Silver Bullets and Silver Tea–Pioneer Remedies for Witchcraft

For over a century, Illinois pioneers believed silver was a powerful weapon against witchcraft.

Using a silver bullet to kill a werewolf is a common feature of modern horror movies and fiction, but pioneers once considered silver a powerful remedy for witchcraft. Typical counter-magic called for a witch’s effigy to be shot with a silver bullet, or for a more passive approach, a dime inserted into a shoe.

In nineteenth century Illinois, coins were the most readily available source of silver. Before the Coinage Act of 1965, dimes consisted of around 90 percent silver and 10 percent copper. In addition to being composed of precious metals, dimes issued prior to 1837 were slightly larger than today, with a diameter of 18.8 millimeters and mass of between 2.5 to 2.67 grams. Dimes could be worn as amulets, boiled in water, or melted down and molded into bullets.

Pioneers also manufactured silver bullets by drilling a hole in a musket ball and inserting a folded dime. Smoothbore muskets, which were still in use on the frontier after the development of the rifled musket in the 1840s, were versatile weapons that could fire a variety of homemade ammunition. Witch tales frequently ended with the protagonist drawing an effigy of the witch and shooting it with these silver bullets, which either broke the spell or destroyed the witch.

The improvement and increase in popularity of breech-loading rifles and standardized ammunition gradually eliminated this practice.

In this typical tale, told by an Irish informant from Adams County, Illinois to folklorist Harry Middleton Hyatt, the process by which the protagonist manufactured a silver bullet was explained in detail. “Some people were living by a witch and she was always borrowing from them or giving something,” he said. “They always had trouble. She came to the house one day and wanted to borrow lard. The man of the house said, ‘No. And I don’t want you to come here any more.’ The witch said, ‘You’ must let me have the lard for I am sick and must have it.’”

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Witchcraft in Chicago’s Stockyards

The strange case of Mary Vogel and Augusta Wilke is a fascinating glimpse into a WW1-era Chicago neighborhood.

At the turn of the twentieth century, Chicago was known as a hub for the meat packing industry. Thousands of immigrants, particularly from Eastern Europe, flooded into the southwest side Back of the Yards neighborhood to work at the Union Stock Yards. Upton Sinclair famously wrote about this area in his 1906 novel The Jungle.

These immigrants, mainly Bohemians, Moravians, and Slovakians, brought their folk beliefs with them when they came to the Windy City, including a strong belief in witchcraft. We will never know how many accusations, confrontations, and strained relationships this belief caused, but occasionally an accusation of witchcraft made its way to the courthouse and into the press.

Victor Sleeth was an assistant superintendent for Armour & Co., the meatpacking company that defined Chicago’s Back of the Yards neighborhood. Armour & Co. opened in Chicago in 1867 and by 1910 employed over 8,700 people at the Union Stockyards.

Victor’s 22-year-old wife, Mary, had contracted consumption. She was in the advanced stages of the disease when her sister, 21-year-old Augusta Wilke, an assistant foreman at Armour & Co., called in a 50-year-old nurse named Mary Vogel.

Vogel attended to Mary Sleeth for a month, until Mary died on February 2, 1919. On Monday, February 24, William L. Sehlke, a masseur and husband to Mary Vogel’s other sister, Martha, went to the Stockyards police to ask for warrants for the arrest of Mary Vogel and Augusta Wilke.

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Beware a Witch’s Gift

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.”[1]

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.

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“There Goes the Old Witch”

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.”[1]

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The Embrace Of Thanatos

“Thanatos,” a monument to John E. Hubbard (1847-1899), in Green Mount Cemetery at 250 State Street (U.S. Route 2) in the City of Montpelier, Washington County, Vermont. John Erastus Hubbard was a controversial figure. He allegedly duplicitously gained a sizable inheritance from his aunt, Fanny Hubbard Kellogg, who intended her wealth to benefit the City of Montpelier. The controversy surrounding the will tarnished Hubbard’s reputation.

John E. Hubbard (1847-1899)

Upon his death in 1899, Hubbard did leave the fortune to Montpelier, and some of his wealth went toward building a gate and chapel at Green Mount Cemetery. An Austrian artist named Karl Bitter designed his monument, calling it “Thanatos” after the Greek god of death. One side of the inscription reads:

Approach thy grave
Like one who wraps
The Drapery of his couch
About him and lies down
To pleasant dream

According to legend, bad luck will befall anyone foolish enough to sit on the figure’s lap (popularly called Black Agnus).

Isabella’s Spectral Form Chills Guests at Geneva’s Belhurst Castle

The ghost of an elegant opera singer is said to wander the grounds of this 19th-Century mansion in New York’s Finger Lakes.

Designed by architectural firm Fuller & Wheeler and built between 1885 and 1889 for Mrs. Carrie M. Young Harron Collins, Belhurst Castle is a Romanesque Revival-style mansion on Seneca Lake in Geneva, New York. The property has a long and colorful history, and is rumored to be haunted by several ghosts, including an opera singer named Isabella.

In 1824, an English lawyer named Joseph Fellows acquired rights to the property and built a home called the Hermitage, which he leased to a mysterious man named Henry Hall. “Henry Hall” was actually the assumed name of William Henry Bucke, who fled to the United States from London, where he had been treasurer of Covent Garden Theater. Bucke had embezzled theater funds and married his stepmother, who according to legend was an actress or opera singer named Isabella. Bucke died in 1852 of an untreated injury.

Harrison G. Otis purchased the property and named it ‘Bellehurst,’ or “beautiful forest”. The Otis family lived there until 1878, when it was taken over by the United States Trust Company. Local residents picnicked in “Otis Grove” in the shadow of the abandoned Hermitage, and spun yarns about escape tunnels William Henry Bucke/Henry Hall had built leading to Seneca Lake. The old house, they said, was haunted.

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Sturges Park: A Lesson in Legend Formation

Pinpointing the exact origin of a legend is rare, so this example from Minnesota is invaluable to folklorists.

I once listed Sturges Park in Buffalo, Minnesota as the fifth most haunted park in the Midwest in a Top 10 list on my old website Mysterious Heartland (to be fair, there aren’t many haunted parks). In response, Mac Loomis of Hoofprint.net published an article revealing the true story behind the park’s legend.

Historically, Alfred E. Sturges and his wife Adelaide opened this five-acre plot of land to the public in 1903. The City of Buffalo purchased the park in 1958. According to legend, Mr. Sturgis’ ghost reportedly haunts the park, and visitors have also seen orbs of light dancing through the trees. It is also rumored that names written in blood appear on the bathroom mirrors.

According to Mac Loomis and Ryan McCallum, an English teacher at Buffalo High School, the source of this legend is none other than Ryan McCallum himself. He says:

“It was 1987, I was a bored and lonely kid because I had just moved here from Arizona. My class took a field trip and I didn’t have anyone to go with, so I went down to the lake and found a huge dead carp. I had an idea. I started cutting it open with a stick. I brought [the fish parts] to the girls’ bathroom and started smearing it all over. I wrote ‘help me’ and ‘you’re next’ and put the eyeballs on either side of the sink handles. When my classmates asked why I didn’t do anything I told them that I was going to the bathroom but I saw horrifying things, and I saw a ghost. I saw Old Man Sturges.”

The legend spread from there. You can read the rest of the article at this link.

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