Richard C. Keatts and the Witch of Pittsylvania County, Virginia

When you are looking for information in a newspaper, it's really important not to just search for your direct-line ancestors. Look for their siblings, their other children, their spouses, anyone that also has a connection to them. Otherwise, you could miss some rare gems of personal history.

Richard C. Keatts is one of my ancestors from the American South. He was born in Virginia in 1828, married a woman named Susan Bennett, and had many children by her. Their children were named Mary, Susan, Charles, James, Sarah, Martha, Richard, Henrietta, John, and Emma. If you hearken back to my post on the diphtheria epidemic of Pittsylvania County, Virginia, you'll notice that most of his children don't make it to adulthood.

One of his children, Emma, was born after the outbreak. And it was in looking for her, Emma Virter Keatts, that I actually found this story in The Danville Register. It was published on 10 December 1968, and is available online at

Richard C. Keatts in The Danville Register, 10 December 1968

Juby Towler, a descendant of Emma Virter Keatts, wrote a genealogy by the title of From the Fruit of the Garden. Although it is commonly known among Toler/Towler researchers, it includes many stories associated with my Keatts family. I've never been able to find a copy of this book, but just recently I discovered my great aunt Shirley has a copy. I'll be going to see her in December to do interviews and research with her, so I'm terribly excited. Be on the lookout for the outpouring of Keatts family history when the time comes!

Provided below is a transcription of the story I've included above. Just in time for Halloween, in my opinion:

One such story concerning witches, deserves mention to demonstrate the strong belief held by many in witches as late as the turn of the century.
Towler relates the story passed on by Virter Keatts, later to marry a Towler, who lived with her father Dick Keatts, a blacksmith,about five miles north of Chatham in 1899.
Keatts that spring found his farm implements breaking under the slightest strain; his cow went prematurely dry; his hogs got sick and his chickens stopped egg production.
Keatts was sure that a witch had cast a spell on the family, especially after "a quack horse doctor" applied some unsuccessful treatment, Towler writes.
The doctor's diagnosis consisted on splitting the cows' tails and boring holes in the animal's horns, after which he reported to Keatts the cow had hollow horns and a hollow tail.
His treatment involved placing crushed jimpsin leaves on the split cow tail and binding it like a sore finger. Then, after managing to get a few drops of milk from the cow, he squirted the milk into the tiny holes bored into the cow's horns.
Treatment for the other animals found the doctor taking dust from the chicken house floor and mixing it with corn meal and water to feed the chickens "some of their own grit." And he applied axle grease to the backs of Keatts' hogs.
The chickens still failed to produce eggs, the cow went completely dry and died, but the hogs got well. But the horse began to have fits.
Analyzing these results the doctor told Keatts, "some witch had cast a spell on the Keatts" Towler recounted.
To find the witch, the doctor told Keatts to kill the horse, cut out its heart and immediately place it on an open fire--an act, the doctor said, that would bring out the witch who would ask the Keatts to lend her something. However, the doctor warned Keatts he must not lend the witch any item for which she asked, no matter how insignificant.
Keatts killed the horse, placed the heart on an open fire and an old woman in the area, known as "Old Lillie," was seen moving down the old court house road to the Keatts house.
After arriving at the Keatts place, she immediately asked to borrow flour for some biscuits--which was refused as were her requests for a bit of thread, some dried peppers and a straight pin.
After the last bit of the horse's heart burned away, Old Lillie left and Dick Keatts' animals returned to normal and his problems ended.
Towler writes that Virter Keatts said rather playfully on the day she died that she had forgotten to observe an omen that was said to bring good luck.
At dinner that day--New Year's Day--she had forgotten to serve the traditional meal of black-eyed peas and hog-jowls. She died before midnight.