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The Wonders of Unicorn Horns: Preventions and Cures for Poisoning

Johanna St John’s Book, Credit: Wellcome Library, London

In Johanna St. John’s recipe book, the mysterious “Banister’s Powder by Dr Bates” lay nestled between the equally intriguing “Mrs Archers way of makeing My Lady Kents Powder” and the beginning of the letter “R” section of St. John’s efficiently organized recipe book. There is no indication what type of recipe this “Banister’s Powder” was, besides a powder, or what it’s intended use was. Following several pages of recipes for “pox” and “pills” this “Powder” is the tail end of St. John’s letter “P” section, however, even knowing this context offers little information. An analysis of the “Banister’s Powder” ingredients suggests a link between St. John’s early modern medicinal recipes and the presence of magical beliefs associated with medicine in the early modern period.

The first three ingredients required to make the “Banister’s Powder” are: powdered Unicorn horn, east bezoars, and the “bones” of a stag’s heart. Each of these ingredients had longstanding associations with the belief they were capable of preventing or countering the effects of poisoning. To a modern eye, these appear strange items to reside alongside many complicated recipes which rely on an expansive knowledge of medicinal, rather than magical, properties. These ingredients indicate that magical beliefs remained acceptable practices among home practitioners in the early modern period. This is possibly because the science to disprove them was not advanced and medical practitioners were only beginning to be skeptical and move away from such unreliable remedies.

The prevention and cure of poisoning was a genuine concern before and throughout the early modern period. It was quite common to be bitten or stung, to consume poisonous berries, roots, or herbs, or to believe a spell had been cast by a witch (Jackson, 96). It was also common for physicians to diagnose poison as the cause when they could not determine the source of an ailment (Auble, 17). This led to the necessity for remedies to detect, prevent and cure poisoning.

Rhinoceros Horn Vessel, Credit: Wellcome Library, London


Pharmacy sign, Credit: Wellcome Library, London

Unicorn horns were actually believed to come from the mythical creature and possess its symbolic purity and strength, though they were most often a narwhal tooth or powdered rhinoceros horn. The horns were commonly powdered and used in poison antidotes or as vessels to drink from before or after ingesting poison (Jackson, 97). Unicorn horns were also believed to have properties which allowed them to detect poison (Knight, 245). In addition to being thought to detect, prevent or cure the effects of poison, the horns were also thought to strengthen your heart, relieve headaches, resist the plague and pestilence, expel measles and small pox, and cure “falling sickness” in children (Brockbank, 3) all of which were reoccurring ailments in the early modern period.


Bezoar stones were solid masses from the intestines of goats, sheep or deer that were primarily believed to detect poisons but also, in some cases thought to provide a cure if small amounts of the stone were consumed. “Oriental” or “East” Bezoars, as St. John called for, were the most valuable type which came from a Persian wild goat (Jackson, 97). It was occasionally consumed, but more commonly mounted on a chain and dipped in to drinks to nullify the effects of poison if there was any (Jackson, 97). Queen Elizabeth I reportedly kept one “sett in golde hanging at a little Bracelett … The most parte of this stone being spent” indicating the Queen mounted and consumed her stone (Auble, 18).

Mounted Bezoar Stone, Credit: Wolfgang Sauber

The belief in the magical powers of the “bones” from a stag’s heart originates from a folk tale. The tale is that stags ate poisonous snakes by sniffing them out of holes and then after which they rushed to drink water. The “bones” in their heart were believed to be what protected the stags from being poisoned. The “bones” were actually caused by the degeneration of arteries into flat, oblong bone like objects. Powdering and consuming this “bone” was seen as a preventative measure to protect against the effects of poisoning (Jackson, 97).

Unicorn horn, bezoars and “bones” from a stag’s heart, were the key ingredients to the “Banisters Powder” in St. John’s recipe book. Because of the longstanding beliefs about these ingredients and their associations with poisoning detection, prevention and cures, this recipe was perhaps intended to cure or prevent poisoning. One can imagine the remedy would have been thought to be fool-proof against poison because it combined the powers of each of these ingredients. Although there was a movement away from magical remedies and cure-alls among physicians in the Early Modern period, belief in the curing power of magical objects was still present in the lives of home practitioners such as Johanna St. John. What we would consider scientifically impossible, they were only beginning to discover.

A strong belief in unexplainable phenomenon was common practice and popular beliefs are difficult to dispel, especially when they hold significant symbolic value. Just the other day the North Korean state media associated the discovery of a Unicorn Lair with their new young leader. It is hoped this association would strengthen the nation’s confidence in their young leader because of the symbolic meaning of the Unicorn and its ties to the state’s history. This example illustrates that a belief in the symbolic power of an object, like a Unicorn or its horn, bezoars, or “bones” from a stag’s heart can transcend both time and logic, persisting even when its truth is questionable.

Works Cited:

Auble, Cassandra. “The Cultural Significance of Precious Stones in Early Modern England.” Dissertations, Thesis, & Student Research, Department of History, University of Nebraska Paper 39 (2011).

Brockbank, William. “Sovereign Remedies: A Critical Depreciation of the 17th-Century London Pharmacopoeia.” Medical History 8.01 (1964): 1-14.

Jackson, William A. “Antidotes” Trends in Pharmacological Sciences 23.2 (2002): 96-98.

Knight, Katherine. “A Precious Medicine: Tradition and Magic in Some Seventeenth-Century Household Remedies” Folklore 113.2 (2002): 237-247.

An Experiment in Teaching Recipe Transcription

This term, my third-year class on “Women and Gender in Early Modern Europe” was involved in my research: testing the Textual Communities crowd-sourcing transcription platform.*  The class has been busy collaboratively transcribing the seventeenth-century recipe book of Johanna St John and it’s been an adventure for us all.

Johanna St John’s Book, Wellcome Library, WMS 4338. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

The students had little to no experience in digital creation or transcription at the start of term, but in the last three months, they have learned the logic of XML and gained an appreciation for the exactness required in transcription. These are habits of thought, as well as useful skills.

The Textual Communities site was by no means complete when we began our transcriptions. As we became familiar with Johanna St John’s book and worked on our transcriptions, it became easier for us to identify what we needed the system to do. Every week, we would discover at least one new problem with it. But Peter Robinson and Xiaohan Zhang have been constantly developing the platform in response to our needs, from figuring out how to implement semi-diplomatic conventions  in XML or to represent marginal notations to ensuring that the preview and submit buttons work. By witnessing this process of creation, the students have also learned much about the way in which digital resources are constructed and the choices that researchers make in both transcription and data design.

We have had to be flexible and patient: research is a messy business of failures and false starts. Advanced researchers are only too familiar with this, but it’s something that undergraduates often don’t see–or think about it only in terms of their own work. When teaching, we ordinarily (and for good reasons) present students with a set syllabus and assignment description, from which we don’t deviate. But this term, we have had to revise a number of deadlines and assignment guidelines as we encountered research problems along the way. Truly research-led teaching!

This is by way of an introduction for the next few posts, which will focus on Johanna St John’s book and have been written by some of the students.


* Two of my collaborative research groups, Recipes: Food, Magic, Science, and Medicine and Early Modern Recipes Online Collective, will be launching projects on this platform in 2013. Stay tuned!

Dr. Crawford Long’s Remedy for Insect Bites – Another Use for Ether

By: Michelle DiMeo

On May 20, 1847, Dr. Crawford W. Long was called to see a child residing 6 miles outside of Jefferson, Georgia, who had been bitten by an insect four hours earlier. He was at least 100 yards away when he “distinctly heard her screams”. The child was in extreme pain and suffering from various symptoms, including stomach cramps, difficulty breathing, chest pain, and muscle spasms in the abdomen. The family had given her “about half pint of brandy … two portions of sen[e]ka snake root boiled in ^sweet^ milk and … two teaspoons full of Aqua ammonia, but all without the least benefit”. Dr. Long administered “eighty drops Tinct Opii, a teaspoonful of Hoffmans Anodyne, and the application of the strong Aqua ammonia on a pledget of cloth to the bitten part and retaining it until vesication was produced”. After seeing some improvement, he continued with doses of Hoffman’s Anodyne and the Tincture of Opium in thirty minute intervals, noting the patient was “greatly relieved”.[1]

Hoffman's Anodyne
With Permission from

The preferred remedy, primarily a combination of Hoffman’s Anodyne and opium tincture, worked as an anti-spasmodic and a pain-killer. Hoffman’s Anondyne was a compound sometimes known as “Spirit of Ether”, produced through a process of distillation. Though originally named after the German physician Friedrich Hoffmann (1660- 1742), the recipe was still popular across Europe and the US during the mid-19th century. One 1850s pharmaceutical study of the remedy’s chemical properties found that versions of it varied greatly between commercial manufacturers, between international pharmacopoeia, and from Hoffman’s original recipe.[2]

Dr. Crawford Williamson Long (1815-78), an American surgeon and anesthetist, is one of the first physicians to have administered ether as an anesthesia for surgery. After receiving his M.D. from the University of Pennsylvania in 1839, he practiced medicine in New York before returning to his home state, Georgia, in 1841. As early as 1842, Dr. Long used sulfuric ether during the surgical removal of a tumor. He continued to use ether in operations over the next few years, but he failed to publish his results until 1849, after anesthesia was already heralded as a major medical innovation.[3]

Dr. Long's Remedy for Insect Bites
The College of Physicians of Philadelphia, MSS 2/0093-01

While Dr. Long is celebrated today for his innovative use of ether in surgery, the double-sided single-page manuscript from which this story was taken shows that he was also using popular ether-based medical remedies to treat common household ailments, such as insect bites. After the turn of the nineteenth century, ether was drunk in medical remedies in the United States and Europe and became a popular recreational drug in many European countries.[4] In this manuscript, Dr. Long reports that he successfully administered this treatment a second time and he was writing this account specifically because “A great variety of Sovereign remedies have been recommendend [sic] ^as being usefullest^ for the treatment of bites of poisonous insects”, but there was “still great diversity of opinion among the Members of the Medical profession”.

Dr. Long’s narrative is also a good reminder to us that sub-divisions within the medical field were not as defined in the past as they are today: there was nothing wrong with a surgeon exploring pharmaceutical remedies. Further, the fact that he records in detail the household remedies his patient had already tried before he administered his own validates the possibility of their effectiveness, even if they were ineffective in this particular case, and it offers a good example of how diverse medical treatments were often intermingled.

[1] The College of Physicians of Philadelphia, MSS 2/0093-01, “Holograph remedy for poisonous insect bites, c. 1847”. This item also includes a typed donation letter from 1971 recording the provenance of the item.

[2] William Procter, Jr., “On Hoffman’s Anodyne Liquor”, American Journal of Pharmacy, 28, 1852, 213-18.

[3] W. M. Crawford, “An Account of the First Use of Sulphuric Ether by Inhalation as an Anaesthetic in Surgical Operations”, Southern Medical and Surgical Journal, 5, 1849, 705-713.

[4] Science Museum, “Ether”, Accessed 11/9/2012.

Not quite the real thing

By Sally Osborn

One interesting aspect of manuscript recipe books is the frequency of recipes for ersatz or substitution products. This was perhaps understandable in an age when access to ingredients might be haphazard or require travelling a considerable distance. However, it also possibly reflects the desire to do what today we would call ‘keeping up with the Joneses’, particularly in offering suitable dishes at table.

One example is a number of ways of preparing a replacement for the German dry-cured and smoked Westphalia ham, which often appears on bills of fare of the period. The title of the recipe is frequently along the lines of ‘To make an artificial Westfalia ham’, as in the one below, although one manuscript is refreshingly honest in naming it ‘To Counterfeit Westfalia Bacon’ (Wellcome Collection, MS 7851). The process was far from quick, as you will see, although the desired smoky flavour would presumably have resulted:

Recipe for artificial Westphalia ham
Image © Wellcome Collection

Rub a leg of Pork with four ounces of salt peter & pint of bay salt & as much white let it lay 3 weekes in salt, adding more salt every week, then dry it with a cloth & rub it over with lam black, hang it up in a chimney for 8 weeks at least, where they burn wood, when you boyle put hay in your pot with it.

Other food replacements were made, including artificial sturgeon (which was a ‘royal fish’ and thus the property of the crown), made from pickled turbot, and artificial venison, as in this example from the Heppington receipts:

Recipe for artificial venison
Image © Wellcome Collection

Artificiall Venison for a Pasty

Bone a Sirloin of beef, and a Loyn of Mutton beat itt with a Rowling Pin, and season itt with Pepper, Salt itt then Lay itt 24 Howers in Sheeps Blood or Clarrett, then dry itt with a Cloath and season itt a Little more and itt is fit to fill your Pasty

What to me is more intriguing, though, are the recipes for artificial asses’ milk. The health benefits of such milk were widely touted, as in this appeal in an undated letter from Eliza Pierce of around 1751:

I wish I could give you a good [account] of my Aunt but she has been excessive ill ever since you left us and has at last been prevailed on to send for Dr Glass who had her blooded to day and advises her to drink Asses Milk and we not knowing who to apply to better then your self have taken the Liberty to send to you for one. It will be a great satisfaction to us all if you can supply us as by that means my Aunt will be able to begin imediately to drink it. My Uncle desires his compliments and he begs you to send one with a foal not above a Month or six weeks old if you have one of that Age if not as young as you can. 

Other sources recommend asses’ milk be drunk for a cough and other disorders. We now know that it contains less fat and more lactose than cows’ milk and is the closest to human breast milk, and of course its cosmetic properties have been lauded since Egyptian times. However, if you found yourself without a convenient donkey to milk, would you really want to replace it with something like this?

A most excellent receipt for Mock Asses Milk sent me by Lady Betty Cicel, when I was ill at Nesden

Take two ounces of pearle barley, wash & scald it, put that water away – then take two quarts of fresh water, boil the barley in it with half an ounce of hartshorn shavings, half an ounce of eringo root, 8 or 10 shell snails rub’d clean & bruis’d, boil those to gether till half is consum’d, then drain it, & have a pint of Milk just boil’d, & when both are cold, mix them together, keep it for now & when you take it sweeten it with brown sugar. (British Library, Hamilton and Greville Papers, Add MS 40715)

A Mrs Hawkins suggested a slightly more palatable alternative, recorded in Penelope Humphreys’ recipe book:

Recipe for artificial asses' milk
Image © Wellcome Collection

take 2 ounces of pearl barly one ounce of Eringer Root one ounce of shavings of hartshorn, one ounce of Conserve of Red roses then put to these things 3 quarts of Water let it boyl tea it is halfe wasted then strain it, and drink a quarter of a pint of this liquor with the sam quantity of new Milk every morning fasting and at 4 a clock in the after noon. (Wellcome Collection, MS 7851)

Perhaps more than anything else, this speaks volumes about the power of suggestion in early modern medical care!