Mysterious America

Defeating Witches

The following is an excerpt from my new book Witchcraft in Illinois: A Cultural History. Part Two explores beliefs about witchcraft, including counter magic and how witches were identified. Order it today on or

While many Illinois pioneers feared witches, they also believed there were ways to combat maleficium and eliminate witches. For every hex, there was a counter-hex, and the methods for removing hexes were as diverse as the afflictions they were meant to cure. Pins, nails, needles, knives, silver, and a variety of spices were all employed in the fight against witchcraft. Boiling and burning were also utilized.

If a witch proved too powerful for folk remedies, the afflicted called for the aid of witch doctors or witch masters. Curiously, although believers in witchcraft identified it as the work of the devil, few witch cures had religious connotations. Illinois residents of German descent had several remedies involving crosses or cross-shaped objects, but the majority of cures were secular.

Witch masters were also secular figures, and although there are a few stories of the afflicted calling on pastors or priests, they more often than not sought help from witch doctors, hoodoo doctors, “wizards,” or other individuals with purported supernatural power.

Before the hex could be broken or the witch destroyed, however, he or she had to be identified. Identification of the witch could involve something as simple as noticing unusual behavior or witnessing the witch perform some incredible feat.

In the early 1930s, an African American informant from Adams County, Illinois explained to folklorist Harry Middleton Hyatt, “About eight years ago I was running with a witch and didn’t know it until one day we were out picking some fruit, and she was all dressed in black. All at once I look and she was gone. Then she appear right away wearing a white dress. Then I knew she was a witch.”

In many witch tales, narrators explained that the accused parties were known to be witches for many years, suggesting that some Illinoisans identified their neighbors as witches through patterns of behavior and other interactions over a long period of time. Characters like Eva Locker and Mary Toombs in southern Illinois developed regional reputations for their purported abilities.

While witches could be detected through simple observation, many Illinoisans employed methods to determine whether they had been bewitched. In the following story, a German American informant told Hyatt about a method involving dropping sticks in water. Reminiscent of the eighteenth century practice of witch dunking, if the wood floated (as it did naturally) there was no maleficium at work. If the wood sank, then maleficium was confirmed.

He explained, “A man had a bunch of hogs. They were sick all the time. He just could not get them fat. One day he told a neighbor about his sick hogs. This neighbor said, ‘Maybe someone has them bewitched. I will tell you how to find out. You take nine pieces of wood and drop them in a tub of water and if they sink, the hogs are bewitched; if they stay on the top of the water, they are not.’ So the farmer drop the nine pieces of wood in the tub and every stick went to the bottom.”

Others used more surreptitious methods. According to one Illinois resident of Irish descent, “If you want to find out if anyone is a witch, place a pair of open scissors under her chair; and if she is a witch, she will not be able to get up out of the chair.” More often than not, detection of the witch involved refusing to loan a household product to a neighbor. If the neighbor continued to beg and insist, or became ill, believers identified him or her as the guilty party.

Order Witchcraft in Illinois to learn more!

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