Those of us who are familiar with the Salem witch trials of 1692-93, or Arthur Miller’s 1953 play The Crucible, which dramatized the fearful events of the period, might reasonably assume that witchcraft was a phenomenon restricted to Puritan New England. After all, no other witchy episode in American history has resonated quite like the Salem trials, which continue to be taught widely in schools, reinterpreted in popular culture, and invoked in partisan political battles.
The Salem trials were well-documented, and in the testimony of the accusers and the accused we can find many aspects of witchcraft that seem familiar. For example, Tituba, a woman said to be of Caribbean descent enslaved by the Reverend Samuel Parris, confessed to signing her name in a devilish book. Under threat, she also confessed to flying upon a pole to attend nocturnal meetings of witches, and seeing visions of spectral animals–demonic “familiars,” or other witches in animal form. Some of the accusers claimed that the familiars caused them physical suffering, an example of maleficium, or harm done with power derived from evil spirits.
Bridget Bishop, the first woman to be hanged for witchcraft as a result of the Salem trials, was accused of causing harm with “poppets,” or small rag dolls stuck with pins. A similar phenomenon, though much less known, comes not from colonial Massachusetts, but nineteenth-century Appalachian mountain lore: the “witch-ball.”
According to New-York Historical Society accession records from 1934, the donor of these glass spheres called them “witch balls,” and claimed they were hung in windows “to keep evil spirits away.” However, in 1914 the Kentucky-born folklorist Josiah H. Combs (1886-1960) wrote about a much different, and far more sinister tradition surrounding witch-balls. According to Combs, a witch-ball was a bit like a supernatural bullet made out of rolled-up hair. “The picture of the victim is crudely scrawled upon a tree or something else, by a witch who wishes to use the black arts,” who then throws or shoots a witch-ball at the picture. “In whatever part the ball hits the picture, in the corresponding part of the victim a wound is inflicted.” (Combs cited the case of a murder victim found, disgustingly, with a witch-ball in his mouth.)
Both Grace Partridge Smith (1869-1959), who studied southern Illinois, and Tom Peete Cross (1879-1951), a folklorist from Virginia, stated that witch-balls were also used to injure livestock, but the hair-balls found in the stomachs of cattle were considered a powerful antidote against witchcraft. Confusingly, these protective charms were sometimes also referred to as witch-balls, although the formal term for such a mass is trichobezoar, which may strike a chord with Harry Potter fans.
Somehow, in the nineteenth century, these gruesome hairy projectiles came to share a name with pretty globes of blown glass, often used as covers or stoppers, as in this example from the Corning Museum of Glass. One wonders how much the manufacturers and collectors who sought out such decorative objects knew about the other kind of witch-balls.
– Jeanne Gutierrez, Center for Women’s History
Top Photo Credits: Detail of Thomas Satterwhite Noble.Witch Hill (The Salem Martyr), 1869. Oil on canvas. Gift of the children of Thomas S. Noble and Mary C. Noble, in their memory. New-York Historical Society.