The National Digest

Witch Houses of the Hudson Valley

Walter R. Wheeler, known as Wally, is an architectural historian in the Hudson Valley. He works for a firm called Hartgen Archeological Associates—“Breaking Old Ground Every Day”—which is based in a restored eighteenth-century farmhouse across the river from Albany. Fifty-five years old, with a cheerful, open face and small, oval eyeglasses, Wheeler has been inside, behind, and under churches, barns, homes, and temples in cities and towns throughout New York State.

Several years ago, he began to notice a pattern. Many of his elderly colleagues—contractors, carpenters, historians—told him that, while renovating or dismantling older houses in the region, they had found strange, unsettling things hidden in the walls: dead animals, dismembered dolls, children’s shoes, broken knife blades, and also bottles filled with human hair, bent nails, or pins. Some of these objects were secreted behind old planks and floorboards. Others were concealed in nooks and voids that would have been inaccessible if not for the intrusive work of restoration—suggesting that they had been placed there deliberately, as permanent parts of the building.

Objects were only part of the pattern. There were symbols, too. Wheeler’s colleagues found them carved into woodwork, on beams, lintels, and hearths. Some of these marks, upon closer inspection, turned out to be family graffiti, or dates marking the start and end of construction. But others resembled runes, astrological diagrams, or alchemical signs. Oftentimes, the marks could be seen only by shining a light across the wood at an oblique angle, creating deeper, elongated shadows, revealing the faintest traces of lost inscriptions.

Many of the people who told Wheeler these stories were approaching retirement, or something even more permanent. “I realized it was my last, best chance to collect information from them, to make a concerted effort to contact people and locate additional examples, creating a large-enough data set to be able to see some patterns,” he recalled, when we met, earlier this fall. He began cataloguing the objects and symbols in a database, in which each individual find was associated with a street address and location inside the house. In 2017, Wheeler summarized his research in a paper titled “Magical Dwelling: Apotropaic Building Practices in the New World Dutch Cultural Hearth,” published in an edited volume on rural religious folk practices. (The homes in which these objects and inscriptions had been found tended to be quite old, dating from as early as the sixteen-hundreds, when their owners would have been culturally Dutch.) The word “apotropaic,” which derives from a Greek word meaning “to turn away,” refers to ritual practices intended to deflect malignant influences. The concealed artifacts, Wheeler had concluded, were a form of spatial magic. They were “protection strategies” meant to shield their residents from supernatural harm.

After spending the afternoon with me, showing me dozens of files, photos, and the occasional artifact, Wheeler recommended that I stop by a nearby house to see some apotropaic magic of my own. The house had been constructed in 1788. It is currently owned by a land trust; the president and secretary of the trust took me down into the basement stairwell. I clicked on my flashlight, holding it horizontally against the wooden planks, and we all bent to look closer. Alongside clearly accidental dents and scratch marks, we began to see regular geometric forms—stars and crosses carved beneath the dark paint. My companions seemed astonished. They hadn’t known that some of these symbols were there.

Last year, Wheeler travelled to Salisbury, England, to present his findings at Hidden Charms, a biannual conference on “the magical protection of buildings.” The conference took place in the Medieval Hall of Salisbury Cathedral and featured nine speakers, on subjects ranging from “construction rites” in Romania to dead animals found inside manor houses in the British Midlands. The Hidden Charms events are organized by Brian Hoggard, a British historian and musician with a particular interest in the archeology of witchcraft. In his book “Magical House Protection,” published earlier this year, Hoggard describes a scenario not unlike Wheeler’s own. “I have spoken to many archaeologists who have told me anecdotes of finding bottles, shoes and cats which did not find their way into archives or dig reports,” Hoggard writes. He suggests that, although he has documented such objects by the hundreds, many more may have been destroyed or remain undiscovered. As Hoggard later said to me, “There will be as many things as I have found, found again.”

Hoggard’s own interest in the material culture of witchcraft was sparked by a now-canonical text in the field, “The Archaeology of Ritual and Magic,” by Ralph Merrifield, a curator and archeologist primarily known for his work on Roman London. Merrifield’s book, published in 1987, approached the archeology of magic in a new way. In describing witchcraft, historians had often relied on condemnatory accounts written by judges or members of the clergy. Merrifield sought instead to explore folk magic through the material objects that the practitioners themselves had left behind. Because seventeenth-century witches were more likely to be executed than to publish memoirs or manuals, Merrifield relied on rigorous archeological field work, analyzing artifacts and sites throughout the British Isles.

Hoggard began his research two decades ago, by sending surveys to museums, archives, and other historical collections, asking if they had, in their possession, any of the key artifact types described in Merrifield’s book. These included so-called witch bottles, preserved animal corpses, and many of the other objects that Wheeler and his colleagues would later find across the Atlantic. Hoggard received a blizzard of affirmative replies. Since then, he has been developing his own hypotheses about what exactly these objects were and how they were believed to have functioned.

Central to Hoggard’s interpretation is the idea of architectural protection. He writes that concealed objects are nearly always found close to openings and portals: doors, windows, and, in particular, chimneys—a chimney, Hoggard told me, being an unnervingly open “passageway from the sky.” (Wheeler’s database shows that objects were hidden in similar places in Hudson Valley homes.) These openings presented vulnerabilities not just to burglary but to magical intrusions, such as hauntings, curses, and possessions. Addressing these “supernatural security issues,” Hoggard told me, required something stronger than locks and shutters. “When we find these objects,” he said, “we can normally tell straight away if someone was protecting the perimeter of their home by shoving things into walls and into roof spaces and marking all these entrances, or if there’s a concentration of things about the hearth. It’s pretty clear that people believed magic could come into their homes through those points and that they were trying to thwart it.”

One protective object architectural historians often uncover is the witch bottle. In the British context, the earliest witch bottles were usually curvaceous ceramic vessels—vaguely humanoid Germanic jars known as bellarmines—that had been filled with human urine and hair, along with a mix of bent iron nails and deformed pins. (Some contain fingernail clippings, as well.) The deliberately damaged ingredients, Hoggard believes, were a sign that those objects had been “killed,” allowing them to cross over to the spiritual world, where dead and evil things lurk. The logic is straightforward: break or “kill” an object in our world, and it crosses over into the next, where it is able to affect supernatural beings. Hoggard surmises that the bottles were meant to act as decoys. The spells of witches and other malevolent beings could be deflected to target a witch bottle, rather than a person, by the human elements stored within it (urine, fingernails, and hair); once the evil spirit was inside the bottle, the bent nails and pins, given new life on the other side, would wound or kill it.

The logic of substitution is common to folk magic around the world and might have been central to apotropaic magic, too. Wheeler and Hoggard have found that, in both Britain and the Hudson Valley, children’s shoes were often packed into peripheral voids around a house—the artifacts may also have been intended as targets for witches, in lieu of a home’s living residents. Such voids could also contain “curse dolls,” miniature human forms intended to stand in for the objects of spells.


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