Decatur, Illinois’ 1885 witch scare shows how immigrants brought belief in witchcraft to urban areas.
Founded in 1823, Decatur is an industrial city straddling the Sangamon River in central Illinois. It was an important juncture of the Wabash, Illinois Central, and Baltimore & Ohio railroads. In 1885, its population had grown to roughly 13,000. Recent Eastern European immigrants, particularly from Poland, crowded into Decatur’s Fifth Ward, located on the city’s far northeast side along the Illinois Central Railroad. That year, a controversy erupted over a 50-year-old woman who neighbors suspected of being a witch.
In October 1885, the woman, who lived at the east end of Condit Street, appeared at an attorney’s office downtown and inquired about bringing a lawsuit against her neighbors, who were harassing her and accusing her of witchcraft. Soon after moving to Decatur, she alleged, a neighborhood boy named Starbati died, followed by the son of a man named Nalefski (or Nowleski).
Another child recently became sick, and neighbors accused her of giving the child a bewitched drink. Rumors quickly spread through the tight-knit Polish settlement. According to The Decatur Herald, neighbors ostracized the woman, and when she passed by, pointed their fingers at her and said, “Da geht die alte Hexe,” a German phrase meaning, “There goes the old witch.”
When a reporter visited the neighborhood, its residents were eager to share their stories of encounters with “the witch,” whose identity remained anonymous. “I went to a neighbor’s well and got water,” one woman said. “The old witch was there and talked to me. She bewitched me and I went into the house and fell down in a faint.” According to another, “She shuffles cards and decides who of us are to die, who are to be sick, and who are to be afflicted with sores. She decides also by coffee grounds.”
On Sunday, October 11, the neighbors gathered in small groups after church to gossip about the witch. They accused her of causing “felons and runarounds,” boils, and rheumatism to appear. “She gave one child brain fever, and it died,” they said. “Another is sick. We must stop her.”
According to The Decatur Herald, the Polish residents of that neighborhood attended a Lutheran church led by Rev. Landgraf “whom they reverence and believe without question.” Rev. George Landgraf led St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in 1880, when the congregation erected a small brick church with a single steeple at West Wood and Edward streets. That was the church the “superstitious Poles” attended.
Prospects for this immigrant community appeared bleak, if you believed the newspaper editors. The Decatur Herald concluded, “Their lamentable ignorance and superstition can have no cure…” 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.”
This was the first publicized case of recent European immigrants bringing witch beliefs to Illinois, but it would not be the last. Chicago furnished many more examples. Like Chicago, Decatur grew up around industry, manufacturing, and railroads. It was not the rural backcountry were belief in witchcraft allegedly held sway. At the dawn of the twentieth century, like the French, Anglo-Americans, and German Americans before them, immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe, clinging to their folkways, refreshed and renewed witchcraft in Illinois.
 The Decatur Herald (Decatur) 13 October 1885.
 Mabel E. Richmond, Centennial History of Decatur and Macon County (Decatur: The Decatur Review, 1930), 178.
 The Morning Review (Decatur) 13 October 1885.