50 YEARS AGO OR, THE CABINS OF THE WEST

 

A series of articles that appeared

in 1875 in Arthur’s Home Magazine

No. 10 … Gran’ther  and the Witch

 

What a beautiful place that would have been for a cabin home in early times," said, leaning out of the carriage; "now if I had been living in those early days that is where I would have pitched my tent."

 

"Where?" said my companion, looking about. "Just there," I replied, pointing my finger in the direction of the prettiest knoll below which the road wound with a graceful curve.

 

"Oh, well, you would have found the place occupied, unless you had come here before the year of our Lord 1813. That Is where old Uncle Franks first settled; did I never tell you?” and my companion laughed heartily.

 

I laughed too, but it was a joyful, glad laugh. I was pleased to know that the pioneers selected beautiful building sites.

 

Uncle Franks! And I never knew where the dear fold man built before! I knew all about him and Auntie Franks, and Jett and Ruth and Jack and Nancy and Simon and Clark, their children, all men and women when I first knew them.

 

They had three children when they came here. They were very poor. Uncle worked for farmers by day’s work and carried his wages home at night in a bag on his shoulder. He nearly always worked for corn, and at night he pounded it, and it was made into bread or mush. Aunt kept hulled con o hand the year round. If she had not done so, they would have had nothing to eat except mush and corn bread, but this gave them a little variety.

 

We with our good wells and springs and the unfailing cistern under the roof can make hulled corn easily, but fo give years the feeble mother of this poor family brought all their spring water the distance of half a mile. I am astounded at this when I take into consideration the fact of a growing, healthy family eating hulled corn nearly every day for years, the one moderate-sized iron pot in which it was cooked, and that she made her excellent hominy the old precise way that our great-grandmothers did, without varying one atom; that it be thoroughly washed in clean water nine times.

 

When I said, "Why didn't Uncle Franks dig a well and spare his wife?" the reply was, "He was very poor; they had nothing to work with but their hands; the family was growing all the time, and it was just as much as he could do to clothe and feed them."

 

She had one feather bed that they brought with them from the East. She had long wanted a cow. and at last she made up her mind to part with the bed in exchange for a cow. Any woman can conceive how loth she would be to give up the only bed, but she said, drying her eyes on her apron, "We can't eat the bed, and we can soon learn to do without it. We are all tired enough at night to sleep on the ground, and the cow will bring us good milk and butter, and she will be such a good 'vestment.’"

 

Poor Auntie Franks! The bed that her mother gave her was given up and taken away and the cow brought home, and the little ones feasted on the good milk and butter. But one morning, when they got up, the cow stood under the maple, all drawn up and her mouth was foamy and her cold tongue hung out, and her breath, came as though she were pained.

 

"P'r'aps she's been out among the buckeyes; if she has, she's done for," said uncle, with his hands thrust down into his pockets.

 

The family stood 'round her grieving. At last the mother said: "What say to sendin' for Gran'ther Jones; it may be that she's a little mite bewitched."

 

"Who'd do it?" was his answer; "you know nobody has nothin' agin us. We never harmed nobody," and he looked in her eyes with a questioning stare.

 

"I don't like the looks of that old creeter as lives on the Watkins' place," said auntie, sticking her arms up against her sides. "Now Gran'ther Jones would know whether she's a witch or not. He could tell without gittin' up off his cheer. Lord have mercy on us if she is! You see, Dan'el, I'll tell you what makes me mistrust. I was out on the hill beyont the Watkins' place with Jett an' Ruth diggin' some sassnfras root the other day, and we come upon the old creeter all of a suddent a settin' on the ground with a little brown paper in her lap and she was whisperin' like and doln' this and that an' t'other, like a body sortin' out seeds for a truck patch or garden, and as soon as she seed us she squawked out and hassled the little paper out o' sight in her bosom, and she was gone down the hill like a streak. Now if that isn't jubus conduct, I don't know what is," and the wife looked up into her husband's face as though this last argument was conclusive.

 

The cow wouldn't eat anything, and so Jett was dispatched for Gran'ther Jones.

 

Now this old man was very superstitious. He knew everything by the aid of his cards, and his "mineral ball," and the queer looking articles that he kept in a sacred little receptacle in the safest corner of the "old chist."

 

His grown children and grown grandchildren looked with holy awe upon "gran'ther's box." They were almost breathless when it was opened and they caught a glimpse of its contents, but this latter rarely happened.

 

In less than an hour the old magician hove in sight. He came in a creaking little wooden wagon drawn by an old sorrel horse whose mane and tail were snarled and matted almost into felt with burdock burrs. Indeed the tail hung as clubby and substantial as the tail of a musk-rat. Gran'ther was very old and exceedingly corpulent. He could hardly bear to feel the weight of his clothes about him, and that required him to dress in a manner somewhat peculiar. His back and shoulders were covered by a brief garment, made like our grandmothers used to make sailors or roundabouts for their boys, only that it was very large and fit him like a loose, light husk. His trousers were something gathered on to a band to button round his portly dimensions; when he walked the band was buttoned, when he rode or sat they were worn entirely loose and lay about him like careless drapery, his shirt generally on the outside, or out and in, just as it happened. Shapeless big moccasins and a very wide, low, soft, wool hat. This time the call was urgent, for Mrs. Franks was his granddaughter, a favorite one, too. He drove as fast as circumstances would allow, his long, white hair and his excess of snow-white shirt streaming in the wind.

 

As soon as he was seated and the particulars of the occasion made known, the family remembered the first rite of hospitality, which was to bring out a half-gallon jug of Slater's best fourth-proof whisky, and hold it up to the eager lips that wet themselves unctuously, and smacked and partook again with a relish that was pleasurable to look upon.

 

"Well," he said, in a cracked old voice, looking around, and then the cow was driven up to the door where he could see her.

 

"Turn her head this way," he said. Then he opened his sacred box, took out a piece of dingy, soft muslin on which was inscribed cabalistic characters, laid it across his knees and opened a paper in which were two needles with flat heads. One of these he ordered to be stuck in the band of his shirt, back of his neck, and the other in the hem of his left trousers' leg. Then he took out some white looking gum, wet it with spittle and rubbed it over the region of his heart.

 

"Watch if the cow rolls up her eyes or makes complaint," he said, as he began to make bows, very slowly at first, and then they came faster and faster, until the poor old man looked like a ninny. Suddenly he stopped and wet the white gum again and rubbed it on his forehead.

 

Just then the cow lolled her tongue over to the other side of her cold, wet mouth, and moaned as if in pain.

 

"Sadisfied," he muttered, and signalled to have the curious needles removed. "She's clean bewitched, there's no doubt o' that," said he, giving an upward hitch to the band that constituted a part of his trousers. "Have you any idee of any possessed creeter hereabouts; anybody you'd mistrust?" he asked.

 

Then Susan Franks, with staring eyes and twitching hands, related her meeting on the hillside with the queer creeter who lived on the Watkins' place.

 

"Do you know anything about her? Tell all you know," said he, leaning back.

 

"A man with two pack horses brought her and her hous'old stuff, and left immediately. People don't take to 'er nor she to them," was the reply.

 

"Well, we must find out if she be one possessed," said the poor old man, "an' if she be, we'll know how to manage her. If she be in league with a evil one we'll find it out and give her her jest deserts," and the grim, wise old astrologer gave his refractory trousers' band another hitch.

 

Such people believed that witches were sold unto the devil. That they entered into a compact and that the bargain was usually in writing and signed in the witch's own blood.

 

One point in witchcraft was the belief in stated meetings of witches and devils by night, called Witches' Sabbaths. That, first anointing her feet and shoulders with a salve made of the fat of murdered and unbaptized children, the witch mounted a broomstick, distaff, rake or the like, and making her exit by the chimney, rode through the air to the place of rendezvous. If her demon lover came to fetch her, he was represented as sitting on the staff before and she behind him. At the feast to which they all assembled there were viands, but no bread nor salt, and they drank out of ox hoofs and horse skulls, but the meal neither satisfied nor nourished. After eating and drinking, they danced to music played on a bagpipe with a horse's head for a bag, and a cat's tail for a chanter.

 

At the conclusion a great goat that had participated was burned to ashes, and then the ashes were divided among the witches to raise storms with. They returned as they came, and the husband was kept from being aware of his wife's absence by a stick laid in the bed, which he mistook for her.

 

The power that the devil gave them was exclusively directed to work evil, to raise storms, blast crops, inflict racking pain on an enemy or make him pine away in sickness. This latter was done, usually, by making an image of wax and sticking it full of pins or setting it away to melt before the fire.

 

If a witch attempted to do good the devil was enraged and chastised her.

 

Taking a small vial out of his little box, Gran'ther Jones, on the point of a penknife, lifted out some of the oily contents, which he rubbed on one side of a stick, mumbled over it, and then laid it down beside him. Then he took some charcoal, that had been made out of burned bats, and made some marks on a fragment of white paper with it, folded it up neatly, tied it in a cloth and laid it down beside the stick. Then he called Dan'el Franks up to him, and tying a snake-skin round Dan'el's hat, told him to go to the house of the strange woman, lay the oiled stick on her doorsill, throw the marked paper down her chimney and then hide behind her house with his hat drawn down over his face and stay there fifteen or twenty minutes, and then come back and report what he had seen and heard.

 

In due time the man returned. Gran'ther, who had been sitting leaning on his staff, now rallied, and, looking up, said: "What say?"

 

"The creeterr was a-carryin' on 'mazingly," was the reply; "she was cryin' an' moanin' an' makin' all sorts o' noise, e'en a'most like one demented."

 

"All right, she's a witch sure — leastaways all the symptoms p'int that way. We'll manage her, or there's no truth in truth," said the old man, putting the snake-skin back in his box and closing it carefully. Then he took out of his bosom a little parcel, which he unrolled, and within was a small, compact ball of hair, or hairy calculi such as is occasionally found inside of the stomachs of old cattle, formed perhaps out of the fine hair that lodges on the tongue when they are licking themselves, and clings together and becomes secreted in the stomach, and is never removed unless by curious human hands after the animal is dead.

 

Astrologers and fortunetellers and superstitious people ascribe supernatural powers to this worthless accumulation. Gran'ther Jones was one of those; he could hardly have existed without this most wonderful of all divinations.

 

While he was performing with this singular ball, he gave orders that the cow be watched closely. By this time she was lying down, stretched out stiffly, with her eyes rolled up.

 

After awhile gran'ther stopped swinging the ball and muttering incantations, and gave orders that the poor brute be made to stand upon her feet. It was attempted, but without a successful result.

 

"Take a shovelful of coals and pour on her side," said he, peremptorily.

 

It was done, but the poor thing made no effort to rise, and gave no sign except a prolonged, piteous, quivering cry.

 

"That was the devil's cry," said gran'ther, with a cracked laugh, and then he beckoned to have the "joog" passed, and it was held up, and he drank with the utmost satisfaction.

 

But such details are repulsive, and should be forgotten. Suffice to say, the cow died, and the feather bed was gone, and the poor family were poorer than ever.

 

One day gran'ther was at Dan'el Franks's house, and Susie was making hominy, and using pailful after pailful of spring water from the fountain half a mile distant, when the old man said to one of the boys: "Go git me a stick of witch hazel, and be sure you git it off'n the sunrise side o' the bush, an' I'll see if it would be proper for your par to be diggin' a well hereabouts."

 

Buttoning the band of his nether drapery, and having the other garment all a-flutter in its freedom, he broke a forked stick from the witch hazel, and began walking slowly up and down the lot in which the cabin stood, holding the stick in a certain position between his two hands. Suddenly it began to turn; he stopped; it moved slowly round; when in a loud, nose-y voice he cried out: " Does my Maker toll me there is water here?"

 

Then he informed Dan'el that he could strike a good vein of pure, soft water by digging twenty-five feet. But Dan'el had to earn bread for the family, he had not time to earn water too, and so the well was never dug.

 

But alas for the fate of the woman who was shunned, and despised, and persecuted as a witch!

 

In those days almshouses had not been built in the West. There was need enough for them, but the poor pioneers could not stand the taxes. So when it was known that Goody Leet was sick, and suffering, and dying, and all the while declaring herself an innocent and a wronged woman then, some of the neighbors of the better class sought her in her cheerless, dark, lonely cabin, and found her to be an object of charity and sympathy.

 

It was hardly to be supposed that any of those poor families could afford to take her into their homes and treat her as one of them without a trifling recompense, and though it did look very hard and inhuman, and we cannot quite be reconciled to the fact, yet a notice was stuck on the door of the blacksmith's shop, saying that on the 9th day of October, 1813, Mistress Goody Leet, an infirm woman, would be sold to the lowest bidder for the term of six months.

 

On that day Goody was put into a little wooden wagon and hauled to the lower riffle, where the blacksmith's shop was located, and she was sold as a pauper by public outcry.

 

This was the iron that entered her soul. A man mounted on a stump raised his hands, and his voice, and his powers of eloquence, said all the fine words he could think of, and all the pretty phrases, and the poor creature was sold to the lowest bidder. A lazy, ignorant old couple made the bid, and hauled her off to their cheerless home in the creaking little wagon amid the solemn silence of the motley assemblage.

 

Goody was quiet. For days she would sit and lean on her thin talony hand, and she would open a little brown paper that she carried in her bosom, and cry over it softly and silently. But one day she refused food and drink, and the next day she did the same, and persisted in it calmly yet positively day after day. Kind women could not prevail on her to eat, sympathizing men besought her without avail; and one morning, when the old couple looked upon their charge, she lay peaceful and with pitiful countenance as one in pleasant slumber. All plainness and homeliness were obliterated, and a rare beauty, lost and faded for long years, had come back again.

 

In the suspected little brown paper in her bosom was a flossy flake of infant's hair, and a coarser slip beside it, of dark brown, was a man's hair, treasured and beloved, both. The tale they might have told could only be guessed.

 

Marry, with long and patient waiting, the poor persecuted pauper, a lady born, had sought and found a friendly death by starvation.

© 2011 Peggy Mershon                                                                                     Contact at marwelmer@aol.com