A Witch’s Grave

Last week, I discussed some tales of witchcraft from Marc Simmons’ book Witchcraft in the Southwest, which I read while conducting early research for my novel Owl Dance.

Witches didn’t always get the upper hand in their dealings with people, as demonstrated in nineteenth century court records. There is a story of a witch who poisoned a bowl of hominy soup as a way of getting revenge against a man. The man was suspicious and did not eat the soup. Instead, he added some herbs and spices of his own so it looked and smelled different. He sent it back to the witch as a gift. The witch ended up eating her own soup and grew ill.

Aside from those cases that are part of the court record, it’s hard to say how much truth there is to these stories of witchcraft from nineteenth century New Mexico that Marc Simmons relates in his book. However, it is clear that people believed in witchcraft and the stories have left a powerful legacy that is still evident in the twenty-first century. This is what led me to research New Mexico’s witch trials in the first place.

The small town of Mesilla in Southern New Mexico is famous as the place where Billy the Kid stood trial. After the Civil War, Mesilla became an important commercial, transportation and social center. In addition to Billy the Kid, such historical figures as Kit Carson and Pancho Villa were known to have spent time there. The historic town square is dominated by the brick edifice of the San Albino Catholic Church. About a half a mile from the church, down a street called Calle de Guadalupe, a little less than a city block from a house I once occupied, is the San Albino Cemetery.

witch-grave

The cemetery looks like something straight out of a western movie. Wooden and adobe crosses with Spanish inscriptions fill the grounds. There is no grass—only a few trees. In addition to the simple crosses, there are a number of ornate graves with beautiful sculptures. Other graves are mounds of earth covered in tile. Many of the graves date from the end of the nineteenth century.

However, one grave stands out among them all. Near the center of the grounds is a six-foot by six-foot solid block. A tall cross adorns the top of the block. Most notably, there is no name nor inscription on this strange tomb. The locals have dubbed this “The Witch’s Grave.” It is said that a woman was buried at the site and a large rock was placed on her grave. The rock was then surrounded by concrete, forming the block that sits on the site today.

It is said that the witch entombed there is attempting to break free. She tries to find cracks in the tomb so she can dig her way out. To prevent this, the folks of Mesilla continuously repair any cracks they find in the tomb. Over the years, the tomb has grown in size from all the repair work. One could dismiss this as simple superstition.

However, there’s a story that a few years ago, a group of teens went to the cemetery. They dared one of the girls to lay on the grave. As she stood up from the grave, she was suddenly and inexplicably struck by seizures. It was so bad, an ambulance had to be called. The girl’s mother never let her have contact with her friends after that.
Had the woman entombed in the witch’s grave once sought revenge against another? Did she go to a school of witchcraft so she could seek power and money? Her story is not discussed in Mesilla. What is known is that the spirit of a woman from the nineteenth century—from the height of witchcraft in New Mexico—still frightens the people of Mesilla to this very day.

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New Mexico Witch Stories

When people think of witchcraft in the United States, they often think of the Salem Witch Trials of the seventeenth century. However, that is far from the end of the story as far as witchcraft in America is concerned. In 1848, at the conclusion of the Mexican War, New Mexico Territory was added to the United States. Many of the people already living in New Mexico suddenly found themselves living in a new country, and many of them believed in witchcraft. Back when I first started my Clockwork Legion steampunk books, I originally expected the series would have more of a supernatural/horror element than it did and I started researching these tales of witchcraft.

Witchcraft in the Southwest

One of the books I found was Witchcraft in the Southwest: Spanish and Indian Supernaturalism on the Rio Grande. The book is available at Amazon.com and serves as the source for these tales.

In 1882, a man named Felipe Madrid was arrested in the town of Tierra Amarilla in Northern New Mexico. He was accused of torturing a woman he believed was a witch. Years before, Madrid had an affair with the woman. After they broke up, he started seeing other women, but came down with a “loathsome disease.” He believed that his ex-girlfriend was a witch and she had cursed him. Following an old belief, he planned to abduct her and make her cure him. He sent three of his friends to where she lived and they brought her to his house. Madrid tied the woman’s hands and told her that he would whip her to death if she did not cure him. She protested her innocence and said she could not cure him. He whipped her until she finally promised to cure him. She called for ointments and medicines and while she was waiting for them to be delivered, she finally escaped. Madrid was arrested and put on trial. He was convicted of committing assault and battery and had to pay a fine of $150.

Just a few years later, in the town of Chimayo, New Mexico, a 40-year-old woman was accused of being in league with the Devil. She was taken from her home by three men, stripped of her clothes and stabbed to death.

These two accounts come from New Mexico’s court records and illustrate that people in New Mexico still held a strong belief in witchcraft during the late nineteenth century. People in New Mexico generally thought there were three ways someone could become a witch. First, it was believed that certain children were fated to become witches. Parents grew fearful if any of their children showed any signs of strange or deviant behavior. Second, many witches were said to have voluntarily taken up the craft to get revenge on someone who had wronged them. The third group of witches consisted of those who were said to have sold their souls to the Devil himself for money or power.

There are stories of women who would seek out advanced practitioners of witchcraft and learn from them. In the village of Las Placitas, near Albuquerque, a woman named Juanita was ostracized because she had a bad temper. She sought out a known “bruja” named Felicia, who taught her how to prepare herbs and use them to make magic.

Occasionally, advanced practitioners in witchcraft would get together and conduct formal schools in how to bewitch people, cast spells, and transform into animals. Legend has it that one such school existed in the Central New Mexico town of Peña Blanca. Aspiring witches who attended this school were said to have learned from the Devil himself how to transform into such animals as owls, doves and dogs.

The witches of New Mexico were often said to gather in conclaves. There is the story of a man who lived near Taos who noticed that some of his aunts and uncles would all disappear from time to time. One night he decided to follow them. They rode out to a house concealed in an arroyo. The man crept up to a window and saw his uncles and aunts dancing in the house with some other people. After a while, a goat was led into the room. All the people ceremonially kissed its tail. Once the goat was led away, a black snake came into the room and flicked its tongue at each of the people in turn. As the snake slithered out of the room, some of those gathered went into the other room and retrieved a man’s corpse. All of those present sat down and dined on the human flesh. It seems many of the stories of witch conclaves from New Mexico include this bizarre combination of dancing, kissing a goat’s tail and the involvement of a black snake.

As the first novel of my Clockwork Legion series developed, it soon became apparent that Fatemeh Karimi wasn’t a witch, or even close. She was a strong-willed woman accused of witchcraft and tried. I’ll look at a couple more tales of nineteenth century New Mexico witchcraft next week, plus tell the story that set me on the path that led to the creation of Fatemeh, who ended up nothing like the people of these stories. However, if you want to see what did end up in the book, read Owl Dance. Although this novel isn’t scary in it’s own right, I have written scary stories in this world. A Cthulhu-mythos inspires story from this world will appear later this year in the anthology Lost Trails II: More Forgotten Trails of the Weird West.