Tag Archives: Scottish traditions

Devil Cats, Magic Mirrors, and Fortune-Telling Cabbage: 19th Century Love-Sick Hoosiers and Ancient Halloween Traditions

"Hallowe'en," postcard, n.d., William H. Hannon Library, Loyola Marymount University, accessed http://digitalcollections.lmu.edu/cdm/ref/collection/hpostcards/id/94
“Hallowe’en,” postcard, n.d., William H. Hannon Library, accessed Loyola Marymount University Digital Collections.

On the night of All Hallows Eve in 1868, two young Irish girls left a party to pick cabbage in a neighbor’s field. Their neighbor fired at them with a large navy revolver and killed young Bridget Murry.  Upon his arrest, the murderer “appeared perfectly unconcerned and indifferent,” according to the Daily Wabash Express. The main question is, of course, why would someone commit murder over the theft of a few vegetables? But there is a second mystery here too: Why would two young girls leave the festive atmosphere of a Halloween party to pick cabbage?   Let’s dig in!

We found some delightfully colorful 19th-century Indiana newspaper articles on Halloween celebrations, pranks, spells, and superstitions while searching Hoosier State Chronicles. Some of what we found was surprising! Each October 31 was a night of bonfires, spells, pranks, devilish black cats, and . . . future divining fruits, nuts, and vegetables.

In the decades after the Civil War, Hoosiers continued centuries-old, Celtic-influenced Halloween traditions, carried over from the old world.  These traditions and superstitions included the belief that spirits walked the earth on October 31 and could be called upon for favors or glimpses into the future.  While we are familiar with the imprint of some of these superstitions today, other traditions have been lost.  We were surprised to find that many of the spells and rituals involved young people looking to the spirits to determine their future husband or wife.

Daniel Maclise, Snap Apple Night, oil on canvas, 1833, accessed WikiCommons.
"All Hallow Eve," Terre Haute Daily Gazette, November 1, 1870, 4, Hoosier State Chronicles
“All Hallow Eve,” Terre Haute Daily Gazette, November 1, 1870, 4, Hoosier State Chronicles.

The day after Halloween in 1870, the Terre Haute Daily Gazette reported:

Of all the quaint superstitions that have been handed down to us, there are none that have taken a deeper hold upon the popular imagination than the observance of yesterday, the 31st of October, known as All Hallow Eve, or Halloween.

The leading belief in regard to Halloween, is that of all others, it is the time when supernatural influences prevail, the time when spirits, both the visible and invisible world, walk abroad and can be invoked by human powers for the purpose of revealing the mysterious future, and spirits may be called from the vasty [sic] deep at will.

A few years later, in 1872, the Terre Haute Gazette reported on Halloween in Titusville.  This small town in Ripley County celebrated with a festival based on the Scottish folk song “Auld Lang Syne,” which traditionally bids farewell to the previous year – fitting for the end of the harvest season.  Scottish poet Robert Burns, the author of the song’s  lyrics, was also known for his 1785 poem “Halloween.” The newspaper began its Halloween coverage with a few stanzas from that famous poem:

"Halloween Fun," Terre Haute Evening Gazette, November 7, 1872, 3, Hoosier State Chronicles.
“Halloween Fun,” Titusville Press, reprinted in Terre Haute Evening Gazette, November 7, 1872, 3, Hoosier State Chronicles.

“Some merry, gentle, country folks
Togthe did convene,
To burn their nits, and pou their stocks,
And hay their Halloween.”

The article went on to describe how Hoosiers celebrated Halloween that year:

This anniversary of the “Auld Lang Syne” festival, was pretty generally celebrated in town last evening, in the peculiar manner that has ever marked its recurrence. Out door, gates were unhinged, door-bells were pulled, stumbling blocks tripped unsuspecting pedestrians upon the sidewalks, or if they escaped these dangers below, their hats were knocked off by strings tied across the sidewalks above. A gentleman residing on Main street fell over a washtub upon entering his own domicile, and hardly ceased rubbing his shins before a peck of potatoes pattered down upon his defenseless head. There were hundreds of other similar experiences in town, but we have no time to speak of all the tricks played which the occasion makes allowable, though some of the most ludicrous are worth mentioning.

In addition to committing pranks, young Hoosiers  in 1872 called on spirits to see their future.  They were particularly interested in whether there was romance in store for them.  This idea too is based in Scottish, Celtic tradition, and we’ll explore that in a bit.  First, though, some pranks and a divination gone terrible awry – thanks to the Devil, or maybe just an old tom cat. The article continued:

A young man of our acquaintance who prides himself on his “make up,” called at the house of an acquaintance for an evening visit, and found several young ladies assembled there, all deeply engaged in trying to peer into the future by the aid of such agencies as tradition has named as potent, but facts have marked as “too thin.” None of the girls in the party were willing to undergo the ordeal of walking backward down the cellar stairs, with a candle in one hand and a mirror in the other. Our friend thought he would like to see his future wife, and amidst the admiring remarks if the girls at his courage, prepared to go cellarward. His face blanched a little as he began to descend the gloomy stairway amid the whispered utterances of his friends. He stepped firmly, however, with the candle held closely in one hand and the looking-glass, in which the reflection of his future wife’s face was to appear in the other, but when about half way down the stairs, a horrible, unearthly shriek came from below, which sent the feminine crowd around the entranceway to the cellar precipitately to the parlor. At the same time a something, which our hero described as being  the Devil, rushed between his legs.

Postcard, 1900, Charleston County Public Library, South Carolina Digital Library, acccessed Digital Library of America, http://lcdl.library.cofc.edu/lcdl/catalog/lcdl:37058
Postcard, 1900, Charleston County Public Library, South Carolina Digital Library, acccessed Digital Library of America.

Though naturally brave, this was too much for him, and he dropped both candle and mirror, and losing his balance, fell head first into a barrel of apple butter clear to his arm-pits, and no sooner had he escaped from the butter barrel than he stepped on a potato that was lying on the cellar bottom, his feet slipped out from under him, and he sat down in a crock of lard, at the same time hitting his head against a swinging shelf, which fell, bringing down with it a shower of dough-nuts, pickles canned fruit, and other eatables. The owner of the house appeared upon the scene at this juncture, and escorted the young man to the upper world, where, after scraping the lard and apple butter from his clothes, and combing the dough-nuts out of his tangled hair, he was advised to go home. The Thomas cat, whose hasty exit from the cellar caused the catastrophe, rubbed fondly against the young man’s legs and departed.

George Yost Coffin, "Hallow-eve, 1896," drawing on paper, 1896, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, accessed http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2016679883/
George Yost Coffin, “Hallow-eve, 1896,” drawing on paper, 1896, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Halloween’s origins can be traced back some 2,000 years to the Celtic festival of Samhain.  (Learn more about the ancient traditions from the University of the Highlands and Islands). The Celts celebrated their new year at the end of the harvest season on October 31, seemingly like the “Auld Lang Syne” festival mentioned by the Terre Haute newspaper. On this night, the boundary between the world of the living and the dead was more permeable, allowing for premonition and divination. Remarkably, despite the attempt of the Church to replace Samhain with All Saints Day, some of the old traditions carried over into the nineteenth century.  For example, the same 1872 article reported on a mishap with a Halloween divination:

A young “fellah” in his teens took some chestnuts to the residence of his girl on Perry street, to tell fortunes with, upon a hot stove. Everything worked pleasantly at first; the old folks went to bed early, and the young couple sat by the kitchen stove, which diffused a glow scarcely warmer than that which emanated form their own hearts. Two plump chestnuts, which had been named after the two beings who were there to watch their movements, were placed upon the heated stove. They reposed for a moment side by side, then the nut named “John” began to waltz around the surface of the stove, and was followed a moment later by “Mary,” the other proxy.  As they grew warmer their speed and eccentric evolutions increased, and the young couple were very much interested in the final movements which were to indicate the fate of their own hearts, when unfortunately, “John” exploded and a piece of hot chestnut striking the original Mary in the eye, she took no more interest in the antics of fortune-tellers, but sat down, while her admirer, in his haste to relieve her sufferings, stepped on the cat’s tail.

A howl of mortal agony followed, and a moment later the enjoyment of the evening was marred by the young lady’s father opening the kitchen door, and though clad in a single and nameless garment, he insisted on knowing if it was ‘necessary to raise such a hullabaloo at his time of night’ before he departed. Everything was amicable adjusted, however, and the remainder of “Halloween” enjoyed by the young folks in a more quiet manner.

But the jokes were not all confined to the young people. We hear this morning of flax-seeds emptied into beds, where it occasioned much emotion by it resemblance to “yearling” bed-bugs. Those who retired early were pretty certain to find a cabbage or pumpkin between the sheets. Tempting pieces of pie, with saw-dust stuffing, were generally tendered by loving wives to their husbands, and various other jokes, practical and otherwise, were played in a manner that threatened to take from “All Fools day” the distinction it has hitherto enjoyed.

The practice of removing gate hinges, mentioned in the previous article, seems to have remained popular as it was again mentioned the following year:

Terre Haute Saturday Evening Mail, November 1, 1873, 5, Hoosier State Chronicles.
Terre Haute Saturday Evening Mail, November 1, 1873, 5, Hoosier State Chronicles.

Despite the scolding, it appears that young Hoosiers of the 1870s were generally allowed to get away with their pranks without getting into too much trouble. The newspaper allowed this perpetrator to go unnamed:

"Personal," Terre Haute Staurday Evening Mail, November 4, 1876, 1, Hoosier State Chronicles.
“Personal,” Terre Haute Staurday Evening Mail, November 4, 1876, 1, Hoosier State Chronicles.

In the following decade, Hoosiers were still keeping many of the old Halloween traditions alive. An 1885 article from the Terre Haute Evening Mail describes Halloween as the perfect time to divine one’s future spouse using various spells.

"Halloween," Terre Haute Staurday Evening Mail, October 31, 1885, 1, Hoosier State Chronicles.
“Halloween,” Terre Haute Staurday Evening Mail, October 31, 1885, 1, Hoosier State Chronicles.

There are several such articles to be found in Hoosier State Chronicles, but none more interesting than this 1889 article written for the Indianapolis Journal. The article notes the aforementioned failure of the Church to replace the pagan celebration with All Saints Day and even mentioned Burns’ poem “Halloween” alluded to in Indiana newspapers a decade earlier.  An interesting stanza of this poem describes the Scottish tradition of uprooting kale or cabbage plants and reading them for information about one’s future spouse. Hopefully one didn’t pick a kale stalk that was too short or withered and hopefully its roots were covered in dirt – a sign of god fortune or a large dowry.  Learn more via the Smithsonian Magazine.

"Comartie Fool," accessed K. Annabelle Smith, "The Halloween Tradition Best Left Deas: Kale as Matchmaker, Smithsonian Magazine, Smithsonian.com
“Comartie Fool,” accessed K. Annabelle Smith, “The Halloween Tradition Best Left Deas: Kale as Matchmaker, Smithsonian Magazine.

While the Journal article didn’t mention the kale superstition, it did refer to several related traditions:


"Mysteries of Hallow-Eve," Terre Haute Express, October 31, 1889, 2 , Hoosier State Chronicles.
“Mysteries of Hallow-Eve,” Terre Haute Express, October 31, 1889, 2 , Hoosier State Chronicles.

All boys and girls know what next Thursday, October 31, will be All-Hallow Even, though most of them corrupt its name to “Hallow Eve.” They know that it is a night of mirth and mystery, specially devoted to mischief, fun, incantations, divinations, charms and spells, but very few of them or their elders understand its real significance, or can tell whence it derives its name.

It is many centuries since the Roman Church, finding it impossible, from the great and constantly increasing multitude of the saints, to set apart a separate day for each one, decreed that November 1st should thenceforward be kept as a day in honor of all the saints and that it should be known as All Hallowmas or All Saints’ day, and that the night of October 31st, immediately preceding it, should thereafter be kept as a vigil, and be known as All Hallow Eve, these occasions being still observed in the Catholic, Episcopal and Lutheran Churches.

From its first origination Hallow Eve has been invested with a peculiarly mystic character. It is an almost universal superstition that supernatural influences then have unusual power” that devils, witches and fairies are abroad; that all spirits are free to roam through space, and that the spiritual element in all living humanity can be detached from corporal restraint and made to read his own future, or to reveal to others what fate may have in store for them. A there is nothing in the church celebration of the ensuing All Saints to justify these singular ideas and customs associated with Hallow Eve, and as none of them are of a religious character, we may justly regard them as relics of pagan times.

Image in Better Days Books Vintage Halloween Reader, accessed ChicagoNow.com
Image in Better Days Books Vintage Halloween Reader, accessed ChicagoNow.com.

In all ages and countries Hallow Eve has been deemed, as it still is, the occasion par excellence for divining the answer to that momentous question which absorbs so large a share of the thought of romantic young men and maidens: “Who is to marry whom?” The means employed to gain this much-desired information are as quaint and curious as they are numerous and varied. For this purpose every time and every country – almost every district of every country – has had its own charms and spells, peculiar to itself, and they have furnished an almost inexhaustible theme for folk-poets and compilers of folklore.

William Nicholson, "Robert Burns," etching, 1819, Library of Cngress Prints and Photographs Division, accessed http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2013645279/
William Nicholson, “Robert Burns,” etching, 1819, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Those of Scotland have been most graphically described by that greatest of all poets of the people, Robert Burns. In his poem of “Hallow’een” he has given us a most vivid account of more than half a score of Hallow Eve charms and spells peculiar to the Scottish peasantry.

The remainder of the article goes on to detail several spells for reading the future.  The first involves throwing blue yarn into an old lime-kiln in order to hear one’s future spouse’s name.  The paper notes the slight “difficulty of finding an old lime kiln.”


The second requires a sliver of wood in a glass of water next to one’s bed on Halloween night in order to dream of one’s future husband or wife rescuing them from a river.


Another allows the love-sick to find out if the object of their affection returns their feelings using a pair of roses and a spell.


A young man seeking to see the face of his future wife may do so in a walnut tree with the right incantation at midnight on Halloween.


Sometimes the fates needed only a lock of hair and a strong breeze.


Be careful, however, in choosing a spell. The article’s author has a strong warning from personal experience about the sliver of wood in water and dreams of drowning.  Someone may have to die before the dreamer’s true love can be found in real life. In this case, the writer’s own brother. We don’t want to give it all away; read his story on Hoosier State Chronicles!

And in case you were worried that none of the Indiana newspapers covered the spell allowing kale or cabbage to divine one’s mate, do not fear! The Terre Haute Saturday Evening Mail has it covered with this article on “Modes of Divination.”

Terre Haute Sturday Evening Mail, May 19, 1894, 3, Hoosier State Chronicles
Terre Haute Saturday Evening Mail, May 19, 1894, 3, Hoosier State Chronicles.

According to the article, besides various spells involving nuts and apples, “young women determined the figure and size of their husbands by drawing cabbages blindfold.” Perhaps this information from  Indiana newspapers not only gives us a glimpse into Halloween traditions maintained by 19th-century Hoosiers, but also explains the 1868 murder from the beginning of this post:

"A Young Girl Shot and Killed," Daily Wabash Express, November 3, 1868, 1, Hoosier State Chronicles.
“A Young Girl Shot and Killed,” Daily Wabash Express, November 3, 1868, 1, Hoosier State Chronicles.

Be careful this Halloween, especially if you plan on going hunting for some midnight cabbage!