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 Amazon.com or Barnesandnoble.com
Witches also allegedly used wreaths, birds, and other figures made from pillow feathers to torment their victims. Night after night, believers imagined, the witch snuck into the victim’s bedroom, pulled a partially completed feather wreath from his or her pillow, carefully completed another section, and placed it back in the pillowcase.
As long as the figure remained embedded there, the victim suffered. Folklorist Harry Middleton Hyatt recorded over a dozen accounts of these feather fetishes among the German population of Adams County. In nearly every tale, the victim suffers from an illness for which doctors have no cure.
Only the timely intervention of a concerned individual, having knowledge of the existence of witchcraft, can save them. If the witch was allowed to complete this bizarre creation, the victim died.
“I think that if you find a wreath of feathers in your pillow, you have been hexed and will die if your wreath is finished; and if it is not, you won’t die until it is,” a 12-year-old German girl explained to Hyatt.
“My reasons are that I know a lady who had been hexed, and they opened her pillow and found a wreath that was not quite finished, and they left it there awhile; and in a week she died, and they opened her pillow and found that the wreath was finished.”
Another informant told him, “I had a niece that had been sick a long time. Some of the family thought she was bewitched, so they opened her pillow and found several pretty wreaths. They were all finished, and she died. If the folks had of found those wreaths before they were finished, she would not have died.”
The following is a typical story featuring all the elements of the feather wreath motif: a child suffering from an unknown illness, a concerned neighbor with knowledge of witchcraft, the unfinished wreath, and the exposure of the witch. It comes from Belleville, Illinois, which is located east of St. Louis. A woman named Mrs. John Becker related it to Miss Irene Mache, who told it to folklorist Charles Neely.
“Doctors seemed to be at a loss as to just what was troubling Clarence Manners. The child had been ill for a period of five weeks, getting weaker day by day. One day a neighbor came in to see Clarence and told his mother doctors could do the child little good, for he was bewitched. She suggested they look into the pillow upon which Clarence rested his head.”
“Upon opening the pillow a wreath formed by the feathers was found. The wreath was not entirely finished, the neighbor explained, and for that reason Clarence was still alive. At the suggestion of the neighbor the wreath was placed on a chair and a rope was used to beat it until it was demolished.”
Coincidentally, at the same time bruises appeared all over an old lady living in the neighborhood, indicating that she was the culprit. After Mrs. Manners destroyed the wreath, her son recovered. Although Neely did not reveal the ethnicity of his informant, nineteenth century Belleville was a predominantly German community. By 1870, an estimated 90 percent of the city’s population was either German born or of German descent.
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