The curious practice of “charming” warts

“Like many traditions, the specifics of who could charm away warts varies from place to place.”

By Stephen Miller                                                                                          Kicker

The late Margaret Hayse, known for her wart-charming abilities. The image was submitted by her family.

What do pork fat, chalk, string, rings and stones have in common? The answer, according to Newfoundland folklore: They are all used to “charm” (remove) warts.

Well into the 20th century, professional medical care was uncommon in the many isolated outport communities of Newfoundland. Although doctors were rare, warts were plentiful. During this time, it was common practice to seek out the help of a “wart charmer” – an individuals imbued with a supernatural gift for removing the unsightly growths.

According to Dale Jarvis, author and professor of folklore at Memorial University, not just anyone could charm warts.

“Like many traditions, the specifics of who could charm away warts varies from place to place.”

Throughout his research, Jarvis has encountered several variations of how a person can possess the ability. In some communities, the gift is believed to be passed on from generation to generation, passing from woman to man and vice versa. Other communities believed that only the seventh son of the seventh son could charm warts.

Jarvis has met many who have claimed to have their warts successfully removed by these practices. Jarvis believes that modern technology has a role in the passing on of ancient beliefs.

“Today, the internet has become the source of “folk cures” – and people who consider themselves to be very modern in their thinking still share and swear by cures of dubious medical origin or effectiveness that they find online. That’s how folklore continues to work in the 21st century!”

The causes of warts, according to folklore, are varied. The only consensus is that they are the result of touching an object or creature of some kind, such as toads or seaweed. This is unsurprising considering the most commonly affected areas are the hands and feet.

Modern science, however, says that common warts are caused by an infection of a type of human papilloma virus (HPV). The virus is believed to enter the body through skin that has been damaged slightly.

Untreated, warts usually resolve themselves in a matter of months, but can take up to two years or more in some cases.

Catherine Ohson is the clinical director at KarmaDerm Cosmetic Dermatology in St. John’s. At KarmaDerm warts are treated with liquid nitrogen. The wart is frozen and a blister forms between the skin and the wart, after which the wart and the surrounding dead skin fall off.

Ohson is aware of some of the traditional folklore surrounding warts. Ohson shared her opinion on the effectiveness of these treatments via an emailed response.

“No, I do not believe any of these folklore remedies work, but it depends upon the person’s belief system.”

“She marked three crosses with chalk on the back of a stove pipe, and you weren’t allowed to look at that (the markings), but once that burnt off or faded off, the warts would be gone.”

Elaine Dicks of Rushoon is one such believer. Dicks is the granddaughter of the late Margaret Hayse of Parker’s Cove, who achieved local fame for her wart-charming abilities.

“However many warts, she marked three crosses with chalk on the back of a stove pipe, and you weren’t allowed to look at that (the markings), but once that burnt off or faded off, the warts would be gone.”

Although not employed by Hayse, other methods involved rubbing pork fat on the wart and having a dog lick it off, rubbing an “old maid’s” ring on the wart, or using “magic” stones that represented the warts.

Regardless of what science has to say about warts, there are some who steadfastly believe in the ability of wart charmers.  None more so than Dicks. When asked if the process truly worked without fail, her answer was unequivocal.

“Oh definitely, every time we ever had it done. You can even ask all my sisters.”

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