Around Halloween time it is not to see images of alluring females bedecked in black and looking slinky and seductive in a witch’s costume. That is one modern stereotype; the other is of the ugly cock-eyed old crone with crooked nose and hairy mole leering out with a toothless smile. Yet another trope is those neo-pagans who enjoy getting nekkid, then dancing widdershins ‘round campfires and having mostly harmless devilry on selected nights of the year. The truth is that no of these stereotypes are true, at least not of real witches—and make no mistake real witches have existed and for aught I know still do—in the mountains of Tennessee. Of course I have gone into this in much greater depth in Strange Tales of the Dark and Bloody Ground, so for more about all this, you can learn about it there.
Of course the curious thing has always been that there were far many folk who would own up to being witch-hunters (also called ‘witch-doctors”) than those who would actually own up to being a genuine witch. And as I noted before, if they proudly proclaim themselves a witch, the likelihood is they are not. Still, it was not so long ago in East Tennessee that folks knew very well who in their community was and was not a witch. And for the most part they were not ugly nor sexy nor any kind of neo-pagan; but they were feared and avoided—and most, most wicked.
Before the creation of Smoky Mountain National Forest, the multi-county region it covered was home to several mountain communities, now no more. While the area back in the 1930’s was not quite so backward as Yankee journalists who never ever visited there might have proclaimed in their florid prose, but even by the backwards standards of the early twentieth century South, the folk up there were land rich, but dirt poor. Of course, if you raised your own crops and herds of livestock, there was always food on the table; but as far as modern luxuries went, such as indoor plumbing or electricity, well, that was something city folks enjoyed, not mountain folk.
Up around what is not national forest once lived a lady that was later known as “Witch McGaha.” It was not her Christian name, but then she was not the church going type anyhow. One thing that set folk wise to her was that she was continually trying to borrow things. It was not as though she needed anything; but if a witch can borrow three things from you, then sure as spit she can put you under her spell. Conversely, Witch McGaha would never, never lend anybody anything, not even to members of her own family. Many tales are told about her and her powers, but one will suffice for now
One time her sister, Nance, wanted some nice juicy apples from her sister’s orchard; but Witch McGaha would have none of it. Not one apple would she loan or give. Nance even got her mother to talk to her older sister to loan her some apples until her orchard came into its own, all to no avail. So Nance, too willful for her own good, snuck onto her sister’s orchard and started plucking them off the trees and putting them into a large tote sack. She bit into one and it was red, ripe and oh so juicy, just bursting with sweetness.
When she had picked her full, Nance started off for home, thinking her sister would be none the wiser. Suddenly she felt a small tug on the helm of her dress; then another and another. A pack of bushy tailed grey squirrels had formed a ring around her and were giving her angry looks as the insistently tugged on her dress. She began to walk faster, but even more squirrels appeared. She broke into a run and dropped the sack but the growing horde of squirrels would not stop. Now they were scratching and biting and clawing at every part of Nance’s body and no matter how fast she ran they all held on and kept attacking her. By the time she reached the threshold of her house she was all bloody and her dress in shreds. Before she could cross the threshold and the safety of home, Nance McGaha keeled over, dead.
A common feature of Appalachian life was the local Wise Woman, a person who had knowledge of herbs but also knew how to conjur spells. In nineteenth century North Carolina, one such Wise Woman was especially famous, called “Mammy Wise” (actually her name was Weiss) and while not particularly wicked, she was a particularly talented Wise Woman. She claimed to have “spelt” the Civil War (she always regretted that); but she could also divine who a thief was in the community and was the first person to resort to when it came to cooking up a love potion. Mammy Wise was respected and honored on that side of the mountains, but no one with any sense ever tried to get on her bad side, for they knew what she could do.
There were—are—other Wise Women in the high mountains, although these days they are far more discreet. Although society may be more tolerant these days of folk who claim to be witches, those with real power are wise enough to say little and mind their own business—especially when their business is the Dark Arts. For more about Appalachian Witches and their haunts, see Strange Tales of the Dark and Bloody Ground and Ghosts and Haunts of Tennessee.