There was a strange community in Nineteenth Century North Carolina, according to legend, who subsisted entirely on clay. The addiction was unlike any known vice, even worse than whiskey, morphine, or laudanum.
There was much ado about “clay-eaters,” but what really lay behind the surge of public interest? Was it really documenting the history of an unknown community, or was it more about promoting fantasy for profit?
There was a plethora of dubious information on alleged Appalachian “communities” during the late 1800s and early 1900s. Despite tremendous differences in culture, ethnicity, and geography, every group was eerily similar to the next. Researchers today are left to wonder if even a fraction of what yellow journalists documented is remotely true, or if the majority of their work was based on pure fiction. The “clay eaters” are yet another group that seems to be far more rumor than reality.
The act of eating clay is not new to humanity, and certainly not to America. In fact, as far back as 1808, a Dr. Joseph Pitt wrote about the “poor whites” along the Roanoke River in North Carolina who ate dirt due to a dietary deficiency. By the 1880s, material had been published on these strange and elusive individuals for nearly a century. Even scientific publications were not immune to spreading “awareness” on the tragic plight of the clay-eater. There was a variety of terms for them, including “clay eaters,” “sand eaters,” “sand hillers,” and “dirt eaters.”
Philadelphia’s Dr. Frank Getchell was the primary source of North Carolina clay-eater lore. According to Getchell, he’d gone on a hunting expedition to the wilds of North Carolina. While in the remote northern part of Salisbury County, he came across a “miserable race” of humans living in the mountains. They were ignorant, superstitious, and could only scrape together a “wretched existence.”
They didn’t always eat clay. The practice started when the crops failed and the community was left with nothing else for food. The clay eaters lived in clusters of 3-5 families, although sometimes as many as 6 lived together. The houses were usually crude and made of misshapen or irregular logs. No homes were insulated in any way and no windows contain glass or shutters. Large holes in the wall were stuffed with rags or old clothing.
Their cabins floors were always broken and coated with green mold. The parents had a rough “corn-shuck” mattress and the children slept on piles of hay in the corners. The fireplace usually encompasses the entire wall. Their family pets were mongrel dogs that ate nearly as much clay as their owners.
Their settlements were always near strange geological formations where customary red clay turned pale or white. The clay is often found between beds of sand. The vegetation in these seemingly prehistoric areas changed as much as the soil.
The clay eaters occasionally held feasts called “dinings” where the menu was primarily clay. Sometimes these feasts offered many “pones,” or pans, of coarse cornbread and summer berries. Their drink of choice was always moonshine.
Everyone in the community was skeletal because of their addiction. They started their children on the stuff as soon as they could ingest solid food. What made matters worse, the children soon turned into raving addicts. Many parents tied their children to the table and forced them to eat normal food because their craving for clay was far worse than their hunger.
All of the clay eaters were lazy and indolent. Getchell believed the clay eaters ingested the substance because it contained an addictive chemical. He brought a sample home, tested it, and found it was loaded with arsenic. He then said arsenic eating was common elsewhere in the globe, including Austria and Sweden. It was clear the community had an uncontrollable addiction to arsenic.
The isolated community of the clay-eater was primitive, just as primitive as Melungeons in neighboring Tennessee. They, too, lived as their ancestors had 150 years earlier. They were so unusual in appearance that they often frightened strangers.
Clay-eaters appeared wholly unearthly, even though they were of simple English descent. Some writers called them “hardy” while others claimed they were thin and frail. Some said they spoke with a marked English accent, even though they were natural citizens. Sometimes an oil in the clay was said to “sustain life.” At other times, a chemical in the soil made them addicted. Some accounts said clay consumption was just to supplement vitamins and minerals that weren’t in their normal diet.
Other sources gave the clay fantastic healing properties and said clay eaters believed it increased libido in men, or eased childbirth in women. More disturbing accounts reported clay eaters trembled like someone suffering malaria or a high fever. More confused accounts stated clay eaters didn’t live in a communities at all, but were vagabonds and drifters who lived in hovels. They made their living by begging.
They had large, deep-set eyes, high cheekbones, and everyone had dark shadows beneath their eyes. Their stomachs were distended, they often had spots on their tongues, and the clay caused their teeth to fall out. They aged prematurely and often died young. Most had saffron yellow or bluish-hued skin. Clay eaters had no regard for the future. They were a heathen people who worshipped the moon. They frequently sold their children, traded their spouses, and were often criminally inclined.
The lore of the clay-eater is a great deal like that of Melungeons. They were mythical, subhuman creatures who hid amid the “wilds” of darkest Appalachia. Fortunately, North Carolina is well documented by this period in its history. In short, Getchell’s clay eaters didn’t exist at all. Dr. Getchell’s account was exposed by a number of North Carolina authorities shortly after the tale first became public, but his version was still accepted as fact across the rest of the nation. His account, though false, was not only taken as fact, it was promoted throughout many newspapers and scientific journals.
Getchell indeed went on a hunting trip in North Carolina, which was accurate; however, there are no mountainous areas in Salisbury County. Unfortunately, one of his guides was a fantastic storyteller who had no idea what kind of literary firestorm his words would initiate. The storyteller assumed Getchell knew he was fabricating, so he added bombastic detail after detail. He entertained his fellow locals as much as the “Yank.”
Getchell believed the story as fact and notified medical and scientific journals as soon as he returned home. No amount of denial or refuting swayed the momentum of the stereotype. At the time of the works published, many in North Carolina had never even heard of “clay eaters.” As for “moon worship,” this ridiculous claim was used to describe farmers who used the lunar phases for planting, a practice still common among farmers and gardeners today.
Geophagy, or pica, is the formal term for craving substances regarded as non-edible. Clay is one such substance. Persons with hookworm disease often experience cravings for things that aren’t normally eaten. The disease comes from a lack of hygiene. They also exhibit the symptoms attributed to “clay eaters.” There are likely isolated instances of clay consumption due to this, but the idea of entire communities is far-fetched.
Some today claim such consumption was done by individuals seeking medicinal support from a chemical component called kaolin. This was exclusively a medicinal practice and was not done regularly. There are also claims of pregnant women who crave clay, but pica occurs in 25% – 30% of all pregnancies and has no significance in relation to a specific substance.
Clay eating in America is often said to come from African-American slaves. This is not entirely true, if factual at all. Native Americans engaged in the practice long before settlers or slaves arrived, particularly the tribes of the southwest in Arizona and California. Certain portions of South America continue the practice today.
Centuries ago, clay eating was also practiced in France, Italy, and Germany, among individuals who worked in mines or other unsanitary environments. It was also reported in the ancient world, in such places as Greece and Rome.
It is a risky practice, as many medical authorities suggest that clay might actually absorb key nutrients the body needs. There hasn’t been enough research to state definitively whether clay prevents anemia, or actually causes it. Clay can contain natural toxins, such as arsenic. It’s reported to “remove heavy metals” from the system, but can strip away vital substances such as iron. Clay coats the digestive tract, which means prescriptions medications, such as antibiotics, heart medicine, or even hormones (birth control pills), will be less effective or not absorbed by the body at all.
Clay eating has been reported in the southern states of Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Alabama, Virginia, Tennessee, as well as in non-southern West Virginia, Maryland, Kentucky, Missouri, Wisconsin, Arizona, California, and beyond.
Like their Melungeon counterparts in Tennessee, the term “clay-eater” was nothing more than a derogatory term for people considered poor. Both groups were given mythical attributes by non-members and entire communities of both have been distributed across the nation, regardless of documentation or fact.