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.”
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.” Dadd noted that “not a few people at this day” believe witchcraft was the origin of the hairballs.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.”