Abingdon is the county seat for Washington County, Virginia. Founded in 1778, it has seen many changes through time. One of the strangest episodes in its long and storied history deals with two men, Marsh and Yates, and the conflict that made newspapers around the nation. But, was the struggle real, or just a myth?
A man named Marsh lived a few miles outside of Abingdon, in 1838. He developed a severe case of scrofula, which is a form of tuberculosis that causes the lymphatic glands to swell. Marsh became convinced his affliction was caused by a local wizard and “master of the black arts” named Yates.
The bewitchment he suspected didn’t stop with him. All of his farm animals began acting strangely, as well. That was all the proof Marsh needed to solidify his suspicions.
He first tried pleading and beseeching the wizard for help. None of Yates cures worked. Marsh believed Yates had the power to end his suffering, but wouldn’t. He grew despondent, and then angry. He grew so angry that he undertook a host of “anti-witch” measures. When the usual tactics didn’t work, he began drawing Yate’s likeness upon trees, with chicken’s blood, and firing silver bullets into the image.
Yates wasn’t killed, or even afflicted by anything unusual. He seemed to be immune to silver bullets. Marsh, however, continued to experience his disease and his animals continued to behave strangely.
He then tried bullets with crosses carved into their tips. He fired into Yates’ image, but again, he failed to stop his scrofula, or injure Yates. He continued to grow desperate.
Eventually, Marsh found Yates riding on his horse. He fired two bullets into the back of his neck.
He went to trial on November 27, 1838. A bullet was produced in court to show Marsh’s motive. Marsh had carved a cross on it.
He received 20 years in the state penitentiary.
The story seems straightforward and plausible for the period; however, could it be a mere story? Today, several non-fiction history books cite the episode as fact, yet fail to mention that there is no record, outside a couple of syndicated newspapers stories, of this event.
In the story, Marsh is often called an “elderly white” or a “poor white.” Yates is occasionally referred to as a “mulatto.” The 1830 Census for Washington County has absolutely no mention of a man named Marsh. There is one mention of a “Yates,” however no indication of whether they were male or female. There is no proof they were a person of color, as they appear on standard census records.
There is also no real resolution of the event. In some variations of the tale, Yates is killed. In others, he survived. The only thing element that is consistent is that Marsh was convicted.
While it makes a wonderful story, the tale Marsh’s wizard should be taken as a mere story until further evidence emerges.