Wednesday, November 11, 2015
Witchcraft in North Carolina by Tom Peete Cross 1919
WITCHCRAFT IN NORTH CAROLINA By Tom Peete Cross 1919
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The study of popular delusions has far more than an antiquarian or academic interest. Its results constitute one of the most fascinating and instructive chapters in the story of human progress. Written history is not so much the record of battles, conquests, and legislative acts as of social and intellectual development, and no true chronicle of any people can be written until account is taken of its popular beliefs and superstitions, as well as of the more obvious forces that ordinarily engage the attention of the historian. Witch stories are human documents and as such they must be reckoned with in any account of the mental temper of a people who believe in witches and whose actions are, even to a limited extent, ordered in accord with such belief.
With these facts in mind, the branch of the American Folk-Lore Society recently organized in North Carolina has undertaken the task of collecting and recording the popular tradition of that state. The following sketch, prepared at the request of the society, was designed originally to deal with only one of the many phases of folk superstition—Witchcraft; but owing to the heterogeneous character of the collectanea submitted, it has in process of time become a sort of omnium-gatherum of North Carolina tradition regarding magic and supernaturalism. Its purpose is twofold: first, to enumerate such items of witch lore as have already been collected in North Carolina and to point out their traditional character; second, by means of illustrations from the folk-lore of neighboring territory, to indicate what other articles of the diabolical creed future collectors may hope to discover.
Faith in the reality of witchcraft is one of the oldest and most persistent tenets of the human race. Most of us who think at all on the subject doubtless regard the superstition as having originated in that highly developed, complicated, and schematized system for which scholasticism and the Christian church were answerable from the fifteenth to the end of the seventeenth century, but no conclusion could be more erroneous. Witchcraft is as old as history itself, and its existence cannot be laid at the door of the Catholic church or of any other form of religious belief. It "was once universal; it was rooted and grounded in the minds of the people before they became Christians; and it is still the creed of most savages" and of millions of civilized men. The essential principle underlying its manifold composition is maleficium, defined by a recent authority as "the working of harm to the bodies and goods of one's fellow-men by means of evil spirits or of strange powers derived from intercourse with such spirits." Before the landing of the first Europeans on the shores of America, maleficium was practiced by the aborigines. It was a powerful force in the lives of the African negroes who came as slaves to these shores. It was also known and feared by the colonists who migrated thither from the British Isles and the continent of Europe. The colonial records of Virginia, whose early history is so closely associated with that of North Carolina, contain a number of references to witchcraft among the settlers, and at least one fully developed witch trial— that of Grace Sherwood—took place as late as 1705-6 in Princess Anne County, not far from the border of North Carolina. From these facts it should be obvious that such relics of the witchcraft superstition as exist today in North Carolina are but the result of a belief which has from time immemorial formed part of the intellectual heritage of the human race.
An appreciable effect in preserving among the settlers of Virginia and North Carolina a lively faith in the reality of black magic must be attributed to at least one learned source—Michael Dalton's _Countrey Justice_, an early seventeenth century handbook of legal procedure. The book was first printed in 1618 and was often reedited in Great Britain. It enjoyed wide popularity among the legal profession in the colonies and appears to have been cited as a standard authority during the greater part of the colonial period. In accordance with English law, The Countrey Justice declares it a felony "to use or practise Witchcrafts, Enchantment, Charme, or Sorcerie, whereby any person shall be killed, pined, or lamed in any part of their body . . . [or] any cattell or goods shall be destroyed or impaired." "Since," according to the author, "the Justices of peace may not always expect direct evidence," elaborate directions are given for identifying witches, who are pronounced "the most cruell, revengefull, and bloudie" of all sorcerers.
The prominent place occupied by witchcraft in the minds of the colonists is well illustrated by an incidental reference in John Lawson's History of Carolina, an early eighteenth-century compendium of information regarding the inhabitants and natural resources of the province, dedicated to the Lords Proprietors, for whom the author acted as surveyor general. It was printed as early as 1709, and the first separate edition appeared in 1714. Apropos of the attitude of the Indians toward spirits, Lawson refers to the many "Hobgoblins and Bugbears as that we [white men] suck in with our milk, and the foolery of our Nurses and Servants suggest to us; who, by their idle Tales of Fairies and Witches, Make impressions on our tender Years, that at Maturity we carry Pigmies' Souls in Giant Bodies and ever after are thereby so much deprived of reason, and Unmann'd, as never to be Masters of half the Bravery Nature designed for us." These words, with a few trivial alterations, are repeated in The Natural History of North Carolina, published in 1737 by one Dr. John Brickell, a physician who is said to have practiced in Edenton about 1730.
The following passage is found in Dr. Joseph Doddrige's Notes on the Settlement and Indian Wars of the Western Parts of Virginia & Pennsylvania, from the Year 1768 until the Year 1783, Inclusive, Together with a View of the State of Society and Manners of the First Settlers of the Western Country (Wellesburgh, Va., 1824, p. 161 ff.). It was later incorporated by Mann Butler, an early historian of Kentucky, in his more extensive description of the "Manners and Habits of the Western Pioneers," written about 1836 (ms. Durrett D 3333, p. 56 ff.: University of Chicago Library) whence for convenience the present transcript is taken. The data were gathered in northwestern Virginia (near the Kentucky border), but, as Butler observes, the account may be taken as 'a faithful picture of early frontier conditions throughout the western country generally,' including, of course, the highlands of Carolina.
"The belief in witchcraft," writes Dr. Doddridge, "was prevalent among the settlers of the western country. To the witch was ascribed the tremendous power of inflicting strange and incurable diseases, particularly on children, of destroying cattle by shooting them with hair-balls, and a great variety of other means of destruction; of inflicting spells and curses on guns and other things, and lastly, of changing men into horses, and after bridling and saddling, riding them in full speed over hill and dale to their frolics and other places of rendezvous. Wizards were men supposed to possess the same mischievous powers as the witches; but they were seldom exercised for bad purposes. The powers of wizards were exercised for the purpose of counteracting the malevolent influences of the witches of the other sex. I have known several of these witchmasters, as they were called, who made a public profession of curing the diseases inflicted by the influence of witches; and I have known respectable physicians, who had no greater portion of business, in the line of their profession, than many of these witch-masters had in theirs. . . . Diseases which could not be accounted for nor cured, were usually ascribed to some supernatural agency of a malignant kind. For the cure of the diseases inflicted by witchcraft, the picture of the supposed witch was drawn on a stump or piece of board, and shot at with a bullet containing a little bit of silver. This silver bullet transferred a painful and sometimes a mortal spell on that part of the witch corresponding with the part of the portrait struck by the bullet. The witch had but one way of relieving herself from any spell inflicted on her in this way, which was that of borrowing something, no matter what, of the family to which the subject of the exercise of her witch-craft belonged. I have known several poor old women much surprised at being refused requests which had been usually granted without hesitation, and almost heart-broke when informed of the cause of the refusal. When cattle or hogs were supposed to be under the influence of witchcraft, they were burnt in the forehead by a branding iron, or when dead, burned wholly to ashes. This inflicts a spell upon the witch, that could only be removed by borrowing, as above stated. Witches were often said to milk the cows of their neighbors. This they did by fixing a new pin in a towel for each cow intended to be milked. This towel was hung over her own door, and by means of certain incantations, the milk was extracted from the fringes of the towel, after the manner of milking a cow. This happened when the cows were too poor to give much milk."
R. G. Thwaites, who had at his disposal the valuable Draper manuscript materials on early frontier history, is authority for the assertion that during the latter half of the eighteenth century the inhabitants of Davie County, North Carolina, "firmly believed in the existence of witches" and that "bad dreams, eclipses of the sun, the howling of dogs and the croaking of ravens" were sure prologues to coming disaster.
Testimony of a more satisfactory character is furnished by the autobiography of Rev. Brantley York, who was born in 1805. York states that during the early nineteenth century the inhabitants of the Bush Creek district in Randolph County, where he spent part of his boyhood, "believed in Witchcraft, Ghost-seeing, haunted houses and fortune telling." "When the neighbors came together," he continues, "the most prominent topic of conversation was relating some remarkable witch tales, ghost stories and conjurations of various kinds; and so interesting was (sic) these stories that the conversation often continued until a very late hour at night. Often have I sat and listened to these stories till it seemed to me that each hair upon my head resembled the quill of a porcupine. I was afraid to go out of doors, afraid to go to bed alone, and almost afraid of my own Shadow." A striking instance of the influence exerted by witchcraft on the country people of western North Carolina at a somewhat later date is furnished by Mr. Charles L. Coon, of Wilson, to whom the writer is indebted for the use of his collectanea. The events occurred during the second quarter of the last century in "an isolated section of Lincoln County originally settled by Germans and a few English." The account as given by Mr. Coon is as follows:
"My father, who was born in 1834, has often told me that one of his earliest recollections centered around the death of a young neighbor boy who received no other medical attention to aid him in combatting a severe case of typhoid fever than that supplied by the neighboring witch doctor. This boy's parents were ignorant and superstitious, and believed in witches and in the powers witches were supposed to possess. When their young son fell sick, they imagined he had been bewitched; so the doctor was sent for. He came and told the parents that their surmisings were correct, that witches had certainly caused the sickness of their child. Confidingly the parents permitted the witch doctor to have his way, and the treatment for 'witches' was immediately begun. First, the 'doctor' ordered the return of all borrowed property to the owners and also ordered that the parents of the sick boy call in everything which happened to have been borrowed from them. These orders embraced everything, and one neighbor was very much inconvenienced by having to return a log-chain which he was using and could not at the time replace without purchasing a new one. But finally all borrowed property was in place, and then the doctor proceeded to treat the bewitched boy. For several weeks he visited the patient and put him through many physical calisthenics, all the while uttering in a low voice what appeared to be magic words or incantations in Pennsylvania Dutch to drive away the spell wrought by the witches. But no one understood or could interpret the magic words which were used. Days passed and the child finally died. The Witch doctor then reluctantly admitted that the spell of the witches was beyond his power. The death of this young child under such circumstances seems not to have caused any great public indignation at the time. Only upon a few persons in the neighborhood did this death make any lasting impression, so general was the belief in witches."
Judge G. A. Shuford told Mr. J. P. Arthur of a reputed witch known as "Granny" Weiss or Weice, who lived on the French Broad River, near the mouth of Davidson's River, about a century ago. On being consulted by a man named Johnson who was suffering from gravel, she informed the patient that unless he returned several hundred dollars which, as she happened to know, he had stolen from a cattle buyer, he could not be cured. Johnson accordingly restored the money, but whether he was healed of his ailment is not told. In any case, the story of the theft got abroad, and he was forced to leave the neighborhood.
As will appear from the following pages, a considerable body of testimony is available for the study of the witchcraft superstition in North Carolina during the last half century.
Although in North Carolina the term witch, true to its historical usage, is still applied to either sex, now, as of yore, more women than men are accused of dabbling in the black art." The following account, furnished by Mr. G. T. Stephenson, formerly of Pendleton, North Carolina, concerns a woman who was reputed to be a witch.
"The early years of Phoebe Ward, witch, are shrouded in mystery. It is known that she was a woman of bad morals. No one seemed to know anything of her past. She was an old, old woman when this account begins.
Phoebe Ward had no fixed home. She lived here and there, first at one place and then at another in Northampton County, North Carolina. She stayed in a hut or any shelter whatsoever that was granted her.
She made her living by begging from place to place. Most people were afraid to refuse her, lest she should apply her witchcraft to them. When she found a house at which people were particularly kind to her, there she stopped and abused their kindness. Hence the people resorted to a number of methods to keep her away. For instance, when they saw her coming, they would stick pins point-up into the chair-bottoms, and then offer her one of these chairs. It is said that she could always tell when the chair was thus fixed, and would never sit in it. Also, they would throw red pepper into the fire, and Phoebe would leave as soon as she smelled it burning. . . .
Among her arts it is said that she could ride persons at night (the same as nightmares), that she could ride horses at night, and that when the mane was tangled in the morning it was because the witch had made stirrups of the plaits. She was said to be able to go through key-holes, and to be able to make a horse jump across a river as if it were a ditch. She was credited with possessing a sort of grease which she could apply, and then slip out of her skin and go out on her night rambles, and on her return get back again. It is said that once she was making a little bull jump across the river, and as she said, 'Through thick, through thin; 'way over in the hagerleen,' the animal rose and started. When he was about half way over, she said, 'That was a damn'd good jump,' and down the bull came into the river. (The witch is not to speak while she is crossing.)
To keep the witch away people nailed horse-shoes with the toe up over the stable-doors. To keep her from riding persons at night, they hung up sieves over the door. The witch would have to go through all the meshes before she could enter, and by the time she could get through, it would be day, and she would be caught.
Phoebe came near meeting a tragic death before her allotted time was out. One night several men of the neighborhood gathered around a brandybarrel. As the liquor flowed, their spirits rose, and they were on the lookout for some fun. They went over to where Phosbe was staying and found her asleep. Thinking she was dead, they shrouded her, and proceeded to hold the wake. They were soon back at their demijohns, and while they were standing in one corner of the room drinking, there came a cracked, weak voice from the other corner, where the supposed corpse was lying out, 'Give me a little; it's mighty cold out here.' They all fled but one,— Uncle Bennie,—and be was too drunk to move. When things became quiet and Phoebe repeated her request, he said, 'Hush, you damn'd b—h, I'm goin' to bury you in the mornin'.' The others were afraid to return that night, but did so the next morning, and found Bennie and Phoebe sitting before the fire, contented, warm, and drinking brandy.
After this Phoebe lived several years, making her livelihood by begging. Her last days were as mysterious as her early life had been."
Like her kinswomen of the past, the modern female witch, though generally old, is not always so. A batch of witch lore received in 1908 from an old negro woman in southeastern Virginia contains the information that the black art is sometimes practiced by young girls. That the ancient principle, si saga sit mater, sic etiam est filia, still holds good, is illustrated by an account of the daughter of a North Carolina witch, who, while accompanying her mother on one of her midnight rambles, got into serious trouble. The witch of today is also like her ancestors in having certain physical peculiarities which differentiate her from the common run of womankind. According to the old negro just referred to, a witch's breasts are situated under her arms, and the skin about her neck resembles a collar. The witch of the seventeenth century also bore on her body certain marks or teats which were the seal of her compact with Satan or were sucked by her familiar demons and which were often used by courts of justice as means of identification. Reginald Scot, who deserves high honor for having raised his voice against the well nigh universal belief in witchcraft during the sixteenth century, asserts that in his day (his famous Discoverie of Witchcraft was published in 1584), a suspected witch-who had "anie privie marke under her arm pokes" was regarded by the courts as guilty. The following is according to Dalton: "Their [witches'] . . . familiar hath some big or little teat upon their body, & in some secret place, where hee sucketh them. And besides their sucking, the Devil leaveth other marks upon their body, sometimes like a blew spot, or red spot, like a Flea-biting . . . And these the Devills markes be insensible, & being pricked will not bleed, & be often in their secretest parts, and therefore require diligent and carefull search." As lately as 1706 Grace Sherwood, on trial for witchcraft before the court of Princess Anne County, Virginia, was examined by a jury of women and found to have "two things like titts on her private parts of a Black Coller, being Blacker than the Rest of her Body." According to the old woman who furnished the information about the witch-marks, a male witch will not look you in the face, a habit which, Scot asserts, was attributed to all witches in the sixteenth century.
In North Carolina, where, as in other Christian communities, the Devil is ever ready to deceive the unwary, license to practice witchcraft is often received directly from his Satanic Majesty, who in exchange takes a mortgage on the soul of the pupil as he did on that of Doctor Faustus hundreds of years ago. The story told below was related to Mr. Thomas Smith, of Zionville, North Carolina, by Sam Guy, an uneducated man of some sixty-five years, who has spent most of his life in the mountains. Sam is known as a successful squirrel hunter and a great digger of 'sang' (ginseng). He is a firm believer in witchcraft and can justify his faith by a large number of authentic cases, of which the following is a sample:
"Ye know Eph Tucker that used to live on the Hashion? Well, he wuz all'us counted a mighty truthful man, and he used to tell me a sight o' tales about witches. He said when he lived down in Ashe, there was a man named Ferro who shore could bewitch people. . . . One day [Eph.] says to Ferro, says he, 'I want to learn to bewitch folks like you can.' Ferro kindly agreed to show him how to be a witch. He says, 'You come with me out in the road.' They went out in the wagin road, and Ferro tuck a stick and made a ring in the dirt. 'Now you git in that ring,' says Ferro. Eph, he got in the ring. 'Now squat down,' says Ferro. Eph, he squatted down. 'Now,' says Ferro, 'put one hand under yer right foot and tother hand on top o' yer head.'" Well, Eph put one hand under his foot and tother on top o' his head. 'Now,' says Ferro, 'you say ater me: "Devil take me, ring and all."' Eph said he wuz a-gittin' a little bit skeered by this time, but he said what ole Ferro told him—' Devil take me, ring and all'—and about that time the ground begin to sink right under him. Eph says he felt himself a-goin' right down. He shore was skeered by this time, and he give a jump right out o' the ring and run from that place as hard as he could." He didn't turn his head to look back. Ater that Eph said he never tried to be a witch any more."
Judged by the following passage from Dalton, old Ferro's instructions combine the practice of witchcraft with that of conjury, between which the legal authority is careful to distinguish. Whereas the witch deals with the Devil "rather by a friendly and voluntarie conference or agreement between him (or her) and the devill or familiar," conjurers "beleeve by certain terrible words, that they can raise the Devill, and make him to tremble; and by impailing themselves in a circle (which as one saith, cannot keep out a mouse) they beleeve that they are therein insconsed, and safe from the Devill whom they are about to raise."
Among the mountain whites of the southern Alleghanies it was possible some twenty years since for a man to acquire forbidden knowledge by "scouring a tin or pewter plate in some secret place, and giving himself to the Devil by saying, 'I will be as clean of Jesus Christ as this dish is of dirt.'" In Knott County, Kentucky, said to have been settled by emigrants from Virginia and North Carolina, a woman may become a witch by taking a handkerchief and gun, ascending the highest neighboring mountain before sunrise, and proceeding as follows: "Just as the fiery ball appears above the eastern horizon, with uttered imprecations against Deity and prayers to the Devil, she is to shoot a bullet through the handkerchief as she holds it up toward the rising sun. If blood flows from the torn cloth, she is an accepted member of the witches' crew." The ratification of the compact, here shown by the bleeding of the handkerchief, is generally indicated by other means. The method of procedure adopted in the following account from Scott County, east Tennessee, has the sanction of a long line of tradition. The narrator, an old white man, said that on one occasion he had stolen and used some white powder which formed part of the stock in trade of a witch. Later he met "a very small, dark-haired, red-complected man" who said, "You have used some of my material, and now you must put your name in my book." The trembling mortal wrote his name with his own blood in the stranger's book, but he must have desisted from using the diabolical stuff, for the Devil never came to claim his victim.
The examination of Elizabeth Style, of Stoke Trister, Somerset, before an English justice in 1664, shows that the ceremony described above finds good authority in seventeenth century practice. The defendant confessed that the Devil had appeared to her "in the shape of a handsome Man, and after of a black Dog," and had offered her wealth and happiness for twelve years if she would "sign his Paper," observe his laws, and let him suck her blood. When she agreed, "he prick'd the fourth Finger of her Right-hand, between the middle and upper Joint, (where the sign at the Examination remained) and with a Drop or two of her Blood, she signed the Paper with an . Upon this, the Devil gave her Sixpence, and vanish'd with the paper."
The modern American witch, though perhaps not quite so malignant as her predecessors, is fully equipped with a wide range of uncanny powers. Like the witches of all time, she is a shapeshifter of astonishing versatility. According to Rev. Brantley York, the inhabitants of Randolph County, North Carolina, a century ago believed that witches could transform themselves into any variety of bird or beast, but it is probable that then as now North Carolina witches assumed by preference the form of special animals.
From ancient times the cat has been regarded as endowed with supernatural qualities, and has been associated with practitioners of the black art. To kill a cat is everywhere bad luck. It is also
unlucky to sleep with or even cross the path of a cat. Cats suck the breath of sleeping infants and sometimes mutilate corpses. It is good luck for a cat to come to the house, but in North Carolina, when a family moves, the cat should never be taken. Tails, skins, and bones of black cats are widely used both in witchcraft and in popular preventive medicine. During the great flourishing period of European witchcraft the cat often served as a disguise for the witch's familiar and even for the hag herself. Today North Carolina witches often appear in the form of cats, and with the worst witches known to the mountain whites of the Alleghanies lycanthropy is common. In a story told by a negress in Baltimore, Maryland, two white ladies of apparently irreproachable life who were wont to slip out of their skins and sally forth nightly and who were not cured of their shape-shifting propensities until salt was rubbed on their raw hides, always assumed the form of cats before scampering up the chimney. Cats as familiars of witches figure in Harrison Ainsworth's _Lancashire Witches_ and in Miss Mary Johnston's _Witch_; and stories of the same general type as Joel Chandler Harris's well-known "Plantation Witch" frequently represent the "hant" as appearing in the form of a cat. The following tale from Northampton County, of which a Guilford County version has already been published, is furnished by Mr. G. T. Stephenson:
"An old house was haunted and nobody would stay in it. At last a foolhardy negro, under a wager, undertook to spend the night in the house. Soon after he had put the light out and gone to bed he saw sitting on the foot of the bed a big black cat with eyes that looked like moons, licking his whiskers. The cat mewed, 'There ain't nobody here but you and me, is there?' The negro rose up and said, 'Naw, and there ain't gwine to Be nobody here but you long.' And with that he went out the window, taking the window-sash with him, and down the road like a streak of lightning. Having run out of breath the negro sat down on a log beside the road to rest. Looking up and towards the other end of the log he saw the same black cat sitting there. And the cat mewed, 'That was a right good race we had.' With that, the negro said, 'Dat ain't nothin' to what we's gwine to have,' and lit out again. The next morning those who had made the wager went to the haunted house to see what had happened and fcund the window-sash gone and no signs of the negro. Two or three days afterwards the negro came straggling in all bedraggled and with his clothes half torn off him. One of them asked him where he had been the last two or three days and he answered, 'I've been comin' back.'"
The demon cat in Mr. Stephenson's story may not have been a transmogrified witch, but the case is perfectly clear in the following negro story from Guilford County, North Carolina, which represents one of the multitudinous forms of the well-nigh worldwide motif of the defence of a house against a haunting goblin. The theme is embodied in the famous account of Beowolf's fight with Grendel in Hrothgar's hall, and Harris has an interesting variant in his Daddy Jake the Runaway.
"Der was a man owned a mill, an' he couldn't stay at it late. Something would run him away. One day an ol' traveller (var., preacher) came along, an' asked him what would he give him to stay dere dat night. He said he would give him mos' anything if he would stay. So he went in, an' takin' (leg. taken?) his hook, his Bible, an' surd, an' sat down an' kimminced a-readin'. It was eight or nine cats came in 'rectly after dark, an' staid there until gettin' late. An' one of them made a drive at de man, an' he up with his surd an' cut his right front foot off. An' dey all left then. Nex' mornin' he went up to de house fur breakfast. An' de miller he was gettin' breafas'. His wife was not able. He wanted to know what was de trouble. He said she was cuttin' a ham-bone in two an' hurt her han'. He showed the man a ring, an' asked him would he own it. He said he would. He said that was his wife ring he bought him [her (?) ] befo' dey was married. So they went in de room an' asked her was dat her ring. She said it was not. Then they looked, an' her right han' was cut off at de wrist."
For the sake of convenience we may here consider an extraordinary document in which a house is rendered uninhabitable by the machinations of a shape-shifting witch. In a volume of more than three hundred pages the author—one M. V. Ingram—records, partly in his own, partly in the words of others, a series of fearsome happenings which illustrate several points of the witchcraft superstition as it existed a century ago in North Carolina and eastern Tennessee. The title-page reads: An Authenticated History Of The Famous BELL WITCH. The Wonder of the 19th Century, and Unexplained Phenomenon of the Christian Era. The Mysterious Talking Goblin that Terrorized the West End of Robertson County, Tennessee, Tormenting John Bell to His Death. The Stort Of Betsy Bell, Her Lover And The Haunting Sphinx. Copyrighted, 1894, By M. V. INGRAM, Clarksville, Tenn. Clarksville, Tenn.: Wm. P. Titus, Agt., Printer and Binder.
The book gives what purports to be an accurate account of the experiences of certain members of the family of John Bell, who in 1804 moved to Robertson County, Tennessee, from Halifax County, North Carolina. The author affirms that he "only assumes to compile the data, formally presenting the history of this greatest of all mysteries, just as the matter is furnished to hand, written by Williams Bell, a member of the family, some fifty years ago, together with other corroborative testimony by men of irreproachable character and unquestionable veracity" (p. 6f.). Appended to Mr. Ingram's compilation are detailed reports of interviews with his informants, several letters from persons able to speak with authority, and an extended history of "Our Family Trouble " by Richard Williams, son of the unfortunate John Bell.
Mr. Ingram declines to propound any theory regarding the cause of the phenomena he records, nor has he, he affirms, "any opinion to advance concerning witchcraft, sorcery, spiritualism or psychology in any form"; yet he devotes a chapter of thirty pages to the presentation of a mass of evidence tending to establish the reality of supernatural phenomena. He cites the Bible and John Wesley, Richard Watson, Adam Clarke, and other commentators, as well as several modern instances, of which the mysterious "rocking of Dr. William Smith's cradle, which occurred in 1840, in Lynchburg, Va.," may serve as an example.
After a brief sketch of the social and religious life of the simple, frontier community in which the Bell family settled, Mr. Ingram describes a long series of persecutions which John Bell and his daughter Betsy suffered at the hands of an invisible being who took up its abode at the Bell homestead and made itself a general nuisance. It first revealed its presence in 1817, and, when questioned regarding its origin, claimed to have come from North Carolina. Sometimes alone, sometimes accompanied by four other airy personages denominated Blackdog, Mathematics, Cypocryphy, and Jerusalem,58 it filled the house with wild laughter, profane language, and coarse jests. The smacking of unseen lips and strange sounds "like rats gnawing the bed posts . . . dogs fighting ... or trace chains dragging over the floor" made sleep impossible. Covers were pulled from the beds, chairs were overturned, "chunks of wood and stones" fell unexpectedly in the path of the farm laborers, ghostly lights flitted around the house, and various members of the family were struck by unseen hands. At times the demonic family sang sweetly, and the "witch" quoted Scripture with astonishing accuracy. In 1817 "Mr. Bell, while walking through his corn field, was confronted by a strange animal, unlike any he had ever seen, sitting in a corn row, gazing steadfastly at him as he approached nearer. He concluded that it was probably a dog, and having his gun in hand, shot at it, when the animal ran off. Some days after, in the late afternoon, Drew Bell observed a very large fowl, which he supposed to be a wild turkey, as it perched upon the fence, and ran in the house for a gun to kill it. As he approached within shooting distance, the bird flapped its wings and sailed away, and then he was mystified in discovering that it was not a turkey, but some unknown bird of extraordinary size. Betsy walked out one evening soon after this with the children, among the big forest trees near the house, and saw something which she described as a pretty little girl dressed in green, swinging to a limb of a tall oak. Then came Dean, the [negro] servant, reporting that a large black dog came in the road in front of him at a certain place, every night that he visited his wife Kate, who belonged to Alex. Gunn [a neighbor], and trotted along before him to the cabin door and then disappeared" (p. 25)." "The Goblin's favorite form, however, was that of a rabbit, . . . the hare ghost took malicious pleasure in hopping out into the road, showing itself to every one who passed through [the lane in front of the house]."
Witch-doctors and other persons attempted repeatedly to discover the cause of the strange events, but to no purpose. "The want of some satisfactory explanation or the failure of all investigators to throw light on the witch mystery, gave rise to the speculative idea that John and Drew Bell had learned ventriloquism and some subtle art. . . . and taught the same to their sister Betsy, for the purpose of attracting people and making money" (p. 41), but, as investigation showed, it was no such matter.
The unseen visitor's own account of itself was far from satisfactory. At one time it claimed to be the spirit of a child buried in North Carolina. At another it was a disturbed ghost seeking a lost tooth under the Bell house. When, however, the flooring was removed and the dirt sifted, no tooth was found, and a mocking voice from the air declared it was "all a joke to fool 'Old Jack'," as the "witch" called John Bell. On another occasion it was the ghost of an early settler, come back to reveal the whereabouts of hid treasure; but the money was not found, and the "witch" ridiculed the seekers. Again it called itself "old Kate Batts' witch," an appellation by which it was afterwards known.
Kate Batts was a sort of gigantic Mrs. Malaprop, whose propensity for using long words and whose evil tongue made her at once the laughing stock and the terror of the neighborhood. After the "witch's" assertion it was recalled not only that Mrs. Batts had an old grudge against John Bell, but also that certain events connected with her history savored strongly of witchcraft. She had a habit of "begging a brass pin of every woman she met, which trifle," adds the author, "was supposed to give her power over the donor" (p. 63). "The most incontrovertible evidence [however] was that a certain girl in the vicinity was given the task of churning, and after working the dasher diligently for two hours without reward, and no sign of butter coming, she declared that old Kate Batts had bewitched the milk and she determined to burn her. Carrying out this decision, she stuck an iron poker in the fire, and after it had come to a white heat, she soused the iron into the milk, setting the churn away; then making some excuse for the visit, she called on Aunt Kate to ascertain the result of her experiment, and found Mrs. Batts sitting in the corner nursing a burnt hand, which had been badly blistered through a mistake in taking the poker by the hot end that morning" (p. 69 f.). Mrs. Batts violently denied all connection with the Bell "witch," and the matter was never brought to a test.
Whatever may have been the cause of the phenomena described by Mr. Ingram, the persecution of the "witch" brought naught but sorrow to the Bells. The father became despondent and in 1820 died; Betsy was forced to give up her lover, and the household was finally broken up.
The following clipping, taken apparently from the query column of the Nashville, Tennessee, Banner, has some bearing on the events described in Mr. Ingram's book:
"'Is there such a thing as a Bell Witch near Springfield, Tenn.? If so, please tell some of its doings of the past.'
"A great many of the most reputable among the older citizens of Springfield and Robertson County are convinced that there was an unexplainable manifestation of some sort which was generally regarded as a ghost, and which came to be called the Bell Witch. It was said to jump on the steeds of men returning home from Springfield after dark, shriek in an unearthly manner and of other alarming things (sic). In the eighties, when there was a recurrence of what was supposed to be the Bell Witch manifestations, the Banner sent Mr. John C. Cooke to investigate. He concluded that there was not at that time any supernatural manifestation, though he heard noises that were not explained. Mr. Cook (sic) is still a member of the Banner staff. While he does not accept the ghost theory, he is convinced that there was a mysterious something that alarmed many of the most intelligent people of that community. Mr. Martin V. Ingram of Clarksville wrote a book undertaking to give all the facts and circumstances in which the Bell Witch figured, and this book can probably be obtained from second-hand book dealers."
The student of folk-lore will recognize at once that we are here dealing with a series of phenomena long associated with haunted houses. Buildings rendered uninhabitable by terrorizing agencies have existed in fact from time immemorial, and their horrors have formed the basis of skeptical or sympathetic treatment from the ancient classical drama to the more modern Gothic romance and the contemporary penny-dreadful. Moreover, it should be observed that, although houses may be haunted by vampires, ghosts, and other uncanny beings not necessarily associated with witchcraft, the ills which befall the occupants have frequently been attributed to maleficium. During the great period of witch mania in Western Europe many buildings in the British Isles and on the Continent were disturbed by the Devil or his human emissaries. A few well authenticated instances of English and American houses troubled by diabolic forces will make it obvious that the agency responsible for the misfortunes of the Bell family did but illustrate the excessive conservativeness with which the powers of evil stick to tradition.
In 1649 the Parliamentary commissioners who had established themselves in the palace of Woodstock for the purpose of surveying the royal demesne after the execution of Charles I, were so pestered by strange noises, unaccountable movements of furniture, and other extraordinary phenomena, that they gave up the work. About the middle of the century a family living at Stratford-Bow was annoyed by an invisible agency which disarranged the furniture and threw stones and bricks through the window. An eyewitness was convinced that "it was neither the tricks of Waggs, nor the fancy of a Woman, but the mad frolicks of Witches and Daemons. Which they of the house being fully persuaded of, roasted a Bedstaff, upon which an old Woman, a suspected Witch, came to the House, and was apprehended, but escaped the Law. But the House after was so ill haunted in all the Rooms, upper and lower, that the House stood empty for a long time." In 1654-5 the family of Gilbert Campbell, a weaver living in Galloway, Scotland, underwent a series of similar annoyances as the result of Campbell's having refused alms to a sturdy beggar named Alexander Agnew, "who afterwards was hanged at Dumfries, for Blasphemy." When questioned by the minister, an invisible demon confessed that he was the author of the trouble and showed himself even more learned in the Scriptures than did Kate Batts. About the year 1661 a series of persecutions strikingly similar to those described in The Bell Witch were suffered by the household of Mr. John Mompesson, of Tedworth, Wilts. An invisible force pulled the children's hair and night-clothes and even lifted the children themselves bodily out of bed, scattered the grandmother's garments and hid her bible in the hearth, moved furniture, opened and shut doors, and sprinkled ashes in the beds. Mysterious sounds, at times resembling the beat of a drum, resounded through the house, music was heard in the chimney, and once lights were seen. "One of them [the lights] came into Mr. Mompesson's Chamber, which seemed blue and glimmering, and caused great stiffness in the Eyes of those that saw it." On the morning after a particularly violent exhibition of preternaturalism tracks of claws were seen in the ashes, and sulphurous and otherwise noisome odors filled the house. The invisible disturber, when questioned as to its identity, indicated that it was Satan acting in the service of a drummer whom Mr. Mompesson had previously arrested for vagrancy. The drummer was accordingly tried for witchcraft and deported. Many persons visited the house out of pious curiosity, and skeptics whispered that the sorely vexed gentleman had got up the report "as a trick to get Money from those that came to see the Prodigy," but the accusation was denied by the orthodox. The doings of the "Daemon of Tedworth" were important enough to attract the attention of the famous Joseph Glanvill, who devoted to them a dissertation. The story is retold in the "Choice Collection of Modern Relations" appended by Henry More to Glanvill's notable defence of witchcraft, Sadducismus Triumphatus,' whence it is summarized as valuable evidence of the existence of witches by Increase Mather in his Remarkable Providences, published at Boston in 1684.
That in house-haunting as in other matters pertaining to their unhallowed profession, the witches of the New World followed the lead of their exemplars across the Atlantic, will be recalled at once by all readers of early New England literature, especially Increase Mather's book just referred to and his famous son Cotton's Wonders of the Invisible World. To multiply instances is unnecessary. The cases enumerated above demonstrate clearly that the Bell witch, far from exciting wonder by the novelty of her tactics, is remarkable only for her lack of invention.
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