Gerry Glenn Jones is a writer of fiction and nonfiction, as well as scripts for theatre and film. This is a factual article.
Preamble to This Article
I grew up in Skuna River Bottom, near New Houlka and Old Houlka, Mississippi, and I remember many of the stories told by my mother, uncle, and grandmother, who had lived there all their lives. One of these stories told by my grandmother, Patsy (Mathis) Aycock, was about her father, Quinney Powell Mathis, and a witch. My grandmother said it was a true story, and that it occurred when she was a young woman.
First Settlers Arrive in Skuna River Bottom
In the mid-1800s, settlers from different areas began arriving in Skuna River Bottom, near the town of Old Houlka, Mississippi. Many came from the Appalachian Mountains of Tennessee, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia.
Along with their meager belongings, they brought tales and folklore from the mountains, and my great-grandfather, Quinney Powell Mathis, was no exception. He and his young family had left South Carolina, and then moved to northern Georgia, before making the trek into Mississippi.
Living in the Wild Frontier
Why Quinney chose the river bottoms of Skuna is not fully known, but it was probably because of the rich soil and abundance of wild game. Also, at that time in history, the bottoms were carpeted in virgin hardwood timber, and it was a hunter's wonderland. Quinney purchased a tract of land there, built a log house, cleared an area for a garden, and began clearing more land for crops.
As the years passed, the Mathis Family was content with their life in the bottoms, until late in the 1800s when an incident happened that shook up their world.
It was during this time, the family had planted a good-size garden, and the young plants were thriving in the rich soil, but not for long. One morning the family woke up and were devastated to find a neighbor's livestock having a feast on their plants. They immediately ran the livestock out of the garden, and Quinney told his wife the animals must belong to a strange woman, who lived several miles from them, and he planned to go talk to her. His wife cautioned him to be careful, everyone in the area believed she was a witch. He said he would, and sat out for her house, herding the animals ahead of him.
Quinney Visits The Witch
When Quinney arrived at the women's (name unknown) home he was met by her on the front porch. When he asked her if the livestock belonged to her, she said they did, and he told her they had torn down a section of his fence around the garden and had eaten most of the small plants. I don't know what Quinney's demeanor was when he arrived, other than being upset, but when the woman didn't even say she was sorry, he became agitated and warned her if the livestock got into his garden again, he would shoot them. The woman glared at him and mumbled something that he couldn't understand. She then told him, he would not shoot her animals, and also that he would never kill another animal of any kind. He repeated his warning and left.
Strange Things Began to Happen
When Quinney arrived home and told his wife what had transpired, she became upset and told him to be careful in case the woman was a witch, and used her powers against him. He stated he would, but didn't think anything would happen, and pretty much did not take the threats seriously, but his mind would be changed before long.
Several days later, after they replanted the garden, he set out on a hunting trip for fresh game, and before long he found his first game, a deer. He was a skilled marksman and rarely missed his target, but when he fired at the deer, it ran off. He couldn't believe he completely missed the animal, but was unable to even find a blood trail.
Strange Happenings Continue
After not finding anymore game, he decided to head for home, and when he arrived, told his wife what had happened, and she insisted the woman had cast a spell on him.
Late that afternoon his young daughter, Patsy, who was my grandmother, went out to milk the cows, she was startled by wolves howling in the area of Huckleberry Creek, which ran through their property to the east. She had heard them before in that area, but not as many as she heard that day. Even though my grandmother was nervous, she continued to the barn to milk the cow.
Milk Cow Bleeds From Her Udder
To Patsy's astonishment, she is unable to get milk from the cow but got what looked like blood instead. The animal was very nervous, and she believed it might be frightened by the howling wolves, and thus, prevented it from producing milk, but she could not understand why the cow passed blood.
At that point, the wolves were getting closer to the house, so she hurried in and told her dad and mom what had happened. Quinney got his gun and went out onto the front porch, where he sat down in a chair and waited to see if the wolves might be coming to attack their livestock, and it wasn't long before he was surprised to see a large wolf exit the woods and walk towards the barn where the milk cow was.
Quinney took careful aim, and fired a shot at the wolf, which he believed would be fatal, but the wolf just jumped at the sound of the gun and ran back into the woods, and the pack of wolves stopped howling and apparently fled across Huckleberry Creek. Being totally surprised at not killing the wolf, he went out to where the animal was standing when he shot it and did not even find a blood trail.
The Witch Had Cast a Spell
After failing to kill the wolf, he decided to check on the accuracy of his rifle and chose a knot on a tree that was further away than the wolf or deer he had shot at. He took careful aim and fired, hitting the knot dead center, so he realized his aim and his gun were accurate.
It was at this time that he changed his mind about the old woman's ability to cast spells, and remembered a man who lived near Old Houlka, who people called a witch doctor, and had the powers to undo spells cast by witches.
The next day Quinney rode his horse towards Old Houlka, and while in route, saw a rabbit on the trail ahead of him. He decided to try his gun one more time, but the results were the same, and the rabbit hopped away. Quinney was now resolute about the old woman being a witch.
The Witch Doctor Prescribes a Cure
Upon reaching the witch doctor's house, Quinney explained what had been going on and told the man about the woman mumbling something he couldn't understand, and the man told him she was probably casting a spell then. He also told my great-grandfather that there was only one cure for stopping the spell. He told Quinney to hack up a silver dollar, so the pieces would fit into his muzzleloader, and use his knife to carve out a likeness of the witches' face on a beech tree, take ten paces away from it and fire the weapon at the likeness, and that should cancel the spell. He also told Quinney that if the woman did not send someone to Quinney's house to get certain herbs by nightfall, she would die. Quinney told the man he wasn't very good at drawing faces, and the witch doctor said it didn't matter as long as he was thinking about the woman's face while carving her likeness.
The Spell is Broken
The witch doctor helped hack up a silver dollar, and Quinney loaded it into his gun, and started his journey home, remembering several beech trees along the trail. The first one he encountered was a big one, so he did as the witch doctor had said, and fired his rifle into the likeness he carved on the tree. He saw that the chards of the silver dollar had hit their mark, and he continued home.
Upon reaching his house just before nightfall, he was met by his wife. She told him the oddest thing had happened. She said the witch had sent her housekeeper to get some herbs they had, and that the woman was in a hurry. Quinney told her what had transpired, and they were cautiously relieved that the spell had been broken.
During the next several days the cow began giving milk again, and every animal my great-grandfather shot ended up on the dinner table. The family was never bothered by the witch again and never had to chase the livestock out of their garden.
As I said before, this story was passed down from my grandmother, Patsy, who told it to me personally. I never knew her to tell a lie, or make anything up.
© 2022 Gerry Glenn Jones