I’ve written before about the fascinating “crowns of feathers” or “witch wreaths,” which can be interpreted—for good or for ill—when found inside a pillow or feather tick. Today we look at some random superstitions about feathers, naturally involving witches or death. The first involves a case I’ve written about:
The following comes from America; and if this superstition has not yet appeared in “N. & Q.,” perhaps it may be of interest to some of your readers:—
“A little Cincinnati boy has been slowly wasting away with some unexplained disease for several months. The German women of the neighbourhood concluded that he was a victim of witchcraft, and sent a committee to inform the parents, who did not accept the explanation, but permitted an examination of the bed. There is a German superstition that witches cause feathers in a bed to weave themselves into a wreath, and that whoever sleeps on it will become ill, dying when the ends of the wreath come together. Sure enough the women found in the boy’s bed what they declared was a witch’s wreath. It was sprinkled with salt and burned, in accordance with a traditional method.” Notes and Queries 6th S. IV. Sept. 17, 1881 p. 236
In that case, the “witch doctress,” said that the wreath was too far formed for her to do anything for the child. [See the full case in the chapter “Black Cats and Feather Crowns: Witchery in Ohio,” in The Headless Horror.]
The old women above referred to visited the house, and solemnly informed the mother of their belief, and asked permission to examine the feather bed on which the child lay. She, while not all imbued with superstitious feelings, but in the vain hope that her child might be restored to health, consented to the plan. Accordingly, after the boy had been taken from the bed the ticking was ripped open and there among the feathers they discovered five unfinished wreaths of feathers, which at once to their minds, filled as they were with the legends of the fatherland, explained the reason of the boy’s continued illness….
The wreath begins to form in the bed, and then the person who is so unfortunate as to repose on that couch is sure to get sick. As long as the wreath remains in the bed the person continues ill, and if the wreath is allowed to lay there until the ends of the circle come together just that minute the patient dies. The only way in which to save life is to remove the unfinished wreaths from the bed, put on them a copious supply of salt and burn them in the fire. As long as the circlet stays in the bed in an unfinished state the patient can neither die nor get well. In support of her theory the woman said:
“In my life I have seen three. One was as large as a plate. The feathers are all different colors and lap over each other at the ends just like the feathers on a bird. The feathers are fastened to a cord, and when the wreath is finished it is utterly impossible for anyone to break it.” Another wreath that she saw had been found in the bed of a child. The father once or twice had taken the bed from the crib to use as a pillow, but he said he was unable to sleep, as he felt all the time as though a snake were worming about beneath his head.
In regard to the wreaths found in the bed of the child, referred to in this article, it was said that the old woman took the five wreaths to an old fortune-teller on Race Street, who is, so to speak, on good terms with the witches. She kept the feathers, when they should have been burned, and the woman who told the story to the reporter said that they should have been burned, as then the child would have got well. As it now stands the poor little fellow can neither get well nor die. Cincinnati[OH] Enquirer 29 May 1881: p. 4
In nineteenth-century hairdressing, there were two classes of hair used to make wigs and hairpieces: “live hair,” cut from a living head or “dead hair,” stolen from a corpse, usually infected with some dire disease. A similar distinction (quite new to me) of feathers plucked from a live goose as opposed to a dead one was made by consumers of feather beds and pillows. The plucky Pennsylvania Dutch housewife often found herself baffled by witchcraft.
An annoying trick the witches had was to fasten the feathers at plucking time so tightly in the flesh of the goose that no one could pull them out. The Pennsylvania Dutch housewife of the rural districts has no greater pride than her feather beds and pillows, and the plucking must be from her own geese; consequently when she finds that some cantankerous witch has interfered and made it impossible for her to pluck her geese, a serious crisis has arrived in the affairs of the household. The witch’s spell may be broken by killing the bewitched geese, but then the feathers will not be “live” ones, and only live feathers will serve these rare housewives for the beds and pillows. So the only thing that can be done to release the geese from the ban is to procure feathers from a bed on which some very old woman has recently died, and which has not been slept on since. It isn’t always convenient to procure such feathers, for that rare old part of Pennsylvania is a wholesome country, and even very old women are not dying thereabout every day. But if such feathers can be procured, the bewitched geese are then shut up in a small, tight inclosure and the feathers burned within it. The smoke of the burning feathers rises and sets the geese to sneezing and sniffling and cackling outlandishly. Whether it is the unpleasant smoke from the feathers or the tumult of the geese that the witches can’t endure, I don’t know, but in the general disturbance the uncanny things fly from their victims, and the goose-plucking can be proceeded with. Omaha [NE] World-Herald 6 December 1896: p. 7
One would give much to know what form those “uncanny things” took!
As an historic aside, because I find details of this sort both revolting and fascinatingly rare, if you want to know how to pluck a live goose, just read the next bit. If you’d rather skip the horrific details, just move on. The article is dated 1910, yet the notion of live vs. dead goose feathers is still current. I wonder what contemporary thinking is on the subject. There was a suggestion a few years ago that diseased poultry could transmit infection through duck-down-stuffed textiles during an epidemic of SARS.
PLUCKING GEESE ALIVE
AN OPERATION NECESSARY TO PROCURE GOOD FEATHERS
“Yes,” said a manufacturer and dealer in bed furnishings, “it is necessary that goose feathers should be taken from the live goose if we are to study the health and comfort of people who think they must have feather beds and pillows. Dead goose feathers are not much better than husks to lie on and have not that great virtue of husks—wholesomeness.
“They say it doesn’t hurt a goose to pluck it, but it seems to me that one might as well say that it wouldn’t hurt a man to have his whiskers yanked out by the handful. The reason they give for believing a goose doesn’t suffer when its feathers are being plucked out of it is that it never squawks or squeaks or makes a fuss while the plucking is going on.
“Now, I believe it hurts a goose like the mischief to have its feathers pulled out, coming as they do from the tenderest spots on its body, and the reason the fowl doesn’t utter any protest prompted by pain is, according to the way I have sized geese up, because it is such a blame fool. A goose will squawk and clatter and cackle as if it were suffering more agony than a horse with the colic just at the mere sight of you, but if you corner it up and pelt it with stones it seems to forget that it has a voice and will take all the punishment you give it without a further word.
“The Pennsylvania Dutch farmers pluck geese today just the same as their forbears did time out of mind, and I don’t know as there is any other way. It certainly couldn’t be made any pleasanter for the goose unless the plucker held chloroform or something like that to its nose while the plucking was going on. The geese to be bereft of their feathers are first got together in an inclosure used for the purpose. The perspicacity of geese may be strikingly made known to you when they are being rounded up in such an inclosure if there should happen to be a knothole in one end of it, the door being at the other. That door may be six feet high and three broad, but goose after goose will ignore it and try its best to get through the knothole. Induced, though, to try the door, every goose will bob its head down as it passes through for fear of knocking it against the top of the door jamb, six feet above.
“There is a man or a boy in every neighborhood where geese are plucked who is an expert in getting the goose ready for the process. Not every one can do that. The wings of the goose have to be locked together by a peculiar arrangement of the two near the shoulder, and, while they are not tied or fastened in any other way, the lock is such that no goose can unlock it. The goose’s feet are tied together with a broad band of soft muslin. Then it is ready for the plucker.
“The pluckers, who are almost always women, go among the geese with their heads and faces entirely covered with hood s fastened around the neck with a shir string. There are holes in the hoods for the eyes and also at the nose to supply fresh air for breathing. From the neck down the pickers are covered with a glazed muslin garment to which no feather or down will cling. The pluckers will sit on low stools around a large and perfectly dry tub. Each takes in her lap a goose made helpless by its interlocked wings and bound legs and with rapid plying of her fingers separates the feathers from it. This is done with such skill, though, that the plucker rarely breaks the goose’s skin or causes blood to follow the plucking out of a feather. The air is constantly filled with the light feathers during the plucking, but they settle into the tub at last.
“But there isn’t as much call for the goose to undergo this reaping of its feathers as there used to be. Not one pound of goose feathers is used today where there were fifty pounds twenty-five years ago. Odd as it may seem, asthma and hay fever long ago began to have a good deal to do with decreasing the demand for feather beds and pillows. It was discovered that asthma and hay fever had an affinity for such couches and head rests; that nothing would start an asthmatic off for a cheerful night’s wheezing so quickly as a feather bed. This discovery spread, and the goose owes a great deal of its later day comfort to the asthma.” Aberdeen [SD] Daily News 28 January 1910: p. 7
If a feather wreath meant the inevitable demise of the sleeper on the wreath-infested pillow, it was widely believed that no one could die in a bed stuffed with pigeon feathers. We might call such an impasse a “feather wait,” although this medical man dismissed the superstition:
I once heard a dying person complain of not being able to die. A young man whom I attended some years back, and whose case was hopeless, said to me one day, on visiting him, “ Oh, I wish to die, but cannot do so.” I asked him the reason of it, and he replied that he could not die, as there were some pigeons’ feathers in the bed. I endeavoured to prove to him the absurdity of the notion, but in vain. He remained in a dying state for some days. One afternoon he implored his mother to place him in a chair by the fire, as he wished to die, but never should unless his bed were changed. He was accordingly removed from the bed to the chair. He had not sat down for a minute before he expired. His life was not prolonged, as his friends supposed, by his being in the vicinity of pigeons’ feathers. It is well known that towards the termination of many diseases the slightest change in the position of the patient often produces instantaneous death. A person may lie on his back for some days in a dying state, and if the nurse attempted to lift the patient out of bed, or even to raise him in bed, the exertion necessary to accomplish this will often bring about a fatal issue._ In the case just referred to the man died in consequence of the sudden exhaustion caused by removing him from his bed to the chair. On the Preservation of the Health of Body and Mind, Forbes Winslow, 1842, p. 25
Other wild fowl bore the same reputation:
Any pillow or mattress likely to contain pigeons’, doves’ [ since the dove is the emblem of the Holy Ghost and Death cannot come where the Holy Ghost is.], or game-fowls’ feathers had to be withdrawn. Death was held to be impossible while the patient lay on such feathers. This belief was the origin of the widespread custom known as Drawing the Pillow. The latter was pulled from behind the dying man’s head, often in such a way as to hasten his end by making him fall backwards with a jerk. If, however, it was desired to prolong his life for a few more hours, perhaps because some beloved child or relative was known to be hurrying towards the house but had not yet arrived, the pillow was left in place, and sometimes a small bag or bunch of the death-delaying feathers was put into the bed as an extra precaution. The Encyclopedia of Superstitions, Edwin Radford, Mona Augusta Radford, 1961, p. 126
In many parts of Lincolnshire, it is said, that it is impossible to die on a bed that contains [wild birds’ feathers.] I know of one old lady in Yorkshire, who when in extremis begged to be moved off her bed, as she was sure she could not die on it, as it had some bad feathers in it. In some places it is pigeon’s feathers that the people particularly dislike. See also Henderson’s Folk-Lore of the Morthern Counties, p. 60.
This correspondent had a rational explanation for “bad feathers”:
I never heard of any difficulty as to hens’ feathers, but the superstition that a person would not “pass away” (die) on a pillow filled with wild fowl feathers was universal in Scotland in former days. I do not think the root of truth in this is far to seek. The feathers of all game birds, also of pigeons, have a heavy disagreeable smell, which it used to be thought impossible to get rid of; and no one, sick or well, could sleep comfortably on such a pillow, A poor person would not accept the feathers as a gift. Those were the days when feathers were cleaned at home; now good cleaners have ways and means at their disposal unknown to country folk, and perhaps many a grouse and partridge feather is used instead of being burnt.
C. G. Notes and Queries 6th S. IV. Sept. 17, 1881 p. 236
Of course, when there were partridge feathers in the bed, certain steps might have to be taken to ensure an easy death:
Superstitions About Feathers (6th S. iii. 165, 339, 356, 418).—
I have just come across the following story in the Life of the Rev. R. H. Barham, p. 252. A surgeon at Wingham, in Kent, once told Mr. Barham that he had to pay what he considered would be his last visit to an elderly labouring man on Adisham Downs. He had left him in the lost stage of illness the day before, and was not surprised on calling again to find him dead, but did experience a little astonishment at seeing the bed on which he had been lying now withdrawn from under the body and placed in the middle of the floor. To his remarks the answer given by her who had officiated as nurse was:
“Dearee me, sir, you see there was partridge-feathers in the bed, and folks can’t die upon game feathers nohow, and we thought as how he never would go, so we pulled the bed away, and then I just pinched his poor nose tight with one hand and shut his mouth close with t’other, and, poor dear! he went off like a lamb.”
John Churchill Sikes.
106, Godolphin Road, Shepherd’s Bush.
Notes and Queries 6th S. IV. Sept. 17, 1881 p. 236
Oh, the irony that a feather beneath the nose was used to see if breath still lingered in a corpse…
Other feather superstitions? Tickle me at chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com
Chris Woodyard is the author of The Victorian Book of the Dead, The Ghost Wore Black, The Headless Horror, The Face in the Window, and the 7-volume Haunted Ohio series. She is also the chronicler of the adventures of that amiable murderess Mrs Daffodil in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales. The books are available in paperback and for Kindle. Indexes and fact sheets for all of these books may be found by searching hauntedohiobooks.com. Join her on FB at Haunted Ohio by Chris Woodyard or The Victorian Book of the Dead.