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Witchcraft in Illinois, 1818-1885

The following is an excerpt from my new book Witchcraft in Illinois: A Cultural History. Early historians claimed witch beliefs vanished from Illinois along with its earliest pioneers, but in this chapter I discuss incidents involving witchcraft that occurred even after the Civil War. Order it today on or

The end of the Revolutionary War opened the vast Northwest Territory to settlement, and Scotch-Irish pioneers began to cross the Appalachian Mountains and travel down the Ohio River looking for new land. Many settled in the bottomlands between the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, in what would become southern Illinois.

Following close behind, Yankees from New England spread out across northern Illinois and down the Illinois River Valley. Rapid growth transformed the state from a sparsely populated wilderness to a thriving agricultural region. Between 1800 and 1840, Illinois’ population grew from 2,458 to 476,183 residents.

Southern Illinois was called “Egypt” or “Little Egypt” for its proximity to a vital river trade route (like the Nile delta in Egypt) and the presence of towns with names like Cairo, Thebes, Dongola, and Karnak. New Englanders who immigrated to Illinois in the early half of the nineteenth century also called it “Dark Egypt.” They viewed the Scotch-Irish pioneers who preceded them as uneducated, boorish, and backwards.

For their part, the Scotch-Irish, who emigrated from Virginia, Kentucky, and the Carolinas, viewed these Yankees, in the colorful words of one historian, as “a skinning, tricky, penurious race of peddlers, filling the country with tinware, brass clocks, and wooden nutmegs.”

According to cultural historian David Hackett Fischer, Scotch-Irish pioneers were obsessed with magic and sorcery, and they brought those beliefs with them into Illinois. One early account of witchcraft in Little Egypt comes from the History of Williamson County Illinois (1876). “From 1818 to 1835,” its author claimed, “there were a great many witches in this county.” On a place called Davis’ Prairie (also known as David’s Prairie), there lived a woman named Eva Locker, who was widely reputed to be a witch.

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Witchcraft in the Illinois Country

The following is an excerpt from my new book Witchcraft in Illinois: A Cultural History. Using a variety of sources, I reveal the truth behind the fate of two French slaves, allegedly executed for witchcraft in Cahokia in 1779. Order it today on or

Philip Francois Renault purchased several hundred African slaves in Santo Domingo, a Spanish city on the island of Hispaniola in the Caribbean (and the modern-day capital of the Dominican Republic). In 1720, he brought the slaves to Fort de Chartres in what is now Monroe County, Illinois, intending to use them in a silver mining operation…  The French census of 1726 showed 129 black slaves (including men, women, and children) in the Illinois country. In 1732, they numbered 164.

The French almost certainly tried to convert these slaves to Catholicism. The Louisiana Code Noir, or Black Code of Louisiana, only permitted the practice of the Roman Catholic faith and made it imperative on masters to impart religious instruction to their slaves. Portions of the first Code Noir were instituted in 1685 for the French colony of Saint Domingue (present-day Haiti).

The Black Code of Louisiana was based largely on this document, with several key differences, mainly involving the prohibition of marriages between blacks (both slave and free) and whites. It was introduced in 1724 and remained in force until the United States took full possession of Louisiana in 1803.

As happened in New Orleans, the forced conversion of Afro-Caribbean slaves likely resulted in an amalgamation of Christian and Animistic beliefs. Animism is the notion that non-human beings—animals, plants, and even inanimate objects—have souls. In West Africa, Animism manifested itself in fetishes; man-made objects believed to possess supernatural powers.

Over time, the mixture of Catholicism and the tribal religions of West Africa evolved into Haitian Vodou (or Voodoo as it is known here in the United States) alongside the African American folk-magic of hoodoo. It was often the case that French Catholics interpreted these vestigial remains of West African religion as witchcraft.

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