As a Traditional Witch I am obsessed with history and folklore. It’s from these sources that many Traditional Witches pull inspiration for their own modern practices. Legends and tales of Witchcraft and Magic, whether fact or fiction, are powerful places that can enlighten and inform us. As it stands, many of the popular lore comes from the British Isles. England, Scotland, Ireland, and Wales are wonderfully stocked with enchanting stories. In comparison, America tends to be overlooked as a source of Witchlore. Yet, while perhaps not as widely told, there are amazing bits of history and folklore regarding Witchcraft in America. And so, I would like to present you with three of my all-time favorite stories from American Witchlore.
The Cora Tree:
It was on a dark and stormy night, during the 16th century, when a mysterious woman named Cora and her baby showed up in the town known today was Frisco, North Carolina. Cora and her baby moved into a small dilapidated hut in the forest, away from the rest of the community. As a stranger, the townsfolk were immediately wary of Cora and they quickly began to notice odd coincidences. Whenever misfortune struck, crops dying or fisherman failing to catch anything, Cora always seemed to be close by. It didn’t take long at all for them to conclude that Cora was a Witch.
At the same time that the town was growing to fear Cora, a man named Captain Eli Blood became stranded near the town while he was sailing along the coast from Salem. His ship had become stuck and while he waited for it to be freed, he came ashore. While in town, he was told the stories about Cora and her Witchcraft. Blood was riveted by the tales and decided that he would get to the bottom of the matter. His timing was impeccable as soon thereafter a body of a man washed up on the shore. It was said that his face was frozen in horror and the numbers 666 were burned into his forehead. To make matters worse, there were footprints in the wet sand that led towards the very forest where Cora lived.
A mob was established and they stormed Cora’s hut and drug her back to the beach. They performed three tests to confer that Cora was indeed a Witch. First, they tied her up and threw her in the water but she would not sink. Next, they tried cutting her hair but it was as thick as wire and wouldn’t relent. Finally, the mob pricked their fingers and dripped blood into a bowl of water which the Captain stirred until it frothed. He gazed into the bowl and apparently witnessed a sign that proved Cora’s guilt. They aptly tied her to a tree and built up the kindling for a fire.
Blood was ready to light the fire when the baby in Cora’s arms began to shriek and contort. The mob watched in horror as the baby transformed into a large black cat which leaped to the ground and bounded away into the forest. Stricken by fear, Blood rushed to ignite the kindling but was stopped by a loud clap of thunder. The sky had grown dark and without warning the tree was struck by lightning, blinding the mob. The atmosphere was filled with smoke and when it cleared, the townsfolk were shocked to see that while the ropes remained, Cora had vanished. The only trace of her left was the letters C-O-R-A burnt into the tree’s trunk.
- The legend of the Cora Tree was originally told by Charles Harry Whedbee in his book, Blackbeard’s Cup and Stories of the Outer Banks (1989).
In the small town of Hadley Massachusetts, just before the outbreak of the Salem Witch Trials, lived a woman named Mary Webster. Mary lived with her husband in poverty, so much so, that the town actually provided them with occasional provisions. Despite the charity, Mary was said to be a cranky woman who was prone to picking fights with her neighbors. As were the times, this left her vulnerable to accusations of Witchcraft. Stories circulated that Mary had the ability to stop animals in their tracks and that one would have to threaten to beat her before she would lift her hex. Another account claimed that Mary had once entered someone’s house and at the same moment a chicken had fallen down the chimney into a pot of boiling water. Later on, it was discovered that Mary had a bandaged burn wound on her arm, a sure sign of her guilt.
After a while, Mary was formally accused of Witchcraft and brought to court in Boston. Surprisingly though, she was found innocent and sent back to Hadley. You can only image how shocked and angry the townsfolk were when she arrived home. Tensions continued to grow during the next few years before reaching a head in January of 1665. During that time a man named Lieutenant Phillip Smith became gravely ill and he blamed his ailment on Mary Webster’s Witchcraft. He displayed all the classic signs of bewitchment, convulsions and claims of being pricked with invisible pins. Finally, it got to the point that it became clear that if nothing was done, Smith would soon die. And so, a mob went to take care of Mary Webster once and for all.
They brought her to a forest where they beat her mercilessly before hanging her from a tree. Once she was declared dead, they cut her down and buried the body in the snow. But unfortunately, the next morning, Smith was found dead with mysterious bruising and puncture wounds all over his body. And that wasn’t the only way in which their mob justice had failed, because Mary Webster hadn’t died at all. Having simply lost consciousness, she woke up in the snow and walked away from the noose. In fact, she would go on to live for another eleven years before dying of natural causes in 1696.
Famed Canadian author and descendant of Webster’s, Margaret Atwood, wrote a poem detailing the ordeal entitled Half-Hanged Mary. Near the end of the poem it is declared that, “Before I was not a Witch, but now I am one.”
- Mary Webster’s story was originally accounted for in Sylvester Judd’s, The History of Hadley (1863)
- Margaret Atwood’s full poem can be found here.
Old Peg and the Button:
Peg Wesson was a cantankerous old woman who lived in Gloucester Massachusetts in the 16th century. The story goes that one night, three drunken soldiers on their way to battle at Louisburg, decided to pay Wesson a visit. They pounded on her door and demanded that she tell them their fortunes. Once they had promised to pay her in return, she begrudgingly allowed them into her home. And so, she got to work. But when it came time for the soldiers to pay up, they ran from the house laughing in glee. Old Peg dashed after them and called out into the night, “Curse the three of ye! I’ll take vengeance on ye at Louisburg!”
In their hubris, the men thought nothing of Peg’s curse and proceeded to battle. But before long they began to notice that they were being followed by a large crow and then misfortune began to strike. One of the men was nearly drowned when he was thrown overboard from their ship, one had his arm amputated after it was crushed by an overturned cannon, and the third had nearly bled out when his foot was caught in a fox trap. At each incident, their pain was accompanied by the crow cawing loudly overhead. Eventually the soldiers realized that the big black bird was, in actuality, Old Peg exacting her revenge just as she had promised.
They tried to shoot the crow down but no matter how good their aim was, no bullet would manage to strike the bird. Finally, remembering the weakness of Witches, one of the soldiers tore a silver button from his coat and loaded it into his musket. This time, when he shot his gun, the crow was hit and fell to the ground below. They rushed to find the bird’s corpse but it had vanished. Nevertheless, with their fears assuaged, the men laughed off the whole ordeal as silly superstition. But when the returned home from battle, they were informed that during their absence Peg Wesson had mysteriously died. It was only when the doctor had examined her body, that the cause of her death was discovered. Embedded in a bloody wound on her leg was the remains of a small silver button.
- The tale of Peg Wesson was originally given in John James Babson’s, History of the Town of Gloucester (1860)
- The version which I was told can be found here.