Common section

Skin shedding and shape-shifting

One distinctive African-American belief associated with both the notion of witch riding and the experience of being hag-ridden, is that witches physically shed their skins before setting out on their spirit journeys to ride people. If you could find the skin before the witch returned and rubbed pepper and salt into it, you would cause her much discomfort. A great sensation was caused in New Orleans in 1844 when rumours spread that a witch had been arrested, and a large crowd gathered around the high constable’s office. It was said that she had been seen slipping out of her skin, washing it in the Mississippi and leaving it to dry by moonlight. Gossip related that at the time of her arrest she had slipped off her skin and someone had managed to fill it with salt, so that ‘she was unable to enter it again, and was at that time as raw as a piece of beef’.71 It has been suggested that the concept was introduced to the Carolinas by Caribbean slaves, and one twentieth-century collection of skin-shedding stories was collected solely from Gullah-speaking areas—the Gullah being African-American communities in South Carolina, the Sea Islands, and Georgia, who have retained a strong African cultural heritage and speak a Creole language similar to that found in Jamaica and Barbados.72 Indeed, in parts of the Caribbean we find the soukouyan or soucouyant, a night-flying, bloodsucking female witch that sheds her skin and enters bedrooms through the keyhole. As in African-American belief, the witch intruder could be hindered by sprinkling rice, salt grains, or mustard seeds on the bedroom floor. Witches and other spirits had a great weakness for endlessly counting things: the longer they were so occupied the better for the intended victim.73

The concept of skin shedding spread little beyond African-American culture. The story of the Tunica Indian witch in Louisiana who shed her skin before her nocturnal travels, until one day a medicine man found it and filled it with salt, sounds suspiciously like a borrowing from African-American folk belief.74 But some Native-American tribes held similar beliefs. In Choctaw tradition a witch was not considered entirely human and therefore not a member of society. Witches inhabited human bodies, which explains the notion that when performing acts of witchcraft they were thought to throw their entrails over the bough of a tree.75 There was some limited penetration of skin shedding into European American consciousness. In the case of the New Orleans gypsy Elizabeth Fuller- man, mentioned earlier, it was reported that one of the policeman who dealt with the case had mischievously put it about that she had turned into a cat and escaped from jail leaving her skin behind.76 In the early twentieth century, a folklorist was told by a white man in North Carolina about a reputed begging witch named Phoebe Ward, also white, who, it was said, possessed a magical grease that she rubbed on herself to slip out of her skin.77

Skin shedding leads us on to the widespread notion that witches transformed themselves into animals better to carry out their malicious activities. Such shape-shifting was widely recorded amongst Native Americans. The Ojibwa and Menomini, for instance, believed witches travelled great distances as owls, bears, turkeys, snakes, wolves, foxes, and bats to attack people. They were able to achieve this by slipping on the skins or wearing the feathers of these animals.78 The folklore archives regarding Europeans in America are likewise full of legends of witches transformed into animals. So in 1894 it was recorded that an Alleghanies witch had ‘pressed to death’ the sister-in-law of a doctor while in the form of a wild cat that sat on her chest at night.79 Again, it is useful to turn to concrete examples of how such beliefs were actually acted upon. In 1936 the Hungarian neighbourhood around Franklin Street, Woodbridge, New Jersey, was stirred up by stories of the fantastic doings of a witch. The details were revealed when three women were brought before magistrate Arthur Brown to answer for their abuse of the suspected woman. One told Brown that she had looked through the witch’s window and seen how ‘her head would shrink to the size of my fist, her body would become large and horns would appear on her head and she would walk on all fours like an animal’. Another related, ‘I saw her bend down and her head changed into a dog’s head and she had big bumps on her back’. Then, ‘one night I saw her at the window. She looked like a frightful animal. She seemed to be dressed in the skin of an animal. There was also a blazing stream of fire above her head’. Brown was having none of it, and threatened the three women that if there were any more complaints he would send them to the workhouse.80

The notion that witches had animal spirit helpers in the form of domesticated animals, such as dogs, cats, and mice, has often been represented as a distinctively English witchcraft tradition. While such ‘familiars’ were certainly an intriguing element in English witch trials, and were transformed by learned conceptions of witchcraft into demonic imps in the seventeenth century, similar notions of domestic animal spirits that enabled witches to perform their work were known in other parts of Europe. And again, it is a concept known in other cultures around the globe in terms of witchcraft, sorcery, and shamanistic beliefs. Still, the familiar was not a major theme in nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century American witchcraft belief, though it cropped up from time to time in disputes. In July 1902 the three-year-old son of a tailor named John Eisenhower and his wife Sarah was buried. She and her husband believed it had been bewitched. Neighbours in Douglass and Locust streets, Reading, PA, where the couple lived with their large family, had blamed other recent deaths likewise. Mrs Eisenhower had seen a strange old woman stop in front of their house the moment her son began to suffer. Then around the time he died, a huge black cat appeared on the rear fence of their home. It had an enormous head and glowing eyes. The neighbours instigated a hunt for the evil beast. ‘My husband shot a cat’, explained Mrs Eisenhower, ‘but he did not get the one he was after. It all seems so strange...

I believe the cat belongs to the woman that cast the spell over my poor child. She perhaps uses her to work her spells’.81

In 1904 the Pottsville justice Sidney Shaw heard Cora Hiney accuse her former friend and neighbour Mary Leib of bewitching her child. According to Hiney and other neighbours, Mary’s white cat and black dog were possessed of malign powers. They emitted a phosphorescent glow at night, and were heard talking to each other. The cat would cry in distress, but whenever someone approached it would burst into laughter before fading into thin air. The cat had gone into Hiney’s house and stolen some meat several days prior to her daughter falling ill. An African-American fortune teller confirmed that various misfortunes in the neighbourhood had been caused by a witch.82 An interesting variation on the notion of the familiar was reported from the German community in Memphis during 1866. A Mrs Alvers, whose young daughter had fallen sick, visited a fortune teller in Elm Street who told her that the suspected witch, a neighbour named Flohr, had a black cat strung up in her garret and that the spirit of the cat had passed into the girl’s body causing her sickness. Flohr’s husband subsequently sued Alvers for defamation.83

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!