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Witch Balls

Updated: Oct 14, 2021



A client told me his 4x great grandfather, Griffin Tipsword, helped settle Effingham County, Illinois. This was a perfect opportunity to seek out a great resource for anyone interested in family history: local county histories. It is very common that at landmark anniversaries of a county, someone will write about the county’s early days. Sure enough, I found History of Effingham County by William Perrin, published in 1883.


What can be found in county histories varies considerably, but any mention of family members can be valuable. However, in this case, Griffin Tipsword got much more than a mention. In fact, I’d say he got a Paul-Bunyan-style tall tale.


[Griffin Tipsword] was not only a physician for the poor soul, but he was a ‘medicine man’ who could exorcise witches, conjure ghosts, remove ‘spells’, make ‘silver tea’ for cattle sick of the murrain or otherwise bewitched. He regulated the storms, stayed the angry lightning flashes, and could appease the deep-mouthed thunders as they rolled across the darkened heaven in terrifying peals.[1]

Perrin explains that in pioneer days most people believed implicitly in witches and charms. All diseases – whether of people or cattle – were the work of witches. He goes on.

[Griffin] kept sacred his witch balls to the day of his death. These were made of deer’s and cow’s hair, were large, and held together by a long string. They constituted his materia medica.
...When people were bewitched, they would send for Tipsword or take the patient to him. He would doctor them by standing over them, moving about in a mysterious way his witch balls and muttering a strange guttural jargon and this was repeated from day to day until the witch would fly unseen away in sore agony and distress and the cure was complete.[2]

Witch balls. Well, that’s a research first.


Griffin died in 1835 and the book was written in 1883, so I knew I was likely getting secondhand accounts of the man. But any account that is closer in time and place is likely to have valuable clues, even if it reads like a tall tale.


The fact that nearly 50 years after his death, he was remembered in such glowing terms, tells us something of his personality and vitality. It also tells us Griffin was sought out by the white and Native community in times of trouble. The entire account also gives a sense of the ethos that surrounded the early settlers – the fear, the hardship and the superstitions that helped them cope.


In 1975, almost 100 years after Perrin’s book, another county history was written about Effingham County. Peggy Pulliam collected signed statements from relatives of Griffin Tipsword. One statement was given by Ralph Tipsword, a great grandson of Griffin. Ralph heard family stories of Griffin’s superstitious ways and said they were carried on in future generations. Ralph told a story of being in the home of Griffin’s grandson Marion. “I remember as a boy,” Ralph said, “being at the home of Uncle Marion and looking at his gun. He told me not to touch it as it was loaded with a brass ball to kill witches.”[3]


County histories, such as History of Effingham County are a valuable resource in learning about your family history. They are not always accurate or true, but always provide context, color, and leads that you can try to verify from other sources. I, for one, am grateful for county histories. Otherwise, I never would have learned about witch balls.


[1]Perrin, William Henry,

-1892? Ed. History of Effingham County, Illinois. Chicago, O. L. Baskin & co, 1883. Web.. https://lccn.loc.gov/02002221. P. 13. [2] Ibid. p. 14 [3] Pulliam, Peggy. 1975. The Griffin Tipsword story: the first white settler in Effingham County, Illinois. [Effingham?]: The Commission.


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