As they made their way through the crumbling manor house, Laura Potts and her friend spotted a dusty black object on a window sill that stopped them in their tracks. Electricians renovating the home had cleaned out a pile of rubble from the chimney, and with it, a crumpled ladies’ boot, now catching the golden rays of a late summer afternoon.
“‘What is that?’” Potts remembers her friend asking. “I had no idea. It looked like some kind of nasty old shoe, but it clearly wasn’t the builder’s.”
Potts and her family had bought the rundown home in Norwich, an ancient city in East Anglia, UK, a few months earlier. Workers had taken out the rotting floors and plaster ceilings, which dated from the 18th century or even earlier, and shored up the wattle-and-daub walls. Potts had already plucked a pair of mummified rats from within the roof of the kitchen, but their presence in the old house wasn’t unusual; the rodents could have crawled in and gotten stuck there ages ago. No other odd artifacts had been discovered. Until the shoe.
A hole had been worn through its leather sole, and the ankle-height canvas upper had lost its row of small buttons. The stitching indicated it was likely made in a factory rather than by hand, suggesting that the footwear dated from the mid-1800s.
To learn why it had been inside her wall, Potts took the shoe to Malcolm Gaskill, then a professor of early modern history at the University of East Anglia, where Potts is a media relations manager. Gaskill immediately identified it as an apotropaic object—an item purposely concealed in a building’s structure to avert evil, especially witches.
“I lost my mind,” Potts tells Mental Floss, “I was so excited—beyond belief. I mean, Wuthering Heights is my favorite book of all time. This was the most amazing thing that’s ever happened to me.”
Conjuring the Devil in a Boot
In his 1987 book The Archaeology of Ritual and Magic, Ralph Merrifield writes, “there are few local museums in southern England that do not possess a few shoes, mostly dating from the 17th to the 19th century, that were found hidden in old houses, usually in a wall, roof, or chimney breast, or under a floor.” Untold numbers of shoes were hidden during the witchcraft hysteria of the 17th century, and the tradition even spread with settlers to Britain’s colonies, where concealed footwear has been discovered in the homes of prominent New England families. Despite its widespread practice, the folk tradition remained as obscured as the shoes themselves for centuries.
Concealing shoes against witches seems to have originated with the followers of Sir John Schorn, the rector of the parish of North Marston in Buckinghamshire, England. In the late 13th century, Schorn performed several alleged miracles, the most famous of which was appearing to trap the devil in a boot. News of this feat spread among the church members and to neighboring farms and villages. After Schorn’s death in 1313, pilgrims traveled from across England to the site of the miracle. Visitors received souvenir metal badges stamped with an image of Schorn holding a boot with the devil poking his horned head out of it—“the inference being clearly that he had trapped it inside the boot,” writes Brian Hoggard in Magical House Protection: The Archaeology of Counter-Witchcraft.
“These widely seen images and pilgrim badges would have conveyed the impression that it was possible to capture the devil or other harmful forces in a boot or shoe,” he writes. The impressions likely developed into the idea that shoes could trap malevolent spirits and that the best way to keep them out of your home was catch them before they entered—specifically by concealing shoes near points of ingress.
The practice gained momentum during the 17th century in England, an era that saw traditional beliefs challenged by science and medicine, and daily life destabilized by civil unrest and foreign wars—factors that stoked fears of witchcraft. Religious leaders viewed these secular developments as threats, and they spoke out against those they viewed as witches.
(That is not to say that science wasn’t used to prove or disprove witchcraft. William Harvey, the physician who discovered how blood circulates, was pressed by his employer King Charles I to examine “witch-marks” on several defendants in a 1634 witch trial. He also supposedly dissected a toad accused of being a witch’s familiar. In both cases he found no evidence of evildoing.)
To protect themselves, people hid shoes of every description. They included men’s, women’s, and children’s footwear, usually old and shaped from years of wear, suggesting that they retained whiffs of their former owners. Single shoes were more often concealed than matching pairs. They were bricked up in chimneys, buried under the floors near doorways, tucked into windows, or battened into ceilings. Sometimes other apotropaic objects were hidden with the shoes, such as witch bottles, animal bones, or dried cats. Once the shoes were concealed, it was considered unlucky to remove them. In one case, when a shoe was discovered in a home and sent to the Museum of London for analysis, strange hauntings began happening at the house, and stopped when the shoe returned to the premises.
Concealers rarely—if ever—recorded their actions. “Secrecy certainly does seem to have been an important part of these protective practices. I guess the best way to imagine why people kept it a secret is to think of a modern security system being installed somewhere—there’s no way you’d share details of how it works or where all the cables are, because someone would be able to infiltrate your property,” Hoggard tells Mental Floss. “I think it’s also fair to say that, even though these practices were very common, people didn’t tend to want to talk about their fear of supernatural harm publicly.”
Battling Witches in the New World
Amid the political and religious upheavals in Europe, settlers emigrated to North America, where the dangers from witches seemed to follow them. Some Puritan emigrants put faith in their charms amid the unfamiliar surroundings. Increase Mather, the influential minister and president of Harvard College, worried that the anti-witch objects themselves were a form of witchcraft: “white magic,” he argued, was still magic. “How persons that shall unbewitch others by putting Urin into a Bottle, or by casting Excrements into the fire, or nailing of Horse-shoes at Mens doors, can wholly clear themselves from being white Witches, I am not able to understand,” Mather wrote in a 1684 essay.
But the Puritans and their descendents continued the shoe-concealing tradition, even after the frenzy surrounding the Salem witch trials of 1692 had ebbed. As in England, worn-out boots and shoes associated with “one’s walk through life” were most often hidden, Jessica Costello writes in “Tracing the Footsteps of Ritual: Concealed Footwear in America,” published in the journal Historical Archaeology in 2014. “The discovery of shoes in [entry points of homes] strongly implies that they were meant to appease or deter witches or other malignant forces.”
In one well documented example cited by Costello, a shoe was discovered in the Bridges House in North Andover, Massachusetts, which had been built in 1690. Major work on the home took place in 1721, the 1740s, and 1830, when the owner, a civil engineer named Isaac Stevens, married his second wife, Elizabeth. During modern renovations, workers found a ladies’ shoe dating from the late 18th century beneath a threshold added in 1830. It could have been placed there as an anti-witch device. Or it could have been a kind of memorial to Stevens’s first wife, who died in a carriage accident: Costello notes that some people concealed shoes once worn by deceased loved ones as a way to keep their spirit literally within the home.
The John Adams Birthplace, part of the Adams National Historical Park in Quincy, Massachusetts, has revealed the largest collection of concealed shoes reviewed by Costello—44 shoes and boots (so far), dating from 1800 to 1870. All were found hidden near the openings of the house, which was built in 1681. All were thoroughly worn. Most were unmatched single shoes in men’s, women’s, and children’s styles. Though the second president’s father was a cordwainer—and though the house was later occupied by Samuel and Adam Curtis, two brothers who also happened to be shoemakers—Costello argues that shoe concealment was not confined to workers in that industry.
The Peabody Essex Museum, the preservation group Historic New England, and regional historical societies maintain their own previously concealed shoes. Such objects have also turned up in Virginia, North Carolina, Wisconsin, Iowa, and as far west as Utah, California, and Oregon, according to Costello.
“These tattered, humble specimens are significant finds,” she writes, “ritually infused artifacts that can help scholars understand better the mindset of the people who concealed them.”
In the 1950s, June Swann sought to quantify this enigmatic folk tradition. Swann worked as an assistant at the Northampton Museum and Art Gallery in the UK, which showcases the region's long history of shoemaking, among other industries. One of her tasks was to organize the museum’s shoe collection, and she discovered among the artifacts six or seven shoes with unusual provenances.
“They had come mostly from chimneys, and I recall being particularly puzzled by a small pair of child’s boots, found in the thatch of a cottage in Stanwick, Northamptonshire, and wondering what sort of people allowed a child so small to lose its boots on the roof,” she writes in a 1996 article in the journal Costume.
People in the community brought in similar dusty shoes uncovered during work on their homes, hoping for some insight to their origins. Swann began recording details of the finds on index cards, including the towns where they were discovered, the age and address of the building, their location inside it, and comments from the people who found them. She also wrote down the size and style of shoe, its date of manufacture, and any items that it was concealed with. She “was the first person to keep a comprehensive record of concealed finds,” the museum’s current senior shoe curator, Rebecca Shawcross, writes.
By 1969, Swann had cataloged 129 shoes or boots in what is now called the Concealed Shoe Index. By 1986, there were 700 records. Submissions about discoveries continue to come in from the public, and now the Index holds 2133 individual find records of more than 3000 items of footwear, plus a collection of about 200 concealed shoes. “Our earliest is [a] Tudor shoe from circa 1530,” Shawcross tells Mental Floss.
“The finds can consist of one shoe, pairs, or multiple single shoes with sometimes a pair. These groups of shoes can be from the same date or differ quite widely in date, suggesting several concealments over time,” she says. “The shoes can also be found with other items such as bottles, bones, coins, marbles, combs, textiles, and scraps of newspaper.”
Shawcross says that the tradition of concealment seems to stop around 1900. In Magical House Protection, Hoggard cites a 1997 survey that found less than 10 percent of the footwear in the Concealed Shoe Index dates from 1900 or later. That suggests that the tradition did taper off in the early 20th century, though the index records only the shoes that have been found—not how many were hidden.
The frequency of repairs to buildings from certain eras, or the value and durability of the footwear itself, can confound estimates of the tradition’s current popularity. Some think shoe concealment declined as science and rationalism gained traction. Costello argues that it may not be so clear-cut; as the unknowns became known through scientific experiment, “the development of the modern world saw not the elimination of magic, but rather its assimilation into new institutions and new ways of thinking,” she writes. “It is likely that many people in the late 19th and early 20th century America who concealed shoes in the wall of houses did so not out of fear of witches, but out of a fear of bad luck. Perhaps those aware of this ritual and its purpose were afraid to tempt fate by neglecting it.”
Hoggard agrees that people are less concerned about supernatural harm than they used to be, which points to a decline in shoe concealment. “That said,” he adds, “I have several examples in my files from across the 20th century, including a Nike trainer found deliberately concealed in part of the roof of the Bank of England [in] London.”
Laura Potts’s witch shoe remains in her now-renovated home—not tucked into the chimney as before, but displayed in a glass box on a bookshelf next to the fireplace. “It’s part of the house’s history. It has to stay with the house,” she says. She may never know whom it belonged to, or why precisely it was concealed so long ago, but she thinks that’s part of its charm.
“It’s like a little story capsule. You can make of it what you will,” she says. “It’s mysterious, and the mystery will never be fully solved.”