When I was a child, I remember my grandparents taking me to see an Appalachian herbalist named Catfish Man of the Woods (his real name was Clarence Gray, but everyone called him Catfish). He was quite the character, to say the very least, LOL. He kept a canning jar filled with his own urine on his mantle, and I remember that it was clear as water, which he attributed to his herbs having long past cleansed his body of toxins, and he would drink it because he believed drinking ones own urine had health benefits.
Do I drink my own urine? Absolutely not, LOL.
So Catfish was a very unusual person, to say the very least. He lived in Mason County, which is very rural to this day. He was barely literate, having been declared ineducable by the third grade, and he talked a mile a minute so you had to listen carefully to understand what he was saying, but he had an encyclopedic knowledge of herbal medicine. His knowledge of herbs was so advanced, in fact, and he was such an unusual and interesting person, that a documentary was made about him, and he was even once a guest on The Johnny Carson Show.
Some have said that Catfish was an autistic savant. Back when he was a child, an autistic child would (incorrectly, obviously) indeed have been considered ineducable, especially in rural schools. I cannot say whether he was an autistic savant, since I am not a doctor. However, having met him many times, what I can say is that it is very possible, and even somewhat probable. Either way, Catfish was a great guy, very funny and very friendly – he never met a stranger – and I thought the world of him.
Catfish combined traditional Appalachian folk medicine with traditional Native American medicine, and many people absolutely swore by him and his treatments. Even today, many folks in West Virginia use traditional Appalachian herbal medicine, including me.
When I hit menopause and started getting severe hot flashes, I did not go to the doctor for hormone replacement therapy. Instead, I started taking an herb called Black Cohosh, which I had learned about many years ago from Catfish. Not only does it completely alleviate hot flashes without the need for hormones, but there are no side effects, and no known cases of anyone ever being harmed by taking it. It is therefore far safer than hormone replacement therapy, and I would highly recommend it to any ladies out there who are going through menopause. It has the additional benefit of alleviating some of the mood effects of menopause as well.
Bear in mind, menopause is a natural life stage, and if I had an actual disease, I would see a medical doctor without fail – luckily I am healthy as a horse, according to my checkup last week – but I would also examine the various folk remedies available. People in this state tend to live to a ripe old age, and many of them have used only folk medicine, and some never saw a medical doctor in their entire life. As Catfish used to say, a big problem in the modern world is that people tend to rely too much on doctors, while filling their body with poisons through their diet and pharmaceutical medicines. Certainly some diseases require pharmaceuticals, and they can definitely be life-saving, but many times our bodies will heal themselves, if we only use the natural remedies available in nature.
Catfish was very deeply in touch with nature, and he got his vast knowledge of herbal medicine from his family, who had long been herbalists, as well as from some local Native Americans. As he once stated,
It was handed down to me from my great-great-grandaddy, to my great-grandad, to my grandad, to my mother and then to me. And my grandmother lived to be 99 years old. She died doing house-work when she was 99, living by herself. At 70 years old, she married her third husband, and she married another at 98 and wore him out in half a year.
Though Catfish had learned of herbal medicine from his family, he was not particularly careful about his own health until he was in middle age, and experienced a health scare of his own, which he states was a series of heart attacks, and that a doctor told him he was dying. He claims that he was cured of heart disease by an herb given to him by a Native American, and relates the story as follows:
Here come an Indian walkin’ out of the woods carryin’ green things in his hand. Had a feather in his hat, brand new moccasins, ole deerskin coat. So he come over to me and said, “You sick, you get well. Friends send me. You sick. You get well in six months. Mind me.” He told me to boil the herbs [pipsissewa] down in two quarts of water until it’s one quart and take a teaspoon three times a day. “Keep in the ice box [oldtime refrigerator],” he said. “You’ll be in the woods huntin’ for it soon.” I said, “Now, where you from?” He said, “Durham, North Carolina, in a reservation,” and then he said, “I go.” So he went and never came back. And I can feel blessing! I was in the woods five months later gettin’ pipsissewa. Never had no more heart trouble, in fact wasn’t anything wrong with me after that.
Catfish believed the Indian was sent to him by God, to save his life and help him rededicate his life to the Lord, while helping others through his knowledge of herbal medicine.
During his younger years, Catfish worked in construction. He injured both of his arms in a construction accident, and was unable to work, so he started selling wildflowers at the Farmers Market in Huntington, and was pretty successful at it since he was such a friendly guy. It was there that people began to realize the sheer extent of his knowledge, and began to come to him for herbs and health advice.
Catfish designed his advice based largely upon what he observed in the animal world. For example, he stated that no one should ever eat tomatoes, because he believed that tomatoes cause cancer. He believed this because, as he stated,
Cows, horses, sheep, goats, and deer don’t eat tomatoes. They don’t get cancer. Now rats, mice, pigs, and chickens do eat tomatoes. They get cancer.
Catfish was a strong believer in the use of baking soda (which he called sodey, as do many older country folk here even today) as a health supplement, and he believed it would cure anything except cancer.
Now back when I was a kid, this was when I was eight years old, here’s what the people did. They had sodey in beans, sodey in biscuits, sodey in groundhog, sodey in the chicken; wasn’t no rheumatism, neuritis, arthritis, bursitis, high blood pressure, dropsy, gall stones, kidney stones, fat, overweight, any of that stuff-there wasn’t none of that. Just think of it. What people did, just put a little bit of sodey in everything they cook; sodey take care of everything you eat.
Obviously, most of those diseases did exist when Catfish was a kid, but he has a point in that many of those diseases were not as common back then, and most people were not overweight. Of course, back then the average diet was very different, so it could be that baking soda is irrelevant to all of it.
Still, is it possible that common baking soda helps with preventing disease? Your guess is as good as mine, but I brush my teeth with it once per day in addition to using toothpaste (it is great for removing stains, such as from coffee, and I also have not had a cavity in decades), and I drink a teaspoon of it in a cup of warm water every other day after supper (and I am never sick, not even with a cold, though I do have severe osteoarthritis in my spine so it definitely does not work to prevent that, LOL). I also use it in my laundry, because it helps to take out stains. So I swear by baking soda, but not for the same reasons as Catfish. Still, he introduced me to sodey as a cure-all when I was a kid, and I am thankful for that because it has served me well.
Other things which Catfish said we should all avoid eating include pork, cabbage, instant coffee, soft drinks, prepackaged tea, fish without scales, web-footed birds, round-hoofed animals, and artificial sweeteners. He based this upon his belief that these foods gum up the kidneys, and make it impossible for the body to effectively eliminate waste products (which he called corruption), and that those waste products then build up in the joints and organs, and cause disease. Of course, there was a little Old Testament teaching thrown into that list as well.
Catfish was best known for a concoction he called Bitters, which he said would cure pretty much anything that ailed you. Bitters was a potent combination of fifteen herbs: Ginseng, Wild Cherry Bark, Comfrey Leaves, Black Cohosh, Lobelia, Peppermint, Solomon Seal, Slippery Elm, Burdock, Pipsissewa, Queen of the Meadow root, Sasparilla, Spikenard, Yarrow, and Blood Root. You boil the herbs in two quarts of water, reducing it to one quart, then refrigerate. You take one teaspoon of it three times a day, or in the case of terminal illness, one tablespoon three times a day.
Obviously, I am not giving medical advice, nor am I suggesting that anyone take or not take Bitters, since I have no idea of your health status, and I am not a doctor. I am only repeating the information for the purposes of this post about Catfish, who invented it and swore by it, and many people in West Virginia swear by his Bitters to this very day.
To conclude, I thought I would post a video with clips from the documentary about Catfish Man of the Woods, so you can get a feel for him yourself. Enjoy!