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An essay by John Greenleaf Whittier

Magicians And Witch Folk

Title:     Magicians And Witch Folk
Author: John Greenleaf Whittier [More Titles by Whittier]

FASCINATION, saith Henry Cornelius Agrippa, in the fiftieth chapter of his first book on Occult Philosophy, "is a binding which comes of the spirit of the witch through the eyes of him that is bewitched, entering to his heart; for the eye being opened and intent upon any one, with a strong imagination doth dart its beams, which are the vehiculum of the spirit, into the eyes of him that is opposite to her; which tender spirit strikes his eyes, stirs up and wounds his heart, and infects his spirit. Whence Apuleius saith, 'Thy eyes, sliding down through my eyes into my inmost heart, stirreth up a most vehement burning.' And when eyes are reciprocally intent upon each other, and when rays are joined to rays, and lights to lights, then the spirit of the one is joined to that of the other; so are strong ligations made and vehement loves inflamed." Taking this definition of witchcraft, we sadly fear it is still practised to a very great extent among us. The best we can say of it is, that the business seems latterly to have fallen into younger hands; its victims do not appear to regard themselves as especial objects of compassion; and neither church nor state seems inclined to interfere with it.

As might be expected in a shrewd community like ours, attempts are not unfrequently made to speculate in the supernatural,--to "make gain of sooth-saying." In the autumn of last year a "wise woman" dreamed, or somnambulized, that a large sum of money, in gold and silver coin, lay buried in the centre of the great swamp in Poplin, New Hampshire; whereupon an immediate search was made for the precious metal. Under the bleak sky of November, in biting frost and sleet rain, some twenty or more grown men, graduates of our common schools, and liable, every mother's son of them, to be made deacons, squires, and general court members, and such other drill officers as may be requisite in the march of mind, might be seen delving in grim earnest, breaking the frozen earth, uprooting swamp-maples and hemlocks, and waking, with sledge and crowbar, unwonted echoes in a solitude which had heretofore only answered to the woodman's axe or the scream of the wild fowl. The snows of December put an end to their labors; but the yawning excavation still remains, a silent but somewhat expressive commentary upon the age of progress.

Still later, in one of our Atlantic cities, an attempt was made, partially at least, successful, to form a company for the purpose of digging for money in one of the desolate sand-keys of the West Indies. It appears that some mesmerized "subject," in the course of one of those somnambulic voyages of discovery in which the traveller, like Satan in chaos,--

"O'er bog, o'er steep, through straight, rough, dense, or rare,
With head, hands, wings, or feet, pursues his way,
And swims, or sinks, or wades, or creeps, or flies,"--

while peering curiously into the earth's mysteries, chanced to have his eyes gladdened by the sight of a huge chest packed with Spanish coins, the spoil, doubtless, of some rich-freighted argosy, or Carthagena galleon, in the rare days of Queen Elizabeth's Christian buccaneers.

During the last quarter of a century, a colored woman in one of the villages on the southern border of New Hampshire has been consulted by hundreds of anxious inquirers into the future. Long experience in her profession has given her something of that ready estimate of character, that quick and keen appreciation of the capacity, habits, and wishes of her visitors, which so remarkably distinguished the late famous Madame Le Normand, of Paris; and if that old squalid sorceress, in her cramped Parisian attic, redolent of garlic and bestrewn with the greasy implements of sorry housewifery, was, as has been affirmed, consulted by such personages as the fair Josephine Beauharnois, and the "man of destiny," Napoleon himself, is it strange that the desire to lift the veil of the great mystery before us should overcome in some degree our peculiar and most republican prejudice against color, and reconcile us to the disagreeable necessity of looking at futurity through a black medium?

Some forty years ago, on the banks of the pleasant little creek separating Berwick, in Maine, from Somersworth, in New Hampshire, within sight of my mother's home, dwelt a plain, sedate member of the society of Friends, named Bantum. He passed throughout a circle of several miles as a conjurer and skilful adept in the art of magic. To him resorted farmers who had lost their cattle, matrons whose household gear, silver spoons, and table-linen had been stolen, or young maidens whose lovers were absent; and the quiet, meek-spirited old man received them all kindly, put on his huge iron-rimmed spectacles, opened his "conjuring book," which my mother describes as a large clasped volume in strange language and black-letter type, and after due reflection and consideration gave the required answers without money and without price. The curious old volume is still in the possession of the conjurer's family. Apparently inconsistent as was this practice of the black art with the simplicity and truthfulness of his religious profession, I have not been able to learn that he was ever subjected to censure on account of it. It may be that our modern conjurer defended himself on grounds similar to those assumed by the celebrated knight of Nettesheim, in the preface to his first Book of Magic: "Some," says he, "may crie oute that I teach forbidden arts, sow the seed of heresies, offend pious ears, and scandalize excellent wits; that I am a sorcerer, superstitious and devilish, who indeed am a magician. To whom I answer, that a magician doth not among learned men signifie a sorcerer or one that is superstitious or devilish, but a wise man, a priest, a prophet, and that the sibyls prophesied most clearly of Christ; that magicians, as wise men, by the wonderful secrets of the world, knew Christ to be born, and came to worship him, first of all; and that the name of magicke is received by philosophers, commended by divines, and not unacceptable to the Gospel."

The study of astrology and occult philosophy, to which many of the finest minds of the Middle Ages devoted themselves without molestation from the Church, was never practised with impunity after the Reformation. The Puritans and Presbyterians, taking the Bible for their rule, "suffered not a witch to live;" and, not content with burning the books of those who "used curious arts" after the manner of the Ephesians, they sacrificed the students themselves on the same pile. Hence we hear little of learned and scientific wizards in New England. One remarkable character of this kind seems, however, to have escaped the vigilance of our modern Doctors of the Mosaic Law. Dr. Robert Child came to this country about the year 1644, and took up his residence in the Massachusetts colony. He was a man of wealth, and owned plantations at Nashaway, now Lancaster, and at Saco, in Maine. He was skilful in mineralogy and metallurgy, and seems to have spent a good deal of money in searching for mines. He is well known as the author of the first decided movement for liberty of conscience in Massachusetts, his name standing at the head of the famous petition of 1646 for a modification of the laws in respect to religious worship, and complaining in strong terms of the disfranchisement of persons not members of the Church. A tremendous excitement was produced by this remonstrance; clergy and magistrates joined in denouncing it; Dr. Child and his associates were arrested, tried for contempt of government, and heavily fined. The Court, in passing sentence, assured the Doctor that his crime was only equalled by that of Korah and his troop, who rebelled against Moses and Aaron. He resolved to appeal to the Parliament of England, and made arrangements for his departure, but was arrested, and ordered to be kept a prisoner in his own house until the vessel in which he was to sail had left Boston. He was afterwards imprisoned for a considerable length of time, and on his release found means to return to England. The Doctor's trunks were searched by the Puritan authorities while he was in prison; but it does not appear that they detected the occult studies to which lie was addicted, to which lucky circumstance it is doubtless owing that the first champion of religious liberty in the New World was not hung for a wizard.

Dr. Child was a graduate of the renowned University of Padua, and had travelled extensively in the Old World. Probably, like Michael Scott, he had:

"Learned the art of glammarye
In Padua, beyond the sea;"

for I find in the dedication of an English translation of a Continental work on astrology and magic, printed in 1651 "at the sign of the Three Bibles," that his "sublime hermeticall and theomagicall lore" is compared to that of Hermes and Agrippa. He is complimented as a master of the mysteries of Rome and Germany, and as one who had pursued his investigations among the philosophers of the Old World and the Indians of the New, "leaving no stone unturned, the turning whereof might conduce to the discovery of what is occult."

There was still another member of the Friends' society in Vermont, of the name of Austin, who, in answer, as he supposed, to prayer and a long-cherished desire to benefit his afflicted fellow-creatures, received, as he believed, a special gift of healing. For several years applicants from nearly all parts of New England visited him with the story of their sufferings and praying for a relief, which, it is averred, was in many instances really obtained. Letters from the sick who were unable to visit him, describing their diseases, were sent him; and many are yet living who believe that they were restored miraculously at the precise period of time when Austin was engaged in reading their letters. One of my uncles was commissioned to convey to him a large number of letters from sick persons in his neighborhood. He found the old man sitting in his plain parlor in the simplest garb of his sect,-- grave, thoughtful, venerable,--a drab-coated Prince Hohenlohe. He received the letters in silence, read them slowly, casting them one after another upon a large pile of similar epistles in a corner of the apartment.

Half a century ago nearly every neighborhood in New England was favored with one or more reputed dealers in magic. Twenty years later there were two poor old sisters who used to frighten school urchins and "children of a larger growth" as they rode down from New Hampshire on their gaunt skeleton horses, strung over with baskets for the Newburyport market. They were aware of the popular notion concerning them, and not unfrequently took advantage of it to levy a sort of black mail upon their credulous neighbors. An attendant at the funeral of one of these sisters, who when living was about as unsubstantial as Ossian's ghost, through which the stars were visible, told me that her coffin was so heavy that four stout men could barely lift it.

One, of my earliest recollections is that of an old woman, residing about two miles from the place of my nativity, who for many years had borne the unenviable reputation of a witch. She certainly had the look of one,--a combination of form, voice, and features which would have made the fortune of an English witch finder in the days of Matthew Paris or the Sir John Podgers of Dickens, and insured her speedy conviction in King James's High Court of Justiciary. She was accused of divers ill- doings,--such as preventing the cream in her neighbor's churn from becoming butter, and snuffing out candles at huskings and quilting- parties.

"She roamed the country far and near,
Bewitched the children of the peasants,
Dried up the cows, and lamed the deer,
And sucked the eggs, and killed the pheasants."

The poor old woman was at length so sadly annoyed by her unfortunate reputation that she took the trouble to go before a justice of the peace, and made solemn oath that she was a Christian woman, and no witch.

Not many years since a sad-visaged, middle-aged man might be seen in the streets of one of our seaboard towns at times suddenly arrested in the midst of a brisk walk and fixed motionless for some minutes in the busy thoroughfare. No effort could induce him to stir until, in his opinion, the spell was removed and his invisible tormentor suffered him to proceed. He explained his singular detention as the act of a whole family of witches whom he had unfortunately offended during a visit down East. It was rumored that the offence consisted in breaking off a matrimonial engagement with the youngest member of the family,--a sorceress, perhaps, in more than one sense of the word, like that "winsome wench and walie" in Tam O'Shanter's witch-dance at Kirk Alloway. His only hope was that he should outlive his persecutors; and it is said that at the very hour in which the event took place he exultingly assured his friends that the spell was forever broken, and that the last of the family of his tormentors was no more.

When a boy, I occasionally met, at the house of a relative in an adjoining town, a stout, red-nosed old farmer of the neighborhood. A fine tableau he made of a winter's evening, in the red light of a birch-log fire, as he sat for hours watching its progress, with sleepy, half-shut eyes, changing his position only to reach the cider-mug on the shelf near him. Although he seldom opened his lips save to assent to some remark of his host or to answer a direct question, yet at times, when the cider-mug got the better of his taciturnity, he would amuse us with interesting details of his early experiences in "the Ohio country."

There was, however, one chapter in these experiences which he usually held in reserve, and with which "the stranger intermeddled not." He was not willing to run the risk of hearing that which to him was a frightful reality turned into ridicule by scoffers and unbelievers. The substance of it, as I received it from one of his neighbors, forms as clever a tale of witchcraft as modern times have produced.

It seems that when quite a young man he left the homestead, and, strolling westward, worked his way from place to place until he found himself in one of the old French settlements on the Ohio River. Here he procured employment on the farm of a widow; and being a smart, active fellow, and proving highly serviceable in his department, he rapidly gained favor in the eyes of his employer. Ere long, contrary to the advice of the neighbors, and in spite of somewhat discouraging hints touching certain matrimonial infelicities experienced by the late husband, he resolutely stepped into the dead man's shoes: the mistress became the wife, and the servant was legally promoted to the head of the household.--

For a time matters went on cosily and comfortably enough. He was now lord of the soil; and, as he laid in his crops of corn and potatoes, salted down his pork, and piled up his wood for winter's use, he naturally enough congratulated himself upon his good fortune and laughed at the sinister forebodings of his neighbors. But with the long winter months came a change over his "love's young dream." An evil and mysterious influence seemed to be at work in his affairs. Whatever he did after consulting his wife or at her suggestion resulted favorably enough; but all his own schemes and projects were unaccountably marred and defeated. If he bought a horse, it was sure to prove spavined or wind-broken. His cows either refused to give down their milk, or, giving it, perversely kicked it over. A fine sow which he had bargained for repaid his partiality by devouring, like Saturn, her own children. By degrees a dark thought forced its way into his mind. Comparing his repeated mischances with the ante-nuptial warnings of his neighbors, he at last came to the melancholy conclusion that his wife was a witch. The victim in Motherwell's ballad of the Demon Lady, or the poor fellow in the Arabian tale who discovered that he had married a ghoul in the guise of a young and blooming princess, was scarcely in a more sorrowful predicament. He grew nervous and fretful. Old dismal nursery stories and all the witch lore of boyhood came back to his memory; and he crept to his bed like a criminal to the gallows, half afraid to fall asleep lest his mysterious companion should take a fancy to transform him into a horse, get him shod at the smithy, and ride him to a witch-meeting. And, as if to make the matter worse, his wife's affection seemed to increase just in proportion as his troubles thickened upon him. She aggravated him with all manner of caresses and endearments. This was the drop too much. The poor husband recoiled from her as from a waking nightmare. His thoughts turned to New England; he longed to see once more the old homestead, with its tall well-sweep and butternut-trees by the roadside; and he sighed amidst the rich bottom-lands of his new home for his father's rocky pasture, with its crop of stinted mulleins. So one cold November day, finding himself out of sight and hearing of his wife, he summoned courage to attempt an escape, and, resolutely turning his back on the West, plunged into the wilderness towards the sunrise. After a long and hard journey he reached his birthplace, and was kindly welcomed by his old friends. Keeping a close mouth with respect to his unlucky adventure in Ohio, he soon after married one of his schoolmates, and, by dint of persevering industry and economy, in a few years found himself in possession of a comfortable home.

But his evil star still lingered above the horizon. One summer evening, on returning from the hayfield, who should meet him but his witch wife from Ohio! She came riding up the street on her old white horse, with a pillion behind the saddle. Accosting him in a kindly tone, yet not without something of gentle reproach for his unhandsome desertion of her, she informed him that she had come all the way from Ohio to take him back again.

It was in vain that he pleaded his later engagements; it was in vain that his new wife raised her shrillest remonstrances, not unmingled with expressions of vehement indignation at the revelation of her husband's real position; the witch wife was inexorable; go he must, and that speedily. Fully impressed with a belief in her supernatural power of compelling obedience, and perhaps dreading more than witchcraft itself the effects of the unlucky disclosure on the temper of his New England helpmate, he made a virtue of the necessity of the case, bade farewell to the latter amidst a perfect hurricane of reproaches, and mounted the white horse, with his old wife on the pillion behind him.

Of that ride Burger might have written a counterpart to his ballad:--

"Tramp, tramp, along the shore they ride,
Splash, splash, along the sea."

Two or three years had passed away, bringing no tidings of the unfortunate husband, when he once more made his appearance in his native village. He was not disposed to be very communicative; but for one thing, at least, he seemed willing to express his gratitude. His Ohio wife, having no spell against intermittent fever, had paid the debt of nature, and had left him free; in view of which, his surviving wife, after manifesting a due degree of resentment, consented to take him back to her bed and board; and I could never learn that she had cause to regret her clemency.

[The end]
John Greenleaf Whittier's essay: Magicians And Witch Folk