March 06, 2021

Vermont Witchcraft: Wax Images, Thornapple, and the Bible

I've been on a monster kick for the last few weeks here, so I thought I'd add a little variety and write about witchcraft. Here's a witch story from the small town of Newbury, Vermont. 

Many years ago, in the early 19th century, a Newbury farmer believed he was being harassed by a witch. He had seen strange phantom shapes dancing in his fireplace at night, and his cattle suffered from strange ailments. He suspected a woman who lived nearby was the witch causing these mishaps. 

Candles by artists Walter Martin and Paloma Munoz.

Remembering the adage to "fight fire with fire," the farmer decided to use magic against the alleged witch:

With a mixture of tallow and beeswax he moulded what he considered to be an image of the offending woman, which he hung up before the fireplace. As the effigy slowly melted, he stuck it full of thorns from the thornapple, and at the same hour the woman who had cast an evil spell upon his cattle fell down stairs and broke her arm. (Frederic Palmer Wells, History of Newbury Vermont, 1902.)

There were lots of stories in the 19th century about how to defeat witches; this is one of them. The protagonists in these stories usually employ witch bottles, horseshoes, or cruelty to animals to defeat a witch. I haven't seen many that involve poppets (a.k.a. small human images), like this one does. In 17th century New England, it was believed that witches often used poppets to harm their victims, but their victims didn't usually fight back with another poppet. I also haven't read many stories that involve melting a wax image. So this story is kind of unusual. 

The reference to the "thornapple" in New England witch stories is also new to me. There are two plants called thornapple in North America. One of them is more commonly known as jimsonweed (datura stramonium in Latin), a hearty nightshade that grows across most of the continent. Jimsonweed, a.k.a. devil's weed or the devil's cucumber, produces small fruits that have spiky shells. Jimsonweed is a dangerous hallucinogen, and probably got the name "jimsonweed" after several soldiers in Jamestown, Virginia ate the plant and hallucinated for eleven days in the 17th century. The term "Jamestown weed" slowly evolved into the modern word "jimsonweed." And yes, you read that right. The soldiers hallucinated for eleven days. Do not mess with this plant. 

I don't think the Newbury farmer stabbed his wax effigy with jimsonweed. I suspect he used the other thornapple, which is the hawthorn tree (crataegus in Latin). There is a lot of European folklore connected to this tree - it is planted near holy wells, it is associated with fairies, its wood is used to kill vampires, etc. That heritage alone makes it a strong candidate, and its branches are also thorny, which makes it even more likely the farmer used the hawthorn tree. It's easier to stab melting wax with a branch than with a small spiny fruit. 

Hawthorn branches from Etsy.

This particular farmer remained concerned about witches until he died. When he grew old he became quite ill and bedridden. He put the family Bible under his pillow to protect himself from witches. The local doctor, one Dr. Carter, thought this was nonsense and tried to secretly replace the Bible with a pile of old almanacs. The farmer discovered the substitution and became livid and agitated. Fearing he would die from agitation, Dr. Carter replaced the Bible. It remained under the old farmer's pillow until he died several weeks later. 

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