Common section

Witches

Native Americans, Africans, and Europeans shared the same fundamental conception of witches. Motivated by the disruptive forces of spite and envy, they were troublemakers, the spreaders of sickness, sowers of discord. Their malicious activities explained otherwise inexplicable misfortunes, the reason why bad things happened at certain times to certain people in certain places. In short, witches made sense of a chaotic world. That said, this chapter will also highlight some of the significant differences too, mostly with regard to how witches were thought to go about their work, the sources of their power, and conceptions of their spiritual essence. We also need to recognize that many different regional beliefs and legends about witches existed in Europe, amongst the different Native-American tribes, and the various ethnic groups of West Africa. How these influenced each other is a fascinating part of the story of witchcraft in America, but one that is obviously difficult to map. The pathways of influence and exchange of beliefs are usually imperceptible, but the clues are there if not always the answers.1

The witch of legend and folklore is at times a somewhat different creature from the witch of the everyday disputes that make up the bulk of this book. Folk beliefs tell of witch status being an accident of birth, such as the Italian American notion that any woman bom at midnight on Christmas Eve became a witch or strega. Legends relate how people sought and achieved witch-hood through ritual and rite. In the Ozarks it was thought that this could be done by shooting at the moon with a silver bullet.2 The idea that people became witches by making a pact with the Devil was at the core of the Christian theological conception of the diabolic witch. But look closely at the witch trial records, at the complaints that the common people lodged against accused witches, and the Devil is usually absent. The victims of witchcraft saw their misfortune primarily in terms of the witch and not the actions of the Satanic puppet master who so concerned the authorities. Likewise the ‘reverse witch trial’ material of the American post-colonial era rarely contains references to the Devil.

The notion of the diabolic pact was stronger in folklore and legend. One of the more common stories about achieving witch-hood through Satanic patronage describes how the want-to-be witch went up a nearby mountain before sunrise. As the sun began to appear he or she uttered insults and curses at God, praised the Devil, held up a white handkerchief, fired a silver bullet through it and watched the blood drip.3 The notion that witchcraft could be learned from evil ‘Black Art’ books was also fairly widespread in legends. But the witch was not alone in seeking out the Evil One. The male desire to obtain power and wealth—or musical genius, as in the famous legend regarding the bluesman Robert Johnson—from the Devil was equally represented in folklore.

Christianity was the major European influence on Native and African-American notions and legends of witchcraft, with its concept of the Devil, Biblical support for the existence of witches, the intercessionary power of the saints, and the magical potency of the Bible. A more subtle European Christian influence has also been traced with regard to the gender of the witch figure. Around 78 per cent of those accused of witchcraft in colonial New England were women, a figure that mirrors the general statistics for Europe at the time. A sample of 142 cases of assault, slander, murder, and abuse concerning European Americans from the 1780s to the 1950s reveals that 85 per cent of those accused of witchcraft were women, with little variation over time.4 There were theological reasons for this gender bias. Women were thought to be made in the image of Eve and inherited her vulnerability to temptation. The Devil knew this well and sought to recruit them to his army, seducing them with his physical charms, flattering their vanity, enticing them with the prospect of power over the stronger in society. Christian conceptions of feminine weakness alone, though, do not explain the preponderance of women amongst those accused of witchcraft. As we shall see shortly, women’s social and economic position in society made them vulnerable to accusations. Considering that much witchcraft was associated with the home, children, and dairying, all areas of female responsibility, it is no surprise that many accusations were made by women against other women.

The notion of female weakness and women’s moral corruptibility was amplified in European views regarding Native-American women. The eighteenth- century Moravian minister David Zeisberger commented, for instance, how Delaware Indian women were ‘much given to lying and gossiping. They carry evil report from house to house’.5 It has been argued that witchcraft amongst the Seneca became more feminized during the late eighteenth century, in part due to the influence of Quaker and Moravian teachings on women’s subservient domestic role in the godly household. This found expression in the preaching of Handsome Lake who attempted to instate a more strict patriarchal division of responsibilities and domestic behaviour, and presented a more demonized view of female sin. No wonder, perhaps, that the Seneca in the period persecuted females as witches much more than men. Otherwise medicine men were frequently the target of accusations when they were thought to be suspiciously helpless in the face of epidemics, crop failure, and drought.6

The gender bias in African-American accusations is less obvious. A sample of cases arising from harmful magic amongst African Americans shows that just under half of those accused were men. It is clear that this is largely due to witchcraft’s location within the conjure tradition rather than as a separate category of malicious magic. While it was certainly not unknown for cunning-folk and fortune tellers to be accused of witchcraft in European-American communities, the conjure doctors and their ilk, many of whom were women, were deemed as likely to inflict harm upon you as cure you.7 They were as much the source of misfortune as good fortune, not necessarily because they were inherently evil, but because they serviced the enmities and malign impulses of the general public, providing the magical means for others to commit vengeance and manifest spite. That is not to say that the female witch figure as understood in European culture was absent from African-American belief. The supernatural witch figure, who we shall encounter later, was inherently feminine, and stereotyping in terms of age and gender were in play in all cultures.

Three sorts of witch

Folk belief and legend shaped fantasies and hallucinations about the marvellous things that witches were capable of doing, which in turn nourished the development of gossip and accusations. But the origin of most reputations for witchcraft can be found in emotional, social and cultural relationships. Legends presented a world where witches created themselves, whereas the reality was generally that people bestowed witch-hood on others. Through looking at the many accusations and assaults made against identifiable people over the last two centuries and more, three main types of witch emerge.

First up there was the outsider witch, someone who accrued a reputation because of their social position, where they lived, how they lived, and what they looked like. The archetypal example, and one which we find over and over again in the era of the witch trials, is the elderly widow or spinster who called upon the charity of neighbours to survive. Age, gender, and marginality marked her out. Writing in 1824 the clergymen and historian Joseph Dodderidge, who lived at various times in Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Ohio, recalled, ‘I have known several poor old women much surprised at being refused requests which had usually been granted without hesitation, and almost heart broken when informed of the cause of the refusal’.8 The cause was witchcraft. The scenario of the begging witch was a familiar old narrative in reportage and story-telling, and the psychological origin of witchcraft accusations bom of charity denied was discussed as far back as four centuries ago.9 The beggar woman muttered words of anger at being refused, and when misfortune next struck the suspicions of the unforthcoming household focused on the unwelcome visitor. Even if the woman went off without a murmur, the guilt of the uncharitable was projected on to her and manifested in hostility and suspicion. The role of ostension is significant here. This is when people carry out activities that have been learned from legends, or they respond to situations influenced by folkloric stereotypes. In other words, narratives become facts or ‘maps for action’.10 So if it was known from stories and legends that witches went begging and cursed you if they were refused, then when the begging scenario played out in reality, the associated set of beliefs, suspicions and responses kicked in.

The turning of Margaret ‘Mag’ Gilmore, of Vincennes, Indiana, into a feared witch followed a similar trajectory. While begging was not behind the build-up of tension that led to open accusations, the uttering of threats by an elderly woman in a marginal social position was interpreted as witchcraft by her neighbours. Mag had been married three times, and had family in Monroe and Owen counties. She had arrived in Vincennes around 1906, a single, independent middle-aged woman. She moved into a one-room shack in the suburb of Oklahoma, named as such in 1893 because land lots had been offered in the manner of the Oklahoma land run of 1889.11 Mag made a living from her chickens and selling home-grown vegetables at the city market. At some point she adopted a little girl named Bertha Lee Anderson. Mag was apparently more educated and of a higher social level than her neighbours. All in all, she did not fit in well with the poor families around her. Rumours began to circulate that she had not slept in fourteen years, that she spent night after night hammering mysteriously on the floor of her home. Then there were the accounts of her coming to the front door and calling in a ghostly voice. When she came out to sweep her porch with a broom the local children fled in terror. All that was required was for an unfortunate coincidence to generate outright accusations, which, as was related in the previous chapter, duly happened in July 1907 when John Paris’s son died after she allegedly threatened his death.12

As Gilmore’s case suggests, children played a significant role in the development of the outsider witch. Many readers of this book can probably remember as children fixing upon one or two elderly or eccentric people in their communities who they believed were at least uncanny and witch-like if not considered as witches. They became the focus of childhood pestering, which sometimes descended to more malign levels of harassment. An elderly German woman named Christina Meyer, who lived at a boarding house at 45 Peete Street, Cincinnati, was one such victim of childish persecution in 1878. The area was a heartland of the German immigrant community in the city, so she certainly did not stand out because of her background. She did arouse curiosity, however, for regularly sitting on the floor of her room at night with a candle between her feet reading an old book. Her window gave on to the street so she was something of a public spectacle. One suspects she was browsing her Bible or some German religious text, but the local children imagined the solitary old woman was reading up on her charms and spells. Meyer was pestered by children peering at her through the window and by the protective crosses they drew on her door and the threshold. Two girls named Clara and Lena Roher were particularly troublesome. The Roher parents were also German immigrants, and the family lived in the same house as Meyer. A newspaper report on the case suggested the girls were nineteen and seventeen respectively, which would, perhaps, give a different complexion to the situation, but the census shows they were only sixteen and thirteen at the time. Meyer was so disturbed by the accusations and activities that she prosecuted the two girls. Brought before the local court, Squire Schwab lectured the girls on their foolish beliefs and persecution of Meyer and ordered bonds of $100 to ensure their good behaviour. This no doubt caused some disruption to relations in the street and we find that two years later Meyer was no longer living in Peete Street and the Rohers had moved around the comer to Mulberry Street.13

On occasion the outsider witch was a religious intrader. Obvious examples are the cases where Native-American communities accused missionaries of witchcraft. In 1839 the Reverend Edmund Franklin Ely, who was stationed at the Ojibwa village of Fond du Lac, Minnesota, found himself accused of being a witch after one of his cows charged at and wounded a young native named Makwawaian, with whom relations were already strained. Ely was not considered to be a witch because he was foreign as such—the Ojibwa had dealt with traders for years—but because he denounced their religion, and refused to engage in customary communal behaviour as a result. He lived outside their social conventions, and yet his own religion was seen as giving him spiritual powers to cause harm.14

Strange medical practices could also attract suspicion when practised by an incomer, as a poor New York seamstress named Meta Immerman found to her cost. Meta suffered from failing eyesight and in 1911 decided to visit Allentown, Pennsylvania, to take the Kneipp cure, finding lodgings with the family of George Kipp, a butcher living at 207 South Thirteenth Street. Kneipp treatment was named after the Bavarian priest Sebastian Kneipp who advocated a system of healing combining herbalism, a diet of grains, vegetables and fruit, exercise, cold water treatment or hydrotherapy, and spiritual purity. It came into vogue in America during the 1890s and the movement still has a significant following in Germany today. As part of her treatment Meta engaged in activities that her new neighbours found most peculiar. She walked barefoot in the dewy grass early in the morning and late at night, and followed a diet consisting solely of nuts and raw eggs. When one of the other lodgers, a young man named John Sobers, fell ill with stomach pains, witchcraft was suspected. The Kipps and the Sobers began to interpret Meta’s every actions as confirmation of her witchery. George said he passed her door one night and her eyes burned like a cat’s. The small electric flashlight she used to help her see at night was re-imagined as fire flashes emanating from her fingers. Rumours spread beyond No. 207. When Kipp’s young daughter Winnie also fell ill they decided to take action. While Meta was out they put her bags on the porch and locked the door. When she banged on the door to get her key, the Kipps called the police on the basis that she had not paid rent. As she was led through the streets a crowd gathered shouting Witch!’, and boys pelted her with stones. Meta spent forty-eight hours in jail before being released, and she returned in haste to New York.15

Ethnicity could also play its part, particularly with regard to gypsies who had always been considered outsiders and who often settled on the physical outskirts of communities. European states had transported Romani gypsies to the American colonies as undesirable vagrants back in the seventeenth century, and they began to arrive of their own accord in significant numbers from Britain and central and south-eastern Europe during the second half of nineteenth century, although it is impossible to fix on an exact figure. They operated as they had done in Europe, working in the horse trade, copper-smithing, and fortune-telling.16 It was an elderly German gypsy named Elizabeth Fullerman who became the focus of witchcraft stories in New Orleans in 1855. She lived in a hut on the outskirts of the city, near the Union Race Course which had begun operating three years earlier. The horse races were a natural meeting point for the Romani, and Fuller- man made a meagre living as a fortune teller amongst the crowds that attended the races. Rumours of her malign powers circulated around the Gentilly Road, and a kerfuffle ensued when a young Swiss woman, Elizabeth Hinney, who lived nearby, began to suffer from convulsions and shaking. Some suspected she suffered from the symptoms of malaria or St Vitus’s Dance—a condition more recently equated with the rheumatic fever or autoimmune response known as Sydenham’s chorea—but which others considered witchcraft.17 Crowds gathered daily at the Hinney home, and rumours about Fullerman abounded. The police decided to arrest Fullerman for disturbing the peace, which seems grossly unfair, but perhaps they had her safety in mind. A mixed-race crowd, apparently numbering up to five hundred, gathered around the police office to see the witch.18

Racial suspicion as well as gender and lifestyle led to the perfect storm of witchcraft accusations that whirled around sixty-year-old Irene Ray of Rochester, Indiana. Around 1932, Irene, who was part Miami Indian, her second husband Charles, their daughter Iloe, and her husband Stanley Carter, and the family cat Fuzzy, moved into an abandoned shack just outside Rochester. They had previously been living in Plymouth, a town some twenty miles to the north, where Charles had worked as a foreman on the Nickle Plate railroad. The family applied for state relief and received a large but shabby house to live in on Audubon Avenue. Charles got employment from the Works Progress Administration, which had been created as part of Roosevelt’s New Deal. As they were strangers and therefore not strictly a charge on local taxpayers, the generosity of the Rochester authorities seemed rather curious as well as unfair to some locals. Irene’s boast of being descended from an Indian witch doctor, along with her powerful beady eyes, evident from photographs of her, further fuelled the stories that started to develop. The local children teased her, adults made unflattering comments, and rumours of her witchery began to circulate. As Stanley Carter told a journalist, ‘It’s a lot of hooey. They didn’t like the way we lived and just trumped up all those yams. But I’d better not say much because Iloe and I are trying to live here’.

There is no doubt that some of those who accrued outsider witch status decided to turn it to their advantage as a means of leveraging charity, or deflecting petty conflicts with neighbours: witchcraft was power, but those who exploited it had to be very careful not to actually state that, yes, they were witches. Their powers had to be insinuated and implied, not explicitly confirmed. So it was that Irene played upon the reputation that had been bestowed upon her, in the process confirming the initial unfounded rumours. Mr Friday Castle, a plumber’s assistant, related that Irene used to make a shortcut across his garden, in which he had planted potatoes. This understandably annoyed him and so he confronted her one day. ‘That old witch ran her eyes back and forth over the patch until they had covered every inch of it’, recalled Castle. ‘Then she looked at me, and said: “It won’t make a bit of difference now whether anybody walks on it or not”’. When, in 1937, Chief of Police Lewis Clay Sheets supervised the removal of Irene’s grandchild after complaints of the moral state of the Ray-Carter household, she screamed at him, ‘You are just a tool of that Knight woman and you will be sorry, too!’ He died a few days later of a heart attack.19 It was Mrs Knight who voiced the accusations of witchcraft against Irene, and requested the authorities take action against her for being a witch. The new Police Chief Paul Whitcomb attracted considerable criticism when he chose to arrest Irene on vagrancy charges while investigating the accusations. She said later, ‘I am not a witch, never said I was and never did any of the things they say I did’, but she added, ‘just the same anything that happened to anybody serves ‘em right’.20

The possessors of the evil eye sometimes fit the outsider witch category. The term ‘evil eye’ was and is much bandied about in discussions of witchcraft, and in the nineteenth and twentieth century the American press used it liberally in reports of witchcraft disputes. But while the idea that witches could cast a spell through sight was widespread in different cultures, and was encapsulated in such English terms as ‘forelooked’ or ‘overlooked’, the evil eye as a concept is best understood as a distinct tradition found in Mediterranean cultures. Known as the mal ojo in Spanish and malocchio in Italian, the young and the old were considered most vulnerable to its power, with most accusations concerning the illness of infants. A folklore survey of belief in the evil eye conducted in New York in the 1940s found it alive and well, mostly among the Italian and Jewish populations. Other sources show it was also widespread in Mexican-American communities in the south, and amongst the scattered Syrian-Lebanese communities that settled across America in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.21

All witches were thought able to bewitch by sight, but not all possessors of the evil eye were bad people: some were involuntary witches bom with eyes or eyebrows that marked them out. For some Italians, a particularly heavy ‘monobrow’ was a sign, for instance. Unusually coloured or particularly piercing eyes were other indicators. Having an ‘electric’ gaze was a common description in twentieth-century cases. Most obvious of all was the possession of a squint. This was revealed in a 1929 divorce case. Giuseppina Porcello, who had a squint or cast in one eye, appealed to the New York Supreme Court for a separation against her husband. Justice Philip J. McCook presided. Giuseppina’s husband Giuseppe Porcello had emigrated from Sicily nine years earlier, and the couple were married in December 1928. Conjugal bliss did not ensue. Only four days after the wedding he accused her of having cast an evil eye over him, thereby coercing him into marriage. Giuseppina told Justice McCook, ‘My husband was continually pointing his finger at me as a person who had an evil eye that cast a spell over him. He said that unless he was freed from the evil influence he would die and I would be to blame’. Her ‘evil eye penetrated to his very bones’, he said. He made her go to several cunning women in Brooklyn, including a woman named Hipolito whose reputation had been considerable back in Palermo, in order to counteract her malign eye. It was best for all concerned that Giuseppina was granted her separation.22

In 1901 a German named Carrie Merklem or Merckle lodged a complaint at the Southern Police Station, Baltimore, against Greek neighbours. Carrie was a washerwoman in a tenement block. One day she picked up the four-month-old child of the Greek family. Several hours later it fell ill and the Greeks believed Carrie had cast an evil eye on it. They demanded that she spit in the child’s face, a common act of counter magic in evil eye cases, which she duly did to avoid further confrontation. Carrie told the police that she would have to leave her job because the Greeks had convinced her neighbours she had an evil eye.23 As this case suggests, while different racial and linguistic communities shared the same belief in the malign influence of a witch’s eye, there was a degree of ethnic bias in terms of who was thought to possess it. There is a sense that the holder of the evil eye was a malign tool of outsider influence. As the following case indicates, this could work both ways in that the evil eye could be seen as a speciality of those of Mediterranean stock.

Johanna McKinley and her family lived in Florham Park, Morris County, New Jersey, where her husband was a teamster. As the census shows, all her neighbours were of Irish descent apart from an Italian couple, Francesco Sena and his wife. They all worked on the Florham Estate and stud, built up in the 1890s by the heiress Florence Vanderbilt and her financier husband, Hamilton McKown Twombly. In 1907 McKinley complained to the Morris County Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals that an Italian neighbour was ‘exercising an evil eye’ over her cow and pig. McKinley had written down an itemized list of grievances against ‘No. 3’, as she called the Italian. She accused him of stealing celery and poisoning her dogs and chickens, but most serious of all he had cast an evil eye on her pig so that it became a skeleton, and on her cow so that it dried up. Agent Van Dyke was sent to investigate but said he could do nothing unless the Italian was caught in the act, which McKinley said was impossible.24

The conflict witch was the product of long-term personal feuds and unresolved tensions, usually within families or between neighbours. This meant that men figure more frequently as conflict witches, although the old stereotypical attributes of the female outsider came into play as well. Relationship disputes built up from envy, jealousy, incompatible personalities, inheritance disputes, sexual passions, and financial frustrations. The accusation of witchcraft acted as a pressure valve, but the results could be devastating for individuals, families, and communities. So it was that in 1796 pent-up suspicions and accusations within three related families exploded in terrible violence in the coastal town of Arundel, York County, Maine (then part of Massachusetts). Arundel was not some rural backwater recently settled by European emigrants. It was a prosperous town, its nineteen-hundred or so inhabitants benefiting from the shipbuilding and fishing industries of Kennebunkport. In the 1730s and 1740s three families, the Smiths, Cleaves, and Hiltons, had firmly rooted themselves in the community and were prominent enough to have brief biographies in a history of Arundel published in 1837.25

The events of 1796 centred on Elizabeth Hilton, daughter of Abraham Hilton and his wife Dorothy Lindsey. Elizabeth married Daniel Smith, son of Captain Daniel Smith and Hannah Harding. By 1796 Elizabeth had become a widow. It is likely she is the ‘Widow Smith’ recorded in the 1790 Census. It would seem though, that she could not count on any support from her relatives in her solitary old age, for she was thought to have bewitched a neighbour and relative named John Hilton.

In October 1796 John was returning home one evening, just before dark, when Elizabeth Smith appeared before him, walking some six yards distant. He held an ox goad in his hand and it now began to move of its own accord, as if it was trying to slip free. Quickly putting two-and-two together he thought such trickery must be the work of Elizabeth’s witchcraft. This was confirmed when he went to strike her with the goad, only for the goad, controlled by some supernatural force, to turn upon himself, beating him violently on his own back. John now declared publicly that Smith was a witch, and sought to find a cure for the spell she had cast upon him. In this he was aided by two of his nieces, Sarah and Molly Hilton, and also Dolly and Elizabeth Smith—the latter was the late Daniel Smith’s sister, and so Widow Smith’s sister-in-law. They had boiled some ofjohn’s urine, a widely used method of dealing with witches. Widow Smith had even consented to be scratched by Hilton to draw blood and so break her supposed power over him. But nothing seemed to end John’s mental torment. The Smith and Hilton women began to make death threats against the widow, saying she should have been in Hell with the damned a long time ago. They apparently urged on John to carry out the task, and on 15 October he ran to Widow Smith’s house, beat her, drove her out of her house, and began to throttle her. The Smith and Hilton women joined in, crying out ‘kill her uncle John’. Fortunately for all involved she did not die.

The following month, Sarah and Molly Hilton, and Dolly and Elizabeth Smith, were tried for assault and battery at the General Sessions of the Peace for the County of York held at Biddeford, and presided over by Judge Wells. It is unclear why John Hilton was not prosecuted, though it could have been due to presumed insanity. Eaton Cleaves was the key witness for the defence. His father, a blacksmith named Robert Cleaves, had come to Arundel around 1740, and the family gave their name to the nearby Cleaves Cove, now a desirable seafront property location. Eaton married Miriam Smith, sister of Daniel Smith, and so was related to Widow Smith by marriage. Eaton testified in court that until the evening with the ox goad, John Hilton had been of sound mind, and that he had been firm and consistent in has accusations against Widow Smith. The four female defendants were fined $100 each, bound over to keep the peace, and ordered to appear at the next session of the court for a ruling on their subsequent behaviour.26

The origin of the antagonism against Widow Smith is now lost to us, but a case a century later reveals one possible cause—the tensions between a young mother and her mother-in-law. The notion that post-menopausal women envied the fertility of younger women and vented it by magically harming infants was a significant theme in the early-modern witch trials, and is evident in numerous disputes in the modem era.27 The much-employed comedy stereotype of the jealous mother-in-law, which reflects a venerable truth, can be interpreted in similar deep-rooted psychological terms. In July 1898 Mrs Rose Downey, a careworn, widowed Irish woman, fifty-three-years old, visited the St Louis coroner’s office to report to the deputy coroner that her daughter-in-law accused her of bewitching to death her three-month-old grandson. Her daughter-in-law, Mary E. Downey had arrived from Ireland three years earlier to visit relatives. She claimed to be the sister of William O’Brien, the Irish Nationalist politician, member of parliament and newspaper publisher. She met and married Rose’s son Bernard, a foundry worker, in 1897, and their first child was bom the following year. The infant in question was their second. Mary would go on to lose nine other children over the years, but the first losses obviously hurt terribly. Someone was to blame, and the person with whom she got on least well was her mother-in-law. As she explained to a journalist:

My mother-in-law is actuated by spite. She has been prejudiced against me ever since I married her son and has tried to separate us, because he was her main support before our marriage. At the time she tried to throw obstacles in our way and even claimed that we were not legally married.

She has caused trouble ever since then. Before my first child was born she wished that it would have a dog’s head. The child was perfectly developed, but did not live. Then again, she wished me trouble when my second child was bom. An aunt of Mr Downey’s died about two weeks ago and I was told by Mrs Dougherty, a woman who attended the funeral, that my mother-in-law wished over the corpse that my baby would follow her to Calvary Cemetery. Now she hopes that I will follow the child in two weeks’ time.28

In the romantic fantasy film I Married a Witch (1942), the time-travelling Salem sorceress played by Veronica Lake murmurs, ‘Love is stronger than witchcraft’. But in reality it was usually the other way around. The film is yet to be made, but any studio interested in a film entitled ‘I Divorced a Witch’ might take a look at the probate court suit filed by a St Louis printer named Hugo Lambey in 1899. The son of Prussian immigrants, the twenty-eight-year-old Hugo petitioned that his wife Anna’s belief in witchcraft and preoccupation with charms and magical rituals tended ‘to turn plaintiff into ridicule and contempt among his neighbours and friends’. He accused her of putting a witch’s love potion in his coffee. It patently failed, causing him a gastric upset instead. Over and above the annoying accusations of witchcraft she made against neighbours, there was also her habit of boiling certain ingredients in a pot at night which she stirred with a feather. Lambey’s divorce was evidently granted for we find him newly married the following year.29 A couple of years later, the boot was on the other foot when Eliza Norris of Worthington, Ohio, brought a divorce suit against her husband Amos before the probate court after thirty-five years of marriage. For two hours in the witness stand Eliza related how her husband, a farmer, practised experimental witchery upon her, aided by a book of witchcraft in his possession. He would seek out and swallow four-leaved clovers to enhance his powers, and to make her fall sick would put seven one dollar bills in his shirt pocket, place his right hand over it, and then touch her with his left elbow.30

And so to our final category of witch, the accidental witch. Many accusations arose not because the accused fitted stereotypes or were in dispute with their alleged victims; it was because people appeared in the wrong place at the wrong time—including in dreams and nightmares, or did or said something completely innocently but which subsequent misfortune rendered suspicious with hindsight. Admiring glances and words at the sight of a beautiful baby were behind many accusations of mal ojo. Elderly women who kissed babies were hostages to fortune. In 1903 a Chicago court heard how Frank Galenski and his wife, who kept a grocery shop, became convinced that an elderly customer, Francesca Krejewski, was a witch when one of her children fell ill after having been kissed by Krejewski while she was in their shop. A doctor diagnosed the child had blood poisoning.31 Other acts of kindness by strangers could easily be interpreted sinisterly. As a butcher’s wife named Mrs Malinda Balthazar, of 82 Elm Street, Reading, PA, explained to a journalist in 1883, ‘None of the family are allowed to accept any gifts, and everything that comes into the family must be paid for’. She told of a countrywoman she knew well who called to offer her some luscious looking pears. ‘I told her that we could not accept them as a gift. Before she left I bought the pears by paying her a cent’.32 Close friendship was no immunity to accusations either if coincidence struck. In 1903 a court in Newark, New Jersey, heard Mary Guth accuse her friend Anna Lesnik, of 28 Albert Avenue, of having witched her by the means of a cup of tea. ‘Ever since I drank that tea I have felt queer’, asserted Guth. ‘When I go out in the street everything seems to be turned wrong’. ‘Mary Guth talks nonsense’, countered Lesnik, ‘I gave her just a cup of plain, ordinary tea, such as people drink every day’.33

Magical practitioners played a major role in the creation of accidental witches through prescribing rituals that relied in drawing the guilty to the victim’s house, but which in actuality often led to visiting neighbours and other passers-by being fingered and left bewildered. In his autobiography, the spiritualist Andrew Jackson Davis (1826-1910) described a typical example of this that shaped his childhood. One time the family cow dried up while their neighbour’s ones pastured in the same meadow continued to produce. Family and friends offered up a range of natural explanations for this conundrum. His mother had other ideas: ‘Her confidence in the supernatural, as I have heretofore said, had never been impaired or disturbed. Superstition seemed an inevitable concomitant of her genuine spiritual experiences’. Witchcraft was suspected and a ‘witch master’ was called in who advised boiling some of the cow’s urine in an iron pot containing nine needles. This would draw the witch responsible to their door he said. The family duly undertook the ritual, during which an elderly neighbour came calling for a teaspoon of salt. They did not think anything of it, but when the witch master called the next day and asked if anyone had come a-knocking, Davis’s mother mentioned the old neighbour: why, he announced, the old woman was the witch! To her credit she did not believe so, and she ended up feeling embarrassed by the whole affair, about which the family kept very quiet.34

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!