For some Illinois pioneers, unexplained illnesses were terrifying signs of a witch’s power to spread affliction.
Disease was an ever-present threat on the nineteenth century American frontier. Smallpox, diphtheria, yellow fever, cholera, tuberculosis, food poisoning, and milk sickness were common, and their causes were not well known. Germ theory was still in its infancy. In this hostile environment, Illinois pioneers fell back on folk wisdom and superstitions passed down by their ancestors.
Milk sickness in particular plagued the Midwestern frontier, made even more frightening because its origins appeared so mysterious. It was caused by drinking milk or eating the meat of cattle that had consumed white snakeroot plant, which grows in the woods along the Ohio River and its tributaries. Symptoms included abdominal pain, severe thirst, vomiting, constipation, tremors, delirium, coma, and sudden death.
According to historian Walter J. Daly, “Ordinary settlers and their doctors found it unpredictable, untreatable, and highly fatal. Milk sickness killed many, frightened more, and caused local economic crises. Villages and farms were abandoned; livestock died; entire families were killed.”
Little by little, pioneers like Anna Pierce Hobbs of Hardin County, Illinois, learned the cause of the illness, but their knowledge and experience went unrecognized by the broader medical community. Most people could not make the connection between the milk they drank and this illness, because cattle often showed no symptoms of the disease. Pioneers turned to folk cures and dubious “medicine men” who also doubled as witch doctors. Witch doctors were needed because, according to popular belief, maleficium, and not germs, viruses, or poisoned vegetation, caused these mysterious illnesses.
So powerful were witches that many believed they could cause blindness, sickness, and even death with a touch or glance. African Americans in Adams County, Illinois advised Harry Middleton Hyatt, “If a hoodoo person wants to show you something, let them put their own hand on it. You keep yours off, for they can poison you like that,” and “This hoodoo woman could rub her hands over your eyes and you will go blind in one night; and she can rub them again over your eyes, and you can see.” Many were apprehensive about accepting gifts from suspected witches, especially food.
A German informant related the following tale to Harry Middleton Hyatt in the early 1930s. “A farmer was plowing in the field and this woman, that bewitched the horse and everything she could, was down by the fence and said to the farmer, ‘I guess you are hungry’ and gave him a sack of cookies to eat. He took the cookies. He was afraid not to. Just as soon as he got over to the other end of the field he buried them in the ground. He told me that he would not eat those cookies for anything. If he did, she would have him bewitched and he would have died.”
The afflicted blamed simple illnesses, such as food poisoning, on witchcraft. “My mother was going away on a trip about sixty years ago and I was about fourteen year old,” a German informant from Adams County told Harry Middleton Hyatt. “She didn’t want to leave me alone, because we had an old woman on our block that we thought was a witch. The woman heard mother was going away and wanted her daughter to stay with me, but mother was afraid of this woman and went and got another girl to stay with me.”
“This made the old woman angry, and just before my mother started, this old witch came to the fence and called me, and said, ‘Here is a pan of milk for you to drink.’ The pan was so full I could not carry it. She said, ‘Drink a little off of the pan, then you can carry it without spilling it.’ Not thinking, I did. And as soon as I got in the house I took real sick. I almost died and mother had to put her trip off over her bewitching that milk just because she was angry over mother not getting her girl to help me take care of things while she was away.”
Gifts from an elderly neighbor were suspect, especially if the neighbor had a negative reputation. With one bite, the victim could become seriously tormented and ill. In the following story from another German inhabitant of Adams County, Illinois, a woman narrowly escaped bewitchment after receiving a gift from a witch’s garden, but her husband succumbed after unwittingly partaking in the hexed produce.
“A neighbor gave another some cucumbers, and this woman that gave her the cucumbers could put an evil spell on you,” the informant explained. “So this woman did not eat any, but her husband did. That night after her husband went to bed, they could just hear him fighting with someone downstairs. He was lying on a couch. He told his wife that this neighbor came and was sticking him in the ribs so he could not stand it, and he scratched and scratched.”
“The next morning this man’s arms were all swollen up so he could not do anything. And this woman was so scratched up they took her to the hospital. She told at the hospital that she had a fuss at home, but it was this man that scratched her up, when she came to his couch that night in the shape of some object. This woman died, and as soon as she was dead, this man’s arms got well again and all the swellen [sic] left.”
Sharing or gift giving has traditionally been an expression of friendship or affection, gratitude, and neighborliness. The word “gift,” however, has another connotation, one not lost on the German-American population of Illinois. Gift in German means poison, and witches, through their gifts, allegedly had the power to do just that.
In two of the aforementioned stories, neighbors accepted the witch’s gifts out of common courtesy, but discarded them as soon as they could. Those who were foolish enough to partake of the gift became afflicted with horrible pains and torments. By spreading physical illness through purported acts of generosity, witches upset the balance between neighbors at a time when sharing and exchanging goods was not only common practice, it was a necessary element of community life.
 Walter J. Daly, “The ‘Slows’: The Torment of Milk Sickness on the Midwest Frontier,” Indiana Magazine of History 102 (March 2006): 30.
 Harry Middleton Hyatt, Folk-Lore from Adams County, Illinois (New York: Memoirs of the Alma Egan Hyatt Foundation, 1935), 461-462.
 Ibid., 463.
 Ibid., 470.
 Ibid., 464.