Where Uncertainty and Fear Reign

If superstition thrives amid uncertainty and fear, there was no better place for that than Southwestern Pennsylvania in the mid to late 1700s.

Our ancestors were ruled by beliefs we find childish and strange today.

It was not a good place to be if you were a woman, and managed to stay alive into old age. Your neighbors might think you were a witch.

Okay . . . yeah, it’s easy for us to judge.

We don’t live moment to moment concerned about our children starving, or a tomahawk crashing through our spouse’s skull, or illness snuffing us out in a day or two.

But, it can be fun to be judgmental, so let’s judge.

Plus, we’ll look at superstitious practices in Pittsburgh since then. I guarantee that where we find superstition, we’ll find fear.

Tales From the Wilderness

My main source for the crazy worldview of settlers comes from Joseph Doddridge, who was brought into the wilderness south of Pittsburgh in 1773 as a 4-year-old.

His memoirs were published in 1824.

Let’s start with witches.

Has your cow stopped giving milk?

That’s easy. There’s nothing wrong with your cow. And, it’s not anything you did, or didn’t do.

The old woman next door stole the milk, of course.

No, she didn’t sneak over and milk your cow. (What a dolt!) She’s a witch.

She just pinned a new towel over her door with a new pin, said a few words, and milked your cow at her house by pulling on the towel fringe.

That, wrote Doddridge, is what many people he grew up with, mostly Scotch-Irish,  thought.

They didn’t make this stuff up here. They brought it with them when they crossed the ocean

Doddridge’s neighbors might have related to the people of Salem, Mass., a century before. But, as far as we know, they didn’t kill any suspected witches here.

Wizardry in the Wilds

They didn’t have to go that far. They had their own magic.

First, you could always hire a wizard, a male witch, to undo what the old woman did.

Wizards rarely used their powers for bad purposes, you understand.

Victorian cod liver oil bottle was found in kitchen chimney of house in England. It has residue of urine and is festooned with ritual pins to fight a witch’s spell.

Doddridge said he knew several who had as many patients as any medical doctor in the region.

I should point out that Doddridge thought bloodletting was the epitome of good, modern medical practice.

Witch masters, as wizards also were called, made no secret of their powers. Accused witches, on the other hand, always denied everything.

Funny how that works.

Is your child ailing from a mysterious disease? It’s a witch’s spell.

You should hang a sealed container of the child’s urine in the chimney. Why?

Well, the witch will develop a urinary infection. She will not be able to urinate. If she does, she will experience dire pain.

That will force her to remove the spell. Unless . . .

. . . well, unless she uses another option.

Something Borrowed, You’ll Be Blue

She can undo any spell placed on her by borrowing something — anything — from the person who cast the spell on her.

Doddridge sadly recalled several old women with nearly broken hearts.  They asked to borrow something, were denied, and then they were told why.

Doddridge studied German so he could preach among German settlers as a Methodist minister.

One of the things he learned is that German glassblowers threw puppies into their furnaces to drive witches out.

Colonial glass blowing is demonstrated at Jamestown historic site.

Only a witch could be responsible for the mysteries behind a failed bottle,  right? She probably didn’t want you peeing in it, then hanging it in the chimney.

German farmers east of Monroeville blamed sorcery when their hunting shots were off target, recalled Thomas Mellon, the patriarch of the banking family.

” . . . they all expressed undoubting belief that no matter how unerring the aim, if someone with an evil eye or possessed of the power of sorcery should happen to put a spell on their gun, no game could be killed until the spell was taken off,” Mellon wrote.

The Silver Bullet

That was easy enough to take care of, though. Just fashion a bullet out of a silver coin and shoot the witch. . .

Well, not exactly. Draw an outline of the witch on a tree and shoot the silver bullet into the figure with the affected gun. I presume, since the gun’s aim was cockeyed,  it was done at close range.

Oh, yeah. The silver bullet trick also works if your child is sick and you don’t want to hang urine in the chimney. That can be SUCH a bother!

Just draw the old woman who cast the spell on a stump or board (not a live tree) and shoot her, er  . . . it.

She will feel extreme pain in the part of the body hit — until she removes the spell.

Frontier farmers took pride in their independence, but the moon told many what to do

Farmers and Lunacy

Mellon said his German neighbors just shook their heads at the ignorance of the Scottish-Irish such as himself, people who didn’t know there was a right time and a wrong time to do farm work based on the phases of the moon.

If you clean out a springhouse during the decline of the moon, for instance, well any fool knows, it will surely go dry.

The Zodiac calendar also ruled farm work. Put up a fence under the wrong sign, and it will rot much sooner. Spread manure or plant potatoes under the wrong sign, that is absolute folly!

“Science had not yet greatly disturbed their thoughts,” Mellon observed.

But, on the other hand, they were able to explain everything.

Many of the people you know, and perhaps yourself, have thoughts undisturbed by science.

These thoughts come out during times of stress. Is anything more stressful than putting your house up for sale?

There is one sure way to find a buyer quickly, and it’s not lowering the price — although that will work, too.

Not Just Any Ole Joe

You must lower St. Joseph.

Simply get Joseph out of the nativity scene in the attic, and bury him upside down next to the “for sale” sign in the yard.

Perhaps because he prefers to be right side up and not buried, the figurine uses its powers to attract a willing buyer. You then must disinter Joseph and give him a place of honor in your new home.

If you don’t, well don’t be surprised if the old place keeps going up for sale after you’ve left.

The fog of myth surrounds many religious practices, but the makers of the above home-selling Joseph kit, God bless them,  want to clear things up for you. Play the video, if you dare.

The Catholic Church calls such magic practices evil. Many churches stopped selling Joseph in their saint shops.

A good portion of the statues are bought by non Catholics any way. They’ll try anyone’s magic, if it will sell their house.

The Church says one should just pray to the foster father of Jesus. He’d be sympathetic. He often changed where he lived. 

Superstition is no more characteristic of Christians than anyone else who tunes in to the spiritual.

Sage Advice

Long before Christianity, and continuing today, people carry smoldering sage through a house while they think happy thoughts.

It relieves the home of negative energy and replaces it with positive. That causes lookers to become buyers.

The Chinese also have long addressed good and bad energy in a living space. The practice is called Feng Shui.

For instance, Feng Shui devotees say one should eliminate clutter. Nothing magical in that.

Use red, a good luck color, where possible.

Line the walkway to the house with red flowers, and it will draw in buyers. I suspect the positive energy generated by that comes from thinking the owner has taken care of the property.

Fortunately, none of that endangers anyone. Well, you might lose your soul to the Devil’s magic, but otherwise it’s harmless.

Superstitious Driving

However, superstitious Pittsburgh drivers do pose a danger.  Many sound downright obsessive/compulsive.

Some hold their breath while passing cemeteries. Don’t want to make the dead people jealous, you know.

Some lift their feet and touch the car ceiling while crossing railroad tracks. This will keep a loved one from dying within the week, or keep your lover from leaving you, or. . . (you fill in the blank).

I suspect it goes back to bad vehicle suspension, when it was more comfortable to hang from the roof-mounted hand grip rather than absorb rail-induced jolts with human hindquarters that were not as well padded as today.

Many drivers race through a yellow light and feel compelled to slap the sun visor afterward. Why?

Because you’re supposed to. That’s why.

People from out of town bring a common superstition that doesn’t work here. They try to hold their breath while driving through our tunnels. Pittsburghers know better.

The tunnels are fairly long, but not too long. The average healthy person can stop breathing for one to two minutes before they pass out and careen into tunnel walls.

That’s plenty of time to clear Pittsburgh’s longest tunnels, if you maintain your speed. There’s the problem. Many do not.

Maybe those who slow down are heeding a superstition. You know, the one in which the tunnel walls close in on your car the faster you travel.

Fearful Athletes

Lastly, I’ll mention what has been reported time and again: the superstitions of the Pittsburgh Penguins, and athletes in general.

What do those big tough guys fear that would cause them to rely on superstition? Losing, of course.

Actually, that’s not quite true. They fear not winning.

What’s the difference?

Well, their superstitious tendencies arise mostly when they are winning.

Penguins players seek to replicate the small things leading up to their wins and incorporate them into a pre-game routine: the socks they wear, where they place their hockey stick, who they arrange to “accidentally” bump into, the order in which they take to the ice,  whether they shave or not– the lists go on.

In the end, it’s fear. They fear bad luck can trump championship skills.

The magic they employ helps them survive what passes for danger in the 21st Century, in Southwestern Pennsylvania.

Not as bad as being burned at the stake. I guess that makes us . . . what?


BTW: The font color in this post is a new color marketed by PPG Paints. It’s called “Superstition.”