How historians and journalists used witchcraft to ridicule immigrants, African Americans, and poor rural whites.
Nineteenth and early-twentieth century journalists and historians considered the persistence of witch beliefs in Illinois an embarrassing footnote in history, when they acknowledged it at all. Convinced of American progress, historians dismissed witchcraft as a “miserable superstition” and an “imaginary crime” long vanished from educated minds. When it appeared, they ridiculed believers as ignorant, backwards, and even insane.
“In early times the inhabitants of Illinois were in a small degree tinctured with the absurdity and nonsense of witchcraft and fortune-telling; but in after-days this ignorant superstition has entirely disappeared,” former Governor and Congressman John Reynolds asserted in Pioneer History of Illinois (1852). “All this ignorance and nonsense have disappeared from the minds of the people by a proper education,” he concluded.
Writing several decades later, attorney Milo Erwin echoed Reynolds’ sentiments. In his 1876 history of Williamson County, he asserted, “Happily for the honor of human nature, the belief in those foolish and absurd pretentions has been discontinued, for forty years by an enlightened public.” Likewise, in his History of Effingham County, Illinois (1883), William Henry Perrin noted with great satisfaction, “Yet as widespread as were these beliefs in goblins and spells, there are to-day men and women in our county who grew up among such pernicious influences that will tell you of the terrifying beliefs of their childhood and laugh at them…”
Even as they wrote, however, sensational stories involving witchcraft appeared in the press. In Franklin County, Illinois, just five years before Milo Erwin also claimed belief in witchcraft had been discontinued for four decades by an enlightened public, dozens of spectators flocked to a farmhouse to witness the strange spectacle of the Williams sisters, who claimed to have been bewitched. Three years later, in 1879, a Chicago man named Toby Allen complained of being tormented by a witch while he was incarcerated at the Joliet State Penitentiary.Continue reading “Illinois’ Miserable Superstition”