2012-03-22 / Local & State

Shoe Found In Gettysburg Wall Puzzles Scholars

By Tim Prudente
THE (HANOVER) EVENING SUN

GETTYSBURG, Pa. (AP) – The calfskin leather was dirty but intact, after 160 years hidden within the walls of a Gettysburg dormitory. With a square toe and thin sole, the relic is unassuming enough.

But its discovery is raising questions with scholars about a mysterious superstition rooted in medieval folk magic.

“It shows this was some sort of tradition among the workers,” said M. Chris Manning, an anthropology researcher at Ball State University in Muncie, Ind. “The act of cutting (the shoe) appears to have some sort of meaning, but we don’t really know what.”

The men’s boot is cut neatly in half, as if with a pair of shears. The cut was determined to be deliberate and made before the hand-sewn boot was concealed within the wall.

Before its recent discovery in Gettysburg only one other historic shoe had been found deliberately cut and concealed. That was in California, and it was explained away as an anomaly.

But the Gettysburg find tells scholars that early immigrants, particularly masons and plasterers, sometimes damaged shoes and other tokens of luck before hiding them in the walls.

Still, much of the meaning remains a mystery.

“There’s not much written about this and that’s a problem,” Manning said. “There’'s still a lot we don't know.”

Crews working to convert the 180-year-old Schmucker Hall, a former dormitory at the Lutheran Theological Seminary, into an interpretive museum found the cut shoe early this year. It was one of four shoes – the oldest dated to the 1830s – found concealed within the walls. Workers also discovered letters to Civil War soldiers and glass sarsaparilla bottles.

The practice of shoe concealment originates in England in the early 15th Century, according to Manning. It began as a form of protective magic against witchcraft. More than 200 cases have been reported around the United States.

Often the shoes were worn on the left foot, much like a wedding ring, because that side of the body was believed to be closer to the heart, Manning said.

Scholars have also found charms – including a 400- year-old woman's corset and horse skulls _ concealed beneath chimneys to prevent evil from entering homes. In the U.S. the custom peaked in the 1850s, the items being concealed not as magical charms but as tokens of good fortune.

Often the tokens are concealed to establish a symbolic connection between a person and a home, Manning said. So the national upheaval of the 1850s and 1860s is believed to have encouraged families to turn back to the traditional customs.

“The shoe is intimately connected to the person who wore it,” she said, “so there's this idea of trying to keep a person safe or bring a family member back home.”

More puzzling, though, are the two shoes found to be deliberately cut.

Manning says there's nothing sinister here. Rather, the cut shoes are likely symbols, meant to keep someone from leaving home.

And they’re certainly not the strangest things ever found.

Researchers have previously discovered the concealed remains of house cats. The felines are often positioned with mice skeletons in their mouths or paws, which is believed to be a charm to ward off rodents.

With the number of historic buildings in Gettysburg, there are likely more unusual charms that remain to be discovered.

So for all those remodeling locally, Manning said, work carefully.

You never know what you might find in your walls.

Return to top