The term, “white liver,” has recently found its way into Appalachian discussions. According to legend, if a woman has the dreaded white liver, her sexual appetites are so strong they kill her mate. The virtual “black widow” allegedly exhausts her husbands, and emerges a widow every time. Like the “vamps,” of silent film, they were irresistible and insatiable.
So, what is truth behind this “old Appalachian” term? Did whole regions of these lethal sirens exist? Or is it simply more misinformation?
The term “lily-livered,” has been a derogatory remark for centuries. The liver was then believed to be the very foundation of courage. It was known to be reddish-brown under normal circumstances, but if no blood went to the liver, it was “white.” The individual who suffered this was a coward of the worst kind. The term “lily” was used because the flowers are white. The term “white-livered” was a synonym. These terms were used to degrade men.
Thomas Nash described a cowardly character in The Unfortunate Traveler, as having a white liver, in 1594. Shakespeare used “lily-livered” in King Lear, from 1605, and Macbeth, in 1606. It is likely the terms were in use long before actually documented.
By the 1800s, the term continued to describe a cowardly man, but took on a different meaning as this century passed. It became used to describe a man who killed his wives. Sometimes it was due to sexual appetites, sometimes he was an outright murderer, and occasionally supernatural methods were employed.
It was oftentimes considered an actual ailment, and many of the old “snake oil” cures proclaimed they would get rid of the liver affliction in any man. Many women would not marry men if they suspected they were white-livered. Some even claimed they could tell if he had a white liver, just by the look in his eyes.
The term was still used to accuse of cowardice, even into the Twentieth Century. Many cartoons used the term, “lily-livered” when the male characters battled. The term became a favored affront in many western-themed fiction pieces, in film and in print.
So, how did this masculine term become applied to women?
Contrary to popular belief, this is no historic “Appalachian” euphemism at all. It wasn’t used against women until the 1950s. One Ozark doctor used it to describe a patient, who he believed killed her husbands with her appetites. The word eventually migrated and became an established piece of Appalachian fakelore. Urban myth has turned it into a simple variation of the seductive forest or river siren who lured men to their doom.