Analysing the English Collections at the Pitt Rivers Museum

Slug on a Thorn

Heather Richardson, Conservation Department

Oxfordshire. Black slug [sic] impaled on a thorn, a cure for warts. Donated by Thomas James Carter 1898.71.1

Oxfordshire. Black slug [sic] impaled on a thorn, a cure for warts. Donated by Thomas James Carter 1898.71.1

In the depths of the south east corner of the Court of the Pitt Rivers Museum, a large glass topped case contains a curious mix of objects on the theme of Sympathetic Magic. Prominent in the case is a glass specimen jar filled with alcohol and containing a slug impaled on a thorn (1898.71.1). Originally black, but now bleached white by years of being immersed in formaldehyde or a similar solution of alcohol, the slug represents one in a long line of cures for warts. It was purchased by the Museum in July 1898 from Thomas James Carter of Oxford and is the Oxfordshire version of a cure used in several parts of the UK.

Cures for warts through the ages fall into several groups, with the slug example being considered a transference method. As the label on the jar in the Pitt Rivers says:

Charm for Warts, Oxfordshire. Go out alone & find a large black slug. Secretly rub the underside on the warts and impale the slug on the thorn. As the slug dies the warts will go.

In other parts of the UK such as Berwickshire, Northumberland and Lancashire, the slug is replaced by a snail:

"Take a black snail, rub the warts with it, and then suspend it upon a thorn; as the snail melts away, so will the warts. This must be done nine nights successively, at the end of which time the wart will completely disappear. For, as the snails exposed to such cruel treatment, will gradually wither away, so it is believe the wart, being impregnated with its matter will slowly do the same" (Sternberg)

Other charms for warts using molluscs include piercing the mollusc with a pin as many times as your number of warts, rubbing the wart with the mollusc and killing the mollusc, and impaling a mollusc and blowing across the hand while pointing at a new moon.

The notion of moonlight affecting the cure is a recurrent theme through the ages. Pliny in AD 77 noted that you could touch warts with chickpeas in a new moon and dispose of them or "lie in a footpath face upwards when the moon is twenty days old at least and after fixing the gaze upon it, rub themselves with anything in reach" (Chandler, 1994). In County Durham it was thought warts could be cured by blowing on them nine times when the moon was full. Here there is also the recurrence of the number nine seen previously in the mollusc cure. In Orkney in 1895 an example was witnessed where a woman tried to get rid of a wart on her finger by first pointing straw at it and then at the moon and muttering something to herself. The desire to cure warts on the hands is due to the superstition that warts in this area were a warning of sickness and it was suggested that those on the fingers of women were the result of masturbation!

Another recurring theme, perhaps linked to moonlight, is whiteness. The sap or juice of plants was used "particularly those that had a milky or acrid type of sap" (Chandler, 1994). An East Anglian remedy consisted of "froth from new beer applied three mornings in succession and allowed to work itself off" (Chandler, 1994). A cure found in several locations was to tie a hair from a horses tail around the wart and strangle it. In some instances this cure has been refined to become a hair from a white horse.

Slight regional variations on the same theme are found all over the UK. A commonly adapted cure is to steal a piece of meat, rub the warts with it, hide it/throw it away and when it rots the wart will be gone. This cure is supposed to be done in secret, which is another recurring theme through many examples. Similar examples to the meat cure are to rub the warts with animal fat (beef or pig) or to wash the warts in warm animal blood.

Given the rather gory and rancid nature of the last examples, as a conservator at the Pitt Rivers Museum I am pleased to have the humble slug impaled on a thorn as an example of a long and interesting folklore tradition. Although being immersed in alcohol for over a hundred years has caused the slug to change from black to white, this would still be the preferred method of preserving the slug today. In 2002 the liquid level in the jar was found to have yellowed and evaporated over time. To prevent the slug drying out and becoming un-recognisable it was necessary to replace the alcohol. Firstly, the wax seal on the jar was removed and the alcohol content of the remaining liquid was measured. As the proportion of alcohol was only 35-50% it was necessary to increase the percentage to ensure long-term survival of the object. A solution of 60% ethanol in water was prepared in a glass vessel and the slug on the thorn transferred to the new solution to gradually acclimatise to the increased level of alcohol. While the glass jar was being washed it unfortunately broke and was replaced by a slightly taller jar of similar design. The slug was transferred to the new clean jar after one hour of acclimatising and a final solution of 80% ethanol in water was prepared to top up the jar. The lid of the new jar was fixed in place with silicon gel, a modern replacement for a wax seal, which should help to prevent the alcohol evaporating for many years to come.

Further reading:

Chandler, J. (1994) 'Whiteness and Warts' in Folklore, Vol.105. (1994) pp100-101.

Hardy, J (1878) 'Wart and Wen Cures' in The Folklore Record, Vol. 1 (1878), pp.216-228.

Rolleston, J.D. (1940) 'Dermatology and Folklore' in
The British Journal of Dermatology and Syphilis, February 1940.

Rudkin, E. H. (1933) 'Lincolnshire Folklore' in Folklore, Vol. 44, No. 2 (June 1933), pp. 189-214.