This section is from the book "Faith - Healing. Christian Science And Kindred Phenomena", by James Monroe Buckley. Also available from Amazon: Faith-Healing, Christian Science and Kindred Phenomena.
Witchcraft is at the present time believed in by a majority of the citizens of the United States. The larger number of immigrants from the continent of Europe are more or less in fear of such powers. To these must be added no inconsiderable proportion of persons of English and Scotch descent; for a strong vein of superstition is discernible in many Irish, Scotch, and some English, whose "folk-lore," diffused iu nursery tales and neighborhood gossip, has entwined itself strongly about the fibers of spontaneous, subconscious mental imagery. Among the more ignorant members of the Catholic Church of every nationality the belief produces a mysterious dread, against which men and women cross themselves, and resort to various rites supposed to be efficacious.
Where colonies of immigrants have remained isolated, retaining the use of their own language, the influence of witchcraft is more easily traced. The interior of Pennsylvania affords better illustrations of this, and on a larger scale, than any other State. It has been but two or three years since suit was brought by a man against his mother, in one of the counties of Pennsylvania, to recover damages for a dog which he charged her with having killed by witchcraft; and he not only brought suit, but obtained judgment from a justice of the peace. Various witnesses testified as to their experiences in witchcraft, and only one said that he had never had a friend or relative who was bewitched.
In divers villages in Pennsylvania are women who are supposed to be witches. Some are shrewd enough not to apply their arts for strangers, but to those whom they know, as stated in an article in the New York "Sun" some years ago, they will sell charms to ward off lightning from buildings, dry up the wells of the enemies of applicants, force cows to give bloody milk, cause sickness in the family, destroy beauty, separate man and wife, and reunite estranged lovers.
In the interior parts of the Southern States, where a large proportion of the white population cannot read, and there is little admixture of society, there are "witch-doctors," who, assuming that all disease is caused by witches, secure thriving practice in counteracting their influence. The Philadelphia " Times," on the authority of a reputable correspondent, who gives many facts to sustain his representations, says: "For generations the poor whites have believed in witches, and the belief is deep-seated and incurable".
The African population brought this belief from the Dark Continent, and it persists among them, though the progress of religion and education is doing something to check it.
I have recently noted more than fifty suits instituted in the United States by persons against those who they claimed had bewitched them; but under existing laws the accused could not be prosecuted except where money had been obtained under false pretenses, or overt acts of crime suggested or committed.
During pedestrian tours in New England, in various parts of the West, and in every Southern State, I have frequently stayed for the night at the houses of poor farmers, laborers, fishermen, and trappers. In such journeys I have invariably listened to the tales of the neighborhood, stimulating them by suggestion, and have found the belief in witchcraft cropping out in the oldest towns in New England, sometimes within the very shadow of the buildings where a learned ministry has existed from the settlement of the country, and public schools have furnished means of education to all classes. The horseshoes seen in nearly every county, and often in every township, upon the houses, suggested the old horseshoe beneath which Lord Nelson, who had long kept it nailed to the mast of the Victory, received his death-wound at Trafalgar.
In Canada the belief is more prevalent than in any part of the United States, except the interior of Pennsylvania and the South. In the French sections, exclusive of the educated,—a relatively small number,— the belief, if not universal, is widely diffused. But it is by no means confined to Canadians of French extraction. Until within a few years the descendants of the English and Scotch in many parts of British America were more widely separated from each other and from the progress of modern civilization than the inhabitants of the United States, or the settlers of Australia, excepting certain sections of New Zealand and Tasmania. In all these regions the educated generally dismiss it as a mystery, or repudiate it as an ancient superstition. Nevertheless it is often found in the more secluded communities, hamlets, and rural districts, liable on slight provocation to manifest itself in credulous fears, insinuations, and accusations.
In the West Indies this belief prevails among the negroes, and is not unknown among the more ignorant whites. Of South America and Mexico travelers, missionaries, and foreign residents bring similar accounts.
In Italy those of the people who are not Protestants or free-thinkers generally believe in the possibility of witchcraft, and to the peasants it is a living reality. Nor are all who reject the Catholic Church or avow irreligion free from credulity as regards occult influences. Modern Greece, Bulgaria, Scrvia, and the neighboring States abound in similar superstitions. The common people of Hungary and Bohemia fear witchcraft, and it still dominates a considerable part of the rural population and the allied classes of Germany, and particularly of Austria.
French peasants are afraid of evil eyes, warlocks, ghosts, spells, omens, enchantments, and witches; not in every part of the country, but in the more primitive sections. In France their persistence is promoted by dialects, kinship, and various influences peculiar to the country. It has been lint a few years since the world was shocked by the burning of an old woman as a witch in the district of Sologne, cupidity and fanaticism leading to the crime. Having softening of the brain, she did and said strange things, from which her children concluded that she was a witch and determined to burn her to death. When the time decided upon arrived, they sent for a priest, who confessed her. Soon after his departure her daughter screamed, "It is greatly borne upon me that now is the time to kill the hag; if we delay she may commit a sin in thought or deed, and the confession will go for nothing." As she burned, two of her children cried, "Aroint thee, witch!" I do not refer to this to intimate that the French people sympathize with such things, for France was filled with horror, and the murderers were brought to justice, but as an illustration of the persistence of the belief.
In Norway, Sweden, and Denmark witchcraft yet throws a spell over many of the sailors, fishermen, and solitary farmers. In Lapland sorcerers and witches abound, the latter claiming the power of stilling winds and causing rain to cease. It has been a comparatively short time since English seamen trading in Archangel were in the habit of landing and buying a fair wind from the witches.
But it is in Russia that the popular belief more generally resembles that of the whole world many centuries ago. Ralston, in "Songs of the Russian People," states : " But a little time ago every Russian village had its wizard, almost as a matter of course, and to this day it is said there is not a hamlet in the Ukraine that is not reported to keep its witch." When traveling in the interior of that country, accompanied by a master of the Russian language, I found that the peasants still believe that witches and wizards can steal the dew and the rain, send whirlwinds, hide the moon and the stars, and fly through the air on brooms and tongs. Their chief meetings take place three times a year, on "bald hills," and there are thousands of stories of witches going up chimneys and flying through the air; an analogy exists between these and ancient German legends on the same subject. They chalk crosses on their huts and windows, hang up stove-rakes for protection, tie knots, and wear amulets. Plagues in men and cattle arc popularly attributed to witches. Epileptics, and those afflicted with St. Vitus's dance, are supposed to be bewitched. According to popular belief in Russia, witches assume the form of dogs, cats, and owls; but the shape they like best is that of a magpie. The Metropolitan Alexis solemnly cursed that bird, " on account of the bad behavior of the witches who have assumed its plumage".
In Scotland, Ireland, and England belief in witchcraft lingers, and only those who are at the pains to inquire how far it extends, and how strong the impression is, can form an adequate idea of either.