Signs and Omens - Superstitions and Beliefs
Old Time Tales of Warren County


Signs and Omens - Superstitions and Beliefs

"Look at them candle wicks, Lucy; cantya see th' taller ain't stickin' to 'em th' way it should, can'tya see it's mostly all a-runnin' off? 'Taint a good day fer you to be dipping candles, Lucy, and 'taint a good sign a-neither. Better hang on to yer beaux if you got any idea of gittin' married Lucy, they'll be leavin' you same as th' taller slips off th' wicks."

Old Grandmother McAllister, sitting in her arm chair in the village of Pine Grove about the year 1830, gave this information and advice to her pretty granddaughter, Lucy Barnes, who was dipping tallow candles near the fireplace one winter afternoon. It was one of a thousand omens in which people believed, in early days in Warren County.

Tallow dips, the historic, earliest candles, which glow through romantic literature for centuries back, were made and burned by the pioneers of Warren County up till about 1850, when they were replaced by the moulded candles made in tin candle-moulds. . The tallow dips were made by dipping and redipping a wick-string into cooling tallow till enough adhered to make the candle the desired size. Bees' wax was often added to make the tallow stick. Maybe Lucy Barnes hadn't thought of that. A real tallow dip was a yellowish color, it tapered from the base to the wick and was anywhere from eight to eighteen inches long.

Few rafts were started down the river on Friday. Though the trip was not hazardous, as a rule it was not easy to get a rafting crew willing to begin the journey to Pittsburgh, on Friday. If the river began to rise just as the raft was finished, that was a very good sign; a falling river then, was a bad omen. A woman coming on a raft before it was finished was bad luck. Birds alighting on the floating logs and remaining there betokened a good trip down the river and safe journey home.

Rain the first day of a rafting trip down the river was a good sign, `Bad beginning, good trip," the crew said. If the grubs squeaked much as the long raft went over rough water on riffles, that was a good sign, a "talking raft" was always a good sign.

Out of the bygone generations of Scotch, English, Irish, Swedish settlers, in Warren County, came a strange blending of old beliefs. Trees for fence rails must be cut in the early part of the day and in the light of the moon. When you were planting corn, if you skipped a row, there might be a death in the family. Kill the first snake you saw in the spring and you would win against all your enemies that year.

If you had warts the best thing to do was steal a dishrag and hide it in the stump of a tree. You might then expect the warts to leave. Warts could be wished away by saying certain words and spitting through a loop of string. And then, if you had many warts, you could tie a knot in a string for each one, bury the string under a stone and expect a cure.

To start on a journey and see a white mule was bad luck. Killing a white squirrel or a white deer was worse luck, it meant death. Carrying buckeyes in the pocket kept off rheumatism. Green elderberry leaves carried in the hip pocket prevented chafing in hot weather. A rusty nail in a man's pocket was supposed to aid him in his love affairs.

That some of the old beliefs had an unguessed scientific reason behind them can be demonstrated. The pioneers put a fish in each hill of corn when planting to insure a good crop. Now we know that fertilizers made from fish have peculiar properties suitable to corn. "Lay out in th' sun," said the old women, a hundred years ago, "and you'll gain strength quicker after a fever." In late years science has demonstrated the enormous benefits of the sunbath.

Aunt Nancy Range, treating the sick with her own homemade medicines in Warren County, ninety years ago, said to her patients, "You can't be expectin' to keep well without some fresh fruit along through the winter. Let the children have plenty of apples if you can get 'em, apples that ain't cooked." It's not to be wondered at that Aunt Nancy said, "If you can get 'em," there were practically no apples raised in this region ninety years ago. And, when a too steady diet of pork and beans and cooked cornmeal had brought about a condition like scurvy, Aunt Nancy Range knew the virtues of raw potato juice and cured her patients by the use of it. In these wonderful days science is discovering a great many things known to old ladies a long time.

People who live in little houses with the forest close to their doors learn the signs of changing weather. They are close to the breast of nature, they can hear her heart beat. Wood choppers, trappers, farmers, men who worked all day long with ox teams, learned to read the shake of a white-bellied aspen leaf, the singing note of the pine bough, the rippling surface of a pond. Old Wally Robinson, who trapped for years up and down the Conewango Creek and died some sixty years ago, used to say the trees talked to him. He knew the voice of the forest and could foretell a coming storm by the sound of the winds in tall trees. If a big storm was brewing, Wally knew it as well as the crows, who flew in excited circles above the tree tops.

Many beliefs of the early pioneers have almost as staunch a following in this year of 1932 as they did when the first farms were being cleared. They still say, "If the sun shines when it's raining, it will rain again next day. Birds singing during a rain indicated fair weather; if roosters crow as they go to roost it is a sign of rain." For a hunter to kill a white deer or squirrel is a sure sign the hunter will die.

People still stay "The first thunder in spring wakes up the snakes from their winter sleep. The `peepers' (Hyla) must freeze up three times before real spring arrives."

Belief in witches was not difficult to find when the dark, mysterious forests covered most of the hills and valleys; the denser pines admitting only a pale, greenish half-light on the brightest day. Half the log cabins had a horseshoe over the door and another horseshoe was kept handy the open fire, where it might be quickly heated and dropped in the cream on churning day, so that the witches would leave the cream, and the butter appear. Horseshoes were not so common, either, till Warren County began to be pretty well settled, the ox shoe was commoner. But horseshoes were so generally all-around useful as charms for many purposes, like hanging up over a setting hen to keep witches from stealing her eggs, people brought them home with them from towns at a distance, often from Pittsburgh or Buffalo, simply for their occult powers.

There is a story of a Pine Grove resident returning from Dunkirk with a set of eight horseshoes for his team. But even freighted with all this cargo of good luck his horse fell, and the man broke his leg. The incident caused a great deal of talk, people wondered how anything could happen to a man with so many horseshoes. Then an old pioneer philosopher, noted for his long beard and great wisdom, pointed out that the man had too much good luck to be lucky, thus propounding a paradoxical truth providing food for thought.

There were plenty of witches riding their broomsticks o' nights in Warren County one hundred years ago. In the long dark hours they used to visit lonely log cabin homes in the wilderness, used to come slipping down the stone-and-mud chimney and put an evil charm on the fire so the smoke wouldn't go up the chimney as it should, and the fire would go out suddenly, and mysteriously. Fires on most hearths, when there were no witches around, burned all winter through, and were never allowed to go out, the heavy beech back-log burning slowly through the night. Sometimes when a fire went out on the hearth it was awkward, maybe the flint and steel wouldn't work to light it again, and somebody would have to tramp five miles through the snow to borrow coals from a neighbor. There is the story of a girl eight years old going eight miles through the woods to bring live coals to kindle the fire for her sick mother. On the way home she was chased by wolves but preserved the precious coals, wood embers, which she managed to keep alight in an iron pail.

So it was serious business having a witch come down the chimney and bewitch the fire. Sometimes a particularly mean, low-down, unprincipled witch would get into a cow and shut off her milk. The only thing to do then was to tie a wool string around the cow's neck and see that the horseshoe on the barn door was in place. If a witch cast an evil spell on a ewe so that she wouldn't breed, a bit of sheep's wool, burnt on a piece of red hot iron, might start the lambs coming again. Any animal bewitched might be relieved of the evil charm if you could hold it under the water of a running stream. If you held it under long enough it could be relieved of almost anything. When an owl hooted persistently around a house night after night, it was fair notice that a witch was hovering near.

Where evils exist a beneficent providence always provides a remedy. Where poisonous snakes have their habitat there also grows the herb or plant which will neutralize their venom. Warren County in the early days of the eighteenth century had its witches, it had also its "witch doctors" and "witch killers."

A Warren County Witch Doctor

John Meyers, who died in the region of West Spring Creek about the year 1821, was a well known witch killer. He not only drove the witches out, but killed 'em dead. This is how John Myers, the witch killer, went about his work. A man or woman who was bewitched, came to him for relief. Myers pinned a sheet of paper against the wall, had his patient stand close to it, set a lighted candle so it would throw a clear shadow of the afflicted on the paper Then he made a tracing of the shadow and carefully cut out the silhouette with his shears. He then pinned the paper against a heavy pine slab and fired a silver bullet through it from a pistol. The pine slab was used so that the silver bullet might be dug out and salvaged for another shot. It was the real thing and silver bullets were high. Myers used a very light charge of powder in his witch pistol, it was only necessary to send the bullet through the paper and into the wood.

This treatment was a little expensive but it ended a witch once and for all, killed it dead as a nail. Myers fees for witch killing were not fixed, he had a sliding scale, and payments made him were in the nature of offerings. They ranged all the way from 50 cents to a fat shoat or a fiddle in good condition for playing.

When a dweller in the Warren County wilderness of 1810 had a long run of bad luck, he didn't give up hope, he knew what to do about it. He didn't blame it on the administration, over production, the stock market or, by any chance, on himself. He knew a witch had put a charm on him and there was just one thing to do about it. He went to one of the fairly numerous witch doctors and had himself switched with a hazel stick. Sometimes these switchings were really severe, leaving plenty of bruises and welts on the patient who wished to be rid of his bad luck. But a bad case called for severe treatment and a cruel means was justified by an end to misfortune.

No one was ever burned at the stake in Warren County for being a witch, but several old women fell under strong suspicion and were believed to "have powers" in the days before the tallow dip had given way to the moulded candle. Numerous old women sold "charms" which would bring a backward lover up to the speaking point, cure warts, cause the object of one's affections to return them with interest, cure whooping cough, make an erring husband stay at home, bring a letter from a distant loved one.

An old pack peddler, who tramped the roads regularly between 1860 and -85, cured warts on the children in homes where he boarded. He proceeded thus: The children were sent out to cut a willow switch. The old peddler cut a notch in the whip for each wart, then told the boys to go and throw it away. A week or so later he would ask the children where they'd thrown the switch. Usually they had forgotten. Then he would say, "Look at your warts." They would have disappeared, when the location of the switch was forgotten.

Warts were also cured by stealing a piece of meat and burying it. When the meat decayed the wart was gone. Another method was to steal a dishrag and hide it under a rock, when the rag rotted the warts disappeared.

Eggs carried in a man's hat would hatch roosters. If carried in a woman's hat, hens might be expected. The baby's finger nails must not be cut till he was a year old. They were bitten off. A baby must not be allowed to look in a mirror till a year old. It was considered a sign of death. When you cut a bee tree you must leave a piece of silver money on the stump to pay for the honey, otherwise you'd have bad luck.

The signs and omens believed in by early dwellers in Warren County, and some who were not so early, would fill a considerable book. Most of them came from across the sea, a few probably had their origin in wilderness homes, where the wind often made strange sounds in a chimney and the noises of the great forest were all about. It was easy to people the midnight woods with witches, to confuse the cry of a prowling panther with that of some being unknown to man. The far off wail of the wolf pack, that came traveling through the trees and penetrated the cracks of some cabin door, where a guttering candle cast strange shapes in dim corners,-was it really wolves, or something more dreadful. And then, men who live very close to nature, know certain things, vouchsafed to them through contact with earth and tree and sky, they are things felt rather than seen or heard, but they are none the less real.

SOURCE:  Page(s) 339-347: Old Time Tales of Warren County; Meadville, Pa.: Press of Tribune Pub. Co., 1932


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