Hearts and Powers: Cardiac Witchery

An 18th c. heart brooch http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O118011/ring-brooch-unknown/

An 18th c. heart brooch http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O118011/ring-brooch-unknown/

In this Valentine week, let us take the pulse of early 20th-century witchcraft and  look at the power of the heart in enchantments. When one is bewitched, there must be a violent counter-spell to break the witch’s power: drawing blood above the witch’s mouth, boiling a possession of the witch’s to force her to come to you, or piercing a heart—usually cut from cloth or taken from an animal–with pins or other sharp objects.  A surprising number of artifacts from this practice survive, sometimes nearly intact.

Here is the basic formula for protective heart magic, as practiced in the early 20th century:

One of the most curious of the exhibits is a sheep’s heart, pierced with pins and nails to break the spell of a black witch. It was prepared by an old woman who practised witchcraft in London as late as 1908. She learned the secret of the charm from her grandmother in South Devon, where it was popular with farmers. The black witches were supposed to bring about the death of sheep and cows by casting a spell over them, or by surreptitiously introducing the poisonous leaves of the yew tree into their food. By taking the heart of a sheep which had fallen victim to these machinations, piercing it with pins and nails, and hanging it up in the chimney, the spell was supposed to be broken. — The Times, 5th March, 1917

The most commonly used animal hearts were extracted from bullocks and lambs. This story, from Germany, replete with interesting details, tells of a mole’s heart, as well as the viscera of a horse, used in rituals to scam distressed clients. We find the usual journalistic clucking over “the degradation” of superstition.


Superstition in Germany

Mole’s Heart as a Charm.

Berlin Correspondence London Telegram.

Advocates of the absolutist conditions which obtain in Mecklenburg often contend that the inhabitants of the sister duchies are the happiest people in Germany. That felicity is not their sole characteristic was, however, shown at a trial just concluded at Schwerin. The proceedings, indeed, revealed a depth and degradation of superstition which are not a little astonishing in a country which is so often held up as the model of culture and enlightenment.

The events on which the charge was based took place at Grevesmühlen, a town of 5,000 inhabitants, to the north of Schwerin, and the whole affair arose, unromantically enough, out of a stomach-ache. The patient was one Frau Rollenhagen, who complained of her trouble to a neighbor, Frau Krakow. The latter at once declared that she knew a “wise woman” at Wismar who could diagnose the illness from the hair at the back of the head, and supplied infallible remedies for all human ailments. Frau Krakow further offered her friendly services as a go-between, and, entrusted with a sample of Frau Rollenhagen’s hair, set off for the neighboring seaport town, whence she returned with a black powder, for which she said she had paid 10 marks.

Unfortunately, the malady got better, and it was quite natural that when the Rollenhagen family was involved in fresh trouble through one of the daughters being dismissed from service for theft, Krakow was again consulted. She suggested that dishonesty had been bewitched into the girl, and commissioned to make another journey to Wismar, this time brought back two black powders, one to be taken internally and the other to be worn around the neck in a linen bag. The daughter was, however, charged with theft, and in spite of the charms cut rather a sorry figure in court.

Krakow now declared that the witches must have sealed up the girl’s mouth, and she must herself go to the wise woman, one Frau Treptow, and be exorcised. This process was accompanied by the killing of a mole, the heart of which was extracted, roasted and hung round the girl’s neck in a silver locket.

Encouraged by success, Krakow became greedier and more impudent in her imposture. In the facts that the Rollenhagen girl cut her finger, she affected to see fresh signs that the witches were at work, and boldly designated two old women of Frevesmuhlen, Frau Brandt and Frau Vitense, as the authors of all the evil.

Both mother and daughter were now dragged off to the wise woman to be exorcised, but even this was ineffective, for shortly after an anonymous letter, threatening awful calamities, and enclosing three mice and a fish’s head, reached the terrified family. This time Krakow was able to prescribe without the assistance of the wise woman. At her instructions the heart, lungs, and liver of a horse were obtained from a knacker’s yard and baked for four hours while the entire Rollenhagen family sat round the stove in breathless silence, enforced by the belief that the slightest whisper would nullify the whole proceeding. At the end of this trying vigil the baked organs were divided among four flower pots and covered with earth. Frau Rollenhagen was then ordered to place a 20-mark piece on the top of each pot. After Krakow had removed the hard cash and transferred it to her pocket, tow of the pots were buried opposite the door posts and the third at the nearest cross roads, while the mistress of the ceremonies departed with the fourth to Wismar.

There, unfortunately, the wise woman announced that further measures must be taken. Krakow now organized another hocus pocus. After solemnly walking three times round as many trees she took from each a twig, and bound them all together in a broom for which Rollenhagen had to pay 80 marks and with which she was told to beat a shirt. The blows, said Krakow, would be felt on the back of the witch Brandt. Soon an appealing letter form the witch arrived. Encouraged by her success, Rollenhagen persevered, until one fine day the broom flew in pieces. That destroyed its efficacy, and the witch wrote triumphantly that she had now got the upper hand again.

So it went on till Rollenhagen’s son-in-law learned what was being done with the little patrimony he expected one day to inherit, and he informed the police. Krakow, who had extorted over £50 from her victims, was sentenced to a year’s imprisonment. The wise woman, whose universal panacea was the dried and powdered root of St. John’s wort, had not been taken into the accused’s confidence and had received only a mark a time for her consultations. State [Columbia, SC] 15 August 1908: p. 6

As we know, St. John’s Wort is used to treat depression.  Perhaps it was enough to induce a feeling of well-being in the wise woman’s patients.

Pierced hearts were not only found up chimneys and in walls or in buried bottles, but in wells. In this case, the heart was the reverse of a protective charm.


Evidence of Old-Fashioned Methods of Witchcrafts

A Jilted Lover Suspected.

Florence, July 19. The cabdrivers of Leghorn, who nightly stable their horses in a large courtyard situated in the suburb of San Jacopo, have been perturbed by mysterious noises proceeding from an old well nearby. The well, they maintained, was bewitched, notwithstanding that the police explained that the noises were caused by escaping carbonic gas. To reassure the men, however, it was decided to make an investigation. Yesterday the well was emptied, and to the astonishment of those present a number of very curious articles were discovered. Among them was a heart-shaped leather cushion inside which was a lamb’s heart pierced with 50 needles. The heart was wrapped in a stamped addressed envelope, upon which the address of a young girl living in the neighborhood was written.

Further, they found a fragment of a marble tombstone, bearing the inscription, “here repose the ashes,” and a small glass cylinder, with a parchment stopper, and containing a dead toad, which was also pierced with 50 needles, the toad being tied with a lock of woman’s hair. To all appearances the matter resolved itself into an old-fashioned method of witchcraft employed against the girl whose name appeared on the envelope. A curious point about the affair is that two days before the discovery was made the girl’s relatives received a letter from San Francisco, whither the girl had recently emigrated, stating that she was on her deathbed.

A jilted lover of the girl is suspected of being the originator of the affair, which has created a considerable sensation in the neighborhood. Baltimore [MD] American 20 July 1904: p. 4

While the jilted lover used the envelope to direct malign magic to the young woman, the careless protagonist of this next story was directed to use a photograph along with the lamb’s heart to retrieve her lost lover.


Some of Lower Class Believe Charms Will Work Wonders in Magic.

Rome, March. 20 Witchcraft still has a strong hold over Italians of the lower classes, and cases in proof of this are continually coming to light. Last week in Genoa a young woman lost her hand-bag in a ‘bus, where it was found later by another passenger, who handed it over to the driver, and he, in his turn, took it to the offices of the company. Here it was opened by the director, and inside it, among a variety of objects of no importance, there was found a small cardboard box containing a bleeding heart pierced with a number of pins.


The horrified employe, scenting a crime, hastily conveyed the handbag to the nearest police-station. An address in the bag enabled the police to identify the owner, and she was promptly invited to explain why she traveled about with bleeding hearts stuck with pins. For a long time the girl refused to give any information, but at last she confessed that, having been abandoned by her lover, she had consulted a witch, who told her to get the heart of a lamb freshly killed, pierce it with pins, and bury it in a corner of the cemetery at Staglieno, together with the unfaithful lover’s photograph: this would infallibly ensure his return. The girl was on her way to perform this rite when she lost her hand-bag, which was now being returned to her with much more publicity than she cared for.


Not all witchcraft stories are so harmless, or so free from tragedy. Only a few days ago at a little village near Prato, not far from Florence, a poor old woman of over 60 was shot within a few yards of her own home, because the death of a neighbor, a young girl who had just died of some wasting disease, was laid at her door. The victim was unpopular, being of a backbiting, gossiping disposition, and public opinion branded her as a witch and attributed everything that went wrong in the village to her dealings in the black art. She was murdered by the brother of the girl who had died. Charlotte [NC] Observer 20 March 1928: p. 23

Finally, turning from the power of the heart in witchcraft to its role in vampirism, one of the most dire remedies in medical history was the exhumation of tuberculosis victims’ bodies to obtain their hearts. The consumptive dead were thought to be vampires, draining the life from other family members. Their heart–the source of their vitality–was extracted, then roasted and eaten or burnt to ashes and given as pills or in a liquid. The practice carried the common notion of “like cures like,” into dreadful and tragic territory.

Some time since, in the State of Maine, the body of a female was taken from the grave, her heart taken out, dried, and pulverized, and given to another member of the family, as a specific against the consumption. And the same thing has more recently been done in the town of Waltham, Massachusetts. The heart was reduced to a powder, and made into pills, but they did not cure the patient; while the person who took up the remains from the grave, and removed the heart, came very near losing his life, from the putrefactive state of the corpse at the time. The Spirit Land, Samuel Bulfinch Emmons, 1857

Be careful who you give your heart to, this Valentine’s Day….

Other examples of heart magic?  Chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com. Fans of M.R. James, will undoubtedly recall “Lost Hearts.”

See previous posts on a musical heart, the practice of stabbing the dead to the heart, and on Napoleon’s cardiac question.

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.

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