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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Witchcraft in Chicago’s Stockyards

The strange case of Mary Vogel and Augusta Wilke is a fascinating glimpse into a WW1-era Chicago neighborhood.

At the turn of the twentieth century, Chicago was known as a hub for the meat packing industry. Thousands of immigrants, particularly from Eastern Europe, flooded into the southwest side Back of the Yards neighborhood to work at the Union Stock Yards. Upton Sinclair famously wrote about this area in his 1906 novel The Jungle.

These immigrants, mainly Bohemians, Moravians, and Slovakians, brought their folk beliefs with them when they came to the Windy City, including a strong belief in witchcraft. We will never know how many accusations, confrontations, and strained relationships this belief caused, but occasionally an accusation of witchcraft made its way to the courthouse and into the press.

Victor Sleeth was an assistant superintendent for Armour & Co., the meatpacking company that defined Chicago’s Back of the Yards neighborhood. Armour & Co. opened in Chicago in 1867 and by 1910 employed over 8,700 people at the Union Stockyards.

Victor’s 22-year-old wife, Mary, had contracted consumption. She was in the advanced stages of the disease when her sister, 21-year-old Augusta Wilke, an assistant foreman at Armour & Co., called in a 50-year-old nurse named Mary Vogel.

Vogel attended to Mary Sleeth for a month, until Mary died on February 2, 1919. On Monday, February 24, William L. Sehlke, a masseur and husband to Mary Vogel’s other sister, Martha, went to the Stockyards police to ask for warrants for the arrest of Mary Vogel and Augusta Wilke.

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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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In Death’s Sleep

Monument to Frances M. Pearce (1835-1854) and her infant daughter in Rosehill Cemetery, 5800 N Ravenswood Avenue in Chicago, Illinois. Frances, only 18 years old, died in childbirth and her daughter followed a few months later. Her husband, Horatio O. Stone, commissioned this sculpture in their honor, to sleep under a thick layer of glass for all eternity.

Frances M. Pearce (1835-1854) II

Only Patriots―Or Traitors

How political opposition to the American Civil War led to a bloody confrontation at the Coles County courthouse.

The year was 1864, and the month of March was just coming to a close. The watershed battles of Vicksburg and Gettysburg had long passed, and it seemed as though the American Civil War would never end. The presidential election was still over seven months away. On March 28, 1864, tensions between soldiers on leave from the 54th Illinois Volunteer Regiment and antiwar Democrats erupted in what became known as the Charleston Riot. When the smoke cleared, eight men lay dead and twelve writhed in agony.

Why did animosities erupt in central Illinois that fateful spring of 1864? One historian theorized that antiwar Democrats (copperheads) who fought Union soldiers around the Coles County courthouse in March believed they were exercising their “inalienable right of revolution,” and that, in his words, “when the normal remedies of the ballot box and the courts failed, a few were willing to emulate the founders of the Republic and take up arms to protect their rights.”[1]

Did radical Republicans and Unionists, as Robert Sampson suggested, push Democrats into violence? The answer, of course, is complicated.

After seven Southern states seceded in the winter of 1860-61, newspaper editors and politicians in southern Illinois reacted strongly against President Abraham Lincoln’s call for a volunteer army to put down the rebellion. Early in the war, the Cairo City Gazette declared, “we are opposed to our Legislature voting one cent to aid in equipping troops to be sent out of the state for the purpose of prosecuting the unnecessary war inaugurated by the present administration.”[2]

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