In Yazoo City’s Glenwood Cemetery in rural Mississippi, there is a story etched into one of the tombstones. It’s the story of the witch of Yazoo, a woman who lived on the outskirts of town and came to an untimely death.Then twenty years later she rose from the grave and burned the entire town of Yazoo to the ground.
As the legend goes, on May 25, 1884 the Yazoo City police were investigating the disappearance of several fishermen. Their investigation led them to a cabin in the swamp just outside of town. Inspecting a shed on the property, the police found several bones. The woman, now though to be a witch, immediately fled her cabin and ran into the swamp. There she met her fate, sinking into a patch of quicksand and drowning. However, before her head passed under the sand she vowed that she would return in 20 years to burn the entire town to the ground.
Twenty years later on the anniversary of the witch’s death, a fire really did break out in Yazoo City, just as she foretold. The fire, which originated in a part of town occupied by the Western Union and Postal Telegraph companies, quickly spread to the telephone exchange completely cutting off the town from the outside world. The fire spread rapidly due to unseasonably high winds that day. By the time it was extinguished over 200 homes and most of the businesses in Yazoo City were destroyed. Damages were estimated at close to $2 million (nearly $50 million in today’s money).
So was there really a witch in Yazoo City, Mississippi? Although there are no records of fishermen actually being lured to their deaths in 1884, or records a woman drowning in quicksand on May 25th, Yazoo City does have a past that lends itself to urban legends born out of actual events.
Sometimes an urban legend can be used to distract from actual events or supplement them. And Yazoo City did have several large racial and gender battles at work during the time when the witch rumors first began.
First there was Harriett N Prewett of Yazoo City who one of the first female newspaper editors in the United States. In 1884 (same year as the witch), she was a widow living on the outskirts of Yazoo City in a wisteria covered cabin. The 1880s was a time when newsmen could be challenged to a duel for stories that were perceived as inflammatory. However, this did not pertain to women. Mrs. Prewett took advantage of her immunity to fearlessly take on the Democratic party which at the time embraced a racist agenda and controlled most of the Southern state. One could theorize that these rumors of witchery could have been directed at Mrs. Prewett in an act of revenge against a woman with the audacity to speak her mind, who was immune to pistols at ten paces.
The story may have also been used to distract from another major event in Yazoo City which made national news in 1884 (the same year the witch supposedly died and cursed the town).Yazoo City had been a hotbed of racial tension since the end of the Civil War. Although African American made up two-thirds of the population, they were forcibly bared from voting, despite it being their right. On Christmas Eve in 1884, an altercation between a group of black men and a group of white men erupted in violence. The incident occurred when a white plantation owner T.D. Kirk was insulted by his black employee, Abe Johnson. Kirk, feeling the need to dole out discipline, went back to his home to retrieve a bat, a gun, and a few armed friends. Johnson went off to do likewise. When both groups returned, a gun fight ensued leaving three white men including Kirk dead, and a fourth white man would die from his wounds a few days later. Weeks after the shootout, an angry mob attacked the prison shot one of the prisoners in his cell then pulled the remaining three men and killed them.
Despite its possible origins, the witch of Yazoo is still an ominous presence in the Yazoo City. Even more ominous is the fact that, to this day, no one knows who exactly is buried in the witch’s grave. Just this year, the chains which were placed around the grave to keep the witch contained were stolen. Perhaps someone is wanting to see if the witch still feeling a bit vengeful.