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Dealing With Witch Believers

Writing in 1883, the Illinois historian William Henry Perrin blamed the widespread belief in witchcraft on the fireside stories that made children’s hair stand on end ‘like quills upon the fretted porcupine’. He believed the notion was a major retardant to the development of the United States. It had ‘done far more to beat back the cause of civilization among the common people than could all the swarms of greenhead flies, the murderous Indians, the poisonous snakes and wild beasts, the deadly malaria, disease and poverty’.1 How could it be combatted? As in Europe, confidence was placed in the expansion of public schooling, much of it provided by religious denominations. The oft-repeated British refrain ‘the schoolmaster is abroad’ was no less uttered across the Atlantic. Literacy rates in America were certainly impressive compared with much of Europe. The 1850 census indicates that go per cent of white Americans were literate, compared to 50-60 per cent in England, for example. Such figures mask a great deal of regional, ethnic, class, and gender variations of course, which in turn fuelled the view that certain social groups such as backwoods folk and African Americans were more superstitious than other because they were less educated.2 The newspapers reinforced this view, promoting their own influence in shaping a godly but rational America. So in 1831 the editor of the Baltimore Patriot explained the enlightening benefits of the press on the nation’s youth: ‘it habituates their minds to reading and its consequences, in place of talking about ghosts and witches, attending frolics, swearing and lying’.3

The medical profession had a vested interest in the fight, for it saw ‘superstition’ as nourishing the myriad unlicensed healers with whom they competed. In the first volume of the American Journal of Dental Science printed in 1839, the secretary of the publishing committee urged: ‘Send the school master still more abroad in the land; but more especially, let medical men and their public lecturers expose the folly and the madness of entrusting human life to the secret spells of alchemy and witchcraft’.4 The presence of witchcraft beliefs became a barometer of the success or otherwise of the education mission. The Maryland and Virginia Medical Journal gave poor marks in 1859, complaining that the multitude of quacks and astrologers did not ‘say overmuch for the lessons taught by the schoolmaster, who has now for some time had the credit of being abroad’.5

The rise of spiritualism provided both a further challenge and a boost to those rationalizers who viewed scientific advancement as inimical to supernatural beliefs. As we have seen, some mesmerists saw their pseudo-scientific discoveries as erasing the ‘super’ from supernatural. Stage magicians travelled the country debunking mediumship, putting nails in the coffins of the dead through demonstrating the illusions that they believed upheld the belief in the spirit world. A few months after accounts of the Fox Sisters’ shenanigans began to circulate, the people of Washington DC were agog at the antics of a young married woman whose convulsions and urge to swallow pins, often plucked from the clothing of visitors, were considered by some neighbours as the work of witchcraft. People flocked to see the wonder, apparently paying a dollar for access to the sick bed. Most of the city’s doctors had examined her, but no cure could be found. Step forward Charles Grafton Page (1812—1868), physician and pioneering inventor of electromagnetic motors, who at the time was an examiner at the Washington Patent Office and a Professor of Chemistry. Page caught the woman out simulating the swallowing of pins and denounced her imposture in the local press. He recounted his experience a few years later:

Knowing that the witches of old had a special fancy for pins, and fully prepared to see nothing more than a dextrous feat of legerdemain, we consented to go, late as it was, and as soon as the pretty little elf, who was lying upon a pallet upon the floor, had become convulsed, and pulled a pin from our person, and swallowed it, we discovered the quomodo, and the next day, with a little practice, we were able to go into very fair convulsions, and could draw out pins and swallow them as skilfully as the witch herself’.6

Page went on to conduct a series of tests upon the Fox sisters and other mediums to expose their fraudulent methods.

Reporting on a case of witchcraft abuse amongst Germans in Hancock County, Illinois, in 1889, the Daily Inter Ocean stated its view that the local authorities needed to be proactive. ‘The State’s Attorney of Hancock County has a novel but plain duty to perform’, it advised, ‘and there should be no hesitation in doing all that prudence may suggest as necessary to make it understood by all whom it may concern that punishing witches or exorcising devils cannot be practiced with impunity anywhere in the State of Illinois’.7 Attorneys and magistrates could not do much as they usually dealt with the consequences of such actions. Large fines and prison sentences were not effective deterrents either. At street level it was the police who were often responsible for dealing with disputes before they turned nasty. They were, as the English police of the period have been described, ‘domestic missionaries’, charged with controlling and suppressing what the authorities viewed as the vice, sloth, and prejudice prevalent on the streets of rapidly expanding cities. So, in December 1920, police had to guard the home of an elderly Italian woman in the Italian quarter of Ellwood City, Pennsylvania, because of the threats she was receiving from neighbours after a peddler of a protective charm, known as the ‘paper of the enchanted crosses’, spread rumours she was a witch after she had refused to purchase one.8

At eleven o’clock one night in March 1883 Michael Schaffler, a labourer from Prussia, entered the Bremen Street Police Station, Cincinnati.9 With him were his wife Gottliebe, his eighteen-year-old son Frederic, a foundry worker, their teenage daughter Caroline, and two young boys August and William. All but the six- year-old William had been bom in Prussia. In broken English mixed with German, Michael told Lieutenant Westendorf that their lodgings were haunted and requested that they be allowed to spend the night in the police station. Westendorf replied matter-of-factly, ‘The police have nothing to do with ghosts’. Michael explained further that witchcraft was behind the supernatural disturbance and they suspected that one Frau Lindecker, a fortune-teller and petty healer, was the witch responsible. Getting into the spirit of things, Sergeant Austin was detailed to investigate the goings on at the Schafflers home. So with a rabble of journalists in tow, who had been hanging around the station kicking there heels waiting for a good story, Austin and Frederic ventured into the night and made their way to 108 Liberty Street. Apart from an initial shock at noises that turned out to derive from a puppy, once inside the spirit manifestations failed to materialize.

The party now moved off down the road to the comer of Race and Liberty Street where Frau Landecker resided. There they found her sitting peacefully in a rocking chair, a shawl over her head. As a disappointed journalist wrote, she did not look like a witch out of Macbeth, but rather ‘the usual old German woman in every particular of form and feature and attire’. Austin was unsure as to how to proceed and so decided to take Landecker back to Bremen Street police station, where the rest of the Schaffler family had stayed warming themselves around a stove in the cell room. The police now brought the two parties together and asked

Michael to make his accusations to Landecker’s face. So, in broken English, the story unravelled.

It transpired that Landecker had been providing the Schefflers with herbal remedies for a variety of complaints. When the family began to experience various poltergeist-like manifestations, they pretty quickly concluded that the evil spirits that tormented them had been sent by Landecker. Mrs Scheffler burned some consecrated paper flowers, but the family felt no relief. After all had been said, the police allowed the Schefflers to stay the night at the station, and the next day they went in search of new accommodation. We find them a year or so later at a house in the Miami area of the city. Frau Landecker was charged with practising medicine without a diploma and locked up to await trial. A year later, Bremen Street police had their hands full with a full-scale riot, one of the most serious in nineteenth-century America, after the decision of a jury, in what was a very corrupt city, to hand down a manslaughter verdict to a young German and his accomplice who clearly murdered their employer. The courthouse was burned down destroying many records, jurors were terrorized, barricades were set up in the streets, several dozen people died in running battles with National Guard troops.

If the police were domestic missionaries then the clergy were moral police. If witchcraft belief was to be vanquished then they would have to play their part. Up until the eighteenth century Anglican parish vestries dealt with moral offences and malicious defamation, and Baptist churches similarly disciplined the moral behaviour and disputes of its members. Quaker church courts continued with such business well into the eighteenth century.10 In 1759 the Pennsylvania Quakers, at their Goshen monthly meeting, heard a complaint against one Robert Jones for participating ‘in forcing a poor woman from her habitation (under a pretence of her bewitching a certain child), whereby she has suffered damage’. Jones was subsequently disowned.11 The Moravian authorities in North Carolina repeatedly expressed concern. Their 1786 Conference noted with frustration that ‘superstition regarding hex and other preposterous things has not entirely ceased among us’. A couple of years later it warned that ‘any one who believed in such supernatural powers and made use of them could not be permitted to attend the Lord’s Supper’. In 1807 Moravian ministers recorded their condemnation of ‘congregation members who believe far too much in magic and sorcery and have sought the counsel of the so-called Hexenmeister’.12

The huge influx of immigrants during the second half of the nineteenth century generated renewed clerical concerns. In November 1877 the Joint Columbus Conference of Lutheran ministers deliberated on the topic of witchcraft. It became clear from the discussions that the belief in witchcraft was widespread in German and Anglo-American congregations across the country. The debate was based upon a thesis on witchcraft prepared for conference by the Rev. Henry G. Cramer of Zanesville, Ohio, who had emigrated from Hanover, Germany, and preached in German to his flock. From what little we know of its contents it would seem that his definition of witchcraft was largely concerned with hex doctors and powwow. Witchcraft, it was agreed, overstepped ‘the boundaries prescribed in God’s Word to execute that which lies beyond the ordinary effect of nature, and is contrary to the employment of rightful means’.13 But talking amongst themselves was not going to solve anything. The clergy had to get the message out amongst the people. After three Hungarian women were charged with annoying a woman for being a witch at a police court in Woodbridge, New Jersey, in October 1936, the local Hungarian Catholic priest Vincent Lenyi, who would later play a key role in the care of a new wave of Hungarian immigrants following the Second World War, decided to speak out. At the urging of the magistrate, Lenyi toured the Hungarian community going house to house, disabusing inhabitants of the notion of witchcraft in his native tongue. Witchcraft is a rubbish heap of worn out creeds and superstitions’, he told them. ‘It is all the product of fevered imagination’.14

But the clergy were far from speaking with one voice on the matter, just as spiritualism caused fissures between and across different churches. In 1828 it was reported that in North Carolina ‘there are hundreds of people in this state, and some preachers too, that have the same belief and dread of witchcraft, as characterized the inhabitants of Salem’.15 In 1885 the Swedish Lutheran Church in Belgrade, Nicollet, County, Minnesota, a township first settled in 1854, decided to step in and adjudicate over a public witchcraft accusation amongst its Swedish flock. Mrs John Solomon, who had languished for three years, became convinced that her aunt, a Mrs Johnson, of Hebron, Nicollet County, had bewitched her. The Solomons complained to the preacher A. Anderson, who ordered Mrs Johnson to appear after Sunday service. She did not attend, but a jury of deacons considered various testimonies of her powers. The newspapers reported that Anderson believed in witchcraft.16 Perhaps he was just very cautious about criticizing those that did for fear of alienating his parishioners. A clergyman in York, Pennsylvania, confided in 1929, ‘I don’t speak of it in my congregation because my people believe it so thoroughly that they might not come to church at all if I started knocking it’.17 The following striking case bears out his concerns, and illustrates the challenge the churches faced in converting witch believers.

The other Salem witch trials

The town of Salem, Columbiana County, Ohio, was a thriving settlement founded by the Quakers. Its inhabitants numbered over 6,000 by the end of the nineteenth century, at which time it was described by one observer as displaying ‘order, prosperity, thrift, and comfort’. But in 1893 the peace, after which the town was named, as in Jerusalem the ‘city of peace’, was shattered by a virulent witchcraft dispute.

A few miles south of Salem, at a place known as McCracken Comer, lived a farmer named Jacob Culp. Bom in Germany around 1839, he and his family emigrated to America when he was a boy. By i860 the young man had taken up farming and married Hannah Loop, a Pennsylvanian woman fifteen years his senior, becoming stepfather to two children from her previous marriage. Culp worked hard and became one of the most prosperous members of the community. He was a member of Hart Methodist Episcopal Church, which had been founded in the 1820s. He probably contributed to the rebuilding of the old log cabin prayer-house in the 1860s when it was replaced with a smart, white timber-framed church.

Sometime during the 1870s Hannah’s mother Mary Loop and her disabled brother Ephraim, described as an ‘idiot’ and ‘dumb’ in the censuses, moved in to the Culp’s home for a few years before removing to another of Hannah’s sisters. When Mary died some neighbours, including a couple of the Loop sisters, cast accusing glances at Jacob. As Jacob told a journalist, when Mary lay dying they said I had “spelled” the old woman and was killing her. My wife and I went over and when we went into the room the others got out. They looked at me as if I had smallpox. Mrs Loop died while I was there. I left right off after there had been some hard words passed. On the day of the burying I looked at Mrs Bleam as I met her at the stairs. She set up a scream and ran out of my sight.

When Hannah also died sometime around 1887 and Jacob married Hattie, a woman twenty-five years younger, rumour had it he had bumped Hannah off too.

Stories began to circulate around the area that witchcraft was on the increase. One of those to suffer its depredations was a big-shouldered, long-armed farmer named Norman Bleam, who was related to Culp through his marriage to another of the Loop women. Bleam had heard how a neighbour’s cow had been cured by taking its milk, pouring it around an apple tree, and thrashing the ground with a thorn bush. This piece of sympathetic magic tormented the witch responsible who appeared scratched all over. Bleam said he did not believe the story at first but changed his mind when his own cows’ milk would not chum. His neighbours said they were bewitched, and he was advised to send for the old cunning-man Dr Andrew Hoff, who lived at Alliance. Hoff was brought over to the farm to inspect the cow. After whispering in its ear he declared it was bewitched by a he-witch, a man with a long, grey beard. He told Bleam that the witch ‘talked like a preacher’ and went to the local church. ‘Who could he mean but Jacob Culp?’ wondered Bleam. We thought so at home’. A young farmer named Howard Hughes, also married to a Loop, came to a similar conclusion with regard to his agricultural misfortunes. Then there was the sickness of Mrs Sidney Fife, and the bewitchment of the children of the Greenawalts family.

The principal rumour-monger was Culp’s sister-in-law, Sadie Loop. A single woman aged thirty-eight in 1890. Sadie was a key member of Hart Methodist Church, having served it as a Sunday School teacher and sexton. In her latter role, she assumed jealous charge of keeping the church building spic and span. In November 1892, following further family misfortunes and illnesses which no doctor could help, Sadie decided to call upon a herb doctress—or ‘physician’ as she was listed in the census, named Louise Bums. This widow of German birth operated from a house in Maple Street, Salem. She told Sadie that she had a very bad brother-in-law, and when she was asked which one, Bums replied ‘the one that came across the ocean’. This could only be Jacob.

On 2 April 1893 Sadie consulted Andrew Hoff. He confirmed that witchcraft was at work, and in Sadie’s words, ‘described a man living in the neighborhood in such a way that Mr Culp was the only man that fitted the description’. Hoff advised her to cease attending church until he could engineer Culp’s death, which would take up to six months to achieve. They must avoid Culp’s breath or gaze falling upon them. Sadie and other family members followed his advice, and she informed neighbours of Hoff’s words. Culp was understandably riled by the accusations and went to the pastor for help. ‘He was afraid he would get into trouble’, explained Culp later, ‘and didn’t want to take sides. He didn’t believe in the witches, I think, but he wasn’t ready to go with me and face the folks who talked’.

One of those Sadie told, in explanation for her absence at Church, was a farmer and Class Leader named Homer B. Shelton. It was only when he subsequently made a formal complaint to the Pastor J.E. Cope that the Church finally acted. Shelton’s letter runs as follows:

Dear Brother: - The undersigned a member of the Methodist Episcopal church, complains to you that Sadie Loop, a member of the same church, has been guilty of immoral conduct, and she is hereby charged therewith as follows: Charge, falsehood.

Specification 1. The said Sadie Loop on or about the 27th day of April, 1893, did utter and publish, contrary to the word of God and the discipline, the following false and evil matter of and concerning Jacob Culp, to wit that he, meaning the said Jacob Culp was a wizard and practiced witchcraft.

H.B. Shelton

The Columbiana Circuit was obliged to take such a request seriously, and in May 1893 a rare Church court was organized to consider the charge against Sadie Loop. The account we have is exceptional in that the court took the unusual step of allowing representatives of the local press to attend.

The trial was held in the classroom of Salem Methodist Church. Rev. S. Y. Kennedy, of Columbiana, represented the Church in the prosecution, and the Revs J.K. Grimes and J.K. Shaffer, of North Benton, acted for the defence. There were five jurors, Emmett Freed, Robert Hole, William Kelley, J.E. Bonsall, and William Parrish. Before the trial commenced the presiding judge Rev. G.B. Smith, of Alliance, conducted religious service, and hymn no. 166 was sung by those present. Shelton’s charge against Loop was read out and the Rev Kennedy told the court that ‘this trial was a prosecution; the church never persecutes’, reminding those present that in this particular instance the church and not Shelton was the prosecutor. Sadie Loop was brought in briefly to lodge that she pleaded ‘not guilty’. Then Shelton took the stand and the questioning commenced.

Shelton related his conversation with Loop about Culp and his witchcraft. Loop told him how many years before Culp had bought a black art book that he used to become wealthier than his neighbours. She complained that Culp had done nothing to support the church and what little he had given did it no good. When asked whether he had counselled Loop against pursuing her course of action against Culp, Shelton replied, ‘No, not personally. I expressed myself as not believing in anything of the kind’. Several of Loops female neighbours were now questioned, relating their conversations regarding Dr Hoff’s advice. Shelton returned to give evidence.

What effect did Miss Loop’s counsel have on your people at Hart’s?

It was a matter of query that anyone should believe such a thing.

Were you impressed that Miss Loop was sincere in her belief about the matter at that time?

I was impressed that she was entirely given up to that belief.

Did Miss Loop come to you confidentially as her leader about this matter?

I do not know, but she requested that this be made known to other members of the church through me, and that it should be kept from Mr Culp, as Dr Hoff claimed he would have much more power over Culp if the matter was kept from him; also that Culp’s wife would be in great danger if she should know of this, as he would likely kill her.

After further questions, Shelton was asked:

Have these reports concerning Mr Culp had any serious effect upon the church at Hart’s?

Not upon the membership, but they have brought the church into disrepute with those outside.

The Defence now had its turn and called John Akin, who had been a class leader for forty years, and had known Sadie for twenty. His testimony was not entirely helpful to the defence. When asked if she had been the source of any trouble in the church, he replied ‘not lately’, and under further questioning stated that the church had problems with her in the past. Then Sadie took the stand.

Was anything said about witchcraft before you met Dr Hoff?

I did not know there was any such thing and went to the dictionary to find out the definition of the word.

When Dr Hoff explained the condition of affairs did you believe in his theory?

We did not understand anything about it.

She then went on to say she still did not believe the opinions of Dr Hoff:

If you did not believe it, why did you circulate this story?

I did not circulate the story, as I understand it. I went to my class leader and pastor in confidence and told them of the mysterious occurrences which I could not understand, and asked for information and advice.

Shelton was next asked about Loop’s reputation, and he replied, ‘Personally, at the present time, I would not place much confidence in what she would say’. Jacob Culp was the final witness. He related the various accusations made against him and his relations with the Breams and Loops. Sadie ‘gets into trouble and tries to lie out if it’, he said, giving as an instance an episode involving the sending of a valentine.

The questioning closed and the jury consulted for about ten minutes before returning the following verdict:

We, the committee in the case of Miss Sadie Loop, charged with falsehood under the specification that she had on or about the 27th day of April, 1893, published contrary to the word of God and the discipline, the following false and evil matter of and concerning Jacob Culp, to-wit, that he Jacob Culp) was a wizard and practiced witchcraft, find that said specification is proven and the charge of falsehood sustained.

The Judge, Rev. Smith, informed those present that he had no alternative but to expel Sadie Loop from the membership of the Methodist Episcopal Church.18

This was not the end of the matter. Sadie was not one to let things lie, and in June she went to the office of the Salem Daily News to request that the paper publish a statement complaining that the church authorities had made no effort to settle the witchcraft trouble, and to clarify that she had never made an assertion that Culp was a witch, but had merely told others what Dr Hoff had said.19 Rev Cope was removed to another charge at the next Conference, and Rev J.E. Hollister of Alliance became pastor of Hart Church.

The rumours rumbled on around McCracken Comer, and Dr Hoff was never farm from them. In November a new accusation of witchery reopened the festering scar in the community’s spiritual life. Howard Hughes had been digging a well on his farm and when he got to what he thought was a sufficient depth, no water appeared. He called in Dr Hoff, who burned some herbs and muttered some charm before declaring that the dry well was the fault of witchcraft, and would remain dry until Culp was dead. Rev. Hollister acted decisively, requesting Hughes and others to disavow their belief in witchcraft and treat Culp as a brother. This they refused to do, so another church court was arranged for 24 January 1894. Rev. Kingsbury of Alliance was the appointed judge, with the Rev. Kennedy appearing for the prosecution and Rev. Shipman for the defence. The Hughes and the Bleams were called to defend themselves but on the appointed morning none of them turned up. The Reverends spent an hour discussing the church’s jurisdiction in such circumstances and in conclusion they decided to expel Howard Hughes, and Norman Bleam and his wife, from Hart Church. An attorney gave notice of their right to appeal at the next quarterly conference of the Methodist church.20

Hart Church never recovered from these traumatic events. Numerous members left as a result, the congregation went into terminal decline, and it was finally disbanded in the 1930s. In 1937 the Church was pulled down and parts of it used for lumber. Today it is marked only by a small graveyard along Route 45 a few miles south of Salem.21

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