When pioneers discovered strange balls in the stomach of their livestock, they reached for an age-old explanation: witchcraft.
Although witches were believed to bewitch by a variety of nonphysical means, occasionally they required physical aids to commit their maleficium. These included hardened spheres of animal hair called hoodoo balls or witch balls, as well as wreaths, birds, and other objects made from pillow feathers. Believers offered these items as physical proof of the existence of witchcraft.
In the early 1800s, on a place called Davis’ Prairie (also known as David’s Prairie) in Williamson County, Illinois, there lived a woman named Eva Locker, who was widely reputed to be a witch. Eva was notorious for her ability to steal milk from cows by hanging a towel over a rack or door and then, magically, wringing out the milk from the towel. According to folklorist John W. Allen, Eva also had the ability to kill cattle by shooting them with balls of hair.
Superstitious farmers found their beliefs justified when they dissected their deceased livestock and discovered these balls in their stomachs and digestive tracts. By the 1850s, however, the medical community had generally discerned a more mundane explanation.
In On the Nature and Treatment of the Diseases of Cattle (1859), Boston veterinarian George Dadd explained that some animals had a habit of licking themselves, which caused a large quantity of indigestible hair to accumulate in their stomachs. “These balls sometimes accumulate material until they are bigger than ordinary sized goose eggs,” he explained.
“It is not surprising that death ensues from the irritation of such an indigestible mass in the stomach of an ox or cow, and it is also not surprising that many deaths of cattle cannot be accounted for by their owners.” Dadd noted that “not a few people at this day” believe witchcraft was the origin of the hairballs.
These round masses of indigestible matter found in the stomach, called bezoars, have a long history in traditional medicine. “Bezoar” comes from the Persian word pād-zahr, meaning “protection from poison” or “antidote.” Hairballs are called trichobezoars. For over two millennia, the Chinese believed trichobezoars from cattle possessed medicinal properties.
While Williamson County’s Eva Locker infamously possessed the ability to kill cattle by shooting them with balls of hair, Harry Middleton Hyatt recorded several accounts of hoodoo balls in Adams County, Illinois. Possessing a vague understanding how the balls are made in the digestive tracts of cattle, a German informant told Hyatt, “A cow licks her hair and that hair goes down in the left side of the pouch and that forms a ball, and if you have one of those in your hand you can bewitch anyone.”
More concerned with the power the balls had to cause harm, an African American told Hyatt the following story. “Someone put a hoodoo ball under my mother’s front doorstep years ago and when she started to go through the door she could not move. She just stood there. They found the hoodoo ball and threw it in the stove and all kind of light shot up from it. The lights were just beautiful. My mother could walk right away as soon as that ball started to burning.” So witch balls were not just confined to the stomachs of cattle—many saved them for their alleged power.
Hoodoo balls, or witch balls, were sometimes used for good. One early pioneer of Effingham County, in south central Illinois, used them to remove spells and charms. According to William Henry Perrin, author of History of Effingham County, Illinois (1883), “These were made of deer’s and cow’s hair, were large, and held together by long string. They constituted his materia medica.”
When other pioneers presented the afflicted, “He would doctor them by standing over them, moving about in a mysterious way his witch balls and muttering a strange guttural jargon, and this was repeated from day to day until the witch would fly unseen away in sore agony and distress and the cure was complete.”
In Illinois folklore, witch balls were powerful weapons in an invisible war. In the wrong hands, they possessed the power to kill, but a skilled practitioner could turn them against their tormentor. In truth, “witch balls” were real, but their reality was far more mundane than metaphysical.
 G.H. Dadd, Dadd on the Nature and Treatment of the Diseases of Cattle (Boston: John P. Jewett and Company, 1859), 375.
 Medical Dictionary for the Health Professions and Nursing. S.v. “Bezoar.”
 Harry Middleton Hyatt, Folk-Lore from Adams County, Illinois (New York: Memoirs of the Alma Egan Hyatt Foundation, 1935), 467.
 William Henry Perrin, ed. History of Effingham County, Illinois (Chicago: O.L. Baskin & Co., Historical Publishers, 1883), 13-14.