Fantastic Cures for What Ails You

Isabella Alden was no stranger to illness. In her personal life she suffered from chronic health issues. In her novels, her characters fought a variety of ailments, from head colds and sore throats, to broken bones and crippling back injuries.

In her novel Jessie Wells Isabella wrote about a “molasses and ginger cure” to ward off cough and fever. It was suggested to Jessie by her father, a physician. (You can read more about it here.)

Vintage cartoon of a woman about 1910 carrying a baby in one arm and a large suitcase in her other hand. The suitcase is labeled "Medicine Chest. Soothing Syrup. Peppermint. Jamaica Ginger. Paregoric."

Although the molasses cure was based on an old folk medicine recipe, it was actually beneficial; the ginger helped suppress a cough and the molasses soothed the throat.

Like Dr. Wells, many physicians in those days treated patients with folk medicine cures for ailments ranging from the common cold to the universal finger wart.

Vintage illustration of a doctor visiting a little girl sick in bed. He holds her hand and speaks kindly to her.

Isabella availed herself of some of those folk remedies in her personal life. To cure her chronic headaches she underwent a “water cure.” Physicians wrapped her body in wet blankets and allowed them to dry in place. They believed the process would draw harmful toxins from her body, thereby curing her headaches. (You can read more about it here.)

Vintage illustration of man in bed. a woman in nursing cap and apron stands beside him, combing his hair from his forehead while holding a mirror out for him to see.

There were folk remedies for every possible ailment, including dry lips, rattlesnake bites, poison ivy, measles, diphtheria and sties.  Here are a few:

The lining of a chicken gizzard is good for stomach trouble.

A drop of skunk’s oil will cure a cold.

To treat a wart, squeeze the red juice from a freshly picked beet leaf on it every day.

A drop of turpentine on the tongue every day will keep all disease away.

Vintage illustration of a doctor wrapping a bandage around a woman's arm as she rests in a chair with a pillow behind her.

The remedies were handed down from mother to daughter, from doctor to patient. Some old-time cures persisted until the Twentieth Century; generations of American children wore a piece of flannel (usually red) around their throats after drinking home-made cough syrups. In some areas of the U.S. it was a common practice well into the 1950s.  

Some folk remedies had no legitimacy, yet they worked because the patients believed they would work.

Victorian era illustration of a sick man in bed. A woman wearing nursing cap and apron stands at the foot of the bed hear a table on which is a bowl and a medicine bottle.

Other cures sounded strange, but had a scientific basis, like this one:

To cure an abscess or infected cut, apply a poultice of moldy bread and water twice each day.

In this instance, the poultice probably worked because the moldy bread essentially served as a home-grown form of penicillin.

Victorian era illustration of a seated woman holding a little girl in her lap. Before them kneels a doctor who holds a cup to the child's lips. In the background stand worried family members.

In our twenty-first century America, many of the old home-grown medicines have gone by the wayside. Luckily, the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. has a large collection of stories, letters, research essays, photos, and voice recordings about American folk medicine that helps us understand how Isabella, her family, neighbors and friends dealt with illness and injuries. You can visit the LOC’s website by clicking here.

Does your family have a story about folk medicine cures that did (or didn’t) work?

Do you have a favorite home remedy that has been handed down from generation to generation in your family?

Isabella’s Mystery Illness and the Water Cure

Not long after Isabella married Ross Alden she became ill. She never specifically named her ailment, but in her memoirs and in her auto-biographically-based stories, she often mentioned trouble with her eyes and that she suffered greatly from what we would today know as migraine headaches.


She wrote:

“It must be understood that although I was at times a great sufferer, I was by no means a helpless invalid. But the intervals between days of terrible pain might have been described as times of dull and wearisome inanity. I could read only a few minutes at a time, with long intervals between the minutes.”

A Victorian-era wheelchair (from Pinterest)
A Victorian-era wheelchair (from Pinterest)

She saw a number of physicians all over the New York area, all of whom agreed that, if she was ever to get well, Isabella should take a “water cure” from Dr. Greene at the Castile Sanitarium in New York. Ross encouraged her to follow the doctors’ instructions.

Illustration of a "water cure," circa 1860.
Illustration of a “water cure,” circa 1860.

But Isabella rebeled. She told Ross, “You needn’t think I’m going to stop and see Dr. Anybody! I’m going home!”

So Ross helped her from the doctor’s office and took her to the next departing train. He tucked her into heavy robes so she would be warm while they traveled, and urged her to nap on the train.

When Isabella awoke she found they had reached their destination: The sanitarium and the famous doctor!

The Castile Sanitarium in 1905.
The Castile Sanitarium in 1905.

Isabella demanded an explanation.

Kindly and quietly Ross answered, “We are going to spend the night here and seek this doctor’s advice. Could conscientious people do otherwise?”

Another view of the Castile Sanitarium, as it appeared in 1910.
Another view of the Castile Sanitarium, as it appeared in 1910.

When Isabella finally met the famous Dr. Greene she was probably very surprised—first, because the esteemed Dr. Greene was very young (only about thirty-five years of age), and second—Dr. Green was a female!

Dr. Cordelia Agnes Greene, in an undated photo.
Dr. Cordelia Agnes Greene, in an undated photo.

Female doctors were very uncommon in the late 1860s when Isabella first visited Castile Sanitarium. But Dr. Cordelia Greene was a very impressive young woman. At the age of sixteen she began supporting herself as a teacher in order to earn the money to put herself through medical school. She worked long hours in large sanitariums to gain experience; and she helped her father, also a physician, open a small “water cure” facility on property he purchased in Castile, New York.

When her father died, Dr. Cordelia Greene took over his enterprise, and used the sulphur springs on the property to expand the practice’s offerings. Under her management, the sanitarium became one of the premier facilities in the country.

The Sanitarium in an undated photo.
The Sanitarium in an undated photo.

Famous patients flocked to her doors, including Frances Willard, the founder of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union; Susan B. Anthony, the noted leader of the suffrage movement; and Dr. Clara Swain, who opened the first hospital for women on the continent of Asia.

From a 1938 edition of The Castilian, the local newspaper (before the days of patient privacy laws).
From a 1938 edition of The Castilian, the local newspaper (before the days of patient privacy laws).

Dr. Cordelia believed in the importance of deep breathing, vigorous exercise, and proper hydration of the body. She started every day by visiting patients’ rooms and personally delivering a pitcher of water to ensure each patient drank a full glass of water before breakfast.

A view of the Sanitarium showing the pond and walking paths, about 1913.
A view of the Sanitarium showing the pond and walking paths, about 1913.

Dr. Cordelia made certain patients who were strong enough spent plenty of time out of doors. They gardened and played croquet, walked and swam, in between their scheduled hydrotherapy treatments.

The Maples, where the nursing staff lived on the Sanitarium grounds.
The Maples, where the nursing staff lived on the Sanitarium grounds.

One of the hydrotherapy treatments Dr. Cordelia prescribed for Isabella was a wet sheet pack. The purpose of the wet sheet pack was to draw toxins from the body and increase blood circulation.

A wet sheet pack is accomplished by wrapping the patient from head to toe in a wet (usually with cold water) sheet. The patient’s arms are straight at their sides, and the sheet is tightly wrapped around the patient like a cocoon.


Over this are wrapped several layers of woolen blankets, again from head to toe.


As the patient sweats, the secretions from her pores are trapped in the sheet, as the wool blankets prevent moisture from evaporating into the air.


Isabella wrote that she was glad to have gone to the sanitarium; and said that “the thing that seemed so hateful soon became pleasant.” She grew to love and greatly admire Dr. Greene, saying:

“She was the life and power and heart and soul of that great water cure—a doctor of wonderful skill, a woman whom everybody respected and loved and obeyed.”

Isabella stayed on at Castile Sanitarium for five months; and when she left, she rejoiced. She was cured!

“Never since that time have I had to bear for even a single hour that peculiar form of pain which had been my almost constant attendant for more than five years!”

You can learn more about Dr. Cordelia Greene and her accomplishments by following these links: