Many people find fascination with the topic of the Salem Witch trials of 1692. I have read a number of fascinating books on the subject and most recently a team of researchers from Salem State University have claimed to have located the actual site of the 19 executions by hanging that resulted from the trials. The Chicago Tribune covered the story and you can read it here.
People also find fascination with the topic of witches and witchcraft. There are also very different ways of looking at what the term witch or witchcraft actually denotes.
Some people think of a witch as an evil, old, hag of a woman who eats children such as in the folk tale of Hansel and Gretel or flies on a broom stick, casts spells and hates young girls from Kansas and their little dogs too.
Others see witches as the peaceful, nature-loving followers of the Wicca religion. In fact, according to the website www.religioustolerance.org, there are at least 17 common meanings for witch or witchcraft.
The definition that seems closest to the one that the accusers in the Salem Witch Trials used is what they deem the Gothic Satanist. The Gothic Satanist is a worshiper of Satan who, during the late Middle Ages and Renaissance, was believed to use black magic to harm others, by involving the aid of Satan and his demons.
Laws to protect the citizenry against such evil-doers were enacted and since I live in Illinois and write about Chicago and Illinois history it begged the question: Is witchcraft against the law in Illinois today?
Chicago and Illinois have had their issues with witches in the past but before that let’s start with a little Illinois history.
Early Illinois History
In 1696 the Jesuit Mission de l’Ange Gardien is founded in Chicagou by Father Pierre Francois Pinet and in March of 1699 he establishes the Mission de Sainte Famille de Caoquias at what is now Cahokia, Illinois and also when its written history begins.
On February 10, 1763, the Treaty of Paris is signed following Great Britain’s victory in the French and Indian War and the area falls under British rule.
During the Revolutionary War, General George Rogers Clark of Virginia and nearly 175 of his men took the towns of Kaskaskia, Cahokia and Vincennes from the British in July of 1778 without firing a shot. It seemed that the French and Indians who occupied these areas were not keen on taking up arms for the British. By December 9th of that year, Virginia claimed the “Illinois Country” and it became the County of Illinois, Virginia. I found it interesting that our great State of Illinois was the largest county in Virginia for five years!
Witch Executions on Illinois Soil
There are numerous references to at least two executions of witches on Illinois soil while it was still part of the Commonwealth of Virginia. Both cases take place near the town of Cahokia, Illinois which in 1779 was in the Kaskaskia District of Virginia.
The first involves an African slave by the name of Moreau. Moreau was brought to Cahokia [Kohos] from New Orleans by a Frenchman who soon abandoned him there. The residents assumed he was given his freedom by his master. He acquired a small parcel of land and began to raise pigs. A sickness that affected the swine in the area killed off most of the pigs except for Moreau’s and he was quickly accused of witchcraft in that he either was able to protect his pigs from a natural disease through use of witchcraft or caused the deaths of the other pigs in the same manner.
They also surmised that rather than being left a free man, he must have killed his owner by use of magic [“by the power of his devilish incantations”] and disposed of his body.
He was arrested, tried and convicted of witchcraft and hung on a tree a short distance southeast of Cahokia. Of course the reason that his mistress was still alive was because she was too powerful for his magic.
The second case takes place in the same place, and maybe not so coincidentally, at roughly the same time. A slave named Emmanuel was shot to death in the street at Cahokia for witchcraft shortly after the order came down from the Court of Kaskaskia to have him burned to death.
Both accounts are verified by letters from John Todd who was appointed the Lieutenant or Commandant of the County of Illinois in the Commonwealth of Virginia in a letter written by Governor Patrick Henry of Virginia on the 12th of December 1778.
The letters were in the Record Book of John Todd and state:
[John Todd to Richard Winston]
WARRANT FOR EXECUTION: [erased, page 18]
Illinois, to wit: To Richard Winston, Esq., Sheriff in Chief of the District of Kaskaskia:
Negro Manuel, a Slave, in your Custody, is condemned by the Court of Kaskaskia, after having made honorable Fine at the Door of the Church, to be chained to a post at the water side & there to be burnt alive, & his ashes scattered, as appears to me by Record. This Sentence you are hereby required to put in Execution on Tuesday next, at 9 o’Clock in the morning; and this shall be your Warrant. Given under my hand & seal at Kaskaskia the 13th day of June, in the third year of the Commonwealth 
[John Todd to Nicholas Janis, page 19:]
To Capt. Nicholas Janis:
You are hereby required to call upon a party of your Militia to guard Moreau, a Slave condemned to execution, up to the Town of Kohos [Cahokia]. Put them under an Officer. They shall be entitled to pay, rations, & refreshment during the time they shall be upon duty, to be certified hereafter by you.
I am, sir, your humble servant,
JNo Todd, 15th June 1779
I recommend 4 or 5 from your Compy & as many from Capt. Placey’s, and consult Mr. Lacroix about the time necessary.
The slave Emmanuel was supposed to have been burnt alive but some accounts mention he was shot to death and then burned. Either someone decided to take matters into their own hands before the troops arrived or they had mercy on him and shot him before burning him. The details of that are sketchy at best.
On September 3, 1783, America and Britain signed peace articles in Paris ending the Revolutionary War and one year later Virginia ceded its claim to western territory to the United States to settle war time debts.
On July 13, 1787, Congress passed the ordinance which established the Northwest Territory and General Arthur St. Clair was appointed Governor. Governor St. Clair travelled to the area in 1790 and in May established St. Clair County in southern Illinois. He appointed officials and militias in both Kaskaskia and Cahokia. The county court officials purchased the building that would later become known as the Cahokia Courthouse in 1793.
While I have not found any other instances of witches being executed in our state under the authority of government since 1779 there have been plenty of reports of citizens being bothered by pesky witches.
Even in Chicago during the 20th Century the Chicago Police had to deal with reports of witchcraft.
I found a rather entertaining article in the Chicago Tribune written in 1903. The headline of the article read: Many Chicagoans Believe in Witches – Police Have Lots of Trouble Because of the Black Art.
The article goes on to talk about specific cases such as one where a woman was arrested upon the complaint of another woman who charged that the woman had bewitched a child. It seemed that the woman was suspected of being a witch because she had cut a lock of hair from the child’s head and a bit of cloth from her jacket. The woman with the aid of these ingredients purportedly recited an incantation which then caused the child’s feet to swell.
In another instance a neighborhood near the West North Avenue Police Station believed that the whole neighborhood was under the influence of a witch’s curse because their cows were dying for no apparent reason. The way that the witch had accomplished this was to form a lump of wax into the shape of a cow. An incantation is said over a group of pins which are then thrust into the waxen cow and then the whole cow is set before a fire to melt. It was reported that as the wax figure melted the cow would be afflicted in the corresponding areas where the pins were inserted.
The article goes on to make the claim that police are called three or five times per week to intervene between a supposed witch and her victim.
One of the most commonly used items in the accused witch’s arsenal is a common stove poker. In order to ruin an entire family the witch only had to lean the poker against the front door or front gate of the residence and utter the incantation, “Be Accursed”. After a witch does this members of the entire family are affected by illness and economic disasters.
Another witch can be called in to remove the curse by removing the poker but only if done quick or carefully. Of course if a friendly witch is not found quickly, the neighborhood police officer, at great risk to himself, can quickly remove the object. Police officers had quite a collection of stove pokers.
I had written an article about a self-proclaimed witch who operated in the 1970s at what is now the Tonic Room at 2447 N. Halsted. His name was originally Manuel Nazario Rodriquez but he changed his name to Frederic De’Arechaga shortly before becoming the self-proclaimed witch and “Pontifus Maximus” of the Sabaean Religious Order operating out of the Halsted address under the name El-Sabarum. The business sold occult merchandise and had a small temple in the back. De’Arechaga left Chicago sometime after 1974 but the owner of the Tonic Room still has a ceremonial dagger that was found in a window well during renovations.
Short History of Illinois Law
Illinois became a state on December 3, 1818 and and the laws of its First General Assembly appeared in the 1819 Session Laws. From 1819 through 1826 Illinois Acts appeared only in Session Laws in the chronological order of their enactment.
In 1827 the Fifth General Assembly enacted The Revised Code of Laws of Illinois, In 1833, the Revised Laws of Illinois, in 1845, the Revised Statutes of the State of Illinois and in 1874 was the last official statutory compilation.
From 1877 to 1981 there were only unofficial revised statutes. In the 1980s there was a copyright dispute and finally in September of 1992 the General Assembly passed House Bill 3810, which became Public Act 87-1005, which directed the Illinois Legislative Review Board to maintain the compilation of the official statutes of the State of Illinois thereby placing it into the public domain under the name Illinois Compiled Statutes or ILCS.
In the older Illinois Revised Statutes there existed Chapter 28 which was approved on March 5, 1874 and which was entitled, “Common Law – An Act to revise the law in relation to the common law” It states:
“Be it enacted by the People of the State of Illinois, represented in the General Assembly, That the common law of England, so far as the same is applicable and of a general nature and all statutes or acts of the British parliament made in aid of, and to supply the defects of the common law, prior to the fourth year of James the First, excepting the second section of the sixth chapter of 43rd Elizabeth, the eight chapter of 13th Elizabeth, and ninth chapter of 37th Henry Eighth, and which are of a general nature and not local to that kingdom, shall be the rule of decision, and shall be considered as of full force until repealed by legislative authority.
Basically it states that the State of Illinois recognizes the Common Law of England as law as long as it was enacted prior to the fourth year of James I (1607) and was not repealed by the Illinois Legislature.
Witchcraft Laws in England
The Witchcraft Act of 1542 was an act passed by King Henry the VIII in the 33rd year of his reign. It made practicing witchcraft a felony punishable by death. It was considered a felony without the benefit of clergy which meant that you could not be spared by the death penalty by simply reading a passage from the Bible. It would also result in all of the persons property being seized. The act read:
It shall be felony to practice, or cause to be practiced conjuration, witchcraft, enchantment or sorcery, to get money or to consume any person in his body, members or goods or to provoke any person to unlawful love; or for the despite of Christ or Lucre of money, to pull down any cross; or to declare where goods stolen be.
The act was later repealed by Henry’s son Edward VI in 1547.
The Witchcraft Act of 1563 was passed in the 5th year of Elizabeth I and only made witchcraft a felony if it resulted in the bodily harm of an individual would the person be put to death. Lesser offenses were punishable by a term of imprisonment. The act provided that anyone who should “use, practice, or exercise any witchcraft, enchantment, charm or sorcery, whereby any person shall happen to be killed or destroyed”, was guilty of a felony without benefit of clergy and was to be put to death.
The Witchcraft Act of 1604 was passed in the first year of James I and broadened the Elizabethan Act to include dealing with evil and wicked spirits. The act was called An Act against conjuration, witchcraft and dealing with evil and wicked spirits. The act provided that “The penalty for practicing of invocation or conjuration & conjuration or invocation, whereby any person is killed or lamed. Declaring by witchcraft, where anything is hidden, procuring unlawful love. The second offense is a felony. No forfeiture of dower or inheritance. Trial of a peer of the realm.
The Witchcraft Act of 1735 was passed during the 9th year of George II and basically turned the crime of witchcraft from a felony punishable by death to a crime of fraud punishable by fines and imprisonment. It repealed all previous Witchcraft acts and stated:
“And be it further enacted, that from and after the said twenty fourth day of June, no prosecution, suit or proceeding, shall be commenced or carried on against any person or persons for witchcraft, sorcery, enchantment, or conjuration, or for charging another with any such offense, in any court whatsoever in Great Britain.
And for the more effectual preventing and punishing any pretenses to such arts or powers as are before-mentioned whereby ignorant persons are frequently deluded and defrauded; be it further enacted by the authority aforesaid, that if any person shall, from and after the twenty fourth day of June, pretend to exercise or use any kind of witchcraft, sorcery, enchantment, or conjuration, or undertake to tell fortunes, or pretend from his or her skill or knowledge in any occult or crafty sciences to discover where or in what manner any goods or chattels, supposed to have been stolen or lost, may be found; every person so offending, being thereof lawfully convicted on indictment or information in that part of Great Britain called England, or on indictment or libel in that part of Great Britain called Scotland, shall for every such offense suffer imprisonment by the space of one whole year without bail or mainprize, and once in every quarter of the said year in some market town of the proper county upon the market day there stand openly on the pillory by the space of one hour, and also shall (if the court by which such judgment shall be given shall think fit) be obliged to give sureties for his or her good behavior, in such sum and for such time as the said court shall judge proper according to the circumstances of the offense, and in such case shall be further imprisoned until such sureties be given.
This act stayed in effect until replaced in 1951 with the Fraudulent Mediums Act of 1951 which was in turn repealed on May 26, 2008 with the passing of Consumer Protection Regulations targeting unfair sales and marketing practices.
The book, The Strange Case of Hellish Nell, DeCapo Press, 2006, by Nina Shandler, is a great story about the use of the Witchcraft Act of 1735 to silence a medium named Helen Duncan during World War II.
Is Witchcraft Illegal in Illinois?
So is the practice of witchcraft as defined by 16th and 17th century brits illegal in the current State of Illinois? I would have to say yes.
Unbelievably, the current Illinois Compiled Statutes (ILCS) still contains the words of Chapter 28 of the 1874 version of the Revised Statutes!
While the Common Law Chapter 28 doesn’t exist anymore you will find it in General Provisions 5 ILCS 50 and it is still called the Common Law Act.
It reads exactly the same in that Section 1 states:
That the common law of England, so far as the same is applicable and of a general nature, and all statutes or acts of the British parliament made in aid of, and to supply the defects of the common law, prior to the fourth year of James I, excepting the second section of the sixth chapter of 43rd Elizabeth, the eighth chapter of the 13th Elizabeth, and ningth chapter of 37th Henry Eighth, and which are of a general nature and not local to that kingdom, shall be the rule of decision, and shall be considered as of full force until repealed by legislative authority. (Source: R.S. 1874, p. 269)
If you recall as noted previously the Witchcraft Act of 1604 was enacted prior to the fourth year of James I (1607) and is of a general nature and not local to that kingdom. It also has never been repealed by the Illinois Legislature because the State of Illinois has never had a witchcraft law of its own in order to invalidate or repeal the Common Law Witchcraft Act of 1604 which was the same law that was used to execute 20 persons during the Salem Witch Trials of 1692.
So while the practice of witchcraft may technically be illegal in Illinois due to an overlooked English law from 1604, I am not advocating for an Illinois witch hunt. I will say though that there are quite a good many charlatans who sell themselves out to vulnerable people as “mediums” or try to tell people that they are able to speak to dead relatives and for a fee can tell you that they are in a great place and that you shouldn’t be worried.
These con artists are some of the lowest of the low and benefit financially from the misery and hope of others. They also exist in an environment that is friendly to them in the State of Illinois because as long as they place the words “For Entertainment Purposes Only” somewhere in their sales literature (Believe me it is probably not on the front page of their web sites in bold letters) they are safe from prosecution because they are only doing it for entertainment right?
Maybe it wouldn’t be such a bad thing to pass a law in Illinois that would repeal the Witchcraft Act of 1604 (I don’t like the smell of burning flesh anyway)and pass something similar to the Fraudulent Mediums Act that would protect people from these bottom feeders.
But if we don’t repeal the 1604 Act then at least the culprits don’t have to worry about being burned at the stake, hung from a tree or stoned because our former Governor, George Ryan, repealed the death penalty in Illinois back in 2011.
Davidson, Alexander and Stuve, Bernard, A Complete History of Illinois from 1673 to 1884, H.W. Rokker, 1884
Mason, Edward G., Early Chicago and Illinois, Fergus Printing Company, 1890
Fins, Harry G., Historical and Structural Analysis of the Illinois Revised Statutes – The Major Source of Illinois Law, Chicago-Kent Law Review, Volume 59, Issue 3, Article 2
Ashton, John, The Devil in Britain and America, Ward and Downey, 1896
Pickering, Danby, The Statutes at Large, Cambridge University, 1763
Illinois Compiled Statutes, http://www.ilga.gov/legislation/ilcs/ilcs.asp, accessed February 8, 2016
“Many Chicagoans Believe in Witches”, Chicago Daily Tribune, August 23, 1903, page 42
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