I first approached researching Southern Illinois witches the way I would any subject … by getting to know the people. Where I made my mistake was trying to focus on the witches. A mistake, but because the witches were lost in the world of folklore. Who defined a witch here, as in most places, was those who feared them.
Southern Illinois witches of the settler period were still old world witches. The beliefs about witchcraft echoed those from the settlers homelands.
A 19th century witch bore almost no resemblance to modern witches. There were likely no covens. There was no codified system of beliefs passed down. Sure, a mother would tell her daughter her secrets, and those passed down are usually for healing. More medicine than magic.
Harm no one is the current mantra in witchcraft, and you’re threatened with a cosmic penalty for disobeying the law. But a 19th century witch was believed to cause harm. That’s what made them a witch.
There was a time when it was believed that witchcraft was rampant in certain parts of Southern Illinois. That had less to do with the number of practicing witches, than it did with people’s fears, and belief in them.
That doesn’t mean that everyone believed in witches. Many of the tales of witchcraft you find in local history books, are often the same tales told around the fire. Storytelling. It’s inevitable that some, or even most of the people might believe the tale. And rather than telling it with a twinkle in the eye, those people tell it as fact, which eventually makes its way into folklore.
A modern day example of this is The Blair Witch Project. I could embarrass a lot of people who were convinced that film was real. Two centuries on and we still fall for witches.
From a historic point of view, where the folklore of witchcraft differs from the modern interpretation is in a simple quality, often forgotten now. Fear. And also it’s worth keeping in mind, witches were a rural phenomenon for the most part, living on the outskirts of the village or town.
A witch could ruin your crops, raid your garden, steal your milk, make your gun unusable. These things put your life and your family’s life in jeopardy. That’s something to fear.
By the end of the nineteenth century people were moving to towns and cities, and the education system was getting better. The higher the level of education, the less people feared witches, even if they still believed in them to an extent. And so the witch became an urban legend, like Black Annie, a noted southern Illinois witch that also managed to haunt countless towns and cities in north America and Britain.
Most of the early stories of witches comes from folklore, and later on, newspapers. Newspaper editors of the time were notorious for taking local legends and giving them an air of legitimacy. Those articles are available online now, and seeing the respectable masthead, people read them as reliable. And so the legends of the past become more believed than they did at the time.
Pointing out the obvious about Southern Illinois witches
Can we speak frankly here? Aside from some early cases around Cahokia involving Caribbean slaves practicing Voodoo or Hoodoo, there is no history of witches in southern Illinois to speak of till the late twentieth century. For one important reason that’s easy to forget.
Because there are no such things as witches.
At least not as they were commonly defined at the time. By the time settlers start moving into Illinois from the east, a witch was a person, usually a woman, who sold her soul to the devil, in exchange for supernatural powers. She used these powers to do harm to others. That’s what people believed, and that’s what people feared.
There were no hedge witches, white witches, hearth witches – none of the modern terms adopted practitioners of Wicca and modern witchcraft.
Obviously if there was another form of witchcraft prominently practiced in these hills and prairies, the practitioners weren’t going to come forward and set the record straight.
There might be a person skilled in herbs and plants, which often was the first line of medicine among their extended family and friends. Sometimes called wise women or cunning women, or men, the practice is likely more scattered and varied than people believe today.
We’re dealing with humans, so it’s inevitable that you’ll find the occasional bad egg who will use their knowledge of plants for purposes more malevolent than healing. Which is of course, is witchcraft.
But for the most part, these were just people using plants to cure ailments part of the communal knowledge. By the time settlers moved into Southern Illinois, this knowledge had stopped being witchcraft. Unless of course, it didn’t work.
One of the only exceptions I’ve found is Cato the witch, a legend from Carmi. Which seems to have some elements of truth. But most of the time, these women weren’t called witches. Because often they were our mothers and grandmothers.
Voodoo rituals, witch doctors and a witch burning in southern Illinois?
Warrant For Execution, Kaskaskia, Illinois, to wit: To Richard Winston, Esq., Sheriff in Chief of the District of Kaskaskia: Negro Manuel, a Slave, in your Custody, is condemned by the Court of Kaskaskia, after having made honorable Fine at the Door of the Church, to be chained to a post at the water side & there to be burnt alive, & his ashes scattered, as appears to me by Record. This Sentence you are hereby required to put in Execution on Tuesday next, at 9 o’Clock in the morning; and this shall be your Warrant. Given under my hand & seal at Kaskaskia the 13th day of June, in the third year of the Commonwealth, 1779
That was signed by Governor Patrick Henry, most famous for saying “give me liberty or give me death, in 1778. An accomplice was given the lighter sentence of hanging. Here’s why.
A slave was taken to a local doctor, who saw that he was exhibiting signs of poisoning. He fingered another slave and told the doctor that he’s poisoned him over a rivalry for a women. The woman, Janette was a fury, and known to be a witch. For whatever reason, the suspect went free and the slave died.
Shortly after there was a spate of poisonings, and two slaves named as suspects. The connection between these crimes and the prior case was Miss Janette. Witness testimony was rather damning. “The named Sasa, a negro belonging to Mademoiselle Buyat, after being summoned and examined, said that he was in the cottage of M. Martin to ask for a pipeful of tobacco from his negress, named Janette, and that she had told him to go to the head of her bed and he would find some, and that when he looked he had found a horn in which there was boiling blood; and as he was surprised, he had asked the negress what it was; that the negress told him not to touch that, and that it was Manuel who had given it to her to put her master and mistress to death; and that Moreau, when he knew that, had said to her: “What! Can you keep a thing like that in your house ? Do you not know that it was this horn that Manuel used to poison Monsieur and Madame Nicolle?” He declares furthermore that a negro, named Saniba belonging to M. Quenel, took this horn and had shown it to Moreau and that he said that it was the same horn that Manuel had given him to put to death Monsieur and Madame Nicolle.”
Further testimony related that “Moreau had asked some favor of M. Nicolle’s negress and promised her that if she granted it to him, he would give her medicine to make her mistress gentle, as she complained to him that the latter was very bad, and he gave some likewise to the husband of the said negress for his master; and that after the death of the late M. Nicolle and his wife, Moreau demanded what had been promised to him, and the negress did not particularly wish to grant him what she had promised; and for this reason the said Moreau poisoned her and she died there from.”
What she had promised him was of course, sex, which in the end she decided against, claiming he was too old, and paid for changing her mind with her life.
Both slaves were found guilty, with Manuel being named most guilty for administering the poison. He was sentenced to be burned at the stake, but it’s believed someone took matters in their own hand and shot him instead, sparing him a more painful death. Moreau was sentenced to be hung, and the sentence was apparently carried out. Janette appears to have faced no charges.
There are other examples of Voodoo and Hoodoo in the St. Louis area, particularly on the Illinois side. There was obviously some knowledge of these practices being shared with the settlers moving in from the east. It’s about this time you find herbalism from the French culture mingling with that brought along with settlers from the new states.
Eva Locker terrorized Williamson County and turns Charlie Lee into Vincent Price
“From 1818 to 1835, there were a great many witches in this county. The most noted one was an old lady by the name of Eva Locker, who lived on Davis’ prairie. She could do wonders, and inflict horrible spells on the young, such as fits, twitches, jerks and such like; and many an old lady took the rickets at the mere sound of her name. When she inflicted a dangers spell, the parties had to send to Hamilton county for Charley Lee, the great witch-master to cure them. This he did by sooting her picture with a silver ball and some other foolery. It was a nice sight to see this old fool set up his board and then measure, point, and cypher around like an artilleryman planting his battery, while the whole family were standing around veiled with the solemnity and anxiety of a funeral.”
History of Williamson County, Illinois by Milo Erwin, published in 1876
The first thing that jumps out at me in the Story of Eva Locker and Charlie Lee is what Charlie does is also witchcraft. It’s a technique practiced according to popular belief at the time, that works regardless of religious affiliation. Since it’s magical powers that don’t come from Charlie’s god, it’s witchcraft.
I’d be more inclined to believe this story if I didn’t find it scattered in several counties in Southern Illinois, with different characters. And if of course, Eva had been able to do what they said she did, and that Charlie’s solution would have stopped it.
The accusations against her are the kinds of symptoms exhibited in Salem by the afflicted girls, and that kind of evidence was outlawed in court well before the early settler dates. But it’s entirely possible the more metaphysical solution is a thinly disguised story meant to cover up how they dealt with Eva Locker. After all, there wasn’t a lot of justice in the justice system in this area at the time. You dealt with problems on your own, or under the advice of a minister who knows the evil one’s ways.
It’s worth noting that in Salem, there’s a large body of evidence that the “witches” chosen owned land coveted by their more well appointed neighbors. It could also have been a way of taking Eva’s farm.
Or, which is more likely, it’s just a folk tale. Milo Erwin also writes that “The belief in witchcraft prevailed to a great extent in the east side of this county in an early day.” The term witchfinder is an official role, and points to roots in England during the witch hunts. Today it’s probably well known because of a horror film called The Witchfinder General starring Vincent Price. It’s possibly he was preaching to recent English immigrants who took his sermons on witches and his battling with them literally, or maybe he took on the title himself, but eventually he became a figure in the folklore cycle of witches in Williamson County.
The cemetery on Fitt’s Hill, near where the Williams sister were hexed
The Williams Sisters
The story of the Williams Sisters is considered one of the more well documented cases of witchcraft in Southern Illinois, mainly because the story was reported in newspapers all over the United States and Europe.
In 1871, about eight miles outside of Frankfort Illinois, later West Frankfort, at Fitt’s Hill, lived James Williams, who had two teenage daughters, aged sixteen and eighteen.
After supper, the girls would run barefoot through the corn fields. Returning to the farm, they climbed the walls of the house, up to the roof and danced along the edge. James would yell at them to come down, as would members of the crowd who began to gather at the nightly event. Some said the sisters would shriek in response. Others said they sang the most beautiful songs. Then at once, they’d fall limp, “like marionettes cut from their strings.” After a short time, they’d spring to their feet and continue their dance. Their performance was described as acrobatic. They’d end the performance by squeezing through a tiny window into the attic, with all the agility and speed of a squirrel.
After their dance the girls came back and circled by the crowd, clawed at the ground to find straight pins which they promptly ate. They also picked flies from the wall, with preternatural skill, swallowing as many as possible, and it’s possible to find a lot of flies in southern Illinois. Then as the crowd watched, the girls would simultaneously puke up the pins and flies.
Those who watched were convinced they were witches, and so the story spread.
The sisters claimed they were hexed by an old woman they had met on the road. The old lady touched one of their fingers and lifted her up on her saddle and carried her to her house. There she cavorted with several fancy dressed women, who wanted her to sign the book and sell her soul to the devil. When she refused, the old lady got pissed and zapped her back to her father’s farm.
It was she who forced them to dance, and she danced invisibly with the girls on the roof.
Though there are many articles about them, most only refer to one source, who related the above tale. Another witness I found was more honest. The roof was low and flat, easily accessed and the window was easy to go into. In fact a fat man followed their act with one of his own, delighting the crowd.
It’s the crowd that gives it away. It’s hard to imagine someone didn’t pass the hat. Think about it … who placed the pins on the ground for the girls to find? Who hung the rotting carcass to attract the flies. When the reporter confronted the father the next day, he likely saw how word was spreading and danger approaching and changed his tune. The girls weren’t bewitched, they had been drugged he said, and shortly if not immediately afterwards, the history of the family disappears.
Even if the father wasn’t looking to manipulate his daughters for profit, how can you not see a good case for mental illness in the Williams sisters and father? What other reason can you imagine for two teenage girls swallowing pins and flies, and vomiting them up in public, while their dad watched?
Cato the witch provides a rare hint of authenticity
“The old man told the Carmi newsman that two miles south of Carmi near the Indian shoals, weird sounds used to be heard coming from the rocks that rise from the opposite river bank. There at the time, the man said, could be seen the remains of an old house. When he was a boy it was “occupied by a browned and wrinkled crone of perhaps 83 years. Her maiden name was Cato. She was known as ‘Cato the Witch.’”
1889 Vincennes Sun Commercial
The article in question is from an interview with an old man living in Carmi, Illinois at the time. The old story teller said Cato was a firm believer in ghosts. He said she frequently claimed that she could see the forms of dead Indians, who came back to visit the mounds.
The ghosts also called on Cato’s kinfolk and hovered around her cabin in the twilight. According to the story teller, the ghost brought messages from spiritland approving of the influence for good that she exercised over her credulous neighbors.”
Cato raised several boys, all of which turned out bad. She was left to die alone, except for her neighbors. Her request was that “I desire that the lid of my coffin shall not be screwed down, and that my grave shall be only three feet deep from the surface, as I intend to appear before all my children and warn them of their evil ways.”
I would have chalked this one up to folklore as well, except for the following part in the article, “there are none who can point out the lonely grave of ‘Old Cato, the Witch,’ but there can still be plucked from the grassy mound where her cabin stood a few bunches of catnip, wormwood, horehound and tansy and other herbs which she used in the performance of her miracles.”
One form of witchcraft which likely made it into the settlement period was that of the herbalist. Their skills relate easily to those of the French, who viewed witches as purveyors of poisons or magical brews. And all of these plants listed could be used in way that fit the bill. But shortly after the settlers moved into the area, this practice stopped being witchcraft and became folk medicine.
Cato also picked up techniques from the native Americans of the area. So it’s obvious she was more than a dabbler in the practice. But most interesting of all, is nearly all of the plants associated with Catnip aren’t native to North America. Which means she brought them with her.
By the time she was an old lady, Cato’s practices were likely commonly known and used. It’s quite likely she was the one who chose witch as a title, likely to tickle the fancy of the young boy she was talking to.
The Witch Stone: A Civil War era gravestone continues to inspire urban legends, into the 21st century
The witch’s grave at Big Hill Cemetery, outside of Norris City Illinois has haunted teenagers for generations, as it’s a popular late night gathering spot, or parking spot for young people. According to some, the witch had to be buried inside a stone coffin and not lowered into the ground, for the ground is consecrated. Even then the witch nearly escaped and in fact did manage to produce a crack through the lower part of her crypt.
In addition to the macabre coffin shaped stone, the inscription sends chills up the spine: “Behod ye strangers passing by as your are now So wonst was I as I am now so you must be—Prepare for deth and follow me
The reality is the epitaph is a common one throughout Europe and parts of the eastern seaboard. As the population moved west it became more rare. Over time, people forgot about the custom and created the legend. When you find the inscription in the middle part of our country and beyond, you usually find a misguided legend about a witch.
The curious coffin shape isn’t a casket obviously, but rather a coffin stone. These were common in graveyards, and used to rest the coffin on during services. The lady buried here was young, and likely died giving birth, or perhaps during an epidemic. It’s likely her grieving husband carved the stone himself, copying the style of the lettering from likely the only book he owned, the Bible. That accounts for the spelling and tone of the inscription as well.
Urban legends go viral in the 19th century with Black Annie
Annie lost her children in a fire on the north side of Carmi, Illinois quite some time ago. Ever since she wandered the dark alleys at night, looking for her lost children. She wore black, still in mourning, her face beyond pale and ghastly blue in the moonlight. Sometimes you could hear her shuffling along, her feet kicking through the gravel. Other times she was said to hide in the shadows, waiting for a child to come by, whereupon she would rush out, clawing and grasping at the unfortunate child, screeching “my children, my children.”
Some said that if you found yourself in her clutches, she would drag you into her house, where unknown horrors awaited. Others said the walls of her house were lined with a ghastly wallpaper, made from the skin of the children who had wandered too close.
I first heard of Black Annie from my mother, who got the tale from her grandmother and aunt. The desired effect of telling this story to a young child, was to keep us from wandering dark alleys at night. There comes the time in every little boy’s life when he earns the freedom to go out after dark. And stories like these travel with you out there, a mother’s warning when she can’t be there to keep an eye on you.
A few years back, after recounting the story to a friend of mine, he sent me a link to the story of Black Annis.
Black Annis, or sometimes Black Agnes, a blue-faced witch or crone, lived in a cave in the Dane Hills in Leicestershire, England. At night she would roam the countryside, looking for children to gorge upon. Some said she would skin the children and hang the skins from an oak tree which stood outside her cave. Others claimed that the cave was lined with the skins of children. Still others claimed she wore the skins around her waist. Mothers would warn their children that if they didn’t behave, Black Annis would take them away.
The earliest references to Annis date to about the fifteenth century. Others tie her to older, Gaelic and Celtic legends. And according to some, Black Annis is based on a historical figure. Agnes Scott is thought to have been a Dominican Nun, who wore a traditional black habit, ran a leper colony, and lived in a cave away from the village, as she didn’t want to spread the disease. In this leper colony were a large number of children, many of whom she nursed back to health, or at least made their lives easier. In return, the children would give her tokens of appreciation, which she would then hang on the walls of her cave. Her cave was said to be covered with these tokens.
She’s a conglomeration of folklore from the British Isles, mixed with current events, and a dash of the brothers Grimm.
Which makes sense considering her target audience. Her main purpose, was to serve as a cautionary tale, to keep children close to home at night, or in more dangerous areas. In the end, Black Annie is more about saving children, than snatching them away.
Stories of Black Annie were incredibly popular in the eastern half of the United States in the 19th and early 20 centuries. It was America’s first urban legend, traveling the length of the land. And our area was no exception. It was a craze.
In Mt. Vernon, Illinois, she was spotted after the town was devastated by the tornado of 1888, and again later on, at children’s windows. Black Annie was considered a witch because her appearance was said to foretell natural disasters. And prophecy was a hallmark of witchcraft. Unfortunately, her predictions were always attributed after the fact.
In Mt. Vernon, Indiana, she appeared during the San Madrid earthquake of the early 19th century, where much of the town was destroyed by fire, and the Ohio river flowed backwards. In 1918 she started making the rounds again. The town was mobilized and the first person they turned up was a black man, dressed in white, looking for the Kaiser and carrying an axe. The next night the mysterious figure in black was back. Annie was finally captured and turned out to be a man in a black dress and veil.
In February of 1920 she was in Oakland City, Indiana, going as far as to leave notes … “Cut out your card parties and dancing, and stay off the streets if you value your life. Beware of Black Annie.” The margins of the paper were decorated with skulls and crossbones.
In 1928 she was making the rounds in Mt. Carmel, Illinois.
A writer for the Mt. Vernon Democrat wrote on August 22, 1918, summing up his feelings on the superstition, that “Incidents of this kind are common in ‘backwoods’ communities, but why sane ‘minded citizens’ should desire to engage in this kind of practice in Mt. Vernon is beyond most of us.”
In the end
The history of witchcraft in Southern Illinois is written by those who believed in them, not the ones who practiced it. For the first century or so of settlement, people feared witches, some more than others. It wasn’t just the ignorant back-woods folk It was government officials, judges, lawyers, doctors and of course the clergy. The educated believed as much as those without education. The world was a more mysterious place, and when bad things happened for reasons you couldn’t understand, a witch could fill in the gap.
When the twentieth century came along, Halloween witches softened the image. As we understood more about the world, more and more people stopped believing in witches. By the middle of the century it was rare to find people admitting to believing they existed. Then came Bewitched and witches were sexy, and the white witch went mainstream.
When researching the story of the witch stone, it struck me how often the people who inhabited those graves were pious people. And how it’s a disservice that they’re remembered now as something they would abhor. Even the notorious Black Annie goes back to a nun, working with leper children. The modern legend turned on its head.
It shows if nothing else, in pop culture, we haven’t advanced very far from the Salem Witch Trials. Those victims named were slandered in their day, and it continues to this day in film and books, capitalizing on the legend. And forgetting the people.
That the folklore of witchcraft in Illinois doesn’t contain many cases in the modern era I think points to the reason that the belief in witches disappeared. In short, more people moved to towns and cities and left the countryside, and witches are primarily a rural fear. It’s where they can wreak the most havoc, and that’s why the fear held on in rural communities and small towns longer than in the cities.
And still might, if you’re lucky enough to find yourself in the countryside, alone in the dark, with the road taking you towards a mysterious gnarled tree.