What’s the connection between Quakers, whalers, cancer and onions? Here’s some unexpected medical history from the Hoosier State.
While flipping through a few of the oldest Indiana newspapers, we ran across several “vintage cures” — including a couple of surprising ones for cancer, a disease that was as feared in 1816 as it is now, though the pioneers suffered from exponentially lower rates of it.
Oddly enough, the first remedy here, which claims to be able to treat cancer with onions, might not be bogus.
Modern medical research agrees with “folk” doctors on one thing, at least: regardless of the real havoc wreaked on your breath, garlic and onions are potent cancer-fighting foods. These veggies rank up there with broccoli, wild berries, ginger, olive oil, and a daily glass of wine as one of nature’s best weapons against tumors.
Onions have figured into medical practice for far longer than chemotherapy and radiation. Alternative practitioners and cancer patients often claim that vegetable-based remedies are at least as effective as chemo and radiation therapy — and they avoid the psychological side effects. Red onions, containing high amounts of a “flavonoid” called quercetin, are a strong antioxidant, antihistamine, and natural antibiotic. Quercetin helps protect cells and DNA against damage and reduces cholesterol and inflammation. Not only do onions lend a hand in preventing cancer to begin with, they seem to help rid the body of it.
Believe it or not, an onion remedy for cancer appears (as a reprint) in Indiana’s oldest newspaper, the Vincennes Western Sun. This 1811 remedy — published when Vincennes was still the capital of Indiana Territory and just a few months before the Battle of Tippecanoe — isn’t too far off from the “onion juice therapy” still touted in alternative medicine.
It’s doubly interesting that the list of “signers” who vouched for the cure is headed by a woman, Jane Starbuck.
(Western Sun, Vincennes, Indiana, June 29, 1811.)
Genealogical records indicate that the Jane Starbuck who had apparently gotten involved in “folk medicine” and tried to help cancer patients was probably a Quaker named Jane Taylor Starbuck (1755-1834). Her “receipt” (i.e., recipe) for an onion-based cure made its way into the Vincennes Western Sun by way of a copy of the Raleigh Star that was brought from North Carolina to the Wabash Valley and read by editor Elihu Stout. (The Western Sun contains almost no local news, which would have traveled by word of mouth in a small place like Vincennes. Stout, however, was always eager to pass on news from back East and down South.)
Jane Taylor Starbuck lived in Guilford County, North Carolina, birthplace of several thousand Quakers who began moving north to Indiana just before the War of 1812. Most came for new land, but many came to get away from slavery, which most — not all — Quakers opposed. Jane Taylor Starbuck seems to have stayed in the South, but her son Edward Starbuck, who also endorsed the cancer cure, joined the Quaker exodus to the Midwest. Edward, born in 1777, settled just east of Fountain City in Wayne County. His brother William Starbuck, another Quaker pioneer, is thought to have bought twenty-one slaves in North Carolina before he came north — a clever move against slavery, perhaps, since he set them all free when they got to Indiana. (Even free African Americans moving north often traveled with and settled near Quakers for protection.)
If the name “Starbuck” means more to you than coffee, you’ve probably read Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick. The Starbuck family, into which Jane Taylor married in 1776, were prominent whalers on Nantucket Island, Massachusetts. While the Starbuck who served as chief mate of Captain Ahab’s doomed Pequod — sunk by the white whale in the South Seas — was a fictional cousin of these Hoosier pioneers, Melville’s story was based on the very real fate of the Essex, a Nantucket whaling ship that was crushed and sunk by a sperm whale in 1820. The Essex’s crew, floating around the Pacific Ocean on rowboats, were reduced to cannibalism and drew lots to see who would die next. One of the unlucky victims was a teenage sailor from Nantucket, Owen Coffin.
Now if the name “Coffin” means more to you than a casket, maybe you’ve visited the home of the “President” of the Underground Railroad, Levi Coffin, in Fountain City, Indiana. Coffin’s house is just a few miles from Edward Starbuck’s farm. One of the bravest men in Hoosier history, Levi Coffin was another ardent Quaker from Guilford County, North Carolina. He moved to Indiana in 1826 and began funneling escaped slaves toward Canada almost as soon as he arrived.
Like the Starbucks, Levi Coffin was originally from New Garden, North Carolina, but had Nantucket family roots. He almost definitely knew Jane Taylor Starbuck and her son Edward. (Both families belonged to the New Garden Quaker Meeting.) Coffin himself was a cousin of Jane Starbuck’s husband, William, who was a Nantucket native, reared among the whalers and seafarers of colonial Massachusetts. From his Indiana farmhouse, Levi Coffin showed as much fearlessness as his New England cousins and grandparents did sailing the remote seas.
(Levi Coffin, 1798-1877, who with his wife Catherine fought the cancer of slavery and survived to see its death, lived just north of Richmond. Their Indiana home has been called the “Grand Central Station” of the Underground Railroad. They helped thousands evade slave catchers.)
In his memoirs, Coffin mentions an Edward Starbuck. He and the man who offered a cancer remedy in 1811 appear to be one and the same. (Coffin wrote that an Edward Starbuck also helped him found an anti-liquor society in Fountain City — then called Newport — in 1830, when the fugitive slave conductor was also beginning a “War on King Alcohol.”) Edward Starbuck himself lived on a farm between Whitewater and Fountain City, a few miles from Ohio. At some point, Starbuck apparently left the Quakers to become a Methodist minister.
Here’s the onion cure — which called for more than onions, by the way. It also required puccoon root (blood root), used in both European and American Indian pharmacology for generations as an antibiotic. (American Indians also used it as a dye.) The Western Sun of Vincennes printed this alleged cure on June 9, 1811.
(Western Sun, Vincennes, Indiana, June 29, 1811.)
A decade later, “cures for cancer” were still coming out in American newspapers. The 19th century turned out to be a golden age of questionable — if not downright dangerous — panaceas, some of them offered by doctors, some by quacks. Even some university-trained practitioners swore they could make a patient cancer-free.
It’s hard to blame anybody for trying, but this cure, reprinted in the Richmond Weekly Intelligencer in 1822 and which seems to recommend some kind of cauterization, would be impossible to vouch for.
(Richmond Weekly Intelligencer, August 28, 1822.)
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