The Civil War was the bloodiest conflict ever in American history, and it all took place within the country’s own borders. Union troops from the North and the rebel Confederates in the South fought with a brutality never seen up to that point, and over 600,000 soldiers perished in the chaos.
If you visit any of the famous battlefields where the fate of the United States was on the line, you can still find eroding remnants and artifacts left behind by the troops. Most of what you come across is ancient weaponry, but archaeologists in Virginia dug up something few historians ever expected to see with their own eyes.
There’s a reason these two soldiers were grimacing on a bench, their faces looking as though they know more suffering is to come. They’re anxiously awaiting the next battle in the America’s goriest war. They didn’t realize they were sitting on an archaeological gold mine.
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Sites like Gettysburg in Pennsylvania, Fort Sumter in South Carolina, and the Virginia capital of Richmond all preserved the sprawling fields where so much of the bloodshed occurred. Each place emits a haunting feeling of what happened over 150 years earlier.
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The skeletal remnants of some of the most famous forts ever created are strewn about, and tourists can take a peek inside to see what war life was like. And, you might even come across some actual artifacts.
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Most of what visitors find are old coins that fell from the pockets of soldiers, old musket balls (that could’ve very well killed someone), and eroding cannonballs. However, in Virginia, a team of archaeologists came across something quite different.
The location was a famous outpost known as Redoubt 9, which is straddled by two major highways in Virginia. Rebels constructed it to keep Union troops away from Richmond. However, all did not go according to plan.
As hard as the Confederates tried, the Union pushed even harder and eventually took control of the outpost. Nowadays, you would have expected researchers to have found every artifact there, but something else was discovered that blew historians away.
A team of archaeologists assembled by the Virginia Department of Transportation found a mysterious glass bottle with a broken neck. Inside, it contained several rusted nails. There were letters printed on the side.
The letters read “Chas Grove” and “COLa Pa.” The team knew this was in reference to the Charles Grove bottle manufacturing company in Columbia, Pennsylvania. But, it was the unusual purpose of the bottle that had experts excited.
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They believed it to be what’s called a “witch bottle.” These vessels were apparently used during the Civil War era to ward off evil spirits and curses placed by witches. So why would soldiers even believe in that stuff?
Well, witch bottles were popular during times of extreme hardship — people would try anything to end their plight. Civil War troops were going through unprecedented misery, so they took up this superstition to banish negative energy.
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Not every bottle contained only nails, either. Oftentimes human hair and teeth were added, and there were even bottles found with remnants of urine! It’s hard to know the justification for any of this, but historians understand the basic rationale.
Here’s how the witch bottle worked: after the container was filled with whatever remnants the holder thought necessary, it was placed underneath a hearth in one of the general’s quarters. Then, they waited.
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Once the fire in the hearth grew hot enough, the glass would burst, and the soldiers — or whoever it was who buried it — believed the escaping plumes of smoke were evil spirits dissipating into the ether.
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Joe Jones, the director of the William & Mary Center for Archaeological Research, was on site when the bottle was discovered, but never thought anything of it. The project budget simply didn’t allow further investigation and testing.
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Additionally, Jones wasn’t familiar with the superstitious custom. Why would he see anything special about an old bottle with nails inside? He really didn’t give it a second thought — at first.
However, the founder of the William & Mary Center, Robert Hunter, knew better. He was positive the artifact was a witch bottle, as he was familiar with the tradition and even owned several himself.
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“I’m 110% sure. It’s not so much the bottle with the nails in it — it was the context in which it was found. It appears to have been buried with a brick hearth, which is how these charms were used,” explained Hunter.
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To think the bottle was used to ward off witches and spirits is pretty ludicrous. Of course, no one could say for sure if it actually worked, but this bit of witchcraft was a more humane way to battle evil than what early Americans tried in Salem, Massachusetts.
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Thanks to Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible, history remembers Abigail Williams in a vindictive light. She led the charge as the first accuser of witchcraft, with her cousin Betty Parris. In reality though, she was 12 years old, and the romantic angle with a married adult man was pure fabrication.
Once the girls let it rip, power of accusation looked pretty tempting to the other townsfolk. Soon everyone was doing it. The numbers of alleged witches grew to 200, and ultimately 140-150 individuals were charged with the crime of witchcraft.
Jailhouse conditions were worse than bleak for the accused. The Salem outfit wasn’t built to hold such numbers, so those arrested were scattered throughout the jails of neighboring towns. Shackled to the walls, they consumed only bread and water and watched as bodies continued to shuffle in.
When someone was suspected of wrongdoing, the Puritans called the witch hunters. You needn’t look far to find one. Volunteers knocked on doors pushing neighbors and friends to betray each other or blurt accusations.
Landowners in and surrounding Salem realized quickly that being named as a witch had scarier consequences than exorcism. Accused witches had their reputations ruined, and worse, all their property seized by the state. Without land, their survival was hardly guaranteed.
When you think of trials, you’d expect that the Puritan courtroom was filled with all the usual characters familiarized by the dramas on TV — the judge, the jury, and the lawyers for the prosecution and the defense. No one accused at Salem had a remotely fair trial.
Sitting in that courtroom, while your character was trashed, your personal life dissected, lies about your evilness spreading like wildfire, it was common for the accused to put it all to rest. They’d offer a confession, knowing they’d already been convicted in the court of public opinion.
Other confessions were taken through sheer force. Reverend Samuel Parris beat his slave Tituba until she gave an admission of guilt, then she later said he coached her through the trials. Her cries about serving Satan should be framed within the context of torture.
Some Salem residents were immune to the growing hysteria, including Martha Corey. Sadly, her attempts to convince her neighbors to see reason made them instantly suspicious of her. She found herself in the hot seat without allies, as even her husband, Giles Corey, testified against her.
Perhaps the guilt of selling out his wife was what led to his nervy last words. Giles was accused of being a witch after his wife, though his refusal to plead his guilt or innocence made prosecutors reach for the medieval punishment of pressing.
Over three days, they stacked rocks on top of the naked body of Giles Corey. Intermittently they’d ask him to declare a plea, the fate of his life rested in a simple answer. Famously, Giles refused to crack, groaning out the final words, “More weight.”
With a name like a witch cake, you’d imagine a spooky sprinkled Little Debbie snack. Slightly less delicious, the Salem confection consisted of rye flour and urine of people targeted by witches. The baked product was set before a dog, who’d eat it and reveal the witch’s identity.
But man’s best friends weren’t immune to suspicions of witchcraft, either. Notably, a girl taught her neighbor a lesson by claiming her dog had bewitched her. The dog wasn’t granted a trial; he was shot. Priest Cotton Mather confirmed the pet’s death meant no demonic activity. Small comfort.
Buoyancy, strangely enough, was an indicator of meddling with evil spirits. They tied the accused’s hand to their opposite foot, then dunked their bodies into the water. Whether they sank — as non-witches would — or floated — a total witch thing — they were in hot water. The absurd tests didn’t stop there, either.
For the touch test, during one of the afflicted’s regular fits, the accused would be forced to make physical contact. Wouldn’t you know it, the tremors and hysteria stopped instantly…indicating witchery. Witches were also believed to be identified by something else.
If they’d danced with the Devil, witches would have a specific mark, the Puritans thought. What that mark actually looked like, well, no one was sure. Interchangeably called witches or devil marks, the accused were stripped and examined for any blemish that could be classified as a hellish stain.
The witches of Salem were so supposedly hellbent on terrorizing the community they could break free from their corporeal forms. George Jacobs, in particular, stood accused by every one of the witnesses in his case of haunting them as a ghostly figure.
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If pointing fingers and public execution weren’t enough, an outbreak of smallpox was rippling throughout the Salem community. Naturally, citizens declared the illness another devious act of witchery. Somehow eliminating the “evil” didn’t cure ailments.
The culprit was none other than the “rampant hag,” “Queen of Hell” herself, Martha Carrier. That’s what records tell us that Reverend Cotton Mather called her. She came under suspicion for her disobedient nature and notoriously independent wills.
Man of the Lord, Reverend George Burroughs was shaken after he landed in the suspected witch hot seat. His conviction was swift. His hanging, swifter. Though the crowd shifted uneasily afterword because he’d recited the Lord’s Prayer, an act impossible for a witch to utter.
To add to the callousness, George Burroughs body was immediately taken from the gallows to a ridiculously shallow grave. In the hast to bury him, people noted how the chin, a hand, and a foot breached the soil.
Theorists have tried to rationalize the killing at Salem with medical explanations. One idea is the New Englanders were suffering from the rye grain born poison ergot. A harsh winter followed by a wet spring produces ergot, with symptoms like spasms, vomiting, and hallucinations. Whatever the cause, the mania continued until the accusers really crossed the line.
It was all fun and games until the fingers pointed at the governor’s wife. William Phips knowingly let the trails continue for a year, fully aware of the rising death count. After his spouse, Mary Spencer Hull, was named as a potential witch, he signed a proclamation ending the madness.
Witch burning conjures a monstrous level of inhumanity; that, thankfully, never took place at Salem. Their chosen method of execution was strictly hanging, 19 of the 20 deaths were carried out that way. The other was Giles Corey’s pressing.
The infamous executions were carried out on Gallows Hill, and the location was hotly contested amongst Salem locals until 2016. Proctor’s Ledge was officially identified at the spot the convicted witches hung. It now serves as a memorial park.
Undoubtedly many innocent people were killed by ramblings of children. If they’d hung a real witch, there was no guarantee they’d vanished. Some say sorcerers resurface over time, like the legendary Bell Witch.
According to legend, way back in the summer of 1817 in the town of Adams, Tennessee, something terrible befell the Bell family. It all started one evening when patriarch John Bell was walking through his 360-acre farm.
It was during this walk that John saw something strange in the corn field: it was what he would later describe as a dog with a rabbit’s head. He shot at the strange animal a number of times and then joined his family inside.
Later that night, the mysterious sounds of knocking and rattling chains were heard by the whole family. Each proceeding night it became louder and louder and was eventually joined by the sound of a strange voice chanting hymns. The Bell children then began hearing rats gnawing on their bedposts. But the horrors were only just beginning…
For over a year, John was so afraid of being called crazy that he told his family to hide what they’d seen and heard. Yet he decided to confide in his best friend, James Johnston, after his youngest daughter, Betsy, woke up with hand prints and welts on her face.
To investigate his friend’s claims, James stayed in the Bell house one night, ultimately confirming that he heard unusual sounds as well. Soon enough, all sorts of people were visiting the house to try to do the same. Even a young Andrew Jackson, back when he was still in the military, tried to visit. But once he arrived at their farm, the wheels of his carriage weirdly became locked.
According to lore, the spirit haunting the Bell family claimed to be a former neighbor named Kate Batts, and she believed John treated her unfairly on a land deal. Not only did she want to kill him, but she was determined to prevent a boy in town named Joshua Gardner from marrying Betsy. Kate, later referred to as the Bell Witch, apparently caused John to suffer several choking attacks over the next few years, which he said felt like a sharp stick in his mouth.
On December 20, 1820, John Bell died after falling into a coma. The family found a vial of poison in the room, and the Bell Witch was allegedly proud to claim responsibility for forcing him to drink. Betsy broke off her engagement to Joshua just three months later.
Apparently having finally achieved what she wanted all along, the Bell Witch bid farewell to the family… although she promised to return someday. She apparently wasn’t lying, because John Bell Jr. said she visited him in 1828 and told him a number of secrets from throughout time, including a prediction of the Civil War.
Not only did strange things continue to happen on the property, but the activity spread to the cave behind the farm; the witch supposedly still resided there. Some people claim that there was never a witch at all, but it was simply someone else trying to force the breakup between Betsy and Joshua.
Betsy ended up marrying Richard Powell, her old schoolteacher who took a liking to her years earlier. Strangely, it wasn’t long after they’d first met that the creepy activity started. Richard was rumored to be an occultist, and in 1821—around the same time that Betsy broke off her engagement—Richard’s wife mysteriously died.
Whether Richard was behind the devious hauntings remained to be seen. To this day, the Bell Witch is said to be the cause of other unexplainable sights and sounds around the property. While the Bell farmhouse may not be around anymore, there is a recreation of the cabin and other attractions at The Bell Witch Cave!