The dairy cow is the quintessential bewitched animal: it gives no milk or the milk won’t turn to butter or the milk is bloodied or the witch is drawing off the “essence” of the milk into her own cows, or milking the cow remotely using a rope or a towel—and that’s just the cream of the mischief that can be done to a bewitched cow.
Today’s story of cow witchery comes from the exotic locale of Weehawken, New Jersey, and features a man with a profession that must have been unpleasant at best: dead animal disposal contractor.
A BEWITCHED COW
Strange Story of Superstition in Weehawken.
A Vengeful Woman Muttered an Incantation Over the Animal
And the Owner Was Obliged to Give It Away
One Man’s Loss Another’s Gain
Bovine Insanity, Says Science.
[New York Mercury.]
Mr. Vactky, [actually Vatcky] who is the contractor to dispose of all dead animals in Hoboken, has some very strange experiences, but last week he fell up against a streak of the greatest kind of luck, and at the same time made the discovery that there are living in this enlightened age people who are just as superstitious as they were in the days of witchcraft. In fact, right in Weehawken live families who believe in witchcraft and stand in fear and trembling if threatened with being
PUT UNDER A SPELL.
Mr. Vactky, in addition to the business of carting dead animals, presides over the bar of his saloon at the corner of Hill street and Bergenline avenue. It was just about a week ago that a big, strong, healthy-looking German came into the contractor’s saloon and nervously took a seat at one of the tables. He ordered a glass of beer, and as he raised the glass to his lips he said in a voice loud enough to be hard all over the room: “Beer don’t taste like it used to. Every thing is going wrong. The spell is on me. Where can I find the man who takes away dead animals? I was directed to this locality.” “I am the man,” answered Mr. Vactky. The man’s face grew brighter as he said: “Well, sir, I have a cow that I wish you would come after. She is not dead, she is even in the best of health,
BUT SHE IS BEWITCHED,
and while she is in my possession I will be hoodooed. You can take her dead or alive, but I think you will have to kill her.”
By this time the contractor had his doubt as to the man’s sanity but concluded to question him further. “I bought the cow four years ago,” he said, “and put her out to pasture. Up till this time she has been money to me. Now she is a curse. I only had enough milk for my own use, but a few days ago a woman came to me and wanted milk. I told her I only had enough for my own customers. The woman got very mad and said I would never had luck unless I let her have what she wanted. By this time I was mad, too, and would not give her the milk. She went away mumbling something. That night when I attempted to empty the milk from the milking pails into the serving pails I spilled every bit of it. I arose early next morning after passing an almost sleepless night and turned the cow loose. I had just started away when
I SAW THE SAME WOMAN COMING.
Into the lot where the cows were. I thought she was coming for milk. She took no notice of me and made her way to one of my cows—the best one I had, and that is the one I want you to take now. The devil is in that cow. She commenced to pat the cow on the back, and there was a wild look in her eyes. She was saying something that sounded like rhyme, though I could not catch one word of it. I came over to the woman and asked her if she had come for milk. She didn’t seem to hear me, but went on stroking the cow and saying the strange words. By and by she looked around at me as if she had just woke up and didn’t know where she was. I asked her again if she wanted milk. Then she looked at me with a hateful scowl and said: ‘Oh, you are the man who refused to sell me milk yesterday. You act foolishly. This is the cow you thought the most of. She will never be of use to you again. So long as you keep her you will have misfortune, and you can not get rid of her. No one will buy her from you, and should you attempt to kill her you will die before the year is out. The
COW IS BEWITCHED.’
“I did not quite believe all the woman had said, but I felt that she had said some things that were true, for I knew she was a wonderful woman, and while she looked at me I did not seem to be myself. She said no more, but walked away, and the cow followed her as far as the gateway. That night when I went to drive in the cows I was forced to see that the woman had told the truth. The cow that had always been so tender glared at me like some wild beast, and I began to have fears for my safety. I called her by her name, and suddenly she began a series of twists and kicks that threatened danger to me, so I got out of her way. Then she got up on her back legs and went about for awhile in that way like a dancer. Her remarkable actions attracted the neighbors, but I said nothing to them about her being bewitched, and they marvelled much at her actions and some laughed. I persuaded them to help me get her into the barn, but I did not attempt to touch her, for she seemed to have for me a special dislike.
In the barn she continued her antics and bit at the other cows. Up to this time she had been a good milker, but while the others held her my wife tried to milk her, but there was no milk. Now I was thoroughly convinced that the cow had been bewitched, and even I myself felt very strange, so I concluded to get rid of the cow as soon as possible. I told my friends that I had the
COW FOR SALE FOR THIRTY DOLLARS.
Next morning a man came to buy her. I took him into the barn to see her, and when he looked at her he became frightened and so did I, for during the night she seemed to have undergone a great chance. In the first place her hair was all turned the wrong way, while her eyes shone so bright and fierce as to look devilish. Her tail she kept swinging about in all directions, and her horns were held in such a position as to be ready to do injury to whoever came near enough. The man said he would not own the cow, as she looked crazy. “I think you had better kill the cow, for she will be worth more to you dead than alive. You can use her hide and bones when she is dead, but alive she will only be a curse to you.”
VACTKY DID NOT TAKE MUCH STOCK
In the story of the cow being bewitched, but concluded to see what there was in it, anyway, and if he could get a cow for nothing he would be well paid for his trouble, so he hitched a horse up to the wagon and the man got in with him. They drove up to Weehawken, where the man lived, and in a few moments Mr. Vactky and the “haunted man” were in the presence of the bewitched cow. It was the truth that its eyes were very wild and that its hair was twisted and turned in all kinds of shapes and directions. The contractor asked the man again if he really did not want the cow, for he saw at a glance that it was a fine animal, and the owner and his wife both said in chorus, “For God’s sake take it away.” Mr. Vactky got a stout rope, and, with the deftness of a Western cowboy, had thrown it over the cow’s head before that animal knew what was in the wind. When she found she was tied she tossed her head a good deal and made a noise that sounded more like the roar of a lion than the blare of a cow and her hair got twisted more than ever.
THEN MR. VACTKY TIED THE ROPE
To the back of his wagon and got in the vehicle; then he gave the order for the horse to go. The horse started and the cow had to move, roaring and biting as she went, and before the procession reached the street she came very nearly upsetting the wagon. The “haunted man” drew a breath of relief when the cow got safely off his premises and so did Mr. Vactky, for if the cow really had been bewitched the spell wore off after she had left her former owner. She walked along peacefully enough now, and when Mr. Vactky put her in his barn the wild look had gone from her eye and her hair looked quite like other cows. He fed her and patted her and saw that, though other people were superstitious, he had a good thing. The cow is a good milker now, and Mr. Vactky would not take $50 for her. A veterinary surgeon who was spoken to about the cow ridiculed the idea of the animal being bewitched, but says it was probably insane. “Animals have fits of insanity,” he said, “the same as do people.”
The Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 16 May 1891: p. 12
I was intrigued by Mr. Henry Vatcky’s profession as a “man who takes away dead animals.” Apparently the official term was “dead animal man.” Urban areas at this period had a large population of livestock. Dray horses dropped dead in the street from heat or overwork and roaming dogs plagued farmers and city-dwellers alike, in the days before rabies shots, making canines fair game for slaughter. In 1896 Henry Vatcky, Jr. helped to kill a mad dog outside his father’s saloon. While the work must have involved heavy lifting, vile odors, effluent, and maggots, there was a brisk market in animal byproducts such as hides and hooves, so being a dead animal collector may have had its compensations.
But back to the cow. If we wish to draw uncomfortably paranormal parallels, “her hair was all turned the wrong way” suggests the plaiting of horses’ hair by witches or elves. Is there anything sinister in the fact that the creature suddenly became docile once off the premises of the “haunted man”? There was a belief that one “mode of keeping the witch at a distance was to plait a piece of cord the contrary way, or with the left hand, and tie it round the animal’s neck.” Was this the stout rope?
In a completely irrelevant aside, there was a belief in the north of Scotland—I don’t know if it made its way to Hoboken—that disease in cattle could be arrested by burying one of the dead animals on your neighbor’s farm. Of course this transferred the disease to the neighbor’s herd, but one can’t have everything. I wonder if the unflappable Mr. Vatcky was ever called upon to perform such a burial.
But if we discount witchcraft, what do you suppose ailed the cow? Was the woman a reverse “cow whisperer”: a nose twitch and a few muttered words to turn the animal mad? Did she feed the cow jimson weed, white snake-root, or some other poison? Bovine spongiform encephalopathy is a progressive disease—the cow would not have gotten better. Any veterinary surgeons in the audience who would hazard a guess as to what kind of disease gives these symptoms?
My hair will be in a twist until I know what Science says. 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.