In a recent episode of the podcast, North American folk magic expert Cory Thomas Hutcheson helped me peel back a new layer in a local mystery that’s been on my mind for a couple of years now.
In 2019 a friend of mine was working with the local library cataloguing and translating old French-Canadian news papers from the Detroit River area and she came across a story in a paper called Le Progrès (which ran from 1881 to 1902) about a family who was accused of witchcraft and forced out of town. I had NEVER heard this story, and if it was common knowledge around here I certainly would have! When I asked local history buffs none of them had heard about it either.
Below is the actual article, and a translation that was lovingly provided by Sarah.
The Witches of Walkerville
A family forced out of the Village
In the village of Walkerville, they still believe in warlocks and witches; a poor family by the name of Nantais just lived through a sad experience. It was a couple days, the children of said Nantais were suddenly sick with something strange; the children were following each other in the field and shouting strange cries and nothing would calm them. Convinced that a “spell was cast” upon their children, Nantais and his wife went looking for the warlock or witch who they accused of the sacrilege.
They began by stabbing a pillow that they believe housed the cast spell; however there was nothing in the pillow besides feathers. But by the next morning they remarked a poor young woman from the neighbourhood, slept the unsociable character, still embittered by misery, wearing on her head a large gash. It was a sign for the farmers that she was the witch and the knife which cut the pillow had caused the injury they discovered. The witch was not burnt alive like they used to do, but the poor woman, her husband, and their children were forced out of the village and they can never return, because since their departure the Nantais children have stopped running and screaming, and nothing will convince the good people of Walkerville otherwise that they were bewitched by their neighbour.
Absolutely wild! The fact that a real witch hunt was happening in the 1880s really shocked me. I was under the belief we’d kind of learned, but according to Cory I am very wrong about that.
Unfortunately the name of the expelled family is a complete mystery. The name of the accusing family, Nantais, is extremely popular here and I have not been able to track down one of them that has heard this story from their family.
Cory suggested I look at Church or Parish records for deeds and property, maybe census record to see if I can find one of these families, and once the library and museum open back up I absolutely will! It’s been too many years since I sat in the tiny colonial attic of the museum and poured over massive tomes of city property records and blue prints!
He also shed a little bit of light on the truly fantastical part of this story – the stabbing of the pillow to destroy a curse, which causes harm to an accused witch. I couldn’t figure out why they thought the pillow could be a source of the magic and why they were keen on destroying it, until Cory told me about an Appalachian folk belief called death crowns, crowns of feathers, or witch wreaths. These matted feather curses were found in the pillows of sick or recently deceased people and believed to carry a witch’s curse. To destroy the curse, you destroy the wreath.
The plot thickens! He also tipped me off about a scottish custom for identifying witches that makes the gash on the poor woman’s head so important.
Cutting Above the Breath
If you want to hear more of the story, check out episode 89 of The Fat Feminist Witch Podcast, with Cory Thomas Hutcheson, author of New World Witchery: A Treasure Trove of North American Folk Magic
You can also read this great interview with Sarah and her efforts to get Windsorites taking a closer look at some of our neighbourhood history from 2019.
Photo credit: Sarah Morris, volunteer coordinator of Jane’s Walk, stands in front of what can still be seen of Vitale Ouellette’s house in downtown Windsor, Wednesday, March 6, 2019. Photo by Dax Melmer /Windsor Star
Hopefully, one day, I’ll have the entire story of this Walkerville witch hunt to share with you witches. It just goes to show that you never know what kind of magic is lurking in the history of your hometown! You might find out you’re not the city’s first witch!