By P.J. Gossett
HAMILTON — Did a settlement of Clay Eaters exist in Marion County in the late 1800s and early 1900s? A clay eater is just like the name says: a person who eats clay or other soils of the earth, which is called geophagy by the way.
I first came across a newspaper article many years ago on the Clay Eaters of Winston County, where in 1894, someone wrote a derogatory article. The article, in part, states, “The clay that they eat is a species of kaolin, and they roll it up like marbles, keeping a roll of it in their mouths most of the time. Their homes are frequently in rock houses or caves, damp and dismal, filled with lizards and other reptiles. They are small of stature and exceedingly ignorant...Living in caves and groveling in the earth has also left its impress upon their shape, and they are doubled over...”
Since attending the Brown Bag Lunches at Bevill State Community College and speaking with Dr. Beth Gibbs, I learned articles appeared in newspapers about the same time describing Clay Eaters in Marion County. We have some questions about the validity of some of the content in these articles. One such article from 1890 describes a tribe of these Clay Eaters as living 20 miles from the hills where they live to the nearest country town and almost twice that distance to the nearest railroad. The article described white clay as the primary source of food in their diets.
“None of them can read or write, and there is no such thing as a schoolhouse in their settlement,” the article read. It continued describing peculiar customs and superstitions.
“They have signs for everything and almost worship the moon. The average clay-eater has a mortal dread of an owl. As soon as the hoot of an owl is heard, a chair is overturned. If the hooting ceases, it is a sign that the threatened danger has been warded off, but if it continues, there is weeping and wailing.
“In every fireplace will be found a piece of flint rock. This is supposed to keep foxes and owls from catching the chickens. If they start on a journey, no matter where, and a rabbit (is) seen to cross their path, the journey is at once abandoned, because a rabbit never runs directly across a man’s path except to warn him of death.”
In many of these articles, the clay eaten has been named as kaolin, and large deposits of this type of white clay have been found and mined in Marion County.
While these articles are embellished and exaggerated at times, there seems to be some truth to parts of them. However, a rebuttal letter in an early newspaper article in Marion County denounced there were Clay Eaters in the county and said the original article in the newspaper was slanderous.
One article appearing in the New York Times in 1986, says eating dirt, usually fine clays, is common in many societies and that some evidence of eating soils can add deficient minerals to depleted stores in the human body. It also can fight nausea, indigestion and has other benefits. It is also being sold for consumption online.
Also known as geophagia, the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine stated in 2002, that it “is not uncommon in southern parts of the United States as well as urban Africa. Fine red clay is often preferred.” The article continued by adding the practice “is observed during pregnancy or as a feature of iron-deficiency anaemia.”
A filmmaker from Troy, Ala., Adam Forrester, who created a documentary called “Eat White Dirt,” said, “There are currently accounts of human geophagy from nearly every country in the world. I think the practice has survived because it is much more pervasive than we may realize. It has survived in the American South because it’s a generational practice. Most people I spoke with said they eat dirt because that’s what their mother did.”
Gibbs and I are interested in learning more. Our question: did a large community of Clay Eaters exist in Marion County?
Anyone who wishes to add input can remain anonymous. E-mail me at email@example.com or give me a call at 205-921-3104.
See complete story in the Journal Record.