Tales of 'Turkey Witches' weren't uncommon in early West Virginia

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Tales of 'Turkey Witches' weren't uncommon in early West Virginia
A wary wild turkey peers across a field in West Virginia. (Photo courtesy Y.S.)

It wasn't all that long ago that country folk in West Virginia might tell tales of a turkey witch. Of all the forms a witch could take, that of a wild turkey was, apparently, most to be feared, especially among the farmlands on the edges of the deep forests where turkeys are most at home.

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Nearly hunted to extinction, the North American bird could be found only in parts of the Appalachia Mountains south of Pennsylvania and predominantly in West Virginia until management programs began to return them to their former habitations.

But for years, the turkey, growing more elusive, and the turkey witch both captured the imaginations of tall-tale-tellers. Jim Comstock, among the best of that breed in the Mountain State, once wrote of the matter in his West Virginia Heritage Encyclopedia.

"If a turkey comes and perches on your woodshed each night and you can't shoot it, you had better just make up your mind that it is a witch, not a turkey," Comstock wrote.

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Thankfully, witch lore was common currency in olden times, and a perplexed farmer troubled by such a bird might soon be able to find a solution in the neighborhood.

"A West Virginia man had this nerve-wracking experience, so he went to a neighbor who was quite an authority on witches, and he learned what to do," Comstock recalled.

"He went home and made an 'X' out of two pieces of hickory wood and laid them on his front porch, then he shot the turkey."

Why the man was instructed to use hickory, who can say?—though the wood is hard and strong, which may have increased its efficacy in witchcraft.

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"But when he went for the turkey," Comstock wrote, "it wasn't there! He went into the house to tell his wife about it and found her dead on the floor with a bullet through her heart. Then he knew he had been married to a witch."


The Pumpkin—West Virginia tradition steeped in lore

Jack O'Lanterns were used to ward off evil spirits.
Jack O'Lanterns were used to ward off evil spirits.

With the exception of corn, perhaps no vegetable is as all-American as the pumpkin. Carved as a Jack-O’-Lantern or pureed into a Thanksgiving pastry, the pumpkin—and the pumpkin pie—are as American as, um, well, apple pie. In many ways, they’re especially important in West Virginia where they sustained families isolated in the mountains through the winter, and state agriculture officials are now promoting them as a high-yield crop. Read the full story here.


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