The story below is an excerpt from our Jan./Feb. 2015 issue. For the rest of this story and more like it subscribe today, view our digital edition or download our FREE iOS app!
Photo courtesy the Douglas Bast Collection.
A group of unidentified Zittles clusters around the family home in this undated photo.
You’re a poor farmer living on the shoulder of South Mountain and your baby is slowly dying. It’s called the “go-backs” in 1800s Maryland, and it involves watching helplessly as your child wastes away before your eyes.
As your baby’s cries weaken, you know what you have to do: you send for the Wizard.
On Maryland’s South Mountain, superstition ran as deep, and sometimes as dark as the forests of the mountain. A monstrous phantom dog was said to accost travelers. The appearance of an apparition known as “the white woman” portended death or other disaster.
Michael Zittle Jr. was one of 10 children of German immigrants who settled on the mountain in the 1790s, and he became known as a healer, a conjurer and a sorcerer. He was called Wizard Zittle, and, like any good wizard, he carried his very own magical spellbook.
Stakes were high and options few for the poor, uneducated mountain folk when it came to illness and adversity. But there was one person they could count on. Have an unfortunate accident chopping wood? Zittle would utter the magic words and the bleeding stopped. Scurvy got you down? Zittle had that covered too.
It’s tempting to write off Zittle’s abilities as power-of-suggestion, but keep in mind: The spell he had most success with was the one he performed on those infants with the “go-backs.” And his reputation was far-ranging: Folks from all over came to see the Wizard.
Madeleine Dahlgren, author and professional society widow, had a summer retreat on South Mountain. Judgmental about the locals’ belief in magic, she remarked: “The High Priest of all this evil practice…was the old man Michael Zittle.”
Dahlgren may have considered Zittle’s sorcery profane, but wizardry was his calling, and he was a wizard of strong convictions. Sadly, one would be his downfall. Zittle believed that accepting payment for his sorcery would bring bad luck. But he was also a mortal man, with a humble cabin, a wife and children. And so he labored as a shingle-maker. Still, those in need demanded his time. And that may be why the wizard resorted to using his spellbook to help himself.
Zittle’s conjuring book was written in German and was aggressively cryptic. A preface laid it on thick, claiming the spells were based on “the secret tricks found in an ancient Spanish manuscript which was discovered by an old hermit over a hundred years ago, hidden among the mysteries of the Holy Land.”
In 1845, the fiscally challenged wizard did something desperate: He had his notorious spellbook translated into English and sold “hundreds of copies.”
But this breach of wizard’s code failed – Zittle remained impoverished. Demoralized, he began to charge for his services. Dahlgren, writing in 1882, reported “being old and very poor, he was persuaded to ask a fee, and when he did so, he had ‘bad luck.’” The 1870 census listed the wizard’s age as 71, his occupation as “day laborer,” and his property value below that of any of his neighbors.
The not-so-charmed life of Wizard Zittle ended in poverty and regret in 1877. Dahlgren wrote: “It is said that he expired in great agony of soul.”
Today, the wizard’s legacy still echoes on South Mountain, where superstition became tradition.
And what of the mysterious spellbooks? Zittle’s original and the copies were nothing more than legend.
But the strange saga of Wizard Zittle wasn’t over.
Not long ago one of Zittle’s translated copies turned up in a local attic. Then, as if by magic, the original spellbook reappeared, although its location all those years remains a murky mystery. Today, both spellbooks can be viewed at the Boonsboro Museum of History.
And in Boonsboro, in a ramshackle cluster of Zittle family tombstones, the Wizard of South Mountain lies buried. No headstone marks his grave.