Castor Oil: Old Time Medicine & Punishment

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PHOTO: Bottle of Castor Oil, courtesy of Pete Markham
PHOTO: Bottle of Castor Oil, courtesy of Pete Markham

American children have no idea how easy they have it these days.  I say this, not because of the many things they have that we never did a half-century ago, i.e. smart phones and fancy clothing, but more so concerning the many hardships they’ll hopefully never know — and at the very top of this list, I would place that dreaded concoction known simply as “castor oil”.

In the mid-1900s, the very mention of “castor oil” would send school kids running for cover as it meant an afternoon of severe stomach sickness and considerable time in the bathroom.

Unfortunately for me, my West Virginia mother’s solution for just about any ailment was castor oil.

“Sick to your stomach? Let me grab the castor oil.”

“Running a fever? Let me grab a bottle of Jack and some castor oil.”

“Spent too much time in the bathroom? Let me give you a spoonful of some castor.”

It’s amazing how many sicknesses a young child will keep concealed when he knows that going public will mean a dose of castor oil!

But what exactly is this clear oil that so many school kids from yesteryear grew up loathing?

Turns out that castor oil is in its simplest form nothing more than vegetable oil that is obtained by pressing the seeds of the castor oil plant, a plant that grows is tropical regions, specifically the Mediterranean Basin, Eastern Africa, and India.

In addition to being used to… ahem… lubricate one’s insides… castor oil and its derivatives are used in the manufacturing of soaps, lubricants, hydraulic and brake fluids, paints, dyes, coatings, inks, cold resistant plastics, waxes and polishes, nylon, pharmaceuticals and perfumes.  Yep.  Thanks mom!

Back in the day, other medical uses for castor oil included giving to pregnant women in an attempt to induce pregnancy.

But not everyone used the vegetable oil for meaning good.

Many Appalachian parents would administer a small dose as a form of punishment — a practice that was done throughout the Western World for generations.

Imperial British in India would give servants they considered to be “lazy” castor oil as a humiliating punishment. Belgian military officials would also prescribe heavy doses of castor oil in Congo as a punishment for individuals being too sick to work.

The most famous use as punishment came in Fascist Italy under Benito Mussolini. It was a favorite tool used by the Blackshirts to humiliate their political opponents. Political dissidents were force-fed large quantities of castor oil by Fascist squads. Some victims of this treatment even die as the dehydrating effects of the oil-induced diarrhea often complicated the recovery from the nightstick beating they also received along with the castor oil; however, even those victims who survived had to bear the humiliation of the laxative effects resulting from excessive consumption of the oil.

It is said that Mussolini’s power was backed by “the bludgeon and castor oil”.

Today, castor oil is a term few children have ever heard and for their sakes, I am happy about this!

Like articles like this? Then you would love Appalachian Magazine’s Mountain Voice: 2017: A Collection of Memories, Histories, and Tall Tales of Appalachia!  Click here to check out the book on Amazon!

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