These Stairs Were Built In Old Homes to ‘Confuse or Trap Witches’?

Claim:

Alternate-tread staircases were originally constructed in old homes to “confuse or trap witches.”

According to social media posts across TikTok, InstagramFacebook and Reddit, some houses were built with a special kind of staircase to supposedly confuse “witches.”

For instance, on June 30, 2024, a popular X post allegedly showed the “witches’ stairs,” which, according to the post, were built in some “very old” New England homes under the alleged belief that their staggered design would “confuse or trap witches.” At the time of this writing, the post had received around 5,800 reposts and 48,000 likes. 

(X user @historyinmemes)

The claim has circulated online multiple times since March 2021, when it first appeared in viral Facebook and Reddit posts, and persisted in historical folklore for decades (possibly centuries).

The assertion is false, however. While it’s true that some historic houses in New England (and surrounding states) do contain this style of staircase, the design was not intended to ward off “witches” from certain levels of the home. In reality, home designers sometimes include the alternate-tread staircases as alternatives to ladders in confined spaces where full staircases would take up too much space.

Their purpose is simply to save space, Devin Colman, the state architectural historian for the Vermont Division for Historic Preservation, told Snopes in an email.

So, while alternate-tread staircases were not originally built to protect against “witches,” some people have long subscribed to the false backstory.

For example, built in 1825, the Deacon John Holbrook House in Brattleboro, Vermont, has the type of staircase. And, according to a form submitted to the National Register of Historic Places in 1980, surviving members of the family that lived in the house for much of the 20th century believed the stairs were built “for when witches gained access to the attic”:

The surviving members of the Boyden family, who until recently lived in the house, claim that the stairs were always known as “Witches Stairs” for when witches gained access to the attic, it was impossible for them to come down such steep steps into the main part of the house.

Although the family’s alleged explanation for the stairs’ unusual appearance was not correct due to the reasons outlined above, it serves as evidence of the long-held superstition.

The historic Knox’s Headquarters State Historic Site in Vails Gate, New York, also has this type of staircase. People have been calling that particular structure “the witches’ stairway” since at least 1912, when an article about the house appeared in St. Nicholas Magazine, a popular children’s publication in the 19th and 20th centuries. The article’s author, Everett McNeil, speculated the name “witches’ stairway” came about “because the stairs go almost straight up, and yet one can walk up them quite easily without the aid of hands.” 

In sum, the term “witches stairs” gained prominence in the 20th century. And, despite some people’s superstitious beliefs around witchcraft, there’s no evidence of home builders constructing them to “confuse or trap witches.” Rather, the alternate-tread stairs are a space-saving design. As a result, we have rated the claim as “False.”

When social media posts alleging the tale about “witches” first went viral in March 2021, the fact-checking websites TruthorFiction and Reuters looked into the claim and likewise declared it false.

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