Since ancient times, certain people have practiced healing simply by using touch and speech. The tradition came to the New World through both indigenous people and European colonists. It still exists in North Carolina today, carried on by healers who talk the pain out of burns, stop bleeding, cure thrush, soothe poison ivy, or remove warts without using any sort of medicine.
In Sampson County and other areas of this region, the tradition is known as “talking out fire” or “blowing out fire” or “drawing out fire”. The practice was brought to the Cape Fear region by the early settlers and their slaves of African heritage.
There are still a few local people who can “talk” the fire out of a burn or perform similar acts of healing. They may be hard to find but would be willing to help if sincerely needed. Some people called them “fire talkers”, but others were simply known as “healers”. This type of folk medicine was not uncommon in the old, rural South, when real medical doctors weren’t available or the poor just didn’t have the money to pay for their services.
The belief was that when a person had been burned, the fire continues to burn inside the wound until it has been “put out”, or “drawn”. If this is not done, the fire continues to burn into the flesh. This makes it more difficult for the wound to heal and frequently leads to scar tissue.
Different healers would use slightly different techniques, but an essential part of the treatment is certain verses read from the Bible. To heal a burn victim, fire talkers generally chant a verse from the Old Testament. At the same time, they may make rubbing motions and pass a hand over the burn three times, or gently blow on the burn. It is very important that the verse be repeated quietly but correctly, otherwise the healing power will not be effective. They might also coat it with alcohol, toothpaste, axle grease, lard or spit. According to many burn victims, the pain disappears soon afterward, and the burn heals without leaving scars. For severe burns, however, most fire talkers recommend that the patient see a doctor to prevent infection.
In Sampson County, one particular verse that was often used was “There came an angel from the east bringing frost and fire. In frost! Out fire! In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost!”
One of these healers was my Uncle Jasper Rose of Newton Grove, who passed away a few years ago. I never really saw him perform this act, but my mother confirmed that he possessed the power to do so.
Another person who had the power was Vira Williamson, who lived three miles south of Clinton and died about 60 years ago. If Aunt Vira was in a good humor, her bonnet was pushed back on her head. When the brim was pulled down, it was best to leave her alone. But when a person had been burned, she was always willing to help with her healing powers.
Curing thrush is another ability attributed to healers. “Thrush” is the common name for a yeast-like fungus infection that primarily attacks young children, causing redness and tiny blisters in the mouth. The extreme discomfort prevents some children from eating. Doctors cure it with drugs, but some claim that people born without ever seeing their fathers can cure thrush. The healer holds the child and blows into its mouth. Soon after, the symptoms of the illness disappear.
Can a healer’s words remove warts? Some people feel certain of it. Warts are caused by a virus and can be uncomfortable and unattractive. Most eventually disappear by themselves. While dozens of traditional wart cures exist in North Carolina, a few people claim the power to talk off a wart.
Oral charms used to cure warts can be prayers, questions or even nonsense syllables such as the following:
“To remove warts, rub them gently and repeat the following words:
‘Anna, man, meno mike,
Paro lono, bono, strike,
Mar-e, war-e, wallow-wack.’ ”
These healers have several different versions of how the tradition can be passed on. Some say each healer can only teach the techniques to two other persons, not related and of the opposite sex. And some believe that once you’ve taught the skill to someone else, you can no longer perform it yourself.
Does healing by touch really work? It’s hard to deny the firsthand experience of many people who claim they’ve been cured or relieved of pain by such healers. Why it works is a matter of opinion. Some believe the healing power lies in the ancient knowledge. Many doctors take the view that healers create a kind of hypnotic state, triggering the body’s own healing powers. Others say the healing is said to be based on faith more than anything else.
Nearly all healers say God is the source of their power, which is why they don’t accept payment or advertise. In fact, most believe that they would lose their power if they charged for their services. They saw it as a gift from the Lord to be administered to those who believed. People learn about them by word of mouth, and they performed only when called upon by friends and neighbors.
Though not as common as they once were, some of these old customs are still practiced in certain regions of North Carolina, particularly the mountains and rural areas along the coast.
*From the Sampson Heritage Book, 1984