In 1937, A Badass Old Lady Sued Her Neighbor For Calling Her a Witch

Illustration for article titled In 1937, A Badass Old Lady Sued Her Neighbor For Calling Her a Witch

This is the Virginia home of “Aunt Jane” Dutton in 1937, when the 82-year-old was accused by her neighbor, “Rocky Joe” Stanley, 83, of being a witch—a slanderous accusation so low she sought a warrant for his arrest. The ensuing trial offered a fascinating mix of courtroom drama and local folklore.

On October 5, 1937, Fredericksburg, Virginia newspaper The Free Lance-Star took a slightly bemused approach to reporting the proceedings:

Salem, Mass. was probably no more excited during its seventeenth-century witchcraft trial, than was this little Cumberland mountain community today ... Commonweath’s Attorney J.O. Smith of Dickenson County described the case as just another abusive language trial, but the hill country folks don’t take it that way.

Children questioned their parents on stories they had heard on “spells” and conjures [and] oldsters recalled tales of witches who legend says once roamed this Kentucky border county.

... “Rocky Joe” is accused in a warrant obtained by “Aunt Jane” with unlawfully and falsely speaking words “which from their usual construction and common acceptation” might be constructed as “insults and tend to violate and breach of peace.”

The warrant specifically charges that Stanley said “Aunt Jane” was a witch and would soon die “and other words of like purport.”


According to the Roanoke Times, the trial was packed with onlookers hoping for a spectacle:

Curious persons by the hundreds came eager for hair-tingling tales of eerie figures riding down the lonely coves and over the towering slopes of the Cumberland, but no witches danced, no caldrons simmered and only one of five witnesses testified that the keen-eyed mountaineer used unknown powers in doctoring cattle.

Honestly, it’s not clear which party the “the keen-eyed mountaineer” with the ability to “doctor cattle” is referring to: was it Dutton, accused of witchcraft, or Stanley, who apparently “went into session with the supernatural” to see what evil force might be behind the various problems among his community (and their livestock)?

Whatever prior incidents and bad blood colored the relationship between the neighbors is, unfortunately, unrecorded by history, or perhaps Stanley was acting arbitrarily when he designated Dutton as a troublemaking agent of “Old Nick.” What we do know is that she was “visibly upset” by the allegation, according to lawyer Smith, when she obtained her warrant. At stake, besides Dutton’s good name, was a jail sentence, a fine of $25 to $500, or both.


As the Reading Eagle wrote, some involved in the case downplayed the importance of the supernatural angle. But it couldn’t help coming through:

[Attorney] Smith said there was little superstition or belief in witchcraft in this section, but G. Mark French, “Aunt Jane’s” attorney, said he would offer evidence in an attempt to show that “Rocky Joe” had told other neighbors when they were in trouble, that “Aunt Jane” had put a “spell” on them.


A follow-up appended to the initial Free Lance-Star article notes that Stanley, father of 15 children and a self-described “doctor against witchcraft,” did not take the stand in his own defense. He was eventually cleared of the charges after standing trial.

Note: some sources identify Dutton’s age as 82, but some peg her as 70. Here’s a photo of her in 1937; it’s hard to tell who’s right. (That said, even though she lost her case, she sure looks like a staunch character, no?)

Illustration for article titled In 1937, A Badass Old Lady Sued Her Neighbor For Calling Her a Witch

Top image: Cumberland mountain country home of “Aunt Jane” Dutton, and Dutton herself, both seen Oct. 8, 1937. (AP Photo)


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a self-described “doctor against witchcraft,”

I only just recently learned that a witch doctor was someone who protected you from witches/witchcraft, and that the phrase was in use in England long before it was applied to traditional healers in Africa and other places.