More on the old-time belief in witches in the central Shenandoah Valley

Posted on October 4, 2010 by

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Alright, picking-up from my post from Saturday, I was thinking that maybe I need a little more information supporting the claim that I made that witches were more common in 19th century Page County (and the central Shenandoah Valley) than some may realize. So…

In February 1930, in his “Jacob’s Well” column, Jacob R. Seekford (a sure and true chronicler of history in central Page County) opened the subject of witches and ghosts in Page County when he responded to a student at the University of Virginia who was working on collecting folk stories. The student wrote:

These stories are concerning those traditions and tales which circulated among the mountaineers and farmers in the rural and more isolated districts. Such stories are often told like the one about the haunted rocking chair in Pine Grove Hollow near Marksville and the old superstition about the Round Head mountain near Stanley, and I feel sure there must be many nice tales about Massanutten mountain.

Regarding witches in the county, Seekford began…

When I was a boy sixty years ago I heard Granny and Grandpap tell about the witches around over the county. All of the witches were well known and were more spoken of than any other people. Down in the lower end of Page were witches who would put spells on men, women and babies. People would come up near Newport and bring the babies and parties that had been bewitched to the homes of old women who were witches and pay money to have the spell taken off. [According to Samuel Kercheval* in his book A History of the Valley of Virginia (1833), these people were known by some as “witchmasters”]. One of the most dreaded witches lived in the upper end of Page. She was an old colored witch. Hundreds of people would go to her home and pay lots of money to have the spells taken off. Near Granny’s home lived a witch. One day some women went to her home to have a spell taken off. She had her dinner on the table. She told the women to sit up and eat but the women said, “We eat before we left home,” and in a few minutes the table began to walk up where the women were sitting and the old woman said, “Now eat.”

Then the women sat around the table and the old witch poured out the coffee. Then she put the coffee pot back and picked up a mug, and walked over where the towel hung and milked a mug full of milk out of the towel. At that time Page had twenty-three well known witches.”

This is actually in tune with something mentioned by Kercheval in his book,

Witches were often said to milk the cows of their neighbors. This they did by fixing a new pin in a new towel for each cow intended to be milked. This towel was hung over her own door, and by means of certain incantations, the milk was extracted from fringes of the towel after the manner of milking a cow. This happened when cows were too poor to give such milk.

I’ve got more coming later this week…

*Regarding the reliability of Kercheval… if you are unfamiliar with the man, you might find it interesting that (though unrelated to his discussion about witches) he had a brief exchange with Thomas Jefferson. I know of at least two transcriptions of letters online, that were sent from Jefferson to Kercheval, and they can be found here and here (and though I accessed this last letter through a site that might raise an eyebrow, just to be clear, I am not an atheist).  The letter of July 12 seems to be legitimate (meaning, I have no reason to believe the transcription has elaborations, etc. to further some sort of modern agenda), though there appears to be some difference in opinion as to what year it was written (1810 or 1816). Nonetheless, a quote from this letter was actually used on the fourth panel in the Jefferson Monument, in Washington, D.C.). As for the other letter, regarding Quakerism, this is the first time I have seen it and can’t vouch for it without more research. Frankly, that’s simply beyond the scope of my work with these blog posts. I believe that I have also seen a reference or two that mentioned Kercheval having an exchange with James Madison at some point. Again, these details about Kercheval are simply offered as information that the man who spoke of witches (though, at the time, was trying to dismiss the validity of their existence, despite old-time beliefs… though those beliefs continued in the Valley well beyond his death), was respected by some  big names in the history of the nation.

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