Feature Image: The Three Witches from Shakespeare’s Macbeth by Daniel Gardner, 1775. Wikimedia Commons.

…aperitive, abstersive, carminative, digestive, discussive, diuretic, incisive, vulnerary, cephalick, neurotick, stomachick, splenetick, nephritick, hysterick, sudorifick, analeptick, and alexipharmick.” —The powers of pennyroyal, per William Salmon, M.D. (1644–1713)

Watch the moon phases, pluck leaves from graves, collect herbs from unsunned spots, favoring your left hand over your right. Wear a lock of your lover’s hair tucked between your third and fourth rib. Sometimes a stolen potato in your pocket will cure rheumatism while green wormwood in your shoe is good for stomach pain. Henbane in the sheets won’t just preserve chastity but will also kill fleas. And, of course, actually consuming an herb can cure what ails you too.

“The leaves of the lesser periwinkle, if eaten by man and wife together, will cause love between them,” according to Nicholas Culpeper, “a student in physick” who wrote of herbal remedies in the 17th century.

By the 19th century, we’d become ever more practical. An 1874 edition of an Ohio newspaper outlined love-potion ingredients that included “bones of toads and snakes, a portion of the head of a newborn foal, called ‘hippomanes,’ the feathers of a night-hawk, the blood of doves, bones torn from the mouths of famishing dogs, and the strands of a rope with which a man had hanged himself.”

We had something deep to fear from the “aged crones” who, along with “so-called herbalists, quack doctors, and charlatans” practiced a medicine that was equal parts poison, hallucination, blind-trust, and gardening. This was according to author Richard Folkard, who, with his book Plant Lore, Legends and Lyrics (1884), sought to chronicle as many sick-inducing curatives as he could list, all the potions “cunningly prepared by the Witch and her confederates.”

In matters of love, and even anti-love, women and men were especially vulnerable to the most provocative fixes; the more a cure hinted at danger and perversity, the more authentic it seemed. Love is mercurial enough to be best situated in the witch’s dominion.

“The war with Spain was a blessing to me and others of my profession,” pronounced “an up-to-date seeress” in an 1898 article in the San Francisco Call addressing an uptick in sales of love amulets and potions, as women sent their sweethearts off to battle in the Spanish-American War. The reporter described one seeress as “rustled in a silk gown. Her nails were badly kept, but her begrimed fingers were covered with rings.”
These “crones” and “quacks” could prove so influential in a community, many towns had laws against clairvoyants, even New York City: a bust reported in the Times in 1934 details three midtown “gypsy tea rooms” and a roundup, by the Bureau of Policewomen, of twelve people who plead guilty to fortune-telling. An owner of one of the buildings was charged with “maintaining a nuisance.”

“The business of a clairvoyant nowadays is more like that of a physician than any other profession,” reported The Sun, the New York City newspaper, many years previous, following a series of raids in 1894. The modern clairvoyant was doctor-like in her cures and regular clientele, who relied on her advice in matters of physical and emotional health. The article outlined the particulars of many of those arrested, including Emma L. King, of 142 E. 53rd St. Visited by an undercover detective who claimed to be in love but didn’t know with whom, Miss King “squeezed his hand gently while she told him of a shy maiden of 26 summers who was simply withering for him.” She sold him a potion, after which he took her into custody. Eva Jackson, of 149 W. 26th St, offered to fall into a trance for an undercover cop for $2. “The detective tried to buy a little trance for $1, but it was a no go.” Nonetheless, she was arrested too.

An 1897 article about the shops of New York’s east side noted that love potions were to be found “in the dirty-looking groceries and the overcrowded dry goods shops.” Among the potions and ingredients for sale: salt of gold, stick of lovage root to be “made into powder and baked in cakes,” bat’s blood, nutmeg, and “a diet of mushrooms and truffles.”
While fortune-telling laws seem likely to reflect a fear of “foreign” neighbors and working women, a town’s witches might have hailed from any walk of life, or might have simply been hobbyists. A New York Herald article in 1893 began: “Samuel Friedman, who keeps a small shoe store in Williamsburg, N.Y., has been married several years, and is not as attentive to his wife, Fannie, as he used to be.” The love-starved Fannie consulted with a woman in town who claimed to have the power “to make the coldest heart glow with love.” The witch charged $4 for an elixir to pour into Sam’s beer. The mister noticed his missus tampering with his suds, feared poison, and confronted his wife, who confessed of her love plot. He took the concoction to the druggist, who told him it was a cheap mix of peppermint and sugar. According to the druggist: “There are many women
in this neighborhood in the same business, and most of them give lovesick women about one cents worth of Epsom salts and charge $1 to $5.”

A successful love potion in Reading, Pa., in 1899, led to charges against Mrs. Bertha Whiskeyman who had managed to lure a young man away from his family. Robert Richards was a hopelessly innocent lad of twenty-one, and his mother appealed to the law to intervene in the schemes of Mrs. Whiskeyman, “a woman much older in years.” Mrs. Whiskeyman claimed that she had “only a sisterly interest” in Robert, despite the fact the boy had moved in with her, and Mr. Whiskeyman had initiated divorce proceedings.

We advise heeding the warnings of Lady Wilde, in her 1888 volume Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms, and Superstitions of Ireland. “The result may be fatal,” she says of love potions, and cites the case of an unnamed young man who “suddenly became wild and reckless,” likely due to a love potion administered upon him. When the girl who slipped him the potion saw this affect, she fell despondent and, after many years of half-derangement, “died of melancholy and despair.” Lady Wilde offers a charming alternative: “a sprig of mint in your hand until the herb grows moist and warm, then take hold of the hand of the woman you love, and she will follow you as long as the two hands close over the herb.”

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Timothy Schaffert is the author of five novels, most recently The Swan Gondola. He is a professor of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Learn more at timothyschaffert.com.


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