Death, witches and superstitions

Posted by Dave Tabler | October 30, 2015


Death comes in threes in a congregation.

A wild bird in the house means someone’s going to die.

A dog howling three nights in a row means death is near.

If you get shingles all around your body, you’ll die.

If you sneeze, cover your mouth and say the Lord’s Prayer, or you’ll lose your soul out of your mouth and die.

If two women help a third one get dressed, the youngest of the three will die.


“From the beginning of recorded history down to 1933 we have records of the belief in disease and death caused by the malevolent action of some devilish god or conjuring human.” —Miller, Joseph L. “The Healing Gods or Medical Superstition.” The West Virginia Medical Journal. 29 (1933), 465-478.

If you point at a graveyard, your finger will rot off.

Shingles are quickly cured by rubbing the eruption with blood from a black cat’s tail, which must then be nailed to a door until the patient is well.

Practically every southern Italian woman who I [Miller] attend in confinement, whether she was born in Italy or is of the second generation in the U. S. and a graduate of our high schools, has pinned to her breast, by the side of the scapulary of St. Anne, the patron saint of parturient women, a little bunch of gold or coral ornaments to ward off the evil eye.” Many of these are heirlooms that have been handed down for generations. As soon as the baby is dressed they are transferred to it’s breast where they remain for several months, for the mothers all dread the evil “Jettatere di bambini,” or fascinator of infants, These charms include a horn like the horn of a steer which has always been considered a most potent charm against witchcraft.


Cover every horseshoe found in the road with “silver paper” (tin foil) and hang it over the door of the house to ward off witches.

A seventh daughter, born on Christmas Day, possesses witch-like powers.

If there are tangles in your hair early in the morning, the witches have been riding you.

If one dreams of a woman with disheveled hair it means that some member of his family will soon die.

If an owl appears on your place when someone there is ill, that person will die in two days.


If a clock, long motionless, suddenly begins to tick or strike, it is a sign of approaching death.

A hunter’s wife will throw an axe at her husband to give him good luck. If he failed to kill game, his gun was spelled, and some old woman was shot in effigy.

Females bring bad luck to coal mines.

If you sweep under the bed of a sick person, that person will die.

If you let birds use your hair for nesting material, you will go crazy.


At the stroke of midnight on Halloween, a lighted candle will reveal the future in the mirror’s reflection. Look above your left shoulder.

To prevent bad luck do not burn sassafras wood.

Don’t eat honey on the day a relative is buried.

Keep witches at bay by nailing a horseshoe to the bottom of one’s butter churn.

Dreaming of a snake means the dreamer will soon be killed.


Death is foretold by the ringing of a bell that cannot otherwise be accounted for.

If you align your gravesite (beforehand!) north-to-south you’re a witch.

If there is a meeting consisting of 13 members, the first to leave will die within a year.


Sources: The Granny Curse, by Randy Russell, Janet Barnett
Kentucky Folklore, by R. Gerald Alvey
Seedtime on the Cumberland, by Harriette Louisa Simpson Arnow
The Frank C. Brown Collection of NC Folklore: Popular Beliefs
UCLA Online Archive of American Folk Medicine
Never Seen the Moon, by Sharon Hatfield
‘Ghosts, Spirits, and Legends of Southeastern Ohio,’ by Lawrence Everett
Current Superstitions, by Fanny Dickerson Bergen, William Wells Newell, American Folklore Society

One Response

  • Grandma said that a bird singing in the night means a person is going to die.
    If a wild bird lands in your lap while you are sitting outside you are bewitched.

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The Devil and the Farmer’s Wife

Posted by Dave Tabler | October 29, 2015's%20Wife-1932-2.jpg

This tale of the shrewish wife who terrifies even the demons is ancient and widespread. The Hindus have it in a sixth century fable collection, the Panchatantra. It seems to have travelled westward by Persia, and to have spread to almost every European country. In early versions, the farmer makes a pact with the Devil and hands over his wife in return for a pair of plough oxen.

The Irish gave the song the title cited here; in England the song was also known as ‘The Farmer’s Curst Wife'(Child ballad 278) and ‘The Devil and the Ploughman.’ The tune is reckoned to have been William of Orange’s marching tune as he came up from Cornwall. Here’s a 1941 version performed by Texas Gladden of Saltville, VA. Alan Lomax recorded her on behalf of the Library of Congress and released a 14 song album of the material.

“I know an old couple that lived near Hell
If they’re not dead, they’re living there still
The Devil, he came to the man at the plough
I’ve come for one of your family now

“Whack full day ful lickety fall the dall day

“Which of my family do you like best
Your scolding old wife, it’s she I like best
Take her away with all of my heart
I hope the two of you never need part

“The Devil, he hoisted her up on his back
No peddler was ever so proud of his pack
He’s carried along till he came to Hell’s wall
She’s out with her boot and she’s flattened it all

“Some Devils came down to put her in a sack
She’s out with her boot and she’s broken their backs
The Devils cried out from up on the wall
Take her home daddy, she’ll murder us all

“He carried her home in a tenth of the time
Take her back farmer, I’m changing my mind
What will you give me for taking her in
I offer no more than the wages of sin

“If you want to be rid of this scolding old hen
You’ll never bedevil my family again
The Devil did cry, the Devil did howl
But he never returned to the man at the plough”

sources: “Sang Branch Settlers: Folksongs and Tales of a Kentucky Mountain Family,” Leonard W. Roberts, Pikeville College Press of the Appalachian Studies Center, 1980

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Joe Ozanic’s AFL challenges John Lewis’ CIO

Posted by Dave Tabler | October 28, 2015

In this excerpt from interviews of coal miner Joseph Ozanic, Sr. (1895-1978), Ozanic discusses the conflict between the Progressive Miners of America (of which he was president) and John L. Lewis’ United Mine Workers of America. Interviews conducted by Rex Rhodes, 1972; Barbara Herndon and Nick Cherniavsky, 1974, and now in the collection of Norris L. Brookens Library /Archives/Special Collections / University of Illinois at Springfield.

After the 1932 mine war John Lewis moved United Mine Workers headquarters to Washington, obviously for the purpose of being very close to the national political scene. A lot of the extraordinary powers that he got onto himself through the packed convention of 1931–and he did get a lot of special favors–he got in Washington, at our expense.

The reported $650,000 that he donated to the political administration of 1936 gave him control or favors, from the National Labor Relations Board. The National Labor Relations Act was adopted by Congress in 1935 and confirmed by the Supreme Court in 1937. In 1936, John L. reportedly donated $650,000 in political contributions to the administration then in power; $650,000 that he sponged out of the treasury of the United Mine Workers without the consent of the rank and file who actually owned that money.

The National Labor Relations Board was set up and that board was clearly beholden to John L. Lewis at the expense of any other union that filed to get a representation election. And it gave him special favors under Madam Perkins, Secretary of the Department of Labor. Madam Perkins In turn, controlled the director for concilliation, Dr. John R. Steelman.

Dr. Steelman told me personally in Cincinnati during a convention of the American Federation of Labor, he said, “Joe, your union’s getting as rotten a deal as any group of workers have ever known in the history of labor in the United States, but I’m helpless. I’m under orders and supervision of Madam Perkins and the White House. I’ve got to do what they tell me to do.”

Joe Ozanic, president of Progressive Mine Workers, AFL

Original photo caption reads : AFL opens war on Lewis’ miners. The newly chartered Progressive Miners Union, American Federation of Labor organization, opened their office in Chicago today (May 5, 1938) as the first step in the AFL campaign against John L. Lewis’ CIO organization stronghold. Head of the new union is Joe Ozanic, appointed last week in Washington by William Green, AFL president. Photo shows Ozanic at his Chicago office. With him is his 19-year old daughter Evelyn, who is also his private secretary.


That was during the deadlock of the Appalachian wage negotiations being held in New York City in the 1930’s.

I was president of our International Union at the time and we had mines and miners and local unions organized all over West Virginia and Pennsylvania and Kansas, but the board consistently refused to process our petitions or conduct elections for representation.

In other words, under the act, a union competing with the United Mine Workers–or any union that wanted to gain representation rights over a group of workers-if the employer wouldn’t voluntarily recognize the petitioning union but questioned the union’s position, and if the union could prove it did in fact represent a majority of their employees, the operator or any other employer had one of three courses to follow in line with the NLRB rules.

Number one, they could conduct a payroll check and grant outright recognition to the union if it could prove that they had the required number of members wanting to be represented by the petitioning union as claimed.

If the employer chose not to go through a payroll check of the company payroll against applications and authorizations set forth in the petition by the union, they had as their second choice to voluntarily agree to a consent election, which meant that the employer with the union agrees to a consent election to be conducted by the National Labor Relations Board and let the parties be governed by the results of that secret ballot in an NLRB election.

Well, the National Labor Relations Board was a biased board, headed by chairman John Madden. And in our case, the miners all over the United States didn’t want John L.’s corrupt company union leadership nor the United Mine Workers, anymore than they wanted him in Illinois. In West Virginia, for example, we got not only a 30 percent minimum required at various mines, but as much as 60, 70, and 80 percent of the total workers in some 454 mines in West Virginia alone, including District Number 2, Pennsylvania.

And in every instance where we filed notice on coal operators that we now had a majority of your employees that desire to be represented in collective bargaining concerning hours, conditions, wages and so on, wanting to be represented by our union, we asked them, “Do you wish to consent to voluntarily recognize this new union, or do you prefer that we file with the National Labor Relations Board and then be governed by the results of an election conducted by the NLRB in line with the National Labor Relations Act?”

In every instance, the operators’ response was, “We can’t deal with your union because the contract we have with the United Mine Workers is a bar to an election.”

This occurred in every instance with the result that over 100,000 miners in the state of West Virginia were disenfranchised or denied the right to exercise their rights under a federal statute that gave them the right to be represented by the union and representation of their own choice.

Interview online at

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He’d been known to escape houses through the keyhole

Posted by Dave Tabler | October 27, 2015

“The celebrated mountain lands, of which Mark Twain writes in the Gilded Age, lie in Fentress County; and the picturesque village he describes under the name of Obedstown is none other than its county site.

“The court-house, on the fence surrounding which the male population of the village were sitting, chewing tobacco and spitting at bumble-bees and such other objects of interest as appeared within their wide range, while they waited the arrival of the mail; and to which one of them referred, when he observed that, “if the judge is a gwine to hold cote,’ he reckoned he would have to “roust” his sow and pigs out of the court-house, was the same in which this singular case was tried.

“It seems that an old man by the name of Stout, who lived on Obeds River, was arrested for bewitching the beautiful daughter of a certain man, named Taylor, who lived on the mountain. The defendant was treated with much rigor, and his person abused by the various experiments to which he was subjected, for the purpose of establishing his guilt.

Photo James Hale/Flickr

Photo James Hale/Flickr

“The guards had taken the precaution to remove the lead from their guns, and to load them with silver, which was considered the only metal to which a wizard is not impalpable.

“The accused was carried before Esquire Joshua Owens, a leading magistrate of the county, whom Judge Goodpasture knew intimately for many years afterwards. The prosecutor and many of his neighbors were introduced as witnesses on behalf of the State, and proved, in addition to the particular facts charged, that the defendant had frequently been seen to escape out of houses through the key holes in the doors; and that he had on divers occasions not only operated on the bodies and minds of human beings, and that at a distance of ten or fifteen miles, but also on horses, cattle and other stock.

“On this evidence the defendant was found guilty and bound over to the next term of the Circuit Court. When the grand jury met, General McCormick being of opinion the prosecution could not be sustained, refused to prefer a bill of indictment. The defendant was accordingly discharged amid great excitement, some of the mountaineers boldly declaring that it would be better to live without laws, if such offenders could escape with impunity.”


Source: A Genealogy of the Family of James Goodpasture, by A.V. and W.H. Goodpasture, Nashville: Cumberland Presbyterian Publishing House, 1897

3 Responses

  • particle_person says:

    There’s more to the story — Stout indicted persons responsible for his arrest:

    Stout, on the other hand, went before the grand jury and indicted a number of persons concerned in his arrest, for assault and battery. When these cases came on to be heard before Judge Caruthers and a jury of the county, the defendants admitted the assault and battery and justified on the ground that it was committed in arresting a felon, relying on the statutes of Henry VIII. and James I., making witchcraft a felony, which they declared had never been repealed in this State. The enlightened Judge, however, charged the jury that they were “destructive of, repugnant to, or inconsistent with the freedom and independence of this State, and form of government,” and were never in force here by virtue of the act of 1778, and the defendants were accordingly convicted.

    (From the same source as the above.)

  • Beth Durham says:

    As a native of Fentress County, Tennessee, I was pretty excited to see your blog visiting my hometown this week. Ironically, I was unfamiliar with the Mark Twain reference until I started writing a series of blog articles from a 1940’s promotional booklet that listed Jamestown as “The Obedstown of The Gilded Age” – which prompted me to start reading the book. As with most of Twain’s writing, I found the time well-spent.

    However, I would not have recognized Jamestown from his description despite a deep interest in the history of my county and region. Nor does Twain’s phonetic approach to our dialect sound familiar to me – of course it’s a hard thing to capture.
    This is certainly not the first ghost story I’ve heard from our mountain, but isn’t it fun to have one documented in official court records?

    I saw that the genealogy you referenced was published in 1897, but I wonder what was the year of the court case?

  • Dave Tabler says:

    You can read the full account online at:

    Chapter VI (page 67) opens with this story. A specific date is never mentioned other than to say the trial occurred “less than ten years before Judge Goodpasture came to the bar.” Page 47 mentions that Goodpasture graduated law school in 1849, so that would date this story in the early 1840s.

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Many stories of witchcraft were circulated and believed

Posted by Dave Tabler | October 26, 2015

There was a notable character, a Mrs. Henagar, who had the reputation of being a witch. Her upper eye-lids were paralyzed and drooped over her eyes, giving her the appearance of being blind. Whenever she read her Bible she was obliged to stoop over it and hold the lids up with her hands. Then her vision was perfect.

Mrs. Preston asked her, “Why, Mrs. Henagar, do people say you are a witch?”

“Law, bless your sweet soul, honey,” she replied, “it’s because I have got more sense than all of ‘em put together.”

This bad reputation, however, clung to her, and every rise that had “a spell” upon it, and every child that had convulsions in the neighborhood was supposed to be bewitched by Mrs. Henagar. So fixed was this belief that Charley Talbot, a notable hunter and marksman, once had ” a spell ” on his gun, and he could not win at shooting matches nor kill a deer in the woods.

He said that Mrs. Henager had a ” grudge ” against him, and had put the ” spell ” on his gun. To avenge himself and rid the neighborhood of this supposed meddlesome person, he determined to practice a “spell ” upon her. To accomplish this it was necessary to draw an outline of her figure upon a tree and shoot it in the heart with a bullet in which there was a large portion of silver. This he did, but, to his surprise, Mrs. Henager did not “pine away and die,” but continued in her usual health. He was, therefore, convinced that it was not Mrs, Henagar that had “spelled ” his gun, but some other witch.

Many other stories of witchcraft were circulated and believed, but, perhaps the best authenticated was that of the children of young Mrs. Talbot and her cousin, Mrs. Henagar. They lived together on the north side of the river, about a mile from the King Salt-Works. Their children were little girls, nearly of the same age, and had learned to talk well enough to be understood. On a bright summer day the two mothers barred the door of the house in which the children were left, and went to the river side to do their washing.

Suddenly there was a noise and shrill outcry from the house, and the mothers ran back to it. On entering the door one of the children was found sitting in the “crib,” and the other greatly excited and alarmed running about the floor.

Soon it was discovered that the one on the floor had lost the power of articulation; was, indeed, dumb, and the other, in the cradle, was paralyzed in its lower limbs, but could speak. No intelligent explanation of what had occurred could be given by the only child which could talk, and, as far as she could indicate, the only cause for alarm was that a black cat had come down the chimney with a cap on its head.

Black Cat witchcraft story
This solved the mystery, and was accepted by the families and the neighborhood as a clear case of witchcraft.

Subsequent events confirmed the opinion. On the anniversary of this event the mothers and children went to bed just as they had done for a year; but, lo! when they awoke next morning the paralyzed child sprang up and ran about the floor as actively as her cousin had done the day before, but that cousin sat in bed talking in the advanced language of a year, but could not move her legs.

This periodical interchange of condition continued for two or more years, and until the paralyzed child sickened and died. The dumb one lived to be an old woman.

source: “HISTORICAL SKETCHES AND REMINISCENCES OF AN OCTOGENARIAN.,” by Thomas L Preston, BF Johnson Publishing Co, Richmond, VA, 1900

Preston was the son of Gen. Francis Preston & grandson of Gen. William Campbell & Elizabeth Henry Campbell Russell (sister of Patrick Henry. The historical sketches referred to in the title are first hand accounts of Washington County, VA & of the Preston Saltworks at Saltville, which Preston operated before the Civil War. According to the 1850 Federal Census for Smyth County, Preston was worth over $500,000 on paper, making him one of the wealthiest men in America (he was actually heavily in debt at the time.)

One Response

  • Ravynwolfe says:

    Sounds like the girls..or at least the one mobile then not..then back and forth was actually sufferring from M.S. I can imagine many diseases and disorders were claimed to be witchcraft in the old days.


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