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They shoot witches don’t they?

If witches shot their victims, then people shot witches. The history of gun culture in America is controversial and emotive, attracting considerable published debate. In contrast much less attention has been given to popular gun ownership in the European countries from which people emigrated. We do know that in nineteenth-century Switzerland private ownership of firearms was unrestricted and widespread. In parts of France, Corsica in particular, gun ownership was commonplace at all social levels.98 In Britain, though, restrictions were placed on gun ownership in the early nineteenth century in response to concerns over poaching and vagrant demobbed soldiers after the Napoleonic war. Hunting with guns became the preserve of land-owning society and the gamekeepers in its employ, with the middle-classes taking up the sporting pastime of pigeon shooting. The situation in the many German states and principalities before unification is less clear. Suffice it to say, though, that emigrant German gunsmiths were influential in late eighteenth- and nineteenth-century America.

Without getting entangled in the thicket of the US debate, it is clear that although before the American Civil War gun ownership was not as widespread as has sometimes been assumed, possession and use of guns by the general populace was certainly far more widespread than in Britain and other parts of Europe at the time.99 One reason for this was the importance of the militia to the defence of communities, states and country against the attacks of Native Americans, slave uprisings, and wars with the French, Spanish, and British. The militia could not function as a fighting force without the private ownership of firearms, although in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries there were frequent complaints that militiamen attended muster unarmed. Whether this was because substantial numbers of men did not possess guns or because they were reluctant to use their private property is one of the many debates raised by the archival sources. There was a shortage of firearms generally, though, and America was reliant upon imports of firearms and their components from Europe to distribute public guns to the militia. There were a variety of other influences on the pattern of ownership. The pacifist heritage of Pennsylvania and Delaware, for example, meant there was probably a considerably reduced level of armament. But from the Civil War onwards, American gun production began to match that of Europe, prices dropped, and the love affair with the firearm really began. Guns were not kept solely for military purposes, of course; they were used for personal protection and hunting. But the use of simple snares and traps was undoubtedly more widespread because they were far cheaper in comparison to the maintenance and repair of guns, and the cost of shot and gunpowder. Y et if the quarry were witches then you were better off reaching for your gun.

In 1901 a 37-year-old resident of Burt, Iowa, a German farm servant named Matt Hammerly was recommitted to a hospital for the insane after applying to the County Clerk for a permit to carry a gun to protect himself against the witches that had plagued him for a long time.100 This was no doubt a good decision on behalf of the authorities. Various cases of suspected witches being shot dead are described in this book. While such instances were exceptional they were, nevertheless, more frequent than people might think. There was more than one way to shoot a witch though. A widespread tradition existed in nineteenth-century America of firing at the images of suspected witches with bullets containing silver, usually obtained from melting down dimes. This was a classic bit of sympathetic magic whereby the real witch would suffer the agonies of the bullet piercing his or her image.

Writing in 1824 the historian Joseph Doddridge remembered how ‘For the cure of the diseases inflicted by witchcraft, the picture of the supposed witch was drawn on a stump or piece of board and shot at with a bullet containing a little bit of silver’.101 In 1828 it was reported that in North Carolina ‘Many a plank and tree, will bear the marks of silver bullets, some of which have been discharged within a short time past, at certain figures made of chalk and charcoal, and said to represent sundry old ladies, in the form of witches’. A Virginia man used the bloody sap of the puccoon root to draw the outline of the witch he suspected. The practice left a lasting mark in the woodlands of America. In 1899 timber cutters in Sampson County, North Carolina, found the image of a woman carved into a cypress tree and embedded within were several pieces of silver shot and a silver dime minted in 1850. The tradition kept pace with the spread of new technologies. In 1901 a folklorist was advised by a resident of Frederick County, Maryland, whose population had a strong Germanic background, to shoot a silver bullet at a photograph of a witch: ‘If you can’t get hold of her photograph, just draw her profile on the end of the bam, and shoot at that’.102 No wonder that witches were commonly thought to work their spells over guns to make them misfire or malfunction. An eighteenth-century cure book in German kept by the Dahmer family of Pendleton County, West Virginia, includes one such charm:

To stay a shot: Shot stand still in the name of God. Give neither fire nor flames. As sure as the beloved mother of God has remained a pure virgin (rock of Gibralta) + + +

A range of counter-magic remedies existed. Placing a dime in the barrel was an obvious solution, seeing as witches hated silver. Another ‘de-witchifying’ ritual consisted of placing the barrel in a stream of water, first upstream and then downstream.103

It was not only Americans who turned guns on witches—the French were pretty handy too.104 In Britain, by contrast, there are no recorded shootings of witches.

There are certainly references to the use of silver bullets made from a sixpenny piece in the nineteenth- and twentieth-century British folklore record. Most are legends, however, and I have come across no verifiable cases of the practice having been carried out. In 1957 an old Somerset gardener pondered on this, remarking, ‘perhaps we can’t melt down a silver bullet out of our present-day coining, and no one wears silver buttons nowadays.’ The legends, furthermore, only concern shooting witches in animal form, usually a hare, with the witches exhibiting wounds once back in human form, although they were rarely said to have died as a result. Similar stories of shooting witch hares with silver bullets were also widespread in German and Scandinavia, and so it is no surprise that the motif was prevalent in American folk belief, with deer taking the place of hares in many accounts.105 In the late nineteenth century a man of Logan, Mifflin County, Pennsylvania, was said to have shot a deer on the advice of a witch doctor believing it to be his aunt who he thought had bewitched him.106

The ritual shooting of witch images with silver bullets seems to be distinctively American then, a product of the country’s love affair with the gun and the freedom unavailable to many Europeans to just go out into the woods and fire.

But if symbolic killing did not work, then the next step taken by the bewitched might be fatal. In September 1838 newspapers reported the shooting of a ‘peaceable free’, mixed-race man called Yates as he rode home on horseback near Abingdon, Virginia. At the subsequent murder trial the defendant, an elderly white man named Marsh, said in his defence that Yates had bewitched him, causing him to be afflicted with scrofula, and his ‘dumb critters’ to fall ill.107 Marsh testified that he had initially tried to combat Yates’s influence by drawing his likeness in chicken blood, taking this image into the woods and shooting at it with bullets that contained a small quantity of silver. One of the bullets used to kill Yates was produced in court, where it was observed there were cross marks on the surface that were thought to provide further anti-witch potency.

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