People with an abnormally strong sex drive were said to suffer from white liver. The folk medicine record contains scant information on this folk illness, because openly talking about sex was taboo in the past. The earliest and most complete description of white liver comes from Vance Randolph’s study of folk culture in the Ozarks: “When a lively, buxom, good-looking woman loses several husbands by death, it is often said that her inordinate passion has ‘killed ‘em off,’ and she is referred to as a white-livered widder.
Usually it is only a figure of speech, but there are people who actually believe that a ‘high nature’ is correlated with white spots on the liver, and that this condition has often been revealed by post-mortem examination.” A belief in North Carolina has it “that if a person married three times, his liver would automatically turn white,” but no contextual information is provided.
A recent study by the author found that the term white liver was, and to a lesser extent still is, as Randolph observed, used as a figure of speech in Southern Appalachia to jokingly or disparagingly identify someone as sexually deviant, but for some the term also referred to a genuine sexual disorder.
Informants interviewed for the study described individuals with white liver as having an abnormally powerful sexual drive that incapacitates or kills a spouse or significant other by literally draining them of their vitality through incessant coitus. A related belief conveyed by some informants was that those afflicted with white liver not only had an insatiable sexual appetite but also had bad blood and transmitted a fatal infection to others.
A social worker shared a story about his first encounter with white liver while working for the Department of Public Welfare in Wise County, VA in the late 1950s. A woman came into his office one day seeking help for her daughter, who had just recently married.
The woman said she was concerned about her daughter’s husband losing his job, adding that he had missed a lot of work because her daughter was “wearing him out.” Unsure of what she was talking about, he pressed further, and the woman told him that her daughter had the white liver. He eventually surmised that the woman was talking indirectly about her daughter having a voracious sexual appetite. Flummoxed about what to do, he sheepishly recommended cold shower therapy and consultation with a physician.
Attributing the death of a man to an oversexed wife raises several questions about sexual mores in the past. Were women labeled ill by others because they openly admitted to enjoying sex with their husbands during a time when sex was not to be enjoyed? Were these women, and perhaps women in general, viewed as sexual predators, either by men or by other women?
source: Folk Medicine in Southern Appalachia, by Anthony P. Cavender, UNC Press, 2003