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The Stories Behind 8 "Witch" Graves

These days, we know there’s no such thing as broomstick-riding, pointy-hat-wearing witches. But it wasn’t that long ago that people blamed witches for everyday problems such as bad crops and common colds. When these supposed spell-casters died, the stories about them lived on—and, in some cases, were fabricated afterward. Here are their tales.

1. LILIAS ADIE // TORRYBURN, SCOTLAND

In 1704, Lilias Adie confessed to being a witch and having sex with the devil. Though she was jailed for “admitting” to her crimes, Adie died before her trial and sentencing. To prevent her from returning to life and seeking revenge on the town, locals buried her in the mud between high tide and low tide, then sunk a heavy, flat stone over it. The BBC points out that this was also the method used to bury people who had committed suicide, which, at the time, was believed to be something one only did if he or she was in league with the devil. 

The extreme measures didn’t keep the alleged witch in her grave, but it wasn't because her angry spirit came back: Unfortunately, Adie's skull was stolen sometime in the 19th century and ended up at the St. Andrews University Museum. The large stone slab, however, remains embedded in the mud to this day.

2. RHODA WARD // BRIDGEPORT, WEST VIRGINIA

During the winter of 1786-1787, a woman named Rhoda Ward suffered from chicken pox. As if the ailment wasn’t bad enough, someone told city officials that Ward was seen throwing up crooked pins during her illness. This, apparently, was just cause to put Ward on trial in January 1787. Her official statement on the matter was, “If I did, I knowed it not, though it might be the case, and if the pins had not been showed to me, and I have been told that I spewed them up, I should have thought that the above had been a fiction, proceeding from being light-headed with fever.”

Ward was found innocent of all charges, even after a second trial 12 years later. But that hasn’t stopped people from declaring that there’s something unsettling about her unmarked grave in Bridgeport.

3. SUSAN GAVAN // AURORA, NEBRASKA

Local lore says that anyone who steps on Susan Gavan’s grave will die within 9 years or by age 21—and the whole superstition seems to stem from the simple fact that her grave is enclosed by a small fence. There’s no record of Gavan being accused of any witchy activity, and her 1882 obituary was perfectly respectful, so the cemetery superintendent believes her reputation as the town witch comes solely from the grave decoration: “In my opinion, the witch story got started, probably by some kids, because her grave has a fence around it and is different from the rest of the graves.”

4. HANNAH CRANNA // TRUMBELL, CONNECTICUT

After Hannah Cranna Hovey’s husband died—he mysteriously fell off of a cliff—villagers said she used witchcraft to curse people who weren't charitable toward her by providing extra firewood or food. It’s also said that Cranna foretold her own death and asked locals to carry her casket into the cemetery when she died. They opted to bring it in by sleigh instead, but the coffin fell off—which they took as a sign that they had better carry out her wishes.

5. MEG SHELTON // LANCASHIRE, ENGLAND

Brian Young, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 3.0

As far as witches go, Meg Shelton seems like she was pretty harmless: It’s said that she used her mystical powers to steal milk and grain from farmers. Even so, townspeople were fed up enough when she died to have her grave covered with a large rock to prevent the witch from returning. Though the boulder doesn’t appear to be big enough to cover a coffin, it is when you consider this: They had Meg buried vertically, head down—just in case she tried to dig her way out.

6. THE WITCH OF YAZOO // YAZOO CITY, MISSISSIPPI

Writer Willie Morris immortalized the Witch of Yazoo in his novel Good Old Boy: A Delta Boyhood. According to his story, this unnamed witch was known to lure fishermen off the river and into her cabin, where she tortured and killed them. In 1884, the town sheriff and his deputies eventually came to arrest her, and when she fled, she fled directly into quicksand in the nearby swamp. As she died, she swore that she would return and burn the city to the ground. She made good on her word—in 1904, Yazoo City suffered from a terrible fire that destroyed the entire business district, more than 100 homes, and all but one church. When the townspeople thought to check on the witch’s grave, they discovered that the chain-link fence surrounding it had been broken.

Whether or not the (very real) fire was the result of a witch, the townspeople have embraced the legend. In the 1990s, they placed this tombstone/monument in the middle of the broken chains. 

7. ELIZABETH GRAHAM // TALLAHASSEE, FLORIDA

When 23-year-old Bessie Graham died in 1889, leaving behind a husband and two young children, her devastated husband apparently vowed to memorialize her by building the largest and most striking tombstone in the cemetery. He also had it inscribed with a passage from Edgar Allan Poe’s “Lenore”:

“Ah! Broken is the golden bowl.
The spirit flown forever!
Let the bell toll! A saintly soul
Floats on the Stygian River;
Come let the burial rite be read
The funeral song be sung;
An anthem for the queenliest dead
That died so young
A dirge for her the doubly dead
In that she died so young.”

The combination of the massive monument, the macabre poem, and fact that the grave faces the “wrong” direction (west instead of east) has led locals to conclude that Bessie must have been a witch—albeit a "good" one.

8. BATHSHEBA SHERMAN // HARRISVILLE, RHODE ISLAND

Made famous by the movie The Conjuring, Bathsheba Sherman allegedly sacrificed an infant child as an offering to the devil by jamming knitting needle into the base of its neck. She was acquitted of all charges, but the legend only grew. Bathsheba, some of the stories say, literally turned to stone when she died. And of course, according to The Conjuring, her spirit hung around her old farmhouse and terrorized the Perron family in the 1970s. Sadly, her grave in the Harrisville Cemetery has been repeatedly vandalized since the movie came out in 2013.

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History
Alexander Hamilton’s Son Also Died in a Duel
Alexander Hamilton
Alexander Hamilton
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

When Aaron Burr shot Alexander Hamilton on July 11, 1804, the scene must have been eerily familiar to the former Secretary of the Treasury. After all, his son died in a similar setting just three years earlier.

On November 20, 1801, 19-year-old Philip Hamilton and his friend Richard Price had a run-in with a young lawyer named George I. Eacker at Manhattan's Park Theatre. A supporter of Thomas Jefferson, Eacker had delivered a Fourth of July speech that harshly criticized the elder Hamilton, and his son was apparently determined to take revenge.

On that fateful day in November, according to biographer Ron Chernow, Price and the younger Hamilton "barged into a box where Eacker was enjoying the show ... [then] began taunting Eacker about his Fourth of July oration."

As onlookers started to stare, Eacker asked the two young men to go into the lobby, where he called the pair "damned rascals." Tempers rose, and although the trio went to a tavern in an attempt to settle their differences, they failed miserably. Later the same night, Eacker had a letter from Price challenging him to duel.

Customs of the time meant that Eacker had little choice but to accept or face social humiliation. He and Price met that Sunday in New Jersey, where the penalties for dueling were less severe than in New York. They exchanged four shots without injury—and considered the matter between them closed.

Philip Hamilton wasn't so lucky. Cooler heads tried to negotiate a truce with Eacker's second, but their efforts were also for naught. Once the duel had been scheduled for November 23 on a sandbar in today's Jersey City, the elder Hamilton advised his son to preserve his honor by wasting his first shot—by waiting until Eacker fired first or firing into the air, a move the French called the delope. The intent was to cut the duel short, and, if the other side fired to kill, plainly show they had blood on their hands.

Philip seemed to follow his father's advice. For about a minute after the duel officially began, neither man made a move. Then, Eacker raised his pistol, and Philip did too. Eacker fired, and Philip shot back, though it may have been an involuntary reaction to having been hit. The bullet tore through Philip's body and settled in his left arm. Despite being rushed to Manhattan, he died early the next morning.

On July 11, 1804, Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr also departed to New Jersey, this time Weehawken, to settle their infamous differences. This time, the elder Hamilton fired the first shot—and he aimed to miss. (According to his second, anyway.) Burr, on the other hand, seemed to have every intention of connecting with his target. He shot Hamilton in the stomach, and the bullet lodged in his spine.

Just like Philip, Hamilton died the next day.

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Image courtesy of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia and the Mütter Museum. Photography by Evi Numen 2017.
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History
Mütter Museum Showcases the Victorian Custom of Making Crafts From Human Hair
Palette work from the collection of John Whitenight and Frederick LaValley
Palette work from the collection of John Whitenight and Frederick LaValley
Image courtesy of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia and the Mütter Museum. Photography by Evi Numen 2017.

During the Victorian era, hair wasn’t simply for heads. People wove clipped locks into elaborate accessories, encased them in frames and lockets, and used them to make wreaths, paintings, and other items. "Woven Strands," a new exhibition at Philadelphia’s Mütter Museum, explores this historical practice by featuring dozens of intricate works culled from five private collections.

According to Emily Snedden Yates, special projects manager at the Mütter Museum, hair work—as it’s called today—was common in England and America between the 17th and early 20th centuries. The popularity of the practice peaked in the 19th century, thanks in part to Queen Victoria’s prolonged public mourning after her husband Prince Albert’s death in 1861. People in both the UK and U.S. responded to her grief, with the latter country also facing staggering death tolls from the Civil War.

With loss of life at the forefront of public consciousness, elaborate mourning customs developed in both nations, and hair work became part of the culture of bereavement. "[The 19th century was] such a sentimental age, and hair is about sentiment," exhibition co-curator Evan Michelson tells Mental Floss. That sentimental quality made hair work fit for both mourning practices as well as for romantic or familiar displays of fondness.

Palette work culled from the collection of Evan Michelson and featured in the Mütter Museum's "Woven Strands" exhibition.
Palette work from the collection of Evan Michelson
Image courtesy of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia and the Mütter Museum. Photography by Evi Numen 2017.

Most hair artworks were made by women, and created solely for the domestic sphere or as wearable trinkets. Women relied on multiple techniques to create these objects, fashioning wreaths with hair-wrapped bendable wires—a process called gimp work—and dissolving ground hair into pigments used to paint images of weeping willows, urns, and grave sites. Watch fobs, necklaces, and bracelets were woven using an approach called table work, which involved anchoring hair filaments with lead weights onto a table and using tools to twist them into intricate patterns through a hole in the furniture’s surface. Yet another technique, palette work, involved stenciled sheets of hair that were cut into various shapes and patterns.

Hair work remained popular until World War I, according to Michelson, who co-owns New York City's quirky Obscura Antiques and Oddities shop and organized "Woven Strands" along with 19th century decorative arts expert John Whitenight.

“Women hit the workforce, and death occurred on such a huge scale that it really swept away the old way of mourning and the old way of doing things,” Michelson says. By the early 20th century, tastes and aesthetics had also changed, with hair work beginning to be viewed “as something grandma had,” she explains.

The Mütter’s exhibition aside, people typically won’t see hair work in major museums. Being a craft primarily performed by women at home, hair works were usually passed down in families and often viewed as worthless from a financial and artistic perspective.

“A lot of hair work was discarded,” Michelson says. Many owners repurposed the shadowbox frames often used to display hair work by removing and tossing the artworks within. Works stored in basements and attics also frequently succumbed to water damage and insects. Antique dealers today typically only see hair jewelry, which often featured semi-precious materials or was encased in a protective layer.

Sepia dissolved hair culled from the collection of Jennifer Berman and featured in the Mütter Museum's "Woven Strands" exhibition.
Sepia dissolved hair from the collection of Jennifer Berman
Image courtesy of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia and the Mütter Museum. Photography by Evi Numen 2017.

Yet examples of hair wreaths, palette work, and other delicate heirlooms do occasionally surface. They’re prized by a small group of avid collectors, even though other connoisseurs can be grossed out by them.

“People have this visceral reaction to it,” Michelson says. “They either gasp and adore it—like ‘I can’t get over how amazing it is’—or they just back away. There are very few other things where people are repulsed like this … In the 19th century no one batted an eyelash.”

“It’s a personal textile,” Snedden Yates explains. “It’s kind of like bone in that it doesn’t really decompose at the same rate as the rest of our bodies do. It’s not made of tissue, so if you keep it in the right environment it can be maintained indefinitely.”

Table work culled from the collection of Eden Daniels and featured in the Mütter Museum's "Woven Strands" exhibition.
Table work from the collection of Eden Daniels
Image courtesy of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia and the Mütter Museum. Photography by Evi Numen 2017.

“Woven Strands” features examples of gimp work, palette work, table work, and dissolved hair work. It’s often hard to trace these types of artworks back to their original creators—they typically don’t bear signatures—but the curators “really wanted to find hair that you could connect to an actual human being,” Michelson says. “We chose pieces that have provenance. We know where they came from or when it was made, or who actually donated the hair in some cases, or what the family name was. We also picked out things that are unusual, that you don’t see often—oddities, if you will.”

Woven hair culled from the collection of Jennifer Berman and featured in the Mütter Museum's "Woven Strands" exhibition.
Woven hair from the collection of Jennifer Berman
Image courtesy of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia and the Mütter Museum. Photography by Evi Numen 2017.

Displayed in the Mütter Museum’s Thomson Gallery, “Woven Strands” opens on January 19, 2018, and runs through July 12, 2018. On April 7, 2018, master jeweler and art historian Karen Bachmann will lead a 19th century hair art workshop, followed by a day-long historical symposium on the art on Sunday, April 8.

Michelson hopes that “Woven Strands” will teach future generations about hair art, and open their minds to a craft they might have otherwise dismissed as parochial or, well, weird. “We hope that people see it and fall in love with it,” she says.

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