The Salem Witch Trials spring to most minds when someone utters the word American Witches. But there’s a whole other history of witchcraft in the United States that most people know nothing about. The Appalachian, Ozark, and Rocky Mountains all had their fair share of superstitions, folk magic, and witch lore. The history and folklore books of today leave out the stories of Appalachian granny women, witch doctors, witch masters, sin eaters, midwives, shapeshifters, and conjure-folk. Let’s fly back to the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries when real witches lived and practiced in the mountains and plains of the United States.
The Mountainous people believed witches lived in the highest and hardest-to-reach places. This was to stay far away from society as possible – to have space to meet with the devil and cast their magic. Of course neighbors accused neighbors of being witches in the midst of silly quarrels. Spoiled food or a lame cow? Must be a witch! And wasn’t the neighbor just asking to buy the milking cow last week? She cursed the cow! Some people who knew nothing of magic were accused of witchcraft. Then there were the granny women, midwives, sin eaters, yarb doctors, water witches and witch masters. These were all people with supernatural abilities, sometimes accused of witchcraft and sometimes not.
Josie Forbes was a popular fortune teller in Wayne County, Missouri, over a hundred years ago. She was known by locals to provide answers for those with questions. The local papers referred to her as the “Witch of Taskee”, though the people who knew her would hardly have called her a witch. Back then American witches were believed to be people who acquired their powers from the Devil himself and used those powers to harm. Josie Forbes used her abilities to help. Josie carried a symbol of the four directions on her, that she used for divination purposes. It was also common knowledge Josie would go into a trance and take on another personality called “Little Joe” (see photo below). Josie acted and even looked like a different person when in a trance-like state. People would come and ask her questions and she would charge each person a dollar (quite a bit of money back then).
Granny women were older women with abilities to heal using herbs and charms. These women lived in the Appalachian Mountains and the Ozarks, mostly, but were found all over the U.S. in the late eighteen hundreds and early nineteen hundreds. Granny women had midwifery knowledge and helped deliver babies and treated illnesses, while others were of a “malevolent” nature. The Henley-Barnett feud in 1930’s Ozarks was supposedly started by an old granny woman, a “witch”, in Marshall, Arkansas. Five people were killed in this feud between two Republican families (of course it was a witch’s fault and not the greedy men vying for election…*eye roll*).
Granny Whittaker was a granny woman with considerable power who lived in Marionville, MO a hundred years ago. The family who lived closest to her claimed she’d put a curse on their little girl. Apparently the little girl made a remark about one of the Whittaker babies “stinking”, and Granny Whittaker warned her she would pay for her rude comments. Following this encounter, the little girl had “fits” every day sometimes all day long. The girl’s father swore it was Granny Whittaker tormenting the girl in spectral form, because the girl claimed she saw Granny Whittaker as a turkey flying about the house pecking at her. There were bullet holes all over the house from where the girl’s father shot at the ghostly turkey form of old Granny Whittaker. Numerous witch masters tried to stop Granny Whittaker’s spells with their own magic, but to no avail (Randolph, 1947).
Because there were witches back then, there also were witch masters, conjurers, and doctors to fight the witches. These were folks with the ability to “un-bewitch” or break curses that witches had put on people.
An old story told in 1940s’ Pennsylvania involved a Quaker Doctor and his magic. A little girl become sickly and her parents can’t understand why. When a local Quaker Doctor is asked to examine her, he concludes the girl is bewitched. He then instructs the family to make a witch’s bottle and bury it under the hearth. They are also instructed not to let any old women in the house for the three days. A neighbor named Old Betty comes to the front door and the child’s mother beats the crap out of her with a iron poker. Part of the granny woman’s sleeve catches on the poker and her blood drips onto the front porch. Long story short – the mother boils and burns the witch’s sleeve and the bewitchment is broken. The little girl grows healthy again.
Witch masters, an integral part of American witch lore, all had their own ways of breaking a witch’s curse. Often they involved witch’s bottles which included personal items of the victim to be buried under the hearth. Sometimes red cloths were involved, and sometimes nails too. In one particular case in the Appalachian Mountains, a granny woman named Granny Frone had cursed a man’s supply of milk. He couldn’t make any butter from the milk (a common motif in superstition back then). In addition, the man’s livestock died and he realized he needed to break the curse. A local witch master told the man to draw a picture of Granny Frone in a nearby tree and drive a nail into her heart. Rumor has it Granny Frone died when the nail head hit the tree, but before her death she cursed the witch master. Then her spirit possessed the witch master.
There are some common themes we see over and over again in American witch lore. First, these American witches would “attack” their victims’ livelihood in some way. Often this included cursing the victim’s livestock or supply of food. Whatever means of making money or feeding one’s family was typically cursed. Milking cows being cursed or dying is a common theme. Milk unable to be churned into butter was another popular curse. American witches that curse their victims’ shotguns was yet another. But the worst of it was when a victim’s health or a family member’s health declined – this is when the victim would seek out a witch master or doctor to learn how to break a witch’s curse. Back then, modern medicine and science hadn’t reached its peak and health or money problems were almost always blamed on a superstition of some kind. Lucky we have modern medicine and technology today to aid our daily tasks and health!
Last year I went on a research spree in which I wanted to learn about the folk magic traditions in Florida. People told me it didn’t exist or that it was the same thing as Hoodoo. But I came across folklore and documents in the Florida archives that told me my suspicions were right. Before the early nineteenth century, midwives were women who aided in childbirth, as well as remedies for common ailments and injuries. They were also present at deaths to ease the person’s pain and transition. The Florida granny midwives practiced a tradition passed down through African American families for centuries. Unfortunately, when the medical industry ramped up, they closed the midwives down from practicing medicine any longer. Learn more about them here.
Captain Kidd was a pirate with resources. He had connections. One of those connections was with a pair of sisters by the names Sarah and Hannah Screecham. Sarah and Hannah lived on Noisy Point, near Cape Cod, MA now known as the Oyster Harbors resort.
Hannah was a friend of Captain Kidd, and when Kidd needed a place to bury his treasure quickly, he requested the help of Hannah Screecham. Local legend called Hannah a witch, for various purposes, but her involvement with the pirate sealed her reputation. Captain Kidd buried his treasure on Screecham Island, where Hannah would aid in killing the crew member who buried the gold for Kidd. She would push the unsuspecting man into the hole with the treasure and bury him alive so that no one else knew the treasure’s location. Legend says the dead men’s ghosts guard the buried treasure to this day.
There are conflicting accounts on Hannah’s actual life and history. One legend says Hannah Screecham would kill the crew member and then screech to let Captain Kidd know the task was complete, while another legend says Hannah would screech to call Kidd’s crew and ship closer to shore. Either way, Hannah had dealings with the pirate Captain Kidd and helped other pirates along the coast, as well. The locals called Hannah and Sarah Scheecham pirate witches.
During his time in Cape Cod, he met a woman named Maria Hallett. Maria, also known as Goody, lived in the nearby town of Wellfleet. The two fell madly in love and before long Goody was pregnant. Unfortunately, Sam had gone off on his ship to do what he did best – scourging the waters. There was talk of a huge fortune that had washed up on the coast of Florida, so Sam was on a mission to clean up. He wasn’t aware of Goody’s condition.
When the town discovered Maria Hallett was pregnant out of wedlock, they exiled her. But she knew Sam would return for her and the baby. She moved close to the shore and watched day in and day out for her soul mate’s return. But he never came. The days turned into weeks, weeks into months, and months into years. Sam didn’t return and Maria grew full of sorrow and despair. There were rumors in town Maria was a witch, and she came to be called the Witch of Wellfleet.
The Witch of Wellfleet continued to wait for Black Sam, and one fateful night in 1717, a ship known as the Whydah approached the harbor. Black Sam Bellamy had taken the ship and was bringing it home with a sizable treasure. Sadly, a storm arose and overturned the ship. Sam and the majority of his crew perished, the bodies washed to shore and the town buried them.
Maria “Goody” Hallet, the Witch of Wellfleet, was in no better shape than she had ever been before. What was left of her heart died along with Sam. Or so the legend goes. Others claim Maria had caused the storm that took Sam’s life.
No one knows if the baby survived. No one even knows what the Witch of Wellfleet’s real name was, but it was speculated to be Goody Hallet. The name Maria was given to her by an author in the 1930’s, but there’s no documentation to support the claim. No one knows whether Maria actually existed or if she was a fairy tale. Though there are people who’ve researched the name Hallett and confirmed it a legitimate name in Cape Cod in the eighteenth century.
Vikings. Valhalla. Thor and Odin. I’ll bet you are at least partially familiar with these …August 30, 2023