout the valley since the 1930s! Moreover, there was even a children’s book published that describes the phenomenon. This shows that although the tradition remains folklore in Yosemite, its influence has been expanded to the realm of authored literature as well. While some tradition-bearers prefer to act as gatekeepers of their knowledge, I personally believe that the publication of this piece of folklore has been positive. Allowing it to be shared with children who may never get to camp in that region is a very kind thing to do, and it may eventually lead to the tradition being spread and practiced in other areas as well.
For another account of this phenomenon, see:
Yosemite Ranger Notes. “Yosemite Valley: A Land of Beauty, Peace, Sanctity, and ‘ELMER!’ – Yosemite National Park (U.S. National Park Service).” National Park Service, 29 Sept. 2014, www.nps.gov/yose/blogs/yosemite-valley-a-land-of-beauty-peace-sanctity-and-elmer.htm.
The informant’s mother used to say this phrase as a playful thing to her children. While my informant generally liked this chant for its nostalgiac purposes, her mother used it in a variety of ways at her childhood summer camp. Though I lacked the mind to gather where her mother was from, my informant is originally from California.
In summer camp, my informant says her mom learned to use the chant as a sort of password in order to get into other campers’ cabins, sit with people during meals, and participate in activities. That being said, I was able to record it during an interview for folklore collection.
I’m sure that my informant has remembered this piece her whole life because it has been reminiscent of her childhood (and because it sounds good rolling off the tongue), but the purpose it served at her mother’s summer camp allows us, as folklorists, to take a deeper look into the social lives of children. In acting as a password as a sort of key to participating in different social settings, the phrase likely created an ingroup and an outgroup which would have contributed to the children’s social hierarchy. It’s important to note, though, that my informant told me kids at this summer camp would all eventually learn the chant–after a few days of confusion followed by some practice. Thus, it must not have simply been a tool for exclusion, but a right of passage into becoming a recognized camp member.