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Local German settlement unsettled over witchcraft

Kevin Collier • Jul 21, 2015 at 12:15 PM

A German settlement, described as being “within six miles” of the City of Grand Haven, accused a man of being a witch and a sorcerer. The man, who went unnamed by the press for his protection, was claimed to be “bringing evil luck to his neighbors.”

An Oct. 16, 1899, article published in the Grand Haven Tribune said the farmer in question was 35 years old and had a look of innocence, but it was claimed he was “casting spells” and “otherwise practicing the black art.”

“In (this) community of German settlers, the belief of witchcraft is just as firm as it was in New England in the 17th century, when Salem, Mass., was noted for its being the place of witches and sorcerers,” the Detroit Free Press reported in its Oct. 18, 1899, edition.

The situation soon escalated to the point that stories circulated that some in the settlement were hatching a plan for a lynching. One report stated the man's neighbors “were said to be conniving together to hang him.”

The Free Press wrote the accused had “knowledge of the arts of sorcery and witchcraft,” and that his neighbors “are to hang and thus rid the community of his presence.”

In particular, the suspect was accused by his neighbors of “working his black magic on their livestock.” Yes, casting spells and curses on farm animals.

A neighbor of the alleged warlock told the Grand Haven Tribune that “the young man had exerted mysterious influence” over his livestock. Well-fed horses began to grow weak, and docile cattle had become “wild and vicious.” He told how chickens, which had routinely laid many good eggs, now produced none.

An article soon followed in the New York Times with the headline, “Accused of Witchcraft: Germans in Michigan Threaten to Hang One of Their Own.”

Concerned for his life, the accused man journeyed to the city courthouse to consult with Justice of the Peace Charles T. Pagelson, who spoke fluent German. According to the Tribune, the so-called witch wanted to “find out what he could do to protect himself from his accusers.”

Pagelson suggested displaying less peculiar behavior and applying a more friendly approach. The Tribune reported the accused said he “will make it warm for his neighbors.”

It appeared the warlock farmer straightened up his act and acted less strange, and soon the settlement settled down. The unusual series of events makes this incident perhaps the closest thing to authentic witch hunt to occur in Ottawa County history.

“In this age of enlightenment and intelligence, it's hard to believe that a community could be found in all of America where witchcraft is believed in,” the Tribune wrote.         

However, Ottawa County entertained other witches, one of which was Bertha “Grannie” Grindle, an aged fortune-teller who made her home in Johnsville (Agnew) with her husband, John Webster, in the 1870s. She lived and practiced her black magic there, which involved little more than card readings, fortune telling and trivial illusions.

Grindle died March 20, 1890, and is buried in Muskegon's Oakwood Cemetery.

It was said she was 102 years old at the time of her demise, but apparently she wasn't at rest. The Tribune reported in its June 9, 1893, edition that witnesses to a haunted house in Agnew claimed they had encountered the spirit of Grannie Grindle three years after her death.

“Several of our old citizens, who saw the witch plainly by the lightning flashes, say that it was old Grannie Grindle, the old Johnsville fortune-teller,” the Tribune reported.

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