Dictionary of Omens and Superstitions

Olde New England's Strange Superstitions

Superstitions of a Cosmopolitan City, continued

Thieves, and that in the stead of infants taken away there are changelings, children deformed, the progeny of gnomes. Sometimes the fairy filching is interrupted in the very act. A Rutgers Street woman, impelled by a sudden fear, hurried back to her child, and found that in another moment there would have been a changeling substitution; for the fairy, interrupted by her return, had tucked the infant hastily back, but with its head toward the foot of the crib.

There are women who, following the dictates of ancient superstition, cruelly beat or torture the changelings that have been foisted upon them, for they hope them to induce the child-pilferers, from very pity for the gnomish offspring, to make restitution. At least one such case, in which the child died from the severity of the burns received, has come to the definite attention of the New York police, and there is no doubt that some of the apparently inexplicable cases of fierce wrath toward children, on the part of sullenly reticent parents, obscurely root their motives in this grim belief. Especially is this likely to be the explanation when one child of a family is singled out from his brothers and sisters for savagery.

Superstition is seen, luminous in its ineradicability, in a little book of necromancy, especially for the sick, which is widely studied in Teutonic tenements. So absurd is its substance that it would only cause a smile did we not know that it is implicitly believed in by a great number of people.

It tells how to make oneself invisible, how to become impervious to shot, how to cure diseases. That many of its rules demand incantations which it is imperative properly to pronounce, or that there is designated some strange substance for medicine, often makes necessary the services of a Wise Woman.

Magic words and letters play their part in these dogmas of demonology, which dip dar down into the glooming depths of human credulity. The blood of a basilisk, a black tick taken from the left ear of a cat, a stone bitten by a mad dog, the right eye of a live serpent — such are some of the charms of medicines. One is taught, too, how to discover a witch and how to banish her. And for people who put faith in sorcery and charms, it is easy enough to believe a woman to be a witch, if she be meagre and decrepit, stunted and squeak-voiced, and if she look with a malevolent eye upon a world which has treated her malevolently.

“Take a new but useless nail. Pick the teeth well with it. Then drive the nail into a rafter, toward the rising sun, where no sun nor moon shines, and speak, at the first stroke, 'Toothache, vanish!" on the second, 'Toothache, banish!" on the third stroke, 'Toothache, thither fly!'”

Such is one of the cures, and of an amusing rather than impressive sound, in spite of impressive intent.

If one would be secure against shot, the following is infallible; but one sees why the interpretive Wise Woman must need be called in:

“O Josophat; O Tomosath; O Plasorath! These words pronounce Jarot backwards three times.”

It was through the case of a girl who was suffering in a shabby little room in a shabby tenement that I came to know of this school of necromancy and of the crass strength with which it holds sway. The girl's foot had been painfully crushed, yet all that the mother was doing for her was to have a Wise Woman come three times a day and drone over her, in German, with periodic interpolations of “the highest name of God.” The following conjuration:

“Christ the Lord went through the field, and met a person who was sick of palsy. Christ the Lord spake: 'Wither art thou going, thou cold face?' The face thus addressed replied: "I will enter into that man!" Christ the Lord said: 'Thou palsied face, thou shalt not do so. Pebble-stones thou must devour, bitter herbs thou shalt pluck. From a well thou must drink, and therein thou must sink.'”

One must grope far back among the misty shadows to find the origin of beliefs so ineradicable, so menacingly sinister. In centuries past many an old woman cane to an unfelicious end for conjurations identical with these. Yet the Wise Woman who droned the grisly jargon over the poor child's foot was far

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