Windy City Witches
The following is an excerpt from my new book Witchcraft in Illinois: A Cultural History. Folklorists and historians claimed witch beliefs were a rural phenomenon, but in this chapter I discuss several cases involving witchcraft from Chicago. Order it today on Amazon.com or Barnesandnoble.com
Over the next two decades, Chicago’s population more than tripled in size, with an influx of immigrants from Southern, Central and Eastern Europe, including Italians, Jews, Poles, Bosnians and Czechs.
Many of these immigrants retained long held beliefs regarding maleficium, and a flurry of witchcraft cases appeared at the turn of the century. 1901 saw three such cases, which were reported in newspapers as far away as Des Moines, Iowa; Newark, Ohio; Dubuque, Iowa; and Fort Worth, Texas.
These accounts appeared to confirm prejudices held by many Anglo-Americans that this new wave of immigrants was backwards and superstitious, just as witchcraft beliefs among African Americans and Scotch-Irish reinforced prejudices in the previous century.
In October 1901, the Chicago Daily Herald reported the arrest of Thomas Kelly for throwing stones through the window of an unnamed neighbor, who he suspected of being a witch. According to Kelly, this woman tormented and then attempted to extort another neighbor, Mrs. Cohen. After coming out on the losing end of an argument, the alleged witch put a curse on Cohen.
Mrs. Cohen’s horse died, and then she became ill and paralyzed on one side. After she recovered, the alleged witch demanded $30 to lift the curse completely. Outraged, Kelly confronted his neighbor in front of her home and threw stones through her window. He was arrested and taken before a judge, but the newspaper did not report the outcome.
In November 1901, an Italian man named Peter Calebrese and his sister, who lived on Ewing Street on the Near West Side, felt themselves under a spell. Calebrese suffered from delusions and odd behavior. During the day, he was too tired to work, but noises filled his ears and would not allow him to sleep. He walked backwards down the street, and obsessive-compulsively swept the sidewalk in front of his residence.
The witch, he claimed, made him eat too much and suffer from subjective vertigo, which made him feel like he was falling through the air. While his sister sought assistance in Italy, he approached Captain Wheeler at the police station on Maxwell Street and asked him to arrest a woman named Mary DeVito, who he suspected of being his tormentor.
The authorities told Calebrese they would have to look up the law concerning witchcraft first (Illinois had no law explicitly prohibiting witchcraft), so Calebrese sought assistance from his local priest, Father Dunn(e). Like the previous account, the resolution to this story has been lost to history.
In December 1901, shortly after Guglielmo Marconi received the first trans-Atlantic radio signal in Newfoundland, Canada, nearly a dozen neighbors of a woman named Helen Roth took the witness stand in Chicago to support charges of assault and battery, threats, and disorderly conduct against her.
Mary Donovan, who lived near Roth on Cortez Street in Chicago’s West Town neighborhood, brought the charges, though she explained the real problem was that Helen Roth was a witch who tormented her neighbors. Roth, a German immigrant who worked as a nurse in Holland before coming to America, admitted to being a hypnotist, clairvoyant, and magnetic healer, but vehemently denied being a witch.
“It is the mysteries of this science which puzzle my neighbors and make them believe I am a witch,” she explained.
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