Early Valley historian, Samuel Kercheval (ca. 17?? – 1845), on witchcraft

Posted on October 31, 2011 by


From Samuel Kercheval’s A History of the Valley of Virginia (original date of publication, 1833), pages 280-281:

I shall not be lengthy on this subject. The belief in Witchcraft was prevalent among the early settlers of the western country. To the witch was ascribed the tremendous power of inflicting strange and incurable diseases, particularly on children, of destroying cattle by shooting them with hair balls, and a great variety of other means of destruction, of inflicting spells and curses on guns and other things, and lastly, of changing men into horses, and often bridling and saddling them, riding them in full speed over hill and dale to their frolics and other places of rendezvous. More ample power of mischief than these cannot be imagined.

Wizards were men supposed to be possessed of the same mischievous powers as the witches; but it was seldom exercised for bad purposes. The power of the wizards was exercised almost exclusively for the purpose of counteracting the malevolent influence of the witches of the other sex. I have known several of these witch-masters, as they were called, who made a public profession of curing these diseases inflicted by the influence of witches; and I have known respectable physicians, who had no greater portion of business in their line of their professions, than many of those witch-masters had in theirs.

The means by which the witch was supposed to inflict diseases, curses and spells, I never could learn. They were occult sciences, which no one was supposed to understand excepting the witch herself, and no wonder, as no such arts ever existed in any country.

The diseases of children, supposed to be inflicted by witchcraft, were those of the internal dropsy of the brain, and the rickets. The symptoms and cure of these destructive diseases were utterly unknown in former times in this country. Diseases which neither could be accounted for nor cured, were usually ascribed to some supernatural agency of a malignant kind.

For the cure of diseases inflicted by witchcraft, the picture of the supposed witch was drawn on a stump or piece of board, and shot at with a bullet containing a little bit of silver. This bullet transferred a painful and sometimes a mortal spell on that part of the witch corresponding with the part of the portrait struck by the bullet. Another method of cure was that of getting some of the child’s water, which was closely corked up in a vial and hung up in a chimney. This complimented the witch with a stranguary, which lasted as long as the vial remained in the chimney. The witch had but one way of relieving herself from any spell inflicted on her in any way, which was that of borrowing something, no matter what, of the family to which the subject of the exercise of her witchcraft belonged.

I have known several poor old women much surprised at being refused requests which had usually been granted without hesitation, and almost heart broken when informed of the cause of the refusal.

When cattle or dogs were supposed to be under the influence of witchcraft, they were burned in the forehead by a branding iron, or when dead, burned wholly to ashes. This inflicted a spell upon the witch which could only be removed by borrowing, as above stated.

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 the fringes of the towel after the manner of milking a cow. This happened when cows were too poor to give much milk.