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“Four Thieves’ Vinegar” is an herbal preparation with a truly fascinating ancient history – and it appears to be making something of a comeback. It was once widely considered to be effective against plagues and fevers. I’ve done a ton of research to bring you a special in-depth report on Four Thieves Vinegar (and oil) – which includes recipes (including the actual formulas used in ancient times), uses and historical anecdotes.
I have uncovered irrefutable evidence that the “Four Thieves Vinegar” is not mere fable, but was an actual preparation used in ancient times! More on this below. What’s perhaps even more fascinating is that ingredients in the recipe have been found by modern science to have antimicrobial / antiviral properties in lab experiments – leading to the speculation that Four Thieves’ Vinegar may indeed have been effective against plagues and fevers. The ingredients in Four Thieves Vinegar (and oil) are thought to be antiviral, antibacterial, antiseptic and antifungal. Where did the thieves get their secret herbal knowledge from?
Thieves Oil Recipe
Four Thieves’ Vinegar – with some variations – is currently enjoying a great resurgence of interest. This may well be due to the creation by the well known D. Gary Young, founder of Young Living Essential Oils, of the popular and highly-praised Thieves Oil in 1992.
Thieves Oil (a similar concoction to the vinegar only using essential oils instead of vinegar extracts) however appears be a modern invention – as there is no mention of it whatsoever in any book (Google Books catalogue) published prior to 1980.
A modern recipe for thieves oil is as follows:
80 drops of Clove Oil (Syzgium aromaticum)
70 drops of Lemon Oil (Citrus limon)
40 drops of Cinnamon Bark (Cinnamomum verum)
30 drops of Eucalyptus Oil (Eucalyptus radiata)
20 drops of Rosemary Oil (Rosmarinus officinalis)
This will make around 15ml / 0.5 fl.oz – enough for a “standard sized” essential oil bottle.
Young’s Formulation of Thieves Oil was tested at Weber State University in Utah, and it was found that diffusion was effective against airborne pathogens.” Abstract.
The Original Recipe Of Four Thieves’ Vinegar
The earliest recorded recipe for Four Thieves Vinegar I can find comes from the Gentleman’s Magazine of 1770 (see the original text at the link!) – and reads as follows:
“THE following recipe to prevent infection deserves to be rendered as public as possible. It is called the Thieve’s Vinegar, having been made use of by some abandoned wretches, who plundered the dying and the dead in one of the great plagues abroad. This circumstance the criminals acknowledged to their confessor before their execution. The recipe will be certainly useful to Hospitals and Workhouses. The clergy may avail themselves of it in their attendance upon the sick, and perhaps the Gentlemen of the Medical Profession may not think it entirely unworthy of their regard….
“To prevent Infection.
Take of Rue, Wormwood, Sage, Lavender, Mint [presumably Peppermint?] and Rosemary, of each one handful; put these altogether with a gallon of the best vinegar into a stone pan covered over with, and let them stand within the warmth of a fire, to infuse for eight days, then strain them off, and to every quart bottle put three quarters of an ounce of Camphire [i.e. camphor]. Let the Camphire be dissolved before it is put in to bottles. Rub the temples and loins with this preparation before going out in a morning, wash the mouth, and snuff up some of it into the nostrils, and carry a piece of spunge [sic] that has been dipped in it, in order to smell to pretty often.”
A more modern recipe I have seen uses vinegar infused with the wormwood, rue, mint, sage, lavender, and rosemary for six weeks in a sealed jar without heating – and omits the camphor. This is easy to prepare – simply cut the herbs finely, pour in vinegar to cover and let sit, sealed, for 6 weeks in a cool, safe place, before straining and bottling.
This omission of camphor may be a sensible idea, here’s why: Camphor, although still available as an essential oil – is toxic when ingested and should never be taken internally. Camphor (“Camphire”) was a popular ingredient in the old pharmacopoiea, not used so much nowadays but still known for its antimicrobial properties. Its use has now been limited by the FDA owing to health concerns: According to Wikipedia: “Since alternative treatments exist, medicinal use of camphor is discouraged by the FDA, except for skin-related uses, such as medicated powders, which contain only small amounts of camphor.” It’s interesting to note also that Dried Rosemary leaves (Rosmarinus officinalis) contain up to 20% camphor – and many other essential oils contain traces of camphor.
“Acidum Aceticum Aromaticum”
Another old recipe – “Acidum Aceticum Aromaticum” is described as a variant of the old Thieves’ recipe and calls for
Rosemary tops, dried 1oz
Sage leaves, dried 1oz
Lavender flowers, dried, 1/2 oz
Cloves, bruised, 1/2 drachm.
The writer of this recipe acknowledges that other ingredients sometimes used included:
Lignum Rhodii (The root wood of Convolvulus scoparius / C. floridus, the oil of which was known as Oil of Rhodium – once a common ingredient in the pharmacy but now very obscure)
Santalum album (Sandalwood)
Foeniculi Semina (Fennel seeds)
Mentha piperita (Peppermint).
So it can be seen that the various Thieves’ recipes are ‘variations on a theme’ and in general include an array of herbs with antimicrobial qualities.
It is worth noting that the Thieves Vinegar should not be taken internally – although depending on which ingredients are used, use as a mouthwash may be possible. Please mark bottles clearly “Not for consumption” and keep them out of reach of children! Modern suggested uses are as a surface disinfectant, hair rinse, skin cleanser, insect bite / minor scrap treatment, and as a hand-sanitizer. It has also been suggested that cloves, cinnamon and / or garlic could be added to complement the other herbs.
History: Earliest Recorded Mention of Four Thieves Vinegar
The earliest recorded mention of Four Thieves Vinegar I can find (you can check it for yourself here!) comes from the Royal Society’s Volume 49 (dated 1756) of the
“Philosophical Transactions, Giving Some Account Of The Present Undertakings, Studies, and Labours Of The Ingenious, In Many Considerable Parts Of The World.”
In this volume, Monsieur Le Cat M.D. (yes that’s his real name!), a Professor of Anatomy and Chirurgery, F.R.S. and Member of the Royal Academy of Sciences at Paris, is describing remedies given for the dreadful “malignant fevers” that were epidemic in Europe in 1753-1754.
In amongst the various ghastly treatments given in those days, such as bleedings and purgatives, there appear to have been some that were benign. M. Le Cat writes:
“We prescribed ptisans [teas] of strawberry-leaves, adding some nitre; limonades, clarified whey, pure water by itself, a good many simple clysters; draughts of the distilled water of borage and bugloss, sweeten’d with syrup of lemons and water-lily.
Many did well with a simple julep of sugar and water, and a little wine.
There were some, who, when they were just sinking, were raised again by cordials of the warmest kind, such as Venice-treacle, given in large dose; and the preparation, called vinegar of the four thieves, by spoonfuls, in broth. These medicines brought out a most plentiful miliary eruption, by which they were cured.
This [vinegar of the four thieves] is an infusion of several aromatic plants in vinegar. The reason of its being called vinaigre des quatre voleurs, is this:
When the plague raged at Marseilles, four rogues broke into the houses of the sick, and carried off what they pleased, retiring to a secret place with their booty, and returned to the same business at different times, till they had amassed great riches; but at last were apprehended, and hang’d. Being ask’d, how they durst venture into the pestilential houses? they said, they preserved themselves by drinking a glass of their vinegar twice or thrice a day, sprinkling their handkerchiefs and clothes with the same, and were not afraid.”
So there you have it! Where did the thieves get their secret herbal knowledge from? Perhaps from a wise old grandmother whose traditions were handed down through the generations… The thieves’ secret probably went with them to the gallows – but their formula was enormously popular for centuries after – leading to the speculation that they might have made a much more handsome profit bottling and selling their concoction than they ever did pursuing their ghastly profession as grave robbers…
**UPDATE** Well, the plot thickens…. Since writing this article I have found another recipe for Four Thieves (“Vinaigre des Voleurs”) even older, dating from 1742! Written in French, the recipe is completely different… calling for 2 pints vinegar, 4 oz finely chopped garlic, 1 oz asafoetida, 2 oz gentian root, 1 oz Mithridate (a highly regarded antique remedy with as many as 65 ingredients, dating back to the 1st century BC and prescribed all the way up to 1786!) and a handful of “graines de genevre” (Juniper berries – thanks to the commenters who supplied this info!)