Common section

Warding off witchery

Attack was a good form of defence, but better to prevent the witches from working their magic in the first place. Salt was the most culturally diffuse antidote against witchcraft, in part due to its whiteness and associated symbolic purity, and in part because of its universal value as a vital substance in preserving foodstuffs and cleansing wounds. During a Pennsylvania Dutch slander suit in 1915, the plaintiff", Mary Ann Swartz, complained that the couple who accused her of witchcraft had annoyed her by employing someone to scatter salt on the chair and bench she used in the hat factory where she worked. In May 1897, a Russian storekeeper named Isaac Simon complained to the mayor of Hagerstown, Maryland, that a fellow compatriot, Solomon Saltzman, laid salt on his doorstep and pavement every morning presumably to limit his supposed malign influence. Simon feared the charm would prevent him from conducting his business.52 Native Americans also believed in the power of salt as an antidote. A missionary writing of the Nanticoke Indians of Delaware and the Iroquois in the 1790s, observed that they believed that their poisons and witchcraft were ineffective against the Europeans because they ate so much salt in their food. The same was reported of the Choctaws. Pueblos made bundles consisting of salt from the lakes of Estancia V alley, the dried root of a plant that grew in the Jemez Mountains, and a grain of com, which were buried under the doorsteps of houses to prevent witches and evil spirits.53

Salt held the same properties for African Americans, with red pepper serving a similar purpose. In 1828 an elderly African-American woman was brought before a Baltimore magistrate charged with a breach of the peace for throwing salt around the local market and conducting other spells. It was alleged she intended to bewitch the vendors and their goods, but it is more likely she was actually trying to protect the marketplace. In any case, the prosecution was dismissed as the magistrate said he knew of no law against the throwing of salt on the town’s pavement.54 Salt is now regularly thrown over urban pavements in the winter— the impact on the incidence of witchcraft is not known. For the African diaspora in the Americas salt had an added significance in that the placing of salt on the tongue was used in the conversion of slaves in the Congo. An eighteenth-century Catholic catechism used in converting slaves included the questions:

Do you want to wash your soul with holy water?

Do you want to eat the salt of God?

Will you cast all the sins out of your soul?

Legends in the Caribbean relate how those who abstained from eating salt gained the ability to fly back to their African homeland. They were not tainted by a product explicitly associated with Europeans and Christianity, and so were liberated to develop ancestral spiritual powers that enabled them to reconnect with their African roots—roots that had been demonized by Christians.55

The power of the silver bullet has been discussed in an earlier chapter, but the metal had general anti-witch properties. African Americans wore silver dimes around their neck or more distinctively around their ankles to ward of conjure. In Illinois ‘silver tea’, made by boiling a silver coin in water for a long time, was given to bewitched livestock. The practice of depositing or nailing silver dimes to the bottoms of milk churns and buckets was widespread.56 The following amusing story demonstrates how the practice could have spin-off benefits.

In 1885 the editor of the Port Jervis Gazette, James Juniper Shier, encountered an old woman churning milk outside her log cabin whilst he was on a walking tour in the mountains of Sullivan County, New York. He was perplexed to see the woman start beating the chum with a bundle of hazel switches. On enquiring, she confided that she was attempting to beat out the witchery: ‘This h’yer chum’s bewitched, an’ has been fur better’n a month an’ I can’t make butter enough come to grease a three-inch com cake’. This method was not proving as effective as the silver quarter (worth 25 cents) she used to put in the chum for the same purpose. Someone had stolen it about a month before though. ‘I only wish I could git my quarter back’, she sighed. Shier obligingly produced a quarter that the woman dropped in the chum. She then walked backward around it three times before proceeding to chum once more. ‘Thar, sir. They’ve gone! They couldn’t stand the silver’, she exclaimed in satisfaction. Talking to an acquaintance later, Shier was told that he had fallen victim to a con trick. The old woman’s cabin was a regular stop off for hunters and walkers, and she had pulled the same routine many times, thereby half-filling a coffee pot full of quarters. For once the tables were turned with educated credulity regarding popular superstition being exploited by a cunning rustic.57

Although recorded from some parts of England, the use of silver coins in chums seems to have been stronger in Ireland and Scotland. On the Isle of Skye, cows could be cured of any ailment by giving them water that had been poured over silver money or a silver ornament.58 In Ireland, which I suspect was the main influence on the American tradition, we find cunning-folk who healed livestock using silver coins in a similar manner. An account from 1840 describes how a County Mayo cow doctor cured fairy-struck cows by making them drink a decoction of herbs in which silver three-half-pence coins had been boiled.59 The anti-witch properties of silver were known elsewhere in European folklore, further helping cement the practice amongst non-Irish European immigrant communities.60 It is intriguing, though, that prior to the nineteenth century there are few reference to silver as having anti-witchcraft properties. Beliefs regarding the power of iron were more widespread and of older tradition.61

All the peoples of America wore charms and amulets to protect against witches, evil, and misfortune more generally. Conjure bags and Native American medicine bundles served this purpose as well as being fabricated to cause harm. As Nathaniel John Lewis, mayor of Tin City, Savannah, told an interviewer, ‘cunjuh must be fought with cunjuh’.62 One ingredient of conjure bags that had a much broader role in protection was the rabbit’s foot. In sixteenth-century England it was carried as a remedy against rheumatism or cramps, and seems to have accrued anti-witch properties by the nineteenth century, although it was hardly a common charm for this purpose. It was in America that the rabbit’s foot came into its own due in large part to its incorporation into the hoodoo and conjure traditions. In 1884 the Georgia politician Charles Henry Smith, who wrote newspaper articles under the name Bill Arp, reported that the wearing of rabbit’s feet was widespread amongst African Americans of his acquaintance, but that it was only considered efficacious against witches if it was the hind foot of a rabbit shot in a graveyard during a hill moon.63 Around the same time it was observed that the rabbit’s foot was as popular amongst poor whites in the South. It was prevalent elsewhere. When a Chicago civil engineer, E.G. Nourse, lost his rabbit’s foot he advertised in the newspapers for its return. It apparently came from the left hind leg of a rabbit shot by a cross-eyed African American as it hopped over the grave of a murderer at night. They did not come much more potent than that.64 During the early twentieth century the rabbit’s foot became a popular purchase from the commercial charm manufacturers that sprung up with the booming mail order industry, with American-produced lucky rabbit’s feet even being exported to England.65

As Charles Wisdom, an African American, sat in Missouri penitentiary awaiting his hanging for the murder in 1892 of a St Louis cigar maker named Edward Drexler, he made one last extraordinary appeal. He sent his rabbit’s foot and conjure bag to the state Governor William J. Stone (1848-1918), who would later gain notoriety for voting against the USA’s declaration of war against Germany in 1917. It was accompanied by the following letter:

Dear Governor — I would like for you to do me a favour, and it will be highly appreciated — that is, providing you keep this whole matter secret and not tell any one. I inclose a rabbit foot in this letter. I want you to take it and blow on it three times and then rub it on your face, and you will have good luck the rest of your days. You will be successful in all your undertakings.

You must not interfere with the little bag which you will see tied on the foot, for if you let any of it waste out you won’t live 24 hours afterward, because there is conjure in this little bag. Now, I want you to do like a tell you. I know my business because I was bom in Possum Bottom, near Clarksville, Tenn., and not far from Bear creek. I want you to take a hatchet and go over to the supreme courtyard and dig a little hole and put the rabbit foot in it and sprinkle in a little salt over the foot, and while sprinkling it you must say: ‘Silas and Peter, Silas and Paul; the good Lord, he made us all; from ashes to ashes; from dust to dust; in the Lord I will put my trust’.

And then you must cover the foot up with dirt and press it down, and after you have done so you will have to say this short prayer in my behalf:

‘O merciful Lord, give the sweetness of thy comfort to thy afflicted servant, and according to thy accustomed mercy remove the heavy burden of his afflictions. Give him, I humbly beseech thee, patience in suffering, resignation to thy adorable will and perseverance in thy service.

Then everything will be all right, and I will make everything all right with you. And you must let the rabbit foot remain buried three days and then dig it up and send it back to me. You must be sure and do so, for if you don’t I will never have any more good luck, or you either.

It looks as though Wisdom’s intention was to gain power over Stone through conjure and thereby influence him to obtain a pardon. It was a futile plan. Wisdom was hanged a few days later in April 1894. The last words in his letter were a dark threat to the police: ‘I will say, depart from me; I know you not. You jobbed me in the Drexler case. Prepare for the devil and his angels. And I will cast them into hell and give them the dirty horse laugh’.66

Little silver charms in the shape of an open hand, known in Arabic countries as the Hand of Fatima, were used by immigrants from Jewish, Christian, and Muslims communities to ward off the evil eye. A variant, the figa, which represents a closed fist with the thumb placed between the first two fingers, was employed by Italian and Portuguese Americans. It was a symbol of female sexuality and was effective when made by the human hand to ward off the evil eye, but amulet representations were produced across the Mediterranean. They first came to America with Spanish colonization, and archaeologists have found examples in South Carolina and Florida. Jet and coral bracelets and necklaces, sometimes with phallic symbolism, were also employed against the evil eye in Mediterranean diaspora communities and were of equally venerable usage.67

The Bible was a powerful protective amulet; sleeping with it under the pillow prevented witch-riding for instance. In 1922 a court case arising from a witch accusation in the Slovakian community of West Pottsgrove, Montgomery Pennsylvania, brought to light another example of Bible power. Susan Gofus, aged fifty-five, whose husband worked in the blast furnaces like many of their Hungarian, Italian, Polish, Russian, and Slovak neighbours, obtained a warrant for the arrest of another Slovakian named Michael Warge, aged fifty-three. He accused Gofus of causing his debilitating illness, despite the local doctor diagnosing that he was suffering from rheumatism with complications. A neighbour named Kryder Schwenk, a second- or third-generation Pennsylvanian, described as a huckster in the census, but apparently a hex doctor of sorts, testified that on seeing Warge he knew at once that he was bewitched. So he went home, took his large family Bible, returned to Warge and placed it on his chest. Schwenk prayed loud and long over Warge, and three days later claimed that the witchcraft had been expelled. Rheumatism does not just go away, of course, so Warge continued to suffer. The court ordered Warge to pay $10 in fines, and before leaving court Warge’s wife Annie was so violent in her verbal tirade against Gofus that a constable had to intervene.68

The house can be understand as an expression of the human body with its entrances open to spiritual and physical pollution, assault, and intrusion. These thresholds, both physical and symbolic, were weak points and so protective devices were placed near or around them to keep out unwanted spiritual intruders, including witches.69 Accounts from colonial and modem eras illustrate how the witch was thought to enter down the chimney, window gaps, or through key holes. So it has been suggested that the carved winged cherubs found on gateposts and above entrances in several colonial New England and South Carolina houses served a protective function.70 Eighteenth-century German immigrants brought with them the tradition in Alpine Germany and Switzerland of carving or painting protective words and images above front doors. Examples recorded in nineteenth- century Europe include the following from the village of Ober-Schonberg, near Innsbruck: ‘All persons entering this house are recommended to Divine protection. God and the Virgin Mary guard all such, even though powerful enemies threaten, and lightning and thunder rage without!’ Another above a door in the village of Welschnofen, near Bozen, ran: ‘Pray for us, holy Florian, that Fire may nor harm our building’. An eye was painted above the inscription, and below a depiction of St Florian pouring water on a burning roof.71

Around the mid-nineteenth century this discrete tradition of decorative symbolism gave rise to the various brightly coloured ‘hex signs’ that the Pennsylvania Dutch and other rural German communities, such as those in Ohio, painted on their bams and outbuildings. The signs include five, six, and eight-pointed stars, rosettes, representations of hearts, birds, tulips, and geometric designs familiar in other forms of German folk art, that draw heavily on spiritual symbolism. We must be historically sensitive to the purpose of this tradition though. While during the second half of the twentieth century, the ‘hex signs’ came to be widely interpreted by scholars and the general public as having a magical protective function, it would seem that the designs were primarily decorative in origin. A magazine reporter investigating hex signs on Ohio bams in 1950 tellingly observed, ‘present owners seldom know anything about the old lore of their bam trimming. I stop at a particularly nice hexy bam and ask about the hex patterns, and the farmer—or his wife—looks at me in astonishment. They haven’t the least idea what I’m talking about’.72 The investment in paint, artistry, and time was a statement of prosperity, cultural identity, and spirituality—not of anxiety about witches.73 The Pennsylvania Dutch had other more simple, personal, and secretive ways of protecting their homes. They did not need to plaster large charms all over their bams for all the world to see. The occult interpretation of the hex signs was a product of some folklorists peddling fanciful notions of the survival of ancient pagan sun worship, the public fascination with Pennsylvania hex matters, and the burgeoning tourist industry in Pennsylvania Dutch country.

Simple crosses were placed above doors and beds. In 1866 a Memphis resident named Mrs Alvers believed her child was bewitched, and was instructed by a witch doctor to repeat a formula while making three crosses in chalk on every door of the house. A report from Reading, PA, in 1883, stated that the offices of witch doctors in the town were marked out by protective chalk marks in the shape of crosses over the doors and windows. In the Ozarks people would hammer three nails in the form of a triangle on the outside of the door.74 Printed or copied versions of the Himmelsbrief or Heaven’s letter, which purported to be a message from God or Jesus that fluttered from the skies in the distant past, were kept in houses as protection against witches and misfortune. Such protective celestial letters were also popular in England and France and soldiers on both sides in the First World War kept copies in their pockets.

The belief in the anti-witch properties of the horseshoe was widespread across Europe and America.75 One reason for its potency was because it was made of iron, and worn out horseshoes were a source of the metal that could be taken out circulation. Crescent forms also had significance. In 1828 a correspondent said that he had seen horseshoes nailed to the thresholds of houses to ward off witches during his walking tours through the woods of North Carolina. James Monroe Buckley reported in 1892 that he had seen them nailed on or above doors ‘in nearly every county, and often in every township’ in New England.76 Examples can be found in the folklore records of numerous other states, and African Americans adopted the practice as well. As one Florida interviewee told the folklorist Harry Hyatt, ‘Mah grandmother she used to do dat—she’d take a horseshoe. When dey put shoes on a horse—yo’ know, take dose shoes off an’ put new ones on, why she’d take dose shoes an’ put one ovah her front door an’ one over her back door; every do’ she had yo’ know, an’ ‘nother one right at de doorstep dere at de right comer’.77 A broom placed on the floor behind the front door served the same purpose in European and African-American communities. Witches were unable to step over a broom, and the widespread European tradition that married couples complete their vows by jumping over a broom probably relates to the same apotropaic tradition.78

We should not consider all such magical practices as timeless and static. There was always room for adaptation and invention when it came to dealing with witches. The most striking example of this was reported from La Plaisance Creek, Michigan, in 1879. A German family who believed that their livestock and dairy produce was bewitched spent $200 on different witch doctors to no avail. They tried other anti-witchcraft measures in vain. Then a neighbour suggested frightening the suspected witch away with a ‘witch killer’. This consisted of a bull’s head stripped of skin and stuck on a ten-foot-high pole. A horseshoe was attached to the tip of each hom and an ear of wheat placed crossways in its jaws.

Fastened below this macabre object was a board bearing the words ‘This is a witch- killer’. It worked, apparently.79

Cumulative research in England has confirmed that the secretion of mundane objects such as shoes, dead cats, implements, and items of clothing in walls and around thresholds clearly had an apotropaic or protective function, warding off evil and misfortune. Recent work in Australia shows that these building rituals were brought there by migrants, and excavations are beginning to confirm the same in European-American contexts. There is some meagre evidence from the colonial period, with, for example, the horseshoe and iron eel-spear trident found underneath original weatherboarding of the Danvers house of the late seventeenth-century Massachusetts gentleman, Zerubabbel Endicott. They were secreted in tell-tale locations associated with the chimney and front door.80 Substantial evidence is beginning to be recorded from modem-era sites. During recent renovation work on the Indiana Statehouse, a late nineteenth-century shoe was found buried under the floorboards in front of a window, and during the 1904 construction of a barracks at Fort Rosecrans, San Diego, a boot was deliberately deposited behind a brick chimney. Iron hoe-blades have been found located in floor joists near a chimney stack of a house in Sussex County, New Jersey, and in a pit outside the door of a cabin in Calvert County, Maryland, occupied during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.81 Quartz stones have also been found deposited in similar locations in African-American buildings. Two Virginia excavations revealed quartz crystals near the footings of chimneys in nineteenth- century slave quarters. A large crystal was found near the doorway of a building in Maryland that probably housed slaves or servants. Some deposits could be interpreted as being harmful rather than protective. Consider, for example, a cache of nineteenth-century objects found under a door sill at Slayton House, Annapolis, Maryland, that consisted of nine pins (a number of great magical significance), a crab claw, and a blue bead. Compare this find with the examples of cursing conjure balls placed on or in buildings as related in the previous chapter, and the purpose of the deposit becomes ambiguous. What is important is that archaeologists have become more sensitive to the possible ritual meaning of what, in the past, they might have considered mere household detritus, and hopefully new discoveries will help us decode these domestic rituals of the past.82

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