And God wrought special miracles by the hands of Paul: So that from his body were brought unto the sick handkerchiefs or aprons, and the diseases departed from them, and the evil spirits went out of them. (Acts 19:11-12)
Early Mormons were consciously biblical in their world-view. Healing rituals in particular followed the precedents explicitly exemplified in the Bible. Perhaps not surprisingly, though rare compared to other forms of ritual healing, the Twelve and then Joseph Smith passed along handkerchiefs which they had blessed to the sick to heal them. Stories of such activities still remain in popular thought; the New Testament Seminary manual recounts the famous healings at Montrose in which Joseph gave Wilford Woodruff one such handkerchief that remained “a league between” the men. 
Some have pointed to healing handkerchiefs as a manifestation of the culture of magic that ostensibly saturated the world of early Mormonism. While I think that magic is a useful framework to understand several aspects our history, early Mormons do not appear to have used healing handkerchiefs as a reflection of Catholic healing relics, royal cramp rings or gifts associated with “the king’s touch.” Instead the use of these bits of clothe appear to be a conscious recapitulation of New Testament example. In discussing this dynamic in our forthcoming paper, Kris and I include the following in a footnote:
If you are not familiar with the healing canes mentioned in this note, after Latter-day Saints hauled the corpses of the Prophet and Patriarch from Carthage, they hewed canes from the oaken coffins, which apparently had miraculous properties. As Heber C. Kimball aspired in the aforecited discourse: “the day will come when there will be multitudes who will be healed and blessed through the instrumentality of those canes[.]”
…The use of healing by coffin canes and the cherished handkerchiefs kept by Mormons from the Nauvoo era do [however] appear by the Utah era to have taken on a character very similar to Catholic relics. Heber C. Kimball, March 15, 1857, Journal of Discourses, 4:294. For an introduction to the healing canes fashioned from Joseph and Hyrum Smith’s coffins, see Steven G. Barnett, “Canes of the Restoration,” in James B. Allen, ed., “The Historian’s Corner,” BYU Studies 21, no. 2 (1981): 205–11. Such cases are rare; we have found only one individual who healed by using a cane besides those practitioners described in Barnett’s article, namely, John Albiston, Letter, April 30, 1848, Ashton-under-Lyne, England, Millennial Star 10 (May 15, 1848): 158.
Unfortunately, the next issue of JMH should soon be mailed and it is far too late to add unto the text. I recently read a diary entry that would have been a helpful addition. In Winter Quarters before the Vanguard Company left for the great Basin in 1847, one man suffered with violent fever and vomiting. Brigham Young, Wilford Woodruff, Willard Richards and Levi Stewart came to his residence in the Tabernacle city and Young “laid on my breast a cane built from one of the branches of the Tree of Life that stood in the garden in the Temple.”  The sick man described that “this as a matter to be expected, collected my thoughts and centered them on sacred and solemn things.” Stewart and Woodruff then anointed and blessed him.
The image of the Saints cast out from their Sacred Garden, suffering in the lonely, bitter world, and yet clinging to the scraps that remained is poignant to me. Here is a key to one of the grand mysteries of Mormonism: we are all Adam and we are all Eve. And were I able, I would reach up and take for my self a bit of the Garden.
- Wilford Woodruff, Leaves from My Journal, Book 3 of THE FAITH-PROMOTING SERIES, (Salt Lake City: Juvenile Instructor Office, 1881), 75–79
- See Shaw Miracles in Enlightenment England, 64–75; Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic, 227–35. An unrelated but delicious antecedent is Oliver Cowdery’s
sprig“sprout of nature” as described in the forthcoming Joseph Smith Papers volume (I think it is sprig – I’m going from memory of the MHA presentation; someone correct me if I am mistaken)[thanks Robin].
- In previous generations the dramatic ritual known as the “Endowment” was played out in several rooms, as James Talmage described in his House of the Lord: the Creation Room, the Garden Room, the Terrestrial Room, the Telestial Room and the Celestial Room. Living plants were a regular feature of the Garden Room into the 1920s and the Salt Lake Temple had a greenhouse adjoining it for the purpose of maintaining the greenery.