Illinois’ Miserable Superstition

How historians and journalists used witchcraft to ridicule immigrants, African Americans, and poor rural whites.

Nineteenth and early-twentieth century journalists and historians considered the persistence of witch beliefs in Illinois an embarrassing footnote in history, when they acknowledged it at all. Convinced of American progress, historians dismissed witchcraft as a “miserable superstition” and an “imaginary crime” long vanished from educated minds.[1] When it appeared, they ridiculed believers as ignorant, backwards, and even insane.

“In early times the inhabitants of Illinois were in a small degree tinctured with the absurdity and nonsense of witchcraft and fortune-telling; but in after-days this ignorant superstition has entirely disappeared,” former Governor and Congressman John Reynolds asserted in Pioneer History of Illinois (1852). “All this ignorance and nonsense have disappeared from the minds of the people by a proper education,” he concluded.[2]

Writing several decades later, attorney Milo Erwin echoed Reynolds’ sentiments. In his 1876 history of Williamson County, he asserted, “Happily for the honor of human nature, the belief in those foolish and absurd pretentions has been discontinued, for forty years by an enlightened public.”[3] Likewise, in his History of Effingham County, Illinois (1883), William Henry Perrin noted with great satisfaction, “Yet as widespread as were these beliefs in goblins and spells, there are to-day men and women in our county who grew up among such pernicious influences that will tell you of the terrifying beliefs of their childhood and laugh at them…”[4]

Even as they wrote, however, sensational stories involving witchcraft appeared in the press. In Franklin County, Illinois, just five years before Milo Erwin also claimed belief in witchcraft had been discontinued for four decades by an enlightened public, dozens of spectators flocked to a farmhouse to witness the strange spectacle of the Williams sisters, who claimed to have been bewitched. Three years later, in 1879, a Chicago man named Toby Allen complained of being tormented by a witch while he was incarcerated at the Joliet State Penitentiary.

Two years before John Reynolds asserted “this ignorant superstition has entirely disappeared”, a man in McDonough County, Illinois named James Spiva accused his neighbor’s wife of witchcraft and would have hung for her murder, if shooting her image with a silver bullet had been a crime. In 1855, his wife accused him of attempted murder when he applied an old English remedy for witchcraft and scratched her cheek with a knife while she slept.

While reporting on these accusations of witchcraft, nineteenth and early twentieth century newspaper editors used belief in magic and witchcraft to ridicule immigrants, African Americans, and poor rural whites. They attributed witch beliefs to mental illness and backwards, uneducated and undeveloped people and regions. In 1871, Chicago Tribune editors described the bewitched Williams sisters as performing nightly to “large audiences of gaping country folk.”[5] According to the editors at The Inter Ocean, “As a rule, these beliefs are only to be found in the rural districts…” and “isolated farming districts…”[6]

In 1911, the New York Times reported on a case of witchcraft in McDonough County, Illinois under the title “People Who Still Believe in Witchcraft.” The Inter Ocean reprinted the same article under the headline “Popular Belief in Witchcraft is not yet Altogether Dead.” Although the case actually occurred in the 1850s, both the Times and The Inter Ocean made it seem as though it had recently taken place, and held it up as a typical absurd story from “the rural districts.”[7]

Reporting on the Toby Allen case, the Chicago Daily Tribune editorialized, “That the old Voodoo belief should yet linger in the hearts of the more ignorant of the colored race is not surprising, but Allen is of intelligent appearance, and uses good though rather high-flown [extravagant or overblown] English. There is little doubt, however, that the unfortunate man is absolutely insane…”[8]

In October 1885, a witch-scare involving recent Polish immigrants in Decatur, Illinois, elicited the headline, “Witchcraft Charged: The Polacks Crazy on the Idea—Their Silly Charges, Ec.” The Decatur Herald concluded, “Their lamentable ignorance and superstition can have no cure…”[9] Editors at the Decatur Morning Review were more generous, suggesting, “The Polanders may know better than to believe in witchcraft after they have lived longer in this country.”[10]

When, in 1904, a young woman in Quincy, Illinois named Bessie Bement committed suicide after visiting a witch doctor to obtain a cure for what she believed to be an evil spell, the Quincy Daily Whig was incredulous that such a man had been allowed to set up shop in the “enlightened” city of Quincy.[11] A century had passed between the time when the first Anglo-American settlers arrived in the Illinois Country and Bessie Bement’s suicide, yet beliefs that were often dismissed as ignorance in uneducated pioneers continued to find a receptive audience.

These journalists and historians held an unshakable belief in American progress. They used witchcraft to illustrate the coarse, uneducated beliefs of the pioneers, which contrasted the rapid development and modernization documented throughout their books. This assertion underlined a narrative of progress, which traced Illinois history from a primitive, natural state to a bustling modern society.

When confronted by the endurance of belief in magic, witches, and folk remedies, men like William Henry Perrin blamed it for retarding the development of civilization in Illinois. “These ignorant superstitions, sucked by the babes with the milk from the mother’s [breast], have done far more to beat back the cause of civilization among the common people… Their tendency was to breed ignorance, to raise up a people that believed enormously, that never questioned, never doubted, but the more impossible the story the more implicitly they believed.”[12]

In the decades that followed, historians altogether ignored the subject of magic and witchcraft in Frontier Illinois, and journalists began to take a less judgemental view. New attitudes regarding tolerance of unconventional beliefs made their way into the newsroom, and journalists approached the subject with a more open mind. As for belief in magic and witchcraft, it did not disappear, but continues to live on to the present day.

To read more about the history of witchcraft in Illinois, check out my book Witchcraft in Illinois: A Cultural History. Order it today on Amazon.com or Barnesandnoble.com


[1] Alexander Davidson and Bernard Stuvé, A Complete History of Illinois from 1673 to 1873 (Springfield: D. L. Phillips, 1877), 230.

[2] John Reynolds, The Pioneer History of Illinois (Belleville: N. A. Randall, 1852; reprint, Chicago: Fergus Printing Company, 1887), 174.

[3] Milo Erwin, History of Williamson County, Illinois (Marion: publisher unknown, 1876), 62.

[4] William Henry Perrin, ed. History of Effingham County, Illinois (Chicago: O.L. Baskin & Co., Historical Publishers, 1883), 14.

 [5] Chicago Tribune (Chicago) 9 July 1871.

[6] The Inter Ocean (Chicago) 29 May 1904.

[7] New York Times (New York) 30 July 1911; The Inter Ocean (Chicago) 29 October 1911.

[8] Daily Tribune (Chicago) 19 April 1879.

[9] The Decatur Herald (Decatur) 13 October 1885.

[10] The Morning Review (Decatur) 13 October 1885.

[11] Daily Whig (Quincy) 28 September 1904.

[12] Perrin, 14.

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Author: Michael Kleen

Michael Kleen is an author, raconteur, and occasional traveler. He has a M.A. in History and M.S. in Education. He enjoys studying military history, folklore, and philosophy.

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