It’s about this time of year that home-made soup begins to sounds good: something with lots of colorful veggies, chunks of chicken, and steaming noodles to warm winter’s chill.
But in 1877 Indiana, a different sort of hell-brew was being served to break the spell of a “soup-greens woman” accused of bewitching a young woman.
A Young Lady Said to be Bewitched by an Ancient Peddler of Garden Greens
The Foul Spell Broken with a Half a Square Foot of the “Witch’s” Calico.
A remarkable instance of faith in the supernatural came to light yesterday morning. About eight o’clock, an old woman named Mrs. Pfeiffer, who lives at No. 1,515 Division street, and who has a vegetable stand in the market, was refreshing herself with a cup of coffee at Fisher’s Hotel, near the market. While thus engaged, a young butcher named Marx Eichel, and an old man, knock-kneed and very tall, came in, and the old man pointed the old woman out to his younger companion. Armed with a butcher-knife, the latter went up behind the old woman, and, gathering a portion of her dress in his hand, slyly cut out a piece of the calico, about half a foot in diameter, and then hastily ran away.
The old woman had not perceived this action until her attention was called to it, and then seemed very much frightened. Learning the circumstances, she consulted Colonel V. Bisch, who had Eichel arrested and brought before Esquire Roberts on a charge of assault and battery and malicious trespass, the trial of which is postponed till to-day.
Of this strange proceeding reveals a wonderful instance of “witchcraft” in this God-blessed city.
About two years ago the mother and sisters of Mr. Simon Weill, the well-known cattle-drover of the city, arrived from Germany and took residence in a neat little house near the head of Main street. Last summer Miss Julia Weil, one of the sisters of Mr. Weil, was taken sick with chills and fever, which she could not overcome. An old woman, Mrs. Pfeiffer, brought vegetables to the family and knew of the illness of the daughter. She was permitted to prescribe for her, and induced her to
SWALLOW A PAPER
On which she had written several words in unintelligible German. This was followed a few hours after by several powders, the composition of which was not known.
From that time the Weil family says the girl has been growing worse, and for three months has been confined to the sick bed. The attendance of physicians has been unavailing, and for several days past each hours as it flew by was supposed to be her last.
Since she has been in bed five physicians have prescribed for her, but of the number, it is said, one confessed he could not tell what was the matter with her, the others pronouncing her ailment heart disease, the regular attendants, Drs. Bray and Wheeler, treating her for enlargement of the heart, but have pronounced her case hopeless.
In sheer despair at her great suffering, some friends urged the family to call the man named Vogt, described above. This personage lives in the upper part of town, and is supposed to have a wonderful power over his Satanic Majesty and all his imps. When he was consulted he told the relatives the daughter was not sick but
And that the person who brought about this evil influence was Mrs. Pfeiffer, the ancient peddler of garden greens. He told Mr. Weil to go home and in the feather mattress on which his sister was lying he would find the feathers made up in the shapes of flowers and wreaths. Mr. Weil did as directed, and opening the mattress was astonished to find the feathers conglomerated into the shapes described. They were so interwoven as to be difficult to pull apart. Mr. Weil took the feathers, and “when the sunset glow began to dim,” burned them. From the cremation, however, was saved a handful of the awful feathers, which we have in this office. They are interwoven, as described, with strings and papers, but, we must confess, only sight strengthened by faith could make out roses, ferns and leaves from our specimens; but since they came into our hands
THE SPELL IS WITHDRAWN
Vogt then examined another charm, which Mrs. Pfeiffer is said to have given the young woman. This consisted in two little rag bags, worn on a string about the neck next to the person. The sacks were opened and each contained a bit of paper on which were written hieroglyphics, which could not be made out. One had evidently been dipped in grease, then nearly dry, and Vogt told the family, had the girl continued to wear the talisman, she would have died simultaneously with the evaporation of the grease. This charm was destroyed. He then advised the family to carefully close up the room, stopping up every aperture on last Wednesday night, and the next morning procure a bit of the supposed witch’s dress, and that would effectually break the charm. A cousin of the suffering girl, Marx Eichel, agreed to be the hero who should sunder the fatal tie, and yesterday morning the exorcist pointed out the old woman to him and he cut off a piece of her garment as described above, and
The spell is broken. Mr. Weil claims that since Vogt was first called in his sister has improved wonderfully. Previous to his visitation she could not sleep, and had been unable to take anything but beef tea. Now she is able to sleep, is cheerful, and has regained her appetite, and relishes just such food as he predicted she would, although he has given her no medicine whatever, and she has continued the treatment of her physicians. Mr. Weil, although an intelligent person, has great faith in Vogt, and, like others of his family, has much fear of Mrs. Pfeiffer’s supposed devil influence. He will pay his cousin’s fine to-day, and said he would spend a thousand dollars in fines to see his sister restored to health.
Reporters of the Democrat and Courier called on Mrs. Pfeiffer yesterday afternoon, and found her about the every-day duties of the household. She is an old woman, with a much-wrinkled, sun-burnt face, whose nose and chin nearly meet from the loss of her front teeth. She is of the medium height and very heavy set. As she spoke no English, we felt safe, but trembled for the poor Democrat reporter. Mrs. Pfeiffer said she was sixty year of age, a poor, honest woman, who earns her living by gardening and denies having any “witching” power, and even laughed good-naturedly at the idea. She said she used to furnish the Weil family with garden truck and knew of the daughter’s sickness, but never gave her powders or papers or charms. She seemed to have a great dislike to Vogt, and charged him with this persecution. Mrs. Pfeiffer did not want to have her name in the paper in this connection, and denies being a witch. She appears to be too heavy to cut any sort of figure in an aerial flight on a broomstick.
Evansville [IN] Courier and Press 23 November 1877: p. 4
While the preceding story says that the Vogt, the Indiana version of a cunning-man or Hex-Doctor, only recommended cutting a piece from the “witch’s” dress, this next story is more specific about the actual method of removing the spell and adds the detail, almost de rigueur in Midwestern witch stories, that feather wreaths and other bewitching symbols were found in the afflicted girl’s feather-bed.
An Active Belief in the Superstition at Evansville
[Evansville Tribune, of yesterday.]
People in the upper market were astonished this morning to see a young butcher seize a butcher-knife and run up behind an old woman who was peddling soup greens, hastily cut a piece about ten inches in diameter out of the skirt of her calico dress and run away. The woman was not only incensed, but she as nearly frightened out of her senses, and a great commotion ensued. In the talk that followed it was developed that the bit of calico was wanted for a charm to break the spell which the old woman was accused of having put on a young girl.
The witch’s victim is a Miss Julia Weil, the sister of Simon Weil, the well-known cattle dealer. Miss Weil has been ill for some time, her disease being of such a nature as to puzzle the physicians. She had been troubled for some time with lameness and her mother had employed the old soup-green woman, whose name is Pfeiffer, to treat her. Since being placed under “Frau” Pfeiffer’s treatment, the serious illness came upon her, and in the course of their consultation with friends they were advised to consult a man named Vogt, who has the reputation among the ignorant of being a sort of witch master-general. He is a tall, awkward old man, shockingly knock-kneed, and homely. He is also very eccentric, and seems to have availed himself of the superstition of his acquaintances to establish a reputation for supernatural powers. After hearing the case through, Vogt told the Wiels that their daughter was bewitched, and that Mrs. Pfeiffer was the witch. He prescribed a course of treatment for her cure, and seemed confident that it would be effectual. His prescription was to procure some greens from the old woman, and to cut a piece from her dress while she was wearing it, and make a dish of calico soup as a remedy, which they were to administer to the young lady, with certain mysterious observances, which would aid in rendering the potion effective. The relatives of the girl give as an evidence that some supernatural power had affected her that on examination of her bed, the feathers were found to be gathered in beautiful wreaths, bouquets and flowers, a work which they think could only have been performed by the hands of witches. On inquiry, of one of the physicians who attend Miss Weil, it was ascertained that her malady is hypertrophy of the heart and valvular disease of the aorta, a very serious form of heart disease, which produced the strange symptoms which the relatives attributed to witchcraft.
The young man who cut the calico is Max Eichel, a relative of the afflicted girl. Anecdotes of Vogt are told by several to show that he has freely made use of the reputation he has acquired as an exorcist of evil.
The Indianapolis [IN] News, 23 November 1877: p. 1
The case was quickly disposed of in the courts.
Esquire Roberts yesterday had the witch case up before him again. Voght [sic], the witch charmer, and Simon Weil were charged with being accessory to the offence of cutting a piece from the old woman’s dress; the case against Voght was nollied and Simon Weil was fined one cent and costs, amounting to about eleven dollars.
Evansville [IN] Courier and Press 28 November 1877: p. 4
I’d like to think that the nolle prosequi for Vogt was because the court was afraid of the powers of the witch-charmer.
I find references to “Calico Soup” from the Civil War onward. You can find modern recipes for Calico Soup online and packages of the soup mix are also sold commercially. The term seems to refer to any soup with a hodge-podge of ingredients or a mixed vegetable soup, usually with beans. It was also called “Uneducated soup,” in the 19th century, which would have pleased those who railed against believers in the supernatural as uneducated.
As for the soup as a specific against witchcraft, the idea of boiling blood, hair, urine, or nails from the victim to torment the witch or to bring her to one’s door so she will remove the spell is a common one. I recall, but cannot find a reference for the idea that boiling something believed to belong to the witch would produce the same salutary result. This variant—of the victim having to actually drink the boiled garment—is new to me. Vogt’s specification of greens purchased from the “witch,” is a nice, healthful touch. I suppose soup made from calico (and were the dyes toxic?) would be a bit stringy; meal and dental floss in one unpleasant package.
Still, the treatment seems to have been successful; Julia Weil was still alive at the time of the 1880 census and performing “housework.”
Other examples of similar anti-witch potions involving cloth or other references to “witch’s calico?” Write chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com. Soup’s on!
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 newest blog, The Victorian Book of the Dead.