Fentress County Witches

I stumbled upon the stories of Old Man Stout (he has a lot of different first names depending on the story) and Marsha Millsaps, both of Fentress County who were accused of being witches. There seems to be a widespread belief that Stout was actually charged with witchcraft and seemed to fail (or pass, I guess) many of the tests for witchcraft, but was only saved because the judge and prosecutor refused to take up the case. He then, supposedly, sued his accusers. A short time later Millsaps was accused by “A Wizzard” (gosh, I wonder if he’s in the census) of being a witch and fucking dogs. She sued for defamation and won.

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7 thoughts on “Fentress County Witches

  1. The “Wizzard” was a guy named Bledsoe. Marsha Millsap (maiden name Frogge…seriously could not make this shit up) must have been hell on wheels. As for the language about fucking dogs, I can see that as one meaning, but the wording of the allegation is more suggestive of an elaborate way to call her a bitch without actually saying “bitch.” (Can transform herself into a suitable mate for a male dog…and she has experience doing that.) He also calls her a thief (converts her neighbors’ geese to her own by use of a wand…the stick you use to drive geese, in other words…) and says that she gives the guy who shares her bed an “overstock of loathsome vermin.” (That could be either crabs or bratty kids or both…no reason to read libelous language narrowly.) I find the timing of all this kind of interesting. Indian removal in Fentress County happened kind of late — 1842. These witch accusations happened in the same neighborhood shortly thereafter…makes me wonder how or if those two facts are related.

  2. Got to looking a little deeper at this case — couldn’t help it, it’s a weakness — and came up with context that helps to explain the dispute a little more. Marsha’s father, Strother Frogge, was both a militia captain and a justice of the peace/county judge. He moved to the area in 1802 and Marsha was born in 1804, so they were the old guard — in the county before there even was a Tennessee. Marsha’s husband, Hiram, owned (one of?) the local tavern(s?). She would have been doing a booming trade in 1843, as there were many new people coming into the community and the people looking for land would have needed someplace to stay. On the other hand, William Miller Bledsoe II was a relatively new arrival in the locality and apparently had somewhat more money — he was a mover and shaker in the business community and he had political ambitions (sons wound up lawyers, sheriffs…he was running for Lt. Governor of the state of KY when he died a couple of decades later). The Bledsoes and the Frogge/Millsaps went to different churches and I’m guessing Bledsoe was down on the whole “tavern” culture aspect of life in the Frogge/Millsap household. He also had plans to build a turnpike that would have significantly directed traffic away from the Millsaps tavern and the clout to get that plan through the State Legislature. His son-in-law is the County Clerk and holds the deeds registry and the tax lists, so it’s possible that the families have come into conflict about that as well (since there is a mention that Marsha has ripped a page out of the County register…)

    Also, after looking at the full text of the libelous document, you’re absolutely right. He explicitly accuses her of fucking dogs. “She can transform herself into a suitable mate for the masculine gender of the canine species which power she has tested by experiment meaning thereby to say that Marsha Millsap is a
    suitable mate for a dog and that Marsha Millsap has been guilty of having had
    against the order of nature an unreal affair with a dog and that she has been
    guilty and perpetuated that detestable crime of buggery not to be named among
    Christians.” Hard to mistake his meaning there…the first source I looked at was a cleaned-up late 19th century secondary source.

  3. And one final thing…is William Bledsoe any relation to Alex Bledsoe? That would be too much fun….

  4. I don’t know! He’s from West Tennessee, but I don’t know where his people are from.

    But do you agree that it doesn’t seem like Bledsoe is seriously accusing Millsaps of being a witch? it seems more like an excuse to just say incredibly shitty things about her in a public forum. I mean, it struck me more as an insult he would have tried to pass off as a joke, rather than a serious accusation.

    But it’s hard to know. If the thing with Old Man Stout really happened (I saw in the census there were three Stout families in the area in 1820), that would seem to indicate the people had a real, strong belief in witchcraft, though not one shared by the people in the legal systems (though I admit, I also wonder if this wasn’t some kind of proxy charge for him not living like a civilized man). And it seems unlikely that those beliefs would completely die out in a decade.

    On the other hand, if that thing with Stout really happened, Bledsoe knew that nothing was going to come of such a charge. You couldn’t get a witchcraft conviction. So, in a way, he gets the benefit of both truths–he can gravely insult Millsaps and know that he’s right up to the line of ruining her life, but giving himself plausible deniability about how much damage he was trying to do–after all, it’s not like she was going to be killed for it or something.

    I’m just saying, to me, he comes across like a real piece of work.

  5. I don’t think he was accusing her of being a witch in the magical/consorting with the Devil sense of the word. By the 19th century, the stew of “lacking sexual self-control/independent economic life/aggressively unneighborly/not subdued by male relations” that had once been presumed to be evidence of diabolical instigation was now just bad female behavior that they had a word for. Typically, women in her position (married to a tavern owner, presumably the public face of the tavern) drew fire in economic or political disputes between men. I’d have to do some more research in the records to see if there’s a pattern of animosity between the two warring factions of Jamestown (not to get too Boyer and Nissenbaum here). I saw a brief and unsupported mention that Hiram Millsaps and William Bledsoe were both running for County Clerk that year; it would have been an extremely powerful position in a newish county and libeling someone’s wife was, then as now, a good way of going negative. As an interesting sidenote, a few decades later, the Millsaps joined the Union Army and the Bledsoes joined the Confederate Army.

  6. Not that it matters much, I suppose, but I found a really full account of the Stout case from the Nashville Herald reprinted in a publication out of Philadelphia dated 1831. From the internal evidence, it appears that the incident happened in Fall 1830 and was adjudicated in February 1831. (Owen Davies’ *America Bewitched: The Story of Witchcraft after Salem* gets the story straight. Additionally, he points out that the county records no longer exist, presumably having been destroyed when the Fentress County courthouse burned in 1905.) From a legal history standpoint, the rationale behind the court’s decision in the Stout case is interesting. Prosecutors had tried to argue that Stout could be tried under an English act that had been received into Tennessee law as part of its original territorial (and later state law) and never repealed. This being the early American republic, though, the judge bristled that the idea of having an monarchical legal taproot was “destructive of, repugnant to, and inconsistent with the freedom and independence of this state and form of government.” So ha. Better some witches get away than we get stuck with English law.

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