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.’”

Continue reading “Silver Bullets and Silver Tea–Pioneer Remedies for Witchcraft”

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.

Continue reading “Witchcraft in Chicago’s Stockyards”

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.

Continue reading “Beware a Witch’s Gift”

“There Goes the Old Witch”

Decatur, Illinois’ 1885 witch scare shows how immigrants brought belief in witchcraft to urban areas.

Founded in 1823, Decatur is an industrial city straddling the Sangamon River in central Illinois. It was an important juncture of the Wabash, Illinois Central, and Baltimore & Ohio railroads. In 1885, its population had grown to roughly 13,000. Recent Eastern European immigrants, particularly from Poland, crowded into Decatur’s Fifth Ward, located on the city’s far northeast side along the Illinois Central Railroad. That year, a controversy erupted over a 50-year-old woman who neighbors suspected of being a witch.

In October 1885, the woman, who lived at the east end of Condit Street, appeared at an attorney’s office downtown and inquired about bringing a lawsuit against her neighbors, who were harassing her and accusing her of witchcraft. Soon after moving to Decatur, she alleged, a neighborhood boy named Starbati died, followed by the son of a man named Nalefski (or Nowleski).

Another child recently became sick, and neighbors accused her of giving the child a bewitched drink. Rumors quickly spread through the tight-knit Polish settlement. According to The Decatur Herald, neighbors ostracized the woman, and when she passed by, pointed their fingers at her and said, “Da geht die alte Hexe,” a German phrase meaning, “There goes the old witch.”

When a reporter visited the neighborhood, its residents were eager to share their stories of encounters with “the witch,” whose identity remained anonymous. “I went to a neighbor’s well and got water,” one woman said. “The old witch was there and talked to me. She bewitched me and I went into the house and fell down in a faint.” According to another, “She shuffles cards and decides who of us are to die, who are to be sick, and who are to be afflicted with sores. She decides also by coffee grounds.”[1]

Continue reading ““There Goes the Old Witch””

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.

Continue reading “Witch Balls and Hoodoo Balls in Illinois Folklore”

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.

Continue reading “Illinois’ Miserable Superstition”

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.

Continue reading “The Mystery of all Mysteries”

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.