Strange Things Found in Old Houses

It turns out that this tradition of hiding ritual objects in houses is a much more common superstition than one might think — at least in northern Europe and the United Kingdom, and in countries like Canada and Australia, which were largely settled by colonists from that part of the world. No doubt other cultures had their own versions of the superstition…

Boots and shoes were common choices for protective objects, in the UK tradition, it seems; and I’ve learned that other bits of clothing are sometimes found in old houses as well.

My theory: It may have something to do with keeping close a very personal piece of gear that once belonged to a loved one who died — something about a loving spirit offering its protection to those left behind. And it makes sense to me, learning that many of these objects had clearly belonged to children, that the purity of an innocent young child would have been seen as having extra power to protect the family in the home where these objects were hidden away.

A Carpenter’s Tale

If you’ve been following us here at for a while, you may be aware that we’re always bashing away at This Old Farmhouse — and this summer was no exception. Tearing off the old back porch, we found the name of the man who built the house, a century ago, written on the back of a piece of moulding. That led to talk of things found in old houses, and our carpenter, Alvin, told us to look out for money.

Questioned about this, he told us that he’s found a great many objects hidden in the walls and ceilings of old houses where he’s worked on renovations. A shoe or two, for sure. And some strange hieroglyphics, marked onto old beams with chalk or charcoal. Bottles of various sorts. And a lot of old newspapers — but that’s a different thing, I think: old newspapers were often used as a feeble attempt at insulation between clapboards and plaster.

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But mostly what Alvin has found is coins — some of them quite rare and collectible, too! Almost every old house where he’s had to rip out old plaster walls has produced a coin or two, he says, tucked away on top of a cross-member or roof truss; one had been hidden on a projecting brick inside an old fireplace chimney. It pleased me, somehow, when Alvin told us that all but one of the homeowners asked him to put those coins back where they were — or at least as close as possible, given whatever changes had been made during renovations, to where they had been hidden away a century ago.

Clothing, footwear, money… all that’s well and good. But other traditional ritual objects are a bit less pleasant to contemplate.

Bottles of urine, for example — “witch bottles” as they are known.

And the corpses of cats.

“Lucky” the Irish Dried Cat

A couple weeks ago, Jules, in England, came across Dried Cats and Witch Bottles, my little write-up about the mysterious tradition of hiding protective objects in old houses:

I have only just found out about dried cats. Foolishly I brought the one that dropped out of the roof in my old cottage in Ireland back to England. Now I really think I should take it back – what on earth will Ryanair make of it?

How wonderful is that?

Naturally, I asked whether there was a photograph… and received this picture of “Lucky” within the day!

Sam and Lucky in Ireland

Imagine, if you will, the great delight it gave me to shout out to He Who Hogs The Power Tools, “Someone just emailed me a picture of a dead cat!”

Jules said that they all “ran screaming” from the house, when the mummified cat dropped out of the thatch, then went back in (“very slowly”) to see what it was that had descended so abruptly.

In the same house they also found two shoes — a small child’s dancing shoe, up in the roof space, and another that had been boarded in at the side of the fireplace. And in another house — a timber frame cottage in Kent, England — a large shell under one of the foundation timbers, under the stairs. It must have been placed there carefully, deliberately, or else it surely would have been crushed. (I like to think that it might have been a treasured souvenir of some sea-faring son, lost at sea; the shell kept in memory of him, and hidden in the house so his spirit could keep the family safe from harm.)

Jules checked in with Sam, the brave friend who appears on the other end of the pitchfork, and they’ve both given kind permission for me to publish this rare photograph here — because you know it’s just too interesting not to share with other social-history buffs!

As for “Lucky,” he is currently residing in Jules’ barn and awaiting his return trip to Ireland — where he rightfully belongs.

Old superstitions and domestic rituals don’t easily die out, even when the meaning of the ritual becomes obscured by the passage of time. I’m starting to suspect that there may be many more of these ritual objects hidden in old houses across Europe and “the colonies” than we, steeped in the 21st Century, might realize. And when we do find these strange objects, odds are that we fail to recognize them as having a special significance in cultural history. Perhaps you’ve found something peculiar, too, in the midst of an old-house renovation?

This Post Has 3 Comments

  1. Becca

    Here in Pensacola, there is a museum filled with bizarre curiosities collected by a long ago resident. One of these items is a mummified cat that was found in the building. I remember thinking about that cat when I first read your article. The folks at the museum don’t seem to know why the cat would be mummified. Perhaps I should clue them in!

  2. Squawkfox

    Lucky is a wonderful looking Irish Dried Cat. I would have expected him to be a little bit crispier though. Perhaps the English or Spanish dried cat equivalents would be a tad bit crunchier.

    Again, I am more of a dog person.

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