“Mind you, I’ll be needing this back. If’n you study and do what’s rit down, you might cast a spell or two of yourn.”

I can still hear Bessie Forsyth’s words as she handed me the journal of her great grandmother, a reputed conjurer and granny woman. For her, it was a treasured family heirloom. I saw it as “pure gold” for my research. In my hands was clear evidence of the practice of Appalachian backwoods magic. As it turned out, maybe being in my hands was not the best place for this journal.

A tattered brown leather book, on its cover was a faded, handwritten title: Conjures, Spells, and Potions. Inside, scrawled on the yellow pages in no particular order, were the spells and potions the title promised. The local vernacular made reading a slog, but I could make out everything. The words of the journal seemed to stare back at me, waiting for me to deploy the incantations. It seemed to know what I didn’t, what I would soon try.

I didn’t believe in magic then, but now, I have no other explanation for what I am about to tell you.

When I was much younger, I did graduate studies in anthropology at a university nestled in the heart of southern Appalachia. My thesis focused on folktales of backwoods witchcraft, conjurers, and their spells.

Local librarians put me in touch with many older women, including Bessie, who welcomed my interest in the folklore known to their families. In library reading rooms and home parlors, I’d hear stories about life in the little coves of the mountains known as hollers. The most fascinating for me, though, were the stories of witches and witchcraft.

These women provided what I had been looking and hoping for with one notable exception: I didn’t have one story told from a male perspective. When I interviewed men, they either didn’t know any stories or didn’t want to tell me anything for fear “something bad would happen”. Not one of those men would explain what they meant, but their fear was palpable.

There was another problem and this one had to do with me. Having grown up in western New York, like many from that region, I have a noticeable Great Lakes accent. Linguists describe it as Inland Northern dialect. Until I came to Appalachia, I never noticed it. When it made me stand out, I tried to hide it, but the locals noticed.

I can’t say how many times I heard, “What kind of accent’s that? Where’d you come from?” With the older women, it didn’t seem to matter, but it put the men off. Missing stories of conjuring and witchcraft from a male point of view hurt my chances of writing a successful thesis.

It was three weeks until the faculty review and criticism process of my thesis was to begin. I knew I needed some help getting a male point of view, so I approached my supervising professor, Jack Marsden. His brother in law was a foreman at a local mining company. Marsden told he could get me in the door for a visit, but only for one day. Figuring talking to miners during their dinner breaks might get me some leads, I agreed to it.

That’s how I came to be standing face to face with Hillman Manley, the man in charge of the second shift at the mine. I recall his cold stare as I explained my request to talk to some of his miners.

“Sir, I’m doing a graduate degree in anthropology.” I handed him the letter of introduction given to me by Professor Marsden. “My thesis focuses on Appalachian folklore. I’m interested getting any names of men who’d be willing to share stories, especially ones about backwoods magic. I figure the miners who work here could point me in the right direction.”

My plan was to ask as many miners as I could who might be willing to do an interview. If I found any, I’d work with them in their off hours. I had hoped these men would take my project, and me, seriously.

Hillman read the letter, paused, and said, “What’d they call you again?” I said “Ed.” He smiled and said, “Well, Ayad, let me introduce you to some of the fellas.”

I thought, So far, so good.

As we walked toward some of the miners, Hillman waived over Calvin “Junior” Rippey. They stepped out of earshot and talked, all the while looking in my direction. Once done, Junior approached me. A large man in his fifties, covered in black coal dust, he extended his hand and said, “So you’re looking fer backwoods magic stories and you’ve come here? You must be a real jasper. These folk all been fetched up in the hollers, they don’t trust outsiders. I’ll let them know why you’re here. The boys’ll be a might skittish at first. I can’t guarantee nothing.”

Fetched was a term I hadn’t heard before. I was about to ask Junior what it meant, then he said, “Ayad, that means ‘raised,’ grew up’ in the hollers.” I made a mental note. As for jasper, a polite translation means naïve.

Junior was a crew chief. He had one year of technical training at the local junior college. As a result, in addition to working in the mines, he got the job of taking water samples from the creeks and streams around the coalfields. The company was required to track the pollution from the coal tailings. Junior didn’t do the analysis, just the sample taking.

As I started talking to some of the miners, I could tell they were skeptical about what I wanted. Right away, they locked in on my accent, studying me as much as I was them. Some asked, “Yinz all talk like you up your way?” “Pretty much,” I’d say. From that point on, no one referred to me as Ayad; instead they called me Jasper. I went with it because it might make getting the information I needed easier.

I don’t know why, but right at that moment, I thought about when Junior and Hillman had their conversation and spent the whole time looking at me. That made me nervous. I was out of my element in the coalfields and reliant on these strangers’ good will to help get what I needed. I had the feeling these guys were up to something.

I put that feeling aside and followed Junior to a table at the dinner hall. The room was full for the dinner break. Junior made a general announcement about why I was there. I then made my pitch. After hearing me out, nobody came forward other than two other miners: Bige James and Ike Lytton. They were part of Junior’s crew. He had them sit with us during dinner. I could tell my Great Lakes accent grated on them.

Bige was a small wisp of a man with salt and pepper stubble. It didn’t improve his appearance one bit. I assumed his dark complexion was because of years of exposure to coal dust. I could tell by his stare he didn’t care to have me around. He sat with me because Junior told him to.

Ike was a regular looking guy of medium build. He said he was married with a child on the way. His eyes told me he wasn’t too ambitious or inquisitive. He seemed to be more of a follower. Wondering what leads he could produce, I didn’t expect much from him.

At the dinner break, Junior, Bige, and Ike were talking about what they were going to do that night, the last day of the workweek. Junior claimed he had a date with a dancer at the the Deep Shaft, a miners’ bar and strip joint off Route 117. He was all smiles when he said, “I’m gonna clean up extra good for t’night.”

Bige bragged, “I’m going to a high stakes poker tournament at the casino. I expect to win big.” Ike said he was going to clean up and go home to his be with his wife.

When Junior then said he had a story his grandpap used to tell, I turned on my recorder. I hoped that once he started talking, Bige and Ike would figure it was all right to share what they knew with me. When I worked with the groups of women, once one started telling stories, the others did too. That dynamic produced many tales and led me to Bessie and her grandmother’s journal. I was counting on Junior to open the door.

He said, “You know, back up in the hollers, a pregnant gal has to be mighty careful what she do. If she ain’t, her baby could suffer all manner of misery.”

Bige and Ike seemed to be paying close attention to Junior. I figured this would break the ice and I would be collecting names of possible leads for stories before night fell. I was a little ashamed to think Hillman and Junior were plotting against me when I first arrived.

Then Junior said, “Back up near Slim Creek holler, there was this gal who found herself with child. Everybody know’d if a gal in dat state teched a horse, her baby would suffer some form of misery. Now, dis gal’s daddy had a horse. If’’n he told her once, he told her a thousand times, leave that brute be. Dat gal never had a spoonful of sense, so when her daddy weren’t a-watching, she teched that horse. Well, after a time, she had that baby. When the young’uns’ teeth began a-coming in, they was all buck toothed just like dat horse. And that’s the way that young’un stayed.”

Ike said nothing. Bige thought for a moment, leaned back, and said, “Well, Junior, if that be true, then my mother-in-law must have teched a beer truck.”

Having heard many stories, I knew, right away, that was no folktale. Teched means a person is a little crazy. It didn’t mean touch as in to be in contact with. Then the whistle blew, ending the dinner break. Junior said, “See ya, Jasper.” He smirked at me as he started walking back to work.

When Bige got up to leave, he slapped his hand on my shoulder and said, “Well, Jasper, you clean up this table. Hope you liked Junior’s story, ‘cuz that all you git. We know you’re here to make fun of us and how we live. We ain’t a bunch of ol’ biddies. You don’t fool us. Don’t come back here and don’t bother us no more.” The whole thing was a set-up. Hillman knew Junior and his friends were going to waste my time just to see my reaction.

Turning off my recorder, I realized I had wasted the trip, got nothing useable, and had been insulted. The table, covered with used napkins, apple peels, and plastic utensils, was a mess that these rubes wanted me to clean.

I was about to walk away, leaving the remains of dinner, then I had a thought. Bessie Forsyth told me, according to backwoods witchcraft, you could put a spell on a person if you had a piece of something they owned or used. I gathered up the garbage, keeping Junior’s used napkin, Ike’s plastic utensils, and Bige’s apple peelings separate. Now, to be clear, I had no idea what I was going to do. When I got back home, I thought I’d probably toss the crap away and forget about these hillbillies.

On the drive back, my anger grew. I was making a good faith effort to learn about their culture and they threw everything back in my face. My supervising professor would wonder why I could not get along with the miners. He certainly was not going to upset his brother-in-law by sticking up for some kid from New York. To boot, I had less than three weeks left to finish my first draft.

I thought, What the hell, maybe I can do a little something to get back at these stump jumpers, but what? Then I recalled Bessie’s words, “If’n you study and do what’s rit down, you might cast a spell or two of yourn.”

I arrived home a little before dark. I knew, back at the mine, Junior, Ike, and Bige were getting ready for their evening activities. I carefully lifted the journal off the desk and started looking through the pages. Since the entries were all random, it took some time to make sense of the contents. Soon I found a spell that I thought might work on Junior.

It read, Get a whole apple and something that belongs to the person. Cut the apple in half and hollow out one of the halves, then put the object in the hollowed out half. Tie up both halves with string and throw some dirt or coal dust on the apple. Put the apple outside overnight. For a day, no soap with wash off any coal dust or dirt from that person.

I spoke the words, as written, and thought, Okay, that’s jibberish. I was trying to rely on backwoods magic in hopes Junior couldn’t shower off that coal dust and it would ruin his evening with the dancer. I shook my head and said aloud, “This is nuts,” but I did it.

Having done one, I continued reading. There had to be other spells I could find.

Since I particularly disliked Bige and I had his apple peelings, I hoped to conjure some spell to cob up his card playing. I went through page after page until I found one that might do the trick. I recited the words.

Take some playing cards and the object from the person. Toss all the cards higher than nine into a fire with the object. Also, rip up the five and three. Don’t burn those. Pour vinegar on what’s left of the cards. The player at the table will think he got hisself a winning hand, bet his money, and find out he’s got a hand full of nothing. 

As I was burning the cards, I had two thoughts, I hoped Bige is getting cleaned out and I needed to buy a new deck of cards.

Finally, it was Ike’s turn. Because his wife was pregnant, I didn’t want to do anything that could hurt her or their unborn baby. It took some doing, but I found the following passage.

Place an object that belongs to the party on a plate, mash an onion on the object, and burn it all in a fire. The party you seek to curse will have skunk breath for the rest of the night.

When I was done, I carefully put the timeworn text back on my desk. I recited each spell as written. The burnt onion smell coming from my fireplace left me wondering who was suffering the worse curse. Once done, I was certain none of the spells would work, but I felt a little better.


The following Monday, I got a note to see my supervising professor immediately. I headed over to his office and poked my head in his door.

“You wanted to see me?”

“I understand from my brother-in-law and the miners gave you a hard time.”

“Yeah, they did. If they didn’t want to be bothered with me, they should have said so upfront. I wasn’t happy because I don’t have a lot of time to waste. I get good cooperation from librarians and from local women in the area. I can’t say I got nothing, though. I heard a funny story, but it wasn’t folklore and I can’t use it in my thesis.”

Then Marsden said, “Hillman told me something strange about the guys you were with. Junior Rippey could not shower off the coal dust from the day’s work. It stuck to him. The harder he tried, the worse the dust smeared. It was as if tar covered his whole body. It ruined his planned evening, but the next day, he cleaned up fine.”

I could hardly contain myself. I thought, That spell worked? To make light of it, I said, “Tell him to use soap next time.” Marsden gave me a cold stare.

Then he said, “A guy named Bige James lost a whole bunch of money at a poker tournament. He had trouble reading his cards right. He swore he had many winning hands, but when he laid them down they were losers, every time.”

I wish I could describe how big my smile on the inside was. Then I said, “Maybe he needs glasses. He probably shouldn’t be gambling anyway,”

The squint of Marsden’s eyes told me he figured I had done something, but he couldn’t work out what. Then he said, “Another guy you were with, Ike Lytton, had such bad breath his wife made him sleep outside and it was a cold night. What do you know about all this?”

“Gosh, professor, what should I know? After the dinner break, I didn’t see anybody. They took off, left a mess, and told me to clean up. Then I drove back to my apartment and have been there or on campus since.”

We left it at that, but I was still dumbfounded the spells worked. Marsden knew I had the journal Bessie Forsyth loaned me, but he didn’t ask me about it. After all, why would he? A person would have to be teched to believe in backwoods magic.