Catfish Man of the Woods

Catfish Man of the Woods

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!


19 thoughts on “Catfish Man of the Woods

  1. I grew up on a farm way back in the woods of Mason County WV. During the summers Catfish (the adults made us call him Mr. or Doc Gray even though he preferred Catfish) would round up a bunch of us shirtless kids and send us out to hunt for various things. He taught us how to identify ginseng, dock, polk, thyme, wild mint, cattail roots and many other herbs and he’d always pay an extra bounty for the best. One of our favorite things was to go out on the road at night and catch snakes for extra cash, which he taught us how to do safely with a willow switch and gunny sack, He’d give us two bucks for a black snake and five for a king, then turn around and sell them to local farmers for their tobacco and hay barns. This paid for many a Saturday double feature with enough left over for a jumbo butter-tub of popcorn and bucket-o-soda at the Keith Albee theater in town! Thanks for the great memories which I hadn’t thought about in many, many years.

      • We were in awe of him because he seemed to know everything! In fact, it’s become a favorite story in my family of the time he cured a cousin of clinical acne. She’d been in danger of scarring and nothing the doctors prescribed seemed to help. As I recall he had her dig up several bushel baskets of dandelions (I think that’s right, but I was pretty young at the time) which he then mixed with some other things and rendered down to a paste. I remember my cousin would put it on her face before bed, just like one of those treatments at a spa, then wash it off the next morning. We were all amazed that it not only cleared up the acne but gave her an excellent complexion as well. I asked an organic chemist friend about it one time and the nearest she could figure was it was the white sap in the dandelion stalk, which has anti-fungal properties and is a traditional “ditch” remedy for cuts and things. As the story goes (and it may be apocryphal), my uncle tried to get Catfish to patent the cure and sell it but catfish just laughed. from my kids-eye view I remember him as being very kind and easy-going, always quick with a joke or funny story. Quite a fellow indeed.

        • I wish I knew half the things my grandfather did, yes Catfish was my grandfather. Although I never had the honor of meeting him, and my mother will not talk about him, for reason I don’t understand. Who knows maybe one day.. But this Blog is helping me learn more about him then I could ever imagine.. From the bottom of my heart thank you so much!!!

          • I didn’t put it in the blog because it wasn’t really relevant to his legend but (as a commenter already pointed out) rumor has it that Catfish had many affairs over the years, including with married women. In fact, I almost put that in the post, because SO many people around here know about it, but decided against it since it was irrelevant to his status as an Appalachian Herbalist.

            That may be the reason your mom doesn’t want to talk about him, and if so, I honestly can’t blame her. I’m sure it caused a lot of pain within his family, and it would be only natural for a daughter to take her mother’s side when her father is having multiple affairs. Add in the fact that pretty much everybody knew about it, and I’m sure it was very embarrassing to her, because it would be for me.

            If there’s anything else that might cause your mom to not talk about her dad, I don’t know what it would be, at least not off the top of my head.

            Thanks for commenting on the blog, it’s extremely interesting to hear from you! 🙂

  2. This is very intriguing to me. I’m currently sitting at my desk at work in Columbus, Ohio. A co-worker was talking about some show she watched called “Catfish” and I stood up and laughed and said “When you said Catfish I was immediately taken back to my childhood when my grandparents used to drive me way out in the woods of WV to visit a medicine man….” and I told them what I could recall about our visits to see Catfish. They looked at me like I was crazy, so I googled him and found your blog. I love it. Thanks for the insight in his life and for helping me prove I’m not crazy. 🙂

  3. Glad I found this. I used to talk to Catfish when he came to fairs at the Culloden grade school mid 1970’s. He had some interesting theories on fertility and the female menstrual cycle. He also used to claim that the Kennedys used his herbs. He was quite the talker, and I enjoyed listening to him. Thanks for helping to keep his legend alive.


  4. Jim Woloschek
    I remember going to the farmers market in Huntington with my grandfather (he sold tomatoes to Fred Hayes) and visiting Catfish. I thought he was so interesting with his cardboard hand written posters and that old station wagon. He talked very fast and you had to listen close to understand him. Thanks for posting this on the Internet I enjoyed to memories.

    • this is a great glimpse into my grandfathers past.. Thank you for sharing..Do you mind if I save this photo for my Ancestry Account? I want to get as much info I can on him for my girls..
      And one last thing, is there a back side to that paper?

      • Not at all, hon – it’s really cool that you’re Catfish’s granddaughter, by the way! As far as I know, there’s not a back side to it, but try google images (just google what you want, then click on “images” near the top). That’s where I got it for the blog. 🙂

  5. WOW! Thanks so much for bringing back memories. As a child I Huntington, I suffered extremely debilitating asthma. My mother took me to his home in the woods. I don’t remember the whole day, as it was many, many moons ago; however, I recall the Bitters being discussed. He sent me home with dandelion tea, sassafras, and some type of rubbery tree bark to chew daily.

    I have now lived in Columbus for 25+ years, but love reading about the place of my childhood. I miss the sense of community there. I left at 16. I really hope you start blogging again, as I have thoroughly enjoyed my time here today.

  6. I moved to Glenwood, WV in 1979, just a few miles down the road from Catfish. It didn’t take long for him to come and introduce himself and ask to hunt Ginsing on my place. He said that was one fo the best spots around. He also told me the clip in the movie where he sat naked in the creek was right behind my house on the property I bought. I remember buying gallon jugs (old plastic milk jugs) of a reddish drink. I don’t think it was bitters but more like a herbal cool aid. It tasted like sassafrass tea and over ice on a hot day it was the best. Can’t remember what it was called but I always had to laugh when someone new went to Catfish’s with me, he would wink and show them how he strained it through an old sock, then he would add that he had worn the sock once or twice for flavor.

    You turned on our road before you got to Catfish’s and it was a dead end, so lot’s of times we would be working in the garden and someone in a fancy car would get lost and stop to ask which way to Catfish Man of the Woods’ place? One time a whole family from Arkansas, stopped to ask directions. They came all the way just to see Catfish.

  7. I lived across the road from Catfish, in a trailer owned by Bill and Mona Carson, from about September 1980 – September 1981; the road was named (I think) Spurlock Creek. Old Granny Spurlock lived down the road a bit; we both worked, along with Mona, at Green Acres Regional Center in LeSage. Catfish was quite a character, sort of a BS artist peddling his “bitters” and urging everyone to drink “sody” (baking soda), as he claimed it was a cure-all for everything, including sexual prowess. Rumor had it that he was having affairs with several married women in the area. The bitters actually tasted pretty good! He was a good neighbor – he helped me bury one of our cats in the winter of 1980-81. I did see him on Johnny Carson as well, and was delighted that he had “made it,” since he apparently had people from all over the world coming to see him and ordering his bitters. He was also an avid consumer of “revelation” theories about the end times, and had various Scripture passages stuck on the walls of his little shack. He testified for my ex-wife at our first custody hearing in Huntington for my young son, and thanks in part to him and his crazy statements, I retained custody! Truly a one-of-a-kind West Virginia institution!

  8. I am one of many Catfish grandchildren, I never met him,, But I love reading your stories of my grandfather..Thank you for your stories..

  9. I just seen the show about catfish on ket here in Kentucky. Have been to many doctors over my anxiety and it still hasn’t gotten better. If anyone knows of an herb mixture i can take i would appropriate it 🙂

    • There are a few herbs used for anxiety. You might want to try Valerian Root, it’s the gold standard for anxiety herbs. You can get it at any health food store or large grocery store (like Kroger’s). If it works and you want to use it regularly, Kroger has 2-for-1 deals on herbs pretty regularly. Of course, if you’re taking other medications, talk to your doctor to make sure it’s safe for you to take. Hope it helps!

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