Curious superstitions were abundant in the early 1800s. One person listed a few of them noting that “if thirteen people sit down to a table together, one will die before a year has passed. Three candles burning at the same time in a room denotes death; the ticking of [an] insect [is] called the death-watch.” But not all superstitions were about death, some mentioned bad luck or misfortune. For instance, a broken looking-glass brought bad luck for seven years. Spilling salt was unlucky unless more salt was thrown over a person’s left shoulder. There was also bad luck from “passing under a ladder, seeing the new moon for the first time through glass, or two knives falling across each other.” Yet, these superstitions were not the only ones people believed in the early 1800s. People also believed in overlooking, the power of three, Irish fairies, spitting or sneezing, and sorcery or witchcraft.
One superstition in the small town of Glastonbury, in Somerset, was called “overlooking.” Overlooking was the same thing as giving someone the evil eye (a malevolent look that brought bad luck or injury). This superstition consisted of some potent person having the ability to overlook “through anger, revenge, or malignity,” on some poor, unhappy victim. So, it was claimed that who ever was overlooked was cursed. People who were “overlooked“ were also said to be “sunk in spirits; wasted in strength and form; inattentive to their concerns and connections; and totally absorbed in the dreadful idea, that, unless the withering witchery [could] be overcome, inevitable ruin and certain death must speedily be their doom.” One person tried to convince those overlooked that their beliefs were “utterly insensible.” To do so, he had to call in the aid of a conjurer, otherwise the overlooked would have become “victims of their own deluded imagination.”
Superstitious beliefs were not just popular in Glastonbury. Rural superstitions often involved the power of three. For instance, a ceremony of drawing a child through a cleft ash tree to effect a cure for rickets relied on the power of three. This ceremony was witnessed by one newspaper correspondent in 1833. He reported that to accomplish the cure, a young tree was split with a three-foot incision. Then two men “drew the parts forcibly asunder, until there was room enough to draw the child through.” After room had been made, the mother drew her child through the tree three times. However, the ceremony was not effective on its own. The child also had to be “washed for three successive mornings in the dew from the leaves of the ‘charmed tree.'” There was another power of three used to cure whooping-cough in rural areas. Affected children were drawn three times over the back and under the belly of a 3-year-old ass. Three hairs were then pulled from the ass and boiled in three tablespoons of milk. To cure the child, this concoction was then fed to the sick child three consecutive mornings.
Superstition was also rife in Ireland where circular entrenchments and barrows were claimed to be fairy communities or the secret places of fairy abodes. In fact, to disturb, dig, or plow up a fairy community was considered unlucky. The Irish believed that violation of the fairy code would resulted in severe disaster to the violator. To demonstrate, Thomas Croft Croker, an Irish antiquarian, published Researches in the South of Ireland in 1824. In his book, he noted the story of one violator who was punished. Apparently, the man purchased a farm. He then made improvements placing a lime kiln near the fairy dwellings on his property. The result of this violation was his horse, three sheep, and a sow with nine suckling pigs all died. The fatal catastrophes, of course, were attributed to the fairies. Supposedly, to avoid bad luck in the future, he promised to never use the kiln again and dismantled it.
Fairies were not the only thing superstitious people believed in the early 1800s. In England, some rather disagreeable superstitions existed that involved spitting and sneezing. Many Englishmen would spit to prevent bad luck when they met “a white horse, a squinting man, or a single magpie, or if, inadvertently, they [stepped] upon a ladder, or wash[ed] their hands in the same basin with a friend.” Spitting was also done in Lancashire. “Boys spit over their fingers before beginning to fight; travellers, on leaving home … [and] market people spit on the first money they receiv[ed].”
Besides spitting, there was sneezing. Sneezing was considered an omen of bad luck for some people and a sign of good fortune for others. One reason sneezing was bad was that during the Black Plague violent sneezing signaled death. However, in Scotland, sneezing was a good sign as Scottish infants were considered to be under a fairy spell until they sneezed. Sometimes, a person’s luck depended on the day they sneezed, as indicated by the following poem:
Sneeze on Monday, you sneeze for danger;
Sneeze on Tuesday, you kiss a stranger;
Sneeze on Wednesday, you sneeze for a letter;
Sneeze on Thursday for something better;
Sneeze on Friday, you’ll sneeze for sorrow;
Sneeze on Saturday, your sweetheart to-morrow;
Sneeze on a Sunday your safety seek,
The devil will have you the rest of the week!
Some superstitions involved more than spitting or sneezing, which was the case in 1826 when a girl was alleged to be a witch. The young girl, whose name was Lavielle, suddenly suffered “a violent attack of the nerves.” She was taken home and put to bed. She claimed she had been put under a spell by a sorceress named Maria Lassalle. Lavielle’s cousin, Peter, went to retrieve Lassalle to force her to remove the spell. However, when Lassalle was confronted, she refused and claimed she knew nothing of the disease and could not oblige Peter. To convince Lassalle to remove the spell, Peter placed her over a fire, at which point she agreed to effect a cure. However, when at Lavielle’s bedside, Lassalle once again claimed she could produce no cure. Peter again placed Lassalle over the fire until her strength failed, “and a swoon, the precursor of death put an end to her piercing cries.” In the end, Lassalle remained nothing more than a sad spectacle, and Peter was imprisoned “for blind ignorance, superstition, and malignity.”
Superstitious beliefs were still much in force in 1879 when “Help to salt, help to sorrow” became one of the more popular Victorian sayings. At the time, one person noted of superstitious beliefs”
It is strange that in an age and a country where education is so widely spread and enlightenment so much sought after … superstition should still bear sway over a great number of minds … How often are we told of death-tokens, warnings of coming misfortune or prophetic dreams, by people who deny a belief in these things when openly charged … and how many of us … have some pet omen to which we persist in giving credence, despite reason. That superstition is frequently the result of fear and is shown by the numerous prognostics of death and misfortune that are received with a religious awe and firmly believed in, even when proven false.
- Godey’s Magazine, Vol. 92, 1876
- “Horrible Superstition,” in Morning Post, 31 July 1826
- “Rural Superstitions,” in Exeter and Plymouth Gazette, 3 October 1845
- “Superstition,” in Aberdeen Evening Express, 7 May 1879
- “Superstitions of Ireland,” in Cambridge Chronicle and Journal, pg. 4, 23 January 1824
- Walsh, William Shepard, eds., etal., American Notes and Queries, Vol. 6, 1891
- Warner, Richard, A History of the Abbey of Glaston, 1826