Corn bread palate

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[Warning:  graphic content.  If you are squeamish about detailed descriptions of wounded, putrefying human flesh, and excruciating medical treatment without anesthesia, it would be best to avoid reading the ending portion of this post.]

I met a retired teacher here in Gothenburg, Nebraska.  His name is Sydney Kite and he is 81 years old.  I asked him how he got such an unusual surname, and he told me a long story about that, which I shall reduce to a few sentences.

Syd's ancestors were originally English, but to escape religious persecution for their heretical beliefs at the hands of Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658), they fled England and went to the area of Germany that we now refer to as Alsace-Lorraine.  There, they underwent thorough Germanization.

Subsequently, by the latter part of the 18th century, they moved to the United States,  At the time, they spelled their surname Windlekeit, but the immigration authorities shortened that to "Kite".  Syd's son Bryan studied in the Lauder Institute of the Wharton School at UPenn in the early 90s, so I was aware of that surname.  The Lauder Institute puts heavy emphasis on excellent language skills, and Bryan was advanced in Spanish, French, and Portuguese.

The Windlekeits, still calling themselves by that name, settled in eastern Tennessee in the area around Johnson City.  I was gratified to find that surname with that exact spelling in this list of the "Families of Hawkins County Tennessee 1786-1994".  Later they moved to Texas where, as is well known, there were many German-speaking towns established by settlers in the mid-19th century.  In some of these towns and cities, such as Fredericksburg, German language influence is still strong.

By the time he moved to Gothenburg, Syd was completely Americanized, and — after receiving an education degree at Kearney College — he taught in Nevada schools.  I was fortunate to meet him in the Gothenburg Historical Museum, where in his retirement he was serving as a volunteer.  We had a long, leisurely talk about all sorts of things, but especially about language and communication after he found out that I was a professor of Chinese at Penn.

Speaking about how important language is for a person, Syd told me the harrowing, yet inspiring, story of his great great great great uncle, who was wounded on the battlefield in the Civil War.  Those were hellish times for America, with deep animosity and division in that part of the country.   Some people were Confederates, some supported the Union, right in the same town, even within the same family.

Syd's great great great great uncle was shot in the mouth, the musket ball destroying his palate.  He lay dying for three days when two women who were scavenging the bodies noticed that he was alive.  They cleaned out the wound with twigs and rags, removing the maggots that were crawling in it, then poured coal oil onto the lacerated flesh.  

Not knowing what coil oil was, I could scarcely believe what Syd was saying, so I queried him twice on what coal oil means.  After the second time, he said, "Like kerosine".  Here are its medicinal uses:

Coal oil was once used as an internal and topical home remedy as a general cure-all for many ailments, including coughs, flu, cuts, abrasions, and wounds. Internal applications were administered by adding the toxic petroleum product to sugar cubes, molasses, honey or some other substance to mask the taste, while topical applications were applied by adding it to bandages or by pouring the coal oil directly on the affected area.


Syd's gggg uncle lived to his 90s.  But, to be able to speak, every morning he had to stuff corn bread into the hole where the intact palate had been.  Mixed to the right consistency, it would have acted as a sort of dental putty.

Naturally, I was incredulous about all of this, but Syd struck me as an honest man, plus all of the specific, arcane minutiae he repeated lent credence to his account.  So does this forum about the most painful wounds received during the Civil War.  It consists of three pages of heart-wrenching accounts of men who were grievously wounded and survived, including those who had their jaws and, in some cases, tongue shot off, complete with photographs.

Also listening in to Syd's account was Bryan Brede, his 87-year-old long-term teacher colleague, who didn't bat an eye during the whole description.  He must have hear it before.


Selected readings


  1. Gene Hill said,

    June 15, 2024 @ 6:55 pm

    They cleaned out the wound with twigs and rags, removing the maggots that were crawling in it, then poured coal oil onto the lacerated flesh. When I was a child in the Choctaw nation, we ran barefoot all summer long and as soon as somebody stepped on a rusty piece of metal or treated a hornets nest to a free lunch, out came the coal oil. We called it Oklahoma Penicillin. It did tend to act as an antiseptic. I don't recall ever taking it internally, there was always whiskey for that purpose. I recall that it always came in one gallon cans, and every ranch and farm house always had several cans on hand.

  2. Ryan said,

    June 15, 2024 @ 10:30 pm

    I’m more skeptical of the idea that “immigration authorities” shortened the name in the late 1700s.

  3. bks said,

    June 16, 2024 @ 6:54 am

    Article in the British Medical Journal from 1869 about coal oil:

    I would not have found "Kite" to be unusual as it appeared in a Beatles' song:!

  4. bks said,

    June 16, 2024 @ 7:00 am

    Cf. Vaseline

  5. Richard Hershberger said,

    June 16, 2024 @ 8:30 am

    @Ryan: Yup. That jumped out at me as obviously bogus. I wondered if "1800s" was what was meant, but that doesn't fit the rest of the narrative. There are any number of ways a name might end up anglicized, but the Ellis Island phenomenon is the one that caught the public imagination.

  6. David Marjanović said,

    June 16, 2024 @ 10:09 am

    I’m more skeptical of the idea that “immigration authorities” shortened the name in the late 1700s.

    Me too, especially given that the next paragraph says the family was "still calling themselves by that name" after settling in Tennessee.

    I should point out that Windel means "diaper" – though it's not something to make abstract nouns from…

  7. C Baker said,

    June 16, 2024 @ 11:09 pm

    The Ellis Island name change is by and large a myth. Not only did Ellis Island hire people who spoke the incoming languages natively, but even if they hadn't those people had no power to change people's names and they didn't keep the sort of records people imagine anyway. (And if they had, nobody was crosschecking them anywhere.)

    People sometimes change their own names to be "more American", and back in the day common law name changes were more common, but the idea that some outside authority changed it for them when they arrived in this country is just a story.

  8. maidhc said,

    June 16, 2024 @ 11:53 pm

    A friend of mine had a recipe for a patent medicine that had once been peddled by his grandfather, Among the ingredients (including laudanum) was coal oil. And this was for internal consumption.

    I don't know what effect it would have had on the patients, but he had probably skipped town before they found out.

  9. Paul Burke said,

    June 19, 2024 @ 11:09 am

    Kite is not an uncommon surname in UK. Just as an example, there were 19 children born in the 3 month period July-September 1881, and 13 in July-September 1921.


    which those of you in UK, or with family interests there, might find very useful.

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