Wednesday, August 7, 2019

Guest Post: Witchcraft in Chicago's Stockyards, by Michael Kleen

Note from Amelia: This is my 50th blog post! And to celebrate, I'm letting another blogger do all of the work. Welcome Michael Kleenwriter, photographer, fellow storyteller, and longtime friend. I had the honor of hosting Michael's documentary, Tinker's Shadow: The Hidden History of Tinker Swiss Cottage. He shares this fascinating story and partial excerpt from his unique volume on an oft-overlooked topic in Midwest lore, Witchcraft in Illinois: A Cultural History:

At the turn of the twentieth century, Chicago was known as a hub for the meat packing industry. Thousands of immigrants, particularly from Eastern Europe, flooded into the southwest side Back of the Yards neighborhood to work at the Union Stock Yards. Upton Sinclair famously wrote about this area in his 1906 novel The Jungle.

These immigrants, mainly Bohemians, Moravians, and Slovakians, brought their folk beliefs with them when they came to the Windy City, including a strong belief in witchcraft. We will never know how many accusations, confrontations, and strained relationships this belief caused, but occasionally an accusation of witchcraft made its way to the courthouse and into the press.

Victor Sleeth was an assistant superintendent for Armour & Co., the meatpacking company that defined Chicago’s Back of the Yards neighborhood. Armour & Co. opened in Chicago in 1867 and by 1910 employed over 8,700 people at the Union Stockyards. Victor’s 22-year-old wife, Mary, had contracted consumption. She was in the advanced stages of the disease when her sister, 21-year-old Augusta Wilke, an assistant foreman at Armour & Co., called in a 50-year-old nurse named Mary Vogel.

Vogel attended to Mary Sleeth for a month, until Mary died on February 2, 1919. On Monday, February 24, William L. Sehlke, a masseur and husband to Mary Vogel’s other sister, Martha, went to the Stockyards police to ask for warrants for the arrest of Mary Vogel and Augusta Wilke.

William and Martha Sehlke told the Chicago Daily Tribune an incredible tale. According to the Sehlkes, Mary Vogel was a witch and Augusta Wilke was her understudy, and they sought protection from her slander and sorcery. Augusta allegedly told Martha that Mary Vogel believed Martha was a witch and had poisoned her sister for the benefit of two other witches, a Mrs. George Hellman and Mrs. Marian Sleeth, a widow and Mary Sleeth’s sister-in-law.

In turn, Martha accused Vogel of being a witch. Father Phillips of the Franciscan Fathers of St. Augustine Church told reporters he went to Victor and Mary Sleeth’s home, where he found Vogal burning salt in the oven and incense in the rooms. “She was making motions with her hands, and I told her to get out, and she did,” said the priest.

According to Martha Sehlke, “Mrs. Vogel was burning salt and incense. She got a lamb’s heart and put some new pins in it and burned it. This was to find out which of us ‘witches’ would be around that day and to cast a spell over the one that would come.” After her sister’s death, Martha alleged that Vogel sent for William Wilke, her brother-in-law, and a week later he died.

Public record does not reveal if this dispute was ever resolved, but it demonstrates a continued association between witchcraft, sickness, poison, and a breakdown in social relations. The traditional tools of witchcraft—incense, salt, pins, organs—remained in use even in industrial-era Chicago following the First World War.

Was the proceeding case an isolated incident, or does it reveal an undercurrent of belief in magic and witchcraft in early-twentieth century Chicago? In 1903, the Chicago Daily Tribune investigated this question and concluded, “That more people believe in witches in Chicago than ever believed in them in Salem, or any of the other witch centers of old, sounds like a joke, but it is a solid fact.”

Based on cases investigated by the Chicago Police, the Tribune concluded Chicago was home to not hundreds, but thousands of believers. The strange case of Mary Vogel and Augusta Wilke is a fascinating glimpse into that world.

Michael Kleen is a writer and photographer with an interest in history and the unusual. He has written several books, including Witchcraft in Illinois: A Cultural History, and directed the documentary Tinker’s Shadow: The Hidden History of Tinker Swiss Cottage.

"Witchcraft in Chicago's Stockyards," copyright 2019 Michael Kleen

Monday, July 1, 2019

Ghost Story #6: A Friend's Deceased Mother

While I was writing Maryland Ghosts: Paranormal Encounters in the Free State, my Uncle Bernie sent me more than 30 stories from throughout his life in the form of hand-written letters. After Maryland Ghosts was first published in 2012, and featured most of his Maryland stories, we turned his remaining letters into an unpublished collection to share with family and friends called The Haunted Letters: True Tales from a Ghost-Storied Life. Here is another one of my favorite stories from that collection:

Roanoke, Virginia (Roanoke County), 1993

An unusual thing occurred while visiting an old friend of mine, Joe Ed Philips, who is now deceased, at his 900-acre farm in Roanoke, Virginia.

His mother had been deceased for years. Her nickname was "Mud." Joe Ed could not pronounce the word "mother" as a young child, so "Mud" was close enough and the name stuck!

I was unpacking in my bedroom, which had been his mother's room at one time. I heard heavy footsteps in the attic, and shared this with Joe Ed before dinner.

I had taken steamed lobsters for our dinner, and Joe Ed and his girlfriend made an extraordinary grouse pie and a huge homemade blackberry pie. This was two years before I met Debra, so I traveled alone for the visit.

That night, after this great dinner, we all turned in for bed. I hadn't been sleeping long when I heard heavy footsteps again in the attic…then, a little later, in my bedroom.

I had a pistol and flashlight by my side. The moon was bright and shined nice soft light through the window, the kind that only the moon can create. I could see no one, but the heavy footsteps continued and stopped at the end of the bed I was in.

I turned on my flashlight to be sure no one was playing a trick on me, as Joe Ed had a great sense of humor. There was no one there and suddenly, the end of my bed levitated off of the floor with a jerk, and stayed off of the floor for about five minutes.

Finally, the bed settled back down to the hardwood floor with a thud.

I told Joe about the experience the next morning over breakfast. Joe Ed said it was probably just "Mud" checking out who was sleeping in her old bed…
–B.W.M.

"A Friend's Deceased Mother," copyright 2019 Bernard W. Masino and Amelia Cotter (first appeared in The Haunted Letters: True Tales from a Ghost-Storied Life, 2013)

Monday, June 10, 2019

Newsletter #5: June 2019

Hello friends! Spring is the new fall around here. And not just because it's still only 60 degrees outside. Traditionally, I am the busiest around Halloween, for obvious reasons, but this has shifted in the last couple of years. My spring appearance schedule has become just as hectic, along with the majority of publications and writing deadlines occurring in or around April (which also happens to be National Poetry Month). I've learned to love it, but am happy to have something of a summer break coming up, although my writing schedule will still be pretty packed. I am also the most proud of the work I have been doing this year, and excited to share with all of you the updates below:

Recent Publications

"Andy," Barren Magazine Issue No. 8
April 2019

"Hibernaculum," Black Bough Poetry Issue 1 (Broadside 13, pg. 15)
Summer 2019

Upcoming Publications

The Apparitions project, a collection of poetry and short prose that, despite its title, is not about ghosts, is out for publication with multiple publishers, and I hope to have some real news to share by the end of the summer. I am also continuing work on the anthology about the lives and experiences of children detained at the U.S.-Mexico border, which I was asked to co-edit and contribute a piece to. I hope to have some news about that by the end of the summer as well. I also have at least two poetry publications on deck, one of which is with a long-coveted bucket-list dream publisher of mine, so I will be stoked to share more when they are published this summer!

Recent Appearances
Filming for a new Travel Channel program in Baraboo, Wisconsin.


I debuted a new presentation this spring called Snakes: Myth and Magic with my husband Jonathan. The presentation explores snakes in folklore, mythology, pop culture, and religion around the world, and includes a meet and greet with one or more of our friendly snake ambassadors. It's basically our TED Talk on the history of snake lore, so getting to meet some live animals certainly sweetens the deal. I was also proud to see that the Scary Stories documentary finally became available on Amazon Prime Video and other streaming services, following a limited theatrical release in select cities. Unfortunately, because of a last-minute title change from Scary Stories: A Documentary to simply Scary Stories, there has been some confusion over whether or not the documentary is actually the upcoming Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark horror movie. ...If you have the chance to leave a positive review for the documentary on Amazon, please do. I know the director Cody Meirick, who put five years of love into making it, would truly appreciate it. As always, Season 2 and Season 3 of The R.I.P. Files are also available on Amazon Prime Video. Season 2 has been airing again on Really TV and continues to stream on UKTV Play, and is also streaming on Pluto TV's Conspiracy Channel.

Upcoming Appearances

The Scary Stories documentary will be coming to DVD this summer, prior to the release of the Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark movie. Jonathan and I spent some time in Baraboo, Wisconsin this spring filming for a new Travel Channel program that will hopefully air this fall or winter. I spoke on the topic of Native American burial mounds in and around Wisconsin, and we shared some ghostlore from the Baraboo area. So far my list of confirmed fall appearances is otherwise light, but I hope to (and suspect that I will) be adding more soon:

Storytelling Session and Paranormal Tour at Tinker Swiss Cottage Museum & Gardens in Rockford, Illinois
October 4, 2019 at 7 p.m.

Chicago Ghost Conference
October 18-20, 2019

Thank you all for continuing to share in this journey with me. Explore more, keep creating, and Happy Hauntings, everyone!
~Amelia