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Primitive Customs


By Chelsea Risley, Berry College

March 2013

This letter is one of the most interesting and uncomfortable letters I have found so far. Guy Loomis asks Martha Berry to do him a favor and research witchcraft in the South. He says that he has friends (to whom he owes much) who are interested in all forms of witchcraft, especially after "the Pennsylvania episode." I searched the Internet to find what on earth happened in Pennsylvania, and didn't find much satisfactory information. I did find out, however, that there was a murder trial in York, Pennsylvania on January 7-9, 1929 in which witchcraft was suspected. The one reputable source I was able to find was this book, but there is only a limited number of copies that have been published and circulated. There seems to be a lot of mystery involved in this case, which of course only makes me more curious and eager to do more research.

Loomis writes Berry because he assumes that in her "wandering around the mountains" she would have come across many examples of witchcraft practiced by the poor Appalachian whites and African Americans. Not only does he assume she's seen such things, he supposes that she knows a lot of information about "'spells', bewitchings, the casting of the evil eye" and other similar superstitions.

Berry writes back to him with what I would like to imagine is a bit of sarcasm at his somewhat ignorant request. She explains that she doesn't think that any witchcraft is practiced, only harmless superstitions and "nothing that would lead to anything like the Pennsylvania episode."

I think Loomis' letter displays another example of many people's ignorance of what the South was actually like during this time in America's history. Loomis, like many others, believed that there were all kinds of "primitive customs" practiced in the South, and while I'm sure there were some, most citizens of the South were just regular people - the same as everyone else in the rest of the US. Obviously, there were "primitive customs" that took place in other parts of the country as we can see with the mysterious "Pennsylvania episode," so I am unsure why the South is always suspected.

While I can't be sure what Berry meant, I think it is a reasonable assumption that she was less than pleased with Loomis' inquiry. Not only was he asking her to devote a huge portion of her time researching for him so he could repay his friends, he was assuming potentially offensive things about the people Berry spent so much time loving and serving. She maintains her professional manner in her reply, but makes it clear that she does not think the superstitions of the day "amount to anything serious," and maybe do not amount to anything at all.

You can find the rest of the letter here.


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