You’ve heard a lot of stories about the old days in the deep woods of northern Maine, when river drivers cut the trees and moved the logs into the rivers, down the great waterways or through the dense frozen forest. In Maine’s early days as a state, most of it was a frontier, far removed from the rest of civilization and only connected with a thin line of rail or a dark ribbon of water weaving its way from the overwhelming forest to the towns and cities near the coast. When winter came and the ground froze solid, that’s when lumbermen ventured deep into the woods, so deep that the closest connection with the world was literally days away.
Working in the deep woods meant isolation for long periods of time, away from the comforts and the safety of civilization, especially healthcare. The men had to rely on each other and themselves in times of trial and uncertainty and this they did. There are songs and stories detailing the toils and times of these men of the woods, but perhaps none so strange and unique to Maine as the tales of the Charming Man. It’s quite likely you’ve never heard a tale like it. The Charming Man? He’s not what you think.
It seems that any time a group of people needs a healer, one seems to arise. It’s a hallmark of our species and perhaps the reasons we’ve made it thus far. When famed anthropologist Margaret Meade was asked when she thought civilization began, she didn’t choose the advent of agriculture over hunting and gathering as her moment when humans became something more than merely animals. She pointed to a fifteen thousand year old healed femur bone, saying that “in the animal kingdom, if you break your leg, you die. You cannot run from danger, you cannot drink or hunt for food. Wounded in this way, you are meat for your predators. No creature survives a broken leg long enough for the bone to heal. You are eaten first.” When one of us is in need, we feel a compulsion to help. It’s deep in our bones.
There’s a story told in a 1902 edition of Forest and Stream magazine that details the strange adventure of a friend of author Holman Day, a famous chronicler of the Maine wild lands at the turn of the last century. He details an exploit of a friend of his known only to the reader as “The Doctor.” In this tale, this doctor is hunting in the region of the woods above Upper Lobster Lake east of the Churchill, far from the cities near the coast. The interior of Maine in 1902 was a wild and lonely place. What follows are Holman’s words from the 1902 article, speaking as the doctor whose story it is.
“Now, you know I have been in the woods every season for ten years, and I never was lost up to that time. I did get lost, though, that day. I don’t have the least idea how it happened, but all at once I found myself wandering through the woods with no clear idea where I was going nor why, for I had told the guide that I would meet him at the head of the lake for a snack.
“Well, I traveled around quite a while. I’ll tell you just how I felt -it was as though something all at once had set me into a brown study and then when I came out of it I looked around to find that some sprite had moved the sun and had skeow-wowed the scenery around in some way that I failed to understand. Never had that happen to me in the woods before! In what I am going to relate, I do not want to be considered too credulous, but that mystification of the morning made the later events of that day more impressive.
“After a time I climbed the side of a hill and took a look around to see if I could locate any landmark. Off to the east of south by my compass I spied a column of smoke wavering up over the trees. I was so turned around that I couldn’t tell whether the lake lay in that direction or not, but I scrambled down the hill and plowed away in that hope.
“The smoke must have been five miles away, and it took me more than an hour to cover the distance. But I finally came into a clearing. There was a lumber camp there. No one was in sight outside, but in the free and easy way that prevails in the woods, I walked across the clearing, stamped off the snow in the dingle and walked into the camp. I never got such a surprise in all of my life. Half a dozen of the crew were in the camp. They all jumped up and rushed toward me. One of them yelled, “Be you the doctor?” “Well, I’m a doctor,” I said. “Don’t that beat all tophet, fellows?” cried the man; ‘he’s the doctor. And he’s right on the dot, too. We’ve been looking for ye,’ he stuttered, turning to me and fairly trembling in excitement. I commenced to get some interested myself.
“You folks appear to have been looking for me,” I suggested.
“You bet we have” the cook replied, twisting his bare arms in his apron.
“He said you’d get here at four o’clock,” he added, pointing to a little nickel alarm clock that hung alongside a bunk. It was then a few minutes past the hour.
“No one has sent for me,” said I, “and I didn’t know where I was coming. What do you people mean by saying that I was expected? I’ve been lost in the woods.”
“That’s jest what he said,” shouted several men in chorus, jostling together in their excitement.
“Who said so?” I demanded, with a bit of a temper, for it suddenly occurred to me that the men were ‘joshing’ me for their amusement.
“The charming man,” they answered. They were so earnest that I realized that they were not joshing, though for the life of me I couldn’t understand what it all meant.
“He’s right there in the bunk,” explained the cook.
“This charming man you were speaking of?” I asked. I had never heard of a charming man before and I wanted to see the curiosity.
“No, the man that got hurt,” said one of the crew. “The charming man went away.”
“It was dusky in the camp and one of the men carried a lantern to a bunk in the corner. There lay a man with his foot swathed in a torn blanket and an old coat. ‘He chopped himself on the ankle,” one of the men explained. While they held the lantern I unwrapped the bandages, my professional instincts suppressing, for a time, the questions I wanted to pump at the men. It was a bad case. The ax had partly severed the ankle at the joint, and the wound, treated by such rude methods as were at hand in the camp, was past the point where it could be healed. ‘He hurt it three or four days ago,’ said one of the crew. ‘We done what we could for him, but I guess it wasn’t very much.’
“That foot must come off,” I told them.
“That’s jest what he said,” was the immediate chorus. ‘The charming man said so,’ added the cook, noticing my astonishment at their excitement over my simple statement.
“I assure you I was getting mighty curious by this time, but the doctor in me was on top. I started one of the men off to the sporting camp for my case of instruments that I always take into the woods with me. Then I sat down to wait and listen to the story the men had to tell me.”
“The camp was on Matthew’s Upper Lobster. The injured man was one of the swampers, and when he had hacked his ankle the men had put on a tourniquet in the best style they could and lugged him to the camp. Word was sent by tote-team for a doctor, but the nearest one was a hundred miles away. On the morning of that day, when I arrived at the camp, the stranger had appeared. The men told me that he was about sixty-five years of age, wore a tight-fitting suit of ribbed wool like a union undergarment, and over that a huge blanket coat. On his head was a knitted cap with the peak hanging down his back. The garb was suited well enough to wood’s life, but it was all a dead, deep black, and indicated that our mysterious friend was a bit ‘staggy.’
“The men went on to tell me that the stranger walked into the camp and up to the bunk where the injured man lay and announced in deep tones that he had some to heal. But after he had looked the victim over he said that he could only charm away the inflammation. “The foot must be cut off,” he declared, “and I do not stain my hands in human blood. My mission on earth is to alleviate suffering. I can summon here the man who will do the work, and I will remove the pain.”
“The man then drew some unknown substance from his pocket and threw it upon the coals that he raked forward on the camp hearth. A dense, black smoke went rolling up the short chimney. The men in the camp described this operation as ‘burning medicine,’ a resource that is occasionally adopted by the Penbscot Indians in the woods when they seek for good fortune in hunting or in recovering lost articles. While the stuff smoldered and smoked the man jabbered in low tones. Then he suddenly broke out, ‘He is coming this way – he is crossing a brook, he is climbing a hill – now he sees the smoke – he will come to this place – he is the surgeon who will do this work.”
“The crew then explained that at this point, one of them had the assurance to brace up to the stranger and ask him what he was trying to do. The charming man explained with great dignity that through his spell head caused a hunter – a city doctor – who was then five miles from that place, to lose his way first and then espy the smoke rolling up from the camp hearth. ‘He will be here in just one hour by that clock,’ he stated, ‘He will send for his tools and will cut off that man’s leg. Tell him for me that there will be no pain from the operation and no blood to speak of, neither will there be inflammation following. I have attended to all that. I will return in two weeks for my pay. If it doesn’t come about as I have said, you need give me ‘nother. Remember, the doctor will come in an hour.”
“And sure enough I did, and under those circumstances, you see, my lively reception was not astonishing.”
“While I was waiting for the instruments I examined the patient with great interest. I determined that he was a hypnotic trance. I tested him with the thermometer, took his pulse and listened to his respiration. They were not far from normal, but the man was entirely insensible.
“He remained in that condition through the operation, which I performed without anesthetics after I had made tests and had found that was apparently insensible to pain. But little blood followed the knife. The manner in which the limb had been bound by the rude tourniquet was partly responsible for the slight bleeding, but I am ready to testify as a surgeon that the bleeding was apparently somewhat controlled by the patient’s condition psychically as well as physically.
“But what was more interesting still was the fact that when the man came out of his stupor the next day he felt no pain in the leg, and when I visited him and dressed his stump during the next week he said that he hadn’t suffered even a twinge.
“The case interested me mightily, and if it had not been for the professional engagements that took me back to the city, I would have waited to see and talk with that mysterious man of the woods.”
The word ‘charming’ is defined generally as pleasant or attractive. A less common meaning is to control or achieve as if by magic. That’s the word we’re concerned with in this tale. There was a time, before the advent of modern medical knowledge, when shamen and wise women were the traditional healers of our species, all over the world. They had an understanding of plants and effective treatments, but they also knew of another kind of healing that modern science only recognizes as something like ‘the placebo effect.’ They had the power of belief and perhaps a good idea of the power of hypnotic suggestion. Call it the power of positive thinking if you like. If you’re of a religious bent, call it the power of prayer.
Health care, like the need for food and shelter, is one of the primary rungs on the ladder of Bloom’s taxonomy. In the case of the lumbermen of the North, they had a rudimentary understanding of setting bones and soothing rheumatism and healing small cuts, but when more skill than this was required, they were on their own. Unless…sometimes, a person just shows up, just in the nick of time, when needed.
What is remarkable about the Charming Man in this tale is that he is a stranger wandering an unpopulated land, wandering like a wizard and only appearing when needed. He appears like Odin of the old Norse myths, a bearded man from the wilderness, solitary, ready to assist and even to call for help using supernatural means when his own intervention would not be enough to save a person’s life. Even stranger, he explains that he will return for payment later – and inevitably, he never does.
So what, exactly, is a Charming Man? In the areas of northern Maine reaching into Quebec and any area with the French-Canadian tradition, he is a traditional faith healer whose origins go further back into the native culture of the region. Wandering loners, they have the ability, it seems, to sense when they are needed, arrive, diagnose, and treat illnesses. They are able to use prayer and charms to stop pain and treat inflammation. Leaning down to the afflicted, they would speak their ‘charm’ into his ear only, so that no one else could hear, and then they would treat their patients, calming them, taking away their pain with nothing more than a few well-spoken words and some herbs. For people living far from modern medicine, these people, who could be male or female, were the only doctors available and they were glad they had such help. Their name in French is “traiteur’ or in English, ‘treater’.They used plants, energy, and spiritual practices to affect their healing services and in the case of the lumbermen at the camp in Holman’s tale, they also knew enough about modern medicine to know when the work was beyond their ability to heal.
Sometimes these traiteurs would appear at a lumber camp and would offer prescriptive medicine. Everyone was fine at the moment, but in the middle of winter when he was too far away to affect any assistance, he had a kind of insurance plan he offered. The name of each man on the logging crew would be given to the Charming Man. He would prepare small sticks of what he called ‘medicine wood’, leaving these with the man in charge of the camp. If any man needed help during the winter, that man’s stick was to be burned and certain words were spoken, previously confided to the camp boss -these were sacrosanct words, never to be repeated to anyone. If this ritual was carried out to the word and letter, the Charming Man would hear it, no matter where he was on Earth. Then, he would treat the afflicted person mentally, from a distance. If you were in need of medical attention in the midst of the Maine woods, you had no doctor nearby. All you had was the Charming Man and the faith you had in him.
So where did these people come from and where have they gone? The Charming Man from our story spoke of his mission, “ to alleviate suffering.” Interestingly, he also states that he never stains his hands with human blood. In that, he indicates a pureness, perhaps a holiness, that gives us a glimpse into his nature. In her book, The Kennebec Wilderness Awakens, Mary Calvert writes:
The “power” was believed to be hereditary, with the “spell” being handed down from mother to son or father to daughter, never to the same sex. It could only be given down once, and could not be written down. Many old woodsmen believed implicitly in this power and would cite case after case around the evening campfire.”
The spell Calvert alludes to is a passage from the Bible, or at least that’s what one Charming Man revealed. Vaughn Knight, of Lincoln Center, Maine, had no one to give his charm to – no daughter to which he might pass down the spell and being of sufficient age and being interviewed by folklorists, revealed that his spell was a passage from Ezekiel 16, verse 6:
“And when I passed by thee, and saw thee polluted in thine own blood, I said unto (put in the name), when thou wast in thy blood, Live (put in the name); yea, I said unto thee when thou wast in thy blood, Live.”
Traiteurs are people of faith whose power may lay within their patient’s capacity to believe in them. A man with a serious injury would likely not be healed by a traiteur. Instead, he might be ‘treated’, that is, be made stable and comfortable with hypnotic suggestion or other means until a surgeon could make his long journey inland to the isolated camps. To be fair, men died every winter in the camps. Logging is heavy, dangerous work and in those days, a serious injury often meant death. Charming men must have been few and far between because they did not always arrive when needed. Many lumbermen perished in the far camps without any help from anyone.
Today, we use genetics to create vaccines and to battle emerging diseases as well as older ones that are reemerging as our enemies. We build hospitals and have national and international health organizations to monitor our collective well-being and serve us through the use of well-researched science. It is interesting to note that in the northeast of the United States, a place where modern medicine truly began to thrive in places like the great colleges and universities, there was a need for traditional faith healing no less than a hundred years ago, bringers of hope in the dark and distant forest, arriving when needed, serving their patients and then leaving to melt back into the forest again.
Michaud, Al, Fortean Forest, “Doctors in Woods,” pp. 31-44. Antlerian Press, 2020.
Day, Holman, “The Charming Man of the Maine Woods,” Forest and Stream, October, 1902.
Calvert, Mary, The Kennebec Wilderness Awakens, Twin City Printery, 1986.
Dana, David. “A Vernacular Healing System: Reinventing the Circle with Cadien Treaters”. From “Science and Religion: Global Perspectives,” June 408, 2005, Philadelphia, PA.