In September 1863, a husband and wife from Taunton, England turned to a group of local women for advice on how to help their child suffering from scarlet fever. At that time scarlet fever was often a death sentence forcing parents to desperation to save their children. This particular story was retold in the local newspaper in Somerset, which called the women "jury of matrons." The women all agreed that there was no hope of survival and instead focused on preventing the child from "dying hard."
The advice from this group was interesting in the sense that it was steeped in witchcraft that many thought was driven out of town in 1707 when the town was the last in England to hold which trials.
While the newspaper didn't outright call the "matrons" witches, it was clear their remedy for an easy death was part of ancient superstition that crafted witch methodology and belief. The women suggested:
Open all the doors, drawers, cupboards and boxes in the house. In addition, the parents were advised to untie any knots (shoelaces, curtain pulls or apron sashes) and remove all keys from their locks.
The fact these women felt these actions would work and the parents were compelled to seek their advice in the first place underscores how long-held beliefs suffered no matter ridicule, laws, or conventional wisdom. Apparently, this "sympathetic magic" focused on everyday objects that could affect human behavior. The advice of the matrons was to make sure passage into eternity would be easy and secured. Another reason these beliefs lived on throughout the ages is there were times when they appeared to work.
In this case the child with scarlet fever survived!
It was decided later by a physician that knew the family the advice of the matrons actually helped as it led to the ventilation of the home. I learned of this story in the summer issue of Lapham's Quarterly in a piece written by Colin Dickey and thought about it this week as politicians and even celebrities continued to demagogue sequestration.
(Harrison Ford was out last week on the fact there will be accidents with the layoffs or furloughs of air traffic controllers at rural airports. One thing is for sure, there will be accidents no matter what as it is human nature but at least there's a scapegoat. Then there's the behind the scenes plan to eventually replace laid off workers with unionized workers rendering some political dismay in the category of crocodile tears.)
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