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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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Lakey’s Creek and the Headless Horseman of Illinois

“I almost wept as the spectra placed
The head back into the sack;
Clop, clop… the headless rider
moved on.” –Neil Tracy “The Legend of Lakey”

LaKey Creek drains the farmland northwest of McLeansboro, Illinois and heads south, eventually joining the north fork of the Saline River in rural Hamilton County. From there, the Saline River grows more robust, until it ultimately empties into the Ohio River on the eastern side of the Shawnee National Forest. The creek would have been a strategic place for any early setter of McLeansboro Township. Unfortunately for Mr. Lakey, who would lend his name to the creek, the picturesque tract of land he picked for a homestead was also his place of death. For it was with his life that he purchased the immortality of having both a creek and a local legend associated with his name.

Not long after the death of Lakey, two travelers reportedly were chased by a fearsome black steed, upon which sat a headless rider. The horseman menaced them until they crossed the creek, at which point the phantom turned downstream and disappeared.

The headless horseman of Lakey’s Creek is quite possibly one of the oldest ghost stories in Illinois. Passed down as an oral tradition until John W. Allen put the story on paper in 1963, the mysterious man named Lakey, as well as his untimely end, has been immortalized in the folklore of Southern Illinois. Like Jonesboro’s legend of Dug Hill and Provost Marshal Welch, this story may also be preserving the memory of an unsettling event in local history.

Long before a concrete bridge spanned the shallow creek 1.5 miles east of McLeansboro along Route 14, folklorists say, a frontiersman named Lakey attempted to erect his log cabin near a ford along the wagon trail to Mt. Vernon. His task was nearly completed when he felled an oak tree to make boards for his roof. The next morning, a lone traveler stumbled upon Lakey’s bloody body. Lakey’s head had been severed by his own ax, which was left embedded in the stump of the oak. According to legend, his murderer was never found.

But the story doesn’t end there.

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My 2-Cents on Sunset Haven

A few weeks ago, Keith Gilbert of the Volunteer News interviewed me for an article about Sunset Haven near Carbondale. Somehow it escaped my notice until today!

Sunset Haven: the Asylum That Never Was

Keith Gilbert
Volunteer News
October 7, 2010

The leaves are beginning to change, days are getting shorter, and there’s something bewitching in the air. Halloween is rapidly approaching, and many will find thrill in stories of the strange or unexplained. Many will also find thrill in traversing “haunts” around the region. One of the most talked about haunts around our region is known as “the old insane asylum” located in Carbondale…

Micheal Kleen, author and historian, specializes in Southern Illinois folklore and legends… “Southern Illinois is a fascinating place because it has such a long history compared to the rest of the state. Some of the oldest ghost stories in Illinois come from that region, and we are lucky to have had several excellent folklorists who documented them in the 1930s and 1950s,” says Kleen.

Read the entire article here…