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Witch balls

The notion that witches harmed livestock by shooting or throwing hair balls that passed through the animals’ hides without leaving any visible trace was a widespread and prominent belief in America.46 Yet I have found no such tradition in Europe. It was obviously well established by the early nineteenth century as the clergyman and historian of West Virginia and Pennsylvania, Joseph Doddridge (1769—1826), referred to witches shooting cattle with hair balls.47 Methodist minister Rev. James Jenkins (b. 1764), whose preaching style was epitomized by his nickname ‘Bawling Jenkins’, recalled attending a class meeting in South Carolina at which a reputed witch was present. He asked one of the members why they ‘suffered her to stay in class’, and was told, ‘ “Suffer her! Why we are afraid of her” ... and he went on to tell of the poor woman’s cows she had shot with hair-balls, or a great many of them fired at once, she had killed in a moment every fowl in the yard of some poor woman whom she had a grudge against’.48 Later in the century newspapers mentioned the notion. In 1875, for instance, the press reported that Nancy Lewis of Hazel Dell Township, Iowa, made public complaints that her 83-year-old mother-in-law Clarinda Lewis was a witch, and accused her of manufacturing witch balls and tormenting her and her daughters at night. A newspaper account of a witch drama unfolding in Newton County, Georgia, in the same year, explained that an elderly widow stood accused, amongst other crimes, of making ‘witch balls’ of hair gathered from the tail of a cow.49 As to how these balls were thought to be produced, an old Ozark witch was said to have made hers by rolling a small bunch of black hair with beeswax into hard pellets. These she threw at her victims and they would enter their bodies. A more sophisticated method of firing them was reported from Rowan County, North Carolina. Witches there were supposed to make bullets of twisted and knotted hair that they shot from a glass phial open at both ends.50

The popular conception of hair balls as the product of witchcraft was supported by physical evidence, for as one nineteenth-century American folklorist noted, butchers frequently found them in the stomachs of oxen and cows. Reports and correspondence on the subject cropped up periodically in the American agricultural press.51 The Boston veterinary surgeon, and author of popular veterinary guides, George Dadd, considered the topic in his book on The Diseases of Cattle (1859). Let us read his description:

In consequence of the propensity which some animals have of licking their own bodies, or those of their associates, they manage to swallow large quantities of hair, which being indigestible, accumulates in a compartment of the stomach in the form of a dense ball, which is occasionally regurgitated.... These balls sometimes accumulate material until they are bigger than ordinary sized goose eggs. It is not surprising that death ensues from the irritation of such an indigestible mass in the stomach of an ox or cow, and it is also not surprising that many deaths of cattle cannot be accounted for by their owners.52

Dadd was well aware that ‘not a few’ people believed that they were the work of witchcraft. Likewise, in 1853, an Indiana doctor, the author of what was probably the first chemical analysis of an ox concretion in America, noted that the superstitious called them witch balls but their origin was obvious to the ‘intelligent observer’ as he set about explaining.53

The belief in witch balls was clearly widely held in African-American farming communities as well. The editors of the Western Farmer & Gardener, one of whom was the Presbyterian pastor Henry Ward Beecher, noted that African Americans in Kentucky were ‘exceedingly superstitious’ with respect to hair balls, and refused to touch or be near them when found. In 1846 an Iowa correspondent sent to the editors an example of one of thirteen hair balls taken from the stomachs of a calf on his farm. The calf had belonged to an African American who, after its death, told the correspondent that it was killed by witches and cited the balls as proof. Further investigation revealed the true cause. The original owner of the calf was a barber and the calf had evidently eaten considerable quantities of hair clippings from the barbershop, and these had coalesced into the hairballs. In the 1890s it was also reported that African-American conjurer doctors in the Southern States laid curses by throwing hair balls at their target, and in Georgia and South Carolina by burying them under doorsteps.54

Humans are also susceptible to gastric hairballs, although identifiable medical examples were rare in the period concerned. A medical paper on the subject in 1902 reported that only twenty-four cases, twenty-two recorded from inquests, had been formally noted in European and American medical literature. Twenty- three of them concerned women between eighteen and thirty-four years of age.55 The reason for this striking gender bias was the habit amongst girls of chewing locks of their long loose hair or the ends of their braids. One case was reported of a male victim who was in the habit of chewing his beard. Those working with cotton, wool, or coconut fibres were also prone. Twentieth-century autopsies confirm that new items such as chewing gum and popcorn have been known to cause similar gastric concretions. Considering that very few people were ever dissected, the notion that witches shot humans with hair balls must have been an extrapolation from the many examples found in livestock. Still, claims of finding witch shots associated with human casualties were made in folklore. So we have accounts of examples being discovered in the mouths of those shot by witches or close by their bodies, having rolled out of their mouths as they were suddenly and inexplicably struck down dead (from a heart attack, for example). No doubt some witch doctors also played tricks, revealing to clients the witchery behind their loved ones’ mysterious deaths.56

But hair balls could also have beneficial properties. Examples were apparently much sought after as protective amulets amongst African Americans in Georgia and South Carolina. In Southern Illinois ‘witch masters’ moved hair balls over the heads of those plagued with witchcraft or evil spirits.57 Mark Twain introduced such a hair ball to the readers of the Adventures of Fluckleberry Finn. Huck’s companion Jim, an escaped slave who is a repository of African-American occult lore, and claims to have seen the Devil, possessed a ‘hair-ball as big as your fist, which had been took out of the fourth stomach of an ox, and he used to do magic with it. He said there was a spirit inside of it, and it knowed everything’.58 A manufacturing tradition developed. The roving adventurer Griffin Tipsoward (d. 1840), who was born in Pennsylvania, lived with the Kickapoo Indians, and was an early settler in Illinois, made part of his living as a healer. He employed ‘witch balls’ consisting of deer and cow hair held together by string. These he would move about the person bewitched while muttering some charm.59

In fact the desirable properties of certain hair balls known as bezoars, a word that has recently generated interest thanks to its inclusion as a potion ingredient in the Harry Potter novels, has a very long history.60 The word bezoar derives from the Persian meaning ‘expelling poison’. Information about its medical properties seems to have been introduced to Europe by Arab physicians in the medieval period, and bezoars became hugely desirable items in the medicine cabinets of rich Europeans into the eighteenth century. These were not the hair balls of common livestock, though, but those from the stomachs of wild animals from exotic lands, such as Persian goats and South American llamas.61 An early nineteenth-century encyclopaedia listed six types of bezoar, including Bezoar simiae from certain Brazilian monkeys, and Bezoar porcinum or pedro del porco, which derived from the porcupine.62

Although most prized as a means of extracting poison, they were also thought to cure the plague, epilepsy, witchcraft, and other ailments. What with the concerns over poisoning amongst plantation owners, and snakebites, it is no surprise that eighteenth-century American settlers were keen to source bezoars. At the beginning of the eighteenth century the Englishman settler John Lawson (1674—1711) recorded in his journal Native Americans of the Carolinas:

Enquiry of them, if they never got any of the Bezoar Stone, and giving them a Description how it was found, the Indians told me, they had great plenty of it; and ask’d me, what use I could make of it? I answer’d them,

That the white Men us’d it in Physick, and that I would buy some off them... Thereupon, one of them pull’d out a Leather- Pouch, wherein was some of it in Powder; he was a notable Hunter, and affirm’d to me,

That the Powder blown into the Eyes, strengthen’d the Sight and Brain exceedingly, that being the most common Use made of it.63

In the early 1740s broadsides were distributed along the eastern seaboard advertising that a Frenchman named Francis Torres had for sale a number of ‘Chinese snake-stones’, which were almost certainly bezoars. They cured the ‘Bites of all venomous or poisonous Creatures, as Rattle (and other) Snakes, Scorpions, mad

Dogs, etc’. When applied to the wound the stone drew out the poison, and when placed in a glass of water purged itself ready for reuse. The broadside bore testimonials from several South Carolina slave owners. That the advertising campaign proved successful is suggested by a letter to a medical journal from a Virginian man in 1807 who praised the healing power of a Chinese snake stone in the possession of the Rev. Lewis Chaustien of Frederick County. It was accompanied by a certificate that stated it came from Bombay in 1740. Chaustien generally did not charge the numerous applicants bitten by mad dogs or snakes who came to him.64 In 1840 a North Carolina man offered a similar snake stone for sale for the princely sum of $20.65

During the early nineteenth century the idea of the foreign ‘snake stone’ gave way to the distinctly American ‘madstone’ in folk medical tradition.66 The most efficacious madstones were the bezoars from deer, and they became much prized for curing rabies (hydrophobia) in particular, the disease having spread considerably since the 1770s.67 One Alabama quack doctor who possessed two madstones explained in an advertising puff: What is a Mad-stone? It is a compact of Vegetable and Mucus Matters, and formed by a freak of nature in the small or second stomach of a Hermaphrodite Deer, and so constructed with its innumerable cells that when applied to lacerated flesh, it adheres at once and every cell exercises a suction power, but does note absorb any substance except Virus’. Those who possessed them became important figures in rural communities. The ‘Stoll Stone’ of Cass County, Missouri, which ‘had saved a good many lives’ according to its mid-twentieth century custodian, was handed down through the Stoll family after the first emigrant member of the family arrived from Alsace-Loraine around 1850 and found the madstone in the stomach of a deer he shot during a sojourn in California. In 1879 a mad stone derived from the stomach of a deer was bought by a Texas druggist for $250.68

I have strayed somewhat from the topic of witch balls but the comparison with madstones reveals a significant distinction. Hair balls found in wild animals, principally deer in America, accrued natural beneficial properties but hair balls found in domesticated livestock were symptomatic of supernatural assault and generally but always considered harmful. But why did hair balls in livestock develop into the witch ball tradition? The fact that American veterinarians and agriculturalists seemed to be more concerned about hair balls than their European counterparts might be a clue. Can answers be found by exploring environmental and agricultural developments in America? Perhaps hair balls were more prevalent in American livestock in the nineteenth century. Huge numbers of European dairy cows were exported to the states. The Guernsey cow, for instance, was first brought to America in the 1830s and nearly 35,000 were exported live over the next century. The last two decades of the nineteenth century saw a substantial increase in imports, not only from Britain but also breeds such as the Holstein-Friesian from the Netherlands and the Brown Swiss from Switzerland.69 Just like their human owners, imported livestock breeds had to adapt to the indigenous flora and new grazing regimes. New fodder plants were also imported from Europe. In 1896 the United States Department of Agriculture received reports of numerous horse deaths from Delaware, Virginia, and North Carolina. The cause—hair balls from eating the dry prickly stems of deflowered crimson clover.70 This form of clover is indigenous to southern Europe and was first introduced to America as a fodder crop in the mid-nineteenth century, although it only began to be grown widely in the 1940s.71 It is pure speculation, of course, but maybe the exposure of northern and central European livestock to new fibrous plants with which they were unfamiliar led to a greater incidence of stomach concretions. While this might help explain the prominence of hair balls in American rural tradition, it does not get us any further in understanding where the witch ball concept came from. Perhaps the fairies had something to do with it.

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