Witches on the Roof

Here’s a little story that appeared in newspapers in June, 1871.

Image by Tim Treadwell for Let's Walk In The Dark

Fitts Hill, Ill., June 22, 1871

About five miles southeast of this place resides one Mr. James Williams, who has two daughters, aged respectively about sixteen and eighteen years. For some time they have had strange symptoms, indicating insanity. Their father took them to Kentucky, hoping a change in surroundings would help them. For a time they seemed better, but after returning home the former symptoms soon returned. This state of things lasted till about ten days ago, when the entire community, miles around, was thrown into feverish excitement, and reports of witches, and their wonderful feats, filled the air whichever way one turned. The following are some of the rumors which wild excitement, with a wonderful amount of credulity, circulated with winged rapidity, many believing them. Every evening, just as twilight came on, these young ladies were attacked by witches, when, with wonderful agility, they would climb the house, or rather jump on top of it, run and dance over the roof, sing beautiful songs, lie on the comb of the roof, glide down on its edge and swing off, holding by their teeth to the eave, then suspending themselves in the air, throw themselves back again on the roof, pass over the gable end, and go through a small opening 10 by 12 inches into the garret, with as much case and rapidity as a squirrel, and then come down and commence hunting pins and flies to eat. They never failed to catch a fly, and could pick up pins anywhere on the floor or in the yard; the “house had been swept, and they surrounded by a circle to watch them, and they would pick up pins on the clean swept boards when no other persons could see one.

Some affirmed they had jumped from the back door of the residence on the top of the house on which they performed their feats, which stands about thirty feet distant, and then jump from this house on to a tree thirty yards off. These spells would come on as night came, and leave them with the return of day. During the day they would remain rational, and converse freely of their condition.

The following was reported, as their own version of the matter:

One evening shortly ago, just at twilight, the oldest saw a woman ( witches are always women) ride up to the gate on a beautiful gold and dapple gray horse, who invited her to go to meeting with her; she refused, when the woman put the tip of her forefinger on the tip of her (the girl’s) forefinger, and without an effort, placed her on the horse behind her, and rode off; finally they arrived at a house where were congregated a great many most beautifully dressed women. Taking her to a cell entered by a hatch way, the woman opened it, and told her to go in, then give her soul to the Devil, and she would become a witch, and be able to do any thing she wished in this word; this she refused to do, when instantly she found herself seated on a pole in her father’s barn. Since then every evening the witch comes and torments her for refusing to be a witch. She says she can see the woman who does it, and knows her, but whenever she attempts to tell who she is, the chokes her and throws her into spasms.

Image by Tim Treadwell for Let's Walk In The Dark.

Such is said, by those who talked with her, to be her story. Hundreds go every night to see the sight; and, not being afraid of witches for I do not believe there was ever such a thing in the world, or out of it I concluded I would go and see for myself what foundation there was for the reports. So on Saturday night I rode down to witness the scene. On the way I was asked what I thought of witches; if I believed in witches? How witches were made, and who made them? If I thought it was the witch of Endor, etc. To which I replied, I don’t think of witches: I don’t believe in witches; don’t think they were made at all; don’t know any thing about the witch of Endor; have not found her name in my Bible where Samuel was raised from the dead, etc., and thus rode bravely in till we came, just at twilight, in sight of the house, and there they were, right on the top of the house, standing, side by side, singing, waving their arms, and turning round and round. I never had, I aver I never had, never have and never will believe in witches, and I was determined to be courageous; but as their beautiful voices rolled out from the house-top on the still twilight, plaintive, mournful, sweet, their arms waving, bodies turned in this way and that, looking in their light dresses more like fairies, ghosts, or any unearthly apparition than human beings, wave after wave of chill came up my back, and I felt light almost as air. While I did not believe in witches, it seemed the only suitable place I had ever seen for them; and if such things could be, they surely would be there, and then, right then we hitched our horses, and I told mine not to let the witches ride him, as I must ride him home that night, and, examining his mane to be sure that there were no stirrups in it, we walked to the crowd, who stood gathered around the house on which were the young ladies. Distance lends enchantment to the view, especially of an evening when ghosts and witches are supposed to be about. On nearing the house, I could see nothing remarkable in two persons walking and singing on the top of the house, and so expressed myself; but there was the window, they told me, and if I would wait I would be convinced when they had gone in at that. I told them, though not very small myself, I was confident I could go through it, for saying which I got laughed at. Soon, however, one of them came down to the corner of the house, not over from the comb of the roof, as had been reported, and climbing along the cracks (a log house) till she was directly under the window, and reaching up, took hold of the bottom casing, and easily pressed in. Soon after, Mr. F. M. Martin, a large man, whom you often see in Duquoin, climbed up and passed his head and shoulders through, which effectually spoiled their feat. When they came down, the crowd formed a circle round them to prevent them running off. The circle was large, as there were not less than two hundred people present to witness the performance, for such, by this time, it had got to be. “Now came the most distressing sight I ever witnessed. Two young ladies, rendered wholly unconscious of what they were doing by some unknown cause, running about hunting pins and flies to eat. A coal oil lamp being held to give light caused a pin to shine and be more readily picked up than in daylight.

It is hard to believe, but there were villians there who threw pins on the ground to see those poor senseless creatures pick them up and try to eat them. After running around, and across the ring some time, stopping often to pick up a pin, when one of their friends would spring in and catch their hands to wrest it from them, which would be followed by a severe struggle, she struggling to get the pin in her mouth, and often succeeding in swallowing it. After this had lasted some time, they fell with something like a spasm, when they were carried in the house and laid on a bed. They had very slight convulsions, and seemed to have fallen more from exhaustion than any other cause. After nearly half an hour they came out of these spells and commenced eating flies.

There is no mistake about this. I actually saw them with wonderful expertness catch flies off the wall and eat them in spite of the watchfulness of their friends, and then vomit them up. It was horrible to look at, yet there were fiends there laughing at it. During these spells they would go to a French harp which they own, and are very fond of, and play and sing catches of wild music. After witnessing these scenes till ten or eleven o’clock, I sought an interview with their parents, tried to prevail upon them to send the people home and get their daughters quiet. They firmly believed they were bewitched and wanted the people to witness, it. I plead with them and told them it was impossible, there were no witches, that excitement would kill them, and urged them for the love of their interesting daughters to put a stop to it. I told them that reason was dethroned, that disease had hold of their minds, that some villainous quack doctor had perhaps given them a fatal dose, and to send for the best medical advice they could get, and mentioned several physicians whom I could recommend, but all to no purpose. I then went home feeling sad and disgusted. Yesterday afternoon, L. Ross, Esq., Mr. W. H. McCann, and myself rode down to see them in their lucid moments, and converse with them. They seemed sad, and looked as if they were just convalescing from a long spell of sickness. They walk about the house, and converse intelligently during the day. Mr. Williams now says he is satisfied they are not bewitched, but that some villain has drugged them. At several times he has found papers of medicine in their hands during the night, slipped there by some one. When in their crazy spells they will eat anything they can get, and of this advantage has been taken to keep up the drugging. If this be so, doubtless the same fiend who gives the drug scatters the pins for them in the night. However this may be, there is something very strange about it. They do swallow the pins and flies, I saw it with my own eyes, and saw them vomit them up. They are crazy at night, and sensible in the day. Yesterday they sang and played for us, and tried to entertain us, but, oh! how sad! Some of our physicians ought, in the interest of humanity and the science of their profession, come out and witness these cases.

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