Journal of the History of Sexuality 11.4 (2002) 637-649
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White-Livered Widders and Bad-Blooded Men:
Folk Illness and Sexual Disorder in Southern Appalachia
Anthony Cavender and Steve Crowder
East Tennessee State University
INVESTIGATIONS ON FOLK MEDICINE in the American South have identified a number of folk illnesses. According to Arthur Rubel, a "folk illness" is a syndrome that "members of a particular group claim to suffer and for which their culture provides an etiology, diagnosis, preventive measures, and regimens of healing." 1 C. C. Hughes has labeled this combination of symptoms and beliefs an "ethnomedical complaint," defined as "those beliefs and practices relating to disease which are the products of indigenous cultural development and are not explicitly derived from the conceptual framework of modern medicine." 2 While medical professionals often dismiss the ailments as superstitious nonsense, the maladies are all too real for those who believe in them. One of the better-known examples of a folk illness is "bold hives" (also called "little red hives," "stretch hives," and "bull hives"), a debilitating and sometimes fatal infant-specific disorder not to be confused with urticaria. 3 Researchers have collected descriptions of various blood-related folk illnesses, including "high blood," "low blood," "thick blood," "thin blood," "bitter blood," and "sweet [End Page 637] blood." 4 Considerable research has also been done on the meaning and prevalence of "nerves." 5 This essay reports on an investigation of a less well recognized folk illness, a sexual disorder known as "white liver." Published sources contain scant information on white liver, but recent interviews with residents of south-central Appalachia indicate that the ailment was relatively well known in the past. 6
White Liver Defined
It is not difficult to understand why early researchers gathered so little information on white liver. Informants and investigators both were reticent to talk openly about most things related to sex. Reluctance to engage in discourse about sexual matters remains evident today, especially (but not exclusively) among members of the older generation. Clinicians in the South encounter euphemisms like "nature" for sexual drive and "loss of nature" or "loss of courage" for impotency. Some patients describe the genitals by using such terms as "possible" and "thing" or say something like "I've got a problem down there" when talking about genitalia. 7 Though people were aware of the word "syphilis," older respondents were likely to use more polite terms like "(the) bad disease" and "bad blood" in the past, a practice that continues to this day. Gathering information on white liver for this study was a challenge at times due to a persistent sensitivity about discussing sexual matters. When asked about white liver, one woman (Informant 16) replied, "Child, you don't want to know about that." Another informant responded tersely: "I'm not getting into that. What's your next question?" [End Page 638]
Illness is an abnormal condition, but some illnesses seem more "normal" than others. While having a cold is not normal, its common occurrence qualifies it as a normal illness. The same logic applies to folk illnesses. Years ago, many Appalachian people believed that all babies came into the world with "hives." "Hiving" a baby with teas of catnip, ground ivy, or other substances thought to prevent "hives" from worsening into "bold hives" was commonplace. Today, folk illnesses related to the condition of an individual's blood are also considered normal occurrences in the course of a life. Though not as commonly as in the past, residents of southern Appalachia still rely on various treatments to clean the blood of morbific matter (poisonous waste) and to restore its vital properties. In contrast, white liver was probably always and is presently viewed as an abnormal folk illness, a rare disorder that affects only a small number of people.
Joseph Clark uncovered a fragment of information on white liver in North Carolina: "If a person married three times, his liver would automatically turn white." 8 Regrettably, he provided no contextual information...