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Michael Bell
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Posted By Michael Bell

A link between the agent and the cause of death is illustrated by an example from the northern counties of England, collected in the nineteenth century, where a young man “was at last restored to health by eating butter made from the milk of cows fed in kirkyards [churchyards], a sovereign remedy for consumption brought on through being witch-ridden” (Black 1883, 96). Tracking the association between churchyards (that is, burial grounds) and consumption yields another remedy, this one collected in 1901 on the Shetland Islands, Scotland, that takes us within a step of the actual corpse:

A much-respected dissenting clergyman, still alive, called at this cottage . . . to inquire for a poor woman who was dying of consumption. On hearing she was no better, he inquired if they had used means to aid her recovery: “Yah,” said her aged mother, “we gaed to the kirkyard, and brought mould frae the grave o’ the last body buried, an’ laid it on her breast. As this had nae effect, we gaed to the brig ower which the last corpse was ta’en, an’ took some water frae the burn below, an’ made her drink it. This failed too, an’ as a last resource, we dug a muckle hole i’ the grund, an’ put her in’t” (Black and Northcote 1903, 151).

Folk logic, of course, is doubled-edged, and the same reasoning can be used to cause, rather than cure, consumption. In African American witchcraft practices, the intention of the perpetrator determines the result. Graveyard dirt, which presumably contains some portion of the buried corpse (much like kirkyard mould), is fed to a relative of the person in the grave to cause lingering bad health, eventually resulting in death [see (Hyatt 1970-1978, 4:#7544)]. The following formula was collected from an African American woman in Mississippi by Newbell Niles Puckett (1926:141) in the 1920s:

The Mississippi slave Negroes would pull up the grave-board from the head of the tomb and whittle a few shavings from it, letting them fall on the grave itself. These shavings were then picked up, together with a little of the gravedirt, boiled in water, and strained. This decoction mixed with whiskey and given to an enemy was sure to cause his early death by consumption (Puckett 1926, 141).