By the 1890s, an aged crone living in poverty with a cat was seen as a potential candidate for the poorhouse, rather than the ducking pond or the stake. Witchcraft was disdained as the rankest superstition by the educated. Yet popular belief in witches lasted well into the 20th century–and even down to today. This article is a surprisingly sympathetic look at a set of local eccentrics and at the persistence of witch-belief in rural Virginia.
QUEENS OF GHOST-LAND
Belief in Witchcraft Not yet Destroyed in Virginia
Gruesome and Unpublished Legends of the Alleghanies
The Strange Power of Sally Friddly, Mrs. Roland, Ann Hotel and Other Dames
Strange as it may seem, many of the superstitions of the old colonial times still survive in the mountains of Virginia. I do not refer to the voudoo worship of the colored people, but to the beliefs that are common among the white folks of the region. Here among the Alleghanies “witchcraft celebrates pale Hecate’s offerings,” and within easy reaching distance of Fincastle there are a number of withered hags, who less than a century ago would have been burned at the stake for the black arts they are supposed to practice. They are reputed to be witches, and to meet one of them at midnight would appall the bravest inhabitant. At least two of these women belonged to fine families in the long ago and were noted for their beauty and their jewels. In the olden time witchcraft was not confined to the Puritans of New England. Princess Anne Courthouse, a little village southeast of Richmond, Va., witnessed the ducking of Grace Sherwood in the waters of Lynhaven bay for witchcraft. The belief in witches has never died out in this vicinity.
The Virginia witches are only poor, scant-garbed, hunger-crazed creatures. They are usually of bearded chins and otherwise hideous. That they possess power unusual to the human being is without doubt. Perhaps it is, after all, an undeveloped unconscious germ of the occult science, yet to be explained away.
But here is one illustration that scarcely comes under any science yet named. Sally Friddly, living on Potts Creek, Alleghany county, furnishes her neighborhood with a striking story. It is rather hard to say that the story is believed, but so it is, for the credulity of the mountaineer, in certain directions, is altogether limitless.
Sally Friddly keeps behind her closet door a tow-linen towel. It has hung there for forty years all told. Now, when Sally Friddly wants a neighbor’s cow to yield to her own milk pail, she puts into said pail a silver dollar—it may be the long lost dollar of 1804. Then she goes to the tow-lined towel and repeats some such jargon as this:
“The milk for her
The cream for me,
Saw, Brownie, saw.”
Or “Saw, Daisy,” or any name her neighbors’ cows may possess.
She always gets the cream! She is very considerate and does not take milk from one cow oftener than once in every two or three weeks. This enables everybody to fare alike.
There are a great many people whom I know—both white and colored—who never go to bed on a windy night without first sprinkling salt around their beds. This keeps the witches out. Another protection is to set up a knife, fork, and spoon at the head of the bed; and, then, so say the sufferers, one can see the witch that visits one and tell exactly who it is. Placing bent pins in the track of a reputed witch is another method of proving witchcraft. If upon returning in the same tracks she limps, then the pins have stuck home in their uncanny mission and she is a witch.
There is one advantage in being a witch now, rather than a witch of a hundred years ago. Then one was tried, ducked or burned. Now one is feared, respected, pampered, appeased and in some instances actually supported by their victims.
Such is Sally Friddly.
That a woman of this kind has a strange influence over her fellow-men, ignorant, unlettered, undisciplined though they be, cannot be denied any more than it can be explained. She grows up with the power. She makes prophecies and they are verified. Sometimes she is dubbed crazy quite early in life and the stigma clings to her.
Ann Hotel, formerly Ann Croft, has been a famous character in the county for thirty years. She professes to have powers instilled in her from birth by a witch mother. She has epileptic fits, talks with a drawl and a nasal whine, and emphasizes her words in a peculiar manner.
She was a casper’s [sic] daughter, born in this county—Botetourt—and as a girl worked in the family of one very respectable, if not learned, old gentleman—Moore by name. The substantial, unpainted old Dutch house, filled with curious old books and furniture, among which were German black letter volumes and a valuable hall clock with chimes—proved a tempting home to the house girl, Annie Croft. So, in the hope of retaining it during her natural life she bewitched Mrs. Moore—so the story goes—and in a very short time married the gray old man, then about sixty years of age. She was at the time about nineteen. Her fame as a fortune teller and witch was then wonderful.
Her enemies said that she inflicted the troubles that she foretold; her friends that she was a surprising medium through which the future revealed itself. She undoubtedly hit the truth in many instances. For example, she happened to be at a lady’s house in her travels, and upon opening her book declared that a coffin appeared between her lines. Her hearer was visibly affected, because one of her sons was away at the war.
“No,” said Ann, divining her thoughts, “he will not die in battle. He will choke to death.”
There was but one way to do this, so thought his mother. He would be captured and hung as a spy. Despite the dictates of her reasons she grieved for her son. A month later she heard that he had died in a Southern hospital of diphtheria.
They say this is only one of a thousand instances that have verified her predictions. For my own part, I could never remember the fortune she rehearsed for my benefit. When she struck a truth in past events I was not surprised, because here, as in small towns, everybody’s past is his neighbor’s to remember; and I felt sure some one had talked to her before her visits to me….
She seems to be a real oracle for a certain class who seek her whenever they lose an article, and she invariably discovers it for them. A poor man lost his coat. He could ill afford such a loss, for he had no other. All through the Summer it was searched for, and when Fall came, and he felt the need of it he walked a few miles to hear what Ann could tell him about it.
“It hangs in a dark place upon a knife stuck in the wall,” she read from her wonderful book.
Upon renewed search it was found at the house of his sister-in-law, and sure enough it hung upon the butcher knife behind the closet door. The sister-in-law had left it there when she went from home the Spring before.
This incident is vouched for by the parties interested. All these small things, homely and unimportant as they are, yet swell her reputation and keep her in demand.
But there’s an evil side of her.
She professes to read between the liens and violently opposes any one opening the book. Whatever it is it inspires some wonderful revelations about simple folk. Her husband died after a few years, and by some quirk in the settlement she lost all the property. She declared her dead husband told her, through the powers she possessed, to dispose of it.
“He came every night,” she told me, “and said he could not rest in his grave until every book and stick of furniture was gone.”
So the grand old books were given away—some were burned. The beautiful clock that had chimed out its notes in the “Faderland” and in the old mansion for more than a century was sold for a five-dollar greenback! And then the court came in for a turn and Ann lost the weather-beaten house.
But she did not mourn a homeless widow long. She found and married a tramp Frenchman, Eugene Hotel, who threatens to return to an amiable veuve in France every time he gets mad with her.
She claims to call up the dead in spirit form. Upon one occasion she and the despicable man, her husband, were refused entertainment at a country house. She repaired to the little church near the house, and held an orgy all night long, which was witnessed by the terrified inmates of the house, they declaring that the graves yawned and the night was peopled with ghosts. They were only too glad to have her at breakfast smiling her baneful smiles and appeased! Ann lives now about four miles from Fincastle, and she visits the village every summer. If not a welcome visitor she is an humored one, and is usually paid for the guesses she makes and which few really like to listen to, so near the truth are they.
Mrs. Roland, connected with very respectable people and now old and feeble, has been for years considered a witch. Ignorant persons so consider her. Others say she is a living representative of his dark and awful majesty. She is intolerably wicked in a church-going, dress-worshipping community. For years she lived in an ugly house on Main street alone; and yet she talked incessantly to long-departed friends. She has been wealthy; and her people are able to keep her out of the poorhouse, yet, it is said, she who once robed in silk and jewels and possessed slaves to murder if she desired, will die in the county almshouse. The reason for this is that she is a witch. She has suffered; she is a disappointed, childless, helpless old woman; and the strange magnetism which in the days of her youth and beauty brought to her feet lovers, husband, friends and admirers is now exerted in putting evil spells upon people, in cursing them with all manner of blasphemies, and every person who knows her fears and shuns her.
It is said she quarrels as fiercely with the ghosts of her mother and sister upon their frequent visits, as she ever quarreled with them in the flesh.
A little boy told me that when he built fires for Mrs. Roland a few years ago, she told him to “set a chair quick for Lucy,” upon one occasion.
When he did so he heard distinctly the rustle of a silk dress, and Mrs. Roland, directing her eyes to the apparently vacant chair, set up such a querulous scolding of Lucy’s ghost as to frighten him nearly to death.
“Stay in purgatory,” she said, “or else you’ll have all those silk dresses so creased and glazed that they won’t do for Houseman’s rag-bag! You only come back to hear yourself rustle in silk, you proud huzzy; and Satan can have no revenge because you burnt yourself up here!”
“A great many times,” said the child, “would she thus receive her ghostly visitors. Sometimes they would come to look over the family jewels, and then there’d be a great fuss because certain of Mrs. R.’s relatives robbed her, and she acquainted Lucy with the act.” Once Lucy slapped the witch’s jaws, the sound of which the boy heard distinctly; and the red print of a hand showed plainly on the pallid old cheek.
Lucy was actually burned alive in that ugly old square house. She was burned in her kitchen fireplace, and only one shoe, inside of which was a foot, proved that flesh, blood and bone had perished there in the pile of blackened ashes on the hearth. The kitchen is now the abode of lights and shades; and since the witch has been unable to hire a cook or command one by witch power, she has left it wholly to these uncanny occupants; and there the village folk are willing it should remain.
Patsey Worly was a witch who got drunk. She wore enormous hoops and danced on the streets of this old town for “treats.” When Patsey appeared and with her curtsy began her dance, which was an exaggerated, one-figured Sir Roger de Coverly, you had better stop in your walks and see it through and afterwards treat her at Bittle’s ginger shop or better still at the bar—that is, if you did not want to be ”bewitched.”
Polly Pockets was a local witch twenty years ago. No one knows what became of her. In a certain neighborhood, however, once lived a crow, which was captured the very day Polly Pockets appeared in the road on her annual tramp, which she made through several counties, filling her capacious pockets with articles begged as she tramped. The youth who caught the crow was horrified to find that she talked! In a squeaky, parrot-like voice, to be sure, and some of the words were foreign it seemed. But talk it certainly could. This wonderful bird was at once slaughtered, and thereafter never again was Polly Pockets to be seen, though she had been a familiar figure of the wayside since forty years ago, returning as regularly as the crimson, grass vetch in the fence corners every spring. E.S. Grant.
Richmond [VA] Dispatch 6 June 1891: p. 6 also Logansport [IN] Journal June 13, 1891: p. 6 and The Helena [MT[ Independent 31 May 1891: p. 6 As this was quite a long piece, I have left out some more-or-less generic bits, which noted the antics of two other witches, Sally Slate and Lidy Hughes: Slate turned a hired man into a horse; Hughes was shot with a silver bullet and still limped from it.
A couple of points are worth noting in this roster of Virginia witches, all of whom seem to have turned themselves into hares or cats when the census taker dropped by. (Or perhaps the author superstitiously avoided giving the witches’ correct names for fear of retaliation…)
Remotely milking the neighbor’s cows is a common witch-trick, although I’m not sure what the silver coin–usually an anti-witch specific–is for. A towel, a rag, or a rope of hair plaited from the hair of various cows is sometimes used. The Malleus Maleficarum tells of another method:
But they can cause this in various ways by witchcraft. For on the more holy nights according to the instructions of the devil and for the greater offence to the Divine Majesty of God, a witch will sit down in a corner of her house with a pail between her legs, stick a knife or some instrument in the wall or a post, and make as if to milk it with her hands. Then she summons her familiar who always works with her in everything, and tells him that she wishes to milk a certain cow from a certain house, which is healthy and abounding in milk. And suddenly the devil takes the milk from the udder of that cow, and brings it to where the witch is sitting, as if it were flowing from the knife. [Source: Malleus Maleficarum Part 2 Chapter XIV How Witches Injure Cattle in Various Ways.]
Was the witch was meant to count the individual salt crystals around the bed until morning came and her power vanished? The salt smacks of a count-the-straws-in-the-broom or sort-the-grains anti-witch charm.
Ann Hotel’s book is intriguing—was it a “German black-letter volume” or a pow-wow book, full of charms and spells? It may have been a Bible (although I’d like to think it was an epistolary novel) with which she practiced bibliomancy: “reading between the lines” for her prophecies.
There is also some overlap between witchcraft and spiritualism: the “witches” are “queens of ghost-land,” and call up the dead. These women also seemed to fulfill a community function much like the “Cunning folk” of Britain: they had charms for or against luck, they told fortunes, they found lost objects. They were feared and placated, if not respected. The author of this piece suspected that someone had talked to the oracle before she “prophesied.” As Owen Davies says in his book Popular Magic: Cunning-folk in English History , cunning folk might use similar mundane methods to achieve their “magic,” often spying, prying, and using confederates to gather information that would astonish their clients. Spiritualists were known to have used the same techniques.
The story of the death of Mrs. Roland’s sister, the ghostly Lucy, is a striking one—it’s not clear if she was deliberately burned alive in the fireplace or if it was an accidental death. Many burn deaths alleged to be the result of spontaneous human combustion tell of a victim found by a fireplace with only the feet and legs remaining—like Lucy’s foot remaining in the shoe, although I’ve been told by a coroner that feet contain so little fat that they are often found intact when the rest of the body is burnt.
My head crammed with 19th-century prejudices about education and superstition, I have been surprised by the endurance of witch-belief in the United States. Just three years after the Virginia witch article, a new witch-trial took place in Salem—Ohio. (See The Headless Horror for the story.) A pow-wow-doctor was murdered in Pennsylvania in 1928 to remove a supposed hex. In Janesville, Wisconsin a man was accused of casting spells and “working evil” in 1930. While we’d like to think that such things have been stamped out in the 21st century, there has been a recent upsurge of witch-murders in Africa and New Guinea. And before you scoff that this madness only happen in other countries, see this article from January, 2014. Said the murderer: “I killed them because they were witches.”
Can anyone tell me what a “casper” is? I don’t find the term in my list of old-timey occupations. Or is it a misprint for “caster?” Open your book and read between the lines to 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.