Y ou might think that, by the 1880s, belief in witchcraft was nothing more than a bad memory. But a sad and curious case in Stony Creek, Dauphin County proves that some superstitions die hard.
Stoney Creek, in Middle Paxton Township, overlooks the Susquehanna River. It is located between the Borough of Dauphin to the north and Rockville to the south. In the late 19th Century its residents were a strong mix of German and Irish citizens, many of whom were farmers, laborers or railroad workers.
One such family headed by William Gilday (reported in the newspapers as William Kildey, and found in public records alternately spelled Gillday and Killday) maintained an unshakable belief in witch doctors and powwowing. So when his daughter, Emma, began convulsing, barking like a dog and hissing like a cat - he had no doubt that she was bewitched by an old German woman named Mrs. Boyer.
The full story progressed as such. One day a young man asked to walk Emma home from church. When she refused, he - in a rage - told her he would seek the assistance of old Mrs. Boyer who would put a fatal spell on her for rejecting his company. Shortly thereafter, Emma's strange symptoms appeared.
William Gilday spent three years seeking traditional medical treatment for his daughter, but none offered a cure. Finally, he consulted a witch doctor named Wolf who formally declared Emma bewitched. Emma's half sister acted as witness to Wolf's testimony, going so far as to say he made the likeness of Mrs. Boyer appear in a basin of water.
Gilday next consulted Armstrong McClain, a traveling witch doctor, who burned hair on a shovel blade and assured Gilday that if he did not see a brindle cow on his way back home, Emma would improve by sundown. As sure as McClain had spoken, the girl seemed to improve by evening.
There were occasional relapses (blamed on Mrs. Boyer, of course) and by 1881 Emma was worse than ever. Gilday called Armstrong McClain to his home and this time McClain performed a theatrical ritual whereby he gently touched Emma's temple with a hammer - an act he called "killing the witch." This ritual, promised McClain, would ensure that Mrs. Boyer would soon be dead, a pronouncement with which Gilday seemingly had no reservations. More troubling, McClain swore that Mrs. Boyer's coffin would "burst open" during her burial.
By this time the Boyer family were pariahs in the community. The Boyer's son, John, was so angered and troubled by McClain's actions that he had the man arrested on charges of defamation of character. The justice of the peace at Fort Hunter agreed that there was sufficient evidence to bind the matter over for trial. Unfortunately, by September 1883, the Boyers had had enough and moved before the case came to court.
As for Emma - perhaps she really was cursed. Her first husband died at age 28 according to a published county history. And in May of 1884 her father, William Gilday, dropped dead of "apoplexy" according to the county coroner.
But the Boyers? Their lives returned to normal after leaving the little town of Stony Creek. 💀