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.