The following is an excerpt from my new book Witchcraft in Illinois: A Cultural History. Part Two explores beliefs about witchcraft, including witch doctors and witch masters called upon to break hexes. Order it today on Amazon.com or Barnesandnoble.com
When folk cures failed, superstitious Illinoisans turned to witch doctors, hoodoo doctors, “wizards,” or other individuals with purported supernatural power. Based on folklore accounts and newspaper articles, witch doctors apparently offered their services in Illinois and neighboring states as late as the 1930s.
When none were available in their area, Illinoisans crossed the Mississippi River to cities like Hannibal, Missouri and Keokuk, Iowa to obtain their services. It makes sense that people who believed themselves to be suffering from witchcraft would seek a cure, and that some enterprising individuals would step forward to provide that cure.
The witch doctor is found in many cultures, but the American frontier tradition was directly imported from Great Britain. Many seventeenth and eighteenth century English pamphlets, like the Old-Bayly proceedings report for June 1-2, 1682, mention witch doctors, whose methods often differed little from the witches they sought to combat.
The Old-Bayly report concerned the trial of a sixty-year-old woman named Jane Kent, who was indicted for “using several Diabolick arts” involving the death of a five-year-old girl named Elizabeth Chamblet. Elizabeth’s father had sold the elderly woman two pigs, but refused to relinquish them without receiving payment beforehand. Soon after, his daughter Elizabeth “fell into a most piteous condition, swelling all over her body,” and later died.
Fearing for his wife’s safety, the father consulted a doctor who “advised him to take a quart of his wives water [urine], the pairing of her nails, some of her hair, and such like, and boyl them.” After mixing the concoction, he swore that Jane Kent screamed in pain and became bloated.
Other persons testified that the old woman had a teat on her back and other unusual marks. Despite that testimony, the jury found her not guilty because she produced “evidence that she had lived honestly, and was a great pains-taker, and that she went to church.”
On the Illinois frontier, there was often no distinction between a doctor who treated common illnesses and one who combatted witchcraft. These men carried on the tradition of the old English concept of the “good” or “white” witch.
According to H.C. Bradsby, editor of History of Bureau County, Illinois, “The first step toward a cure probably was the appearance of the ‘wizards.’ These were men, witch doctors, who were supposed to possess all the evil power of the witches, but instead of generally exercising them for bad purposes they would cure those afflicted by witches, and in many occult ways thwart the spirits in their fell works.”
“These witch doctors boldly stood in the way of the malevolent influences of the bad spirits. Hence they were called witch-masters, and from patient to patient they practiced their profession as regular physicians.”
Residents of Adams County, Illinois ascribed a variety of powers to witch doctors. According to one German American resident, a woman must go to a male witch doctor and a man must visit a female witch doctor if they fell victim to a hex. According to another, “A witch doctor can tell if you are bewitched when he looks at you, for if you are, he will see white clouds floating around you.”
Others utilized the age-old remedy of silver to aid their diagnosis. “If you are sick, a hoodoo doctor can tell if you are sick or hoodoo by putting a dime in your mouth, if the dime turns black, you are hoodoo; if it don’t, you are just sick,” an African American informant explained.
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