The following is a quote that appears in the preface to Butcher’s Crossing by John Williams:
Don’t expect to find YARB-DOCTOR in Newsweek anytime soon, nor in any word or phrase dictionaries. This is definitely a museum piece that you could only expect to find in material from or about days of yore (e.g. Melville’s works). But it did pique my curiosity.Aye, and poets send out the sick spirit to green pastures, like lame horses turned out unshod to the turf to renew their hoofs. A sort of yarb-doctors in their way, poets have it that for sore hearts, as for sore lungs, nature is the grand cure. But who froze to death my teamster on the prairie?”—from The Confidence-Man by Herman Melville in Butcher’s Crossing by John Williams>
YARB: A mispronunciation of the word herb, which is said to have its roots in 19th-century Missouri, probably in the Ozarks.
YARB-DOCTOR (hyphenated and not):
1) The itinerant patent medicine salesmen – the charlatans, who boasted of the miraculous cures produced by their various liquids and salves often said to contain curative herbs, roots, leaves (cocaine), etc.. (For more on patent medicines see here1, here2, and here3).
2) A doctor or so-called doctor who used folk cures, including herbal and other assorted concoctions.
The following quotes are from archived sources:
_______________________<1857 “‘Then you don’t believe in these ‘here yarb-doctors?’ ‘Yarb Doctors? I remember the lank yarb-doctor I saw once on a hospital cot in Mobile. . .’ ‘Did I hear something about herbs and herb-doctors?’ Here said a flute-like voice, advancing. It was the herb-doctor in person. Carpet bag in hand . . .”—The Confidence Man by Melville, page 147>
<1874 “The good people of the neighborhood were rather puzzled about his pursuits at first, and opinion long wavered as to whether he was a bee-hunter or a ‘yarb doctor.’”— The Atlantic monthly Vol. 33, page 543>
<1907 (headline) “DR. SIMON NEWCOMB’S HARD ROAD TO SUCCESS. The Dean of American Astronomers Began Life as Apprentice to a Quack Yarb Doctor in Canada.”—The Scrap book, Vol. 3, page 284>
<1964 “He muttered some gibberish and applied a green poultice of his own making. He told me privately that this poultice was made of turnip tops, which he had ‘blessed with the power of Christ Jesus.’ The woman died two or three days later. ‘You orter have called me sooner, ‘said the yarb doctor.”—Ozark Magic and Folklore by V. Randolf, page 104>
<1971 “. . . a biography of the expedition’s leaders [[Lewis and Clark]], relates that Meriwether Lewis’ mother was known in Albemarle County, Virginia, as a yarb doctor . . .”—Montana: The Magazine of Western History, Vol. 21, No. 4, Autumn, page 11>
<1995 “Perhaps the most important for my purposes is the ‘yarb-doctor’ or patent medicine man, who speaks an opaque language compounded of orphic Emersonian religiosity and advertising rhetoric. (Entire pages of his conversation could have been lifted directly from mid-nineteenth-century advertising copy.)”—Fables of abundance: a cultural history of advertising in America by J. Lears, page 100>
<2000 “The song came to me from the singing of a yarb doctor named Mayberry Thomas, a resident of Knoxville, Tenn. When I first knew him in 1929, he had . . . a little stand in the unused end of the Knoxville public market, where he sold roots, herbs, a liquid made from wild cherry bark, dried mullen leaves, sassafras, . . . dozens of similar items.”— The Ballad Book of John Jacob Niles by J. Niles, page 91>
Ken G – January 30, 2012