Tag Archives: mountain people

Old-Time Remedies from the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia


With all the colds and flu about, and slipping on the ice, I thought this post might come in handy.

These cures are recorded in Shenandoah Voices written by late Shenandoah Valley historian and author John Heatwole.  I knew John and much admired him.  He’s left a wealth of information behind in his books. He interviewed country and mountain people and compiled their remedies. The images are from the valley and mountains and all taken by my family.

Early spring in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia
‘For a sprained ankle take catnip, sprinkle salt on it and bind it to the ankle.’

‘Mullein tea’ was also used for sprained ankles. The leaves of the mullein plant were boiled in vinegar and water and the ankle was bathed in it while it was still warm.

Turpentine was also rubbed on a sprain. You never covered it or it would burn.

Catnip tea was made for children with the colic. I mix a little catnip in with my mint for tea. It’s good and soothing.

Queen Anne’s Lace made into a tea is said to relieve backache. (You don’t want to confuse Queen Anne’s Lace with poisonous hemlock.)

summer hills and pasture in the Shenandoah Valley

Sage and honey tea is a good brew to give to someone with pneumonia. Drinking tea made from aromatic sage is said to keep a woman’s hair from turning gray prematurely.

Lobelia tea was used by Thomsonian herb doctor Gabe Heatwole as a purge. Lobelia is an annual or perennial plant of the bellflower family. It’s very pretty and does not want to grow at my house, prefers a moist creek bank. *Lobelia is also called ‘the puke herb’, thus the reference to its being used as a purge.

Goldenseal and Comfort Root (Pinelands Hibiscus or Cut-leaf Hibiscus) teas are good for an upset stomach.

If you have kidney problems, swamp root tea can be used for relief. *Swamp root is one of those old patent medicines that originated in the late 1800’s, akin to snake oil.

fallpix

Greasy mustard plaster was used on the sufferer’s chest for a deep cold. To avoid being burned by the mustard, this plaster was made with lard and spread on a cloth that could be laid on the sufferer’s chest without burning. Another non-burning plaster was made with mustard, lard, and egg whites.

A family in Singers Glen used a mustard and lard poultice for pneumonia. When the patient’s chest started to turn red, it was removed. The patient was washed off thoroughly, and then a hot onion poultice was applied.

My very country mother-in-law spoke of using mustard plasters on the chest laid over a piece of old flannel.

Old Home in the Blue Ridge Mountains

For a bad cold or pleurisy, they’d put lard on your chest with salt sprinkled on it of a night.

A tea made of peppermint leaves will stop a stomachache. *I drink peppermint tea for my stomach and it really does help.

Pennyroyal tea was used to break a fever, for upset stomach and to treat the common cold. It’s of the same family as mint and yields aromatic oil, but it has health cautions. *Never Ever imbibe the essential oil as it’s deadly. The leaves may be brewed into a tea, but do not drink pennyroyal tea if pregnant. It can cause miscarriage. Go easy on pennyroyal in general.

During the Civil War, some Valley soldiers chewed slippery elm bark when in battle or on the march. It was said to relieve thirst and hunger.

Miss Gray Pifer of Mt. Crawford said that ‘horehound grew down near the creek. Mama made a horehound syrup with brown sugar for coughs.’

I love horehound drops.

Owl Cat in the garden

(Owl Cat in one of my flower/herb beds)

In Page County a woman said that her grandfather smoked a corncob pipe, and if a child in the family had an earache, he’d blow smoke in the ear as a cure.  She also said for spider bite, you should cut a piece from a new potato and hold it against the bite. Eventually the potato will turn black as it absorbs the poison.

*I was bitten at night while sleeping in my bed by a spider. Fortunately it wasn’t poisonous, but it really stung and I was up putting on witch hazel, rosebud salve, aloe, Benadryl, and, and, and. Forgot about using a potato. Never did find that darn spider.

Oh, the Inspiration in a Place


Blue Ridge MountainsFor me, in my writing, it’s all about time and place. Certain settings inspire me, like old homes, particularly haunted ones, castles, Southern plantations, and their opposite, rustic log cabins, but most especially, the mountains. I love the misty mountains. What stories they hold. Secrets, mysteries, ghosts…

Many accounts centered around the mountain people have been recorded. The late author and historian, John Heatwole, left a rich wealth of information in his books about the Shenandoah Valley and mountain people. Some of these stories are wonderful for inspiration. I’ll give you several examples from John Heatwole’s book, Shenandoah Voices.

Moonlit Night

“When Nelson Whetzel was a young man he had an interesting experience while walking home from work one evening. In Brocks Gap in earlier times the only things to light ones way were the stars or the glow from a lamp in a neighbor’s window. 

As he walked Nelson heard a horse coming up the road behind him.  Nelson stopped for a moment, thinking, ‘Good! I’ll have someone to talk to.’ But the sound of the horse’s hooves stopped when he did. He called out, asking who was there in the pitch-black.

No answer came and Nelson began uneasily walking again, this time a little faster. The sound of the horse picked up pace to match Nelson’s. He stopped a second time and the sound of the horse ceased to be heard. Nelson started trotting and the sound horse’s hooves were heard at a trot behind him, close on his heels. He grew very frightened and began to run as fast as he could.  The galloping horse seemed to be so close, Nelson thought he felt the breath on the back of his neck.

Up ahead Nelson saw the lighted windows of the cabin belonging to George and Mat Smith. He was so terrified that he hit the Smith’s front door at full force. He knocked it down and went right through the structure, knocking down the back door as he exited. The Smiths blinked at each other in wonder and amazement. They saw no phantom horse follow Nelson through their home.

Immediately after his encounter with the doors Nelson noticed the sound of the pursuing horse was gone, however, he ran on home as fast as his feet would carry him.”

*That tale reminds me of the headless horseman from The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. Scary!

“The Roadcaps lived in a two-story log cabin just down the road from Gospel Hill Mennonite Church. All of the girls of the family shared a room upstairs.  One night one of the sisters, Peggy by name, went to the bedroom alone.  There she saw a woman sitting up on the iron headboard of one of the beds.

The woman didn’t say anything or move toward the frightened child, just sat there and looked at her. Peggy was rooted to the spot in fear but able to find her voice and call to her father to come to her aid.  There was something in her voice that demanded immediate attention and she heard his heavy footfall as he hurried up the stairs. As her father neared the room, the woman vanished into thin air.  Peggy never entered that room alone again.”~

“The children of the Roadcap family loved to play on the banks of the little Shoemaker River near their home. Once they came running home and told their father they’d seen a woman all dressed in white walking along the opposite bank of the river from where they played. They’d never seen her before and being shy had not spoken to her but only observed her progress.

Their father listened thoughtfully and then told them they had seen the spirit of a young woman who had died years before of a broken heart. They were told they would probably see her again and that she would do them no harm. They were to behave as they had before and refrain from calling out to the spirit.

They believed their father. There were not that many people living in those parts and the children knew them all. They promised not to disturb the apparition if they encountered her again. During their childhoods they witnessed her strolling along the river on several more occasions.”~

That story reminds me of the novel, The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins, which was a very intriguing BBC mystery/thriller starring Tara Fitzgerald. I saw the film on Netflix and highly recommend it.

***If you enjoyed this post, you might also enjoy the one I wrote entitled:

The Poltergeist in our Old Farm House

***John Heatwole’s books are at Amazon, but may only be available as used copies.

Paranormal Account from the Shenandoah Valley


The Blue Ridge Mountains

This fascinating story is taken from Shenandoah Voices, Folklore, Legends and Traditions of the Valley by late author and historian John Heatwole.

Brock’s Gap~

“Up in the Brock’s Gap region (of the Shenandoah Valley) the old resident’s referred to the rest of the world as “out.”  It was not uncommon to hear the phrase, “people would come along from out.”

In the old days, the rest of the country was well served by the Valley Pike and other well maintained thoroughfares, but the Gap and its scattered homesteads remained isolated beyond the first rise of the Allegheny Front (*Mountains).

The hamlets of Fulks Run, Criders, Bergton and Dovesville were oases of social contact, as were a few churches here and there, but the people in the Gap were pretty self-sufficient.  Before electricity came into the area, moonless nights smothered the hills, hollows and mountains…making the faint glimmer of candlelight in a window way off a welcome sight to a late-night traveler.

It’s not surprising that some wonderful ghost stories have come from this area.  Unusual happenings were woven into stories that were told and retold…long winter nights found rapt listeners gathered around a glowing fire or warm stove to be thrilled by a story-teller.”

****

Ghost story:  “One young girl of the Crider’s area was told that she could take the horse and go to meet her mother and sister who were returning from a trip to “out” late one night.  Her path took her to a neighbor’s farm gate where she dismounted, opened the gate, led the horse through and then re-latched it.  As she climbed back on the horse, she heard something coming from the direction she had just come.

“Someone come a runnin,’ was a man a comin’ up the road a runnin’.”

He was coming fast and she was scared.  She kicked her horse into a gallop.  As she looked back over her shoulder she saw the “man” run through the closed gate as if he were made of air.  “I flew out,” she said, but it seemed to make no difference—he was gaining on her.

“When I got to the top of the hill he was about two steps behind me.  He grabbed the horse by the tail, and she kicked up, and away she went as hard as she could run!”

That did the trick and the pursuer disappeared in their dust.

“I don’t know what it was.  It wasn’t no human; no human coulda kept up with that horse!”

The woman who was once the girl in the preceding story also related her father’s brush with a demon.

“My daddy seen one, one time.  He was comin’ home after dark from Casper Turner’s.  Saw what looked like a man layin’ on a fence; had eyes like fireballs!”  Her father had a gun with him, and he shot at the demon.  The thing fell off the fence and started making a noise that made the man think he should be getting away from there.  “Had run down from the mountain.  He was scared to death.”~

I would be totally freaked out.

Old Time Sayings and Superstitions From the Shenandoah Valley


Spectacular Autumn Day!
These sayings are from Shenandoah Voices:  Folklore, Legends, and Traditions of the Valley by late historian and author John Heatwole. I also threw in some cures. Images of the Shenandoah Valley and Mountains were taken by my talented family. The Shenandoah Valley of Virginia by my mom, Pat Churchman, above.
I knew and greatly respected John Heatwole.  He even helped me with some of the initial research for my first historical novels. The wealth of knowledge he amassed is just one of the rich legacies John left behind.
Shenandoah Voices is my favorite book by him.  I recommend it to anyone interested in the old ways and days of rural Virginia, especially the valley and surrounding mountains. I was also privileged to hear John speak on this fascinating subject. He’s best known for his vast knowledge and books about the Civil War. He was also an amazing wood-carver/artist, a man of many talents.  Much missed. (Log hog/chicken barn by my husband Dennis.)
****
Many early valley settlers were Scots-Irish, my ancestors among them.  People from the British Isles tended to be superstitious. Also prevalent in the valley were Germans bringing the influence of the Pennsylvania-Dutch, another superstitious group. To quote Michael Scott, from The Office, “I’m not superstitious, just a little stitious.”
autumn in the Alleghenies
It’s bad luck to lay a hat on the bed.~
An itching nose means a visitor is coming. ~
A cardinal bumping against the window pane is an indication of an early death~
(The Alleghenies by my mom above)
old barn with Virgina creeper*To this I have to add ‘or an insanely jealous bird regarding his reflection as another male which tends to happen with cardinals.’
Peel an apple all in one piece and throw the peel over your shoulder.  When you turn around and look at it lying on the ground, whatever letter it reminds you of will be the first letter of your future husband’s last name.~ (This is an ancient Celtic Custom)
It’s bad luck to point at a rainbow. ~ *I suspect we are all guilty of this one.  Who knew?
It’s bad luck to bring a shovel into the house ‘because it is a grave tool.’ Some also think a hoe in the house bodes no good.~
HEARTHIf you enter a house and leave it without sitting down it is bad luck. Particularly if you leave by a different door than the one you entered.~
If a bird flies into your house there will soon be a death in the family~Within six months if a whippoorwill comes to your treetop and sings at night. ~ *How many of you have even heard a whippoorwill?  I have. Though not lately.
(Hearth in the old smokehouse on the Christmas tree farm in Singers Glen, VA)
If a baby smiles in its sleep, the child is talking to the angels. ~ *My personal favorite.
Rain isn’t far behind when a tree shows the underside of its leaves.~
Count the number of foggy mornings in August and that is how many winter snows there will be.~ I heard this one not long ago and suspect it may be true.  I’m also a believer in wooley bears predicting winter…
old barn at dusk(Creepy old barn up behind our house by Daughter Elise.. Also pictured above.)
A new moon with the points up means dry weather, and a moon with the points down means rain will soon fall. ~
If a full moon has a ring around it there will be snow by morning. ~ If the ring is large, the number of stars you count in it will be the number of inches that fall.~
*We say a ring around the moon means rain, or snow, within a few days.
Sheep shearing takes place around the first of May.  A cold rain will follow within a few days of shearing called a sheep rain. ~
On Ash Wednesday people made pancakes or the chickens wouldn’t lay.~ *We still have pancake suppers in the valley on that day.
Horse chestnuts carried in the pocket are thought to ward off rheumatism. ~
Sassafras tea is good to thin the blood. ~
Broth made from the hind legs of mice is good for kidney ailments.~ *Not tried this one.
‘Swamp root’ tea is also recommended for kidney disorders.~ Swamp root tea is considered by many to be a kind of ‘snake oil’ that was peddled years ago. A patent medicine. Here’s a link to learn more. (The Alleghenies by my mother)
For someone who is weak and recovering from long illness, make them sparrow broth tea. ~ *This supposedly saved my grandmother’s life when she was sick as a child.
Before taking a new baby out for its first ride (this probably applied to a wagon or buggy) the ‘herb lady’ rubbed warm bear grease on one of the infant’s palms and the bottom of the opposite foot thus insuring that the baby was protected from the rigors of the journey. (The herb lady was the granny woman).
A hog’s tooth carried in your right pocket will ward off toothache.~ *Maybe I should take up this one.
Catnip tea was made for children with colic.~ Tea from peppermint leaves will stop a stomachache.~ *These are still practiced.
Sage tea will keep a woman’s hair from turning gray prematurely.~
(old bridge in the valley, bordering the Alleghenies by my husband)
Treat measles with sheep manure that has been boiled, strained, and diluted with moonshine.~ *I assume with enough moonshine the patient didn’t notice the manure so much.
For a bad cold put lard on your chest sprinkled with salt. Another remedy is a mustard plaster made with mustard, lard, and egg whites and laid on the chest~
Freckles on the face can be washed away on the first of May. If they are washed in morning dew, they will be transferred to the hands which can be dried on another less visible part of the body like the arms or legs and left there permanently.  It’s recommended that this practice be repeated for three years in a row to work. ~
Quite an investment in time.
(Image of river in the mist by my mother)
When mumps invade your house put hog manure on the throat as a relief or cure.
 
*Considering the stench of hog manure, I doubt the sufferer would find much relief.
To get rid of warts, tie a knot in a string for each wart you have and bury it under rock.  When the string rots the wart will be gone. ~ (Tried this one, took years to work, but the wart is gone).
Old Home in the Blue Ridge Mountains
 (Old house in the Blue Ridge Mountains by my husband)
If you are sitting up with an ill person and a spark flies from the fireplace in the room, it is a sign of impending death. (From Hardy County, West Virginia).
It would be a terrible mistake for you to kill a lightning bug because lightning might kill you during the next electrical storm. (From Wise County, Virginia)
In the Blue Ridge Mountains it was believed that if a glass fell from a table after midnight and rolled across the floor, a coffin would have to be made the next day.
And I could go on, but this is enough for now.  Well, maybe one more.
When springtime rolls around again, and if you are fortunate enough to make a wish on the first toad you see hopping by, you will have abundant good luck. (From Wise County, VA)
This piece is a repost from the past, but seems appropriate for this time of year.

Superstitions and Lore from the Shenandoah Valley


(The Shenandoah Valley of Virginia by my mother Pat Churchman)
These sayings are taken from Shenandoah Voices:  Folklore, Legends, and Traditions of the Valley by late historian and author John Heatwole. I also threw in some cures. Images of the Shenandoah Valley and Mountains were taken by my talented family.
I knew and greatly respected John Heatwole.  He even helped me with some of the initial research for my first historical novels. The wealth of knowledge he amassed is just one of the rich legacies John left behind.
Shenandoah Voices is my favorite book by him.  I recommend it to anyone interested in the old ways and days of rural Virginia, especially the valley and surrounding mountains. I was also privileged to hear John speak on this fascinating subject. He’s best known for his vast knowledge and books about the Civil War. He was also an amazing wood carver/artist, a man of many talents.  Much missed.
(Image of log hog/chicken barn by my husband Dennis.)
****
Many early valley settlers were Scots-Irish, my ancestors among them.  People from the British Isles tended to be superstitious.  Also prevalent in the valley were Germans bringing the influence of the Pennsylvania-Dutch, another superstitious group.  To quote Michael Scott, boss from NBC’s hit show, The Office, “I’m not superstitious, just a little stitious.”
It’s bad luck to lay a hat on the bed.~
An itching nose means a visitor is coming. ~
A cardinal bumping against the window pane is an indication of an early death~
*To this I have to add ‘or an insanely jealous bird regarding his reflection as another male which tends to happen with cardinals.’
Peel an apple all in one piece and throw the peel over your shoulder.  When you turn around and look at it lying on the ground, whatever letter it reminds you of will be the first letter of your future husband’s last name.~ (This is an ancient Celtic Custom)
It’s bad luck to point at a rainbow. ~ *I suspect we are all guilty of this one.  Who knew?
It’s bad luck to bring a shovel into the house ‘because it is a grave tool.’ Some also think a hoe in the house bodes no good.~ (Image of old smokehouse from the outside and from the inside below. The smokehouse is at our favorite Christmas tree farm outside the tiny hamlet of Singers Glen.
(Images by daughter Elise.)
If you enter a house and leave it without sitting down it is bad luck.  Particularly if you leave by a different door than the one you entered.~
If a bird flies into your house there will soon be a death in the family~Within six months if a whippoorwill comes to your treetop and sings at night. ~ *How many of you have even heard a whippoorwill?  I have.
If a baby smiles in its sleep, the child is talking to the angels. ~ *My personal favorite.
Rain isn’t far behind when a tree shows the underside of its leaves.~
Count the number of foggy mornings in August and that is how many winter snows there will be.~ I heard this one not long ago and suspect it may be true.  I’m also a believer in wooley bears predicting winter…
A new moon with the points up means dry weather, and a moon with the points down means rain will soon fall. ~
If a full moon has a ring around it there will be snow by morning. ~
If the ring is large, the number of stars you count in it will be the number of inches that fall.~ *We say a ring around the moon means rain, or snow, within a few days.
(Creepy old barn up behind our house taken by Daughter Elise.)
Sheep shearing takes place around the first of May.  A cold rain will follow within a few days of shearing called a sheep rain. ~
On Ash Wednesday people made pancakes or the chickens wouldn’t lay.~ *We still have pancake suppers in the valley on that day.
Horse chestnuts carried in the pocket are thought to ward off rheumatism. ~
Sassafras tea is good to thin the blood. ~
Broth made from the hind legs of mice is good for kidney ailments.~ *Not tried this one. ‘Swamp root’ tea is also recommended for kidney disorders.~ I’ll have to research exactly what swamp root is.
(The Alleghenies by my mother)
For someone who is weak and recovering from long illness, make them sparrow broth tea. ~ *This supposedly saved my grandmother’s life when she was sick as a child.
Before taking a new baby out for its first ride (this probably applied to a wagon or buggy) the ‘herb lady’ rubbed warm bear grease on one of the infant’s palms and the bottom of the opposite foot thus insuring that the baby was protected from the rigors of the journey.
A hog’s tooth carried in your right pocket will ward off toothache.~ *Maybe I should take up this one.
Catnip tea was made for children with colic.~ Tea from peppermint leaves will stop a stomachache.~ *These are still practiced.
Sage tea will keep a woman’s hair from turning gray prematurely.~
(old bridge in the valley, bordering the Alleghenies by my husband)
Treat measles with sheep manure that has been boiled, strained, and diluted with moonshine.~ *I assume with enough moonshine the patient didn’t notice the manure so much.
For a bad cold put lard on your chest sprinkled with salt. Another remedy is a mustard plaster made with mustard, lard, and egg whites and laid on the chest~
Freckles on the face can be washed away on the first of May. If they are washed in morning dew, they will be transferred to the hands which can be dried on another less visible part of the body like the arms or legs and left there permanently.  It’s recommended that this practice be repeated for three years in a row to work. ~ Quite an investment in time.
(Image of river in the mist by my mother)
When mumps invade your house put hog manure on the throat as a relief or cure. ~ *Considering the stench of hog manure, I doubt the sufferer would find much relief.
To get rid of warts, tie a knot in a string for each wart you have and bury it under rock.  When the string rots the wart will be gone. ~

                   (Old house in the Blue Ridge Mountains by my husband)
If you are sitting up with an ill person and a spark flies from the fireplace in the room, it is a sign of impending death. (From Hardy County, West Virginia).
It would be a terrible mistake for you to kill a lightning bug because lightning might kill you during the next electrical storm. (From Wise County, Virginia)
In the Blue Ridge Mountains it was believed that if a glass fell from a table after midnight and rolled across the floor, a coffin would have to be made the next day.
And I could go on, but this is enough for now.  Well, maybe one more.
When springtime rolls around again, and if you are fortunate enough to make a wish on the first toad you see hopping by, you will have abundant good luck. (From Wise County)

(The Alleghenies by my husband)

Paranormal Account from The Shenandoah Valley of Virginia–Beth Trissel



This fascinating story is taken from Shenandoah Voices, Folklore, Legends and Traditions of the Valley by late author and historian John Heatwole.

Brock’s Gap~

“Up in the Brock’s Gap region (of the Shenandoah Valley) the old resident’s referred to the rest of the world as “out.”  It was not uncommon to hear the phrase, “people would come along from out.”

In the old days, the rest of the country was well served by the Valley Pike and other well maintained thoroughfares, but the Gap and its scattered homesteads remained isolated beyond the first rise of the Allegheny Front (*Mountains).

The hamlets of Fulks Run, Criders, Bergton and Dovesville were oases of social contact, as were a few churches here and there, but the people in the Gap were pretty self-sufficient.  Before electricity came into the area, moonless nights smothered the hills, hollows and mountains…making the faint glimmer of candlelight in a window way off a welcome sight to a late-night traveler.

It’s not surprising that some wonderful ghost stories have come from this area.  Unusual happenings were woven into stories that were told and retold…long winter nights found rapt listeners gathered around a glowing fire or warm stove to be thrilled by a story-teller.”

****

Ghost story:  “One young girl of the Crider’s area was told that she could take the horse and go to meet her mother and sister who were returning from a trip to “out” late one night.  Her path took her to a neighbor’s farm gate where she dismounted, opened the gate, led the horse through and then re-latched it.  As she climbed back on the horse, she heard something coming from the direction she had just come.

“Someone come a runnin,’ was a man a comin’ up the road a runnin’.”

He was coming fast and she was scared.  She kicked her horse into a gallop.  As she looked back over her shoulder she saw the “man” run through the closed gate as if he were made of air.  “I flew out,” she said, but it seemed to make no difference—he was gaining on her.

“When I got to the top of the hill he was about two steps behind me.  He grabbed the horse by the tail, and she kicked up, and away she went as hard as she could run!”

That did the trick and the pursuer disappeared in their dust.

“I don’t know what it was.  It wasn’t no human; no human coulda kept up with that horse!”

The woman who was once the girl in the preceding story also related her father’s brush with a demon.

“My daddy seen one one time.  He was comin’ home after dark from Casper Turner’s.  Saw what looked like a man layin’ on a fence; had eyes like fireballs!”  Her father had a gun with him, and he shot at the demon.  The thing fell off the fence and started making a noise that made the man think he should be getting away from there.  “Had run down from the mountain.  He was scared to death.”~

Fear of Witches in Colonial America and Today–Beth Trissel


My fascination with the supernatural, whether real or imagined, played an important role in my new historical romance novel, Kira, Daughter of the Moon. Murmurings against the unusual, young Scots-Irishwoman, Kira McClure, grow into accusations of witchcraft. Never a good thing, but especially not in the colonial Virginia frontier. Acceptance in a close-knit community could mean the difference between life and death. The highly superstitious Scots settled in the rugged Alleghenies on the heels of The French and Indian War were already wary. The dangers these dark woods held heightened their fear of the supernatural. Sick livestock, children struck down with illness, and other misfortunes might be blamed on witchcraft. Settlers were alert to anyone in their midst they could point to as the culprit. The farther people ventured from more civilized society, the deeper their superstitions ran. And taking the law, such as it was, into their own hands was often how they dealt with miscreants in the frontier .

Late Shenandoah Valley historian, John Heatwole, much respected and a family friend, put together a wonderful collection of accounts from valley and mountain people regarding their experiences with and feelings toward so-called witches. His book deals with beliefs lingering into the 20th century, but they’re still present among some rural Virginians today. Fear best sums up their sentiments. In his book, Shenandoah Voices, Mr. Heatwole says, “Witches have not been tried, jailed or executed in America since the early 18th century, but tales of their activities persist. During that period in our history, superstitious practices invoked for self-protection were considered prudent dabbling in the occult and virtually harmless. Powers or practices called upon for mean-spirited or evil purposes were attributed to malevolent people in the community who wielded demonic powers. Despite the perception of evil, people suspected of being witches, who were mostly women, were often tolerated in society because of their family ties or from fear of retribution—no one wanted to get on the wrong side of a witch.”

True. However, ‘often tolerated,’ doesn’t mean those perceived as witches were popular. He shares accounts and I’ve read others, of outspoken or in some way unique females, perhaps even deformed, thought to be in league with the devil who were ostracized. Not being accepted and possibly even tormented by your neighbors was harsh, particularly for the poor and elderly. On the one hand, a woman might gain power over others, even men, in a historically male dominated society, through the fear she intentionally or unintentionally provoked, but the danger that people would shun her was always present–unless she was well-to-do. The rich were always better tolerated.

Spells and hexes were countered by witch doctors, usually men, although ‘Granny women’ were also known for battling the dark arts with magical incantations. I have friends who grew up ‘back in the holler’ and remember bringing in the Granny woman when home remedies failed. One common protection prudent mothers undertook for children was to sew little ‘acifidity’ bags filled with pungent herbs, garlic and asafetida,  to hang around their necks. “Oh my, did these kids stink,’ one friend told me. The stench was to drive away illness and evil. These stinky bags may be out of favor now, but the fear that lay behind them is still quite real among some folk.

You may ask if any of the women, and occasionally men, thought to be witches actually were? Yes. And some of them sound pretty darn scary.

For my recent post on that visit:

One of the Scariest Ghost/Witch Stories Ever

***Royalty free images