The Bloodstoppers of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula

One winter’s evening in the late 1930s, in the town of Shingleton, a small logging community in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, or U.P., two local laborers, one by the name of Mike Bobic, the other George White, got into a knife fight over an old dispute aggravated by an evening of heavy drinking. When White, by far the larger of the two, challenged his opponent, Bobic slashed him across the chest, leaving a deep wound from which White lost a lot of blood.

Staggering through the snow, the injured White collapsed into the doorway of a local tavern, where patrons quickly dragged him inside and sent for the doctor. Although they tried to make him as comfortable as they could, nobody in the tavern believed the wounded man would survive; the doctor lived almost ten miles away and at night, in the snow, he would surely be unable to reach them before White bled to death.

Suddenly, a man named Archie Clark, of Native American descent and who just happened to be in town, stood up, walked toward White and, according to witnesses, uttered a prayer that immediately stopped the flow of blood. When the doctor eventually arrived several hours later and was told of this feat, he simply replied ‘Oh, I see.’ The people of Shingleton and the doctor were impressed but not surprised, they recognized Archie Clark as one with ‘the power’. He was a Bloodstopper of the U.P.

The land time forgot

Michigan Upper Peninsula 1849The state of Michigan was the 26th state to enter the union of the United States of America on January 26 1837, and is the only US state to consist of two separate peninsulas. It was just before statehood, following a boundary dispute with Ohio known as the Toledo War, that Michigan was awarded the Upper Peninsula as concession for territorial losses to the south.

(Pictured: an 1849 map of Michigan Upper Peninsula, Click to enlarge).

Initially considered a ‘sterile region… [destined] to remain forever a wilderness’ the U.P.’s fortunes changed following the discovery of rich mineral deposits in the 1840s. By 1860, mines in the U.P. were producing 90% of America’s copper and a large proportion of its iron, creating more overall wealth than the California Gold Rush of the decade before.

Despite this swift industrial growth and accompanying influx of workers, the U.P. remained a wild and sparsely populated region, its relatively remote location contributing to a sense of seclusion from both the rest of Michigan and the United States. Originally inhabited by several different indigenous tribes including the Menominee, Chippewa and Potawatomi, by the beginning of the twentieth century, the U.P.’s population consisted mostly of immigrants from Canada, Ireland, Finland, and Eastern Europe.

(Pictured: five Chippewa chiefs).

The diverse origins of its people coupled with the isolation afforded by the Great Lakes led to the U.P. becoming a cultural melting pot where folk traditions from Europe and Canada could mix with those of its indigenous inhabitants. Tales of charms and magical chants with the power to stem the flow of blood were a common aspect of many European and Native American cultures, yet the large scale belief in the effectiveness of such practices had largely died out by 1900 following better standards of education and greater access to professional medical care. It is remarkable then that tales of bloodstopping continued to circulate in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula well into the 1950s, with belief in ‘the power’ corroborated by eyewitness accounts such as those reported in the case of George White.

‘The Power’

In the late 1940s, historians visited the U.P. and collected an array or oral tales surrounding ‘the power’ and its various healing properties. Many of the experiences recounted were similar to that of George White, whilst others offer details as to how ‘the power’ is acquired and passed on.

According to Cal Wright who was a Shingleton resident, bloodstoppers were people who had been born with a ‘veil’ over their face, ‘like tissue paper, which choked them and had to be cut off by the doctor’. Here, Wright appears to be describing a caul birth, a relatively rare event in which a baby is born with a piece of membrane from the womb covering its face.

Another Shingleton local by the name of George MacDonald claimed that rather than being born a bloodstopper, the secret technique could be passed from generation to generation via gender hopping oral tradition. ‘A man can learn a woman and a woman can learn a man’ he explained. ‘They do it with words that are learned out of the Bible.’

As with the example of Archie Clark and George White, the exact prayer or passage of the bible used to stop blood is often unknown to the witnesses who claim the healer ‘mumbled’ or ‘whispered some sacred words’. John Rantimaki however, a magazine editor from the city of Hancock in the far north of the U.P., was able to recall a Finnish prayer he had been taught by an old woman in Torstila, Finland in 1902:

Seisota veri, seisota veri! Niikuin vesi Jordanissa, kun kristus kastettiin” “Stop, blood, stop, you blood! As the flow of river Jordan when Christ was baptized”

Moreover and despite his education and important position within the local Hancock community, Rantimaki maintained that he had used the prayer himself and stopped one of his friend’s cuts from bleeding when a boy.

Folk tales, faith healers, and the power of suggestion

Based on the evidence presented in these interviews, the community in the mid twentieth century U.P. was a particularly superstitious one with bloodstoppers also known as charmers or faith of healers. Indeed there are a number of similarities between the tales told in the U.P. and the magic or witchcraft traditions of medieval Europe.

Johann Joseph GassnerIn Northern Italy during the sixteenth and seventeenth century caul, or cowl births were often viewed as harbingers of ‘magical’ powers such as with the cult of the Benandanti. Invoking the power of the bible to heal was a practice also common to many early modern European cultures and exorcist healers such as Johann Joseph Gassner (pictured) were sensationally popular in their day.

Furthermore, bloodstoppers are often attributed additional powers to sooth a number of other ills by those who describe them, including drying goiters, cooling burns and lessening pain. The story of one such multi-talented individual is told in a letter written by Bessie Philips of Keweenaw County who recounts the tale of John Buddo.

Buddo who claimed to be the seventh son of the seventh son, apparently had the power to ‘draw the pain from his patient to his own body’. When doing so, he would reportedly sweat profusely, his whole body ‘a quiver, and articles in the room would vibrate due to his emotions.’ Perhaps even more remarkably, Buddo’s gift was said to be so strong that he could cure toothache over the phone, an apparently seamless integration of medieval folk charm and twentieth century technology.

Whilst the exact nature of the events that occurred in Shingleton on that winter’s night in the 1930s may never be known, the owner of the tavern White stumbled into, Mr Dolaski, who was present on the night, believed he had the answer.

In an interview he gave in 1946, Dolaski attributed Archie Clark’s seemingly miraculous effect to the power of suggestion. ‘There are two minds’, he explained, ‘the objective and the subconscious or subjective. You’re still living in your sleep, but your objective mind is at rest.’ Since White was slipping in and out of consciousness, he was unable to resist ‘the Indian’s power of suggestion’ and under Clark’s influence, White’s body checked its own bleeding.

Whether the power of suggestion, or simply myth, the survival of bloodstoppers in northern Michigan culture until so late into the twentieth century is a remarkable aspect of the U.P.’s history and a unique chapter in the folk tradition of the United States.

Ancient MedicineLiam A. Faulkner

Liam is the author of Ancient Medicine: Sickness and Health in Greece and Rome, published by Collca.