The legend of Phoebe Ward, the hag witch of Northampton County, North Carolina, became widely known when her story was brought to the big stage in Elizabeth A. Lay’s folk superstition drama When Witches Ride. This native folk play was one of the first productions presented by the Carolina Playmakers in 1922.
Elizabeth wrote the play from her years living as a teacher and in Northampton County, then tossed in a dash of legend and folklore–which, we have learned from history, are not always derived from mere fantasy. Some aspects of these stories have grains of truth.
According to historical background and witness accounts, Phoebe Ward was reputed to be a witch as well as a beggar, drunk, and gypsy in the Northampton County area in the late 1800s.
A woman with a reputation of questionable ethics, Pheobe traveled place to place where ever she could take shelter.
Whether it was in a makeshift hut or a run-down dilapidated house, people in the county did their best to avoid her, and yet they were afraid to refuse her. She was a gray elderly woman with a raggedy outward appearance. The description of her from witness accounts depicts her as similar to the chilling sorceress hag that graciously gave Snow White the poison apple.
Original scene from “When Witches Ride,” a play of Carolina Folk Superstition by Elizabeth A. Lay. Alga Leavit as “Phoebe Ward,” the witch and her toad, “Gibbie”. Courtesy of UNC Chapel Hill Library Archives
Phoebe’s origins were mysterious and elusive to the native folk who lived and encountered her in the area. Even though not much is known of her past, she was truly believed to be a witch by the people who lived in the Roanoke river area. The refusal of her request would surely give her a reason to cast her art of witchcraft upon them. It was believed that she would torment people in their dreams by turning them into nightmares, intrude your home by manifesting through door keyholes, and could shapeshift by applying a magical ointment on her skin.
If anyone were to accept her solicitation of begging, she would prey upon her victims by constantly taking advantage of their kindness. People began taking desperate measures to protect themselves from her wickedness and hexing abilities, following superstitions such as placing stick pins into their chairs or by throwing red pepper flakes into the fire.
When Phoebe would smell the burning pepper, she would leave the premises because she could not stand the smell. They also resorted to such rituals as nailing horseshoes over stable doors and hanging meshed screens over their bedroom doors to trap her, protecting their dreams until daybreak arrived. But the hag witch Pheobe was too smart for their trickeries and deception.
It was said she could tell when the chair was fixed with pins in the seat cushions, and the invitation to sit down would be avoided.
One witness account by a local man known as Uncle Bennie stated that he and group of friends were partaking in a campfire night of consuming brandy from the whiskey barrel. Bored and inebriated, they decided to look for some entertainment to fill the night. Bennie and his friends decided to visit the hag witch Pheobe’s house. When they arrived they found her, believed to be dead, lying in her makeshift bed. Presuming they were looking at a corpse, the men shrouded her body and proceeded to hold a funeral wake. As the night progressed, liquor jugs full of spirits flowing in celebration of the dead witch hag, their party was interrupted by the horrifying sound of a wretched broken murmur from the corner of the room where Pheobe’s alleged dead body lay.
The devilish voice cried out, “Give me a little, it’s mighty cold out here.” The men startled and fled from the premises, running for their lives. All of the men made a quick getaway except Uncle Bennie, who was so drunk he was unable to move. After the men left and the sound of crickets filled the air, the devilish voice cried out again wanting a sip of brandy. Uncle Bennie shouted in a drunken state, “Hush, you damn’d witch, I’m going to bury you in the mornin!”
Too afraid to return for their friend that same night, the escaped men decided to return to Phoebe’s house the next day to find Uncle Bennie. When the hungover men arrived the next morning, they were surprised to find Uncle Bennie and the hag witch Phoebe still alive and well! They were found cozied up together in front of the fire sipping on the jars of brandy the men left behind. After this incident, it was told that Phoebe lived many more years, continuing to make her living by begging and traveling from place to place in the county. Until one day she disappeared never to be seen again. The final last days of Phoebe Ward are unknown and continue to remain a mystery.
By Hope Thompson
See Also, The Magic of Words: NC’s First Witch Trial, Appalachian Folklife: The Mysterious Vampire of Big Stone Gap, Frankie Silver: Unjustly Hanged or Guilty of Murder, Appalachian Folk Magic: The Witch Bottle, Folklife: Creasy Greens and Leather Britches