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witchcraft, Berks County, hex, witch doctor, cats, Bible, horse hair, tea
Handwritten notes from the York Daily newspaper of a story reprinted from the New York Sun compiled by Alfred L. Shoemaker, originally dated March 5, 1898. Within, a tale about witchcraft is recounted, dealing with an old witch hexing a baby and the subsequent cure provided by a witch doctor.
Packet 45-24 to 45-26
The York Daily
March 5, 1898. From the New York Sun
“Speaking of belief in witchcraft”, said a railroad official, “there is an employee of our company in this city, holding a very responsible place, who insists that when he was an infant he was bewitched. He is the son of an old Pennsylvania German family of Berks County, Pa. He remembers nothing of the matter personally, but has the narrative of it from his parents and other members of his family.
“The hexes, or witches, the belief in whom is so strong to this day in Berks and adjacent Pennsylvania Dutch counties, are always women advanced in years, who seem to have no other mission in life than to bewitch their neighbors, their neighbors' children, their horses, cows, and live stock generally. Then, as a counter-balance to the hexes, there are many witch doctors, both men and women, who have the power to rout the evil spirits and lay the torturing spells for which the hexes are responsible. Directly opposite the parents of the man of whom I am speaking lived a witch woman at the time he was born. Until he was 3 months old he was the best and healthiest baby in the locality. This did not seem to be to the liking of the hex, and one day during one of her calls at the baby’s home - for these witch women call where and when they like, their neighbors offering no objection for fear of offending them - she took the child in her arms, hugged him and kissed him, all the time muttering in the unknown language which the race of hexes is supposed to understand, the same language as the simple German farm folk of Pennsylvania believe was used by the witches of the dark ages.
“The mother of the child was in mortal terror of the result of the witch’s suspicious fondness for the babe, and when the hex went away the mother found that her fears were well grounded. The baby instantly began to cry as if in the most intense pain. His body had become covered from head to foot with angry spots as thick as those on a leopard. The only rest and ease the child got was at certain hours of the night, when it was supposed the hex herself was asleep. The baby could not eat, and he rapidly wasted away in flesh, although it seemed that the power of the hex maintained the little sufferer’s physical strength so that his agonies were prolonged and intensified.
“Several witch doctors were called, and they tried their skill against the power possessed by the hex, but all failed. Then the family employed a witch doctor who had a wide reputation, and who still lives at Reading, enjoying a fortune made off the credulity and superstition of Berks and Lebanon county people. Before he made his call at the hex afflicted house he sent the family a note warning them that they must not speak a word to him when he arrived at the house, and must have nothing in the room where the child was when he entered except the family Bible. He attended the child, who was apparently suffering more than at any time since he passed under the evil spell of the hex. That was because the witch, having seen the famed doctor enter the house, was exercising more of her power to defeat him in his efforts to rescue the baby from the spell.
“The doctor’s treatment of the case was very simple, according to the family account of it. He cut from the Bible the leaf on which the child’s birth was recorded and wrote upon it some words in the language of the witches, closed it up between the Bible’s leaves and placed the book under the baby’s pillow. He then sprinkled over the baby a powder which he made by burning on a silver plate a bunch of pure white horse hair. After this he warned the mother of the child that the first thing the next morning - this was at midnight - the hex would in all probability send over or come over herself and ask to borrow a drawing of tea. The favor must be refused, for if she succeeded in getting the tear or in borrowing a flatiron her spell would still remain on the child. If she was sent away without getting the tea or the flatirons, her power would be broken and the child would get well unless the hex managed to have communication with him in some way.
“Sure enough, the next morning the hex came over, opened the kitchen door without knocking and asked for some tea and a flatiron. The child’s mother was in mortal terror of the witch, but overcame it sufficiently to refuse the request. The hex went away. The doctor had said that if the witch could be kept away three days and three nights she would be powerless to do the child further harm. The baby grew rapidly better, but on the third night he again began to suffer, and the spots, which had nearly disappeared, became visible again, but were not so distinct as they had been. The parents were once again in despair.
“The pet cat of this family had a habit, when out of doors, of jumping up on the window sill and scratching on the glass to be let in, and someone of the family would let her in. About 10 o’clock on the critical third night a scratching was heard at the window, and there on the sill was a cat. The baby’s mother was about to let it in, supposing it was the family cat, when her husband seized her by the arm, dragged her back, and at the same moment hurled one of his heavy cowhide boots through the window. The boot struck the cat and knocked it, yelling frightfully, to the ground.
“That wasn’t our cat”, he exclaimed to his astounded wife. “That was the old hex herself, trying to get in here as a cat!”
“Almost instantly the baby became well. The spots faded away, and the child went to sleep and slept soundly the rest of the night.
The next morning he was as well as he had ever been, but the hex came around, looking pale and haggard and limping badly. She said she had fallen down stairs during the night, but everybody knew, upon hearing about the cat and the cowhide boot, that she had not fallen down stairs at all, but was suffering from the unsuccessful result of her supreme effort to keep the baby under her spell. The child was never bothered by the hex again, but is living today, and believes firmly in this ridiculous story of Pennsylvania Dutch witchcraft.”
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Shoemaker, Alfred L., "Witchcraft Story: Notes From the York Daily, March 5, 1898" (1950). Alfred L. Shoemaker Folk Cultural Documents. 211.
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