Category Archives: History

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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The Last Citadel: Petersburg by Noah Andre Trudeau

the-last-citadel-petersburg-june-1864-to-april-1865-by-noah-andre-trudeauIn The Last Citadel: Petersburg, June 1864-April 1865, Noah Andre Trudeau charts Union General Ulysses S. Grant’s Petersburg Campaign, from June 9, 1864, when General Benjamin Butler first attacked defenses around the city, to  April 3, 1865, when Federal troops at last captured this vital Virginia railroad hub south of Richmond. The ten-month Siege of Petersburg was the longest and most costly to ever take place on North American soil.

Within this non-traditional history, Trudeau brings to life these dramatic events through the words of men and women who were there, including officers, common soldiers, and the residents of Petersburg. What emerges is an epic account rich in human incident and adventure, told through various chapters covering all aspects of the campaign. This revised Sesquicentennial edition includes updated text, redrawn maps, and new material.

The Last Citadel is divided into six parts, including a prologue and epilogue. The chapters are arranged into a rough chronology, but this is not strictly a chronological account of the siege. Each chapter uses a different subject to frame the narrative, from the effect of artillery bombardment on soldiers and civilians, the role of newspapers and the press, and even fraternization between opposing armies.

This is a unique and interesting way to look at the battle, drawing from a multitude of primary sources including military orders and dispatches, regimental histories, civilian diaries and letters, newspapers, and more. Trudeau organizes his book well, so that various perspectives never become jumbled or distracting. This keeps each chapter fresh and interesting, like reading a collection of articles rather than a weighty historical text.

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Plimoth Plantation

Plimoth Plantation, founded in 1947, is a living history museum in Plymouth, Massachusetts, featuring a replica of a 1627 Pilgrim village. It is located at 137 Warren Avenue, a few miles southeast of the actual site of the Plymouth Colony. The museum also owns and operates a replica of the Pilgrim ship Mayflower, but it was undergoing repairs when I visited in the spring.

The museum offers an impressive variety of things to see and do, including a large visitor center, Wampanoag Homesite, Craft Center, Maxwell and Nye Barns, Plimoth Grist Mill, and of course, the village itself. The visitor center has a large gift shop and even a movie theater, although it was playing two random, nonhistorical movies when I visited.

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Correllianism and the Witch School

The following is an excerpt from my new book Witchcraft in Illinois: A Cultural History. Part of the chapter on contemporary Illinois, the Witch School in Vermillion County had very interesting origins. Order it today on Amazon.com or Barnesandnoble.com

In 1990, a group of Wiccans created the Church of Gaia in Chicago, Illinois, which for many years was home to an Internet-based school called the “Witch School.” Over the next two decades, the Witch School would be influential in the Illinois Wiccan and neo-Pagan community, even after it moved to rural Vermillion County.

Donald Lewis, a cofounder, considers himself to be the inheritor and spiritual leader of the Correllian Nativist Tradition, a neo-pagan sect allegedly founded in the Danville, Illinois area in 1879 by his great grandmother, Caroline High Correll.

“Caroline was a woman of mixed racial heritage who practiced various forms of magic, herbalism, and spiritualism,” he explained. “With her husband John Correll, Caroline ran a circus during summer months and focused on exhibitions during the winter—described as ‘art lectures’ these exhibitions actually showcased many of the new visual and audio technologies that were emerging at the time.”

She was involved with both the Spiritualist and Universalist movements and was associated with Henry and Lydia Beckett of Galveston, Indiana. Henry C. Beckett, who died in 1953 at the age of 83, was pastor of the Galveston Universalist Church for 15 years. His wife, Lydia, was a painter who, according to her obituary, “was also widely known for her antique collection.”

They were married on August 26, 1888 and moved to Galveston in 1905. According to the Logansport Pharos-Tribune, Lydia Beckett “along with being a leading expert in Druidie amulets, read the Tarot, and prepared herbal cures…”

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Cold Harbor by Gordon C. Rhea

cold-harbor-grant-and-lee-may-26-june-3-1864-by-gordon-c-rheaIn Cold Harbor: Grant and Lee, May 26-June 3, 1864, Gordon C. Rhea charts the battles and maneuvers between the Union Army of the Potomac and Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, from the stalemate on the North Anna River through the Cold Harbor offensive in late spring, 1864. This is the fourth of a five volume series on General Ulysses S. Grant’s Overland Campaign during the American Civil War.

Rhea’s tenacious research brings to light new facts from an often mythologized or overlooked chapter of that conflict. In clear detail, he describes the remarkable events of those nine days and provides a new interpretation of the famous battle that left seven thousand Union casualties and only fifteen hundred Confederate dead or wounded.

As the subtitle suggests, Cold Harbor is largely a study in command. After writing four volumes devoted to the Overland Campaign, Rhea concluded Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee were very similar generals, “about as evenly matched in military talent as any two opposing generals have ever been.” They were different in personal style, but shared a military temperament. Both Grant and Lee favored offensive operations, and both attempted bold maneuvers. Both were often frustrated by subordinates who couldn’t seem to effectively carry out their orders.

Rhea goes to great lengths to challenge Grant’s reputation as a “butcher,” and puts to bed the myth that Cold Harbor was a senseless slaughter compared to previous battles. Lee’s casualties during the three-day Battle of Gettysburg were higher than Union casualties for any three consecutive days under Grant, and Grant never suffered as many casualties in a single day as McClellan at Antietam. The infamous attack at Cold Harbor on June 3 was only the fifth bloodiest day for the Union army since the Overland Campaign began.

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Lizzie Borden Took an Ax

Christina Ricci stars in this made-for-TV dramatization of the 1893 trial of Lizzie Andrew Borden for the murder of her father and step-mother in Fall River, Massachusetts. The highly-stylized production recounts events immediately surrounding the murders and subsequent trial. Lizzie Borden Took an Ax (2014) was later developed into a TV Mini-Series The Lizzie Borden Chronicles (2015). It blends a modern soundtrack with historic events to create an oddly entertaining take on the controversial case.

At 11:10 a.m. on August 4, 1892, Lizzy Borden (Christina Ricci), 32, yelled for the family maid, Bridget Sullivan (Hannah Anderson), to quickly come downstairs. She discovered her father, Andrew (Stephen McHattie), slumped over the sofa. His head had been bashed in. Abby (Sara Botsford), Lizzy’s stepmother, was found on the floor of an upstairs bedroom, her head and face smashed. Lizzy gave police strange and often conflicting information, and she quickly became the chief suspect.

Her New Bedford trial, beginning in June 1893, was a national sensation, widely reported in the newspapers. It took the jury 90 minutes to acquit her, and with her inheritance, she purchased a new home and lived there with her sister Emma (Clea DuVall). Despite efforts to start a new life, Lizzy Borden was ostracized from Fall River society, since many people believed she was the murderer.

There are several alternative theories about “who done it,” but Lizzie Borden Took an Ax doesn’t entertain any of them. It openly implies Lizzie was the murderer, even going so far as to imagine Lizzie confessing the crime to her sister, causing her to flee their home in disgust. In fact, the two sisters split in an argument over a party in 1905, 12 years after the trial. We’ll never know what the sisters said to each other in private conversation, so this is creative license at work.

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