Ann Shepherd: Witch or ordinary woman?

Published 9:29 am Wednesday, April 20, 2011

PCHA explores local legend
Most Polk County natives have heard the legend of Witch Ann. Some may have climbed Ann Ridge and bravely said her name three times to see what might happen.
But was she really a witch, or just a woman protecting her property?
The Polk County Historical Association reviewed the life of Ann Biddy Shepherd Tuesday, April 5 with local author Willard Pace. Pace has written a book about Shepherd’s life called “Witch Ann.”

The cover of “Witch Ann,” Willard Pace’s book about Ann Shepherd.

“This story is about a lady, Ann Shepherd, who lived many years ago in a shingled covered shanty in the northern edge of Polk County, N.C.,” read Pace from the preface. “Her home site was known as Ann Ridge. She was perceived by many in the region to be a witch, but after reading an article about her, I asked myself, ‘was she really a witch, or had life’s tragedies caused her to be different from other folks?’”
Ann Shepherd lived on Wildcat Spur in the mountains near Sunny View, just a few miles north of Deep Gap.
Shepherd was born on Oct. 31, 1844. Her mother died after bringing her into the world. This was one of Ann’s first tragedies, Pace writes.
Ann was raised by her great-aunt, Isa Biddy, as well as her father, P. D. Biddy. She spent much of her time with Owatta, a native American Indian who lived in a nearby village and often healed the family’s sicknesses with herbs.
Historical association president Anna Pack Conner read from a North Carolina historical article about the legend that said Shepherd was a witch.
The article called Shepherd “a real mean old woman” who wanted to “become a witch.” It says she threw a cat into the river and it floated upstream. Another tale said that Shepherd would take a broom and draw a circle and anyone who went into the circle would be surrounded by cats and prevented from leaving.
Legend has it Shepherd had a big black cat that went everywhere she went.
There are also tales of lights appearing and spooking horses on the road beside Shepherd’s ridge.
Despite all these tales, Pace said he believes Shepherd was not a witch, just a woman who suffered many tragedies. She lost her mother, aunt, father and later her husband and spent many years alone.
The book talks about Shepherd’s love of animals. She lived amongst goats, cats, sheep, ewes, a ram, cows, chickens and pigs.
“Witch Ann had only a few friends,” the book reads. “In fact, you could just about count them on the fingers of one hand. Although she had only a few people friends, she was very fond of her animals. But to explain the fact that she was living alone and about her lack of people friends one must begin by going back to the time when she was much younger and living with her father, P. D. Biddy, and her great aunt, Isa Biddy, over in Deep Gap, N.C.”
Ann lost her aunt Isa and lived with a mean stepmother until she met and fell in love with her neighbor, John Shepherd. They married in 1862, according to Pace’s book, and built a cabin on the ridge.
Shortly after the cabin was built, John Shepherd was called to fight in the Civil War.
Pace said John Shepherd took Ann Shepherd’s shirt button and wore it strung around his neck for good luck while at war. The book details John’s time in the war and Ann’s time spent learning about herbs and healing and helping others as a midwife.
Judy Comparetto, who attended the historical association meeting, complimented Pace on his accuracy in depicting the Civil War and the precise dialect throughout the book.
“The dialect was easy for me because that’s the way we talked,” Pace said.
Pace also discussed his thoughts on Witch Ann.
“I say she wasn’t a witch,” said Pace. “She was a lady.”
Pace said he thinks some of the men in the area made up stories about her. Conner said Ann could have been trying to protect herself because she was alone.
Pace grew up in Henderson County and he and his family of seven children were raised during the Depression. He served two years in the Army and later worked in textiles.
Explaining the cover of his book, Pace said he painted a watercolor of a lady with a candle 50 years ago, not knowing at the time she would eventually be “Witch Ann.”

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