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.’”