Popular Science Monthly/Volume 55/July 1899/Folklore of the Alleghanies
|FOLKLORE OF THE ALLEGHANIES.|
THE West Virginia mountaineer lives very close to Nature, and viewed from many standpoints the relation is characterized by pleasing amenities: juicy berries refresh him along the road; nuts drop into his path; "sang" (ginseng), which makes one of his sources of revenue, reveals itself to his eye as he follows the cows to pasture; a cool brook springs up to quench his thirst when weary of following the plow; pine knots are always within reach to make light as well as warmth; mud and stones easily combine in his hand to shape a daub chimney; and a trough dug out of an old tree furnishes a receptacle that is as good for dough at one end as for a baby at the other.
Often, however, this close relation to Nature assumes a war attitude, fierce and uncompromising. If hungry wolves no longer howl furiously at the back fence after nightfall, or gnaw at the log pens which secure the stock, and if panthers are seldom bold enough to spring at a horse's flanks as a man rides along in the daytime, bears are still numerous enough to devour a large number of sheep every year in spite of precautions, and they have a pronounced taste for sweet young corn. The living wrested from the soil in the short and changeable summer months must cover the winter's need as well; it is generally so scant and uncertain that the mountaineer feels a chronic discouragement toward agriculture as a pursuit and resource. He must depend on it, and yet as far back as he or his father can remember there has always been some reason why "a good crop" could not be made that year. The West Virginian lives in a large and thinly settled game preserve, but the fleet deer usually contrives to escape the hunter's chill wait in the autumnal dawn, the coy wild turkey is overshy of his lure, and the wary trout requires a very patient rod. In the long winter deep snows cover the fences, groups or "bunches" of cows and sheep often perish in the drifts, and the human prisoners in their cabins, huddling around the wood fires, are nearly always, as they express it, "short of" some article which would be considered a necessity in the average city home.
The varying, defiant, and incalculable moods and phases of Nature bring so many chances into the humble lot of the mountaineer that it is not surprising he should interpret her phenomena as having a distinctly personal import. Anciently, around Olympus the talk was of "omens," "auguries," and "fate"; dwellers along the chain of the Alleghanies to-day talk of "signs," "spells," and "luck," and these words held their significance for hundreds of years in the ancestral stock of the first settlers in the region, most of the folklore being directly traceable to a Scotch-Irish strain of blood. The mountain pattern taken far from cities probably differs little either mentally or physically from that of the colonial mountaineers. Even with the railroad traversing a limited area, and the infiux of summer visitors during three months of the year, the only perceptible change wrought in the natives is a little sharpening of their wits from the barter of fruit and furs at the hotels in the extensive mineral-spring section. The Alleghany mountaineer, ignorant, narrow-minded, honest, brave, and hospitable, remains what he was when the eagle soared from the inaccessible eyrie above his head to be chosen as the tutelary genius of the unconquerable young republic. The chief distinction in the temperament of the sexes is that the men are frank and talkative, the women shy and uncommunicative. Beings approaching the legendary fauns and satyrs, clad in the skins of wild animals, are sometimes discovered by the solitary horseman in the wild mountain fastnesses; they gaze at him as an apparition from a strange world, never having seen a village or heard a railroad whistle.
There is a curious and persistent survival of the belief in witchcraft through this mineral-spring belt in West Virginia. To draw out the natives on this mysterious subject they must be approached sympathetically; if twitted with their credulity they will shut up like clams, for with all the simplicity of the unlettered their intuition often arrives at a correct understanding of the estimate placed upon them by more fortunate persons. When satisfied that he is not expected to pose as a "freak," but is met on the equal plane of human intercourse, the mountain story-teller seems to enjoy recounting the traditions and beliefs of his people and their forefathers. Leaving himself a loophole of escape, he is very likely to finish his yarn with—
"'Tain't that I believe them things myself. I know they ain't nawthin' but superstition; but I kin qualify that right round here, not many miles away, there's people that believes in witches."
In a little cottage on a much-traveled thoroughfare one woman admitted to me with bated breath, as though not quite sure her tormentor was dead, that she had been bewitched. Her account was given in these words:
"I kep' seein' an old woman with a cow's hoof in her hand; sometimes she was by my side an' sometimes she was there on the wall. At last she come up close to me, an' she was goin' to clap the cow's hoof over my mouth, but I slapped at her right hard an' she went away. She ain't never come again. Yes, I know I was bewitched."
A cow's hoof is a frequent accessory, and animals that are brought into the magic circle are always of a domestic character, completely subservient to the power of the witch.
It is noticeable that the exercise of witchcraft is generally ascribed to women; and that of witch mastery, the superior attribute, to men.
The form of a judicial process found favor with the Puritan temperament in old Salem, although by a grim mockery the verdict was decided in advance. The independent mountaineer likes to take the law in his own hands, as the following story illustrates:
"A farmer believed a woman was bewitching his stock. He drew a picture of her and set it up as a target; then he sunk a piece of silver in his bullet with an awl, that being the charm for shooting a witch. He aimed to shoot the picture through the heart, but fired a little too low. On that very day the woman herself fell flat on the ground, and a deep, awful hole was found in her side. From that minute she suffered extreme agony, and died in a week."
The narrator had heard this grewsome tale from his grandmother, who said that she had seen the hole.
One of the oldest inhabitants of Monroe County is responsible for the ensuing chronicle; he dates it in the "forties" of the present century:
"'Tain't so very long ago there was a woman livin' near the Sweet Springs who used to be always seen with a cap and bonnet on; nobody ever saw her without the cap. She was a hard, grim-lookin' monster. If anybody was watchin' to see her ontie her cap strings, somehow they never could see any more until the clean cap was on—now that's so, there ain't any mistake about that! When she come over here from Botetourt County the report followed her that she lived pretty close to a man whose chillun went to school, an' a calf had been in the habit of attackin' 'em an' bitin' em. The father concealed himself one day and was watchin' to catch the calf. On that occasion it come out an' attacked the chillun on a bridge across a little stream o' water. He ran and caught the calf and cut off his ears with a knife. They always believed that the old witch had turned herself into that calf, and so when she turned back into a woman she wore the cap to hide that she didn't have any ears. There was three sisters of 'em; it was reported they was all witches, possessed of some uncommon art. John and Harriet had two little pet pullets they thought a good deal of. The cap-woman wanted 'em; they just fluttered an' fluttered till they died. Her name was Nancy L——. Well, she wanted the carpenter to make her a piece of furniture out of an old dirty plank she had, an' he wouldn't do it. He said it was gritty and it would ruin his tools. Then she got mad and said, 'I'll make you suffer in the flesh for that!' One day soon after that he was at his hog pen feedin' the hogs, when suddenly he was struck down perfectly helpless, so he couldn't speak. He thought it was paralytic or rheumatism. In those days there was an old doctor in Staunton, Augusta County, who had a kind o' process to steam people and boil 'em in a big kettle, for rheumatism. He put sump'n fireproof, a paste or ointment, all over 'em, like the fireproof you put on buildings, an' boiled 'em an hour or two hours, as the case might be. The carpenter went to consult him, an' he put him in a kettle that was big enough for him either to stand or sit down in it; a collar was fitted tight round his neck so the hot water couldn't get into his face and eyes. The boilin' didn't seem to do him any good. When he got home he halted about for twelve months or more. First he felt a pain in his hip, and then he felt a pain by the side of his knee as if it was gradually workin' down; then one day there was sump'n jaggin' in the calf of his leg. He put his leg up on a bench and an old gentleman seen sump'n stickin' out. He took a pair of nippers an' ketched holt an' pulled out a big shirtin' needle. Hugh kept the needle as long as he lived, and he believed Nancy the old witch shot him with it. He halted on that leg the balance of his days. I've seen the needle; it's God's truth!"
A spice of profanity seems to have the virtue of embalming a witch story in the mountain memory. A rustic maiden who lives with her family on one of the loneliest hilltops in the Alleghanies, only to be reached on foot or horseback, makes this contribution to the folklore of the region:
"An old lady not far off had three daughters, and she was going to learn 'em to be witches. They had to sit on the hearth by the fire and take off their shoes and grease their heels so as to go up the chimney, and they were not allowed to speak. The mother was to go first and the girls were to follow. The old lady and the two foremost ones had all got up safe, but the last girl, when she was in a narrow place in the chimney, said, 'This is a d—d tight squeeze!' With that she fell back and was burned up."
The value of silence and self-control appears to be the only touch of morality in the witch logic. Manifestations of the black art frequently take place by or over running water. These characteristics are observed in another story from the same maid of the moimtain:
"Two witches were going to rob a store in the night, and they took a young man with them as a partner. They put the greased witch cap on his head so he could go through the keyhole. They all started out, and presently they came to a river. They saw some calves in a field, and caught three of 'em; they mounted the two that were heifers and the boy got on the steer calf. They charged him of all things not to speak on the journey. The witches jumped the river on their calves without makin' a sound, but just as he was jumping across he cried out, 'That was a d—d good jump for a steer calf!' Well, they all went on, and when they got to the store they passed through the keyhole one after another, the young man too. They took all the money they wanted, but when the time came to leave he couldn't get out of the keyhole, because he had spoken, and the spell was broken. He was found in the store the next morning, and had to take all the punishment."
It is interesting to note as an offset to all these diabolic attributes and potencies that a firm faith exists in a beneficent Power back of them which under given conditions will prevail over evil. "God is always stronger than the devil" is the mountain way of expressing this dependence, and there are charlatans who take advantage of it by going about as "witch masters." One of these died a few years ago, and another farther back, an Irishman named "Mosey," is quoted yet for his successes as "master of all the witches and all the devils."
When the cows had been eating mushrooms and their milk became too bitter to make good butter, Mosey was sent for at once to "cure the witchcraft" and "take off the spell." He took his regular beat through his part of the mountain country once in a while. An old man who oscillates between the "White" and the "Sweet," selling canes, remembers him well. He tells of one woman's experience who "filed a complaint" that her cow wouldn't give much milk, and that the milk wouldn't "gether" for butter.
"'Woman,' says Mosey, 'your cow's bewitched, and badly bewitched!'
"'Can you do anything for her. Mosey, and what will you charge?'
"'Yes, I can cure her if you'll pay me five dollars and give me five pounds of butter to take home with me to burn in the fire to cap the climax and burn out the spell.'
"Then he want through his enchantments over the cow, and took the money and the butter home with him. One day when he had been drinking a little I asked him if he really burned all that butter. 'Divil a grain of it did I burn; I ate it with my pertaties.' It was on that same trip when Mosey was curin' the cow that a man who lived near by sent for him. 'I feel mighty quare, Mosey,' says he, 'an' I can't describe exactly how I do feel!' 'You're bewitched, sir,' says he, 'and badly bewitched!' (he always used those words). 'Faith, an' I'll try and cure ye! Have ye got any blue yarn about the house?' The man's wife went to look for some, and she came back with a hank of blue yarn. Mosey wound off enough of it to make a cord about the size of his finger; they twisted it together, he pretending to put some enchantments on it, and then he told the sick man to fasten it round his waist next to his skin. 'Don't you lose it on peril of your life,' says he, 'or you're a dead man!' 'Peggy, get a needle and sew it on me!' he says to his wife, an' she done it. He gradually got well—may be he'd a got well anyway. I can't vouch for that."
When asked if such things were still happening, the cane-seller replied:
"Not three weeks ago a woman thought her cow was bewitched because her butter wouldn't gather, and she het an old horseshoe hot and dropped it in the churn of milk. When she churned again the butter on that occasion gathered, and it was the same milk that was in the churn to burn the witch. You can put that down for June, '93."
The Potts Creek neighborhood is said to be a center for the witch superstition. It is also a favorite place for "bush meetings," to which the natives come from a distance in their wagons with picnic dinners of salt-risen corn pone and sliced bacon, and there they listen approvingly to fervid exhortations that are based on orthodox Baptist and Methodist doctrines. The West Virginia mountaineer is profoundly religious in temperament, and considers that he has scriptural ground for a belief in witchcraft.