Granny Witch Gone Bad

Old Woman and Toad, by Judy Somerville

The source material for this folktale was collected by Raymond Sloan in Rocky Mount, Virginia on May 10, 1940. It was told to him by Jenny Schultz, of Patrick County. The event was said to have taken place near Big Reed Island, in Grayson County, in the late 1800’s:

Some years ago, in the mountains of Virginia, there was a widow named Gussie Proffit who lived with her fifteen-year old son out on the top of the highest peak. She kept her cabin much cleaner and neater than most other folks. Her flowers bloomed so pretty that they made her little cabin the brightest spot on the mountain. She was a granny doctor, and brewed mountain herbs into tonic to treat all kinds of sickness. She was a kind and good old woman, always a-tryin’ to help folks who were sick or in trouble. She told some people that she had visions while settin’ at her spinnin’ wheel and dreams at night that showed her who needed her help and what to do for ’em. She tried to get people to turn away from their wickedness by warning ’em of terrible things that’d happen to ’em if they didn’t. Most of the mountain folks loved and respected her.

One fall, the weather turned bad and there was a terrible hurricane. The whoopin’ wind blowed down trees and barns and killed folks’ animals. Then, there was a long wet spell that brought on a big flood. The small branches and cricks turned into big rivers and run all over creation, washing away many stills, cabins and barns. Never before had such awful things happened to these people, and a lot of ’em were frightened and tried to find the cause of such happenings.

People got to talkin’ ‘bout all these troubles comin’ all at once, and one of the moonshiners, Lige Askew, who was a cruel and wicked old man, said he figured it must of been old Gussie out of the top of the mountain who was a-causin’ all of their troubles. So, he started to pass the word along that she was an evil night-witch and that she had caused the storm. Some folks got angry at the old woman. Then, one night, Lige rounded up a bunch of men and they went out to Gussie’s place, killed her son, drove Gussie out of the cabin, and burnt it to the ground with everythin’ she had in it.

Now, Gussie had no place to go, so she just roamed ‘round and lived in the woods. After this, she never went close to nobody. Sometimes folks would catch a quick glance at her, feeble and bent over and walkin’ slow, leanin’ heavy on a big stick. Always after this, she was known as the Old Witch Woman, and she got blamed for anything bad that happened for miles around. Folks believed that she could vanish into thin air like a puff of smoke if she saw anybody watchin’ her. It was’t long before fear and hatred of the Old Witch Woman spread all through the mountains.

Late one evenin’ in December, three men was out a-huntin’ on a cold day when they got caught in a storm, and they went to an empty cabin to get out of the weather. There was Steve Carter, an old codger with a weather-beaten, wrinkled face; Herb Hill, who didn’t have but one eye and was tall and skinny as a fence rail; and Lige Askew, the bully who had led the mob that burned down Gussie’s cabin and killed her son. He was a strong, red-faced old man with beady black eyes and a terrible temper.

The cabin had one window with no coverin’ ‘cept a blind which kept out some of the rain but let the cold air in. The men built a big fire in the fireplace and moved the table and a bench near it, put their gallon jug of red-eye liquor in the middle of the table and began to play cards.

Steve Carter was so nervous that he jumped out of his seat every time it thundered. “This is a helluva night,” whined Steve. “Just the night for spirits to be a-roamin’ and witches to be a-ridin’. Any time we get thunder and lightnin’ on a cold night like this, it’s a sure sign that somthin’ awful’s goin’ to happen. I’ve got a feelin’ deep down in my bones that bad luck is comin’ tonight, mark my words. Someone told me that Gussie Profitt, the Old Witch Woman, was a-prowlin’ round these woods early this mornin’.”

Lige looked up from his cards, “Just you let me see her, and I’ll fix her once and for all,” he said. “Give your tongue a rest and wet your whistle with some more of that red-eye.”

Steve followed Lige’s advice and took a long, gurglin’ drink from the jug, but he was too nervous to keep his trap shut. He said, “All of you heard ‘bout the toad that old witch-woman carries ‘round with her? Some say it’s her imp, and that it can change into a devil and torment the souls of them what’s bothered her.”

Lige snorted, “She cain’t scare me with a puny little toad-frog. I’ll just dowse her and her little old warty toad in that jug of moonshine, and see if they can hop their way out of it.”

Steve said, “You’d better mind what you’re sayin’, Lige, and not rile that old witch-woman. You know a witch can hear anythin’ folks says.”

Another flash of lightnin’ lit up the whole cabin, and it was followed by a deafenin’ crack of thunder. All three men were scared and shaking in their boots, and they all made a lunge for the liquor jug at the same time. Each one gulped down a big hootern of the stuff.

Then, Herb Hill got up from his seat. He turned around toward the door and his face got white as a sheet. He froze in his tracks, just like he’d been turned to stone. Lige and Steve turned to see what had happened and they spied the Old Witch Woman a-leanin’ on her big stick with her toad beside her.

Herb gulped. “Lawd a massey! How in the world did you get in here?” He asked, his voice a-quiver.

“They musta come in through the keyhole. There ain’t no other place they could of come in,” said Steve.

Then, that toad hopped right up on the table beside that jug of liquor. It looked up at the men with unblinking eyes, puffed out it’s throat and croaked, “You must give us food and warmth.”

Lige started towards the toad and hollered loud enough to wake the dead, “Get out of here afore I burn you up. Get out, I say!” He grabbed at the toad to throw it into the fire. But, before he could touch it, that toad stood up on its hind legs and turned into a big red devil. It reached over and took the stick out of the Old Witch Woman’s hand, and it turned into a pitchfork.

Lige started shakin’ like a dog in a wet sack. He was too scared to speak. Then he took a long, gurglin’ swig of liquor, staggered towards the Old Witch Woman and said, “See here witch! I’m a-goin’ to snatch that bonnet off your head, and slap your old wrinkled jaws real good.”

As he started towards her, Steve hollered, “Lige, don’t you touch her! Don’t rile her!”

As Lige’s boney hand reached towards Gussie, the toad-devil caught him with the pitchfork and pinned him against the wall. Gussie leaned in close to Lige’s face and said, “Tonight, you’re under my power. I knowed in your evil mind you’d decided to burn the toad and to bury me alive. But I’m goin’ to leave you to a worse fate than bein’ roasted or buried alive.”

Then, right before their unbelieving eyes, she went up the chimney like a puff of smoke.

Another loud crash of thunder made two of the men dive under the table. Steve mumbled, “She’s gone, but where’s her toad?”

Then, Lige, who betweenwhiles had fallen against the door and slid to the floor, hollered, “He’s right here, with me!”

“Are you alright?” asked Herb.

“I’m witched,” said Lige. “I see the spirits of all the folks that I’ve ever done a wrong. The skies have opened up into this roarin’ furnace, and all of hell is a-roarin’ past my ears.”

The cabin door suddenly blew open, and the toad hopped towards it. Lige hollered, “It’s a goin’ . . . and I’ve got to go too,” and he followed the toad out into the storm.

Always after that, instead of seeing the Old Witch Woman a-prowlin’ in the woods, folks saw a bent old man shufflin’ after a toad and mutterin’, “I’m witched, I’m witched.”

This story was adapted from a version printed in “The Silver Bullet and Other American Witch Stories” edited by Hubert J. Davis, and published by Johnathan David Publishers Incorporated 68–22 Eliot Avenue Middle Village, NY 11379. It is used here with the publisher’s permission.

A special thanks to Judy Somerville, who generously allowed her artwork to used as an illustration for this article.