Old Mountain Practice of “Tooth Jump’n”

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Tooth jumping

The colonial men and women who first settled the Appalachian Mountains did so purposefully, knowing full well of the many risks they were taking: They were inhabiting a wilderness land void of cities, modern resources and one that saw medical help virtually nonexistent.

In order to survive in this isolation the inhabitants were forced to become jacks of all trades.

Writing about this practice in 1913, Horace Kephart wrote, “In our primitive community there were no trades, no professions. Every man was his own farmer, blacksmith, gunsmith, carpenter, cobbler, miller, tinker. Someone in his family, or a near neighbor, served him as barber and dentist, and would make him a coffin when he died. One farmer was also the wagoner of the district, as well as storekeeper, magistrate, veterinarian, and accoucheur. He also owned the only ‘tooth-pullers’ in the settlement: a pair of universal forceps that he designed, forged, filed out, and wielded with barbaric grit. His wife kept the only boarding-house for leagues around. Truly, an accomplished couple!”

In an era characterized by poor dental health and “tooth-pullers” being few and far between, it should only stand to reason that the ingenious mountaineers developed their own unique way of removing unwanted or hurtful teeth: Tooth jumping.

Known for their rugged toughness and ability to endure pain, Kephart wrote, “An injured person gets scant sympathy, if any. So far as outward demeanor goes, and public comment, the witnesses are utterly callous.

“The mountaineers’ fortitude under severe pain is heroic, though often needless. For all minor operations and frequently for major ones they obstinately refuse to take an anesthetic, being perversely suspicious of everything that they do not understand. Their own minor surgery and obstetric practice is barbarous. A large proportion of the mountain doctors know less about human anatomy than a butcher does about a pig’s.

One local Appalachian resident from the early 1900s described “tooth jumping” in the following terms, “You take a cut nail (not one o’ those round wire nails) and place its square p’int agin the ridge of the tooth, jest under the edge of the gum. Then jump the tooth out with a hammer. A man who knows how can jump a tooth without it hurtin’ half as bad as pullin’. But old Uncle Neddy Carter went to jump one of his own teeth out, one time, and missed the nai and mashed his nose with the hammer. He had the weak trembles.”

When told that people back east laughed at the idea of “tooth jumping” the mountain man repleid with the following retort, “Well, they needn’t laugh; for it’s so. Some men git to be as experienced at it as tooth-dentists are at pullin’. They cut around the gum, and then put the nail at jest such an angle, slantin’ downward for an upper tooth, or upwards for a lower one, and hit one lick….  Generally [the tooth will come at the first lick], but if it didn’t, you might as well stick your head in a swarm o’ bees and fergit who you are.”

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

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