Halloween in North Carolina, Day #13: Witchcraft in North Carolina (1919)


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Cross, Tom Peete. “Witchcraft in North Carolina.” Studies in Philology, 16:3 (Jul. 1919): 217-287. Reprinted Forgotten Books, 2018.


This is the second-oldest of the books that I’m reviewing this month and it, too, is technically an article. But it is a very important article that is nearly as long as a book in pages, and easily packs enough for any three regular ghost story collections. It is dense. It is arcane. It is well-researched. Though obviously dated (having come out in 1919), it has footnote sections that are two-thirds the length of the page. But in those footnotes, you will find some stories that may well make you want to read with all the lights on.

“Witchcraft in North Carolina” is a very comprehensive study of its subject. Also, unlike many academic articles, it firmly places its regional topic within the larger subject of witchcraft with a brief history and overview of that subject up to that point in time (99 years ago). This is quite useful, for Virginian folklorist and Celtic scholar Tom Peete Cross (1879-1951) holds to the theory that all witchcraft is based on the concept of maleficium – that some people have the power to do magic that can both help and harm others. The ones who do harm are called “witches,” though the line can be very blurred between helpers and harmers.

Stuart McDonald, Canadian author of The Witches of Fife: Witch-Hunting in a Scottish Shire, 1560-1710 (2002), would argue there is also an element in which political and religious elites use witchcraft charges to root out and eliminate “heretical” dissent. Hence why I reviewed this article today. Today is the 711th anniversary of the arrest (for heresy) of the Knights Templar in France. Their subsequent multi-year trial became an exemplar for later trials during the witchcrazes, even though the Templars had been tried as heretics (and the results were ultimately and officially inconclusive). The witch accusation evolved out of the heresy accusation.

There was certainly this “heresy” element in the Salem Trials (and previous Puritan witch trials) of 1692. However, North Carolina was a very different area. North Carolinians were notoriously irreligious early on and had a different mix of Europeans, Africans and Native Americans than New England. From what I’ve seen in my research, the more humble maleficium was pretty much what you got in NC.

That doesn’t mean that witches were treated better than in Puritan New England, but “conjurers,” were perhaps tolerated more. One really intriguing element is how Cross notes that the distinction between “witch” and “ghost” is fairly meaningless in North Carolina. In NC folklore, witches are not human, but are spirits or demons, already.

So, a story like “The Witch Cat” can have versions where a house is haunted variously by witches (in the form of a black cat) or ghosts, and the ghosts are usually a headless man. The Headless Man in Celtic folklore is actually a fairy (themselves often conflated with the unbaptized dead) called a Dullahan, a very dark member of the Unseelie Court whose appearance invariably signals death – except when the story is mixed up with a dead man’s ghost who is seeking to give away his hidden treasure to a worthy person. Yeah, folklore mutates like that.

Witches in NC folklore are also adept shapeshifters, usually appearing as a black cat or a sow or a black dog. Black dogs (also known as “black shucks“) have their whole own sinister folklore from the British Isles that connects them to fairies, as well, but they can be found all over the world. The measures traditionally used against a witch indicate a cringe-worthy and grim history of extreme animal abuse, especially against black cats. But curiously, there are also traditions where cats shouldn’t be harmed, especially if they are black.

Overall, while this is definitely an academic article and it’s definitely aged, “Witchcraft in North Carolina” is worth a read if you are looking for material for your own stories or want to find out more about NC folklore and its origins. I’ve included a link to it, but there are other, free versions available around the internet, since it’s now well out of copyright.


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