May 12, 2013

A Travelling Woman, Coarsely Dressed: Another Witch, Another Footprint

Here's a little story from John McNab Currier, a 19th century physician and folklorist:

In the summer of 1852 I was at a farmhouse in a rural town in Grafton County, New Hampshire, when a travelling woman, coarsely dressed, called to get a glass of water to drink, and inquire the distance to the next village. She drank the water and started on her journey. Scarcely had she gone thirty rods when the woman of the house said she believed the traveller was a witch, and she was going to try her. She immediately took a knitting needle from her work, found one of the traveller's tracks in the path, and stuck the needle into it. Almost immediately the traveller stopped, stood still, and gazed towards us, who were watching the trial. The woman of the house said she would not remove the needle from the track, even if the traveller should never move again; but she turned soon, and went on without stopping. The woman with the needle believed the steel had the power to fasten a witch in her tracks so she could not move, and shen she saw that the woman went on her way, she believed the power was lost by her speaking; so she tried another track with the needle, but without effect. 

It's interesting to compare McNab's story with a similar one I wrote about in March, which had two small children trying to test a witch with a needle, and was recorded in the 1920s or 1930s. McNab's story is a first-hand account of adults trying this form of folk magic 70 or 80 years earlier. In the 19th century witchcraft was not child's play.

Both stories involve women, seemingly poor, walking by houses. Is it their poverty and their mobility that causes such concern? I'm sure there's some sociological reason why these women were suspected of witchcraft.

The magic of steel seems to work in McNab's story, unless you want to be a skeptic and claim the travelling woman just stopped because she was amazed someone was sticking a needle in her footprint.

Even when it doesn't work there's an explanation consistent with the magic: the woman of the house spoke, and broke the spell. Maybe if she had never spoken a word the witch would still be standing in the road today. Silence is a key ingredient in some types of folk magic. Bittersweet root is best harvested in total silence, and a witch can be controlled with her own witch bridle only if you remain silent.

McNab's story appeared in the The Journal of American Folklore, Vol. 4, No. 14, in 1891.


Larry MacDougall said...

I love these little witch stories. Thanks !

Peter Muise said...

They're some of my favorites too. Their simplicity makes them a little more spooky somehow.