Cincinnati’s Fireproof Witches

No one ever burned a witch in Cincinnati, but it was not for lack of trying.

In 1897, Magdalen Grove of Lower Price Hill went to the offices of Justice of the Peace Philip Winkler and swore out a warrant against Mary Becker, who lived nearby in Fairmount. According to the Cincinnati Post [10 March 1897]:

“She [Grove] charges that the Becker woman said she was an old witch and that she would burn her.”

Illustration of "Modern Witches", from Cincinnati Enquirer 22 October 1911; Cover of Family Magazine section
Illustration of “Modern Witches,” from Cincinnati Enquirer 22 October 1911; Cover of Family Magazine section

Extracted from microfilm by Greg Hand

No evidence remains why Mary Becker believed that Magdalen Grove was a witch, but accusations of witchcraft were not unknown in Cincinnati. In 1869, someone named A. Truman claimed witchcraft by spiritualists as the cause of several deaths in the Sedamsville area. According to the Cincinnati Commercial [4 June 1869], Mr. Truman asserted that he had proof:

“Let any person draw the picture of the spiritualist, take a gun, load it with silver and shoot at the picture, and see if the devil won’t defend them. There are a great many people that die suddenly of inflammation of the brain, stomach and bowels, which is caused by these wretches throwing wind into them.”

Illustration of a little witch flying a broom, from Cincinnati Enquirer 29 October 1899
Illustration of a little witch flying a broom, from Cincinnati Enquirer 29 October 1899

Extracted from microfilm by Greg Hand

In 1875, a feud between two Italian families on Front Street led to charges of witchcraft. The father of one family shot the cat belonging to an old woman living nearby. She supposedly cursed the newborn child of the cat-killer’s family and it wasted away for several months until the family called in Alexander Schilling, Cincinnati’s resident exorcist at the time. According to The Cincinnati Enquirer [12 September 1875]:

“It will be remembered that it was this professor of devil-driving who not long ago rescued a child from an evil-working old woman on Cross street. Dr. Twelve-and-a-Half-Cents no sooner saw the child, or rather the shape of the child, than he pronounced it a victim of witchcraft. The parents ‘knew it’ as soon as he said so.”

Schilling concocted a potion to be rubbed on the sickly child and ordered the child’s mattress to be cut open.

“Just as was expected, they found within the unquestionable tracks of a witch. Among the feathers was something like the comb of a chicken, beautifully ruffled and frilled, and composed of many colored feathers. Besides this chicken’s chignon, there was also found an equally wonderfully formed wreath, not yet quite full grown.”

Although the exorcist ordered these things burned, the sickly child died anyway.

In 1883, the Schefflers, an entire family of German immigrants marched into the Bremen Street police station in Over-the-Rhine one night and begged for sanctuary to escape their haunted house. Their home on Liberty Street, they said, had been bewitched by a Frau Landecker who had cast spells on them through potions. It appears the family had procured a variety of medicinal teas from Frau Landecker, but had the, according to the Cincinnati Gazette [27 March 1883] experienced untold mischief:

“Peculiar noises were heard about the house. Members of the family were unceremoniously jerked from their beds. Black and shadowy figures were seen as they glided past, and not only seen, but felt as they took malicious enjoyment in pulling hair, pinching noses, jerking dresses, and such ghostlike pranks ad infinitum.”

When Mr. Scheffler was seized with a paralyzing chill and Mrs. Scheffler thrown as if by invisible hands against the kitchen furniture, they sought safety in the police station. The cops sent a patrol out to investigate and found nothing spookier than a little puppy. They brought Frau Landecker in on charges of practicing medicine without a diploma. According to the Gazette:

“She is undoubtedly the cause of the present trouble, as by her threats and peculiar medical treatment she seems to have infected the entire family with their mild crankiness or lunacy, whichever one chooses to call it. Mr. Scheffler, in particular, appears to be considerably more than half crazy, and is in mortal terror at even the sight of the old woman.”

A Cumminsville family charged a neighbor with bewitching their horses over several months, but the local authorities decided, according to the Cincinnati Times [13 June 1872] that the family’s troubles came from buying cheap old nags, not from supernatural interference.

It appears that Cincinnatians harassed unconventional women with some frequency. The Cincinnati Commercial [2 June 1878] reported the case of Christina Meyers, a cigar maker living on Peete Street, below Jackson Hill Park in Mount Auburn. It was her habit of the evening to sit upon her floor with a candle between her feet as she read a book. Neighborhood children could see through her window and assumed from this curious posture that she must be a witch.

“When her eyes were lifted from the book to the window she would see the little faces peering in at her that disappeared on the instant. On her door and the threshold in front of it, crosses were made by the young ones to ward off and baffle any evil spirits that might attempt to come forth.”

Two teenagers in particular, Clara and Lena Roher, antagonized Mrs. Meyers so much she swore out a warrant against them. Justice of the Peace Vincent Schwab took her side, chastised the girls and ordered them to post $100 bonds to ensure future good behavior.

This article was reposted with permission from Greg Hand, editor of Cincinnati Curiosities

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