Object of the Week: "Slug on a thorn", the 120-year-old mollusc used to cure warts

By Sophie Beckwith | 02 February 2016

Object of the Week: This week we bring you a curiously slimy specimen that was 19th century Oxfordshire’s answer to warts

Photo of a slug impaled on a thorn in a glass jar
Impaling a slug or snail on a thorn was thought to cure people of warts© Pitt Rivers Museum
This poor impaled slug is an example of a transference method cure for warts; the death of the slug from spearing on a thorn was said to make a person’s unwelcome growths disappear. Purchased by the Pitt Rivers Museum from Thomas James Carter of Oxford in 1898, it is the local version of a bizarre cure practised in several parts of the UK at the time.

The label on the museum’s jar instructed people how to use it: "Charm for Warts, Oxfordshire. Go out alone and find a large black slug. Secretly rub the underside on the warts and impale the slug on the thorn. As the slug dies the warts will go." The slug was originally black, but has been bleached white by more than 100 years of immersion in formaldehyde and alcohol.

In other parts of England the slug was replaced with a snail. "Take one of the large black snails which are to be found, during the summer, in every hedgerow, rub it over the wart, and then hang it on a thorn. This must be done nine nights successively, at the end of which time the wart will completely disappear," suggests an excerpt from Thomas Sternberg’s The dialect and folk-lore of Northamptonshire.

Other charms using molluscs included impaling one and blowing across the hand while pointing at a new moon. If you were from County Durham you might cure warts by blowing on a mollusc nine times when the moon was full. In Orkney, in 1895, a woman tried to get rid of a wart on her finger by first pointing straw at a mollusc, then at the moon before finishing by muttering something to herself.

The desire to cure warts on the hands came from the superstition that they were a warning of sickness. Travelling wart-charmers would offer to wash offending lumps in animal blood or tie a single hair from a horse’s tail around warts to strangle them. A cure to be practised in secret was to steal a piece of meat, rub warts with it and bury it or throw it away. When it decomposed, your growths would vanish.

More Objects of the Week from Culture24

"Stig", the huge fossil from a swamp in Wales 300 million years ago

A bible baked in a loaf of bread from 16th century southern France

The knitted silk waistcoat worn by Charles I at his execution in 1649
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