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PAST TIMES: Angeline Miller (1804-1878) — Williston’s herbal healer

Illustration of poplar leaves

Herbal healer Angeline Miller relied on Morris Mattson’s 1841 “American Vegetable Practice,” which included color plates of many plants, such as these poplars. Pulverized poplar bark was the principal ingredient in Miller’s recipe for spiced bitters. OBSERVER COURTESY PHOTO

By Elizabeth A. Allen

Special to the Observer

If you’re familiar with Williston history, you probably know about the Millers. Early residents Elisha Miller Sr. (1766-1847) and second wife Sarah Eliot had 17 children. The Vermont Room in the Dorothy Alling Memorial Library holds a trove of material about this large family, including Laura (Parker) Meredith’s reminiscences and her sister Dorothy (Parker) Alling’s scrapbook.

But, even if you know about the Millers, how much do you know about Angeline (Munson) Miller (1804-1878)? She married Elisha Jr., eldest of the aforementioned 17 children, in 1825 or 1826, and they had six or seven children. Elisha Jr. was a land speculator and justice of the peace. Angeline was an amateur artist, a lover of flowers and a practitioner of alternative medicine. 

Angeline was also an herb doctor. She relied on “The American Vegetable Practice” by Morris Mattson, published in 1841. This two-volume set was, according to the subtitle, “designed for use by families.” “The American Vegetable Practice” covered basic anatomy and bodily functions, uses of various plants, recipes for herbal compounds to cure all ills, and even childbirth and “diseases peculiar to females and infants.” 

Mattson believed that herbal remedies were superior to mainstream medical science. He wrote: “I am satisfied … that an individual who is wholly ignorant of the subject (of anatomy), but acquainted at the same time with the properties and uses of innocent vegetable remedies, will be more successful in the cure of disease, than the educated physician with his array of poisons ….” (vol. 1, p. 4)

Angeline was one of many people in the U.S. interested in alternative medicine in the antebellum period. An array of unscientific practices, including herbal medicine, homeopathy and water cures, gained popularity during this time. 

The science of medicine was in transition in the nineteenth century. In the first half of the century, most people in Europe and the U.S., even medical professionals, believed in the miasma theory of disease. This was the idea that rotting matter produced foul-smelling air, which then caused people nearby to become sick. European scientists gathered more evidence for germ theory over the latter part of the 1800s, but germ theory was not fully accepted until the very end of the century.

Thus, throughout most of the nineteenth century, medicine was risky. People did not know how diseases spread. Unsanitary practices contributed to high rates of infection, as well as massive infant and maternal mortality. Sickness or injury very often meant death. The disease and the treatment could both be fatal. 

Laypeople heard about advances in the world of medicine, but these seemed far removed from their own lives. What good were these discoveries if medical care remained scary and unsafe? 

They considered scientific medical practices dangerous, even deadly, and touted herbal remedies and other alternative medicine as gentler and time-tested by tradition.

Following this line of thought, Angeline and many others were attracted to herbal cures. The long history of use attached to certain plants seemed more trustworthy than new-fangled medical treatments. Herbal cures were also seen as gentle — “innocent,” to use Mattson’s term — compared to mainstream medicine; that is, they did not kill people. 

What was Angeline’s herbal medicine actually like? In her document “Childhood Memories of Maplehill,” Laura (Parker) Meredith (1895-1989), Angeline’s granddaughter, recalled two of her mother’s herbal cures handed down by Laura’s grandmother (p. 17): “Mom took good care of us. We were brought up on spice[d] bitters and composition tea — recipes from (Angeline’s) herb book. Whatever ailed us, we were given one or the other — the spice[d] bitters tasty and cold, the composition tea hot and searing.” 

Herbal remedies were designed to be palatable. Mattson’s recipe for spiced bitters, for example, called for pulverized poplar bark and sugar, with smaller amounts of goldenseal, ginger, prickly ash bark, balmony and cayenne. The resultant compound, with sugar as its second main ingredient, was undoubtedly sweet — “tasty” and enjoyable, as Laura Parker Meredith said. People in the mid-1800s who faced a choice between a possibly deadly doctor’s visit or a spicy homemade tea worried much less when they chose the tea. They also believed more easily that something delicious would help them as opposed to something painful. 

Angeline’s medicine was advertised as effective for many unrelated complaints. Mattson described spiced bitters as “an excellent remedy in jaundice, dyspepsia, worms, flatulency, piles (hemorrhoids), headach(e), giddiness, pains in the stomach and bowels, diarrhea, gravelly complaints (bladder stones), strangury (slow and painful urination), gonorrhea, fluor albus (leucorrhea), heartburn, rickets, mercurial salivation (excessive saliva caused by ingestion of mercury), consumption (tuberculosis), and the whole train of chronic diseases” (vol. I, p. 307).

Today we might laugh at the thought of a single medicine curing everything from farts to tuberculosis. However, 175 years ago, people may have been reassured by this promise. The fact that spiced bitters addressed so many common ailments also implied that it could be used frequently without harm. When compounds were presented as cure-alls, the public read this as a sign of the remedies’ goodness and healthiness.

Angeline practiced herbal medicine in a period when citizens rebelled against the medical establishment. They considered scientific medical practices dangerous, even deadly, and touted herbal remedies and other alternative medicine as gentler and time-tested by tradition. Nor have these beliefs diminished over time. In fact, today’s alternative medicine practitioners share much the same mindset as Angeline Miller did over 150 years earlier.

Learn more about Angeline Miller and her husband Elisha Jr. in my next article, where I explore their interests in spirits and seances.