The North Carolina Village Addicted to Eating Clay

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Fact is stranger than fiction, mostly because fact isn’t required to make sense, whereas fiction is.  Still, when it comes to Appalachian history, it’s often difficult to separate the two.

Such is the case regarding North Carolina’s mysterious “clay eaters”, an entire village of people who, according to contemporary media reports, were said to have been addicted to eating dirt.

History writer Laura Wright states, “There was a strange community in Nineteenth Century North Carolina, according to legend, who subsisted entirely on clay. The addiction was unlike any known vice, even worse than whiskey, morphine, or laudanum.”

But given the “plethora of dubious information on alleged Appalachian ‘communities’ during the late 1800s and early 1900s,” the historian wonders if the reports pertaining to North Carolina’s ‘clay eaters’ are even believable.

Though writers from the previous century seemed to take great pleasure in telling outrageous stories about the mountain people of Appalachia, this claim seems to actually be grounded in truth.

In the May 19, 1888, edition of Scientific American, an article appeared telling the following story:

Dr. Frank H Getchell of Philadelphia went on a hunting expedition to Salisbury, North Carolina.

According to the article, the area was inhabited “for the most part, by a miserable race of beings with only just enough energy to eke out a wretched existence. These creatures are nearly all veritable living skeletons and with few exceptions are addicted to the habit of clay eating.”

“Among the poor people of this section, said Dr. Getchell, the habit of eating clay is almost universal. Even little toddlers are confirmed in the habit and the appetite seems to increase with time. ‘While investigating the matter, I entered a cabin occupied by one of these poor families and saw a little chap tied by the ankle to the leg of a table on which was placed a big dish of bread and meat and potatoes within easy reach. The child was kicking and crying and I asked his mother why she had tied him up. She replied that she wanted him to eat some food before he went out to the clay and he refused to do so. The woman confessed that she ate the clay herself, but explained that the child’s health demanded that it eat some substantial food before eating any earth. Almost every one I met in this section was addicted to this habit. They were all very thin, but their flesh seemed to be puffed out. This was particularly noticeable about the eyes which had a sort of reddish hue. All of the clay eaters were excessively lazy and indolent and all of these conditions combined led me to the conclusion that there must be some sedative or stimulating qualities or both in the clay…'”

According to the article, the doctor collected samples of the clay and returned it to Philadelphia where Professor Tiernan conducted scientific tests on the dirt only to discover, as the article states, “instead of clay eaters the inhabitants of central North Carolina should more properly be called arsenic eaters…”

The article stated, “All of this clay contains arsenic, but exactly in what proportion we have not yet discovered… It acts as a sedative and also as a stimulant.”

At the time of the Scientific American article in 1888, the notion of people eating clay seemed unbelievable for many Americans, but today, the practice has been highly documented and even has its own medical term, “geophagy”.

According to Sera Young of Cornell University, geophagy has a long history around the world and has been “reported in countries as diverse as Argentina, Iran and Namibia…”

In an article concerning the subject, the BBC writes, “Consumption seems to be higher in the tropics…”

An NPR article from 2014, interviewed a woman from Greene County, Ga., who stated that the practice of eating dirt was common in her family as well.

“I remember my mom and my aunties eating that white dirt like it was nothing,” she said, stating that as a child she would go with her family to dig for their own dirt to snack on.

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