Walnut shells, spiders, and how to cure a fever

Nuts in the shell were once a common holiday tradition.

Nuts in the shell were once a common holiday tradition.

We were in the land of voodoo when fever struck, but were not tempted to hunt down a magic potion or healing charm. Back in proper old New England, however, we discovered a cure even stranger than anything any voodoo queen could have offered.

While visiting New Orleans my husband came down with fever, chills, and bed drenching night sweats. Our last day was spent lying low in an alternately overheated or artificially frigid hotel room as I spoon-fed him bowls of restorative gumbo. Home in Maine we had blood drawn, but due to holidays we would not know the result for close to a week. He was taking ibuprofen and antibiotics, suffering nightly recurring bouts of fever and shaking, when an odd remedy suggestion came through the mail.

A hand-made card from an artist friend illustrates a folk cure for ague.

A hand-made card by an artist Judy Ham illustrates a folk cure for ague.

Judy Hamm, a book artist friend, sent a clever handmade card featuring portraits of three stern old women. They each had elements stitched or glued to their necks, and the subject of the card was folk cures. The center of the tri-fold was a white-haired old gal looking knowingly out of the sides of her eyes. There was a spider in a walnut shell around her neck. The caption for this image was “Ague.” This old-fashioned word means chills, recurring fever and sweating, exactly the symptoms my husband had. While we were thinking Lyme disease was the most likely diagnosis, we really did not know.

So, why not treat him for ague? The card explained on the back that the cure was to place a spider in a walnut shell and wear around the neck. (For a day? Forever? Do you need to replace the spider?) I had a thousand things to do, and all were more important than making a walnut necklace, but I became driven to do just that.

An excerpt from Strange Medicines describes the walnut shell cure

An excerpt from Strange Medicines describes the walnut shell cure.

Part of this drive came from a long-forgotten memory the mention of walnut shells had stirred up. As children, we always had a white milk glass bowl of nuts in their shells on the dining room table, along with some clementines. Brazil nuts were my favorite, but the hardest to crack, and my uncle would crack them, sliding the large pale nuts across the table to me. I could not remember when I last cracked a nut, or saw a bowl of unshelled nuts on anyone’s table. I asked my hiking buddy that day if she ever ate shell-on nuts, and while she does not now, she too has a memory of Christmas nuts. Her mother had a lacquered Russian bowl with both nuts and nutcrackers in it that was used every year. “It gave you something to do when you were hanging out visiting waiting for the big meal to be served.” she said. “It made a small mess on the table cloth wherever you were when you were cracking and picking the meat out, so it was satisfying to pry things out without having to resort to the pick tool cuz’ that often just made things messier.”

Walnut memories inspired me to set off to buy nuts in the shell to eat, to admire in a bowl on the table, and to make an ague cure.

I was hoping to find mixed nuts, like my mother used to get, which would include walnuts for the charm. I searched the nut section, the baking section, and the produce aisle for a bag of unshelled nuts. I found nut halves, nut pieces, chopped nuts and whole, but no shell-on nuts. I asked, and was told there might have been some, but they would now be on the after-holiday sale counter. I found almonds and pecans there, but no walnuts.

Double-checking in the snacks area I commented to a friend about how people don’t use walnuts in the shell any more, and explained about the walnut spider necklace. She said she had some at home and I could have one. I was delighted to hear there were still people who celebrated the tradition of shelling nuts at the holiday, but she quickly corrected me. Hers were a decoration, and were many years old. I might not get my bowl of nuts to crack and snack on, but at least I could work on the cure. I did not think a spider would care of its shell was fresh or not, and so gladly accepted her walnut offer. As she was telling me where to park at her house I looked down the aisle and there they were—bags of mixed shell-on nuts stacked on a cardboard display in the middle of the row. It did not appear many had been sold.

Slip a knife into the shell to pry the two halves apart.

Slip a knife into the shell to pry the two halves apart.

Making the walnut necklace took only a few minutes. The walnut cure was a door to memories and stories, and there was no reason to waste it. My suffering husband agreed to wear it, and it is bouncing lightly against his chest. He is seeming pretty perky, in fact better than in the past few days, but we aren’t going to stop the antibiotics just yet.


How to make an ague amulet

  1. Find a walnut shell. If your market does not carry them, ask around, you may have a friend who uses them as a decoration.
  2. Pry the shell into halves by inserting a sharp knife into the seam.
  3. Remove the nut meat. Eat or discard.
  4. Find a spider volunteer, species of your choice.
  5. Cut a piece of twine or ribbon, long enough to go over the wearer’s head.
  6. Brush glue along one half of the walnut shell.
  7. Place the string at the top of one of the shell halves.
  8. Place your spider in this shell half. Quickly press the other half onto the one with the spider and twine.
  9. Clamp the two shells together, and let dry.

That’s all there is to it. Give it to someone suffering from chills and fever to wear and please let me know what happens.


Clamp shells together until glue dries.

Clamp shells together until glue dries.

Karen O. Zimmermann

About Karen O. Zimmermann

Karen O. Zimmermann savors chance encounters with people throughout the state of Maine, and is endlessly delighted with the tales they have to share.