by AJ Berry
Witchcraft is one tradition which has generally fallen by the wayside so to speak. Or has it? Have you noticed some hex signs on the outside of a house, or indoors? Have you ever seen a Pennsylvania Dutch Quilt with all the good luck signs including one for fertility?
Perhaps now we put some of the good advice under folklore, but in the past it was attributed to witches, some evil and some good. A lot of old wisdom came from a witch. In the past, the good blessings were of course dealt by the heavens above, the bad events, well they perhaps came from a witch. This is another taboo subject among the folk who live in the valley now, but this again is part of the history of this special place.
The Palatines were very superstitious people and there is still evidence of the dark worries they had when they lived here almost 300 years ago. When a home is torn down, it will reveal secrets of the people who inhabited the house. Things were put in the walls of the home, things to keep the evil spirits away. Every person in the family put something in the wall, often it was a shoe, just one. If a person was very poor, perhaps a bottle of urine might be used and sealed in the wall. Anything personal from each person in the household was stored to ward off the evil eye.
This is a caution for those who have older homes, watch for the shoes. All across New England and New York shoes have been found in the walls. Why would shoes be deliberately built into a home or public building? Some have speculated that the tradition stems from the prehistoric custom of killing a person and placing the body in the foundation to insure that the building holds together. Could it be that later the shoes were used as a substitute for a human sacrifice? Shoes may have been chosen, because over time they take on and keep the shape of the wearer’s foot. Shoes were hidden near openings in the home such as doors, windows, chimneys; these are the perceived weak places in the building that were thus protected from evil by the shoe owner’s spirit.
About half the shoes in the wall are children’s shoes. Women’s shoes are more common than men’s. Shoes are almost invariably well worn, perhaps because the donor didn’t want to waste an expensive new shoe on the project, or perhaps because a well-worn shoe is more likely to retain the shape of the wearer’s foot and hence his spirit. Though shoes are the common denominator, more than two hundred different personal possessions—coins, spoons, pots, goblets, food, knives, toys, gloves, pipes, even chicken and cat bones—have been found hidden with them and registered in the “shoes in the wall” research. Just type “shoes in the wall” in your web browser and you will find groups dedicated to researching this phenomenon.
I spent some time talking with men who tear down old homes and asked them if they ever found shoes in the walls. Several got a funny look on their face and said they thought they were just old shoes and bottles left there, garbage in other words. They didn’t realize what they were looking at and that they had been left there deliberately. They said the shoes were worn, were women’s and children’s shoes, just one shoe and there were bottles with them but they were empty. The shoes are found near an opening to the house, a ledge in the chimney or near an outside door entrance.
Considering how widespread and long lasting this folk belief has been, it is curious that nowhere was it described in writing until references began to appear in mid-twentieth century archaeology literature in scholarly journals. Some speculate the tradition of hiding shoes was a male superstition, kept secret almost out of fear that telling about it would reduce its effectiveness. Others feel contemporary writers did not describe it since superstition ran counter to prevailing religious beliefs and the Puritans punishment of witchcraft and magic was well-known.
When removing walls especially around windows and doors, under roof rafters and behind old chimneys, homeowners should be aware of the possibility of turning up concealed shoes. While most are found in eighteenth and nineteenth century homes, a find hidden as late as 1935 has been reported. If shoes are found, they should be left exactly as they were discovered and photographed.
A local man who deals with recycling parts of old historic homes was the one who pointed out the phenomenon of the shoes. Of course he would be aware of this because of his work with old homes. He showed me an article from the United Kingdom regarding the shoes. According to the article, over 1200 examples have been recorded, with the earliest reference to the use of shoes comes the 14th century. One of England’s unofficial saints, John Schorn from Buckinghamshire who was the rector of North Marston 1290-1314, is reputed to have cast the devil into a boot. The oldest concealed shoes date to about this time.
Witchcraft is the heritage of all humanity. Since barbarian days, fear of the supernatural has been instilled into the souls of men. So it was in the isolated hills of the Mohawk Valley. Immigrants from Europe brought with them centuries of their own folklore, superstitions, ghost stories, and books of witchcraft. These tales were all handed down within families and communities, and very often, changed to suit the area. A hundred years ago storytellers flourished among the Schoharie hill people and, as late as 1920, witchcraft was still a thing to be reckoned with in the isolated hill hamlets.
First, there are two varieties of witches: some who did only evil; and the others who had healing powers, were said to have second sight, and told fortunes – always happy ones of course.