Part of the American History and Genealogy Project

Witches in New Jersey

By Joseph Fulford Folsom, Newark, N. J.

Whether in the mystic Orient, the jungles of Africa, religious Europe, or primitive America, always and everywhere the witch and her craft essentially have been the same. The variations and modifications have been many, but back of it all are certain characteristic types of the black art which possibly had their origin in Adam's experience with the notorious serpent whose witchery, or wizardry, upset the domestic status quo of the first domestic circle. After this dramatic appearance of Exhibit A in the evidence, history proceeded to record an unending list of others, all presumably related directly or collaterally to the distinguished A, but modified by geographical, racial, religious, intellectual, temperamental or literary conditions and circumstances. No doubt the makers of history have made wrong judgments and mistakenly have accused good folks of being witches, or have without good reason attributed mysterious happenings to the black art; but the resultant comedies or tragedies are now past revision, though not past being a warning, and the subject is become a romantic research rather than a scientific investigation.

The compiler of the following unorganized medley of sketches of witchcraft in New Jersey would preface them with the statement that years ago they were mostly gathered through conversation with older people and may claim originality. Though unscientifically considered they at least reveal what New Jersey witchcraft was, and what New Jersey people thought about it. The hunt for material revealed that usually the informants at first felt a reluctance to admit they ever had been interested in witches, wizards or witch stories: and as often prefaced the interview with the solemn assertion that they did not believe in such things. Further conversation, invited by reassuring disavowals of any suspicions on the part of the visitor that they ever did hold such beliefs, brought out many good old stories that probably had been taboo in the most intelligent families except around the intimate fireplace, or were heard only among the "old boys" gathered at the country store. Some of the best of the materials, however, came from the best educated and most refined folks. Their intelligent comment was of more value and accuracy than the crude, garbled accounts of some others.

The stories told show the popular view of witches, wizards and illusions. They evidence certain characteristics going to prove European influence as well as influences derived from American Indian sources.

The witchcraft delusion in New Jersey was a sober conviction, a drama, often a comedy, but rarely a tragedy. There were no persecutions here as in New England. The people of Salem in their day killed their witches, but the dwellers behind the Palisades took them much less seriously. One Salem witchcraft delusion was quite enough for the New World, and our fathers who peopled these hills and valleys had the benefit of that tragic lesson without the cost of experience.

By very temperament and mental equipment the Jerseyman was separated from fanaticism. In him the tense mentality of the extreme Puritan was somewhat relaxed in the British element and blissfully absent in the Dutch, without, we like to think, the loss of a single religious virtue. He loved his wife, his comfort, his pipe and his acres; he loved his own strong throb of independence and the garden flowers gulping the sunshine.

Moreover, he loved a religion which could mother the whole circle. His belief in witchcraft did not drive him forth with the sword of extermination, nor cause him great unrest of soul. While they left his fields, his cattle and his household still unmolested, he waked and slept with a good conscience, indifferent to witches. But when his corn was blighted, his milk dried up, his butter checked or his family diseased, he disquieted himself and took proper measures to break the charm or "burn the witch."

To a genuine Old Country witch-burner, the New Jersey way of doing business would have seemed insufferably tame, if not positively ridiculous; for, while the Jerseymen had real fire and real witches, they were wanting in those very necessary accessories to a proper exhibition, the faggot and the groan. Here the fire never touched the witch, and, though that personage usually showed the scars therefrom, it is a question whether she ever felt actual pain. It was all done by proxy. Something signifying witch was burned and the real culprit got the scars. Old women reputed to be witches and old men wizards were frequently found when laid out to be horribly tattooed with burns and scorches inflicted through many past attempts to bring them to terms. It was believed that when some article belonging to these troublesome people was burned, the scorching resulting therefrom upon their bodies compelled them to suspend operations on their victims.

A veracious man tells this story, related by his parents years ago:

A good housewife, not far from Somerville, after long churning without any result, concluded that her churn-beam was bewitched. Examination confirmed her opinion, for the butter had been checked completely. A brief search brought forth an old horseshoe, which she laid on the coals with the greatest secrecy. When it had become red-hot and there was no one about to mark it, she dropped it sizzling into the milk. That settled the witch business for her churn, but there is more to the story. A man living thereabouts, known to be a wizard, from that time forward carried on his face the scar of a horseshoe. In her zeal to make it hot for a witch she had burned a wizard.

This simple anecdote alone proves to every unbiased mind the gentle but effective character of witch-burning in New Jersey.

A slight modification of the use of fire to cure witchery will be remarked in the following narrative, vouched for by a nephew of the leading figure:

When the dam was built at Greenwood Lake many acres of farm land were submerged. One of these farms was owned by a prosperous farmer of Dutch descent. He was a firm believer in witchcraft, and, when night came down on old Long Pond, many a hushed tale was heard at his fireside. He often related a misfortune he had suffered through the black art. He had at one time possessed a very fine cow, to which he attached (which was unusual for him) a sentimental value. This flower of the herd one day hung her head, lost the luster of her eyes, staggered somewhat, and finally lay down. Happily she retained her cud, and that inspired hope. An animal that had enjoyed the good care of this one, could, in her fond owner's mind, have no ordinary distemper. It was witchcraft. Somebody had "witched" her; no other explanation would go. Resources were not wanting in those days, and Uncle Abram set in motion a sure course of treatment. With some misgivings and no little commiseration he had a small piece of his pet's ear cut off and carried to the kitchen. Laid on the ashes it sent upward an incense, which hung about the dooryard for a while and then dispersed to the four winds. Leaving with his good wife the most positive injunction that she was to feed no one at her door that day, he went about his many concerns. In his absence, long enough after these orders for his wife to get settled down to her usual work and state of mind, two innocent appearing women knocked at the door and requested a little rest and refreshment, which was not remarkable in those hospitable days. Of course they should not go away hungry. The pantry was taxed, a short chat was soon over, and the good old ladies passed down the road.

When Uncle Abram ate his supper that evening he learned incidentally of this visit, and with some feeling at once declared them witches, prophesying gloomily the doom of his heifer. Silence fell upon the household, and during the night the witch plagued animal stiffened out dead. As he explained it so often in happier days, the feeding of these two women, who were witches, neutralized his efforts. They had smelled the witch smoke from a distance and had been drawn to the house. Had they been sent away hungry, their spell, according to his firm belief, would have been broken; the cow would have lived.

We submit again to the fair-minded antiquarian our opinion that such a narrative as the preceding one leaves no doubt as to the orthodoxy of our local fathers on the witch question. It is true their zeal lacked in realistic detail, but we can fall back on a good old text that suggests mercy to be better than burnings. Thus we have presented some explanation to the seemingly absurd statement, that in New Jersey they burned witches without faggots.

In gathering material for a "Witch Lore of New Jersey," the collator of these stories could not but remark the oft-times vague notions betrayed by his clientage on the personality of witches. Many had never beheld a witch, nor had their ancestors left them any description sufficiently precise to discover one. They had, perhaps, a general notion of some old woman who lived in some indefinite locality, or of some eccentric itinerant who passed for a wizard, but beyond this they knew little. The witch was better- known through her arts than her person. For the benefit of the curious we shall suggest some of the characteristics which, as avouched by intelligent men and women still among us, go to make up a real witch. Afterward we shall more briefly describe a wizard.

There is really nothing original in the New Jersey witch, nor have we ever heard of a Jerseyman to claim her to be better or worse than her sisterhood of other times and lands. She might live under a hill, in the heart of the woods, or even in some farm tenement on a back road. Usually she dwelt at a distance, which always lends mystery as well as enchantment. The witch that lived nearby served the needs of the next village. Occasionally, however, one did live near folks, but her reputation for magic was apt to fall into contempt through familiarity, though her scolding and peculiarities were ungrudgingly acknowledged. Her proportions were spare and angular, her nose running rather to the Roman mold, and from a profile view it was usually a little forward of her bonnet. Her locomotion might be conveniently characterized as hobbling by day and gliding by night. Her chief, not to say inevitable, occupation in public was spinning, and, though her industry was seemingly enormous, the disposal of the product was unknown. She inclined to a very black tobacco pipe, and kept a black cat at her feet; and the sight of her sitting at dusk before her hovel door was true to the oldest description. It was this style of witch, modified in details by different minds and in different localities, which dwelt in our hamlets and lived in the imagination of our fathers. She 'drank many a cup of good tea poured to retain her favor by credulous housewives. She received many a candle and many a loaf, and found shelter in many a chimney corner through the dread of her wrath.

That the foregoing statements may not seem merely random, and that the scientific character of the collator's researches may be vindicated, if need be, we venture to relate briefly this true anecdote: There was an old pipe-smoking witch at Belvidere who lived to the advanced age of ninety-three years. She one time requested that a little baby boy belonging to a respectable family in that place be allowed to sleep with her. The parents most positively refused this request, not perhaps without some forebodings. The angered beldame declared with froth that she "would put a gloom on that house" and departed. The baby, then but seven weeks old, began to fail and continued sickly till it was a year old, seemingly near to death. A good neighbor who was keen in such matters advised the woman to conciliate the witch by inviting her to her house, to drink a cup of tea. The anxious mother gave the invitation, poured the beverage, and as she drank besought her to release her child.

After the supper the witch took the child, undressed it and blew in its face. Then she went home. From that day the child began to mend and grew to be quite hearty. He died, however, at the age of seven years.

The part played by the cup of tea will be noted by the careful reader, and the simple faith of the characters of the story is indicative of the common belief in witchcraft in the days gone by. Only those who have no historic consciousness will scoff or commiserate a homely scene like this, for here, at least, was a real suffering child and an anxious mother. Besides, our fathers and mothers had not gotten much beyond John Wesley, who said in the year 1768: "The giving, up of witchcraft [the belief in] is, in effect, giving up the Bible." And they dragged faggots in Mexico as late as 1873.

Character, however estimable, may have its limitations. The limit to patience of the old time New Jersey housewife was often strained on churning days. In those back years, with a woman at the beam, butter-making under normal conditions was not considered hard, but when, as was firmly believed, a witch got into a churn, stopping the butter sometimes for hours, then it was labor indeed. Whenever this misfortune entered a household, composure fled, and the harassed housewife, with a score of duties dragging behind, pounded and tugged and fretted like any other mortal. Why a witch should plague womankind no man can say, but her preference for churns is not strange. The churn was at the centre of the domestic economy, and a blow there sent ripples throughout the circle. And other reasons there were, more covetous than mischievous, which will appear later.

With some it was the churn-beam, while other localities had it that the churn itself as a whole was bewitched, the effect being the same. The methods for disenchantment also differed and are of interest to the close student of folk customs. A red hot horseshoe was the chief and most popular remedy. The manner of its use seems to have differed in localities.

Usually it was heated in the fireplace or stove, and dropped into the churn, making the milk sputter and boil. This, as the belief had it, "burned out the witch," and allowed the butter to come. Sometimes it was stated rather facetiously that the witch sat down upon the horseshoe and suffered in consequence, but such wit must be a later addition made at a time when the black art was less respected. The idea that the use of the horseshoe must be secret prevailed in some regions. The whole attempt at disenchantment must be under cover, for in the event of anyone's seeing it, the cure would fail. Probably it was not expected that this act could be hidden from the witch, for if she could get into a churn without being seen, certainly she ought to be able to spy a thing or two about the house. It is reasonable to suppose that this condition of secrecy, like the wit, is a later growth, developing when the skeptical smirk of a neighbor was dreaded by the faithful. In earlier times there could have been no need of hiding from each other such important measures, especially when everybody would expect them to be used.

Two fair questions might be asked at this stage: Was the treatment described actually used, and did it cure when so applied? Both could be answered generally by saying that for the hundreds of people who imagined their churns "witched," perhaps not two would go so far as to make such trouble, and the number that would take witchery into practical consideration was, of course, limited.

Here is a story from the lips of an elderly but erect and vigorous former resident of Somerset County.

He and his wife churned one day till noon without any result, and, almost discouraged, decided with more or less faith to try the hot horseshoe to drive out the witch, if, indeed, one were charming the churn. He had bought but recently a number of machine-made shoes, which had never been fitted to any hoof, and were perfectly clean. One of these was made red-hot and dropped into the stubborn fluid. Immediately there was a commotion of sputtering and sizzling so violent that the milk welled up out of the churn, and caused them to clap the top on at once to save it. This agitation seemed mysterious, and partly confirmed their suspicion of witchery. They then began to churn and the butter was there in twenty minutes, and was apparently of excellent quality. But they were distrustful of it and could not get themselves to use it. They tasted it slightly; declared it good; but it went to the wagon-house for the base use of greasing axles. In explaining why they did not eat the butter, the narrator first reaffirmed the cleanness of the iron used, and reiterated that the butter was most sweet to the taste, and then said: "We thought it best to be on the safe side."

If the assertion, that in the age when they make machine horseshoes men still believe in magic, is scouted, we can only retort, "They didn't eat the butter," and leave the reason to other minds.

The heating of the milk, of course, would tend to accelerate the butter, for hot water is sometimes used with the same good result. But there was a time years ago when such a materialistic explanation would have been scouted.

Another usage was this: To burn the impression of the shoe on the bottom of the churn when empty, leaving thus a permanent counter-spell against all magic visitants. A gentleman of Newark remembers well this efficacious antidote in his grandfather's churn in Morris County. Around West Milford they used another instrument of cure. They drove out the witch by beating the churn with a hickory stick. A method so convenient and simple was presumably less effective, for we hear little about it. It was incidental to the more general way. It is a strange fact, but a true one, that a gentleman who was brought up in a certain valley where the tradition of the horseshoe was certainly known and repeated, said that he had never heard of its use, but had heard of putting a knife under the churn to drive out the disturber; it being supposed the witch did not like steel. This practice must have been strictly local, if not confined to a family or two.

Off on Somerville Mountain there once lived an eccentric Negro character, who got the unenviable reputation of being a witch. Events seemed to prove the justice of the common opinion, for her visits to the neighboring farmhouses were attended with ill-luck. She chose churning days and made it a habit to assist in the work if allowed to do so. A resident of the neighborhood has vouched for the fact, however explainable, that when this woman touched her churn-beam the butter was always retarded, if not stopped altogether. When it was given up, in despair, the witch solicited and got the buttermilk, which, as was learned, she afterward churned out successfully at home. Here we have the covetous type of witch, using her arts for mercenary ends. Better the broomstick rider, or the out-and-out Salem shocker than this commercial half-sister. This same character once requested the good woman, whose milk she plagued, to give her a little glass vase, much prized, that stood on the mantel. The request was refused; consequently a day or two later the vase was found to be cracked, no one in the house having disturbed it.

We leave the churns at this place, with the conviction growing stronger with accumulating evidence, that should witches ever be called to account for their misdeeds, not the least of their deserts will fall upon them for their meanness in keeping back New Jersey butter.

The witch of this State, like her sisterhood everywhere, took a cruel delight in harassing, and sometimes killing domestic animals. The farmer's cherished stock was at her mercy, and many a disaster came from her interference. Near Mendham a covetous witch, who had been refused a little pig, plagued it till it could not stand on its feet. Then she got it, carried it home and raised it to a fat porker.

Up in the northern part of the State a favorite pastime with this mischievous folk was target practice with cow's hair-ball. Cattle would die suddenly, mysteriously, and when cut open would reveal the presence of a bunch or ball of hair in their stomachs. These were supposed to be shot into them by witches.

When a farmer found in the morning his horses fagged out, with mane and tail knotted and in disorder, he would sometimes say that witches had ridden them overnight. That he never Suspected his boys, who may have had sweethearts the other side of the mountains, is more a tribute to his orthodoxy on the witch question than an evidence of a mistrustful spirit.

One more brief anecdote will suffice to illustrate the belief, a hundred years ago, in animal possession.

One day, probably at evening, when the sun had gone down behind old Bearfort Mountain, and the light was dying out and leaving Long Pond gray and mysterious, a farmer was in the "swamp" loading rails on his heavy wagon. He believed in witchcraft, and the subject was a practical, not a literary, concern. Doubtless to his mind the writer of stories would be put down as a little daft, while the believers in magic would be considered sensible citizens. The load was on, the horses ready, the word given, but there was no start. The team stood stock-still. All urging, mild and otherwise, failed to move them, until finally their sage driver grasped the logic of the situation the team was bewitched. Disenchantment was then begun. Loosing his whiffletrees, he drove the horses forward a few steps, till their tails were at the end of the wagon-pole, to which, using his halter strap, he lashed the whiffletrees. This course was intended to break the charm, and immediately success rewarded his clever ruse. The load started, and, presumably, when the charmed boundary was passed, he put things back into normal shape, otherwise disasters would have followed when some hill was descended. This story was often repeated, and we can scarcely doubt that in the telling there was self-pride commensurate with the successful exploit.

Thus far we have kept near to facts, dipping but sparingly into the region of legend and imagination. Back in the times that have left no evidence or living witnesses, or even tradition, there were doubtless greater credulity and more exciting adventures. We have presented evidential situations, leaving the explanation of apparent causes and effects to the critic and the philosopher. It has been the aim of the collator to find the data and tell the story. The Jerseymen certainly believed years ago, if not perhaps in a subtle sense to-day, in witchcraft. One classic legend will be enough to show that there were stories told of the magic art which lacked basis in fact, and confirmation in experience. Such were witch stories pure and simple, made up from the whole cloth.

There was a young man living toward the central part of the State who was possessed by a witch. He was known to attend, of course by magic compulsion, many dances at the dead of night. In the wildish aerial frolic his familiar witch was always his partner. He attempted at times to seize her and force her to release him, but always failed. He was advised by a wiser head to carry a halter to the next meeting and at the first opportunity bridle his tormentor. He carried the halter and, when the occasion was ripe, he harnessed her, but, to his amazement, she was transformed, probably to hide her identity, into a horse. He led her home, and the next morning, to further materialize his acquisition, he drove her to the blacksmith shop for shoeing. Then, wonderful to relate, another transformation ensued, possibly at the magic touch of the red hot horseshoe, and the blacksmith's wife stood before them, a circumstantially confessed witch. We need not dilate on this evident fabrication. It is too smooth and symmetrical to be an historical event.

We have said enough, we trust, to bring the witch before the interested as a real person that lived, ate and drank. We must not pass by the wizard. In defining him, a be-witch, we state his nature and place exactly, for he did but imitate, in his bungling way, the finer technique of the witch. He was sometimes called a wizard doctor, and in that character effected the cure of warts, wens and what-not through strange and outlandish treatments. He was a combination herb doctor, faith curist and scientist healer in one, this wizard; and every eccentricity he could take on was pressed into active service. He was less a mystery than the witch, and played a minor part on the stage of magic. He was a traveler, and we miss in him those picturesque and local touches which made the witch interesting. His antics over a patient were sometimes worthy a dancing dervish. He effected cures, however, and had the respect, if not the esteem, of his contemporaries. When he made trouble with his sorceries, he was burned as conscientiously as was the witch, but, being unable to stand as much scorching, he played less pranks.

These simple stories of old-time beliefs are inseparable from any true study of human character in all ages. The people A Young Man's Journal of 1800-1813 35 who told them were generally honest and faithful, and conscience and the duties of life suffered no whit by their harmless imaginings. To some the preservation of folklore may seem profitless, but others will say that humanity is one, regardless of age or place, and that whatever has affected, moved or interested mankind is worth knowing, and should not be indifferent to to this age which has problems as momentous as had the past.

Source: Proceedings of the New Jersey Historical Society, New Series, Volume VII, 1922

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