Talk of the occult was part of a controversy that brewed this fall over whether Rathdrum schoolchildren should celebrate Halloween.
There may be particular sensitivity to the topic in the North Idaho town. Many of today’s parents grew up hearing about the Rathdrum witches.
It’s an urban legend with a rural twist, cited by local folklorists, printed in several books and magazines and repeated breathlessly by Inland Northwest teenagers.
Bonnie Roth started hearing the tale in the ‘70s when her kids were teens.
“I had daughters, and, man, they were terrified by it,” said the Rathdrum librarian. “They drove those highways at night. … “
The highways in question are Idaho 41 and U.S. 95, the two settings used in the various recountings of the same story. North Idaho College folklorist Jim McLeod summarized it this way:
“Late at night, a man or woman, depending on which version you hear, is driving along and a group of hooded people form a human chain across the highway. They try to stop the car. The driver slows down and is going to stop - and decides the better of it.
“In some instances, he actually hits somebody; in other cases, he breaks the chain and drives through.”
The story is recounted in a September 1976 Oui magazine article by Ed Sanders about cattle mutilations and other supposed occult events.
Sanders wrote that the North Idaho driver turned around. He didn’t name the driver, but said the incident occurred on Oct. 9, 1975.
“I think that’s a bogus date,” said McLeod, who noted that the story - true or not - was being repeated before 1975.
What’s certain is that Sanders’ version has been repeated in at least two books: Michael D. Albers’ “The Terror” in 1979, and “Mysteries of the Unexplained,” published by Readers Digest books in 1982.
The witches story has been used as an example of local lore in classes taught both by McLeod and Henry-York Steiner of Eastern Washington University.
Steiner said he started hearing the tale from EWU students back in 1968. Similar stories are heard about isolated roads around the country, he said.
“There’s another one near Cheney, where pretty much the same kind of occurrences have been observed by friends of friends: chains of people holding hands across the road, mysterious fires in the fields.
“Animal parts are a relatively new wrinkle.”
McLeod dates the Rathdrum story to the early 1970s.
The rumor, he believes, was fanned by both 1972 cattle mutilations on the Sylte Ranch and the 1973 disappearance of a young Rathdrum couple, Ronald and Rita Marcussen.
Her skull was found by hunters north of Coeur d’Alene in 1974. His skull was found, with bullets inside, a mile and a half away in 1995.
The man whom police believed to be the murderer died two months before the second skull was found. A drug deal, not demons, was the suspected motivation.
The notion of an occult connection flourished, McLeod said, partly because of residents whose religion caused them to fear devil worshipers.
“And there’s a lot of suspicion in this area about government,” he said. “There’s a sense you’ll get a better answer from your neighbor than you will from someone in authority.”
McLeod keeps a chronology of events of occult-related events, interviews and newspaper articles. It includes such entries as the 1975 confirmation by a former undersheriff of a “black cult” living near Rathdrum; the 1992 discovery of 30 mutilated turkeys near Post Falls; and even the 1969 Charles Manson murders in California.
Last year, an NIC student from Rathdrum told McLeod about a supposed prison interview with Manson. In it, the mass murderer said he wanted to move to Rathdrum “because it had the largest concentration of witches in the country.”
A germ of truth, a dollop of fear … such are the ingredients of tales such as the witches of Rathdrum.
“This is an area that has a lot of folklore, a lot of history. Sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference,” McLeod said.
“It’s a study in human nature.”
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