Feeling Lonesome This Halloween?: Nineteenth-Century Love Charms and Halloween Party Games

Feeling Lonesome This Halloween?: Nineteenth-Century Love Charms and Halloween Party Games

Are you a single woman or man staring down the barrel of another Halloween spent curled up in bed with too much cheap candy corn you’ve bought in bulk from Walgreens under the auspices of being prepared for the hordes of trick-or-treaters that were never going to descend on your home?

Or, are you perhaps happily single or happily partnered and looking for the perfect Halloween party game? One you’ve probably never heard of before and with a nice historical bent?

Even if the answer to both of those questions is no, I still want you to grab a piece of paper and a pen, and get ready to embrace the Halloween spirit. Tonight, Nursing Clio is taking you back to the 1890s, my favorite historical decade, to bring you some of the “charms and spells” guaranteed (if certain conditions are met) to be “cast with infallible certainty of result,” bringing true love into your life — at least according to an article published in the Chicago Daily Tribune on October 29, 1893.

In order to be most successful, for that “infallible certainty of result,” these spells need to be cast on Halloween evening. A little depressingly, the “darker and lonelier the chosen spot the more favorable the chances for clear and faithful augury.” And, as with any good incantation, ritual, charm, or spell, there are a range of necessary materials to make it all happen. No eye-of-newt is required, though you might still have to put together a brief shopping list.

What you need for the first spell:

  • A ball of yarn
  • A lime kiln or well. If neither is to be found, then (you haven’t tried hard enough, obviously) you can also use an open window.
  • Optional: knowledge of the Lord’s Prayer

There are a few choices here; a bit like a choose-your-own-adventure. Option one is pretty simple: you throw the yarn out the window, “wind the loose end until the yarn is held by invisible hands.” Then demand boldly, “I wind, who holds?”’ At this point “your future husband” is supposed to “pronounce his name.”

halloween coupleOnce you get past the weirdness of throwing yarn out into the world, waiting for it to snag something, and then holding out for delivery of a few ethereal syllables, I have no doubt you’ll be having a blast.

“Another method,” and what the article doesn’t tell you is that this second option is going to make the first look positively normal, “is to repeat the Lord’s Prayer backwards as you wind.” This is best done early in the evening; it seems unlikely anyone would be able to recite the “Our Father” backwards while untying a ball of yarn, especially after a glass or two of punch, but I digress. Continue winding, and “When the yarn is all pulled in the wraith of your-husband-to-be will follow it through the window.” Personally, I think that the idea of waiting for the “wraith of your-husband-to-be” to climb through any window is a little creepy, but, I suppose it would be an interesting story to tell the grandkids.

There’s also the “hempseed spell” if you don’t fancy wraiths or have a poor throwing arm. You’ll have to chant a few lines of verse, but otherwise it’s pretty straightforward. You “take a handful of hempseed and walk into the darkness, scattering the seed and repeating:

Hempseed, I sow thee,

Hempseed, I sow thee;

He who is to be my true love,

Come after me and mow me.”

Piece of cake, right? And the results are almost immediate: “After this invocation a peep over the shoulder is said to surely reveal the features of your intended.”

I’m fairly certain that this is meant to be a vision of sorts, but were someone to actually appear from out of the shadows and all but tap me on the shoulder in the pitch blackness of Halloween night, I might find the whole thing a little unsettling, even if they were, or are, the love of my life.

If you’re more of an active person, a runner in particular, the Chicago Tribune has you covered as well. All you need do is “Fill your mouth with salt and run around the block, when your true love will of a certainty show himself.” This one, it’s said, “is always a city favorite.”


While these spells have been geared towards women, men are certainly not without options of their own (though, to be honest, they do require a little more foresight as there are cornfields and cabbage patches needed.)

For those within reach of a farm (and I suggest clearing this with the farmer first), “hug a sheaf of wheat or shock of corn thrice, and the third time your sweetheart will be in your arms.” Don’t worry if, in your excitement, you get too carried away with the third bundle of wheat or corn for, “it is of no use to hold her, for ere you regain the house she will be transformed into an ordinary armful of grain again.”

Same old story: boy meets girl, boy hugs girl, girl turns back into a sheaf of wheat.

I did promise cabbages, too. If you can’t find a cornfield but have a cabbage patch handy you should head “into the garden and pull the first cabbage stalk you find. The dirt clinging to the roots signifies the dower, the shape shows the beauty, and the taste of the heart the temper of your coming wife.” If that’s not an excellent predictor of love, I really don’t know what is.

Whether your preference is for corn or cabbages, salt or hempseeds, if you are looking for love  over this cold Halloween night, perhaps you should give some consideration to these games of old, guaranteed as they are to deliver at least a sign of things to come. If I were to be honest, I’m not entirely convinced that there’s much magic in that yarn or the salt you’ve packed into your mouth, but it does seem possible that the magic is all in the context. How could you not have fun breaking the proverbial ice while hugging sheaves of wheat?

Some of these spells are entertaining, some of them have one foot firmly planted in the weird, but all of them, I think, could make a good addition to your Halloween celebrations tonight, tomorrow, or over the coming weekend!

Maybe you will find your true love. If so, you should definitely let us know!

But, if none of these options appeal at all, never fear, you can still celebrate in 1893 style by “eating nuts and fruit and drinking cider”! You’ll be channeling the same curious age, even if in a slightly more restrained manner.



Image Attribution: Cover image from Flickr Commons , “On Hallowe’en” (


The story itself and all relevant quotes in the article have been taken from a newspaper article from 1893: ‘On Halloween Night: Charms and Spells to Invoke One’s True Love,’ Chicago Daily Tribune, 29 October 1893, p. 36. All emphasis is mine.

Sean Cosgrove's research areas lie at the intersection of histories of medicine, science and technology, gender, and popular culture primarily in the late nineteenth century, united by an interest in the experiences of, and ideas surrounding, the human body. He is also committed to public engagement and actively interested in fostering greater inclusivity in higher education. He has previously conducted research focusing on patients, hermaphroditism, and sexual violence and criminality in the nineteenth century, but has also worked on projects outside of academia.

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