Children and Snakes, Monsters and Omens: Old Hoosier Legends

Indiana Autumn
 

Milk Snakes and Hoop Snakes: There used to be several variations on the theme of Children and Snakes. At the heart of these stories, these were tales of friendship between a toddler and a snake. Generally, the child would leave the house with a bowl of porridge or a tin cup of milk and go off to eat/drink by the Wabash or an idyllic Indiana stream or a glade just off the pasture. The child would later be found by his or her parents sharing the porridge/milk with his/her friend, the snake. At which point the parents would frighten away the snake (who may or may not fashion itself into a wheel shape and roll away like a hoop). Within a matter of days – generally three – of the abrupt end to the friendship, the child would die, an event attributed to the snake. So if you catch your child sharing a spoon with a snake, just bring extra porridge.

And while we're talking about death, these are the death omens your great-great-Hoosier-grandmother always warned you about: A bird in the house, hearing three sharp raps on a headboard or house-front (the closer to you, the worse for you), seeing a ball of fire or a flaming torch (a spectral flaming torch, by the way, an actual torch or the state flag are presumably safe), a vision of an angel or a wraith, or a fallen portrait (it is a sad day for the subject of any painting/photograph when their image suddenly dives off the wall or the shelf). While not an omen, here's as good a place as any to mention that Hoosiers used to tell of death crowns left behind in feather pillows on deathbeds (open the pillow case and there will be a ring or halo made of feathers where the dearly departed had lain his or her head).

And while we're talking about things your great-great-Hoosier-grandmother told you, other old wives' tales include: The seventh daughter of a seventh daughter will always have the gift of second sight. The seventh son of a seventh son will have the ability to “blow off” warts. If a seventh son of a seventh son isn't handy (and we all know how disappointing that can be), warts can also be removed by tying knots in a string or piece of cloth (one knot per wart to be removed) and then burying it: as the knots decay, the warts will vanish. If you're afflicted with thrush, you need to find someone who has never seen their father because that person can heal you. Divining rods work for not only water but also precious metals: but like will find like. If you wish to find gold, a piece of gold must be added to the tip of the divining rod; silver for silver.

There Be Monsters Here: The French-Americans in Vincennes believed there was a loup garou (werewolf) among them. Residents of Churubusco are wary (and proud) of the Beast of Busco, a 500-pound snapping turtle believed to live there. A Bigfoot-like creature known as the Princeton Monster is reputed to live in the woods near the southern Indiana town of the same name. And, most entertainingly named of them all, along the Wabash and Erie Canal roams the Wampus cat, a terrifying, oversized cat who can still be heard yowling on sultry summer nights. Allegedly.

There Be Witches Here: Attesting to the importance of cattle, agriculture, and dairy in this early pioneer state, there were legends of assorted milk-witches, whose evil was worked both on and through cattle: Near Oakland City there lived a Dairy Witch of some repute and there was also the Butter Witch of Giro (a name I think we can all agree totally kicks ass). A witch in Anderson was believed to grow poisoned apples in the yard. But Shelby County has one of the most enchanting tales of witches of all (with a very many similarities to Greek myths and the Brothers Grimm): Three young and beautiful sisters lived separately from the nearest community. They were reputed to be witches who transformed themselves into fawns but there was no proof of this strange magic until one day a hunter went into the woods and chased three agile fawns. He had only one silver bullet with him and with this single bullet, he injured one of the fawns. The hunter followed the trail of blood to its end— which he found at the cabin of the Three Sisters. Two human sisters were ministering to the third, who was in bed with an injured leg. And, although the legends don't say anything more on the tale, I like to think that hunter married that girl.

Source: Baker, Ronald L. Hoosier Folk Legends. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1982.

 

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