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Witches of the Western Door

Halloween has come to be associated with all things evil and monstrous. Only through indirect means did it get this way. The monstrous we trace back to the old Celts—Irish, Scottish, and Welsh—who gave us Halloween, actually their combination New Year’s Eve and Night of the Dead. (To the Celts, in the gap between the old year and the new, the boundaries between this world and the Otherworld were loosened, and the denizens of each were likely to trade states.) While the spirits of the family dead were welcomed back on that night with lights and feasts (hence our customs of trick-or-treat), less familiar Otherworld tenants—like the echelons of fairy beings—were also likely to stray over.

As for the evil…

Halloween surely got its darkest overtones because, in its Darwinian survival struggles, the early Christian church repressed its religious rivals, styling them all to be hellish. Most witches and warlocks busted on the blasted heath were probably just pagans practicing the faith of their ancestors on the four main Celtic power-nights, Imbolc (January 31), May Eve (April 30), Lunasa (July 31), and the daddy of them all, Halloween. That legacy is still with us. Halloween is stereotyped as the prime witches’ sabbath, and the Western Door—the Iroquois (Haudenosaunee) nickname for Western New York—has a number of fabled witches.

We have to begin with Iroquois tradition.

As recently as 1930, the Seneca scholar Arthur Caswell Parker observed that no understanding of his own people was complete without an accommodation for their belief in witchcraft. He found Seneca witches not so different from those worldwide. Parker conjectured that, as with athletes, there may be two kinds: There are naturals, and there are those who are man-made. “Natural” witches, according to Parker, were the original kind, and generally the most powerful. They could turn into light-forms (the fabled “witch-lights”) without needing magic tools or ceremonies. They could curse with a thought or the blink of an eye. They were more likely to display the old powers of shapeshifting into animal forms. It’s been thought by others that witches of this sort could have been “made” by special treatment in infancy.

The other kind were what we’d call sorcerers: people who needed rituals and implements—bell, book, and candle—to work their will through unnatural means. (Curse a rival. Get a job. Score a hunk or fox.) These folk were made witches by ritual initiations and sips of a brew that finishes the trick. This is probably the type of witch most of us would be if we decided to pull an end run on the course of reality. Join the club, get the tool-kit, and follow the manual.

Witches, curses, and counter-curses permeate Iroquois storytelling. The evidence of archaeology—including grisly finds in Buffalo (caches of skulls, weapons, and bodies buried in a ring) and in the Genesee Valley (a dozen-plus skulls in Sweden, a ritual face-down burial in Victor) convince many that the tradition was old when the whites arrived. A pre-Revolutionary witch-persecution craze in Onondaga country (near Syracuse) drove many of the accused into far parts of Iroquois territory. Near Salamanca is a hill rumored to be the burial place of witches executed during this period. In 1800 the whole Allegany Reservation seemed likely to erupt over witch accusations made against some transplanted Delawares (Lenape). A few years later the whites observed the execution of a witch in Olean. Decades after that, political rivals leveled witchcraft charges at some famous Iroquois, including the Seneca Red Jacket and the adopted Seneca Mary Jemison. Witch-related trials and executions took place in Buffalo city limits in 1821 regarding the case of the famous Kau Qua Tau, killed on the banks of the Buffalo Creek.

Most such incidents were confined to reservations for the rest of the century, but a pair of Iroquois women grew convinced that Clothilde Marchand, wife of Buffalo Museum of Science illustrator Henri Marchand, was the source of a curse and killed her in her Riley Street home in 1930. At their trial, a witness testified that the dread of witchcraft was so strong that a Seneca man would kill his best friend if convinced that this was the source of a curse. As recently as 1955 a Seneca man at a council on the Tonawanda Reservation glared at a rival, clasped an imaginary locket on his chest as if it were a medicine-bag, and threatened to “settle things that way.” The incident started a near-riot.

But before we look down on our Native friends for their “superstition,” we should look out upon American society as a whole and some of its pop supernatural predilections, like faith in psychics (Sylvia Brown, James van Praagh, and John Edward) and some of the wilder permutations of TV-style ghosthunting. The idea that the spirits of our dead should, without cause-and-effect material factors, make material gadgets behave and even talk to us is a display of what my skeptical friend Joe Nickell calls “magical thinking,” and one not even backed by the poetry or richness of folkloric tradition and guising itself as science for all that. Witch-legends cross our ethnic cultures.

One of my all time favorites is one I call “the Rose-Witch of Black Rock,” a familiar figure on the streets around the foot of Hertel Avenue. Surely of German extraction, she specialized in blighting infants with the gift of a rose. All parents of newborns were warned about her, but if she approached someone naive enough to take her present into the proximity of a baby, a life-threatening illness would result. Around 1900 the Aunt Gertrude of one of my confidants was wheeling baby brother Sylvester under the Amherst Street viaduct when she let the Rose Witch slip “a rose for the baby” into the carriage. Young Sly didn’t thrive until a savvy priest poked around in the pillow he slept on and found a miraculously formed wreath of feathers that literally exploded when it was burned in the oven.

What happened to the witch? I asked. “Nothing,” said my elderly subject. “People just watched out for her.” And Uncle Sylvester? I asked. “He turned out all right.” He had a long and happy life. He was her favorite uncle.

Speaking of the obscure curse the folklorists call “the pillow hex,” we come to the Pillow Witch of Peckham Street, not far from the Central Terminal.

Around 1900, the firstborn infant of a young Irish-American couple tossed in its sleep, squalled when it woke, and gained not an ounce of weight. A baffled doctor recommended a priest, who opened the pillow the babe slept on to find the shape of a bird taking form in its feathers, but with a single wing. He burned the thing in the old-fashioned oven, then swabbed every means of entrance or egress to the family house with holy water, down to the keyholes.

“If that effigy had had a chance to form, the child would never have lived,” he told the family. “Whoever he or she is will never be able enter this house again.”

The mother’s older sister was the only suspect, trying just twice more in her life to join family gatherings in that house, always turning tail on the threshold. It was presumed that she had cursed the child because she was offended that her younger sister had formed a family before her. Who taught her this rite is another question. Maybe she was spending time in Black Rock.

But not all Black Rock’s power-people were evil-doers. One of the opposite kind was the one I call “the Olive Oil Witch of the West Side,” well known among the Italian-American community. She was what Arthur Parker would have called “an anti-witch.” She could get rid of “the evil eye” upon which so many ailments were blamed. She specialized in children under 10, and she did her magic with massage. A spry, 70ish man who attended one of my ghost walks in 2009 remembered being serviced by her as a boy. Shy and small for his age, he didn’t eat much and was afraid to go to school. He remembers her laying him on her kitchen table and rubbing his navel area with olive oil. From then on he felt better about life and caught up with his classmates in all regards.

Another alternative healer was the Green Witch of West Seneca, a member of Holy Helpers parish on the much-storied Indian Church Road. Her ancestry was Polish on both sides, and doubtless her miracle cures were from the old folk tradition of Europe. Her specialty was what we might today call homeopathic healing. She used a lot of natural plants and herbs. In the early 1900s the Buffalo medical board tried to shut her down, but many prominent Buffalo families stood up for her, and she was left alone. She rests today in the cemetery behind the church she had attended most of her life.

Not all healers use natural means. “The Witch of the Mill” may be one of this type.

Possibly because of their ever-turning wheels and possibly because of their spiralling gears, mills have long been associated with the cycles of fate, including occult and spiritual forces. Early Western New York settlements like Williamsville sprouted around mills, harnessing the power of creeks and falls for grain-grinding and wood-sawing.

In village legend, a woman of the German-American community had a desperately ailing daughter. Seeing no progress from medicine or prayer, she decided to turn to the oldest rituals of the old country. Some sort of ritual may have been done by a full moon in or outside Oziel Smith’s mill high over the Ellicott Creek falls near Main Street. I’d guess the decade as the 1840s. Perhaps as a site-memory, the faint forms of the mother and daughter have been reported as ghosts outside the building.

Ghost stories often cluster around any person or site associated with any form of occultism, and some of our other reputed witches come back as folkloric ghosts. A Niagara County classic and North Tonawanda original, Hannah Johnson (1793?-1883) was an African-American from the bayou country of Louisiana. How she ended up in the Lumber City no one seems to know. “Black Hannah,” though, was far from a simple witch. She was a babysitter, a storyteller, and a healer, respected and even beloved in her region. Still, no one wanted to get on her bad side because of her presumptive power. It was also thought she knew destiny. In a scene reminiscent of one of Lon Chaney’s Wolfman films, she was approached by a young man setting out to seek his fortune. “I have nothing to say to you,” Black Hannah said after looking closely at his palm and returning his money. He went back toward Buffalo and was never heard from again. “Black Hannah” was reported as a ghost into recent decades in the region of the woods and the spring known for her, near the end of Goundry Street just east of the village core.

Another ghost-witch morph is Lockport’s most famous supernatural, the Cold Springs Witch. This ambiguous form is most often seen on Cold Springs Road or Route 31 just south and east of it. Part ghost, part “vanishing hitchhiker,” and part prophetic female, it’s a stark, traffic-stopping, outdoor image. I’m pretty sure the folkloric backstory—a woman from a powerful Lockport family who rests in the Cold Springs Cemetery—has no relevance to the legends. These vanishing hitchhikers are an odd lot anyway. Those in Western New York are so often found on roads leading from graveyards. But this is a fine ghost, reported sincerely into the late 20th century.

One of the traditional powers of the witch or wizard worldwide is shapeshifting, particularly into the form of a single favored animal. While it’s not equally prominent in all world traditions, it’s a main feature of Iroquois storytelling.

A certain Seneca witch on the American lakeshore was thought so powerful that no Seneca would enter her house after she died. Irving antiquarian and curio-collector Everett Burmaster (1890-1965) searched her house and found the old gal’s medicine bag. Among the items it held were stones, mini-implements, and animal parts—teeth, bones, pelts, and claws. This lakeshore witch was rumored to shift into the shape of a snake, even to consort now and then in a nearby pond with an enormous black bull snake. On the evening of the day she was buried, a witch-light (ga’hai) was reported hovering persistently over the same pond, so it was presumed she had taken up full time residence there in her slithery alter-self. Maybe the snakes do it better.

While it might surprise us to think that shapeshifting could be taken seriously among 20th-century Americans, those of a German-American hamlet of Cheektowaga near the meeting of Broadway and Union associated their own curser with a nasty little black dog. When the ill-tempered feist was spotted hanging around the house of a sick person, it was presumed that she was up to her tricks, the Witch of the Forks. (“The Forks” gets its name because a number of major roads—Broadway, Union, Ellicott, and Transit—once intersected there.) My confidants don’t remember her as completely evil, but she was peevish, and thought to pack a metaphysical punch. People never turned their backs on her while leaving a room for fear that a cursing gesture might be launched at them. My contacts estimated that her heyday was the early 1900s.

This LBAF (little black animal form) is all too familiar to us in the legends of western witchcraft as a familiar. The welcoming gift to every new-made witch, this familiar is a sort of pet that has the spirit of a demon inside it. It comes usually in the form of some gnarly, typically black little critter. Its powers are modest. It spies and does little errands. It even has a liability; it has to visit the witch once in every 24-hour period to sip from an extra (supernumary) nipple that appears somewhere on the witches’ body just after the initiation.

Not all shapeshifters—or witches—were women. In the 1930s Seneca Cephas Hill gave a tale to white writer Carl Carmer. Once, in Hill’s Tonawanda Reservation boyhood, strange pigs were heard squealing in the shed of a Seneca who had just died. An old woman said they might be witches, and young Hill gave them both barrels of his shotgun. They fled, and the next day some children told him they saw a strange man by an abandoned cabin picking buckshot out of his backside. “Witch!” they cried, and off he ran.

My late friend the Seneca storyteller DuWayne Bowen used to like to tell a tale about a World War II veteran who had just returned to the Allegany Reservation after fighting in the Pacific. He took a walk through a legendary haunted area one night and heard human voices conversing in Seneca in an empty pasture. “Shhh! Someone’s there,” one of them said. He froze. “Let’s get out of here,” said the other, and the shadowy forms of two horses rose from a clump of trees and mosied off to the far end of the pasture. No doubt, they were witches, and he had survived a close call.

There is witch tradition somewhere in every Western New York county, and sometimes it survives as a place-name. Has anyone wondered about “Witch Valley” just north of Ellicottville? My sources tell me it’s called that precisely because it held the farm of a reputed witch, most likely Irish, in the 19th century. All anyone remembers of this one is that her milk cows seemed supernaturally favored. When neighboring udders were stubbornly dry, her own cows had abundance. It would be right in keeping with the old Celtic tales if she had some magical way of transferring the milk from the cows of others to her own. The milk of her cows, it was said, never spoiled, either.

We should not be surprised that the mainstream has always looked askance at people rumored to have supernatural power—cursers, healers, witches, and saints. If King James I had asked the North Berwick witches who gave them their power, he’d have gotten one answer; Joan of Arc’s overmatched inquisitors would have been given quite another. “The Force,” as with Star Wars, may be the same. The question is how you use it: selfishly and hurtfully, or for the good of others? And even that could be a judgement call. My Tuscarora friend the medicine man Ted Williams (1930-2005) acknowledged just as much. “People on both sides of some issues come to me and ask me to do some work for them.” (Work was his word for magic. He said it italicized.) “It disappoints them when I say I can’t, that I have to go in on the other side. When I start working against them and the trouble starts to show, I probably do look like a witch to them.”

It’s that way with ghosts. We project our values and impressions onto them. This person’s White Lady by a spring is that one’s witch or someone else’s Mother Mary. One thing that isn’t open to interpretation is the fact that an ancient supernaturalism still permeates Western New York.

But you don’t need me to tell you that. After all, it’s Halloween. Just look around.

The founder of Haunted History Ghost Walks, Inc., Mason Winfield is the author of ten books, including The Paranormal Almanac of Western New York (2012, Western New York Wares). Anyone who knows any more witch stories can reach him at HauntedHistoryGhostWalks.com.

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