Contractors demolishing the chimney of a former inn and pub in Watford, England, recently chanced upon a creepy surprise: namely, a bottle full of fish hooks, human teeth, shards of glass and an unidentified liquid. As BBC News reports, the 19th-century vessel is likely a witch bottle, or talisman intentionally placed in a building to ward off witchcraft.
The newly discovered bottle is one of more than 100 recovered from old buildings, churchyards and riverbanks across Great Britain to date. Most specimens trace their origins to the 1600s, when continental Europe was in the grips of a major witch panic. Common contents found in witch bottles include pins, nails, thorns, urine, fingernail clippings and hair.
According to BBC News, the Watford property—now a private residence but formerly known as the Star and Garter inn—is best known as the birthplace of Angeline Tubbs, a woman later nicknamed the Witch of Saratoga. Born in 1761, Tubbs emigrated to the United States during her teenage years. She settled down in Saratoga Springs, New York, and made a living telling fortunes.
The type of torpedo-shaped glass bottle found in Watford was first manufactured during the 1830s, meaning the find is probably not directly connected with Tubbs. Still, the witch bottle’s presence does suggest the building’s residents practiced anti-witchcraft traditions much longer than most.
“It’s certainly later than most witch bottles, so sadly not contemporary with Angeline Tubbs,” Ceri Houlbrook, a historian and folklorist at the University of Hertfordshire, tells BBC News, “but still a fascinating find.”
The home’s current owner does not plan on displaying the bottle. Instead, the anonymous individual says they “will probably hide it away again for someone to find in another 100 years or so.”
So, how exactly did witch bottles work? Per JSTOR Daily’s Allison C. Meier, practitioners filled the vessels with an assortment of items, but most commonly urine and bent pins. The urine was believed to lure witches traveling through a supernatural “otherworld” into the bottle, where they would then be trapped on the pins’ sharp points. Would-be witchcraft victims often embedded the protective bottles under hearths or near chimneys; as anthropologist Christopher C. Fennell explained in a 2000 study, people at the time thought witches “gained access to homes through deviant paths such as the chimney stack.”
Witch bottles are more than just curiosities. Researchers at the Museum of London Archaeology (including Houlbrook) are currently working on a three-year project, “Witch Bottles Concealed and Revealed,” dedicated to analyzing examples held in public and private collections. The team’s goal is to learn more about the tradition’s origins, as well as its relationship with beliefs regarding magic and early modern medicine.
Interestingly enough, Geoff Manaugh reports for the New Yorker, the project has led MOLA’s ceramics specialist, Nigel Jeffries, to suspect that witch bottles were primarily created for medical purposes. As Jeffries tells Manaugh, the vessels may have been thought to act as “curatives that could bring a home’s residents longevity and health.”
The Salem Witch Trials are the most famous example of witchcraft hysteria in the U.S., but the scare also took root in many other places—including the Hudson Valley, where contractors and archaeologists have found witch bottles, eerie symbols and other forms of magical protection dating as far back as the 1600s.
By the time Angeline Tubbs arrived in the U.S., witches were treated as creepy curiosities rather than criminals. According to a Saratogian article by Wilton Town historian Jeannie Woutersz, Tubbs traveled to New York with a British officer during the Revolutionary War but was left behind following the conflict’s end. Eventually, she moved to a hut on a nearby mountain range, where she made a living begging and telling fortunes. Perhaps she was a woman who just preferred isolation—or maybe witch bottles kept her from ever moving into town.