Witch Balls and Hoodoo Balls in Illinois Folklore

When pioneers discovered strange balls in the stomach of their livestock, they reached for an age-old explanation: witchcraft.

Although witches were believed to bewitch by a variety of nonphysical means, occasionally they required physical aids to commit their maleficium. These included hardened spheres of animal hair called hoodoo balls or witch balls, as well as wreaths, birds, and other objects made from pillow feathers. Believers offered these items as physical proof of the existence of witchcraft.

In the early 1800s, on a place called Davis’ Prairie (also known as David’s Prairie) in Williamson County, Illinois, there lived a woman named Eva Locker, who was widely reputed to be a witch. Eva was notorious for her ability to steal milk from cows by hanging a towel over a rack or door and then, magically, wringing out the milk from the towel. According to folklorist John W. Allen, Eva also had the ability to kill cattle by shooting them with balls of hair.

Superstitious farmers found their beliefs justified when they dissected their deceased livestock and discovered these balls in their stomachs and digestive tracts. By the 1850s, however, the medical community had generally discerned a more mundane explanation.

In On the Nature and Treatment of the Diseases of Cattle (1859), Boston veterinarian George Dadd explained that some animals had a habit of licking themselves, which caused a large quantity of indigestible hair to accumulate in their stomachs. “These balls sometimes accumulate material until they are bigger than ordinary sized goose eggs,” he explained.

“It is not surprising that death ensues from the irritation of such an indigestible mass in the stomach of an ox or cow, and it is also not surprising that many deaths of cattle cannot be accounted for by their owners.”[1] Dadd noted that “not a few people at this day” believe witchcraft was the origin of the hairballs.

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Illinois’ Miserable Superstition

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.[1] 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.[2]

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.”[3] 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…”[4]

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.

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The Mystery of all Mysteries

How the Sixth and Seventh Books of Moses influenced a generation of occult beliefs in Illinois.

Successive waves of European immigration left their imprint on the Prairie State, from the French and their Afro-Caribbean slaves in the 1700s, to the Scotch-Irish and Anglo-American Southerners in the early 1800s, Germans in the 1840s and ‘50s, and the great urban flood of southern and eastern Europeans in the 1880s and ‘90s. These immigrants brought their folk beliefs with them, including beliefs in witchcraft and the occult.

Anglo-American settlement first came to Illinois after George Rogers Clark claimed the Illinois Country for Virginia during the Revolutionary War. The earliest American settlers were Southerners who came up from Virginia, Tennessee, Kentucky, and the Carolinas. Yankees and German immigrants followed close behind.

These Germans were known as “Forty-Eighters,” having fled central Europe after the failed liberal revolutions of 1848. In 1850, 81.1 percent of Illinois’ foreign born males came from Germany, Ireland, and England. Immigrants also continued to arrive from the east coast. In 1850, 67,180 New Yorkers and 24,756 Virginians moved into Illinois. Yankees from New England spread out across the Midwest, settling Michigan, Indiana, and Illinois. These immigrants tended to settle land passed over by earlier pioneers, particularly western and northeastern Illinois.[1]

As these nineteenth century migrations occurred, occult beliefs and literature from the “Old World” continued to have an impact on the United States. In Stuttgart, Germany in 1849, Johann Scheible published a multivolume set of magical and occult texts from around the world called Geheimniß- und Offenbarungs-Bücher und der Wunder-Hausschatz-Literatur aller Nationen in allen ihren Raritäten und Kuriositäten (1849), or Secret and Revelatory Books and the Wonder-House Treasure Literature of all Nations in its Rarities and Curiosities.

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I talk “Witchcraft in Illinois” on the Michael Koolidge Show

Here’s another interview I forgot to post last year, but for those of you who missed it, I talk about my book Witchcraft in Illinois with Michael Koolidge, recorded 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.

I talk “Witchcraft in Illinois” with Bobbie Ashley on WIKK

Not sure how I neglected to post this interview last year, but for those of you who missed it, I talk about my book Witchcraft in Illinois on the Bobbie Ashley Morning Show, WIKK 103.5 The Eagle in Newton, Illinois. Recorded October 5, 2017. The audio is a little soft, so you might want to turn up your volume!

The Dreaded Witch Wreath

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

Witches also allegedly used wreaths, birds, and other figures made from pillow feathers to torment their victims. Night after night, believers imagined, the witch snuck into the victim’s bedroom, pulled a partially completed feather wreath from his or her pillow, carefully completed another section, and placed it back in the pillowcase.

As long as the figure remained embedded there, the victim suffered. Folklorist Harry Middleton Hyatt recorded over a dozen accounts of these feather fetishes among the German population of Adams County. In nearly every tale, the victim suffers from an illness for which doctors have no cure.

Only the timely intervention of a concerned individual, having knowledge of the existence of witchcraft, can save them. If the witch was allowed to complete this bizarre creation, the victim died.

“I think that if you find a wreath of feathers in your pillow, you have been hexed and will die if your wreath is finished; and if it is not, you won’t die until it is,” a 12-year-old German girl explained to Hyatt.

“My reasons are that I know a lady who had been hexed, and they opened her pillow and found a wreath that was not quite finished, and they left it there awhile; and in a week she died, and they opened her pillow and found that the wreath was finished.”

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The Melrose Park Witch

The following is an excerpt from my new book Witchcraft in Illinois: A Cultural History. The case of the “Melrose Park Witch” shows not only that witch beliefs were common in urban areas, but that witch doctors, or white witches, sometimes ran afoul of the law, despite good intentions. Order it today on Amazon.com or Barnesandnoble.com

The line between witch and witch doctor sometimes blurred. As the First World War raged overseas and Chicagoans prepared to celebrate Thanksgiving, a modern-day witch hunt threatened to erupt in the near-western suburb of Melrose Park. Incorporated along the Des Plaines River in 1882, the Village of Melrose Park was predominantly settled by Italian immigrants.

In 1915 and 1916, an elderly woman named Carmella Vosella became known as the “Melrose Park Witch,” though she insisted she was Christian and only used her powers for good. Carmella’s practice of selling old Italian charms and folk remedies came to light in a series of legal proceedings that had Melrose Park Police Chief Henry Pein vowing, “We are going to rid Melrose Park of witchcraft.”

On Saturday November 20, 1915, a man named Tony LaRocca appeared in a courtroom in the neighboring suburb of Oak Park to answer charges that he threatened Mrs. Carmella Vosella with a revolver. At the trial, LaRocca caused a sensation by claiming Carmella was a witch and “chaser of devils” who beat the devils out of their human hosts.

“All of which may be efficacious for devils, but inconvenient anatomically,” quipped the Chicago Daily Tribune. Following the trial, Dr. P.B. Klonks, Melrose Park board of health president, called the charges “bunk,” despite the insistence of LaRocca’s attorney, Clarence Baseler, to the contrary.

Not everyone in Melrose Park considered the accusations of witchcraft bunk. On the night of Tuesday, November 23rd, police arrested Carmella at her home on North 21st Avenue following interviews with her alleged victims conducted by Village Board President Charles J. Wolf and Chief Pein.

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