The following is an excerpt from my new book Witchcraft in Illinois: A Cultural History. The case of the “Melrose Park Witch” shows not only that witch beliefs were common in urban areas, but that witch doctors, or white witches, sometimes ran afoul of the law, despite good intentions. Order it today on Amazon.com or Barnesandnoble.com
The line between witch and witch doctor sometimes blurred. As the First World War raged overseas and Chicagoans prepared to celebrate Thanksgiving, a modern-day witch hunt threatened to erupt in the near-western suburb of Melrose Park. Incorporated along the Des Plaines River in 1882, the Village of Melrose Park was predominantly settled by Italian immigrants.
In 1915 and 1916, an elderly woman named Carmella Vosella became known as the “Melrose Park Witch,” though she insisted she was Christian and only used her powers for good. Carmella’s practice of selling old Italian charms and folk remedies came to light in a series of legal proceedings that had Melrose Park Police Chief Henry Pein vowing, “We are going to rid Melrose Park of witchcraft.”
On Saturday November 20, 1915, a man named Tony LaRocca appeared in a courtroom in the neighboring suburb of Oak Park to answer charges that he threatened Mrs. Carmella Vosella with a revolver. At the trial, LaRocca caused a sensation by claiming Carmella was a witch and “chaser of devils” who beat the devils out of their human hosts.
“All of which may be efficacious for devils, but inconvenient anatomically,” quipped the Chicago Daily Tribune. Following the trial, Dr. P.B. Klonks, Melrose Park board of health president, called the charges “bunk,” despite the insistence of LaRocca’s attorney, Clarence Baseler, to the contrary.
Not everyone in Melrose Park considered the accusations of witchcraft bunk. On the night of Tuesday, November 23rd, police arrested Carmella at her home on North 21st Avenue following interviews with her alleged victims conducted by Village Board President Charles J. Wolf and Chief Pein.
Henry Pein was appointed Melrose Park’s first police chief a year earlier. He was a clean cut man with a tidy mustache whose uniform included a large white derby and black bowtie. In 1923, Pein was shot in the arm and pelvis while trying to apprehend a suspect. He survived and retired six years later.
Among the alleged victims was Carmelia DeMarco, who accused Carmella of causing the death of her son. Carmella was the boy’s godmother. She was arraigned before Judge Frank R. Vosburgh the next day, and Vosburgh continued the case until December 1st to permit further investigation by police. Chief Pein delivered his evidence to State’s Attorney Hoyne and announced the village would seek charges against Carmella for running a confidence game.
Father Benjamin Franche, pastor of Mount Carmel Catholic Church, alleged there were more witches in Melrose Park, but Village President Wolf found that allegation groundless. “The only other person who might be engaged in sorcery is Mrs. Vosella’s brother-in-law,” he told the Chicago Examiner.
“This man, whose name we have not learned, was mentioned in the charges against Mrs. Vosella, and is now under police surveillance. We have no real evidence against him yet.”
While Carmella denied taking her accuser’s money, she did not deny helping them with the aid of supernatural means. “No, I can’t tell you [what] I used to cure them,” she said. “It is a secret, but it is nothing wrong. I never beat or threatened anyone.”
She continued, “Look at this crucifix. I always carry it, and yet they say I get my powers from the devil. The policeman told me I would have to go before the grand jury, and all because the people I have tried to help have gone crazy.” Her attorney, Geatane C. Guarini, countered the charges by arguing that “other witches operated unmolested in the village.”
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