Archeologists from the William & Mary Center for Archeological Research who were investigating Civil War Redoubts in Pennsylvania have uncovered a bottle filled with rusted iron nails. The bottle had been made by a cola company in the 1840s and had been buried next to a hearth built by Union troops in the early 1860s. The archeologists believe that they may have found a (very late and very rare) example of an American witch bottle.
Less than a dozen American witch bottles have been recorded, but over 200 English examples are known.
Witch bottles date back at least to the Middle Ages and were designed to protect people from the wicked power of a local witch. Typically they were filled with the victim's urine, and/or menstrual blood, hair and nail clippings, together with thorns, needles, pins or nails. They were usually buried deeply behind or underneath the hearth.
"The idea of the witch bottle was to throw the spell back on the witch," said Alan Massey of the University of Loughborough, UK, "The urine and the bulb of the bottle represented the waterworks of the witch, and the theory was that the nails and the bent pins would aggravate the witch when she passed water and torment her so badly that she would take the spell back off you."
Massey subjected a witch bottle (actually a stoneware jar) found in Greenwich, London, in 2004, to scientific analysis. It was about half filled with human urine and contained bent nails and pins, a nail-pierced leather "heart", fingernail clippings, navel fluff and human hair. All pretty standard stuff.
We had a witch bottle in our inventory for a short time. It was a Bartmann jug with a wonky neck that resembled the one analyzed by Alan Massey. We asked the man who sold it to us why he thought it had been a witch bottle. His answer was a story of ignorance verging on vandalism:
"I bought it from a friend who had owned it for some time before agreeing to sell the bottle to me. When I agreed to buy it, he announced that when he bought it locally within Norfolk, it had its original stopper in it and when he shook it, you could hear things moving inside. He therefore decided to uncork it and on doing so, found lots of old handmade pins inside. Rather than keep them, he threw the pins and cork away!"
I couldn't believe it!!!
The most complete account of a witch bottle at work can be found in Joseph Glanvill's Saducismus Triumphatus, or Evidence concerning Witches and Apparitions (1681).
For an old Man that Travelled up and down the Country, and had some acquaintance at that house, calling in and asking the Man of the house how he did and his Wife; He told him that himself was well, but his Wife had been a long time in a languishing condition, and that she was haunted with a thing in the shape of a Bird that would flurr [sic] near to her face, and that she could not enjoy her natural rest well. The Old Man bid him and his Wife be of good courage. It was but a dead Spright, he said, and he would put him in a course to rid his Wife of this languishment and trouble, He therefore advised him to take a Bottle, and put his Wives Urine into it, together with Pins and Needles and Nails, and Cork them up and set the Bottle to the Fire well corkt, which when it had felt a while the heat of the Fire began to move and joggle a little, but he for sureness took the Fire shovel, and held it hard upon the Cork, And as he thought, he felt something one while on this side, another while on that, shove the Fire shovel off, which he still quickly put on Again, but at last at one shoving the Cork bounced out, and the Urine, Pins, Nails and Needles all flew up, and gave a report like a Pistol, and his Wife continued in the same trouble and languishment still.
"Not long after, the Old Man came to the house again, and inquired of the Man of the house how his Wife did. Who answered, as ill as ever, if not worse. He askt him if he had followed his direction. Yes, says he, and told him the event as is above said. Ha, quoth he, it seems it was too nimble for you. But now I will put you in a way that will make the business sure. Take your Wive's Urine as before, and Cork it in a Bottle with Nails, Pins and Needles, and bury it in the Earth; and that will do the feat. The Man did accordingly. And his Wife began to mend sensibly and in a competent time was finely well recovered; But there came a Woman from a Town some miles off to their house, with a lamentable Out-cry, that they had killed her Husband. They askt her what she meant and thought her distracted, telling her they knew neither her nor her Husband. Yes, saith she, you have killed my Husband, he told me so on his Death-bed. But at last they understood by her, that her Husband was a Wizard, and had bewitched this Mans Wife and that this Counter-practice prescribed by the Old Man, which saved the Mans Wife from languishment, was the death of that Wizard that had bewitched her."
I doubt that the Union Soldiers who buried the witch bottle by the hearth in their redoubt were suffering as painfully as the poor wife in this story. But they were suffering.
According to Joe Jones, the Director of the William and Mary archeologists, "Witch bottles are the type of things people would use more generally in famine, political strife or feeling under threat...The Union troops were definitely under all those kinds of existential threats or fears. Given the perceived threat of Confederate attack and general hostility of local residents, [a soldier] had good reason to pull all the stops and rely on folk traditions from his community in Pennsylvania to help protect his temporary home away from home."
Plausible enough, but I prefer the high drama of Glanvill's story, don't you?