THE ARKANSAS SHAKES

by William D. Naylor

An introduction to William Naylor, William had a rich background of experiences with the Medicine Show and Carnivals during the late 1880's and the 1890's. He was a well-preserved man of 72 years of age, about five-feet-seven in height, 145 pounds,  Quite gray but not bald. Smooth-shaven. Had a pleasant though a bit cynical facial expression. Rather serious, but an evident sense of humor, and somewhat repressed frown. His personal appearance, as to dress, he was neat although it is obvious his suit had done service for a long time. In conversation he sometimes shows a definite tendency to break away from the subject and become rather excited over some political or social thought that came to his mind. While he enjoyed a bottle or two of beer, do not think he is a serious drinker.

One of Doc. Porter's most powerful and popular Kickapoo Indian medicines, that we used to sell when I was with his medicine show, was his 'Chill and Ague Eliminator.' It was put up in a square pint bottle and Doc guaranteed that two bottles would drive out the worst case of chills on the market. Whether it would or not I don' know. But I do know it was mighty potent and....bitter.

"I think it was probably a straight "emulsion" of quinine and whiskey and the directions told the 'patient' to take enough of it before his chill started to make him go to sleep.

"Doc's theory was, no doubt, that if a person about to have a chill could be gotten drunk enough to go to sleep he'd sleep through his chill period and if he did have one in his sleep, he'd never know he had it when he waked up and naturally think he had missed it entirely and was cured!

Doc's medicine was strong but it wouldn't have worked on the kind of chills people got down in the Ozark country of Arkansas, South Missouri and over in the Indian Territory where I spent a lot of time in the carnival business and exhibiting 'dancing turkeys' and other things at country fairs.

"Down in that country people didn't call chills and ague, Pronunciation: 'A-(")gy.

  1. A febrile condition in which there are alternating periods of chills, fever, and sweating. Used chiefly in reference to the fevers associated with malaria.

  2. Also chill or fit of shivering. Hence, ague can refer to both chills and fevers.

They called it the 'shakes.' And that was the right name. For when a man with the 'shakes' started to shake, he shook! He couldn't stop shaking till the chill was over.

"There were two kinds, the 'every-other-day shakes," and the 'every-day shakes.' I had both kinds. They started on me as the every-other-day kind and after a week or two turned into the every-day kind, then switched back and forth that way, first one sort and then the other till I finally got rid of them.

"The 'shakes' Were so common in the Ozark country along back in the 1890's, about the time the Star [Gang?] was being busted up in the Indian Territory and Al [Jennings?] was holding up the M. K. & T trains, that practically everybody would have them some time or other.

"And people would talk about their 'shakes' with a sort of pride, something like a lot of people like to talk in these later days of their 'operations' after they've been to the hospital and had something cut out. The harder a man shook when he had the 'shakes' the prouder he seemed to be!

"That vanity of affliction," you might say, brought about one of the queerest contests that was ever pulled off, I suppose. To me, and I saw it, it had frog-jumping matches, horn toad races, cock-roach fights, and all that stuff beaten a mile.

"It was out in the Arkansas River bottom-lands country not far from Van Buren, during the fall of 1897 or 1896, If I remember right. Anyhow, I know it was in the fall for two reasons, first because the fall was when people had most of their 'shakes,' and the pecans were ripe. Pecans, you know grow naturally on the river bottom lands down in that country and the harvest of nuts adds quite a bit to the incomes of the natives who shake them down out of the trees and sell them.

"There were a couple of brothers-in-law, had married sisters, who lived on adjoining farms and like is sometimes the case among country people they suffered from a sort of mutual jealousy. Their names were Toliver Green and Hank Breckenridge. Each thought his hound dogs were better than the other's hound dogs; that his hogs grew faster and fatter, his cow gave more milk, his mule could kick harder, or he could shoot a squirrel out of a taller tree with a single ball rifle, or excel in some other way--and the result was a continual boasting when together.

"They both happened to got the 'shakes' at the same time and it happened too, that their chills ran on the same hourly schedule and would hit them at about the same time each day.

"Toliver Green vowed that the chills he had were the hardest chills any man in Arkansas ever had or ever could have; Breckenridge had the same opinion and made the same boast about his own 'shakes.'

"The result was that they agreed to match 'shakes' and Green challenged Breckenridge to 'shake' it out in a pecan tree!

Each was to climb a pecan tree just as his chill was about due to start and see which shook the tree cleanest of pecans before it was over...

"The 'shaking match' took place in Tolivar Green's pasture in the Arkansas River bottoms. It was well advertised and a big crowd of natives came to see it. An old Justice of the Peace (I don't recall his name) was to judge the contest.

"Although it was my 'chill day' too, I went out to see it and it was one of the queerest contents I ever witnessed.

"Green and Breckenridge picked out a couple of good tall pecan trees; each climbed his tree, straddled a limb, wrapped his legs around the trunk of the tree and started to shake...and after each started he couldn't stop till his chill had run its course.

"Well, at first those darned pecans began to sort of dribble down out of the trees, like slow rain or hail, then as the chills got to work in earnest and speeded up Green and Breckenridge's 'shakes' the pecans were coming down in a regular machine-gun tattoo as they hit the ground.

"It lasted for an hour and then each climbed down...and there wasn't a pecan left an either tree! So, the old Justice of the Peace declared it a draw...and that's they way it ended. It was kind of funny seeing those two leather-[cheeked?] farmers up in those pecan trees with the 'shakes', the pecans raining down on the ground...I was sort of glad Doc. Porter's 'Eliminator' wasn't too all-fired potent-- in Arkansas."

Re-printed from the Library of Congress, American Memory, American Life Histories: Manuscripts for the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1940.  From an interview conducted with William D. Naylor on November 9, 1938 by Earl Bowman

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