Illinois Folklore

Rockford-Area Legends and Lore, Part 2

Nothing like some good ghost stories on these long winter nights. Here is part two of an old presentation on the legends and lore of Rockford, Illinois and surrounding areas at Tinker Swiss Cottage. Blood’s Point Road, Charles Guiteau, and the phantom lady of Kennedy Hill Road. I honestly don’t remember when this was recorded but it might have been in 2011.

Rockford-Area Legends and Lore, Part 1

I hope you all had a wonderful Christmas! Nothing like some good ghost stories on these long winter nights. Here is part one of an old presentation on the legends and lore of Rockford, Illinois and surrounding areas at Tinker Swiss Cottage. The Emma Jones Home, Rockford College, the legend of Big Thunder, Nellie Dunton, and more. I honestly don’t remember when this was recorded but it might have been in 2011.

The Dreaded Witch Wreath

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

Witches also allegedly used wreaths, birds, and other figures made from pillow feathers to torment their victims. Night after night, believers imagined, the witch snuck into the victim’s bedroom, pulled a partially completed feather wreath from his or her pillow, carefully completed another section, and placed it back in the pillowcase.

As long as the figure remained embedded there, the victim suffered. Folklorist Harry Middleton Hyatt recorded over a dozen accounts of these feather fetishes among the German population of Adams County. In nearly every tale, the victim suffers from an illness for which doctors have no cure.

Only the timely intervention of a concerned individual, having knowledge of the existence of witchcraft, can save them. If the witch was allowed to complete this bizarre creation, the victim died.

“I think that if you find a wreath of feathers in your pillow, you have been hexed and will die if your wreath is finished; and if it is not, you won’t die until it is,” a 12-year-old German girl explained to Hyatt.

“My reasons are that I know a lady who had been hexed, and they opened her pillow and found a wreath that was not quite finished, and they left it there awhile; and in a week she died, and they opened her pillow and found that the wreath was finished.”

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The Melrose Park Witch

The following is an excerpt from my new book Witchcraft in Illinois: A Cultural History. The case of the “Melrose Park Witch” shows not only that witch beliefs were common in urban areas, but that witch doctors, or white witches, sometimes ran afoul of the law, despite good intentions. Order it today on Amazon.com or Barnesandnoble.com

The line between witch and witch doctor sometimes blurred. As the First World War raged overseas and Chicagoans prepared to celebrate Thanksgiving, a modern-day witch hunt threatened to erupt in the near-western suburb of Melrose Park. Incorporated along the Des Plaines River in 1882, the Village of Melrose Park was predominantly settled by Italian immigrants.

In 1915 and 1916, an elderly woman named Carmella Vosella became known as the “Melrose Park Witch,” though she insisted she was Christian and only used her powers for good. Carmella’s practice of selling old Italian charms and folk remedies came to light in a series of legal proceedings that had Melrose Park Police Chief Henry Pein vowing, “We are going to rid Melrose Park of witchcraft.”

On Saturday November 20, 1915, a man named Tony LaRocca appeared in a courtroom in the neighboring suburb of Oak Park to answer charges that he threatened Mrs. Carmella Vosella with a revolver. At the trial, LaRocca caused a sensation by claiming Carmella was a witch and “chaser of devils” who beat the devils out of their human hosts.

“All of which may be efficacious for devils, but inconvenient anatomically,” quipped the Chicago Daily Tribune. Following the trial, Dr. P.B. Klonks, Melrose Park board of health president, called the charges “bunk,” despite the insistence of LaRocca’s attorney, Clarence Baseler, to the contrary.

Not everyone in Melrose Park considered the accusations of witchcraft bunk. On the night of Tuesday, November 23rd, police arrested Carmella at her home on North 21st Avenue following interviews with her alleged victims conducted by Village Board President Charles J. Wolf and Chief Pein.

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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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