The girl, the witch and the old oak tree
October 10 , 2013
The “witch stump” is on display at the Monroe County Historical Association.
By Amy Leiser, Executive Director
Monroe County Historical Association
It’s that time of year when pumpkins appear on doorsteps, the moonlight casts eerie shadows across the land, and people have imaginings of hauntings, ghosts, and other unworldly creatures that can sometimes get the best of them.
In 1924, an interesting and spooky discovery was made in the woods in eastern Monroe County. Men from the Saw Creek Club were chopping down trees to process the lumber for firewood when one man made a startling discovery. Lodged in the heart of an old oak tree was a wooden peg that had a lock of human hair wrapped around it. Naturally, there was a great deal of rumor, discussion, and speculation among local citizens regarding the origin of the hair — just how did it end up in that tree?
Margaret VanWhy of East Stroudsburg was the only person who could explain the mysterious discovery. Margaret recalled that the hair belonged to her sister, Elizabeth “Libby” Jane, and that it had been placed in the tree 52 years prior.
Margaret and Libby Jane were the daughters of George and Susan (Hannah) Counterman of Bushkill. According to Margaret’s story, one evening in 1872, a healthy Libby Jane suddenly fell ill at dinner. She suffered a seizure and fell on the floor in convulsions. Her family transported her to the sofa and placed cold compresses on her head. Later that evening, Libby Jane had an attack of paralysis that left her legs immobile. Doctors were called, but no remedy could cure Libby Jane.
Libby Jane had admitted to wandering along the Bushkill Creek the day before her affliction. While she was out for her stroll, Libby Jane stumbled upon Winnie Snyder, an old woman who lived in a nearby cottage. Libby Jane reported that she looked into the “old hag’s” piercing blue eyes before fleeing the area to return home. Libby Jane’s family and neighbors believed that the old woman was a witch and that Winnie must have placed a hex on Libby Jane.
Two weeks later, and still suffering from paralysis, Libby Jane awoke from a strange dream. In her dream, Libby Jane watched as chipmunks gathered around an old oak tree that was located on the family’s property. The animals began standing on one another’s shoulders, leaning against the tree to brace themselves until the stack of chipmunks was the same height as Libby Jane. Before joining the others in the stack, the last chipmunk climbed up onto Libby Jane’s head and frantically began pulling at her hair. It was at this moment that Libby Jane awoke and told her sister Margaret about the peculiar dream.
Margaret interpreted the dream as a way to break the witch’s hex. Margaret instructed Libby Jane to cut off a lock of her chestnut-brown hair, wrap the hair around a wooden peg, and drive the peg into the oak tree beside which the chipmunks had stood. The next day, in an effort to do what they could to help their daughter, Libby Jane’s parents took Margaret’s advice. They carried Libby Jane (since her legs were paralyzed) to the tree and placed a lock of her hair into the old oak.
The following day, Libby Jane looked out her window and reportedly saw a large animal standing near the base of the old oak tree. The next morning, Libby Jane’s mother traveled into town where she learned that Winnie Snyder, the old woman who lived in the woods and whom they believed had placed a hex on Libby Jane, had been found dead in her cabin. Upon hearing the news of the witch’s death, Libby Jane made an immediate and miraculous recovery, and she never again experienced the paralyzing symptoms of her condition.
Half a century later, after learning the story of Libby Jane, Mr. Steward Flagler donated the section of the old oak tree, with the wooden peg still intact, to the Monroe County Historical Association. The “witch stump” is on display in the Stroud Mansion.