Mysterious America

Shapeshifting and Familiars

The following is an excerpt from my new book Witchcraft in Illinois: A Cultural History. Part Two explores beliefs about witchcraft, including a witch’s powers and abilities, which were surprisingly specific. Order it today on or

Shapeshifting was a common theme in witch tales. Storytellers claimed witches could transform into any number of animals, including deer, rabbits, cats, pigs, and horses. Others claimed that witches transformed their victims into animals.

Witches who transformed men into horses while they slept and rode them to the Sabbath caused their victims to experience physical and mental exhaustion. Others changed children into animals in order to take revenge against their parents.

A common story, repeated many times and in many locations, involved a game animal that was particularly difficult to hunt. The hunter (usually described as a skilled marksman) found his best efforts frustrated until he loaded his musket or rifle with a silver bullet.

Finally wounding the animal, the hunter pursued his quarry only to discover a neighbor crippled in the same location where he shot his prey. However, silver bullets did not need to cause the wound. Any injury to the magical animal caused an identical injury on the witch, revealing his or her identity.

Charles Neely, Sr. related the following story to his son, folklorist Charles Neely, who explained that the story circulated the Alcorn Creek neighborhood of Pope County, Illinois. Pope County is located at the southeastern tip of the state, just north of the junction of the Ohio and Tennessee rivers.

“Uncle Wesley Holt, who was an old settler and part Indian, saw a deer galloping around the field. Being an expert marksman with the old cap and ball rifle, Uncle Wesley decided to have some venison. He shot at the deer and it galloped away. For several days it galloped around the field. Uncle Wesley shot at it several times but failed to kill it. He knew that his marksmanship was good, so he decided that there was something uncanny about the deer.”

“Understanding witchcraft, he decided to try another method. The method was to drill a hole through the lead ball, cut a piece of silver from a dime, and insert it in the hole. He loaded his gun and killed the deer at the first shot. When he came to the deer, it turned out to be old Mary Toombs, who was a witch in the neighborhood.” Today, Alcorn Creek, a tributary of the Ohio River, is located in the Dog Island State Wetlands.

Witches could also appear in the form of a rabbit. One elderly woman retold the following tale to folklorist John W. Allen. Her parents, who were raised in Hamilton County in southeastern Illinois, told her the story as it allegedly happened to her grandparents. “This witch, in order to do evil to the storyteller’s grandparents, would take the form of a rabbit and raid their garden, eating the lettuce, sprouts of green beans, and other plants,” Allen explained.

“Repeated efforts of the father, a highly skilled marksman, to shoot the rabbit were futile. Coming to suspect that the animal really was the changed form of the neighboring woman whom he believed to be a witch, the father prepared to use countermagic. When dusk came, the man took his trusted rifle, loaded it with a silver bullet, and mounted guard over the garden plot. A rabbit, really the witch, appeared and began to nibble the lettuce.”

“Not wishing to be responsible for the death of the neighboring woman, even though she might be a witch, the marksman chose to shoot the rabbit in the right front foot instead of a vital spot. The shot he fired was effective, as evidenced by the hobbling gait of the retreating rabbit and by the bloody spots left by the wounded foot. If further proof is necessary, it was furnished by the real witch, who appeared next day with a bandaged right hand carried in a sling. The lettuce and green beans were no longer molested.”

Order Witchcraft in Illinois to learn more!

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