Mysterious America

Witchcraft in Illinois, 1818-1885

The following is an excerpt from my new book Witchcraft in Illinois: A Cultural History. Early historians claimed witch beliefs vanished from Illinois along with its earliest pioneers, but in this chapter I discuss incidents involving witchcraft that occurred even after the Civil War. Order it today on or

The end of the Revolutionary War opened the vast Northwest Territory to settlement, and Scotch-Irish pioneers began to cross the Appalachian Mountains and travel down the Ohio River looking for new land. Many settled in the bottomlands between the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, in what would become southern Illinois.

Following close behind, Yankees from New England spread out across northern Illinois and down the Illinois River Valley. Rapid growth transformed the state from a sparsely populated wilderness to a thriving agricultural region. Between 1800 and 1840, Illinois’ population grew from 2,458 to 476,183 residents.

Southern Illinois was called “Egypt” or “Little Egypt” for its proximity to a vital river trade route (like the Nile delta in Egypt) and the presence of towns with names like Cairo, Thebes, Dongola, and Karnak. New Englanders who immigrated to Illinois in the early half of the nineteenth century also called it “Dark Egypt.” They viewed the Scotch-Irish pioneers who preceded them as uneducated, boorish, and backwards.

For their part, the Scotch-Irish, who emigrated from Virginia, Kentucky, and the Carolinas, viewed these Yankees, in the colorful words of one historian, as “a skinning, tricky, penurious race of peddlers, filling the country with tinware, brass clocks, and wooden nutmegs.”

According to cultural historian David Hackett Fischer, Scotch-Irish pioneers were obsessed with magic and sorcery, and they brought those beliefs with them into Illinois. One early account of witchcraft in Little Egypt comes from the History of Williamson County Illinois (1876). “From 1818 to 1835,” its author claimed, “there were a great many witches in this county.” On a place called Davis’ Prairie (also known as David’s Prairie), there lived a woman named Eva Locker, who was widely reputed to be a witch.

Her exploits were so well known they have been noted in nearly every early chronicle of the area’s folklore. Eva was notorious for her ability to steal milk from cows by hanging a towel over a rack or door and then, magically, wringing out the milk from the towel. Many decades later, a Belleville resident named Henry Juenger, Sr. explained the process to Esther Knefelkamp, who related it to folklorist Charles Neely in the 1930s.

According to Knefelkamp, “This old lady had several towels hanging on her back porch. With a towel hanging before her, she would milk the neighbors’ cows from the lower two corners; when she was finished she would have several large foaming buckets of wholesome milk.”

Local pioneers blamed this old spinster for maladies of all kinds. “She could do wonders, and inflict horrible spells on the young, such as fits, twitches, jerks and such like; and many an old lady took the rickets at the mere sound of her name,” Milo Erwin, author of the History of Williamson County, Illinois, wrote. According to folklorist John W. Allen, Eva had the ability to kill cattle by shooting them with balls of hair, which were found in the stomachs of the afflicted animals.

When Eva Locker struck, the men of Williamson County sent for Charley (Charlie) Lee, a noted “witchmaster” from Hamilton County who broke Eva’s spells by piercing an effigy of her with silver bullets. Erwin wrote, “It was a nice sight to see this old fool set up his board and then measure, point and cipher around like an artillery man planting his battery, while the whole family were standing around veiled and with the solemnity and anxiety of a funeral.”

Where supernatural misfortune was concerned, only a supernatural solution would do. There were no shortage of these “wizards” to unhex what had been hexed, but Eva Locker, it was said, proved to be more powerful than most could handle.

When the Illinois country went through a succession of administrative changes between 1809 and 1859 (the last time a new county was established) witch beliefs continued to proliferate in the same places it had for a generation. The History of Williamson County Illinois tells us “witchcraft prevailed to a great extent in the east side of this county in an early day,” so when Franklin County split from Williamson in 1839, these witch beliefs remained.

The curious case of the Williams sisters, which occurred there over 35 years after Eva Locker put away her cattle-killing hairballs, is further evidence that these beliefs did not simply vanish, as Milo Erwin maintained, but stubbornly persisted even after the Civil War.

Order Witchcraft in Illinois to learn more!

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