Last updated 5:25PM ET
December 20, 2014
Local Features
Local Features
The Paducah Witch Burning Legend
(2010-10-29)
Market House Theatre Ghost
(wkms) - In honor of Halloween, we'll finish today's program with a mysterious and rather unusual story from western Kentucky's past. It's the tale of our area's one, and so far only, witch-burning.

It goes like this: the year is 1829. And in a much smaller Paducah, two women, one old and one young, maybe a mother and daughter, have been arrested and hauled before the justice of the peace. They live in a hovel on Island Creek just east of town, and a prominent citizen has accused them of putting a hex on him. The two are charged with witchcraft and convicted. The judge hands down the sentence mandated by state law: death by burning.

Historian John E.L. Robertson has written extensively about Paducah's legends and lore. He takes up the story.

"And they tied the ladies up and started a bonfire, and invited them to jump in and they didn't wish to. They grabbed the older lady and tried to throw her in. And they danced a two-step around the fire and her skirt got all singed. The crowd by that time had sort of turned against the whole procedure and they stopped the thing and let them off with a warning."

What isn't mentioned is the reason the crowd changed their minds. In some accounts, the women were thrown back into the fire again and again; but each time, a wind would rise and blow down the flames, allowing the women to walk out unharmed, if a little crispy. Their accuser, meanwhile, is getting angrier and angrier, demanding they be put back in. But the authorities and the mob have lost their stomach for justice. The accused flee into the night, and the two are never seen again.

When they hear this story, most people tend to react in the same way. They're initially incredulous, then this suspicion sneaks in, that this tale of sorcery and fire and miraculous deliverance is just weird enough to be true. Robertson says the story names the justice and the sheriff, and they're real people. They actually existed in 1829. So, is it true?

"The justice said, Well, the law says we have to burn them.' Well, Kentucky law does not say that at all. So, it seems to be based upon people who actually did exist, and it comes from a reported article in a newspaper published in Livingston County, which there's no copy of. It's one of those folks stories that comes around periodically, around Halloween. And that makes you even more suspicious at the time of the year."

So, at best, it's highly unlikely McCracken County authorities ever tried to burn anyone for witchcraft. At worst, it's nothing but nonsense.

But on rare occasions, and Halloween's one of them, the facts can't stand in the way of a good story. And this story has an amazing postscript.

It's years later, and the now-old and bitter accuser has become something of a pariah in Paducah. One night, on the anniversary of the aborted burning, the old man sits in one of the saloons lining the riverfront, nursing a very potent drink.

A woman walks behind him, just close enough to make him spill his strong drink all over the front of his shirt and coat. Enraged, he turns around, but the woman is nowhere to be seen. He yells for the bartender and demands that the lady he thinks is a waitress be fired.

The barkeep looks at him for a long moment and tells him, "There ain't no ladies that work here. And for that matter, there ain't nobody in the saloon but you and me."

Still upset, the old man pays his tab and storms out of the establishment shaking with anger.

He pauses on the sidewalk and reaches into his coat for a cigar to calm him down. He glares out over the Ohio as he puts the cigar in his mouth and pulls a match out of a coat pocket. The man stands only a few yards up the bank from where those women escaped justice all those years ago. He strikes the match and brings it close to his face. Just then, the wind picks up, just like it did that night. This time, the wind blows the match's flame toward him, and all the high proof liquor soaking his clothes ignites, turning him into a walking ball of fire.

The man screams in pain and races for what he thinks will save him, the cold waters of the Ohio River. The wind, however, keeps the flames hot and bright. They will find him the next morning, burned to a cinder, at the river's edge, just shy of salvation. And maybe, just maybe, as they stand over the man's remains, one of them will hear a woman's laughter, carried on the breeze from the direction of Island Creek...

Happy Halloween!

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