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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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Defeating Witches

The following is an excerpt from my new book Witchcraft in Illinois: A Cultural History. Part Two explores beliefs about witchcraft, including counter magic and how witches were identified. Order it today on Amazon.com or Barnesandnoble.com

While many Illinois pioneers feared witches, they also believed there were ways to combat maleficium and eliminate witches. For every hex, there was a counter-hex, and the methods for removing hexes were as diverse as the afflictions they were meant to cure. Pins, nails, needles, knives, silver, and a variety of spices were all employed in the fight against witchcraft. Boiling and burning were also utilized.

If a witch proved too powerful for folk remedies, the afflicted called for the aid of witch doctors or witch masters. Curiously, although believers in witchcraft identified it as the work of the devil, few witch cures had religious connotations. Illinois residents of German descent had several remedies involving crosses or cross-shaped objects, but the majority of cures were secular.

Witch masters were also secular figures, and although there are a few stories of the afflicted calling on pastors or priests, they more often than not sought help from witch doctors, hoodoo doctors, “wizards,” or other individuals with purported supernatural power.

Before the hex could be broken or the witch destroyed, however, he or she had to be identified. Identification of the witch could involve something as simple as noticing unusual behavior or witnessing the witch perform some incredible feat.

In the early 1930s, an African American informant from Adams County, Illinois explained to folklorist Harry Middleton Hyatt, “About eight years ago I was running with a witch and didn’t know it until one day we were out picking some fruit, and she was all dressed in black. All at once I look and she was gone. Then she appear right away wearing a white dress. Then I knew she was a witch.”

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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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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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Windy City Witches

The following is an excerpt from my new book Witchcraft in Illinois: A Cultural History. Folklorists and historians claimed witch beliefs were a rural phenomenon, but in this chapter I discuss several cases involving witchcraft from Chicago. Order it today on Amazon.com or Barnesandnoble.com

Over the next two decades, Chicago’s population more than tripled in size, with an influx of immigrants from Southern, Central and Eastern Europe, including Italians, Jews, Poles, Bosnians and Czechs.

Many of these immigrants retained long held beliefs regarding maleficium, and a flurry of witchcraft cases appeared at the turn of the century. 1901 saw three such cases, which were reported in newspapers as far away as Des Moines, Iowa; Newark, Ohio; Dubuque, Iowa; and Fort Worth, Texas.

These accounts appeared to confirm prejudices held by many Anglo-Americans that this new wave of immigrants was backwards and superstitious, just as witchcraft beliefs among African Americans and Scotch-Irish reinforced prejudices in the previous century.

In October 1901, the Chicago Daily Herald reported the arrest of Thomas Kelly for throwing stones through the window of an unnamed neighbor, who he suspected of being a witch. According to Kelly, this woman tormented and then attempted to extort another neighbor, Mrs. Cohen. After coming out on the losing end of an argument, the alleged witch put a curse on Cohen.

Mrs. Cohen’s horse died, and then she became ill and paralyzed on one side. After she recovered, the alleged witch demanded $30 to lift the curse completely. Outraged, Kelly confronted his neighbor in front of her home and threw stones through her window. He was arrested and taken before a judge, but the newspaper did not report the outcome.

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Haunted Rockford, Illinois

Haunted Rockford, Illinois, Kathi Kresol’s latest offering from The History Press, is a spine-tingling look at the history and folklore of the Forest City. Kathi also wrote Murder & Mayhem in Rockford, Illinois, and originally those were going to be a single book. Though related subjects (many traumatic events are believed to spawn hauntings), splitting them up was ultimately a good decision thematically.

Like Murder & Mayhem in Rockford, Haunted Rockford delves into the history and personalities behind the stories. Kathi created the popular Haunted Rockford Tours, but this is no recitation of a tour script. These stories are painstakingly researched and documented, relying primarily on interviews and newspaper articles. The chapters are divided into two parts: Ghostly Encounters and Legends, Curses and Other Curiosities.

The two most interesting chapters are “The Terrible Tragedy of Geraldine Bourbon” and “The Witch of McGregor Road.” In the first, Kathi tells a personal story of how she came to live in a haunted house in Rockford, and the horrible events that precipitated it. Imagine finding out your home was the scene of a double murder after a number of bizarre experiences. Kathi told me about her experience several times over the years and it doesn’t lose its impact in print.

In “The Witch of McGregor Road,” Kathi uncovered a possible origin for Rockford’s infamous “Witch Beulah” legend. The legend involves a school teacher who was blamed for a fire at her schoolhouse out on Meridian or McGregor Road. Or, perhaps, Beulah was a witch who cursed Arthur Blood’s family and caused the mysterious events along Blood’s Point Road.

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Interview on The Michael Koolidge Show

In case you missed it. In this recent interview, I discuss my new book, Witchcraft in Illinois, with Michael Koolidge on Friday, October 6, 2017. The Michael Koolidge Show is the only statewide-syndicated radio show in Illinois and is one of the few independently syndicated shows of its kind in the nation.