I have been thinking about witches lately. Not because Halloween is upon us, but rather due to having recently read an almost new history of the Salem witch trials by Stacy Schiff, The Witches: Salem, 1692. That book set me to wondering if the traditional belief in witches played a role in Arkansas history. After several weeks of digging deeply into our history and folklore, it seems clear that a surprising number of Arkansans have through the years manifested a rather firm conviction that witches do indeed exist--and can impact our lives in many ways.
A belief in witchcraft goes far back in the history of mankind, so we should not be surprised that early Arkansans believed in these malevolent forces. Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, who explored the Ozarks in 1818-19, found "among all classes superstition is prevalent." Beliefs in witchcraft "have still their advocates here." He went on to say that one early settler believed that his rifle was bewitched "so that he could kill nothing with it, and sold it on that account."
A correspondent writing to the Arkansas Gazette from Van Buren in 1839 reported on "marvelous stories" of witchcraft: "It is stated that in one family, at no great distance from Van Buren, some half dozen persons, from twenty years of age down to infancy, have been for several weeks laboring under strange and unaccountable afflictions." The afflicted, he wrote, have seen "two neighboring women, whom they charge with being witches, riding upon broom sticks..." The correspondent concluded: "It is perhaps fortunate ... that no statute against sorcery and witchcraft is found upon the penal code of the state ..."
One of the most colorful stories about an Arkansas witch comes from Carroll County, later a part of Boone County. According to oral tradition in the locally prominent Rea family, "old Mrs. Inman," who was blind in one eye and lived "on Lick Branch just east of Alpena," was in 1858 excommunicated from the Primitive Baptist Church for practicing witchcraft.
A female member of the church named Gaddy charged that "the accused had come to the complainant's house at night, saddled and bridled the complainant, and rode her for miles over the hills and valleys of Carroll County." Interestingly, charges very much like these were made against several accused witches during the 1692 Salem witch trials.
The most bizarre charge made against Mrs. Inman was that "on at least one occasion the alleged witch rode Miss Gaddy into a neighbor's barn, and there bred her to a Spanish jack."
Wayman Hogue, who grew up in the late 1800s in rural Faulkner County, recalled in his magnificent autobiography Back Yonder that stories of the supernatural abounded. "Witches were a favorite pest of the older men and women," Hogue remembered. Witches were blamed for milk going sour, for children having epileptic fits, and for the sudden deaths of livestock. Hogue's neighbor Uncle Johnny Bledsoe once claimed that he could not plow his fields because "witches had ridden his horse all the night before and it was tired out ..." The witches had even tied knots in the horse's mane.
Many people considered Angie Paxton of Carroll County to be a witch. She indignantly rejected that label. Here is how folklorist Vance Randolph described his meeting with Paxton in 1936: "Angie Paxton sat on the edge of the little porch as we approached. She greeted us politely enough, but without any particular enthusiasm, and fixed me with a sharp black eye. 'Them fools down to the store told ye I was a witch, didn't they? Wal, I aint. I'm a fortune-teller."
Randolph described Paxton as "a clairvoyant, a fortune-teller, and an adept in magic white and black. She has, according to her neighbors, the Gift of the Second Sight, the ability to commune with spirits good and evil, to understand the past and read the future ..." Randolph admitted "some people go so far as to call her a witch, although this is not a term to be used lightly in the Ozarks, even today."
The 76-year-old "Widder Paxton" was like many women who were accused of witchcraft-- elderly, poor, widowed, and living in extreme isolation. She was staying with relatives "on the crest of Bradshaw Mountain" when Randolph went to visit, her own home having been lost to a landslide.
Practicing witches are certainly found in modern Arkansas. Indeed, a quick peek at the Internet reveals that the River Valley Pagans and Witches hosted their first Annual Witches Ball in Fort Smith this weekend. If you missed the Witches Ball, you still have time to see The Crucible, Arthur Miller's play on the Salem witch trials, at the Arkansas Repertory Theater in Little Rock through Nov. 13.
Tom Dillard is a historian and retired archivist. Email him at Arktopia.firstname.lastname@example.org.
Editorial on 10/30/2016