In the mountains and knobs of Southern Appalachia, many of us have Scots and German ancestry. Since both those countries have long and horrifying histories of witchcraft persecutions, our “witch” stories tend to portray witches as evil beings. I have friends who are practicing witches. There’s not an evil one in the bunch (mischievous, maybe ;), but not evil), and while many of them are cat people, I don’t think any of them would work–would even want to work this particular terrifying magic.
This story comes from Mysterious Knoxville (1999), by my favorite collector of southern Appalachian stories, the great Charles Edwin Price.
Incidentally, my maternal great-great-grandmother was, like Widow Jennings, a “granny woman”–a midwife and “yarb doctor”. She didn’t, however, claim to have gotten her powers the way Widow Jennings did; she learned from her mother, who had been trained to use healing herbs on her father’s plantation in North or South Carolina.
Widow Jennings, though, seems to have been a real piece of work–the stereotypical witch–
complete with the fabled “deal with the devil”, a convention that goes back to the earliest days of Europe’s outbreaks of witch hysteria.
Widow Jennings lived in a little ol’ shack about six miles from Knoxville, way back before the Civil War, alone except for a sleek black cat that seemed to be her constant companion.
In an area of the world where doctors were, back in the day, few and far between, people were dependent on those who knew how to help women through childbirth and use herbs to combat the common ailments of the day.
Now Widow Jennings did dose the sick, and help birth babies. She was, in fact, so skilled that rumor had it trained medical doctors from Knoxville would come to consult her about especially difficult cases.
But she gave people the willies. Unlike many midwives/yarb doctors, she didn’t attribute her powers to God; probably aware that many mountain people still looked askance (that Celto-Teutonic suspicion of witchcraft acting up) at women of her profession, she went out of her way to cultivate the caricature. She bragged about having sold her soul to the Devil, and rumor had it that she could “spell up” husbands for single girls (for a fee, of course) and work black magic that could kill livestock, clabber fresh milk, prevent butter from forming no matter how hard a body churned, and even cause physical harm to anybody who ran afoul of her fearsome temper.
Her claims of learning her craft from the Devil himself got progressively more outrageous, and finally, her neighbors, fearful of what she might spell up if she got a spite on for them, decided they had to get rid of her, once and for all.
So they plotted together. They would, one night, go out to Widow Jennings’ cabin, and they would burn the old gal out.
So they mobbed up, and with torches and kerosene and the like, set out to walk the six miles to her lonely cabin in the woods. Once there, they would set fire to the cabin–and they wouldn’t be unhappy in the least if she happened not to make it out before the flames took her, either.
By the time they actually got to the cabin, though, their bravado was fading. To tell the truth, they were beginning to wonder if she couldn’t back up some of her brag with evil action. So they didn’t storm the cabin when they got there. They stood outside taunting her, telling her to come out and “take what was comin’ to her” and the like.
But there wasn’t a peep out of the house, from the widow or her cat.
Until they heard the hissing.
It came from one end of the cabin. Some of the more brave (or possibly, as mobs usually are, likkered up) walked down there and got the scare of their lives when they found themselves staring into the blazing green eyes and open red mouth of the most enormous black cat they had ever seen in their lives.
Some would say later that it stood six feet high at the shoulder, and its teeth were long and sharp as daggers. It hissed and spat at them, and hunkered down as if to spring, its muscles rippling under its sleek black coat.
And the mob ran screaming back to their horses and wagons, some of them riding two to a horse, others running as fast as their two feet could carry them, away from the cabin and the cat. They could hear its yowls for a long way as they ran.
Back in town, they were met with some skepticism. Some scoffed that surely it was only a black panther. Painters, as we still call them down home, could still be found in the southern mountains at the time, although they were not as common as they once were. The members of the mob were adamant: they had not seen a black painter. For one thing, the black painter didn’t live that was as huge as that cat. What they had seen was a devil cat, pure and simple. They said that Widow Jennings had either conjured that cat up from Hell itself, or she had cast a spell on her own black cat to give it a demonic appearance.
They continued to be suspicious of Widow Jennings to the end of her days, just as she went on bragging about her dealings with the dark side.
And although they were sometimes forced to make use of her skills, nobody ever tried to harm her, from then on. They didn’t want to chance running into that danged Devil Cat again.