Phoebe Ward, the Witch of Northampton Co., NC

In her youth Phoebe Ward had been called a “Wise Woman”. She knew a lot about plants and herbs and could read nature’s signs to know when it was time to plant and harvest. She’d been called on by the folks of Northampton County, NC and neighboring counties to deliver babies, heal all kinds of hurts, fix the cows when they wouldn’t give milk and the chickens when they wouldn’t lay eggs and call the rain during a drought. But she never got married or had a family because the fact was that she wasn’t particularly attractive, and she was a tad tempermental.

She had a suitor at one point when she was about 45 years old but that relationship didn’t pan out. Folks noticed the couple arguing fairly frequent, and then one day they both just disappeared. That in itself wasn’t particularly remarkable for it was the early days of white settlement in North Carolina, even before the Revolution, and people often moved in, stayed a bit and then headed off farther West. Someone might have remarked that they hadn’t seen her for a goodly piece but she was largely forgotten, though every once in a while some of the hunters mentioned that there was a wild woman living out in the swamps by herself.

Eventually, about 10 years later, this woman came to town. No one much remembered “Wise Woman Phoebe” and in fact most of the young’uns called her the “crazy ol’ swamp witch” and started telling stories about her. Were they true?  A few of the older folks seemed to recall some of her previous feats, like cursing the cows and chickens, and causing a flood, but Phoebe didn’t offer much information. Her past was as murky as Brunswick stew. And her moral compass? Well, it seemed to be spinnin’ like a leaf in a tornado.

Looking older than the cypresses, Phoebe drifted about without a fixed address, crashing in huts, barns, and any spot that offered shelter, much to the dismay of those who had the misfortune of hosting her. You see, Phoebe had an uncanny knack for stretching people’s kindness thinner than a broom straw. To make a living, she adopted the charming profession of professional beggar, and she had the villagers wrapped around her bony finger. They were so petrified of her supposed witchy powers that they’d sooner give away the farm than risk a hex.

But the stories kept growing. People started complaining about lapses of memory and finding themselves in mid-sentence not knowing what they were talking about when she was nearby. Or waking up somewhere they didn’t remember going to. They claimed she could grease herself up, slip out of her skin, and embark on supernatural nocturnal rambles. Or, slip through a key-hole to ride folks at night, like a horse-sized nightmare, and steal their vitality, so they’d wake up exhausted and gradually sicken.

It got so when Phoebe strolled into town, you could cut the tension with a dull butter knife. The neighbors devised some rather clever methods to fend her off. They’d booby-trap chairs with iron pins, hoping to catch her spellbound posterior, but Phoebe, chair connoisseur that she was, always sensed a prickly situation. And then there was the famous red pepper trick. Folks had heard that you could sprinkle red pepper around for protection from malevolent spirits. That one seemed to work pretty well too. Just the slightest whiff, and Phoebe was out of there faster than a cat with a jar tied to its’ tail. It was like she could sniff out trouble—or seasoning—from miles away. The villagers resorted to nailing horse-shoes with the toe up over stable doors, hoping to ward her off. To prevent her from riding folks at night, they hung sieves over their doors, forcing Phoebe, the witch, to weave through all the meshes like a tipsy spider before she could enter, and by the time she could get through, it would be day, and she would be caught. She never got caught though.

Phoebe’s legendary skills weren’t limited to beguiling humans. She was said to be able to turn horses into midnight equestrian acrobats and make the horse jump across a river as if it were a ditch. If you woke up in the morning and your horse was sweaty and lathered up with its’ mane all tangled, it was a pretty sure bet that Phoebe had been by for a midnight ride.

One particular episode involved a large bull, one of the tributaries of the Roanoke river, and Phoebe’s questionable coaching skills. Phoebe, in her finest incantation-ing tone, exclaimed to the bull she was riding, “Rise in the air! Float like smoke! Take me across the Roanoke!” As she and the bull flew across the river, in her excitement she exclaimed, “YeeHa, Here we Go!” or something to that effect, forgetting that talking would break her concentration and cause the spell to fail.  The bull, not amused, made an awkward entry into the river, as the Laws of Physics, which at that time were not generally well-known, nevertheless proved their validity.

The locals never actually caught Phoebe in the act of witching though the plentitude of stories certainly fed upon themselves to bring about a certainty that she was indeed a witch. One night some of the neighborhood men were gathered in the barn sampling the latest run of Brandy, and as the liquor flowed their spirits rose, and they were on the lookout for some fun. One mentioned that he knew where the old swamp witch was staying in an old cabin nearby and they determined to pay her a visit. They found her so sound asleep that they thought she was dead. So, not thinking that needed to be any reason to stop their party, they shrouded her, and proceeded to hold the wake. They were soon back at their demijohns, and while they were milling about drinking, over in the corner Phoebe started to rise up, still covered in her shroud and in a cracked, weak voice said, “Give me a little Brandy. It’s mighty cold in here.”

They all lit out of there faster than a rabbit flushed by the hounds– all except for Ol’ Zeke, who was too drunk to move. When things became quiet and Phoebe repeated her request, Zeke said, “Hush, you damn’d bitch, I’m goin’ to bury you in the mornin”.

The others were afraid to return that night, but come morning they crept back, only to find Phoebe and Ol’ Ezekiel sitting by the fire, cozy as a pair of toads in a puddle, sipping brandy like it was morning tea.

And so, Phoebe lived on, beguiling and bewildering the good people of Northampton County and left behind a legacy as mysterious as her haphazard witchy ways.


This story is based on an account, furnished by Mr. G. T. Stephenson, formerly of Pendleton, North Carolina, that was printed in the Journal of American Folk-Lore, XXII (1909), 252 f. Liberties were taken in creating this version. It isn’t known if Phoebe Ward was an actual person, but this account is fictional.

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