I love to read historical articles online and recently I came across an article, I believe in Smithsonian online magazine, about witch bottles being uncovered. Then I saw them talking about it on the site for College of William and Mary: Civil War Era Jug Rare Witch Bottle. The photo here is from this find/article. A few days later I saw a writer friend I knew posting about witch bottles being found as well and I was intrigued. I know Pamela to be very much a knowledge of the haunted and supernatural in Virginia, so I asked her if she might write an article for my site which I’d post for women in horror month.
Thanks very much to Pamela for her time in this. Voila – enjoy!
Witch Bottles and Spirit Bottles
by Pamela K. Kinney
In 2016, archeologists unearthed a blue bottle filled with nails near the hearth of a Civil War fort, Redoubt 9, which today is known as exits 238 to 242 of I-64 in York County. They conducted the dig, in partnership with the Virginia Department of Transportation, and it took place before VDOT’s planned interstate widening project. What is left of Redoubt 9 now rests in the median of Interstate I-64. Although constructed by Confederates, Union troops occupied it after the Battle of Williamsburg in 1862. The fortification was one of 14 mini forts around Fort Magruder, built along a line between the James and York rivers to counter the threat of a Federal assault on Richmond via the Peninsula.
Records suggested that Redoubt 9 was occupied by the 5th Pennsylvania Cavalry alternately between May 1862 and August 1863. This Calvary was the same regiment held responsible for the burning of the Wren building (College of William and Mary). They likely occupied Redoubt 9 only during periods of strife, such as Confederate raids, when the Union hold on Williamsburg was at risk. Union soldiers occupied enemy territory most of the war, and no doubt, felt threatened by and needed to ward off malevolent spirits and energy. And witch bottles were the type of things people used during times of famine, political strife, or feeling under threat (which the Union soldiers were feeling). It may not be the men but an officer who did this, using folk traditions from his community back in Pennsylvania as they determined that the bottle was created in Pennsylvania between 1840 and 1860.
At first, the archeologists thought it was used by Union soldiers to collect nails, as they were building up that fortification. But then, they figured out it was a “witch bottle,” one of less than a dozen found in the United States (unlike 200 discovered in the British Isles), according to William and Mary. Of course, as the top of the bottle was broken, causing any urine in it to have dried, there’s no telling if this is an actual witch’s bottle. But Joe Jones, director of the William & Mary Center for Archaeological Research, believes the vessel to be one.
An afflicted person who believed ‘witches’ were causing his/her problem or sickness, buried the nail-filled bottle under or near their hearth, with the idea that the heat from the hearth would energize the nails into breaking a witch’s spell. Besides nails, one would place the sick or attacked person’s urine in the bottle with brass pins, locks of hair, nail clippings, and a piece of lead, too. The belief back then was that the witches would be grievously tormented, unable to make their water with great difficulty. The theory was that the witch created a magical link with his/her victim and doing the witch’s bottle reversed it back to the witch, using the victim’s body products. The witch had to break the link to save herself, and the victim recovered.
In the seventeen and eighteen hundreds, witch bottles would also be filled with rosemary and red wine besides needles and pins, and the individual would bury the bottle at the farthest corner of their property, beneath the house hearth, or placed in an inconspicuous spot in the house. It was believed that these specific bottles would capture the evil, which would then be impaled on the pins and needles, drowned by the wine, and sent away by the rosemary. Some witch’s bottles were thrown into a fire, and when they exploded, that broke the spell, or the witch supposedly killed.
The recipe was still known in a Norfolk village in England in 1939: Take a stone bottle, make water in it, and fill it with one’s toenails and fingernails, iron nails, and anything which belongs to you. Hang the bottle over the fire and keep stirring it. It must be dark in the room, and you can’t speak or make any noise. Then the witch is supposed to come to your door and beg you to open the door and let her in. If you keep silent and ignore her, the witch will burst. Folklore says that the strain on the mind of the person when the witch begs to be allowed in is usually so great that the person breaks down and speaks. Then the witch is set free.
In London, England, seventeenth-century pottery jugs of the kind called ‘greybeards’ .or ‘bellarmines’ were found buried in ditches or streams. They contained bent nails and felt hearts stuck with pins. In Essex and Suffolk, others had been discovered, underneath the hearths or thresholds of houses. Later, cheap glass bottles would be used in the same way.
Also, put into witch bottles were fishing hooks, human teeth, and glass shards–like in the one found in an English pub’s chimney November of 2019. Others have contained things like brimstone (sulfur), and even belly button lint. In some bottles, the pins are inside loose, but in others, they are carefully arranged in felt or cloth hearts. The inclusion of sulfur was thought to be particularly damning to the witch and was reserved for those that the afflicted wanted not just gone, but dead. Other bottles were carried as amulets meant to ward off disease and illness.
A good author friend of mine, Deborah Painter, let me take a picture of the witch bottle she had that her archeologist father had found. Besides hers, when I took a tour of Ferry Plantation in Pungo, Virginia (an area of Virginia Beach), I viewed the witch bottle on display in the house. Both Debbie’s and Ferry Plantation’s were found in Pungo.
Other ways that Virginians protected themselves against witches. The first three were a mixture of Celtic and African American lore.
- Leave a bowl of salt outside your door, as they claimed that witches love to count the grains. A witch will sit down and count each grain. By the time she/he finishes, it will be morning, and you will be safe. (Ditto with a broom, for the witch, will count the broom straws.) Strangely enough, this is mentioned in myths about vampires too.
- Hang a used horseshoe above your door. Before a witch enters the house, she must go down every road the horse traveled when he wore that shoe. By the time she finishes, the dawn will be on its way, and you’ll be safe.
- Witches hated blue because it was the color of heaven. African Americans, especially in South Carolina and Georgia, painted the trim of their homes blue for protection.
Witches are as much a part of Virginia’s history and folklore as anywhere else. There are historic homes in Virginia with witch doors—crosses carved on the paneled doors to keep the witches away. There is even a rumor of a witch that lets off a green light as he/she flies through the trees in the Old House Woods in Mathews, Virginia. In Stafford, there is a trail off Telegraph Road that leads to a place called Witches Pond. There is supposed to be a sacrifice table there used in the 1700s with letters in Latin carved on it, with numerous sightings of a woman seen near it. I found online that someone posted that there was a witch’s creek where Aquia Harbor is now. And real people were accused of witchcraft, one of them, Grace Sherwood, was pardoned by Governor Kaine in 2006. Of course, to avoid a debacle like Salem, they passed laws to stop people from accusing someone of witchcraft, by being fined. It appeared to work, as only one witch was proven hung in Virginia and that on a ship off the shore from Jamestown in the 1600s Not just in Hampton Roads area were witch bottles used, but in the Appalachians, which one can count in western and particularly, southwestern section of Virginia.
How to Make Your Own Witch Bottle:
I found on one website how one can make a witch bottle today. You put the pins/sharp objects and personal effects into the bottle. Add urine over the pins and personal effects and close the jar/bottle with the lid. Burn the black candle on top of the jar (be careful! Don’t leave the candle unattended. Allow the wax to spill onto the top of the jar, as this will seal your intentions. Burn the candle all the way down.) Or the Optional Step: you can “heat” the bottle by holding it over an open bonfire (this adds more oomph but isn’t required). Dig a hole on your property a foot or so deep. Its best by the front door OR by your bedroom window. Bury your witch bottle with candle remnants. The whole time you’re visualizing any evil being sucked into the witch bottle and trapped for eternity, leave the witch bottle, and never dig it back up.
Another reason that blue bottles were used was due to the African traditions brought to the South with the slaves. It is close to what witch bottles were used for—capturing a spirit attacking the person. The belief and use of spirit bottles go back to the 9th and 10th century Congo, where colorful bottles, traditionally cobalt blue, were placed on the ends of tree branches to catch the sunlight. The thought being an evil spirit would see the sunshine dazzling from the beautiful bottles and growing enamored, enter the bottle. Like a fly, the ghost becomes trapped within the bottle, dazzled by the play of light, trapped for all eternity. Well, unless the bottle gets broken. This practice was taken to Europe and North America by African slaves of the 17th and 18th centuries. While Europeans adapted them into hollow glass spheres known as “witch balls,” the practice of hanging bottles in trees became widespread in the Southern states of North America, where they continue to be used today as colorful garden ornaments. For a long time, the use of spirit bottles, even spells due to them, could be found among the African American people. In the New World, the bottle-as-talisman took on different forms.
Like witch bottles traced as far back to the 1600s, these spirit bottles were used in spellwork. All colors, shapes, and sizes filled with herbs and other items of significance, for protection, repelling evil, or attracting luck. Eventually, the bottle spell became a fundamental element of Hoodoo magic.
Today, all sorts of people have these bottle trees in their yard. Usually, in the United States, they could be seen in the country or along the bayous of Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Alabama, though nowadays they are all over, not just these four states. And not just blue bottles, either!
Getting spirits into bottles and even jars exist in many places of the world. There are jars and bottles for housing the spirits of dead babies in Thailand and called Guman Thong. There’s the lamp holding the genie in Aladdin. The Djinn have also been captured in rings and bottles, too. There’s even “The Spirit in the Bottle,” a German fairy tale collected by the Brothers Grimm. You can read a horror short story of mine, “Bottled Spirits,” published at Buzzymag.com. I was researching bottle trees, and I thought it would make a great ghost story. It made runner up in the WSFA Small Press Award in 2013 and is considered one of seven best genre stories for that year.
Making Your Own Bottle Tree:
Find a sturdy tree or stump with branches, like traditionally used crepe myrtles and cedars trees, but pretty much any kind of tree will work. Trim all of the foliage off and cut the branches down until you have as many bare branches as you have bottles. Then slid your bottles onto the branches.
A variation is to take a fallen branch and prune it the same fashion, making a portable tree. Plant it outside of your home. Like near the entrance, in the garden, or wherever you want it in your yard. Slip the bottles onto the branches. A third way is finding a large branch or stump, tying two bottles at a time with shoelaces over the branches, so they hang from the tree. And here’s a tip: If you put a little oil on the bottlenecks, the spirits will slip easily into the bottles and become trapped that much quicker.
Witch bottles are one interesting facet of witches, showing us how ordinary people used to protect themselves against them. And with the latest one found in a Civil War fort and even places online showing how to make one today, or also put together a bottle tree to capture spirits, the folklore of our ancestors still haunts us, even in this modern technological 21st Century!
Pamela K. Kinney, Info –
Pamela K. Kinney is an award-winning published author of horror, science fiction, fantasy, poetry, and a ghost wrangler of non-fiction ghost books published by Schiffer Publishing. Among others two of her non-fiction ghost books were nominated for Library of Virginia Awards.
She admits she can always be found at her desk and on her computer, writing. And yes, the house, husband, and even the cat sometimes suffer for it!
Find out about Pamela K. Kinney’s books (horror, fantasy, and science fiction fiction and nonfiction ghost books), short stories, and anthologies she has stories included in at her Website, plus at her AMAZON page.
You can find out more about witches of Virginia, witch bottles, and more in a chapter in Haunted Virginia: Legends, Myths, and True Tales, available from Haunted Virginia: Legends, Myths, and True Tales.