Hidden Histories

Conjuring, Fortune Telling, and Witchcraft, in 19th Century Philadelphia

Tuesday, 3/23/10

Stereotypically, when one thinks of Philadelphia during the 19th century, an image comes to mind of a sophisticated urban area, filled with scientific, educational & cultural institutions, legacies derived in part from the preceding century, when such enlightened events as the signing of the 'Declaration of Independence' and the 'Constitutional Convention' transpired, a city which at at one time served as the capital of our nation, a metropolis blessed with famed citizens like Benjamin Franklin and Dr. Benjamin Rush.

However, there was another Philadelphia as well: a 'darker,' more sinister side, where superstition played a role in the lives of many of its residents, long after the Revolutionary War.

In March of 1827, Richard Barker was found in a dying condition, "on the pavement" in Shippen Street. He had for some days been residing among "a certain class" of people, one of whom "had the reputation of being acquainted with the black art--a conjurer..."

Lucinda Barker, the purported widow of Richard, visited the city in the summer of 1830, in an attempt to discover her husband's fate, and told the 'Court of Oyer & Terminer' of her incessant prayers aimed towards this discovery, that a "figure" had appeared to her, "dressed in a white shroud" and pleaded, " 'Lucinda, Lucinda, Lucinda, pursue my murderers, you will learn who they are from the police of New York and Philadelphia.' I answered quickly and repeated it, 'I will, I will, while I have strength and life,' and then it vanished."

Two sisters, Maggie Butler and Mrs. Ida Rehr in 1885, while running a produce stand at the Farmer's Market on 12th & Market Streets, "cowhided" or whipped an innocent man named Simon Harris, whom they believed had been "pilfering" baskets of fruits and vegetables from their stall. Having "consulted a fortune teller last week" they had been "told that the culprit was a blonde young man," thus they began to attack the passer-by who fit the fortune teller's description. Luckily, Harris failed to press charges against the two ladies, even though the man's face "showed several crimson streaks" which he received from the whip.

Prior to this event, Elizabeth White, described as "a mulatto woman," residing in 1859 between Sixth and Seventh Streets, in the city's Fifth Ward, was said by newspaper accounts to be "a Doctress and Astrologist by profession," who was stabbed by her husband "rapidly three or four times in the breast, and also cut her knee, and then fled, leaving his victim bleeding."

But perhaps the most sensational case, occurred in 1852, with newspaper headings entitled, "Superstition in Philadelphia," and "Witchcraft--Evidence of an Enlightened Age," when Mary Ann Clinton & Susan Spearing, residents of Southwark Ward, were formally charged at the 'Court of Quarter Sessions,' with "conspiring to cheat and defraud George F. Elliott, by means of fortune telling and conjuration," in order to extort money. The 'Commonwealth of Pennsylvania' alleged that the two women were giving Mrs. Elliott, "a bottle containing some portions of Mr. Elliott's clothing, and telling her that as the clothing decayed, so Mr. Elliott would moulder away, until he would finally die by virtue of the spell..."

It appeared that Mrs. Elliott suspected her husband was guilty of infidelity, a belief which "had so strong an effect upon her as to make her wish for his death." Thus, she had enlisted the services of Clinton & Spearing, who also encouraged the jealous wife, as an "ordeal of witchcraft," to "take her husband's clothes, tear them to pieces, fill the bottle with them, then boil the contents nine times, and this would give him such extreme pain as to cause his death."

To carry out the above 'spell,' Mrs. Elliott willingly had payed the two 'conjurers,' their required fee.

Not to be outdone, Mrs. Carmela Rubino to the north, in New York City, as late as 1910, charged Giovanni Leonardo & Leonora Buffano $276.00, for certain "black powders and blue ribbons," in order to drive away "devils." Mrs. Rubino's "demon dispellers" caused her to spend 50 days in jail, after she was convicted of "practicing medicine illegally," and was forced also to pay a fine of $500.00 for her "exorbitant fees for worthless concoctions."

The above accounts reveal that such incredulity was not limited to Colonial America, but existed well into the Modern era, and for that matter, has not entirely disappeared even in the 21st century. These accounts, their documentation and other similar events, can all be examined as part of the collections here at The Historical Society of Pennsylvania.