Mysterious America

Folk Magic in Illinois

The following is an excerpt from my new book Witchcraft in Illinois: A Cultural History. In this chapter I discuss folk magic, or popular charms and conjurations similar to witchcraft, intended to bring good fortune to oneself and suffering to an enemy. Order it today on or

The work of folklorist Harry Middleton Hyatt revealed that there were, quite possibly, three types of aspiring magic users on the Illinois frontier. While witches were people who purportedly sold their soul to the devil in exchange for occult powers, and witch masters used magic to combat witches, there also existed a third category: the common person, who attempted to use magic to gain advantage over his or her neighbors.

In the course of interviewing residents of Adams County about their beliefs regarding witchcraft, dozens of informants from all backgrounds told Hyatt how to influence people and events through magical means, without the aid of an emissary.

These accounts included simple superstitions like “If you have not seen anyone for a long time, take their picture and put it behind the looking-glass and they will come soon,” as well as more elaborate rituals and potions. For example, “If you want to put a spell on someone, take a bottle and put a penny in it and two live cockroaches, and put it on their doorstep so the party will have to pick it up. And you will have a spell over them as long as they have the bottle in their hand.”

Though closely resembling the magic allegedly used by witches and witch masters/doctors, users did not consider themselves to be either, much like a person who rotates his or her own car tires does not consider him or herself to be a mechanic.

If these informants are to be believed, a rich subculture of folk magic existed in Adams County. The lack of this folk magic in other folklore accounts could mean that Adams County was somehow unique among other counties in Illinois, or it could mean folklorists like John W. Allen and Charles Neely did not record them. Legends & Lore of Southern Illinois (1963) only hinted at these beliefs.

John W. Allen observed that Southern Illinoisans had particular superstitions about animals, amphibians, weather, and the celestial bodies. For instance, “Everyone knew that the worm of a rail fence should be laid in the light of the moon,” he explained. “Unless this precaution was observed, the bottom rails would sink into the ground. When laid during the moon’s increase, the rails remained on the surface of the ground, lasted longer, and besides, the fence remained a bit higher.”

Likewise, bacon from hogs killed in the light of the moon was allegedly meager and fatty, while bacon from hogs killed in the waning phase of the moon was juicier and retained its bulk.

Only one bit of folk magic appeared in Allen’s collection of Southern Illinois folklore—a spell for blinding an enemy using a frog. “Anyone wishing to bring misfortune upon another can do so by proper use of a frog,” he explained. “To do this, the frog is captured, placed in a jar and allowed to starve and dry. It is then ground into powder and some of this powder is placed beneath the hatband of the intended victim. Blindness will result.”

An anonymous African American resident of Adams County prescribed a nearly identical method in Folk-Lore from Adams County, Illinois (1935). “If you are mad at someone and you want to do them harm, take a frog and put it in a bottle and let it starve, then dry that frog and make a powder of it, and put that powder under their hatband without them knowing it, and the poison will go down in their eyes and they will go blind,” he explained.

At the very least, this shows that this particular bit of folk magic appeared in both southern and western Illinois. Perhaps others did as well, but were never recorded.

Order Witchcraft in Illinois to learn more!

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