Halloween Hauntings, Part 11 Witches of Appalachia, Wicked, Wise and Otherwise

Halloween Hauntings, Part 11:

Witches of Appalachia

A modern take on the traditional witch has her bewitching readers in an entirely different manner
A modern take on the witch has her bewitching men in an entirely different manner
The late great Margaret Hamilton as the Wicked Witch of the West from an MGM publicity still ca.1939
The late great Margaret Hamilton as the Wicked Witch of the West from an MGM publicity still ca.1939

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Around about Halloween it is not unusual to see images of alluring females all bedecked in black, slinky and seductive apparitions in witch’s costumes.  That is one modern stereotype; the other, older one, is of an ugly, cock-eyed old crone with crooked nose and hairy mole leering out with a toothless smile.  

The truth is that neither of these stereotypes is 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. I go into this in much greater depth in Strange Tales of the Dark and Bloody Ground, and Ghosts and Haunts of Tennessee, so for more on this and similar phenoms, go there if you dare.

popular modern iconography of the witch and her familiars, the owl and the pussycat.
popular modern iconography of the witch and her familiars, the owl and the pussycat.

Of course, the curious thing has always been that there were always far more folk who would own up to being witch-hunters (or ‘witch-doctors”) than those who would actually own up to being a witch. And especially today, if we are talking about beings with genuine supernatural powers, if they proudly proclaim themselves a witch in public, the likelihood is that 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 neither ugly nor sexy, nor any kind of neo-pagan. But what they all had in common was that they were feared and avoided—unless you needed them for something.

Before the creation of Smoky Mountain National Forest, that multi-county region it covered was home to several mountain communities that now are no more. The area back in the 1930’s was not quite so backward as Yankee journalists of the day might have proclaimed, but even by the standards of early twentieth century South, folk up there were land rich but dirt poor.

Of course, if you raised your own crops and had herds of livestock, and had a gun and a fishing rod, there was always food on the table and no one starved.  As far as modern amenities went, such as indoor plumbing or electricity, well, that was something city folks had, not mountain folk.

Up around that part of the Smokies once lived a lady later known as “Witch McGaha.”  It was not her Christian name, of course; but then she was not the church-going type anyhow.  One thing that set folk wise to Witch McGaha was that she was continually trying to borrow things from neighbors.

It was not as though she needed anything; but, you see, 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 fall, her own blood kin, sister Nance McGaha, 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 own orchard came into its own, all to no avail.

Nance, too willful for her own good, snuck onto her sister’s orchard and started plucking the shiny red fruit off’n the trees and putting them into a large tote sack.

Not able to wait till she got home, she bit into one. It was red, and ripe and oh so juicy, just bursting with the sweetness of Autumn in the mountains.

Vintage photo of members of a British tea party. Poison apples were served after tea.
Vintage photo of members of a British tea party. Poison apples were served after tea.

When she had picked her full, Nance started off for home, thinking her sister would be none the wiser. She was dead wrong.

As she walked along the mountain trail, Nance felt a small tug on the hem of her dress; then another and another. What was that tugging?

She looked down. Nance found 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.

Nance began to walk faster, but as she did even more squirrels appeared. They were all angry and intent on stopping her progress.

Soon she broke into a run, dropping the sack now in her haste to escape, but the growing horde of squirrels were keeping pace and would not let up their assault.

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 Nance reached the threshold of her house she was all bloody and her dress in tatters.  Before she could cross the threshold of home where a broom was lain across it to ward off evil, Nance McGaha keeled over, dead.

A common feature of traditional Appalachian life has always been the local Wise Woman, a person who had knowledge of herbs, potions and poultices, who also knew how to conjur spells. Their craft was in part derived from Ireland and Scotland, where Wise Women were a common occurrence; partly they also learned from the local tribes’ medicine women about healing remedies and about the local spirits that might be of benefit; and perhaps too, they picked up knowledge of spells and herb magic from those few Negro practitioners of Hoodoo that dwelt in the mountain regions.

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); she could also divine out who a thief was in the community and was Mammy Wise was the first person one resorted to when it came to cooking up a love potion.

Mammy Wise was respected and honored on that side of the mountains. Still, no one with any sense ever tried to get on her bad side, for they knew what she could do if her ire was raised.

Woodcut of a British witch ca. 1643. Any woman with herbal knowledge or healing skills could be accused of witchery. The real ones likely went unnoticed, practicing their craft in secret.
Woodcut of a British witch ca. 1643. Any woman with herbal knowledge or healing skills could be accused of witchery. Few accused were guilty, for the real ones  practiced their craft in secret.

There were—are—other Wise Women in the high mountains, although these days they are far more discreet. Society may be more tolerant these days of folk who claim to be witches, but those with real power are wise enough to say little and mind their business—especially when their business is the Dark Art.

For more about Appalachian Witches and their haunts, see Strange Tales of the Dark and Bloody Ground and Ghosts and Haunts of Tennessee.

Strange Tales of the Dark and Bloody Ground: True Tales from the Haunted Hills of the Mid South
Strange Tales of the Dark and Bloody Ground: True Tales from the Haunted Hills of the Mid South
This latest offering of all things spooky in the South covers the favorite haunts of downtown Nashville and other Country spooks.
Ghosts and Haunts of Tennessee covers not only mountain witches but the haints of downtown Nashville and West Tennessee spookiness.

 

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The Thirteen Halloween Hauntings, Part 1

 

Black Cats are Lucky
In Wales black cats are considered good luck

The Thirteen Days of Halloween, Part I

In honor of that spookiest day of the year—October 31—I am penning thirteen blogs daily, now through fright night.

Why thirteen?  Well, we have the twelve days of Christmas—or at least we used to.  Yuletide should run from December 25 through January 6 by rights, although lately it seems folks want to get the holiday season over with early on December 26.  I am among that obstinate minority who prefer to enjoy Yuletide for as long as possible–and that means quaffing flagons of Yuletide Cheer from big Christmas to Little Christmas. Moreover, in Wales, not only are black cats considered lucky, so is the number 13. Ultimately, for no particular reason other than it sounds good, I chose thirteen for Halloween.

DRAGON WITH A FLAGON BY OMAR RAYYAL C 2016
The Dragon with the flagon holds the brew that is true. Happy Halloween!

Black Cats and Thirteen anything–what could be more Halloweenish? Of course, the Welsh being Celts, they have a strong contrary streak and so whatever superstition their English neighbors adhere to, one can almost guarantee the Welsh will tend to believe just the opposite. My black cat, Enoch, was certainly lucky: he got to sleep all day, ate when he wanted, and pretty much did as he pleased (which was not much). And if cats normally have nine lives, Enoch was blessed with at least double that amount.

Speaking of superstitions, one Southern superstition that Yankees north of the Mason-Dixon Line may not have heard of is enshrined in the expression “jumping the broom.”  Among folks in Dixie, to “jump the broom” is another way to say getting married.  It comes from the belief that if newlyweds place a broom across the threshold to their new home, witches can’t follow them in and put a hex on the marriage. Although in Appalachia they don’t call it hex, they call it “spelt.”

In the old days, couples literally did put a broom across the entrance to their cabin on wedding day and then physically jumped across it.  Brides and grooms who jumped the broom were believed to enjoy a more harmonious and fruitful marriage, and to judge by the number of children they had in the old days, this seems to have been true.

The Mid-South abounds in uncanny and unexplained phenomena, from professors who suddenly burst into flame, to sightings of strange craft over the Tennessee Valley in the days when no such craft existed, to the numerous “Spook Lights” found in almost every state of Dixie. This is in addition to the many ante-bellum manse’s that each is a Gothic horror show in itself. Of course, what would Appalachia be without it’s “Wise Women” and whether you regard them as a bane or a boon, you best not get on their bad side in any case.

For more about Tennessee witches and witchcraft–and how avoid being spelt or to counter their curse if you are–see my original accounts in Strange Tales of the Dark and Bloody Ground and Ghosts and Haunts of Tennessee. And while you’re at it, also check out Dixie Spirits a sampler of all things uncanny in the Southland.

Halloween marks the beginning of the season when all life dies away–to the eye–not to be truly revived until its sister holiday, April 30. The ancient Celts called the two festivals Semaine and Beltaine and the period in between was a time when one gathered round the hearth and told tales to enchant young and old. Beltaine is also known as the Witches’ Sabbath when, like Halloween, all manor of spirits, uncanny creatures and other fey folk are abroad in the dark. On Halloween we have the additional bane of evil beings such as politicians roaming the land seeking votes.

Fear not, however, we shall limit our discussion only to the supernatural and similar things and while we won’t limit these thirteen entries just to the South, there are more than man can ken in the region to venture farther afield in search of the uncanny. So curl up with your favorite flagon–or favorite dragon–stoke the hearth (even if it’s just a video loop on Roku) and enjoy stories to curl your toes and give you goosebumps!

If you want to know more of things that go bump in the night, you can do no better than curl up with a copy or three of Strange Tales of the Dark and Bloody Ground, Ghosts and Haunts of Tennessee or Dixie Spirits–after which this blog is named.

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Strange Tales of the Dark and Bloody Ground: True Tales from the Haunted Hills and Valleys of Mid South
GHOSTS AND HAUNTS OF TENNESSEE
Ghosts and Haunts of Tennessee. True tales of the Volunteer State, from the Hag Infested Hollows of East Tennessee to the Paranormal Madness of Memphis with a few side trips to the Haunted Honkey-Tonks of Nashville.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dixie Spirits via Sourcebooks
Dixie Spirits: true tales of the Strange and Supernatural south of the Mason-Dixon Line.