Saturday, March 26, 2011

Katie Coburn, the witch of Talbot County, Maryland

I came across a story recently regarding an alleged witch in Talbot County, Maryland. I can find no mention of any court cases involving her or any information about when she allegedly lived. The only information is that she lived in the area of Plain Dealing Creek, so-called because the area was settled by Quakers who dealt plainly with the Indians of the area (as opposed to the Catholics, Anglicans, and everyone else who had no qualms about ripping them off). I did drive to the area and found that the creek is now surrounded by private homes and there did not appear to be a suitable place to get out and search around. There was an old church nearby, but it was in disrepair and appeared to be part of a private residence. If any locals would like to provide me with additional information or point me in a better direction I would appreciate it.

The main source for the story appears to be a book published in 1898, Land of Legendary Lore: sketches of romance and reality on the eastern shore of the Chesapeake, by Prentiss Ingraham.

According to Ingraham:
It was the ideal spot for spooks to haunt, while to enhance the dismalness of the old abode, it became the dwelling place of an old woman known as "Katie Coburn, the Witch." This "witch," the last of her kind known in Talbot, was old, deformed, hideous, and was guilty of diabolical ways and impish incantations to make herself feared. That she was dreaded by all, especially the children and negroes, there was no doubt, for the former were kept out of mischief by being threatened with her, and the latter felt that the sight of her was a hoodoo upon them. The negroes accordingly gave Witch Katie a very wide margin of room when they met her, and wore charms to counteract her spells, the "left hind foot of a rabbit, killed at the dark of the moou," doubtless being in great demand after a meeting with the "Witch of Plaindealing."

Not far from Plaindealing there lived a farmer whose cows pastured near the old burying-ground. One afternoon the boy whose duty it was to drive the cows home had to go near the lonely spot, and beheld to his amazement a stranger there ;—a man tall, stately, in the ancient garb like that worn by those whose portraits were in the deserted mansion. The man spoke to the boy, but the latter tied for home, told his story, and it was not believed. Again he saw the same man, and again, until at last he spoke to him, and for response saw him walk to a certain spot in the burying-ground and point downward, at the same time stamping his foot. This same performance was gone through with several evenings after, between the boy and the silent spectre in quaint old time costume.

On one occasion the spectre led the boy, now no longer afraid of him, into the old home and pointed to a portrait on the wall. The boy saw that the "ghost" was strangely like the portrait, dress and all. Then he was led back to the grave yard and the spectre pointed downward and stamped his foot, as before. As it was growing dark, and the cows had gone on ahead, the boy suddenly decided to go home, and he lost no time in doing so, his parents again laughing at his story. But then came the rumor that "Witch Katie" had not only disappeared from Plaindealing, but also from the country. The boy had not seen her since the coming of the quaint man of the grave-yard.

A similar version of the story is told in an 1876 edition of McBride's Magazine.
According to McBride's:

It [Plain Dealing] was the very place for a first-class ghost story, and its fitness was heightened by the residence on the premises of Katie Coburn, the last witch of Talbot. This poor old creature, lonely, deformed, repulsively ugly and wretchedly poor, was a terror to negroes and children far and near, who had marvelous tales of her impish ways and diabolical cantrips.
It seems reasonable to think that at least part of the legend is true. A deformed woman may have lived in the area and some, especially the young and uneducated, may have believed that she was a witch. Whether or not she actually was or really wanted others to think that is anyone's guess. But as I argued in Justice At Salem: Reexamining The Witch Trials, there could be certain advantages to having other people think that you were a witch. Others might think twice about harming or taking advantage of you because they fear your supernatural ability to seek revenge. For a poor defenseless woman who no power in her society, this could have been her only means of self-defense against the the unthinking rabble.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Alleged witch's grave in Annapolis, MD

According to a local legend a witch once lived in what is now Truxton Park in Annapolis and/or was hanged in the area.
The legend also says she she is buried there.
This, of course, is widely believed to be untrue. The grave likely belongs to a Methodist, which might make the story close enough.

There does appear to be a small graveyard just on the outskirts of Truxton Park where one crypt appears to have survived. I had to do a little searching around to find it as all the sources on the internet only give vague directions.  In case you want to visit it, here is the location on GPS is 38 57 44.03 n, 76 30 07.50 W.

Here are some pictures I took of the alleged witch's grave:

I did not do any digging around the site to find out more because I didn't have a shovel and that would be illegal.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

More Maryland witch traditions

My previous post involved witch lore on Maryland's eastern shore.
Looking at Studies in philology by University of North Carolina (1793-1962) I came across some more information on witchcraft in Maryland.

According to this author, to keep out witches, "In many sections, including the highlands of the South, a broom laid across the doorway is sufficient protection,2" the true explanation of its value being that offered in Maryland: the witch cannot enter until she has counted all the straws of which the broom is made."

The main fear relates to sleep paralysis. "Human beings are, of course, often "ridden" by witches, and it is recorded that a girl in one of the mountain districts of the South was 'pressed to death' by a witch who came night after night in the form of a black cat and sat on her chest."

Witches could also enter and leave a house through a keyhole. "A miller in Frederick County, Maryland, who was troubled with nightmare, decided that his nocturnal visitor was a witch and accordingly one night stopped the keyhole of his room." Strangely, not only did the nightmares end, but the next day he "found a beautiful girl cowering in the cupboard." He forced her to become his servant and then eventually married her. However, when the man eventually unstopped the keyhole, she escaped. It is hard to imagine that this actually happened, but may have been inspired by a true story. If he believed that taking this action would prevent future nightmares it is possible that it did. Perhaps shortly thereafter, after getting a good night's sleep, he met a young woman who he later had a nasty break-up with. I don't know, but that is my theory.

There are stories from western Maryland that involve witches killing cattle. The author wrote "Among the white population of the Alleghany Mountains witches kill cattle by shooting them with balls of hair,174 and in western Maryland 'witches' bullets' of pith or hair are often found in the bodies of dead animals." I wonder if this could be produced by cats or other animals eating some of the dead cattle and coughing up hairballs? Either that, or there really are witches out there killing cattle by this strange method.

Killing or harming witches appear to be the same on both sides of the Chesapeake Bay. The author notes that "[i]n western Maryland shooting the hag's picture with a bullet made from a silver coin is an effective means of retaliation."

If you are not wealthy enough to have silver, a cheaper method will provide you with some protection. "In western Maryland a witch is rendered powerless if salt is sprinkled under her chair . . . ." Apparently the Devil doesn't like salt.

Dorchester County, MD - witchcraft

I ran across this passage from History of Dorchester County, Maryland by Elias Jones.
The book was published in 1902.

Dorchester County  is located on Maryland's Eastern Shore. I am not aware of any witch trial originating out of the county, but would be happy to be corrected if wrong. It is of interest that the author advises the use of witchcraft to kill a witch. Of course, the author may not have been completely serious.

A broomstick laid across the doorway will prevent a witch from entering the house.

If a witch sits down in a chair in which is sticking or is afterwards stuck a fork, she cannot rise as long as the fork stays there. An example of this was tested at the "Dr. Johnson" place in "Lakes" with old "Suf," who was said to be a witch.

A witch can take a horse from a locked stable and ride it all night; the evidence of this being the foaming sweat on the horse and the witchknots tied in its tail and mane, often seen the next morning.

A witch can turn people into horses and ride on them. One man in Dorchester County died from the effects of such a trip, the clay being found under his finger and toe nails. He had refused to let the witch have his horse to ride, so she rode the owner instead.

If a witch is about to turn a sleeping person into a horse and the sleeper awakes in time, seizes the witch and holds her without speaking until daybreak, she will assume her proper form.

A witch can also turn herself into any animal she pleases for hunter's dogs often trail and tree witches at night that take the form of some animal to avoid detection.

To kill a witch, draw a picture of her and shoot at it with pieces of silver instead of lead, bullets or shot; just where the picture is shot the witch will be wounded; if in vital parts of the body, she will die from the effects.