Category Archives: Folklore

Witches in Illinois Folklore

The following is an excerpt from my new book Witchcraft in Illinois: A Cultural History. In this chapter, I discuss popular legends involving witches and “witch graves” that sprang up in the later half of the nineteenth century. Order it today on Amazon.com or Barnesandnoble.com

No exploration of witchcraft in Illinois would be complete without discussing various witch legends in local folklore. A legend is a nonhistorical or unverifiable story handed down by tradition and popularly accepted as historical. This can include popular stories about certain individuals with purported magical powers. Many witch legends are centered on “witch graves,” which have became objects of legend tripping.

Legend tripping is the act of traveling to a site that is alleged to have been the scene of some tragic, horrific, and possibly supernatural event or haunting. Often performed at night, visitors go to test the validity of the legend—as well as their courage. Witch graves can also be places of veneration. Visitors take pictures and leave coins and other tokens of their sympathy.

According to local legend, witches are buried in at least four Illinois cemeteries, including Baker Cemetery in Crawford County, St. Omer Cemetery in Coles County, Chesterville Cemetery in Douglas County, and Whitaker/Methodist Church Cemetery in St. Clair County.

As legends, the backstories behind these burials are pseudohistorical, meaning it is likely the subjects were never suspected of being witches or may never have existed. In some cases, legends may have developed around certain graves simply because they were unusual or appeared “strange” or “creepy.”

An unusual family monument in St. Omer Cemetery, outside the small town of Ashmore in Coles County, for example, has spawned a legend that Caroline Barnes, one of four people buried under the large stone, was put to death in the 1800s for practicing witchcraft. It is said that no pictures can be taken of her monument, and that it glows on moonless nights. Made of granite, the Barnes family monument is shaped like a large orb resting atop a base of crisscrossed logs. Some visitors describe it as a crystal ball atop a pyre.

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Folk Magic in Illinois

The following is an excerpt from my new book Witchcraft in Illinois: A Cultural History. In this chapter I discuss folk magic, or popular charms and conjurations similar to witchcraft, intended to bring good fortune to oneself and suffering to an enemy. Order it today on Amazon.com or Barnesandnoble.com

The work of folklorist Harry Middleton Hyatt revealed that there were, quite possibly, three types of aspiring magic users on the Illinois frontier. While witches were people who purportedly sold their soul to the devil in exchange for occult powers, and witch masters used magic to combat witches, there also existed a third category: the common person, who attempted to use magic to gain advantage over his or her neighbors.

In the course of interviewing residents of Adams County about their beliefs regarding witchcraft, dozens of informants from all backgrounds told Hyatt how to influence people and events through magical means, without the aid of an emissary.

These accounts included simple superstitions like “If you have not seen anyone for a long time, take their picture and put it behind the looking-glass and they will come soon,” as well as more elaborate rituals and potions. For example, “If you want to put a spell on someone, take a bottle and put a penny in it and two live cockroaches, and put it on their doorstep so the party will have to pick it up. And you will have a spell over them as long as they have the bottle in their hand.”

Though closely resembling the magic allegedly used by witches and witch masters/doctors, users did not consider themselves to be either, much like a person who rotates his or her own car tires does not consider him or herself to be a mechanic.

If these informants are to be believed, a rich subculture of folk magic existed in Adams County. The lack of this folk magic in other folklore accounts could mean that Adams County was somehow unique among other counties in Illinois, or it could mean folklorists like John W. Allen and Charles Neely did not record them. Legends & Lore of Southern Illinois (1963) only hinted at these beliefs.

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Witch Doctors in Illinois

The following is an excerpt from my new book Witchcraft in Illinois: A Cultural History. Part Two explores beliefs about witchcraft, including witch doctors and witch masters called upon to break hexes. Order it today on Amazon.com or Barnesandnoble.com

When folk cures failed, superstitious Illinoisans turned to witch doctors, hoodoo doctors, “wizards,” or other individuals with purported supernatural power. Based on folklore accounts and newspaper articles, witch doctors apparently offered their services in Illinois and neighboring states as late as the 1930s.

When none were available in their area, Illinoisans crossed the Mississippi River to cities like Hannibal, Missouri and Keokuk, Iowa to obtain their services. It makes sense that people who believed themselves to be suffering from witchcraft would seek a cure, and that some enterprising individuals would step forward to provide that cure.

The witch doctor is found in many cultures, but the American frontier tradition was directly imported from Great Britain. Many seventeenth and eighteenth century English pamphlets, like the Old-Bayly proceedings report for June 1-2, 1682, mention witch doctors, whose methods often differed little from the witches they sought to combat.

The Old-Bayly report concerned the trial of a sixty-year-old woman named Jane Kent, who was indicted for “using several Diabolick arts” involving the death of a five-year-old girl named Elizabeth Chamblet. Elizabeth’s father had sold the elderly woman two pigs, but refused to relinquish them without receiving payment beforehand. Soon after, his daughter Elizabeth “fell into a most piteous condition, swelling all over her body,” and later died.

Fearing for his wife’s safety, the father consulted a doctor who “advised him to take a quart of his wives water [urine], the pairing of her nails, some of her hair, and such like, and boyl them.” After mixing the concoction, he swore that Jane Kent screamed in pain and became bloated.

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A Trip to Bonaparte’s Cave State Forest

In 1814, Napoleon Bonaparte’s eldest brother, Joseph, who Napoleon installed as king of Spain for several years, fled Europe to the wilderness in Upstate New York. His property became Lake Bonaparte and Bonaparte’s Cave State Forest, located off New York State Route 3 northwest of Harrisville.

According to local legend, his family eluded hired assassins by hiding out in the rocky ledges and small caves on the northwest edge of what is today known as Green Pond. He also supposedly hid Spanish treasure nearby. The following video is my first attempt to make a travel/adventure video. Enjoy!

Shapeshifting and Familiars

The following is an excerpt from my new book Witchcraft in Illinois: A Cultural History. Part Two explores beliefs about witchcraft, including a witch’s powers and abilities, which were surprisingly specific. Order it today on Amazon.com or Barnesandnoble.com

Shapeshifting was a common theme in witch tales. Storytellers claimed witches could transform into any number of animals, including deer, rabbits, cats, pigs, and horses. Others claimed that witches transformed their victims into animals.

Witches who transformed men into horses while they slept and rode them to the Sabbath caused their victims to experience physical and mental exhaustion. Others changed children into animals in order to take revenge against their parents.

A common story, repeated many times and in many locations, involved a game animal that was particularly difficult to hunt. The hunter (usually described as a skilled marksman) found his best efforts frustrated until he loaded his musket or rifle with a silver bullet.

Finally wounding the animal, the hunter pursued his quarry only to discover a neighbor crippled in the same location where he shot his prey. However, silver bullets did not need to cause the wound. Any injury to the magical animal caused an identical injury on the witch, revealing his or her identity.

Charles Neely, Sr. related the following story to his son, folklorist Charles Neely, who explained that the story circulated the Alcorn Creek neighborhood of Pope County, Illinois. Pope County is located at the southeastern tip of the state, just north of the junction of the Ohio and Tennessee rivers.

“Uncle Wesley Holt, who was an old settler and part Indian, saw a deer galloping around the field. Being an expert marksman with the old cap and ball rifle, Uncle Wesley decided to have some venison. He shot at the deer and it galloped away. For several days it galloped around the field. Uncle Wesley shot at it several times but failed to kill it. He knew that his marksmanship was good, so he decided that there was something uncanny about the deer.”

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Camp Napowan Gypsy Curse: An Analysis

This week, I brought you the legend of “Boot Hill” in three parts. Read parts one, two, and three. The legend of “Boot Hill” comes from Napowan Scout Camp, located near Wild Rose in the pine forests of central Wisconsin, next to Hills Lake and Lake Napowan. In the early 1990s, when I was a member of Boy Scout Troop 22 based in Des Plaines (now defunct), I went to Camp Napowan for two, week-long excursions, where I heard the legend told around a campfire.

Your humble writer/transcriber as a Cub Scout at Camp Napowan

An audio version was available in the mid-1990s. I searched for years to find it, until I finally tracked someone down who owned a copy and sent it to me as a .wav file. While every summer camp has its founding legend, the tale of Camp Napowan’s Gypsy Curse is compellingly rich in detail and carefully interwoven with historical events.

Legends are known as folk history, or quasi-history. They are retold as a way of explaining strange occurrences and are passed on in order to warn or inform others about these unprovable events. While many legends conform to certain general themes and motifs, they acquire their credibility from localized details inserted by individual storytellers. The more details there are, the more truthful the legend appears to its audience.

The tale of Camp Napowan’s Gypsy Curse and “Boot Hill” is a nearly perfect legend. Not only is it asserted to be true, but great care is taken to establish its veracity by tying the tale to specific  people and events, making it part of oral folk history. The listener is invited to check the record and examine the physical environment to prove the story is true.

“Go to Boot Hill and look for yourself,” the narrator urges. “At the top of the hill is Split Rock, the rock that the Chieftain melted through during that fateful summer. This split is not natural. It has a 4 inch gap going through the middle that could not have been caused by erosion, frost action, lightning, or any other natural occurrence.”

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Camp Napowan Gypsy Curse, Part 3

Join me for the conclusion of our retelling of the story of Camp Napowan’s Boot Hill. Owned and operated by the Northwest Suburban Council of the Boy Scouts of America in central Wisconsin, Camp Napowan is home to an interesting legend passed down one summer to the next. To my knowledge, this is the only retelling of the tale available on the Internet. It is an edited transcription of an audio recording made available in the early-to-mid 1990s. Click here to read Part 1 and here to read Part 2.

Your humble writer/transcriber and friends at Camp Napowan, c. 1990

The summers went by without incident, until 1959. During the fifth week of summer camp, a couple of Scouts went up to Boot Hill even though they were not supposed to. They saw a strange black cat with a white paw. It look at them with intense eyes, and ran away into the forest. The two Scouts suddenly fell ill, and went to the health office. After they told the health officer what happened, he too became sick. Before the end of the day, everyone in camp was sick with diarrhea, cold sweats, and dizziness. The Health Department was asked to come in and determine what was causing the illness, but despite their experience, it was a mystery to them. After two weeks of quarantine, everyone at camp suddenly got better.

In the early 1960s, the Northwest Suburban Council decided to open Boot Hill, because too many people were asking questions about why it was closed. Nothing out of the ordinary happened until 1969, exactly ten years after the previous incident. Two Scouts were wandering around the hill with slingshots when a black cat with a single white paw crossed their path. One Scout kicked at it while the other prepare his sling and began firing.

The cat screamed and hissed and ran up a nearby tree, where it looked at the two boys with a piercing gaze. Suddenly, the boy with the slingshot grabbed his arm in pain, while the boy who was kicking the cat felt pain in his leg. The boy with the injured arm was able to run down the hill and grab the health officer. The health officer later determined that one boy suffered from a broken arm and the other had a broken leg.

The camp administration realized there was a problem. Something needed to be done about Boot Hill. At first, they wanted to relocated Staff City, where all the staff members lived, to the base of Boot Hill, but the staff members refused to live there. Eventually, it was located near Boot Hill, with a line of trees separating the buildings from the hill. The idea was for the staff to be nearby in case anything else happened.

The next summer, the camp staff became very interested in Boot Hill, and set out to determine what happened there. At first, they only knew about the bizarre incidents that occurred on the hill. Some investigation filled in the rest. They began knocking on neighbor’s doors, but the people refused to talk about the history of that land. Except, however, for one old man. He told the staff about everything that happened in the summer of 1934. When he was done, he said, “I want you to know how I know all this. I was one of the farmers that killed those gypsies. It’s all true, I saw it with my own eyes. I’ve never told anyone, but I’m glad I was able to get it off my chest before I died.” Thee days later, he died.

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Camp Napowan Gypsy Curse, Part 2

Join me for Part 2 of our retelling of the story of Camp Napowan’s Boot Hill. Owned and operated by the Northwest Suburban Council of the Boy Scouts of America in central Wisconsin, Camp Napowan is home to an interesting legend passed down one summer to the next. To my knowledge, this is the only retelling of the tale available on the Internet. It is an edited transcription of an audio recording made available in the early-to-mid 1990s. Click here to read Part 1.

Your humble writer/transcriber’s campsite at Camp Napowan – c. 1990?

A week later, Joe Miller was awoken from his sleep. He heard a loud scream coming from the gypsy camp. He ran outside and saw a large fire on top of the hill. Listening closely, Joe heard the gypsies singing. They were chanting in Hungarian, their native tongue. Joe couldn’t understand them, but what they were doing seemed odd to him anyway. He figured they were just getting ready to leave and were throwing a celebration for themselves.

The next morning, when it was time for Joe to feed his animals, he discovered the hens were missing. They were in a secure cage and couldn’t have gotten out unless someone opened it. Joe figured it had to have been the gypsies, but he couldn’t flat out accuse them without proof, and he didn’t want to upset them. Still, the hens represented roughly a dozen eggs a week. He tried to remain calm and find out what he could. He went to the gypsy camp and approached the Chieftain. Joe said to him, “When I went to feed my animals this morning, the strangest thing happened. You wouldn’t believe this, but my hens are missing. You didn’t happen to see anything out of the ordinary last night?”

“Do you think I’m stupid?” the Chieftain asked. “How dare you accuse my people of stealing from you, after everything we’ve been through. Now get out of here and leave us alone.”
Joe turned around, his head bent low, and walked back to his house. He was ashamed of himself for what he had done. As he walked home, he realized they were just hens after all, and the gypsies wouldn’t admit to stealing them even if they had.

A week later, the Millers were awoken from their sleep by another shrill scream. The family looked towards the gypsy camp from a window, and they saw a massive fire stretching 20 feet into the air. Again the gypsies were chanting as they held hands and danced around the fire. Joe had a bad feeling in the pit of his stomach, and he prayed that everything would be okay the next day. It came as no surprise when we went to feed his animals and the pig was missing. Joe was infuriated, but he didn’t know what to do other than tell the gypsies to leave. This seemed fair to him anyhow, since it was time for them to leave according to their agreement.

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