Foods of the Old South

Today, ‘Southern food’ is rapidly becoming a global phenomenon. Thanks in large part to the ubiquity of the Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant chain (it has franchises in 141 countries and territories around the world), with its explicitly ‘Southern’ identity and marketing campaigns, fried chicken is well-known as an iconically Southern dish. In recent years, pulled pork has also taken the world by storm, and people are increasingly aware of the existence of Southern barbecue, in part thanks to popular TV shows such as ‘Man v. Food’. Cajun spice blends, jambalaya, and other ‘Southern’ foods are also widely available in supermarkets here in the UK, where we are encouraged to ‘experience the authentic taste of the deep south’ and ‘cook up the taste of the deep south’. According to a 2017 news article, Britons consume more than 1m litres of bourbon, rye, and other American whiskeys a month.

Southern food is commonly presented as ‘down-home cooking’ and as the food of the masses. However, looking at the history of a number of iconic dishes which date back to the Old South, it becomes clear that the ‘down-home’ image is a relatively recent construct. In the Old South, the home cooking of the majority of Southerners would be distinctly unappetizing to the modern palate. Far from feasting on plates piled high with fried chicken and biscuits, or succulent barbecue, served alongside large glasses of sweet tea, most Southerners outside elite planter circles ate very plain food. As John B. Boles writes:

Much nonsense has been written about Southern food and Southern cooking. Contemporary travelers noted again and again the monotonous sameness of the cuisine, with corn and pork, always too greasy, served in the absence of vegetables (and Southerners particularly disliked salads) and washed down with dreary substitutes for coffee.

And most Southerners were not enjoying sweet potato pies and other rich deserts. A typical account of life in 1730s Virginia, written by a carpenter’s son, recalls that sugar was ‘rarely used’ in cooking.

When the Reverend Charles Woodmason, an Englishman, toured the South Carolina backcountry in 1766 on an evangelism mission, he repeatedly commented in his diary with obvious horror regarding the cuisine of the poor whites he encountered:

[N]othing to refresh me, but water – and their provisions I could not touch – all the cookery of these people being exceedingly filthy, and most execrable.

And the next day:

I was almost tired in baptizing of children — and laid myself down for the night frozen with the cold without the least refreshment, no eggs, butter, flour, milk, or anything, but fat rusty bacon, and fair water, with Indian corn bread, viands I had never before seen or tasted.

This is clearly far from the kind of food most people think of when they hear the words ‘Southern food’. Much of what we now know as such only became widely available in the South relatively recently, and was previously available only to the rich. In the following post, I shall look briefly at various foods of the Old South that are still eaten today, looking at their origins and at who actually ate them.

Cornbread and Grits:

Cornbead and grits were Native American foods that from the very earliest days of the South were embraced by the British settlers. They have, therefore, a heritage in the South that even predates the founding of the colonies. These foods were eaten by all social classes in the Old South, where wheat bread was a rarity largely reserved  for the wealthy elite.

Fried chicken:

Despite widely spread online myths about the origins of fried chicken being found in the meeting of a Scottish dish and African spices, when the history of fried chicken in the South is examined in detail, it becomes clear that this dish actually has its origins in the kitchens of England’s wealthy elite. While fried chicken is now a form of cheap ‘fast food’, in the Old South it was a luxury enjoyed by the planter elite. Until the rise of modern farming methods, chickens were not widely consumed, as they were a valuable source of eggs. To be able to enjoy the eating of chicken was a sign of wealth. As Robert Moss points out, ‘[i]t’s hard to remember today, but before World War II, chicken was a metaphor for prosperity’. Moss notes that a 1928 Republican Party advertisement touted the success of its administration by stating:

Republican prosperity has reduced hours and increased earning capacity, silenced discontent, put the proverbial ‘chicken in every pot.’ And a car in every backyard, to boot.

Fried chicken now became available to all.

Biscuits:

Biscuits have their origins in the British Isles, and in the Old South they were seen as a delicacy. Far from a food eaten as part of a labourer’s morning breakfast, biscuits, being made from wheat, were largely consumed by the planter elite. Biscuits only began to be widely consumed in the South at the turn of the 20th century. The New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture notes:

As a result of increased wheat production and new milling methods, the great flour mills of the Midwest brought the price of flour down so low that even relatively poor Southerners could afford it. Even comparatively prosperous farmers or townspeople had seldom eaten wheat bread before the Civil War, but by 1900 what flour biscuits had become as common as cornbread. People ate huge quantities of biscuits. Many farmers bought one or more barrels of flour before the onset of winter weather isolated them from the store.

By the 1910s, some Southerners began to reject cornbread altogether:

Southerners know “all about cornbread,” as one journalist in an Alabama paper put it, but “some may timidly deny their knowledge and understanding of it, having become biscuit-proud… [A] North Carolina woman explained that she and her family did not like cornbread because people “of the Old South” preferred white flour biscuits.

Even today, there is in the South a largely good-natured debate over the merits of biscuits vs. cornbread. As Birmingham, Albama-based writer Jennifer V. Cole put it in one such debate:

Biscuits represent the aspirational quality of the South. To be able to get flour, leaveners, buttermilk, butter, and the refrigeration necessary to keep them—that signified that you’d made it.

Barbecue:

The eating of barbecue pork goes back to earliest days of the South, but, unlike today, this wasn’t something that people of all social classes could eat at a back-road barbecue joint, nor was it originally a specifically Southern phenomenon. In the Colonial era, English settlers observed and copied the barbecuing methods of Native Americans and the barbecue became a popular social event in elite circles. Drawing on an already-existing elite English love of smoked meats and the eating of whole hogs at banquets, wealthy English settlers throughout the British North American colonies began to hold barbecues, using their black slaves to cook and season the meat (hence the long-running association between barbecue and African Americans).

Barbecues were especially suited to the Southern states, which had an abundance of pigs (introduced by English settlers) and a hospitality culture rooted in the customs of wealthy Virginians. After the Revolutionary period, barbecues eventually fell out of favour in the North, perhaps in part because of the association that had developed in the South between barbecues and all-day heavy drinking, dancing, and hedonistic behaviour. As with fried chicken and biscuits, then, barbecue was a food enjoyed by the planter elite at their exclusive social gatherings and it is only relatively recently that barbecue has become an everyday food in the South.

See my post on the history of Southern barbecue for references and further information.

Hoppin’ John:

Hoppin’ John is a rice and beans-based dish that was introduced into the diet of Southern whites by African slaves. In the South, it has its roots in the South Carolina Lowcountry and, from there, spread across the South. Food scholar Robert Moss writes:

That technique of cooking rice and beans together was African in origin, and it spread to every part of the Americas that had a significant African presence. Each location developed its own distinctive rice and bean dishes—the Moros y Cristianos of Cuba (made with black beans), the Pois et Riz Collé of Louisiana (made with red beans), and the Hoppin’ John of the South Carolina Lowcountry….

Though clearly African in origin, its inclusion in cookbooks like the Sarah Rutledge’s Carolina Housewife, written by the daughter of Governor Edward Rutledge and a member of Charleston’s elite planter society, indicates that even before the Civil War the dish was being eaten by black and white residents of all classes in the Lowcountry.

Gumbo:

Gumbo is another dish with African origins and has a strong association with South Louisiana:

Although the French contributed the concept of the roux and the Choctaw invented file powder, the modern soup is overwhelmingly West African in character.  Not only does it resemble many of the okra-based soups found in contemporary Senegal, the name of the soup itself is derived from the Bantu words for the okra contained within (guingombo, tchingombo, or kingombo.  A legacy of the colonial era, the modern French word for okra is quite simply “gombo”.

In the Old South, gumbo was not solely a South Louisiana dish:

Though well entrenched in Louisiana, gumbo was by no means a dish unique to that region. Indeed, during the colonial era and the early 19th century, similar okra-based stews and soups could be found anywhere a large number of enslaved Africans and their descendants lived—and, in fact, those dishes can still be found there today.

Cajun gumbo seems to have been an adaptation of the original African dish. The Cajuns ‘seasoned and added ingredients with a comparative heavy hand and ended up with their own hearty version of gumbo’.

Jambalaya:

While often seen as simply a ‘Southern’ dish today, jambalaya has its roots in South Louisiana and, while there are various debates about its purported origins, a strong case can be made that the dish has its origins in France and was introduced and developed by the Louisiana Cajuns of French descent. Whereas Cajun gumbo seems to be a variant of a pre-existing dish of African origin, in the case of Creole jambalaya, this would appear to be a development of a pre-existing dish of European origin.

Deviled Eggs:

Deviled eggs have a long history in the South and are particularly associated with the finer, white tablecloth dining of white Southerners. The practice of ‘deviling’ foods by adding spices to them originates in Europe and the deviled egg came to the South from England:

According to historic cookbooks, the practice of boiling eggs, extracting the yolks and combining them with savory spices (mustard, cayenne pepper) and refilling the eggs with the mixture was common in latter years of the 16th century and was the “norm” by the 17th…

According to the food historians the practice of “devilling” food “officially” began sometime during the 18th century in England. Why? Because that was when the term “deviled,” as it relates to food, first shows up in print. 

Indeed, the first printed reference to deviled eggs dates to 1786 in England.

Sweet Potato Pie:

In England, root vegetable pies have a long history, and recipes can be found in a number of English cookery books dating back to the early 18th century. While King Henry VIII of England was a fan of heavily spiced sweet potato pies, these required sweet potatoes imported from Spain, and the potato pies of 18th century England made use of conventional potatoes instead. When the historic recipes for English potato pies are compared with modern Southern sweet potato pie recipes, it is clear that the latter is a Southern adaptation of the former. As with fried chicken and biscuits, desserts such as sweet potato pie were largely the preserve of the wealthy elites in the South, rather than being generally eaten. These pies were a luxury, making heavy use of butter, sugar, and spices, and would certainly not have been eaten on a daily basis.

See my post on the history of the sweet potato pie for references and further information.

Defining ‘The South’

The Southern United States is a region that many people throughout the world are aware of, and interested in. It’s a region with a history and culture both fascinating and troubling. It’s also a region, of course, particularly known for its legendary cuisine. But exactly what is ‘the South’, and where is it? Anyone with even a passing interest in the South and Southern culture will inevitably come across these questions. And the answer, in brief, is: it depends who you ask.

For a region of the United States that is so iconic, it is very strange to discover that there is no generally accepted consensus regarding which states are actually a part of it. There are various ways of trying to define the South: you can use the United States Census Bureau’s regional definition of the South; you can look at which states seceded and made up the Confederacy; or you can – as many do on numerous internet forums – make the case for the ‘Southernness’ of states based on culture.

If you use the United States Census Bureau’s definition of the South, the states that make up the South are Alabama, Arkansas, Delaware, District of Columbia, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Maryland, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia. There are good reasons why Southerners might wish to use this definition: firstly, because it is a definition of the South that is not dependent on the Confederacy and the Civil War, and secondly, because this expansive version of the South allows one to claim that ‘the South’ is more culturally diverse than the Deep South stereotype allows. Southern Living magazine provides a good example of this. By including the District of Columbia in the Southern fold, for example, the magazine is able to claim The Smithsonian Institution as proof that Southerners are ‘a cultured lot’ and also to (bizarrely) claim that Senate Bean Soup is one of ‘the South’s most iconic dishes’, despite its history as a dish created following a request by a senator from Idaho or Minnesota.

If you use the states that made up the Confederacy, then the South is Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia.

If you use states that are argued to have a Southern culture, then you might also include Missouri, which pops up in various online discussions about the South, probably in large part because it contains an area known as ‘Little Dixie‘.

However, if you exclude states from ‘the South’ that today have only a tenuous claim to being overarchingly ‘Southern’, you would probably have to get rid of Delaware, District of Columbia, Florida, Oklahoma, Maryland, Missouri, West Virginia, and quite possibly Virginia, despite its status as the birthplace of Southern culture. On this question, see these articles at The Ringer, FiveThirtyEight, and Vox.

Texas, a former Confederate state, yet not part of the United States Census Bureau’s South, would also likely have to go, given its cultural turn away from the South and towards the West (a turn consciously undertaken in the postbellum period). And what of Kentucky? Maryjean Wall’s fascinating book How Kentucky Became Southern makes a convincing case that Kentucky only truly became ‘Southern’ after the Civil War, when it marketed itself as a land of antebellum charm and Southern gentlemen sipping mint juleps. Actually, Kentucky was an unruly border state with various cultural regions and never had the kind of culture associated with the Deep South, nor was it part of the Confederacy. Kentucky’s famous bourbon whiskey only became an iconic Southern drink after the Civil War and through marketing campaigns after Prohibition (Old South drinks included rum, brandies, alcoholic punches, and rye whiskey, and the original mint julep was a Virginia drink made using rum). Horse racing had a long history in the Old South, but the Kentucky Derby dates to after the Civil War.

So, at the end of all that, you could perhaps minimally define ‘the South’ today as Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Tennessee. But, even then, you get into further debates surrounding cities or areas of these states being not properly ‘Southern’ (Is Atlanta ‘Southern’? Are Northern transplants altering the culture of North Carolina? And so on.)

Ultimately, then, ‘the South’ and ‘Southern culture’ are perhaps today things that fall into the category of ‘you know it when you see it’, rather than being neatly defined by geography or even history.

The English Roots of ‘Southern Barbecue’ and ‘Southern Hospitality’

Aside from fried chicken, it is hard to think of a more iconic representation of Southern cuisine than barbecue. However, barbecue in North America did not start out that way. English settlers observed and learnt Native American barbecuing techniques and barbecues quickly became popular:

During the 18th century, barbecues became social events that were common throughout the British North American colonies. Although they are associated with the South, barbecues were held regularly in many areas. For example, a barbecue was held to launch the brigantine Barnard in Braintree, Massachusetts, in 1767. Celebrations with barbecues occurred even further north. When Quebec City fell to the British during the French and Indian War in 1759, citizens of Falmouth, Maine, celebrated with a barbecue on an island that later became known as “Hog Island.” Barbecuing must also have been known as a cooking technique not used solely for large celebrations. In a 1769 newspaper advertisement, Thomas Carnes announced that he was opening a coffeehouse outside of Boston. He also noted that he would barbecue pigs or turtles. Barbecues as social gatherings or celebrations became less common in New England after the Revolutionary period.

It is not surprising that wealthy English colonists took to this form of smoked meat so enthusiastically, for their native cuisine had long featured similar flavours. As early as the 14th century, the English were eating smoked fish:

By 1349 smoked fish was an established part of the British diet. Documents of that era outlining how to build a herring smokehouse reveal plans for high, narrow brick buildings crossed with beams holding up sticks from which the herring were hung. Fires from oak or ash were lit below and the smoke escaped through loosely laid tiles on the roof.

Smoked meats were also a part of the medieval English cuisine of the wealthy elite, particularly smoked pork, which was ‘cut into relatively thin, lean strips, immersed briefly in a salt solution and hung over a fire to absorb the smoke flavoring as it dried — slowly’. Bacon was also present in medieval English cuisine and goes back many centuries. It was heavily salted or cured, with sugar also added to cut through some of the saltiness. By the end of the sixteenth century, bacon was also being smoked.

Barbecue, then, both as a social event and as a form of cooking meat, was initially embraced throughout the British colonies and was not in any sense a specifically ‘Southern’ phenomenon. However, while barbecues eventually went out of fashion in the North, in Virginia they remained central to the social rituals of the gentry:

In Virginia, however, barbecues were widespread and popular social events. Feasting was a vital part of Virginia cultural traditions – much more so than in New England – and pigs were plentiful, as well. Pigs had been brought o Jamestown with the first British colonists, and since pigs are omnivores, they flourished in the woodland areas, even without much attention from settlers busy with planting and growing tobacco. As the wealth of the Virginia planters grew in the 18th century, so did their desire to build great houses, engage in consumer culture to display their wealth, and entertain guests in their homes. By the 1750s, barbecues were one of the most accepted and well-liked forms of entertainment in the colony. George Washington, among other Virginia gentry, frequently attended and hosted barbecues. The gatherings evolved from small get-togethers of family and friends to large all-day events. These large barbecues were expensive to host. Some planters objected to the cost and the drunken antics that often went along with barbecues, but they often went along with hosting and attending the events because it was an expected part of their roles as Virginia gentry.

The wealthy colonists of Virginia, in particular, sought to emulate the lifestyles of the gentry of England and ‘England remained the principal source of cultural authority and prestige’. The Reverend Hugh Jones, writing in 1724, noted:

Williamsburgh is now incorporated and made a Market Town, and governed by a Mayor and Aldermen; and is well stock’d with rich Stores, of all Sorts of Goods, and well furnished with the best Provisions and Liquors.

Here dwell several very good Families, and more reside here in their own Houses at publick Times.

They live in the same neat Manner, dress after the same Modes, and behave themselves exactly as the Gentry in London; most Families of any Note having a Coach, Chariot, Berlin, or Chaise.

In an article titled ‘Of Virginia Hospitality’, published in The London Magazine in July 1746, we read:

All over the Colony, an universal Hospitality reigns; full Tables and open Doors, the kind Salute, the generous Detention… their Manner of living is quite generous and open: Strangers are sought after with Greediness, as they pass the Country, to be invited.

John Ferdinand Smyth Stuart, in his A Tour in the United States of America (1784), reported: ‘The Virginians are generous, extremely hospitable, and possess very liberal sentiments’. He also noted that, as in England, social stratification and hierarchy was pronounced:

There is a greater distinction supported between the different classes of life here than perhaps in any of the rest of the colonies, nor does that spirit of equality and levelling principle which pervades the greater part of America prevail to such an extent in Virginia.

The famed ‘Southern hospitality’, then, originated among the Virginia gentry. This hospitality, of course, did not extend to the blacks they kept as slaves, not to poor whites. When the Reverend Charles Woodmason toured the Carolina backcountry in 1766, he wrote:

How lamentable to think, that the legislature of this province will make no provision — so rich, so luxurious, polite a people! Yet they are deaf to all solicitations, and look on poor white people in a meaner light than their black slaves, and care less for them.

North Carolina was settled by Virginians, who had brought this Virginian class system with them.

This social hierarchy, complete with obligatory hospitality to fellow members of the gentry, rules of etiquette and politeness, and a callous disregard for those outside the wealthy elite, was really only a continuation of the social order of England, where a wealthy few lorded it over the peasantry. The Virginia planters were a new gentry, living a charmed life far removed from the that of the lower orders:

[T]he gentry preferred to see themselves as removed from and superior to physical labor and the commercial exchange economy. Instead they sought to portray themselves as men of leisure and generosity. This was visible in what strangers to Virginia saw as the inordinate amount of time they devoted to visiting one another and to participation in gambling, dancing, and other fashionable pursuits as well as in the attention they gave to the acquisition of prestigious homes, furnishings, clothing, and other consumer goods.

This lifestyle was directly rooted in the lifestyles of the wealthy elite of Britain, dating well back into the medieval period. The Virginia barbecue was a new form of an old tradition:

The medieval feast of the time seems to have followed a common pattern; there could, therefore, be said to be an ideal feast as aspired to by the nobility and gentry and even their servants. It was ideal in both its material nature, that is the food, and also in its conduct, that is, the rules of courtesy and hierarchy under which this social ritual was performed.

Likewise:

The medieval esteem for “magnificence” as a hallmark of noble virtue continued to underwrite courtly culture during the seventeenth century, entailing the display of aristocratic wealth through extravagant hospitality.

In medieval England, the feast was a central feature of the lives of the wealthy. The slow roasting of whole hogs on a spit was popular for medieval feasts. During cooking, the meat was basted with a sauce made of red wine and spices such as garlic and ground coriander, to keep it moist and to add extra flavour. Spices were used extensively in the cooking of the time and the nobility enjoyed a ‘highly spiced cuisine’:

The higher the rank of a household, the greater its use of spices. Spices were not only extensively used in the preparation of food but they were also passed around on a ‘spice platter’. Guests at banquets took additional spices from the spice platter and added them to their already spiced food.

Spices used in recipes of the time included black pepper, ginger, nutmeg, cinnamon, cloves, cumin, mace, allspice, cardamom, cubeb, spikenard, and saffron. In England, the wealthy elite’s love of highly spiced food extended well into the eighteenth century.

The Virginia colonists likewise ‘demonstrated their social standing by providing a wide variety of meats and sweets at each meal prepared in a more traditional English fashion’. As an article in The Colonial Williamsburg Journal notes:

By today’s standards, colonial fare offered too much grease, too much meat, too much seasoning, and too much sweetener. Diners liked meat and lots of it. They considered animal organs, like hearts and brains, tasty delicacies. Cooks used sugar, cinnamon, and nutmeg liberally.

The Virginia barbecue, with its whole hogs prepared as part of a communal ritual of ‘hospitality’ among the gentry, arguably echoes the English tradition of the hog roast. Likewise, the spiciness of Southern food, while in part the result of the influence of African slaves on the tastes of the colonists, was strongly rooted in the preferences of the English elite of the period.

The colonists applied English basting techniques and sauces to the Native American smoking method, thereby keeping the meat juicy and flavourful and stopping it from drying out. The basting sauces were derived from English cooking:

Virginia colonists brought European cooking techniques and recipes with them when they arrived in Virginia during the early years of the seventeenth century. In colonial times, Virginians endeavored to emulate European customs, especially when it came to entertaining guests at meals. Because most colonists were not trained cooks, they made good use of cookbooks… These cookbooks contain numerous recipes for carbonadoing and roasting foods that would become colonial Virginia staples such as venison, beef, mutton and pork, all with sauces made of spices, vinegar, pepper, and butter. Some call for mustard and/or sugar added to the mix.

The Virginia colonists took these English sauces and applied them to barbecuing:

Colonial Virginians also used the carbonado sauce recipes made of salt, vinegar, butter, peppers, herbs and spices to baste barbecuing meats while they cooked. By combining the Powhatan Indian cooking technique using a hurdle with English carbonado recipes, Virginians gave the world what we now call southern barbecue.

The ‘Virginia hospitality’ that forms the basis for the early construction of the notion of a uniquely ‘Southern hospitality’ was in reality the result of the transplanting of the social mores of the English gentry to the colony. The famous Southern ‘politeness’ and deferential mode of speaking (the ubiquity of ‘yes, sir’ and ‘yes, ma’am’) is also rooted in the notions of gentility and hierarchy brought from England. Likewise, the barbecue tradition of the South is actually rooted in the social events of the wealthy elite, who reenacted the medieval hog roast of England using cooking techniques developed by Native Americans, and seasoning techniques popular in England. Even barbecue sauce is derived from the tastes and basting methods of the wealthy elite of England.

As Virginians spread out across the Southern states, they took their aristocratic Anglophile culture with them, and even their mode of speech, which came to be seen as specifically ‘Southern’, echoed that of their ancestral homeland. Virginia barbecue spread throughout the South and became known as a ‘Southern’ food and form of social event, and the famed ‘hospitality’ and ‘politeness’ of elite planter society (‘hospitality’ and ‘politeness’ directed towards fellow members of the gentry, not the population as a whole) likewise came to be seen as a hallmark of ‘Southern’ culture.

Barbecue and Southern hospitality (as well as a social model in which a tiny elite held most of the wealth), then, are ultimately phenomena directly derived from England, specifically its upper echelons.

No, Coffee Did Not Come to the United States from Africa

National Geographic is a widely respected magazine with a large readership, and it is generally perceived to be a good source of information. An article that calls this perception into doubt can be found on its website, titled ‘5 African Foods You Thought Were American’.

According to this article:

It’s likely that something you ate or drank today was first brought to North America by slaves…

[H]ow often do we consider, when selecting the ripest melon for our summer fruit salad, or ordering a café latte with breakfast, that these things originated and flourished on a completely different continent? Even more important, how often do we consider that it was an enslaved population that brought them here?

The claim that slaves ‘brought’ plants and food to America is popular and widely repeated. As Tim Carman notes in a piece for the Washington Post:

And those West Africans, the literature so often notes, brought their food with them — except they didn’t, as food writer John Thorne so eloquently points out in his now-classic essay on hoppin’ John in the “Serious Pig” collection (North Point Press, 1996): “The only thing Africans brought with them was their memories. If they were fortunate enough to have been taken along with other members of their own community and to stay with them (which rarely happened) — there was also the possibility of reestablishing out of these memories some truncated resemblance of former rituals and customs.”

Likewise, Stephanie Butler points out in article for the History Channel website that ‘[n]ewly abducted Africans were lucky to have clothes on their backs, and they certainly weren’t encouraged or even allowed to bring sacks of planting grain along with them’.

So much, then, for the claim of American food and drink that ‘an enslaved population brought them here’.

The National Geographic article includes coffee as a beverage supposedly originating with the enslaved population, which is frankly bizarre.

It is generally agreed that coffee first arrived on American soil in 1607 when Captain John Smith, founder of the Colony of Virginia, introduced it to other settlers of Jamestown. Smith, an English explorer, had first encountered the drink he called ‘coffa’ while in Turkey, and referred to it as ‘their best drink’.

The history of the drinking of coffee is somewhat murky (there are various legends attached to it), although its origins are generally held to be in Ethiopia. The drink became very popular in the Middle East:

By the 16th century, coffee was the beverage of choice in Persia, Egypt, Syria and Turkey, its reputation as the ‘wine of Araby’ boosted no end by the thousands of pilgrims visiting the holy city of Mecca each year from all over the Muslim world. Yemeni merchants took coffee home from Ethiopia and began to grow it for themselves. It was prized by Sufis in Yemen who used the drink to aid concentration and as a spiritual intoxicant. They also used it to keep themselves alert during their nighttime devotions.

From there, coffee drinking spread through the Balkans and Italy and into the rest of Europe.

The National Geographic article cites UCLA professor of Geography Judith Carney, author of In the Shadow of Slavery: Africa’s Botanical Legacy in the Atlantic World. Carney makes the following claims:

How to take a coffee bean, know when and how roast it, and turn it into a delicious beverage involved a deep cultural knowledge system of growing and brewing varieties from the Ethiopian highlands where it originated. When Europeans reached East Africa, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and the Emirates in the 16th century, they encountered coffee houses and culture around the drink. But given the racial prejudice against Africans honed during the transatlantic slave trade—and the fact that coffee had become so central to Muslim culture—Europeans attributed the art of making the drink and the profusion of coffee houses to Muslim societies.

The reference to European ‘racial prejudice against Africans’ as being a reason why coffee’s origins were seen as lying in the Muslim nations seems dubious at best. Europeans encountered coffee drinking during their travels in Muslim countries, so it is entirely natural that they would have associated the drink with the places in which they were introduced to it. In all likelihood, they would have had no idea of its origins in Ethiopia. Why would they? Captain Smith undoubtedly identified coffee as a Turkish drink because he drank it in Turkey, not because he was conspiring to hide its origins in Africa. And when it comes to Carney’s certainty that it was Ethiopians who first discovered ‘[h]ow to take a coffee bean, know when and how roast it, and turn it into a delicious beverage’, this is somewhat fanciful. As Giorgio Milos notes:

The first person known to write about coffee was a Persian physician and philosopher named Rhazes or Razi (850 to 922 AD), who characterized it as a medicine. He described a beverage called bunchum, prepared with an infusion of a fruit called bunn—the Ethiopian name for a coffee cherry. Other early writings establish Yemen, on the southern part of Arabian Peninsula, just across the Red Sea from Ethiopia, as home to the first coffee plantations starting in the early 15th century. Coffee plants were brought over from Ethiopia, Yemen lacking its own indigenous coffee. There, Sufi monks prepared an infusion of coffee cherry leaves to stay awake and pray through the night. The first real roasting and grinding activities likely happened here.

So, contra National Geographic, coffee drinking in America has absolutely nothing to do with slaves ‘bringing’ coffee to its shores, and everything to do with a European settler who had ‘discovered’ the drink in Turkey. The drink may indeed originate in Africa – although this is far from definitively established, even though the bean it is made from certainly does – but it is not thanks to Africans – enslaved or otherwise – that it became a popular drink in the United States. For that, we can thank the Boston Tea Party in 1773, which led to a shift from tea to coffee drinking, assisted by the cultivation of coffee plants by the Dutch.

(As for the reference to café latte in the National Geographic article, this drink only became widely popular in the US in the early 1990s, and is obviously of Italian origin.)

 

The Truth About the Confederacy and the American Civil War

According to the still popular ideology of the ‘Lost Cause’, the Confederate States of America (CSA) was founded not in defence of white supremacy and slavery, but, rather, in defence of the South against Northern aggression based on envy of Southern wealth and a desire to dominate the region. In this revisionist reading of American history, the CSA stood against a Northern attack on states’ rights, the imposition of crippling tariffs, and a desire to undermine the ‘Southern way of life’. The Civil War, then, was a ‘War of Northern Aggression’, and Confederate soldiers should be honoured for their defence of the South. These arguments underpin the continuing promotion of the validity of the numerous Confederate monuments that are at the centre of so much controversy at present, and also the support for the flying of the Confederate battle flag as an emblem of ‘heritage, not hate’.

The claims that ‘the Civil War was not about slavery’, that monuments to the Confederacy are not racist, and that the ‘rebel flag’ is just a sign of innocent regional pride quickly fall apart when historical sources are examined.

The states’ rights argument can be dispensed with quickly, for the record shows that the ‘rights’ in question revolved around the ‘right’ to own slaves and that this institution was absolutely central to the ‘Southern way of life’, and the source of the great wealth of the Southern states. That the promotion of states’ rights by the South was entirely one-sided and only applied when this favoured slavery is illustrated by the fact that the South opposed the states’ rights of the North:

Confederate states did claim the right to secede, but no state claimed to be seceding for that right. In fact, Confederates opposed states’ rights — that is, the right of Northern states not to support slavery.

On Dec. 24, 1860, delegates at South Carolina’s secession convention adopted a “Declaration of the Immediate Causes Which Induce and Justify the Secession of South Carolina from the Federal Union.” It noted “an increasing hostility on the part of the non-slaveholding States to the institution of slavery” and protested that Northern states had failed to “fulfill their constitutional obligations” by interfering with the return of fugitive slaves to bondage. Slavery, not states’ rights, birthed the Civil War.

South Carolina was further upset that New York no longer allowed “slavery transit.” In the past, if Charleston gentry wanted to spend August in the Hamptons, they could bring their cook along. No longer — and South Carolina’s delegates were outraged. In addition, they objected that New England states let black men vote and tolerated abolitionist societies. According to South Carolina, states should not have the right to let their citizens assemble and speak freely when what they said threatened slavery.

The tariffs claim is likewise bogus:

These explanations are flatly wrong. High tariffs had prompted the Nullification Controversy in 1831-33, when, after South Carolina demanded the right to nullify federal laws or secede in protest, President Andrew Jackson threatened force. No state joined the movement, and South Carolina backed down. Tariffs were not an issue in 1860, and Southern states said nothing about them. Why would they? Southerners had written the tariff of 1857, under which the nation was functioning. Its rates were lower than at any point since 1816.

If the Confederacy was not actually formed over issues of states’ rights and tariffs, but instead in defence of a ‘Southern way of life’, it is worth looking at the ideology at the heart of that ‘way of life’, which is made clear in Southern political and religious speeches and writings of the time.

A few weeks before South Carolina seceded from the Union, Reverend Benjamin Morgan Palmer gave a ‘Thanksgiving Sermon’ at the First Presbyterian Church in New Orleans on November 29, 1860, in which he claimed that ‘in this great struggle, we defend the cause of God and religion’, for ‘[t]he abolition spirit is undeniably atheistic’. For Palmer, the South was a ‘nation’ with a divine mission:

In determining our duty in this emergency it is necessary that we should first ascertain the nature of the trust providentially committed to us. A nation often has a character as well defined and intense as that of an individual. This depends, of course upon a variety of causes operating through a long period of time. It is due largely to the original traits which distinguish the stock from which it springs, and to the providential training which has formed its education. But, however derived, this individuality of character alone makes any people truly historic, competent to work out its specific mission, and to become a factor in the world’s progress. The particular trust assigned to such a people becomes the pledge of the divine protection; and their fidelity to it determines the fate by which it is finally overtaken. What that trust is must be ascertained from the necessities of their position, the institutions which are the outgrowth of their principles and the conflicts through which they preserve their identity and independence. If then the South is such a people, what, at this juncture, is their providential trust? I answer, that it is to conserve and to perpetuate the institution of domestic slavery as now existing.

The centrality of white supremacy and slavery to secession was made crystal clear as more states left the union and formed the Confederate States. When Mississippi followed South Carolina’s lead and seceded on January 9, 1861, its declaration of causes stated unambiguously:

Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery– the greatest material interest of the world. Its labor supplies the product which constitutes by far the largest and most important portions of commerce of the earth. These products are peculiar to the climate verging on the tropical regions, and by an imperious law of nature, none but the black race can bear exposure to the tropical sun. These products have become necessities of the world, and a blow at slavery is a blow at commerce and civilization. That blow has been long aimed at the institution, and was at the point of reaching its consummation. There was no choice left us but submission to the mandates of abolition, or a dissolution of the Union, whose principles had been subverted to work out our ruin.

Georgia, which seceded on January 19 1861, stated that Northern hostility towards the South was grounded in abolitionist sentiment:

The Presidential election of 1852 resulted in the total overthrow of the advocates of restriction and their party friends. Immediately after this result the anti-slavery portion of the defeated party resolved to unite all the elements in the North opposed to slavery an to stake their future political fortunes upon their hostility to slavery everywhere. This is the party two whom the people of the North have committed the Government. They raised their standard in 1856 and were barely defeated. They entered the Presidential contest again in 1860 and succeeded. The prohibition of slavery in the Territories, hostility to it everywhere, the equality of the black and white races, disregard of all constitutional guarantees in its favor, were boldly proclaimed by its leaders and applauded by its followers.

With these principles on their banners and these utterances on their lips the majority of the people of the North demand that we shall receive them as our rulers.

The prohibition of slavery in the Territories is the cardinal principle of this organization.

Alexander Hamilton Stephens of Georgia, vice president of the Confederate States of America, gave his famous ‘Cornerstone’ speech on March 21 1861, shortly before the start of the Civil War, which justified secession and outlined the ideology of the CSA. Stephens clearly differentiated the founding principles of the Confederate States from those of the United States. Slavery was present in the Northern states, as was white supremacist sentiment, but these were never foundational principles. The US was not explicitly founded on white supremacy, nor was slavery a central component of the ideology of the US. The CSA was not a mere continuation of the outlook and philosophical vision of the United States, but was instead the birth of a new nation, a new nation arising against the increasing Northern opposition to the ‘peculiar institution’ of slavery. The Confederate States, stated Stephens, had ‘thrown off an old Government and formed a new’:

[T]he new Constitution has put at rest forever all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institutions-African slavery as it exists among us-the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization. This was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution. Jefferson, in his forecast, had anticipated this, as the “rock upon which the old Union would split.” He was right…

The Constitution, it is true, secured every essential guarantee to the institution while it should last, and hence no argument can be justly used against the constitutional guarantees thus secured, because of the common sentiment of the day. Those ideas, however, were fundamentally wrong. They rested upon the assumption of the equality of races. This was an error

Our new Government is founded upon exactly the opposite ideas; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and moral condition. This, our new Government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth…

All fanaticism springs from an aberration of the mind; from a defect in reasoning. It is a species of insanity. One of the most striking characteristics of insanity, in many instances, is, forming correct conclusions from fancied or erroneous premises; so with the anti-slavery fanatics: their conclusions are right if their premises are. They assume that the negro is equal, and hence conclude that he is entitled to equal privileges and rights, with the white man… I recollect once of having heard a gentleman from one of the Northern States, of great power and ability, announce in the House of Representatives, with imposing effect, that we of the South would be compelled, ultimately, to yield upon this subject of slavery; that it was as impossible to war successfully against a principle in politics, as it was in physics or mechanics. That the principle would ultimately prevail. That we, in maintaining slavery as it exists with us, were warring against a principle-a principle founded in nature, the principle of the equality of man.

The CSA, stated Stephens, utterly rejected such notions, and saw the enslavement of blacks by whites as conforming to the design of God:

The negro by nature, or by the curse against Canaan, is fitted for that condition which he occupies in our system. The architect, in the construction of buildings, lays the foundation with the proper material-the granite-then comes the brick or the marble. The substratum of our society is made of the material fitted by nature for it, and by experience we know that it is the best, not only for the superior but for the inferior race, that it should be so. It is, indeed, in conformity with the Creator. It is not for us to inquire into the wisdom of His ordinances or to question them. For His own purposes He has made one race to differ from another, as He has made “one star to differ from another in glory.”

Texas declared its secession from the United States of America on February 1 1861, and joined the Confederate States on March 2 1861. It stated:

In all the non-slave-holding States, in violation of that good faith and comity which should exist between entirely distinct nations, the people have formed themselves into a great sectional party, now strong enough in numbers to control the affairs of each of those States, based upon an unnatural feeling of hostility to these Southern States and their beneficent and patriarchal system of African slavery, proclaiming the debasing doctrine of equality of all men, irrespective of race or color– a doctrine at war with nature, in opposition to the experience of mankind, and in violation of the plainest revelations of Divine Law. They demand the abolition of negro slavery throughout the confederacy, the recognition of political equality between the white and negro races, and avow their determination to press on their crusade against us, so long as a negro slave remains in these States…

We hold as undeniable truths that the governments of the various States, and of the confederacy itself, were established exclusively by the white race, for themselves and their posterity; that the African race had no agency in their establishment; that they were rightfully held and regarded as an inferior and dependent race, and in that condition only could their existence in this country be rendered beneficial or tolerable.

As the Civil War was underway, religious as well as political leaders identified slavery and white supremacy as the chief cause of the conflict, and presented the war as a Holy War in defence of the will of God. John T. Wightman, in a sermon delivered at the Methodist Episcopal Church in Yorkville, South Carolina on July 28, 1861, made clear the theological basis of the war:

The eminence of the South is the result of her domestic slavery, the feature which gives character to her history, and which marshalls the mighty events now at work for her defense and perpetuity. Following the guidance of Providence, she was led to the lively oracles, whence she received her laws and institutions from the hand of God… Here is the defense of the South, “the will of God.” Her government is built on the Bible… The triumphs of Christianity rest, this very hour, on slavery; and slavery depends on the triumph of the South. The hand of God has severed this nation to perpetuate this institution, and is inflicting judicial punishment on a people who attempted to violate his decree: “Ham shall be a bondsman.” The war is the servant of slavery.

If, then, it is impossible to maintain the claim that slavery and white supremacy were not absolutely central both to secession and to the Civil War, then perhaps the claim can still be made that these were merely the views of the elites of the South. After all, the majority of Southerners were not slave owners. The problem with this claim is that Southern leaders made clear that the population in general was committed to maintaining blacks in a position of subordination. A month before South Carolina’s secession, Georgia Governer Gov. Joseph E. Brown explained the support for slavery among all strata of white Southern society:

Among us the poor white laborer is respected as an equal. His family is treated with kindness, consideration and respect. He does not belong to the menial class. The negro is in no sense of the term his equal. He feels and knows this. He belongs to the only true aristocracy, the race of white men. He blacks no master’s boots, and bows the knee to no one save God alone. He receives higher wages for his labor than does the laborer of any other portion of the world, and he raises up his children with the knowledge that they belong to no inferior cast, but that the highest members of the society in which he lives, will, if their conduct is good, respect and treat them as equals.

If the soldiers of the Confederacy were largely rising up in defence of their homeland, rather than in defence of its racial caste system, then Confederate recruitment materials that explicitly referenced slavery would make no sense. Yet here we see a recruitment poster for the Virginia army, which, while clearly stating that the soldiers would be fighting to defend their land, identifies the enemy they faced not merely as Northern aggressors but rather as ‘your Abolition foes’.

The men who marched under the battle flag of General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia (today known colloquially as ‘the Confederate flag’), then, did so explicitly against an enemy defined as being opposed to slavery. If there was no widespread support for slavery and white supremacy in the general Southern population, such an appeal would make no sense.

As for the issue of Confederate flags, the origins of the ‘Stainless Banner’, the second Confederate National Flag, are unambiguously rooted in white supremacist ideology:

In 1863, as the Confederate flag was discussed at the Rebel congress in Richmond, a racist newspaper editor — William Tappan Thompson of the Savannah Morning News — weighed in. His idea: Put the battle flag on an expanded field of white to make “the white man’s flag.” “As a people, we are fighting to maintain the heaven ordained supremacy of the white man over the inferior or colored race; a white flag would thus be emblematic,” Thompson wrote. He added in another article: “As a national emblem, it is significant of our higher cause, the cause of a superior race, and a higher civilization contending against ignorance, infidelity, and barbarism.” The Confederates were enthusiastic, and adopted the new flag — the Stainless Banner in May 1863.

All of the Confederate flags, including the supposedly innocuous ‘rebel flag’, are ultimately symbols of an army that rose in defence of a deep-seated and widely held belief in white supremacy and the divinely ordained nature of slavery. Even where the primary motivation was defence of a homeland against invasion, and defence of a ‘Southern way of life’, the nature of that homeland and its ‘way of life’ is entirely grounded in racist ideology.

The absence of any widespread regret in the postbellum period over the war being so intimately linked to the issue of slavery again illustrates the true nature of the Confederate project and the views of white Southerners of the time. As Gaines M. Foster notes in Ghosts of the Confederacy:

After the war… most [Southerners] continued to see slavery as central to the cause. A majority of the applications for pardon that Southerners filed after the war termed slavery “the paramount cause of the Civil War”’… In fact, few Southerners expressed any guilt over the owning or the mistreatment of slaves, even though they had been raised in a society that encouraged the public confession of sin… Not only did few Southerners repent of slavery, many reaffirmed their belief in its justness… Southerners, their defence of secession and slavery demonstrated, thought they had acted rightly in the war: Neither secession nor slavery had been wrong. Southerners therefore saw no reason to confess any guilt and seemed convinced of their good standing with their maker.

Indeed, far from seeking repentance, many ex-Confederates expressed ‘disgust with the insistence that defense of slavery had not been the cause of the war’:

Confederate veteran Ed Baxter unashamedly told a reunion in 1889: “In a word, the South determined to fight for her property right in slaves; and in order to do so, it was necessary for her to resist the change which the Abolitionists proposed to make under the Constitution of the United States as construed by them… Upon this issue the South went to war, I repeat that the people of the South had the right to fight for their property”… Famed Confederate partisan leader Colonel John S. Mosby was equally forthright. “I’ve always understood that we went to war on account of the thing we quarreled with the North about,” he wrote a former comrade in 1894. “I’ve never heard of any other cause than slavery.”

That the loss of the Civil War would go on to result in extreme oppression of the free black population of the South, with former Confederates founding the Ku Klux Klan to terrorise blacks, public lynchings as a form of entertainment, the burning of black churches, and the legal codification of racial segregation, illustrates the absurdity of claiming that the founding of the CSA and the waging of the Civil War had nothing to with racism and slavery. The phenomenon of lynchings makes the endemic racism of the post-Civil War South starkly clear:

Lynchings were frequently committed with the most flagrant public display. Like executions by guillotine in medieval times, lynchings were often advertised in newspapers and drew large crowds of white families. They were a kind of vigilantism where Southern white men saw themselves as protectors of their way of life and their white women. By the early 20th century, the writer Mark Twain had a name for it: the United States of Lyncherdom.

Lynchings were covered in local newspapers with headlines spelling out the horrific details. Photos of victims, with exultant white observers posed next to them, were taken for distribution in newspapers or on postcards. Body parts, including genitalia, were sometimes distributed to spectators or put on public display. Most infractions were for petty crimes, like theft, but the biggest one of all was looking at or associating with white women.

The refusal of many white Southerners to discard racial prejudices dating back to the founding of the Confederacy – and long before – is illustrated by the phenomenon of segregation. Segregation was premised on the same notions of the utter incompatibility and inequality of the races that was promoted by the Confederacy. And, unsurprisingly, segregationists used the Confederate battle flag as an emblem of their cause. George Wallace, the 45th Governor of Alabama, gave speeches in front of the Confederate flag. When Wallace called in his 1963 inaugural address for ‘segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever’, he was echoing the white supremacist ideology that motivated the Confederacy.

While it may be painful for many white Southerners to admit and confront the evil ideology and deeds of their ancestors, the historical record is clear: the Confederate States of America was founded on white supremacy and slavery, the Civil War was fought in defence of the system based on those principles, Confederate soldiers were fighting on the side of a vile ideology, and the Confederate battle flag is certainly about heritage, but it’s not a heritage anyone should take pride in.

A Witchcraft-Infested Land: Demythologising England’s Rural Past

For many of us, looking at the history of our country and the lives of those who inhabited it is fascinating. There is, however, the ever-present danger of romanticising the past and seeing it as a more healthy and innocent time, in which people lived in tune with nature and developed a rich and charming folklore. The reality is more complicated.

At school, we read the words of the witches of Macbeth:

Fillet of a fenny snake,
In the cauldron boil and bake;
Eye of newt and toe of frog,
Wool of bat and tongue of dog,
Adder’s fork and blind-worm’s sting,
Lizard’s leg and owlet’s wing,
For a charm of powerful trouble,
Like a hell-broth boil and bubble.

We are tempted to see this as nothing more than fantastic fiction. After all, surely no-one really believed in the efficacy of charms cooked up using animal body parts? And surely ‘witches’ were just some delusion dreamed up by the church to persecute innocent single women?

We may watch stage magicians and hear them pronounce ‘Abracadabra!’ while carrying out an illusion for the entertainment of the crowd. Surely, no-one ever really believed that such words had magical potency?

And we may read books to our children, populated with ‘cute’ mythical creatures such as pixies and fairies. Surely, that’s all they have ever been – stories made up to entertain children?

In all of these assumptions, we would be wrong.

As we shall see, right up to at least the beginning of the twentieth century, there was across England a widespread belief in the existence of malignant witches, as well as a large number of individuals who made their living working as ‘white witches’. And there was also a widespread belief in the efficacy of charms cooked up using both animal and human body parts.

During the Plague, the word ‘Abracadabra’ was worn by Londoners as a charm against infection, which was believed to be caused by evil spirits. In nineteenth century Exeter, the word was still being sold in silk bags as ‘a talisman against the dominion of the grey witch, pixies, evil spirits, and the powers of darkness’. And those pixies were no children’s fairy story characters.

Many among the rural population of the West Country, as late as the nineteenth century, believed pixies to be a real and malignant phenomenon. Pixies were believed to be the lost souls of unbaptised infants who steal children, lead travellers astray, and delude miners, and they were genuinely feared, as contemporaneous accounts show. In a typical example, a Somerset woman who got lost in fog near her cottage became ‘demented with terror’, believing she had been ‘pixy-led’.

Nineteenth century ‘cures’ prescribed by the ‘wise men’, ‘wise women’, ‘white witches’, and ‘cunning folk’ of the time were often almost as grotesque as the concoctions of the witches of Macbeth. Accounts of West Country folk beliefs provide many examples. William Henderson, writing in 1879, notes:

[T]o descend to modern times, the hind-leg of a toad dried, placed in a silk bag, and worn round the neck, is in Devonshire the common charm for the king’s evil. White witches and Wise-men supply these charms for a fee of five shillings. Sometimes they cut from the living reptile the part analogous to that in which the patient is suffering, bury the rest of the creature, wrap that part in parchment, and tie it round the patient’s neck. A cure for rheumatism in the same county runs thus: burn a toad to powder, tie the dust in silk, and wear it round the throat.

Toads were a common ingredient, as we see in Sarah Hewett’s account of nineteenth century Devonshire folk beliefs:

To Cure Skin Disease

Place the poison found in a toad’s head in a leather bag one inch square: enclose this in a white silk bag, tie it round the neck, allowing the bag to lie on the pit of the stomach. On the third day the patient will be sick. Remove and bury the bag. As it rots so will the patient get well.

To Cure the Colic

Mix equal quantities of elixir of toads and powdered Turkey rhubarb. Dose: Half a teaspoonful fasting for three successive mornings.

To Cure King’s Evil

Bake a toad and when dried sufficiently to roll into powder, beat up in a stone mortar, mix with powdered vervain. Sew in a silken bag and wear round the neck.

To Cure Bleeding of the Nose

Take one or two fine old toads, place them in a cold oven, increase the heat until sufficiently fierce to cook the toads and reduce them to a brown crisp mass. Remove from the oven and beat them to powder in a stone mortar. Place the powder in a box and use as snuff!

To Cure Dropsy

Take several large fully-grown toads, place them in a vessel in which they can be burned without their ashes becoming mixed with any foreign matter. When reduced to ashes, pound them in a stone mortar. Place the ashes in a wide-mouthed jar, cork closely and keep in a dry place. Dose: One teaspoonful of ashes in milk to be taken at the growing of the moon for nine mornings.

In Wiltshire, fits could supposedly be cured through swallowing woodlice, and a cure for sprains included 2 oz. of ‘oil of earthworms’. In 1876, in Lew Trenchard, Devon, hair cut from the cross on an ass’s back was placed in silk bags, which were worn around the neck as a charm against whooping cough. In the 1890s, a ‘wise woman’ in Wiltshire provided the same article to the folklorist Sabine Baring Gould.

Such folk beliefs, of course, had a long pedigree and harked back to the England of many centuries earlier. Belief in witchcraft, evil spirits, and so on, was once widely held, even among the wealthy and educated. As late as 1680, Joseph Glanvill, a Fellow of the Royal Society, could publish a book –  Saducismus Triumphatus –  offering ‘full and plain evidence concerning witches and apparitions’. Both witchcraft and magic were seen as real phenomena.

Throughout the medieval and early modern period in England, magic took the form of herbal medicines, potions (love potions, poisons, etc.), spells, and incantations, which were used to help with overcoming sickness, recovering lost possessions, enthralling a lover, gaining wealth, getting revenge, and so on. Prayers were used in the manner of spells or charms, holy water and holy relics were said to provide protection, and coins blessed during the offertory were believed to have curative properties. Lay devotion included the use of charms invoking sacred names and words, and passages from the gospels or other sacred words were used as written charms which were hung round the neck or placed by the sick.

While Christian belief formed an important part of the basis of folk magic, it wasn’t just to priests and prayer books that the common people turned. ‘Wise’ men and women offered many services to their communities of a magical and quasi-medicinal nature. Because witches and witchcraft were believed to be real, there arose to counter this an army of lay healers practising what was believed to be ‘white witchcraft’. Spells, charms, talismans, powders, potions, and herbal remedies were all offered for sale, along with fortune telling and other services. Seventeenth century critics of such individuals attacked them as ‘unlearned physitians’ and ‘quack astrologers’.

A tract warning against ‘Unlearned Physitians’ (1605) refers to ‘charmes, witchcraft, magnifical incantations, and sorcerie’ and the use of ‘characters, circles, figure-castings, exorcismes, conjurations’, as well as the use of ‘certaine amulets of gold and silver, stamped under an appropriate and selected constellation of the planets, with some magical character’.

Bishop Joseph Hall, writing of the superstitious man in his Characters of Vertues and Vices (1608) states that ‘old wives and starres are his counsellors: his night spell is his guard, and charms his physicians. He wears Paracelsian characters for the toothache; and a little hallowed wax is his antidote for all evils’.

William Ramesay, writing in his The Character of a Quack Astrologer (1673) reports: ‘He offers, for five pieces, to give you home with you a talisman against flies; a sigil to make you fortunate at gaming; and a spell that shall as certainly preserve you from being rob’d for the future; a sympathetical powder for the violent pains of the tooth-ach’.

The dividing line between legitimate medicine and folk superstition in this period was not always clear. Nicholas Culpeper, a doctor and member of the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries, published his highly influential book The English Physitian (later titled The Complete Herbal) in 1652. In the book, we find a mixture of herbal remedies – some of which may have had some level of efficacy – alongside a belief in astrology and its supposed influence over the properties of plants, and a number of references to the purported ability of various plants to counter witchcraft. We read, for example, that the bay tree ‘resists witchcraft very potently’, and of mistletoe: ‘being hung about the neck, it remedies witchcraft’. These kind of notions fed into the activities of the ‘wise’ men and women of England.

Eighteenth century sources offer more on the beliefs and practices of the common people of Britain. John Bell, a Scottish minister, wrote in 1705:

There are many sorceries practised in our day, against which I would on this occasion bear my testimony, and do therefore seriously ask you, what is it you mean by your observation of times and seasons as lucky or unlucky? What mean you by your many spells, verses, words, so often repeated, said fasting, or going backward? How mean you to have success by carrying about with you certain herbs, plants, and branches of trees?

Why is it, that, fearing certain events, you do use such superstitious means to prevent them, by laying bits of timber at doors, carrying a Bible meerly for a charm, without any farther use of it? What intend ye by opposing witchcraft to witchcraft, in such sort that, when ye suppose one to be bewitched, ye endeavour his relief by burnings, bottles, horseshoes, and such like magical ceremonies?

How think ye to have secrets revealed unto you, your doubts resolved, and your minds informed, by turning a sieve or a key? or to discover by basons and glasses how you shall be related before you die? Or do you think to escape the guilt of sorcery, who let your Bible fall open on purpose to determine what the state of your souls is by the first word ye light upon?

In 1725, a book was published which sought to document and critique ‘a few of that vast Number of Ceremonies and Opinions which are held by the Common People’. In the book, Henry Bourne collects together the results of his research into the beliefs of his fellow Englishmen and highlights the fact that both the customs they observe and the beliefs they hold to be true are in the large part not of an orthodox Christian nature. Speaking of the majority of the English population of his day, Bourne states:

As to the Opinions they hold, they are almost all superstitious, being generally either the Produce of Heathenism; or the Inventions of indolent Monks, who having nothing else to do, were the Forgers of many silly and wicked Opinions, to keep the World in Awe and Ignorance. And indeed the ignorant Part of the World, is still so aw’d, that they follow the idle Traditions of the one, more than the Word of GOD; and have more Dependance upon the lucky Omens of the other than his Providence, more Dread of their unlucky ones, than his Wrath and Punishment.

Again, despite such condemnation, the line between legitimate medicine and folk superstition was still quite blurry. Apothecaries – medical professionals of the day – sold, alongside more mundane treatments for common medical complaints such as fever and boils, potions and powders of a less scientific nature: love powders, for example.

John Gay, an English author from Barnstaple in Devon, wrote in The Shepherd’s Week (1714):

Strait to the ‘Pothecary’s shop I went,
And in love powder all my money spent

An anonymously authored text on ‘Dreams and Moles, with their interpretation and signification’, published in London in 1780 and attributed to a member of the Royal Society, includes instructions for how to make a love powder:

Take nettle-seed and juniper berries; dry and beat them to powder: then burn in the fire the claw of a crab, that it may also be powdered: mix them, and give the party as much as will lie on a silver penny in any liquor, and it will cause strange effects, without harm, by which a husband, or wife, through good management, may be obtained.

While dubious medical treatments continued to be sold, even in mainstream medical circles, the belief in witchcraft was receding among the educated elite. Among the uneducated majority, however, it was still endemic. The last recorded hangings for witchcraft took place in Exeter in 1682. In 1736, Parliament passed an Act repealing the laws against witchcraft, but imposing fines or imprisonment on people who claimed to be able to use magical powers. This Act made it a criminal offense to accuse someone of being a witch and also a criminal offense to profess to be one. The Act demonstrates the significant change in the mindset of the educated elite of England, who now saw those accused of witchcraft as being innocent victims of superstitious hysteria and those who paid ‘white witches’ for their services as victims of con-men and women. Despite the enlightened intentions of the Act, it in reality made little to no difference to the beliefs of the general population, who remained firmly wedded to the old ways. Indeed, as late as 1965(!), Ernest Walter Martin wrote in his The Shearers and the Shorn: A Study of Life in a Devon Community:

Even today, in every village around Okehampton, I have found superstition still to be a proof of the evils of ignorance. Interviews with cottagers and elderly farmers brought me into touch with people who spoke with feeling about the efficacy of ‘charming’ and the power of witchcraft. These beliefs and customs have been retained by people who remain bound up with a mode of living resistant to rational ideas.

It may be tempting to see the survival of such beliefs as a quaint and charming relic of England past; indeed, some nineteenth century folklorists presented them as such. However, as Owen Davies rightly notes in A People Bewitched: Witchcraft and Magic in Nineteenth-Century Somerset: ‘The lighthearted and romantic portrayal of witchcraft was a distortion of reality, masking the fear and violence the belief periodically generated in towns and villages across the county’ – and, indeed, across the country.

While some folklorists romanticised witchcraft beliefs, most did not, and the many field studies conducted in the nineteenth century among England’s rural populations offer a window into the world such beliefs created. Beliefs of this sort were once widespread throughout England, but by the nineteenth century they were generally confined to the more rural regions. The West Country, therefore, provided researchers with a lot of relevant material.

In 1837, Mary Reynolds Palmer published A Dialogue in the Devonshire Dialect. The book’s Glossary includes definitions for the terms ‘overlooked’ and ‘whit-witch’. The former, writes Palmer, refers to an individual being bewitched by evil witchcraft, ‘an opinion still deeply rooted in many parts of the county’. The latter refers to the good witch who combats such overlooking by magical means. ‘This remains of superstition is far from being obsolete’, writes Palmer. Other nineteenth century writers confirm this as being true.

In a talk delivered at Barnstaple on July 24th 1867, JR Chanter (author of Sketches of the Literary History of Barnstaple) begins by noting the following:

Devon in general, and North Devon in particular, has been very retentive of ancient customs, habits, and superstitions. Its folk-lore is especially interesting from its local form of fairy, the Devonshire pixy. But the most noticeable fact connected with North Devon is, not so much the variety or specially local character of its superstitions and vulgar customs, as of their being still generally interwoven with the daily life of the population. In most parts of the country it is necessary, in order to gather up local customs or legends, to seek out ancient crones or noted legend-tellers; but no one can live in this district, and mix much with the country folks, without finding a general belief in witchcraft still existing, and old customs and superstitions in full sway. A great many of these are, or were, common to all England, but having gradually died out in the more busy parts of the country, have continued here, most probably from the isolated nature of the district, and the stagnant character of the agricultural population.

Chanter refers to the role of the ‘white witch’ (variously referred to in the popular vernacular by terms such as ‘wise man/woman’, ‘cunning man/woman’, and ‘conjurer’):

Accidents, or any obscure ailments to cattle, are commonly attributed to their being witched, or “overlooked”, as the term is, and can only be cured by a white witch; and it is well known that more than one person in North Devon gains his livelihood by acting professionally as a white witch, that is, the country people call him the white witch, though he professes to be a cattle doctor.

In fact, if any one gets into trouble in any way, it is quite a sufficient explanation that he has been “evil-wished and overlooked,” and the white witch is forthwith called into requisition.

In Arthur H. Norway’s book Highways and Byways in Devon and Cornwall (1897), we read:

Now there are many writers who have praised Exeter for this and that, some selecting one of her manifold charms and dignities for especial comment, while another gives the meed to something else; but there is one which has been neglected strangely, and as it will come cropping up time after time as we go on westwards, we may as well refer to the matter now. Exeter has for generations, if not for centuries, been the headquarters of west country witchcraft.

Of course it is notorious that the west is full of witches. There are few towns or villages of any consequence which do not boast some man or woman skilled more or less deeply in necromancy, and able to furnish charms against the evil eye; while in addition to these regular practitioners, there are many travelling gipsies and vagabonds who derive a comfortable sustenance from the black art. Now most of these witches will refer difficult cases to Truro, Plymouth, or to Exeter, the white witch at the ever faithful city being a sort of acknowledged chief among them all.

Sarah Hewett’s book Nummits and Crummits: Devonshire Customs, Characteristics, and Folk-lore (published in 1900) states:

West Country people generally, and Devonians in particular, are exceedingly superstitious, in spite of all that has been done for them in the way of higher education, and the enlightening influence of the press. Dwellers in the hilly parts of Devon, on Dartmoor and Exmoor, and in the villages bordering upon them, are as deeply imbued with faith in witches, as their forefathers were in the days when Alfred was king.

According to tradition there are three kinds of witches.

The Black Witch, who is of an intensely malignant nature, and responsible for all the ills that flesh is heir to.

The White Witch, of an opposite nature, is always willing, for certain pecuniary considerations, to dispense charms and philtres, to cancel the evil of the other.

The Grey Witch is the worst of all, for she possesses the double power of either “overlooking” or ” releasing.”

In cases of sickness, distress, or adversity, persons at the present time (A.D. 1898) make long expensive journeys to consult the white witch, and to gain relief by her (or his) aid.

In this worldview, there is no conception of events happening merely by chance, nor even of illness being a natural phenomenon. For the rural people of the West Country, in common with the people of England generally in previous ages, the landscape was filled with malevolence, whether in the form of evildoers conducting witchcraft or in the form of ghosts, spirits, and creatures such as pixies. According to this understanding of causation, any and all negative events taking place in one’s life are attributable to malignant forces at work. Such beliefs lead to an essentially paranoid view of reality, in which one’s neighbour or own family member may secretly be conspiring against you. They lead to people living in a state of constant fear, worrying that a fog descending is proof that pixies wish you harm and may be seeking to steal your children, seeing in the development of a cold evidence that someone has placed a curse on you, or believing that cattle becoming diseased is proof that someone in the locale is practising black witchcraft against you. It also makes people ripe for manipulation and exploitation by unscrupulous individuals who play on these fears for financial gain.

Numerous examples can be found in nineteenth and early twentieth century sources which illustrate the devastating consequences of the widespread rural belief in witchcraft.

The 1894 edition of the Report and Transactions of the Devonshire Association for the Advancement of Science, Literature and Art contains a report on an 1886 case from Barnstaple in which a retired farmer who had been ‘on very good terms with all his children’ developed eczema in one of his hands. He then ‘conceived the idea that the disease was a manifestation of the powers of witchcraft, and had been caused by some of his children “overlooking” him’. The man consulted a white witch in Exeter, who told him the eczema was the result of his having been ‘overlooked’ by a woman who lived near him and a member of his family. The farmer came away convinced that the persons responsible for his misfortune were in fact two of his own daughters and changed his will as a result.

Arthur H. Norway, writing in 1897, reports:

A man and his wife in South Devon, having had a run of ill-luck, came to the conclusion that they had been overlooked; and they suspected that it was a certain relative of the wife who had “cast her eye” over them. The wife accordingly posted off to Exeter, and consulted the white witch, who thoroughly confirmed her suspicions both as to the nature of the mischief and the individual who had caused it.

The couple burnt a cow’s heart in a ritual prescribed by the white witch, in order to banish the misfortune. No doubt, the family relationship was irreparably damaged.

Sabine Baring Gould, writing in 1908, recounts the case of a cattle dealer who attributed his daughter’s influenza to witchcraft. He consulted a white witch and came away convinced that a woman who lived nearby was responsible. The man ‘returned home full of conviction and wrath’. The next night, his neighbour’s home was burnt to the ground, nearly killing six people. Matches were found at the scene. As Baring Gould notes:

[T]here can be no doubt that bitter animosities are bred by the charges of “ill-wishing” and “overlooking” which are made by the White Witches. They are far too shrewd to name names, but they contrive to kindle and direct suspicions in their dupes which may lead to serious results.

While the arson case is a particularly egregious example of the consequences of witchcraft beliefs, and the activities of the ‘white witches’, it is far from an isolated example of the violence associated with such a worldview. Physical assaults on supposed witches were not uncommon.

Robert Hunt writes in Popular Romances of the West of England (1865):

Jenny Harris was a reputed witch. This woman, old, poor, and, from the world’s ill-usage, rendered malicious, was often charged with the evils which fell upon cattle, children, or, indeed, on men and women. On one occasion, a robust and rough-handed washerwoman, who conceived that she was under the spell of Jenny Harris, laid violent hands on the aged crone, being resolved to “bring blood from her.” The witch’s arm was scratched and gouged from the elbow to the wrist, so that a sound inch of skin did not exist. This violent assault became the subject of inquiry before the magistrates, who fined the washerwoman five pounds for the assault.

William Henderson recounts:

[I]n the year 1870, a man eighty years of age was fined at Barnstaple, in Devonshire, for scratching with a needle the arm of a young girl. He pleaded that he had “suffered affliction” through her for five years, had had four complaints on him at once, had lost 14 canaries, and about 50 goldfinches, and that his neighbours told him this was the only way to break the spell and get out of her power.

Another case in point has been communicated to me from Cheriton Bishop, a village near Exeter. Not many years ago a young girl in delicate health was thought to have been bewitched by an old woman of that place, and everybody declared that the only cure for her would be an application of the witch’s blood. The girl’s friends, therefore, laid wait for the poor old woman, seized her when she was alone and unprotected, scratched her with a nail till the blood flowed, and collected the blood. They carried it home, and smeared the sick girl with it, and the recovery, which took place in course of time, was attributed to this application.

Sarah Hewett, writing about Devonshire customs and folklore in 1898, reports:

The surest method of escaping the influence of the evil eye, is to draw blood from the person of the witch… A country man told me recently that he had “raped old mother Tapp’s arm with a great rusty nail two or three times,” till he made the blood flow freely. ”She can’t hurt me again arter that,” said he.

Even when physical violence was not resorted to, witchcraft beliefs resulted in all sorts of irrational activity. The obsession with witches led to an obsession with seeking revenge upon them, resulting in purportedly Christian country dwellers engaging in activities that bordered on black magic.

William Henderson writes:

In Devonshire, witches and malevolent people still make clay images of those whom they intend to hurt, baptize the image with the name of the person whom it is meant to represent, and then stick it full of pins or burn it. In the former case that person is racked with rheumatism in all his limbs; in the second he is smitten with raging fever.

Ague is a disease which has always been deemed peculiarly open to the influence of charms. It is said in Devonshire that you may give it to your neighbour, by burying under his threshold a bag containing the parings of a dead man’s nails, and some of the hairs of his head; your neighbour will be afflicted with ague till the bag is removed.

There are still plenty of white witches in Devonshire, but one died a few years ago in the village of Bovey Tracey, who, unless she were greatly maligned, by no means deserved so favourable a designation… A man went to her asking for help to get rid of an enemy. The witch gave him a candle, and told him to take it into a secret place, light it, and watch it while it was burning. So long as it burned, his enemy would be in flames; when it expired he would die, which, said my Informant, came to pass.

Sarah Hewett records a ritual intended to ‘destroy the power of a witch’:

Take three small-necked stone jars: place in each the liver of a frog stuck full of new pins, and the heart of a toad stuck full of thorns from the holy thorn bush. Cork and seal each jar. Bury in three different churchyard paths seven inches from the surface and seven feet from the porch. While in the act of burying each jar repeat the Lord’s prayer backwards. As the hearts and livers decay so will the witch’s power vanish. After performing this ceremony no witch can have any power over the operator.

Then there is ‘the herring-bone charm to cause death’: ‘Sew into a garment which is worn next to the skin a long thin herring-bone. As the bone dries up, or withers, so will the person wearing it gradually pine away and die’.

Sabine Baring Gould, in his A Book of Dartmoor (1900), writes of a Dartmoor witch:

She was an implacable hater; and living on the wilds, half educated, she was superstitious, and believed in witchcraft, and in her own power to ill-wish such individuals as offended her. She was caught on one occasion with a doll into which she was sticking pins and needles, in the hope and with the intent thereby of producing aches and cramps in a neighbour. On another occasion she laid a train of gunpowder on her hearth, about a figure of dough, and ignited it, for the purpose of conveying an attack of fever to the person against whom she was animated with resentment.

Putting toads in potions, scratching the arms of ‘witches’, and sticking pins into images seem shocking to us today, but were not at all unusual in the rural England of the relatively recent past, nor was a reliance on the services of white witches. Why, though, did so many inhabitants of a firmly Christian country, with a Christian monarch, and an Established church, turn more readily to the services of white witches than clerics, and why did they put more faith in the existence of witchcraft than in the teachings of the church? The truth is that the English as a whole were never particularly formally religious, especially lower down the social ladder. As Henry Bourne put it in his book of 1725, the common people were devoted to ‘idle Traditions… more than the Word of God; and have more Dependance upon the lucky Omens of the other than his Providence, more Dread of their unlucky ones, than his Wrath and Punishment’. Christopher Hill, writing in Some Intellectual Consequences of the English Revolution (1997) notes the following of church attendance in seventeenth century England:

Although church attendance was mandatory up to the year 1650 when it was abolished, the Anglican Episcopalian Church was never all embracing. There is evidence to show that the very poor, rogues, vagabonds, masterless men, and beggars did not ever attend. In some instances parish relief had to be withheld in order to get the poor to attend.

But it wasn’t merely the very lowest ranking of society who eschewed formal religious observance. Scholarly editions of eighteenth century visitation returns illustrate the low level of church attendance clearly. For example, The Visitation Records of Archdeacon Joseph Plymley, 1792-1838 show that ‘the average congregation at the best attended service in 19 Anglican parish churches in the Archdeaconry of Salop [Diocese of Lichfield] in 1792-94 was equivalent to 26% of the population’. While the nineteenth century is well-known as a period of increased religiosity, this was again largely confined to the new urban middle classes and the old ruling class. The Religious Census of 1851 gives a revealing insight into the religious landscape of mid-nineteenth century England. Writing in 1853, Horace Mann, who had been in charge of organising the survey, concluded:

It must be apparent that a sadly formidable portion of the English people are habitual neglecters of the public ordinances of religion. Nor is it difficult to indicate to what particular class of the community this portion in the main belongs. The middle classes have augmented rather than diminished that devotional sentiment and strictness of attention to religious services by which, for several centuries, they have so eminently been distinguished. With the upper class, too, the subject of religion has obtained of late a marked degree of notice, and a regular church-attendance is now ranked amongst the recognized proprieties of life.

The working classes (at least 80% of the entire English population at that time), however, made up an ‘absolutely insignificant… portion of the congregations’, wrote Mann, and were ‘as utter strangers to religious ordinances as the people of a heathen nation’. These working people were not just the many who now dwelt in cities as a result of the increasing rural exodus. It was not a case of religious country folk vs. secularised city-dwellers, for, in the year of the survey, the population of England was split 49.8% rural and 50.2% urban, so a great many of Mann’s ‘habitual neglecters of the public ordinances of religion’ were found in country parishes. The key difference between the rural and urban populations in matters of belief was not so much one of church attendance, but of devotion to folk religion and belief in witchcraft. Some of the new settlers in cities may well have brought those beliefs with them, but they didn’t have staying power once removed from the essentially backward rural environment that birthed and sustained them. White witches were indeed operating in cities such as Exeter, but they largely made their living by preying upon the people of the surrounding countryside.

Time and again, we read of urban white witches being sought out by the people of the countryside who, as Sarah Hewett reported, made ‘long expensive journeys to consult the white witch’. As we have seen, Arthur H. Norway wrote of a couple from South Devon who ‘posted off to Exeter, and consulted the white witch’. Sabine Baring Gould wrote that ‘there were several notable white witches in Exeter who took lots of good fees for pretended good services’. An 1848 North Devon Journal article refers to a man from Ashburton who ‘made a desperate attempt to recover [his] property, by applying to the celebrated “white witch” of Exeter’. Robert Hunt writes of a farmer from Bodmin who ‘made many journeys to Exeter, to consult the “White Witch”‘. Country Life Volume 49 (1921) recounts the tale of another man who travelled all the way from Cornwall to seek help from the ‘white witch of Exeter’. There were many such ‘white witches’, the majority of whom were male. They often posed as respectable ‘herbal doctors’, but had a sideline in witchcraft. In 1903, one such individual found himself in Exeter police court on charges of obtaining money by unlawful means:

William Henry Thomas, described as a gentleman, of Bartholomew Street, Exeter… had obtained a wide reputation among poor-witted country people. The latter believed that if a man’s wife was ill or his cattle died that they had been “overlooked,” or bewitched; and Thomas was reputed to have the power of stopping that “overlooking.” His books show that he had been clearing £300 a year by this business. As an instance of the practices that the defendant carried on, he might mention that he gave a farmer who had been losing horses and cattle a powder and told him to throw it around his homestead between 9 p.m. and midnight, and say the Lord’s Prayer at the same time.

Thomas was not the only white witch of Bartholomew Street. Robert Tuckett is listed in an 1835 Exeter directory as a ‘herbal doctor’. He didn’t just see clients at his home, but also journeyed to markets elsewhere to sell his products. An 1836 broadsheet purchased at Tavistock market, offering a ‘Receipt for Ill-wishing’, directs the purchaser to contact ‘Doctor Tuckett, No. 22, Bartholomew Street, Exeter’. The broadsheet was to be purchased along with one of Tuckett’s ‘magical’ powders, intended to be strewn over the backs of cattle in a ritual similar to that of Thomas. The text includes the following:

If not better in two or three days, do this:– bleed the beast as it will bear, and mix it with barleymeal, as warm as you can, and make three images, one in the shape of a man and two in the shape of a woman. Stick five black thorns into each breast and five white thorns into each head, and three new pins into each leg and arm. Say to each as you stick them in, “I do this to torture and torment, in the name of the Lord, that man or woman who hath hurted me and my cattle:” then burn them with green ashen wood. When you put them in the fire, say, “I confine all evil and enemies of mine and of my cattle into the fire forever, never to hurt me nor mine any more for ever, in the name of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost, Amen.”

If anything should die, do this:– take out the heart as soon as you can and stick it full of black and white thorns, and new pins, and old horse-nails, and double flint glass, and say to each as in sticking it into the images; then hang it up to the bar of the chimney, and burn a little of it every day for fourteen days following; then burn it out.

Commenting on Tuckett’s text, a writer in The Quarterly Review, Volume 59 (1837) notes that ‘superstitions of this dark and odious character are found in every part of our island’.

Another Tuckett of Bartholomew Street – James, likely the son of Robert – is listed as a ‘herbal doctor’ in an 1848 directory. Two years later, we find ‘Tuckett Jas. and Son, herbal doctors, Botanic Hall, 44 Bartholomew st’ in another directory. Sabine Baring Gould (1908) cites an 1847 account of ‘the general method of the White Witch Tucker in Exeter’. This is almost certainly actually a reference to one of the Tucketts, quite likely James. Visitors to ‘Tucker’ met in the waiting room an accomplice of his, who posed as another customer and got the visitor to open up about his problems:

Now this fuming man was employed by Tucker to draw out from the gulls what their trouble was, and there was but a sham wall of paper between the room where the interview took place and that in which he received the farmer, whom he greatly astonished by informing him of all the circumstances that led to the visit. The remedy he prescribed was to carry a little bag he gave him, in which were some stones, and to dash water in the direction of the old woman, and say, “I do it in the name of Tucker,” and if this did not answer, he was to put a faggot up his chimney, set fire to it, and say a prayer he taught him while it was burning.

The Report and Transactions of the Devonshire Association for the Advancement of Science, Literature and Art, Volumes 57-58 (1926) states: ‘About thirty to thirty-five years ago, Tuckett, the famous “white witch” from Exeter, came to Parkham and stopped for some time at the Bell Inn, where he carried on his “practice”‘.

Many white witches, particularly the city-dwellers, were evidently knowingly conning their clients and cynically playing on the fears and troubles of rural people. Those white witches who genuinely believed in witchcraft and in the efficacy of the spells and potions they offered were less morally repugnant, but were nonetheless contributing to the reinforcement of belief in an irrational and desperate view of the world. Looking at the beliefs of our rural forebears, we find a world very far removed from our own, and we find witchcraft as a lived reality at least up until the early years of the twentieth century (although surviving much later in isolated pockets).

Romantic images and notions of the rural England of past centuries, in which people were presumed to be more healthy, more faithful, and more innocent are based on a false view of reality. Life in the countryside was for most people a harsh experience: living and working conditions were often poor; the work itself was a relentless slog, out in all weathers; the diet was often dreary, uninspiring, and likely nutritionally insufficient; illness and disease was frequent, both among humans and domesticated animals; medicine was largely ineffective and mostly consisted of folk cures, many of which could only have had a placebo effect, and some of which were almost certainly harmful; people lived in fear of witches, ghosts, and evil spirits, even fearing their own neighbours and family members were attacking them with witchcraft. Nostalgia for an imagined rural idyll that existed in England prior to industrialisation and urbanisation is not grounded in reality. When, during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, people poured out of the English countryside and into cities, they faced many new challenges and hardships, but they also escaped from a world filled with the worst kinds of ignorance and superstition. There was nothing romantic about that world and its passing should never be mourned. While we should rightly be concerned today about preserving the natural beauty and biological diversity of rural England, the loss of much of the culture that once permeated it is no loss at all.

Contemporary polling data actually calls into question the notion that the kind of beliefs that once obsessed the country-dwellers of England ever truly disappeared, although the sheer terror these beliefs once inspired seems to have abated over time with the moving of British society from being largely rural to largely urban. The hope that reason would one day emerge triumphant now seems unlikely, however. While only 1.4% of the population attends church regularly, adherence to folk beliefs is, if anything, on the rise.

Astonishingly, 44% of British people apparently claim to have seen a fairy (interestingly, the top areas for such ‘sightings’ are Devon and Cornwall); nearly two thirds claim to believe in magic; 45% say it is highly likely that witches, vampires, and demons are secretly living and working alongside us in everyday life, and three in ten say they are certain one of these creatures has put a spell or curse on them; around 20% believe that a work colleague has put a curse on them and 13% admitted to trying to curse a colleague; British people are more likely to believe in ghosts than a creator God; and more people may believe in life after death than God.

A 2016 YouGov survey that found more people believing in ghosts than a creator God turned up interesting results amongst those who identified as Christians:

The same survey also found that self-identified Christians are more likely to believe in aliens than the devil, and more likely to believe in fate than in heaven or an eternal soul…

[T]he new YouGov figures suggest that Britain’s “Christian” majority does not hold conventionally Christian beliefs, and that less commonly discussed folk beliefs are often more deeply entrenched than Christian doctrine.

The idea of ‘luck’, good and bad, still has a significant place within popular belief as well. Researchers have discovered that houses with the number 13 on the door sell for £6,500 less than their neighbours and that almost a third less houses are bought on the thirteenth day of the month compared to the monthly average. Some councils have banned the use of number 13 in all new developments. The BBC reports:

Such has been the local aversion to “unlucky” houses [in Worcestershire] that the district council, Wyre Forest, has in recent years banned the use of number 13 in all new developments. Local councillor Stephen Clee resolutely defends the policy.

“We have to listen to what the people say,” he says. “The local community were saying to us, ‘we don’t like living at number 13, so can we do something about it?’”

Wyre Forest is not alone in this – 13 is not used for new houses in authorities ranging from Herefordshire to Lewes in Sussex. West Wiltshire has also introduced a ban.

The key difference between these contemporary beliefs and those of the rural past seems to lie in the kind of action people who claim to believe in such things actually take. In the rural environment of the past, ‘white witches’ did a roaring trade, supposed ‘black witches’ were physically assaulted or worse, and the genuine fear people lived in led to them resorting to the carrying of animal parts and the conducting of occult rituals. The evidence for any widespread continuation of such practices is thankfully lacking, and has now largely been consigned to the past.

Sabine Baring Gould on the Folk Beliefs of Devonians (1908)

Excerpted from Sabine Baring Gould’s book Devonshire Characters and Strange Events (1908).


Some years ago I wrote a little account of “White Witches” in the Daily Graphic, in which I narrated some of my experiences and my acquaintance with their proceedings. This brought me at the lowest computation fifty letters from all parts of the country from patients who had spent much of their substance upon medical practitioners, and, like the woman with the issue of blood in the Gospel, “had suffered many things of many physicians and was nothing bettered, but rather grew worse.” These entreated me to furnish them with the addresses of some of these irregular practitioners, that they might try them. I did not send what was desired, and that for a very good reason, that I regard these individuals as impostors and the occasion of a good deal of mischief.

At the same time distinguez, as the French would say. They are not all so, and I have seen and can testify to very notable and undeniable cures that they have effected. That they believe in their powers and their cures is true in a good many cases, and I quite admit that they may be in possession of a large number of valuable herbal recipes, doubtless of real efficacy. Some of our surgeons are far too fond of using the knife, and the majority of them employ strong mineral medicines that, though they may produce an immediate effect, do injury in the long run. I take it that one reason why our teeth are so bad in the present generation is due largely to the way in which calomel was administered in times past, a medicine that touches the liver but is rottenness to the bones.

What Jesus the son of Sirach said centuries ago is true still: “The Lord hath created medicines out of the earth, and he that is wise will not abhor them … by such doth he heal men, and taketh away their pains. Of such doth the apothecary make a confection” (Ecclus. XXXVIII. 4, 7, 8). What the writer meant was herbs and not minerals. The simples employed by the wise old women in our villages were admirable in most cases, but they were slow, if sure of action, and in these days when we go at a gallop we want cures to be rapid, almost instantaneous.

But the professed herbalist in our country towns is very often not a herbalist at all, but a mere impostor. He puts up “herbalist” on a brass plate at his door, but his procedure is mere quackery.

Moreover, the true White Witch is consulted not for maladies only, but for the discovery of who has cast the evil eye, “overlooked” and “ill-wished” some one who has lost a cow, or has been out of sorts, or has sickness in his pig-sty. The mode of proceeding was amusingly described in the Letters of Nathan Hogg, in 1847. Nathan in the form of a story gives an account of what was the general method of the White Witch Tucker in Exeter. A farmer whose conviction was that disorders and disasters at home were the result of the ill-wishing of a red-cloaked Nan Tap, consulted Tucker as to how the old woman was to be “driven” and rendered powerless.

I modify the broad dialect, which would not be generally intelligible.

When into Exeter he had got
To Master Tucker’s door he sot;
He rung’d the bell, the message sent,
Pulled off his hat, and in he went,
And seed a fellow in a room
That seem’d in such a fret and fume.
He said he’d lost a calf and cow,
And com’d in there to know as how,
For Master T., at little cost,
Had often found the things he’d lost.

Thereupon the farmer opened his own trouble, and told how he and his were bewitched by Nan Tap. And as he told his tale, it seemed so sad that the man in the room bade him go in first to consult the White Witch.

Now this fuming man was employed by Tucker to draw out from the gulls what their trouble was, and there was but a sham wall of paper between the room where the interview took place and that in which he received the farmer, whom he greatly astonished by informing him of all the circumstances that led to the visit. The remedy he prescribed was to carry a little bag he gave him, in which were some stones, and to dash water in the direction of the old woman, and say, “I do it in the name of Tucker,” and if this did not answer, he was to put a faggot up his chimney, set fire to it, and say a prayer he taught him while it was burning. We need not follow the account any further.

There was a few years ago a notable White Witch of the name of Snow, at Tiverton, who did great business. In a case with which I am well acquainted, he certainly was the means of curing a substantial farmer. The man had caught a severe chill one night of storm, when a torrent threatened to inundate his house. He had stood for hours endeavouring to divert the stream from his door. The chill settled on his chest, and he became a wreck; he drew his breath with difficulty, walked bent, almost double, and as I was convinced would not live out the twelve months. He consulted the most famous and experienced physicians, and they did him no good. Then in desperation he went to “Old Snow.” From that day he mended. What the White Witch gave him I do not know; but the man is now robust, hearty, and looks as if many years were before him.

I know another case, but this is of a different nature. A young farmer, curious as to the future, visited a White Witch to learn who his future wife would be. Said she—this witch was a woman, and an old one: there are female witches who are young and exercise very powerful charms—said she: “Next Sunday, you go along Narracott lane, and the first young woman you see pass, look her well in the face, and when you’ve gone by, turn your head and look, and if she’s also turned her head and is looking at you, that’s the one.”

“Well now,” said this farmer in later years, “it were a coorious thing it were, but as I were goin’ along thickey lane there I seed Bessie Baker, and I turn’d, and sure enough her were lookin’ over her shoulder to me, and wot’s most coorious of all—her’s my missus now. After that, don’t ee go and tell me as how White Witches knows nothin’. But there’s somethin’ more to the tale. I heerd afterwards as Bessie, her’d consulted old Nan, and Nan had said to her, ‘Go along Narracott lane, and the first man as you sees, when you’ve past, turn and look; and if he’s lookin’ over his shoulder to you, that’s the one.’ There’s facts; and wi’ them facts staring of you in the face, don’t you go and say White Witches is nort.”

There is an old woman I know—she is still alive. It was six years since she bought a bar of yellow or any other soap. But that is neither here nor there. She was esteemed a witch—a white one of course. She was a God-fearing woman, and had no relations with the Evil One, of that one may be sure. How she subsisted was a puzzle to the whole parish. But, then, she was generally feared. She received presents from every farm and cottage. Sometimes she would meet a child coming from school, and stay it, and fixing her wild dark eye on it, say, “My dear, I knawed a child jist like you—same age, red rosy cheeks, and curlin’ black hair. And that child shrivelled up, shrumped like an apple as is picked in the third quarter of the moon. The cheeks grew white, the hair went out of curl, and she jist died right on end and away.”

Before the day was out, a chicken or a basket of eggs as a present from the mother of that child was sure to arrive.

I have given an account of this same old woman in my An Old English Home, and will here add a few more particulars about her. She possessed of her own a two-storied house, thatched, built mainly of cob, but with two chimneys of brick. Some five-and-twenty years ago the house was habitable enough. The thatch had given way in several places, but she could not or would not have it repaired. Perhaps she had not the means; but the farmers offered her straw, and a thatcher would have done the work for her gratis, or only for her blessing. She would not. “God made the sky,” she said, “and that is the best roof of all.” After a while, however, the roof became leaky everywhere. Then she sought shelter for her head by stuffing up the chimney of her bedroom fireplace with a sack filled with chaff, and pushing her bed to the hearth, she slept with her head and pillow under the sack. But access to this bedroom became difficult, as the stairs, exposed to the rain, rotted and gave way, and she was compelled to ascend and descend by an improvised ladder.

MARIANN VOADEN, BRATTON

MARIANN VOADEN’S COTTAGE, BRATTON

The rector of the parish went to her and remonstrated at the dangerous condition of the tenement.

“My dear,” said she, “there be two angels every night sits on the rungs of the ladder and watches there, that nobody comes nigh me, and they be ready to hold up the timbers that they don’t fall on me.”

The rector’s daughter carried her some food every now and then. One day the woman made her a present of some fine old lace. This was gratefully accepted. As the young lady was departing, “Old Marianne” called after her from the bedroom door, “Come back, my dear, I want that lace again. If any one else be so gude as to give me aught, I shall want it to make an acknowledgment of the kindness.” The lace was often given as acknowledgment, and as often reclaimed.

After a while the ladder collapsed. Then the old woman descended for good and all, and took up her abode on the ground floor—kitchen and parlour, dining-room and bedroom all in one.

Finally the whole roof fell in and carried down the flooring of the upper story, but in such manner that the “planchin” rested at one end against the wall, but blocked up door and fireplace. Then she lived under it as a lean-to roof, and without a fire for several winters, amongst others that bitter one of 1893–4, and her only means of egress and ingress was through the window. Of that half the number of panes was broken and patched with rags. As the water poured into her room she finally took refuge in an old oak chest, keeping the lid up with a brick.

I knew her very well; she was a picturesque object. Once she and I were photographed together standing among the ruins of her house. She must have been handsome in her day, with a finely-cut profile, and piercing dark eyes. She usually wore a red kerchief about her head or neck and an old scarlet petticoat. But she was dirty—indescribably so. Her hands were the colour of mahogany. She promised me her book of charms. I never got it, and this was how. The huntsmen were wont, whenever passing her wretched house, to shout “Marianne! Marianne!” and draw up. Then from amidst the ruins came a muffled response, “Coming, my dears, coming!” Presently she appeared. She was obliged to crawl out of her window that opened into the garden and orchard at the back of the house, go round it, and unlace a gate of thorns she had erected as a protection to her garden; there she always received presents. One day as usual the fox-hunters halted and called for her; she happened at the time to have kindled a fire on the floor of her room to boil a little water in a kettle for tea, and she left the fire burning when she issued forth to converse with the gentlemen and extend her hand for half-crowns. Whilst thus engaged the flames caught some straw that littered the ground, they spread, set fire to the woodwork, and the room was in a blaze. Everything was consumed, her chest-bed, her lace, her book of charms. After that she was conveyed to the workhouse, where she is still, and now is kept clean.

Once, before this catastrophe, I drove over to see her, taking my youngest daughter with me. The child had breakings-out on her face; Marianne noticed this. “Ah, my dear,” said she, “I see you want my help. You must bring the little maiden to me, she must be fasting, and then I will bless her face, and in two days she will be well.” Her cure for whooping-cough was to cut the hair off the cross on a donkey’s back, fasten it in silk bags, and tie these round the children’s necks. “You see,” she said, “Christ Jesus rode into Jerusalem on an ass, and ever since then asses have the cross on their backs, and the hair of those crosses is holy and cures maladies.”

Although I did not obtain her book of charms, she gave me many of her recipes. For fits one was to swallow wood-lice, pounded if one liked, better swallowed au naturel.

For Burns or Scalds.—Recite over the place:—

There were three Angels who came from the North,
One bringing Fire, the other brought Frost,
The other he was the Holy Ghost.
In Frost, out Fire! In the Name, etc.

For a Sprain.—Recite: “As Christ was riding over Crolly Bridge, His horse slid and sprained his leg. He alighted and spake the words: Bone to bone, and sinew to sinew! and blessed it and it became well, and so shall … become well. In the Name, etc.” Repeat thrice.

For Stanching Blood.—Recite: “Jesus was born in Bethlehem, baptized in the river of Jordan. The water was wide and the river was rude against the Holy Child. And He smote it with a rod, and it stood still, and so shall your blood stand still. In the Name, etc.” Repeat thrice.

Cure for Toothache.—“As our Blessed Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ were walking in the garden of Jerusalem, Jesus said unto Peter, Why weepest thou? Peter answered and said, Lord, I be terrible tormented with the toothache. Jesus said unto Peter, If thou wilt believe in Me and My words abide in thee, thou shall never more fill [sic] the pain in thy tooth. Peter cried out with tears, Lord, I believe, help thou my onbelieve [sic].”

Another receipt for a Sprain.

2 oz. of oil of turpentine.
2 oz. of swillowes.
2 oz. of oil of earthworms.
2 oz. of nerve.
2 oz. of oil of spideldock (? opodeldoc).
2 oz. of Spanish flies.

I recommend this recipe to be taken to an apothecary. Order it to be made up, and observe his face as he reads it.

Marianne had the gift of stanching blood even at a distance. On one occasion when hay was being cut, a man wounded himself at Kelly, some eight miles distant, and the blood flowed in streams. At once the farmer bade a man take a kerchief dipped in his blood and gallop as hard as he could to the tumble-down cottage, and get Marianne to bless the blood. He did so, and was gone some three hours. As soon as the old woman had charmed the kerchief the blood ceased to flow.

At one time, now thirty to forty years ago, it was not by any means uncommon for one to meet the village postman walking with one hand extended holding a kerchief that was sent to the White Witch to be blessed. The rag must touch no other human being till it reached her. Moreover, at my own village inn, people from a distance frequently lodged so as to be able to consult the White Witch, and my tenant, the landlady of the inn, was absolutely convinced of the efficacy of the cures wrought.

The rector’s son went to call on Marianne, and she brought out for him a filthy glass with poppy wine she had made, thick and muddy, and offered it to him. “I am almost a teetotaler,” said he; “and so can do no more than just sip this to your health and happiness,” and he put his lips to the glass.

“Ah! Mr. Edward, dear,” said she, “I’ve offered thickey glass o’ wine to some, and they’m so proud and haughty as they wouldn’t titch it; but you’m no so—and now my blessing shall be wi’ you night and day—and gude fortune shall ever attend you—that I promise you.”

A VILLAGE “WISE MAN”

A writer in Devon Notes and Queries, October, 1906, writes:—

“Fifty-nine years ago, two years after breaking my arm, I evidently chilled it by violent exercise and perspiring in a lengthened snowball battle on Northernhay (Exeter). This caused a large surface wound which neither doctor nor chemist could heal for months, but I had to renew on all opportunities daily the application of bandages wetted with Goulard’s Extract (acetate of lead and water). Months went by, still no cure, and at last, in sheer despair, my mother, who had not long left the country to live in Exeter, resolved to take me to a Seventh Son whose fame was current in Exeter. He was at the time the carrier to and from Moretonhampstead. He saw my arm as he stood by his wagon, and bade my mother bring me the following Friday, when something was said over the wound, and I was invested with a small velvet amulet, which I believe contained the leg of a toad.

“The wet bandages were continued, and from that day to this I have never been able to tell which effected the ultimate cure, the wet bandages or the toad.

“About thirty years later I had of my own a seventh daughter, born in succession. The news got about, and within a fortnight we had two applications from troubled mothers. Would we let our dear baby lay her hand on their child’s arm or leg, as may be, for it would not harm mine and might cure theirs of King’s Evil?

“During the early years that I have named, there were several notable white witches in Exeter who took lots of good fees for pretended good services. Superstition dies slowly, for within the last seven years a friend of mine with the same surname as the White Witch of 1840–50, but a comparative new-comer to Exeter, was startled by an application of which he, knowing nothing of old wives’ stories of Devon, could not fathom the meaning until asking the writer if he could explain. About 1880 my wife was met at the door by a man who might by appearance have been a small farmer. ‘Missus, be I gwain right?’ ‘Where do you want to go?’ (A little hesitation.) ‘I waant to vind thickey wuman that tells things. My cows be wished and I waant to vind out who dood it.’ So he was told to go to a cottage behind Friars’ Green, where old Mrs.—— had a crop of fools for clients every Friday, and told them their fortunes by tea-grounds and cards, much to her and their satisfaction; but I certainly was amused to hear my wife say, ‘Oh, Jenny So-and-so, Polly What’s-her-name, and various others, and I, have gone there lots of times, and had our fortunes told for twopence.’”

At the beginning of this article I mentioned a farmer, a tenant of mine, who professed to have been cured by “Old Snow,” of Tiverton.

Nine years after this I wrote the article on our Devonshire White Witches in the Daily Graphic. This was transferred to one or two Plymouth papers. Shortly after that, at our harvest festival, the farmer turned up. He had left my farm and taken another elsewhere; but he had a hankering after Lew Trenchard, and at our festival he appeared, robust and hearty. He came to me and said, “Why, sir, you have been putting me in the papers.” “Well, old friend,” said I, “I said in it nothing but what was true.” “True, aye, aye, sir, true as gospel. The doctors in Plymouth and Mr. Budd, of North Tawton, gave me up, but Old Snow cured me. I met him on the platform of Tiverton station, and told him my case. He looked me hard in the eye, and said some words, and bade me go home and I was cured. Well, sir, from that day I mended. You see now what I am.”

A friend wrote to me: “In 1891, my head man had an attack of influenza, and this fell on his nerves, and convinced that he had been ill-wished, he consulted a White Witch at Callington, who informed him that he had been ‘overlooked’ by one of his own profession, and that he had applied too late for a cure to be effected.”

Now the person who exhorted him to have recourse to the White Witch was his daughter, who was mistress at the school of the parish.

The man eventually recovered, but not through the aid of the White Witch.

I know a farmer, a God-fearing, sensible man, and thriving in his farm and piling up money, to whom recourse is continually had to stanch wounds, and to cure abscesses, by striking the place and reciting certain mystic sentences.

A witch, white or black, must communicate the secret of power to one of an opposite sex before he or she can die—that is well known.

That in many cases the imagination acting on the nervous system acts curatively “goes without saying.” It is that which really operates in the faith cures and in the Lourdes miracles. What a bad time witches, white or black, must have had when the short way with any one suspected was to throw her into a pond! If she sank, why she sank and was drowned, but had the satisfaction of being aware that her character was cleared, whereas if she floated, she was a convicted witch and was burnt.

I am not, however, sure that we are not too lenient with the professional White Witch nowadays, as the following incident will show. I do not name the locality, certainly not the persons, for nothing was proved.

A certain cattle-dealer three years ago was much troubled because his daughter who had had influenza did not rally, but was rather strange in her head. He went to the county capital to consult the White Witch. The latter showed him a glass of water, and said that the person who had overlooked his child was fair-haired and stout. Further, that she had never been inside his doors, but that she would enter them on the following Saturday.

The cattle-jobber looking into the glass of water thought he saw a face—it was that of a woman who lived not far from him. What he really saw was, of course, his own reflected, but with the words of the witch ringing in his ears and guided by his imagination he conceived that he saw a neighbour.

He returned home full of conviction and wrath. Next night the husband of the fair-haired, stout woman woke after midnight, and heard a strange crackling sound. He hastily dressed, and went outside his door, when he saw that the thatch of his house was in flames. He hastened to rouse his wife and family, there were six who slept in the house, and he had barely drawn them outside, before the roof fell in and the cottage was converted into one great bonfire. By the merest accident it was that six persons were not burned in their beds. Next morning the police, who investigated the matter, found evidence that the house had been wilfully and deliberately set fire to. Some one had stepped on to a hedge, and had lighted three lucifer matches, and in drawing them from his pocket had drawn out and dropped at the same time two halfpenny stamps. The first two matches had failed. The third took effect. Who had been the incendiary was not discovered.

Of course the circumstance first mentioned may be entirely unconnected with the second. But there can be no doubt that bitter animosities are bred by the charges of “ill-wishing” and “overlooking” which are made by the White Witches. They are far too shrewd to name names, but they contrive to kindle and direct suspicions in their dupes which may lead to serious results.

It is very difficult to bring these cases home, and on this immunity they trade. But it is devoutly to be hoped that some day certain of these gentry will be tripped up, and then, though magistrates can no more send them to the stake, they will send them to cool their heels in gaol, and richly they will deserve the punishment.