Keepapitchinin, the Mormon History blog » The “Mormon Highball” and Other 19th Century Mormon Home Remedies

The “Mormon Highball” and Other 19th Century Mormon Home Remedies

By: Ardis E. Parshall - September 25, 2009

Your ward may be asking you to prepare for the possibility of widespread illness this winter by keeping your refrigerator stocked with fresh food, your car’s tank filled with gasoline, your storeroom supplied with paper products – in short, living as if every day were the day after your regular errand day, so that if stores close due to illness, or you have to limit contact with people who may be ill, you’ll have the supplies for life to go on comfortably.

Can’t find Tamiflu for your private stock? I offer no warranty for the following substitutes, but I wonder if Brigham Young wouldn’t recommend his own home remedies –

According to his daughter Clarissa,

The medicines which Aunt Zina kept on her shelf were the common ones of the day – camphor, ipecac, hot drops (and whatever they were, they were exceedingly hot), mustard, and composition tea. In times of contagious diseases we wore around our necks the supposedly potent asafetida bag and hung sulphur sheets over the doorways. Raw onions in plates were sometimes kept around the rooms in order to absorb the poisons that might be in the air.

The composition tea was used by Father not only as a medicine but for his usual hot drink, since our religion teaches us not to use ordinary tea or coffee. I still drink it myself and have given the recipe to hundreds of friends. Here is Father’s own recipe for it: 4 oz. each of ground bayberry, poplar bark, and hemlock; 2 oz. each of ground ginger, cloves, and cinnamon; and 1 oz. of cayenne pepper. I take a small bit on the end of a spoon, fill the cup with hot water, and use plenty of cream and sugar.

When Father was suffering with rheumatism, Mother would wrap his knees in red flannel, put the hot drops on them, and give him composition tea. I used to carry a small pail of it cold to the Tabernacle for him to drink in place of water when he was preaching from the stand. Some years ago one of my friends called upon me, and as she was somewhat chilled from th cold weather I made her a drink of the hot composition tea. It seemed to be just what she needed, or at least what she thought she wanted, and she drank so much that she became ill. Since then she has always referred to it as “Mormon Highball.”

Brigham’s composition tea seems to be a variation of the recipe found in a common 19th century medical text, Benjamin Colby’s 1846 Guide to Health:

Take of bayberry 2 Ibs.; ginger 1 lb.; cayenne 2 oz.; cinnamon 2 oz.; and prickly ash 2 oz., all to be finely pulverized, and sifted through a fine sieve, and well mixed.

Dose: One teaspoonful in two-thirds of a cupful of hot water, sweetened; milk or cream may be added to make it more agreeable.

This compound, being stimulant, astringent, and tonic, is an invaluable family medicine, being adapted to all forms of disease, in connection with laxatives, if costiveness be a prominent symptom, or relaxants in cases of constriction.

Colby also gives a recipe for the “hot drops” that Clarissa remembered but could not deconstruct:

Take of gum myrrh (Commiphora) 12 oz.; cayenne 1 oz.; fourth-proof brandy 1 gal. Put them into a jug or glass demi-john, and shake them several times a day for a week, when the liquor may be poured off and bottled for use.

This preparation is useful for bathing in cases of debility or a relaxed state of the surface, as in night sweats, to check diarrhea, relieve pain in the stomach or bowels, and also for the toothache.

Dose: From one to four teaspoonfuls in hot water. For the toothache, wet a piece of cotton in it, and put it into the tooth.

And if none of that works, you could always try the remedy reported to folklore collector Austin E. Fife in the 20th century:

Once the child of a Mormon pioneer asked her mother, “What did you do when we got sick?” Unhesitatingly came the reply, “Well, I would give you a teaspoonful of cold water and ask God to bless you.” [Austin E. Fife, “Pioneer Mormon Remedies,” Western Folklore,16:3 (July 1957), 153-162.]



  1. I was interested to note the use of hemlock in the preparation of the composition tea. I suppose I should not be too suprised. Many 19th century medicines incorporated poisons (arsenic comes to mind), and even today (and probably forever) the toxicity of medicines must be carefully weighed in determining proper dosing. Even so, I see hemlock and my mind turns to the death of Socrates. No wonder over consumption of composition tea led to Clarrissa’s friend feeling ill. What are the beneficial properties of this socratic poison? For that matter, what are the effects of the other components?

    Comment by Eric Boysen — September 25, 2009 @ 7:59 am

  2. Fascinating. Now I’m off looking to see if there has ever been a reasonable use of hemlock. Perhaps President Young was attempting to build up an immunity in case someone tried to poison him.

    Comment by Jami — September 25, 2009 @ 8:08 am

  3. Ginger, cloves, cayenne and cinnamon are all warming. Poplar bark is used as an anti-inflammatory pain-reliever. Bayberry is also warming and is used for fevers and diarrhea. Hemlock is used to kill. (Still researching that one.)

    Comment by Jami — September 25, 2009 @ 8:15 am

  4. Cayenne! No wonder she used plenty of cream and sugar. And no wonder Brother Brigham’s preaching was so impassioned.

    Comment by Mark B. — September 25, 2009 @ 8:55 am

  5. Fascinating! I may have to make some (sans the hemlock) and see how it tastes.

    By the way, the Fount of all Wiki-Knowledge contains a short segment on medical uses of hemlock:

    Poison hemlock has been used as a sedative and for its antispasmodic properties.[citation needed] It was also used by Greek and Persian physicians for a variety of problems, such as arthritis.[citation needed] It wasn’t always effective, however, as the difference between a therapeutic and a toxic amount is very slight. Overdoses can produce paralysis and loss of speech being followed by depression of the respiratory function and then death.

    Comment by Kaimi — September 25, 2009 @ 9:03 am

  6. The fount of all knowledge (Wikipedia) also states that the term “highball” wasn’t used until the 1890s. Clarissa’s friend must have been very hip!

    Also, this snippet reminded me that it must have been no fun to be sick in the 19th century:

    When Father was suffering with rheumatism, Mother would wrap his knees in red flannel, put the hot drops on them, and give him composition tea.

    Then again, it’s no fun to be ill in the 21st century, either . . .

    Comment by Hunter — September 25, 2009 @ 9:30 am

  7. Clarissa’s account wasn’t published until 1940 (I neglected to give you that detail), so her hip friend could have had quite a bit of experience with highballs by the time she tried Brigham’s.

    Where does one get myrrh for hot drops, I wonder?

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — September 25, 2009 @ 9:49 am

  8. I see nothing about the use of mustard. Having been a child during the latter part of the transition from folk medicine to what we now call “modern”, I recall with some pain the use of the mustard plaster. It was used for chest congestion and consisted of a flannel cloth smeared with a paste of powdered mustard and hot water, placed wet side down on the chest of the unlucky person whose mom heard him/her cough more than once. A tightly buttoned old shirt held the thing in place and between the burning sensation and the fumes, you forced yourself to “get better”.

    When Vicks came out with their great Vaporub, it took the place of the mustard torture.

    About the same time, the maternal fear of a child with Rickets brought out a concoction called “Iradol-A” which was cod liver oil in molasses, conveniently bottled for tablespoon administration. The taste still lingers in memory. UGH.

    Comment by Curt A. — September 25, 2009 @ 10:21 am

  9. Clarissa does list mustard among the items in Zina’s medicine chest but doesn’t state how it was used. I’ve heard of mustard plasters and cod liver oil dosings, but didn’t know I knew anybody who had actually undergone those treatments!

    (I got up late to see a number of comments already posted about hemlock. I knew about Socrates, but didn’t even think of the poisonous quality of hemlock as I was typing it. Good point, and thanks Jami and Kaimi, for the quasi-medical explanations.

    Mark, are you suggesting that maybe some cayenne surreptitiously added to the sacrament tray destined for the stand would enliven our meetings?! Tsk-tsk! :)

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — September 25, 2009 @ 10:52 am

  10. Apparently hemlock’s toxins are destroyed when the plant is cooked or dried. An interesting post with plenty of citations can be found here. I think I’ll stick to my chamomile.

    Comment by Jami — September 25, 2009 @ 11:29 am

  11. I have not-so-fond memories of being given a daily spoonful of cod liver oil as a child in the early 1960s. Definitely ugh, as Curt says!

    Comment by Alison — September 25, 2009 @ 11:41 am

  12. I also tapped the fount of all knowledge, and came up with these popular folk names for asafetida: devil’s dung and stinking gum. Apparently it smells really bad, and unless held in airtight containers, will contaminate other food items with its foetid smell (etymologists, they must be from the same root word). However, when cooked it supposedly smells okay, and somewhat like garlic or sauteed onions.

    “Clarissa, what’s that stinky bag around your neck?”

    “Why, it’s Devil’s Dung! Like it?”

    Comment by kevinf — September 25, 2009 @ 12:24 pm

  13. Oh, and this just in, also from wikiedia:

    “Asafoetida was used in 1918 to fight the Spanish influenza pandemic. Scientists at the Kaohsiung Medical University in Taiwan report that the roots of Asafoetida produces natural antiviral drug compounds that kill the swine flu virus, H1N1. In an article published in the American Chemical Society’s Journal of Natural Products, the researchers said the compounds “may serve as promising lead components for new drug development” against this type of flu.[8][9]”

    Instead of surgical masks, we all may be wearing Clarissa’s stinky asafoetida bags this winter!

    Comment by kevinf — September 25, 2009 @ 12:29 pm

  14. My mom told me that her mother used to put the cod liver oil in her orange juice. She’d complain, saying “Please, I’ll take the oil, but don’t ruin my juice”, but Grandma would say “Oh, you can’t even taste it”. My mom still gets irritated thinking about that.

    We may smile at these folk remedies, but it really opened my eyes when the FDA declared all those child cold medicines potentially dangerous from overdoses, and then said they didn’t really work anyway. No wonder parents were giving their kids too much — they were trying to get them to work!

    I think the remedies people use has always had more to do with what was being sold than what really works.

    Comment by Martin — September 25, 2009 @ 12:53 pm

  15. I’m so glad we don’t have any folk medicine today that is worthless, expensive, or perhaps even dangerous.

    Comment by Bruce Crow — September 25, 2009 @ 3:02 pm

  16. Ha! Bruce, that comment made me laugh outloud. Good one.

    Comment by Hunter — September 25, 2009 @ 3:32 pm

  17. Whether the hemlock was poisonous or not depends on what they were using. The Socrates bane was of the genus Conium and is an herb. The Hemlock trees of North America are of the genus Tsuga.

    “Native Americans from many unrelated and geographically disjunct tribes used decoctions of hemlock inner bark, roots or needles internally or externally to treat rheumatism and arthritis. The Indians also used it as an antiseptic and a cold medicine. However, there are no modern medicinal uses for hemlock. The “hemlock” that killed Socrates was a totally unrelated biennial herb (Conium maculatum) in the carrot family.”

    [Sorry, Sheldon, your comment was caught in the spam filter and I didn’t discover that until now. — AEP]

    Comment by Sheldon — September 25, 2009 @ 5:36 pm

  18. I grew up having the morning dose of cod liver oil in my orange juice, and I still have chills thinking about it. Thankfully, my parents didn’t believe in mustard plasters, having been subjected to them as children.

    Comment by Maurine — September 25, 2009 @ 6:42 pm

  19. Ah, yes. Cod liver oil and “iron drops”. Memories of my childhood. Also, sneaking into the medicine cabinet and chewing St. Joseph’s Aspirin for Children, which had a wonderful orange flavor.

    When my (former) wife was 9 1/2 months pregnant with our first child, she asked our OB nurse-practitioner what she could do to induce labor naturally and got a few suggestions. She dutifully went out and bought cod liver oil and choked down a hefty dose. When nothing happened, she called the nurse-practitioner back — who replied, “Marla, I said castor oil, not cod liver oil.” ..bruce..

    Comment by bfwebster — September 26, 2009 @ 10:25 am

  20. This was fascinating, thanks! My 3rd great grandfather, Richard Steele, wrote down these remedies in the 1870’s:
    “Cure for diphtheria: Pure Lemon juice in large doses and used as a gargle. For small pox: Indian Root made in tea to drink and wash with. Also a tablespoon of strong vinegar and a thimbleful of cayenne pepper 2 times a day. A Herb called Black Cohosh it is called snakeroot, rattleweed, and squaw weed. It is good for Smallpox Measles Scarlet fever and yellow fever made in tea.”

    At least he wasn’t promoting hemlock…

    Comment by Mark — September 26, 2009 @ 10:00 pm

  21. Bruce #15:

    You never heard of the “healing powers of magnets”? How about Kevin Trudeau’s books circulating among members?

    Comment by John Taber — September 27, 2009 @ 6:52 pm

  22. I absolutely love this article! I have recently started a journey into the natural healing art of herbs. I feel vindicated that herbal tea is ok to drink. This article also indicates that tinctures are helpful to restore health and were used by the prophet himself!

    That being said I count my blessings that I was not subject to daily doses of cod liver oil or to the occasional mustard paste for coughs. To quote the ageless quote: “what doesn’t kill us just makes us stronger.” ;o)

    Comment by Carrie — October 30, 2009 @ 10:28 am

  23. Glad you like it, Carrie — I got a kick out of it. (I’d point out, though, that it’s a little dangerous to base health or Word of Wisdom decisions on Brigham Young, who chewed tobacco much of his life to dull the pain of very bad teeth, until he finally had all his teeth pulled.)

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — October 30, 2009 @ 10:56 am