Friday, November 1, 2019

Victorian Witches by Kristin Holt

Kristin Holt | Victorian Witches
by Kristin Holt, USA Today Bestselling Author
of American Historical Romance 

Halloween may have passed, but America's fascination with witches has not. Nor has our delight with "Fright." How many witches came to your door last night, trick-or-treating? A few, I hope, that were not also zombies. You know: zombie witches, zombie brides, zombie doctors...

My grander reason for sharing a few tidbits about witches in American history is that we hear far more about the Salem Witch Trials than we hear about witch trouble in the Old West. Wow! Before finding these gems midst bazillion pages of newspaper archives, I'd gathered much about Halloween in the nineteenth century United States. Fascinating! That enjoyment of holiday parties, Halloween, and the late 1800s became The Witching Eve, a short story. (Just 99-cents. Better yet, it's included with your Kindle Unlimited subscription.)


Victorian Witches

Yes, Victorian America, melting-pot that it was, did indeed believe in witches. True, not many were caught up in the fervor surrounding earlier decades and centuries, but some did bring their superstitions from homelands.


Witchcraft: Irish Carpenter's Peculiar Affliction (1881)


Kristin Holt | Victorian Witchcraft. Newspaper heading from Lancaster Intelligencer, Saturday Evening, January 15, 1881. "Witchcraft!"
Lancaster Intelligencer of Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Saturday, Jan. 15, 1881. "Witchcraft!"
This delightful vintage newspaper article was published in Lancaster Intelligencer on Saturday Evening, January 15, 1881. As to not miss a single element of historical value, I've elected to transcribe the article word for word, with precise spelling (even when it's an error) and punctuation. Enjoy!

A Carpenter Bewitched.
New York Times.
The witches may or may not have all been burned in New England a century or two ago, but there are persons on Staten Island who are positive that one witch is still alive and that she has made them the victims of her dark powers. However this may be,  the idea of advertising in a New York daily newspaper for a person who can cure witchcraft is certainly a unique one ; and when the following advertisement appeared in a morning newspaper yesterday a reporter was immediately dispatched to Staten Island to learn something about the witch :
PORT RICHMOND. S. I.--IF THERE IS ANY person in New York that can cure witchcraft, man or woman, black or white, let them come and cure if they can, and no cure no pay. RICHARD MAY, Port Richmond, S.I.
It was hard work to find Mr. May in Port Richmond, but at length it was learned that he lived in one of the side streets (the Port Richmond streets are nearly all side streets), that he was an old man, that he had been a carpenter, and that he and his wive lived alone together. The house pointed out was a neat little story-and-a-half cottage, painted white, with an old fashioned well-curb in the front yard and a piazza across the front. A brisk knock at the door brought out a little old woman, wrinkled and gray, but withal plump, and bearing on her face the kindly look of a rural Irish woman. She wore the same cloth hood, in the shape of a sun-bonnet, and the same short skirts that such women always wear. She said that Mr. May lived there, that he was at home, and that he could be seen. And so saying she ushered her visitor into a room opening off the little hall, evidently the living room of the family. It was a very small room, but large enough for so small a family. Its furniture, though scant, was comfortable, and there was the air of comfort about the place that is always to be found in the home of an old Irish family. There was a table between the two windows, and a rocking chair, and a small stool, and a little cooking stove with red-hot lids and a tea kettle on it humming the same old tune that tea kettles hum to bairns and grannies year in and year out and never grow tired. An old-fashioned tin candlestick on the table held an inch or two of tallow candle, and two thick green paper shades shut out the world. In an arm chair by the stove, so close to the fire that it was a miracle he did not scorch, sat a broken old man, learning far over the stove, rubbing his hands together as if they were cold. This was Mr. Richard May, the advertiser, who was in search of some one to cure him of witchcraft.
"Yes," said he, in answer to the question. "I had the advertisement put in ; at least my wife did. She has to attend to everything, now. Can you drive out witches?"
The reporter was inclined to think that he might drive on out, if it was a small witch and he had a big club ; but he replied, with some caution, that he proposed to publish an account of this witchcraft in the Times, and that such publicity would certainly have a good effect upon the witch, and perhaps drive it out altogether.
"Yes," said the old man, "yes. I don't know but it might. I'm sure I wish it would. It's very hard to be bewitched this way, and kept away from work and left to starve. But I can't talk much--the witch won't let me talk much. My wife can talk."
On the subject of his wife's ability to talk, the old man's intellect was still sound. She straightened up some little things about the room, and went into an adjoining closet and brought out a fresh candle, drew a small and low four legged stool of home manufacture up by the side of the stove and sat down. It would have been evident to the least experienced observer that she had a story to tell, and that she was about to tell it.
"He hasn't done a stroke of work," said she, "for four years. There he sits all day, just as you see him now. And me, too.. I'm all wrong. I am bewitched, too, but not as bad as him. I'll tell you all about it, and you can write it down so as not to forget it. Think you can remember it? Well, some people have great heads. If we were only wise enough we could get over this, and there are plenty of people could cure us--people with great learning--if we could only find them. It was all along of that woman. She did it all."
"What woman?"
"The woman that lived in this house with us. There was only us two, and there are nine rooms in the house, so we had plenty room and to spare, and we rented her two rooms. That was eight years ago. She had a big room up stairs, and a little room for a kitchen, and then she had the back cellar, for we didn't use it, and nobody else went into it. She had a husband then, and he made plenty of money. He was a wheelwright and got $3 a day. She was all right then, and just like any other woman. But by and by her husband got took just like my old man was. She bewitched him. They were Scotch folks, and she sent him back to England and got rid of him. Then she began. The first I noticed wrong about her she began to have the black eye. Did you ever see a witch?"
The reporter's experience had been confined principally to witches of the ham sand kind, but he replied that he had frequently seen persons who looked as if they might be possessed, and this was strictly true.
"Well," the old woman continued, "you know they always have a black eye. No matter what color their eye is before, when they get to be witches one eye gets black. Well, my old man's began to turn black--the same eye. Then his hands began to draw up, and he couldn't do any work. I knew it in a minute what was the matter with him, so I began to watch this woman. Her room was right over ours, and we hard great rackets up there every night as if somebody was chasing her about the room. So one morning early I went up there and looked through a hole in the door. We never could get into her room, for she kept the door locked. What did I see? There was a great big white towel stretched over the rocking chair ; you'd thought there was a corpse there. And on the towel was laid an oval bit of wood. That was her circle ; witches always work with circles, you know. And by the side of that was a long slim stick of wood. That was too much for me. I always knew there was witches, but I never thought one of them would live in my house. So I went to her and told her what she done to my husband, and told her she must leave. She said to me, says she, 'Mrs. May," says she, 'I didn't do it. Get a Bible and I'll swear to it.' Then I says to her, says I. 'If you swore to it on a thousand Bibles I wouldn't believe you ;' for you know witches' oaths ain't of any account ; they'll swear to anything. She wouldn't go, so I went to a justice and had her put out."
"And where is she now?"
"She is still here in Port Richmond, and she's still got my husband bewitched. When she was gone one of the neighbors come to me and says : "Don't you go into that cellar, Mrs. May. That's where witches live, in cellars, and maybe she's put something on the floor to make you lame." I know witches can do that, but I thought maybe I might find something in the cellar that would bring my old man out all right. So I went in very careful. I walked around on tiptoe, and went clear to the bank of the cellar before I found anything. Then I leaned over and looked back of the chimney, and there it was--a bundle of black rags, done up in a--in a--a bunch like, so you might have thought it was a black cat a layin' there dead. And there was a big bundle, too ; and I opened that, and it was a pair of men's pantaloons, with buttons on. And they were all covered with a little fine white powder, like flour ; just like there is on the skin of a person that's bewitched. I've got it on me, and it makes spots like pin-heads on the skin, with little circles round them. And my old man's got them on him. But that ain't the only thing. He's got hair on his back, and that's a sure sign. Whenever you see a person with hair on their back you may know they're bewitched. You know that, don't you?
"It's a sure sign, and my old man's got it. See how he sits there and mopes. But that wasn't all I found. I looked very careful on the floor of the cellar, and I found a little bunch of black hair all wadded up and half buried. That was a good thing when I found that, for it saved my old man's life. It looked just like as if it was a piece cut off of a little girl's plait--you know how they plait little girls' hair. Well, I brought it up and laid it on the table, and it began to move around. It rose up, and that frightened me, and I threw it in the fire and burned it up. If it hadn't been for that my old man wouldn't be alive now. I've heard say that's the way witches work, with hair. When they bewitch a person they take a bunch of hair and bury it, and as soon as the hair rots the person dies. But I burned that hair, and it didn't rot, so the old man didn't die. But there he is ; just look at him. I think a witch is worse than a murderer ; don't you ? For a murderer only just kills you once, and it's over, but a witch kills you by inches. I think witches out to be killed. They used to kill them in this country, and they kill them now in Scotland. This woman is a Scotch woman, and I think she ought to be put out of the way, and not let to go about bewitching folks. There is wise men can cure bewitched people, and I only wish we could find one."
"Has anyone come yet in answer to the advertisement?"
"No, not yet ; but i hope they will. They could get plenty money, for witches always have more money than they know what to do with, and they ought to get the money from her ; she is the cause of all our trouble. Don't you know somebody in York that can drive out witches?"
The reporter was not acquainted with anybody who made that branch of science a specialty.
"Just look what she's done for us." the old woman went on. "Here's this house, with nine rooms in it ; we had it all clear, but my husband hasn't done a day's work for over four years, and we had to have some money ; so I went to work and I put a mortgage of $600 on it, and that's what we live on. It's all of the witch, and she ought to be made to pay for it."
"Have you anything to try and cure the old man?"
"Yes, we've done everything," she replied, "but it ain't any use. He's bewitched, and we've got to have some wise man that knows how to drive out witches. That's why I put the notice in the paper to try and find one."
The old man is apparently well on toward 70. His back is bent, his hands are drawn up, and his voice is feeble. It is more than probable that a wiser man even than he who would drive out witches can do nothing for him, and that his crooked body will be straightened no more this side of a grave.



Shocking, isn't it?

From where I sit, in late 2019, the thought of such things as planting hair to kill someone (once that planting rots) or the supposition that "a witch" cannot tell the truth, even under oath. Imagine the woman who'd been evicted from the May residence under pall of witchcraft. With many townsfolk superstitious enough (or Irish enough, or Scottish enough) to believe the accusation.

Talk about #19thCenturyProblems

Modern Witchcraft: Witches in New Mexico (1888)

Kristin Holt | Victorian Witches: Modern Witchcraft in New Mexico. The Wichita Daily Eagle of Wichita, KS on June 7, 1888.
The Wichita Daily Eagle of Wichita, Kansas on June 7, 1888, "Modern Witchcraft: Marvelous Powers Attributed to Witches in New Mexico."
Allow me to share one more vintage newspaper article about witches in the late nineteenth century--this one squarely in the American Old West. From The Wichita Eagle of Wichita, Kansas on June 7, 1888, "marvelous powers (are) attributed to witches in New Mexico." This article was apparently of such interest at the time of publication that it was included in The Journal of American Folklore, Vol. 1.

Once more, to provide the best view of vintage newspapers, with the greatest ease in reading (and online searching), I've transcribed with care to retain original spelling, typesetting, and punctuation. (Be prepared for typesetting errors a full 131 years old.)

New Mexico, acquired by the United States in 1848, under the treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, has a present population of about 175,000, including about 30,000 Indians and 25,000 Americans (as we use the term in the east). The rest are Mexicans, with a few fine old Spanish families scattered here and there. Among the native population superstition is practically universal and has many strange manifestations  Despite the laudable efforts of our Pilgrim forefathers to exterminate the pestilent breed of witches, there are still witches and to spare in New Mexico, and the natives, almost to a man, believe in and fear them. [emphasis added] They are generally women, but sometimes men; usually of middle age, but occasionally very old, and rarely very young. It was my privilege the other day to photograph three live witches--the first, I venture to say, that ever faced a camera. They live in San Rafael.
Our witchology is full, detailed and graphic. Every paisano in New Mexico can tell you their strange habits, their marvelous powers and their baleful deeds. They never injure the dumb animals, but woe to the human being who incurs their displeasure! Few indeed are bold enough to brave their wrath. If a witch ask for food, wood, clothing or anything else, none dare say her nay   Nor dare any one eat what a witch proffers for if he do, some animal, alive and gnawing will form in his stomach. By day the witches wear their familiar human form, but at night, dressed in strange animal shapes they fly abroad to hold witch meetings in the mountains or to wreak their evil wills. In a dark night you may see them flying through the sky like so many balls of fire, and there are comparatively few Mexicans in the territory who have not seen this weird sight! For these nocturnal sallies the witches wear their own bodies, but take the legs and eyes of a coyote or other animal, leaving their own at home. Juan Perea, a male witch, who died here in San Mateo some months ago, met with a strange misfortune in this wise   He had gone of with the eyes of a cat, and during his absence a dog knocked over the table and ate up Juan's own eyes, so the unfortunate witch had to wear cat's eyes all the rest of his life.


Before they can fly, witches are obliged to cry out "Sin Dios, sin Santa Maria!" (without God and without the Holy Virgin). Whereupon they mount up into the air without difficulty   If you are on good terms with a witch you may persuade her to carry you on her back from here to New York in a second   She blindfolds you and enjoins strict silence   If you utter a word you find yourself alone in some vast wilderness, and if you cry "God save me!" you fall from a fearful height to the ground--but are luckily never killed by the fall. There are several courageous people in the territory who have made journeys thus upon the backs of witches. At least they are ready to swear so and they find 10,000 believers to one skeptic. One striking peculiarity about new Mexico witches in that any one named Juan or Juana (John or Jane) can catch them, and that no one else can except a priest with holy water   To catch a witch, Juan draws a nine foot circle on the ground, turns his shirt inside out and cries "Veuga, bruja!" (come, witch), whereupon the witch has to fall inside the circle and Juan has her completely in his power   This ability to catch witches, however, is seldom exercised, for let Juan once catch a witch and all the other witches in the country join hands and whip him to death.
And now, having briefly outlined the nature of witches here, let me give you some veracious anecdotes of their exploits--religiously believed throughout this section. Lorenza Labadie, a man of prominence in New Mexico, once unknowingly hired a witch as a nurse for his baby   He lived in Las Vegas   Some months afterward there was a ball at Peurta de Luna, a couple of hundred miles south, and friends of the family were astonished to see the nurse and baby there.  "Where is Senor Labadie and his family?" they asked. The nurse replied that they were at a house a  few miles distant, but too tired to come to the ball. The friends went there next day and found the Labadies had not been there. Suspecting the nurse to be a witch, they wrote to Don Lorenzo, who only knew that the nurse and baby were in his house when he went to bed, and there also when he woke up. It being plain, therefore, to the most casual observer that the woman was a witch, he promptly discharged her.


 A pretty girl at San Rafael, just married, had a quarrel with one of the witches there. That night a strange cat came into the room. Feeling sure it was a witch, she locked the door and window, and her husband came in with his six shooter, but the cat melted into thin air before he could shoot. A little later an owl suddenly appeared, flew against Margarita's cheek and cut it, and then disappeared as mysteriously as the cat had done. A horrible sore formed on the cheek, and could not be cured till Margarita appeased the witch with presents.
Jose Patricio Marino, one of the most respected men in San Mateo, had a most unfortunate experience not long ago. There was then in town a witch named Marcellina, a thin, withered old man of perhaps 50 years. Marino had the bad luck to offend her, and she retaliated by turning him into a woman! He was in this predicament for several months, as he is keen to swear, and recovered only by bribing the witch to restore him to masculinity  Marcellina found witchcraft an unhealthy profession, for last year two men whom she had bewitched caught her and beat her to death with clubs, right here in this pretty little village of San Mateo! Anything done to them? Well, hardly!--San Mateo (N.M.) Cor. Globe--


I've heard of Skinwalkers (witches) in Navajo legend. Glimpsing the inherent argument between Californios' Catholic faith and folklore of Native Americans, Spaniards, and mestizos, I can better understand.

To me, it seems their ongoing stories of Good v. Evil, Right v. Wrong, With God v Without God (and the Holy Virgin) are a way of explaining day to day events. Spoiled milk. An illness or untimely death. Failed crops. Things that go bump in the night.

Hmmm.... What do you think? Please scroll down and comment. "Conversation" is the best part!

By Kristin Holt 


Kristin Holt | USA Today Bestselling Author Kristin Holt writes Sweet Romances set in the Victorian American West


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Copyright Ⓒ 2019 Kristin Holt LC

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