The "Real" Witch Diggers
A Campbell Township Tragedy
By Sheila Kell
The lives of these people were the basis for the book "The Witch Diggers" written by Jessamyn West and published in 1951.
Jessamyn West's maternal great grandparents James & Lida McManahan managed the Poor Farm when Susan & Samuel were there.
Sometime between 1833 and 1839 a family emigrated from Switzerland to Darke County, Ohio. They were John and
Magdalena Bishlen, their son John and daughter Susan. They lived on a small farm there and had three more children, boys, named Samuel,
Stephen and Nicholas. All of the boys except Samuel, who was disabled, fought for the Union during the Civil War. John and Stephen were
both killed in the war, Stephen died in the Battle of Stone's River in Tennessee. John died coming home after being a prisoner of war when
the ship he was on, called the Sultana, exploded and sank in the Mississippi River. The parents John and Magdalena died in the early 1880's.
Nicholas then sold the family farm in Ohio and brought his brother Samuel and sister Susan to live just a few miles southwest of Butlerville
on a farm he purchased there.
The land he purchased was rocky and difficult to farm; the livestock they had did not thrive, and seemed to die off
at a rapid rate. Although Nicholas was said to be a handsome man who was strong and worked hard they could not seem to make the farm work.
One evening Samuel was alone at the house and said he saw witches flying under the stone foundation and back out again. He was extremely
afraid so Nicholas tore away most of the foundation and the house was left standing only on 4 stone pillars. Then more of their livestock
died and the witches were blamed for their deaths, they said after an animal would die the witches would fly away, going down into what was
called in the neighborhood "Rocky Ravine." The family decided they needed to dig up the witches and kill them so they could survive on their
little farm. They began constantly digging, each large rock they dug up they believed hid at witch, so Nicholas & Samuel would dig up a rock,
break it and move it to the edge of the hole they were working in, down at the bottom of Rocky Ravine. They did not try to tend their crops
or care for the farm; they were consumed with killing the witches. During this time Nicholas was trying to get a pension for his service in Civil War.
All of the boys in the family had joined the 65th Ohio, Infantry.
In June of 1885 someone in Cincinnati, Ohio, heard of their strange quest and a reporter from the Cincinnati Enquirer
was sent to Jennings County, he wrote a large story in the paper about the family. Because they lived far back in the country many in Jennings
County did not know about what was going on. Once the story was out in the paper local people and some from Ohio came to see what was happening.
Large crowds would stand and watch the Bichlen's dig for witches. In one instance when they had dug up a large rock, they gave it a chance to get
Nicholas's pension approved, before they broke it up (killed it). Local authorities tried to reason with them but they did not want to stop the
digging and killing of witches. Finally a trial was held and Nicholas was declared insane. He was sent to the insane asylum in Indianapolis and
because Samuel and Susan could not care for themselves they ended up in the Jennings County Poor Farm. Susan died in 1895 and Samuel in 1900
it is speculated both are buried in unmarked graves in the graveyard at the Poor Farm. At least once, in 1892 Nicholas came back to Jennings
County and was seen down in Rocky Ravine, trying to destroy the witches that had ruined their lives. After the deaths of Susan and Samuel, Nicholas
was never seen again nor do we know where he died or is buried.
Information for the above is taken from Census records, military records, Jennings County court records, and newspaper
accounts in Cincinnati and Jennings County, also the records of the Jennings County Poor Farm. This family surname has more spelling variations than
any I have ever worked on. Bislean, Bishleau, Bishler, Bishlan, Bishlen etc.
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