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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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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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).

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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Haunted Colleges and Universities a Good Primer on Campus Haunts

Haunted Colleges and Universities: Creepy Campuses, Scary Scholars, and Deadly Dorms by Tom Ogden is a good place to start if you are interested in learning about campus ghost stories. This comprehensive guide contains information on over two hundred colleges and universities around the United States, but you will have to look in the reference section if you want to find a more in-depth examination of each location.

Published in 2014 by Globe Piquot Press, Haunted Colleges and Universities is 318 pages and retails for $18.95. It is divided into four parts based on regions of the US as defined by the US Census Bureau. Each section is further subdivided into individual states.

When I think of what I look for in a book of ghostlore, well organized content is a plus, and Haunted Colleges and Universities is nothing if not organized. With a clear table of contents listing every college and university in the book by state, it is easy to find any location. Each entry is proceeded by the college’s address, phone number and website. The names of haunted buildings are highlighted in bold, so it is a breeze for your eyes to jump to any location in the body text. All of these features make this book very helpful to its readers.

If Haunted Colleges and Universities has a flaw, it is that it overreaches and cannot devote enough space to any one college (although there are certain colleges in the book that have a lot more space devoted to them than others). The author himself acknowledges this problem.

In his introduction, he wrote: “Readers of Globe Piquot Press haunted books will immediately notice that the format of this one is completely different from others I’ve written for the series. During my research, I wasn’t finding just two or three dozen stories I was finding hundreds. So instead of highlighting just a few hauntings, in this work I’ve tried to include as many legends as space would permit.” He certainly succeeded at that.

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Secret Passages Invite Mystery at Dark Island’s Singer Castle

This fog-shrouded estate on the St. Lawrence River has long excited visitors’ imaginations.

Orange peaks of a medieval manor rise above the trees on a distant island. A secret panel in the library leads to hidden passages through the walls. Eyes spy from behind a painting. Singer Castle is literally torn from the pages of a children’s storybook, and you can tour it and even spend the night! But don’t expect to encounter any ghosts.

Frederick G. Bourne (1851-1919) was a wealthy industrialist and one-time president of the Singer Manufacturing Company. He owned many properties throughout his life, but his most famous was the hunting lodge he built in the Thousand Islands region in 1905. He called it “The Towers”, but today we call it Singer Castle.

The castle was designed by architect Ernest Flagg and inspired by the historical novel Woodstock (1826) by Sir Walter Scott. The novel revolves around Woodstock Manor House, set just after the English Civil War. Woodstock was allegedly beset by poltergeist activity. Frederick Bourne’s version cost approximately $500,000, rose four stories, and contained 28 rooms and four towers.

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What I Look For in a Book of Ghost Stories

Outstanding collections of folklore and ghost stories are rare, but doing these simple things will greatly improve future publications.

In the past several decades, interest in the paranormal has grown, and every year we see more books coming out on the subject. Sometimes it seems like nothing new could be written about it, especially in my home state of Illinois, where there are more than two dozen books on Illinois ghost stories (literally hundreds if you count everything Troy Taylor has written).

Many of these books fall short of satisfying, let alone come close to what I would consider to be a decent book on the subject. There are some gems to be sure, but they are rare. I don’t feel that my standards are too high–what I think is going on is that authors are rushing to meet the demand for these books and they are not putting very much thought into them.

Some authors, under pressure to produce, have taken the low road and plagiarized much of their content. Some authors (like one mentioned above) cannibalize their own work in order to produce book after book with basically the same content rearranged in a different way.

So what would I consider to be a “Class A” book on folklore and ghost stories? In an ideal world, what standards would a book have to meet to be truly excellent? Here they are in no particular order. Keep in mind, I don’t consider this list to be unachievable. Every author out there can produce a book to these standards, it just requires time and effort. These are the standards, by the way, to which I try to hold my own work.

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