According to the book Home Medicine: The Newfoundland Experience by John K. Crellin, “charmers” were people “who offered magical treatment, or what was perceived by some people as faith healing, for a variety of conditions ranging from bleeding to warts.”
Accounts of such people were once well known throughout Newfoundland and Labrador, though nowadays such knowledge is mostly relegated to memory and folklore.
But for those who claim to have known such “healers” personally, the memories remain alive and well.
According to Norma MacDonald, 69, of Labrador City, both her parents possessed special healing gifts. Norma was born in the now-abandoned community of Howards, located southwest of Corner Brook, Newfoundland. Her parents were Ralph and Mary MacDonald.
She says her father, who passed away at the age of 91 in the late 1980s, had the ability to “put away warts” – a once common notion in Newfoundland.
“I used to have warts on the big part of my legs when I was small and on the palms of my hands. And I would say, ‘Dad I wish those big ol’ warts would go away.’ He used to go into the refrigerator, and it had something to do with fresh meat, raw meat, and that’s all I can tell you. And then he’d come over and he’d rub my legs and he’d rub my hands and he’d say 'ah that’s all right that’ll be gone in a few days,'” recalls Norma.
And sure enough, Norma says within a few days the warts disappeared. She says her father refused to provide an explanation for what she considered an inexplicable event. “He said, ‘if I told you, it won’t work,’” she recalls. (For another account of Ralph MacDonald’s supposed ability to heal warts see “The Healing Gift” in the October 2011 issue of Downhome.)
Those who knew the MacDonald family also say that Ralph’s wife, Mary (who passed away in 1967), possessed the power to heal. In her case, it was the ability to stop people from bleeding - another healing gift commonly attributed to individuals in this province.
Greg White, a retired engineer living in St. John’s, grew up near the MacDonalds in Howards and remembers hearing stories about Mary’s gift. One tale that’s always stayed with him is said to have happened on the railway.
“One man put his fist right through a plate glass window, and you can imagine the shredding into his arm,” he begins. “The people on the train could not stop the blood from flowing. So someone on the train must have known about Mrs. MacDonald. So they stopped the train at Cook’s Brook…and the conductor or the brakesman or someone tapped into the telephone line and they got in touch with Howards where Mrs. MacDonald lived. And shortly after that the man’s arm stopped bleeding. I heard that story time and time again when I was a little boy.”
Norma says she’s heard similar tales of her mother’s life-saving abilities – and says her mother was also something of a community caregiver, acting as a midwife, preparing bodies after death, and assisting doctors as a “nurse-type person,” though she never went to nursing school.
Neither of her parents ever indulged their children’s curiosities regarding the special gifts they were said to possess. “They never talked about anything,” she says, adding her parents often spoke in French when they didn’t want their children to understand what they were saying.
“I wish today I knew how it started and what they said or how they did it…I’d like to know how it all came about,” she says. With her parents long gone and any answers with them, Norma says she prefers to believe their healing gifts came from God.
What do you think about this? Are stories such as these the products of fanciful imaginations - or perhaps evidence of faith healing? Leave a comment and share your thoughts.