THE PEDDLER’S CURSE
Fell On a Family of Zoarites
And to This Day They Carry the Burden of That Ban.
The Strange Deformity of a Family living In Western New York.
Buffalo Cor. Philadelphia Press.
About thirty miles south of Buffalo, midway between the villages of Springville and Gowanda, is situated what is known as the valley of Zoar. This valley is about seven miles long by from one to three miles wide, and is one of the most picturesque spots in the western part of the state, but is almost inaccessible. Its name was taken from the Scriptures, and the description of the situation of that ancient historic valley there given is almost identical with the modern Zoar. Situated as it is among the foothills of the Alleghenies and surrounded by hills towering high on either side, it is no wonder the first inhabitants thought that they had reached a spot of seclusion, a haven of rest, and sat down, exclaiming: “This is Zoar; Zoar the impregnable; from here we will never go.” Tradition says that neither they nor their ancestors ever did leave, the reason being that they found it as hard to get out as it was to get in. The descendants of some of the first settlers still inhabit a part of the valley. Their name is Wright and they comprise a family of twenty-five or thirty. Of them there is not one who is not deformed in some manner about the hands and feet. The deformity is so peculiar as to have given the name of “crab-claws,” and their name would, perhaps, describe their deformity better than any other that could be applied to them.
A recent visit to the home of one of these families set at rest all doubts that might have been entertained as to the truth of the reports that reached the outside world. In company with the village school-teacher, a call was made at a dilapidated looking dwelling situated near the Gowanda end of the valley. Some hesitation was shown by the woman who came to the door about admitting visitors, for these people are aware of their misfortune and rarely permit themselves to be scrutinized. The room into which your correspondent finally entered was comfortably furnished, and contrasted strangely with the exterior of the building. The woman who received us was herself one of these strange people. Her hands had but two fingers each, and the feet were encased in immense round shoes, resembling somewhat a softening boot worn by horses. Other than the two peculiarities already mentioned there as nothing to excite comment except that her general appearance was good.
Presently a girl about 12 years old entered the room. She was barefooted and a view of her feet could be obtained. She appeared to be trying to hide her hands in the folds of her dress. Her face was round and rosy. Her figure was well formed and graceful, and she would have attracted admiration anywhere had it not been for the horrible shape of her feet. There were about six inches long and had but two toes, or rather claws. The claws are about three inches long and resemble huge crab claws more than anything else. They begin at the instep and curve out, and then nearly meet at about three inches from the place of beginning. On the end of the toes, in place of the nails, are small, sharp-pointed horns. The foot did not seem to have any joints in it whatever, as the girl stepped in a solid sort of way, without any spring to her walk. All these things were seen at a glance.
At first Anna appeared confused and bashful, but soon, under the influence of the teacher’s conversation, she became more talkative, and let her hands drop from the folds of her dress. The first sight made the cold chills chase each other up and down the visitor’s back, but finally he looked again. In place of a hand was a long, bony finger, probably five or six inches long. It began with the wrist, which was very small, and tapered down for about two or three inches and extended straight out the rest of the way. As the girl closed her finger it could be seen that there were five joints, and that the finger seemed to curl up as an ordinary hand would.
The teacher bade Anna get her pencil and paper and copy some of the things he had brought for her to do. The girl laid the paper on the desk, and, grasping the pencil in both hands, wrote rapidly and very prettily. While she was writing some other children began to enter the room. They were all barefooted, and their feet were all formed exactly alike, and were just the same as Anna’s. Their hands, fir the most part, had two fingers that looked similar to their toes, but there was one or two with only one finger like Anna’s, and others with three fingers on each hand. There were ten in all, ranging in ages form 3 to about 16 years.
After a few minutes’ conversation the teacher prepared to go. As they arose from their seats the teacher said: “come, Anna, and kiss me good-by.”
“How could you bear to think of kissing that girl?” said the visitor. “She is pretty, but her terrible malformation is shocking.” “That girl, although badly deformed, has a soul just as much as any one. Probably she never receives a kiss except when I kiss her, as her parents are very stern and cross. She appreciates anyone who cares for her and shows interest in her. Her mother and father and several to her members of the family, uncles and aunts, were not there tonight. They were probably up in the hills somewhere working.” “How do you suppose they came to be deformed in this way?”
“There is a legend firmly fixed in the village traditions, but of course it is only a legend. The story goes as follows:
“Early in the present century the ancestors of the family came to the valley of Zoar. They did not have the best reputation in the world. One night a pack peddler came through the forest on his way to Buffalo and stopped at this house to show his wares and obtain night’s lodging. He took from his pack a few golden trinkets, which he showed the people. This excited their greed, and, instead of giving him a bed to sleep on, they soon had him senseless sand were searching him and his pack for the gold. Not finding any more than he had shown them the determined to torture him. As soon as the revived they began operations by cutting off a toe from each foot. This did not bring forth the secret of where his money was concealed, and a couple more toes were sacrificed. Still he persisted in saying that he had no money, which only resulted in his losing two more toes. He then had two toes left on each foot, the big and the little one. As that torture did no good, they became exasperated and knocked him on the head, and, supposing him to be dead, they threw him through a trap door into the cellar.
“Presently, however, the trap-door was lifted up and the hands of the peddler appeared on the sides of the door as if he was trying to climb out. This so enraged the family that one grabbed a butcher knife and another a hatchet, and they began hacking at the hands of the poor man. After a couple of strokes only one finger was left on hand and two on the other, and at that he fell back into the cellar.
“The family gathered around the trap-door to see if he made any sound, and heard him calling on the Lord to curse that family and make them wear his present form even to the third and fourth generations. Those were his dying words.
“Whether the story is true or not, of course I cannot say, but it is evident that the three generations which are represented here all have deformed hands and feet.” The story is generally accepted as true by all the people in the valley and some old settlers say they can remember when it first was told in connection with the murder of the peddler.
Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 13 February 1892: p. 13
The deformation described in the story is called Ectrodactyly or Split Hand/Split Foot malformation.
Stories of murdered peddlers are legion in folklore; it is curious that the people of the valley, who obviously had a limited genetic pool, chose to associate their affliction with a dire tale of torture and murder, rather than regarding it as a curse from God, the mark of the Devil, or a manifestation of witchcraft. It is a variant on the theme of Maternal Influence; the Murder Victim’s Influence. I am uncertain whether these “Zoarites” were an actual religious group– the Society of Separatists of Zoar, known as Separatists and Zoarites, who emigrated from Germany because of religious persecution, or just an isolated group of settlers. The valley was in what is known as the “Burned Over District,” birthplace of Mormonism–Joseph Smith dug up the Book of Mormon at Palmyra; home of Mr. Splitfoot and the Hydesville Rappings that launched the Spiritualist movement, and breeding ground for all manner of religious revivals, prophets and prophetesses, and cranks.
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. And visit her new blog at The Victorian Book of the Dead.