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The new witches

‘Witchcraft Revived!’ was a periodic cry in the press. The stories were not always concerned with witchcraft per se, but the actions of mesmerists and spiritualists. During the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries two major cultural movements led to a new re-evaluation of the spiritual realm.84 One was religious—the Second Great Awakening, which encompassed the revivalist movements led by the Methodists and Baptists and the spawning of a range of new American evangelical and metaphysical churches and prophets. At its heart was the appeal to the emotions, a reconnection with the spiritual through divine inspiration, and the expectation of the second coming of Christ. Communication with angels and the spirits of the dead were central to the faith and worship of groups like the Shakers. For some this Great Awakening was a glorious era of divine revelation, a period of divine blessings, confirmation that America was, indeed, the new Jerusalem ready to receive the imminent return of Christ. For others it was an embarrassing outbreak of old superstitions, religious frauds, and credulity, unsettling the rational foundations of the new Republic. Back in England, Methodist preaching was accused of inflaming popular ‘superstition’ and increasing belief in witchcraft. In America movements such as the Shakers and the Mormons faced both these accusations and that they were practising witchcraft. The Shakers claimed they were possessed by the spirit of God, but some critics suggested they were letting in demons.85

The other movement was scientific—the development of the theory of animal magnetism or mesmerism. This was the idea established by the Viennese doctor Franz Anton Mesmer (1734—1815) that an invisible magnetic fluid existed inside the human body that could be channelled to influence other bodies. Mesmer and his followers sought to control the direction of this ‘animal magnetism’ for medical purposes, healing the sick by unblocking the channels of flow in patients either through sheer will power or physical contact. It was not until the 1830s that mesmerism became a major cultural force in America, and its enthusiastic adoption was closely linked with the growth of evangelical religion. The seemingly revolutionary science of invisible natural forces opened up new explanations for the fascinating gaze of the rattle snake, the modus operandi of spiritual communication, and the malign influence of the evil eye. ‘With such a lamp to our feet’, the Boston spiritualist Allen Putnam told his readers in 1858, ‘let us go back to the dark day of the most terrific scenes in New England’s history’. He was talking about Salem of course, and in light of mesmerism the old trial records now made clear sense; all the supposed acts of witchcraft could be explained away as the ‘legitimate operations of natural laws’.86 Salem needed to be re-evaluated. Those who made the accusations and pursued the prosecutions were not credulous fools, they just did not understand the secret natural forces at play. ‘Salem witchcraft can scarcely be mentioned without a pitying smile at what we think the absurd folly of our ancestors; and yet there was a truth in Salem witchcraft’, wrote another advocate.87

The early mesmeric followers considered themselves Enlightenment figures, scientifically undermining popular credulity with regard to witchcraft, relocating witches from the supernatural realm to the natural world. But to others, mesmerism seemed to be just another recrudescence of the discredited belief of a world governed by spirits.88 One such critic, David Christy, an Ohio journalist and geologist of an evangelical persuasion, looked to the common people around him rather than the past to seek analogies. Christy was both an apologist for slavery, and an active proponent of the repatriation of African Americans. In various publications published during the mid-nineteenth century he decried the ‘superstitious credulity’ of witchcraft and gris-gris, and what he termed the ‘devil worship’ of the Africans. He considered it providential that, ‘the barbarian was brought to the Christian, instead of awaiting the tardier and more dangerous plan of the Christian going to the barbarian’.89 In his vision, the emancipated slaves of Ohio would bring Christian civilization back to their African brothers.

In The Life and Times of Old Billy McConnell, Christy’s attack on witchcraft and modem ‘superstition’ is far more subtle, satirical, and sarcastic than his crude opinions regarding African beliefs. Set in the area of Cross Creek Township, Ohio, and apparently based on a real character, through the story of the Irish immigrant witch doctor Billy and his battle against witchcraft, Christy sought to demolish the foundations of mesmerism and clairvoyance by equating them with popular witchcraft beliefs. Billy’s powers are presented as being mesmerism before it was ‘discovered’ by the ‘imaginative sciences’. Christy explained how olden times’ witches usually bewitched the poorer sort amongst the farmers’ cattle rather than the well-fed milk cow or labouring ox, because, as experimentation had revealed, animals of nervous temperament were more susceptible to mesmeric impressions. Witches, concluded Christy in mock seriousness, ‘were the original mesmerizers, and modem mesmerists are but their pupils and imitators, with this difference. The former operated principally upon quadrupeds—the latter act upon bipeds’. Old Billy’s many reported successes at defeating the power of witchcraft was proof, then, that he was a ‘profound philosopher... far in advance of our most learned professors of the Imaginative Sciences’. As to his methods, Christy reported that he employed his innate understanding of ‘sympathetic currents’. To cure a bewitched ox, for instance, He would take a red-hot horseshoe, mumble a Latin charm over it, with ‘philosopher-like expressions of countenance’, and place it on the animal’s neck. This had the effect of reversing the mesmeric sympathetic current so that it reverted to the witch who would feel the burning sensation in her own neck.

Christy next drew upon the recent discovery of ‘psychometry’, a term coined in 1842 by the Kentucky physician and mesmerist Joseph Rodes Buchanan, to explain how Billy’s charms operated so successfully. Psychometry posited that certain gifted individuals with mesmeric sensitivities could unlock the secret properties of objects, or divine the moral or emotional state of their owners, by holding the object. A psychometer could, for instance, detect the character of a murderer by touching the murder weapon. The English-born Boston geology lecturer, William Denton, enthused about its scientific potential for unlocking the origin of species. By handling a fossil, he believed, the psychometer, could get the measure not only of the original forms of the extinct species but also the prehistoric environment in which they lived, ‘filling up the great hiatus’ in knowledge of geological time.90 There were also immense medical benefits. By touching someone’s skull at points of phrenological significance, for instance, the skilled psychometer could diagnose mental problems and modify a person’s character. Buchanan claimed he had even cured those sceptical of mesmerism by placing his hands on the affected parts of their bodies. He described the process of imbuing others and objects in this way as ‘sympathetic impressibility’. ‘But a short time since in the history of our race’, observed Buchanan, the possession of such a gift ‘would have entitled them to hanging or drowning as practitioners of witchcraft; and which even now entitles them to be considered eccentric enthusiasts’.91 It was through sympathetic impressibility that Billy was able to impress his fine moral characteristics upon the material substance of his charms, which repelled the antagonistic, malign influence that the witches had cast upon man and beast.

Subtle and clever, Christy’s dual attack on popular witchcraft beliefs and mesmerism, undermining one by associations with the other, received several positive reviews in the medical press. For the medical profession its lively sarcasm made it not only an instructive but an enjoyable journey into the perceived vanities of the pseudo-sciences and the ‘absurdities’ of popular beliefs. ‘We think its circulation will have a decided tendency to “stop that knocking”, concluded one reviewer.92 It had no impact at all, of course, and a few decades later it was described as impossible to find because most of the copies had been bought up and destroyed by the descendents of those mentioned in the book.93

Andrew Jackson Davis, an influential product of the enthusiasm for mesmerism and evangelism, was instrumental in starting the ‘knocking’ that Christy desired to silence. A youthful follower of the millenarian Baptist prophet William Miller (1782—1849), who proclaimed the second coming of Christ on or before 1843, Davis became a mesmeric healer and a leading figure in Universalism—the religious movement that preached the final salvation of all people. Davis believed he could communicate with the world of spirits during mesmeric or somnambulistic trances, but as his recollections show he was no believer in witchcraft. Mesmeric influence ‘annihilates this miserable superstition’, he wrote with regard to the idea that witches had influence over others thanks to demonic powers.94 Yet, the spiritualist movement that he helped found attracted numerous accusations of witchcraft.

Spiritualism was bom in March 1848 when two teenage daughters of a blacksmith and farmer named John Fox, of Hydesville, New York, claimed they had communicated with the spirit of a murdered peddler. The girls, Kate and Maggie, had heard strange knocks and raps around the house, manifestations of what the Germans called a poltergeist or ‘noisy ghost’. Such noisy haunting had been recorded since antiquity, and they were reported in colonial America.95 Prior to 1848, such phenomena were commonly blamed on witches along with a broader range of possession symptoms. In 1835 hundreds flocked to see a girl in Muskingum County, Ohio, who was afflicted with ‘mewing, barking, braying, biting, kicking, jumping, scratching, smelling’. An old lady in the neighbourhood was accused of witchcraft as a consequence. It was popularly thought that witches invisibly tormented people by breaking things and plaguing them with strange sounds, as an 1832 Baltimore court case demonstrates. It concerned a charge of assault by a young woman on a suspected witch who, she believed, was responsible for making crockery fall from her hands and smash on the floor, and who tormented her with a sound like marbles rattling in a tea pot outside her bedroom door at night.96

More to the point, in 1831 newspapers reported a case in Albany where a sixteen- or seventeen-year-old girl, daughter of a widow, had been afflicted with fits and repeatedly heard knocks upon the headboard of her bed. They were loud enough to be heard in adjoining houses with the window open, and occurred day and night. There were those who claimed they had caught the girl making the noises, but many considered her bewitched. She was taken to relatives in a village a few miles from Albany, where admittance to her room was refused to those who did not believe in witchcraft, and a ‘witch doctor’ was called in to cure her. She returned to Albany in restored health, but once back in town the rappings began again, even when she slept in a hammock. Public interest was aroused once more, and the house attracted many visitors, some suggesting how the offending witch should be countered. The newspapers recalled a similar case in Manhattan in 1805, again centred on a teenage girl, as most such cases were, and in Hackensack, New Jersey, around the same time.97

Spiritualism reinterpreted these supernatural knockings as the language of the dead. It was not the first time that this had been claimed, though. The famous Cock Lane ghost fraud of 1762 was based on the same premise. But in the religious and mesmeric climate of 1840s America, there was a large receptive audience for the profundity of its significance—for it confirmed the existence of the afterlife and the nature of the celestial realm. While evangelical religions such as the Shakers believed they received divine communications, spiritualism offered a proper spiritual telegraph: the mediums were not one-way receivers but could go knocking on Heaven’s door. Spiritualism, furthermore, offered better scope for generating scientific proof of the existence of the spirit world. But just as in the days of the witch trials, the attempt to communicate with spirits for benign purposes was interpreted by some as necromancy and witchery. The rappings and knockings were the work of demons fooling people into sinful practices and assumptions.

In the 1860s the New England Methodist Episcopal pastor and religious magazine editor William McDonald, a well-known New England evangelical, was appointed by the Providence District Ministers’ Association to investigate the spiritualist movement. In the resulting essay endorsed by the Association and another association of clergyman at Bridgewater, Massachusetts, McDonald was ‘frank to confess that we believe Spiritualism to be, in part at least, the work of demons’. He identified the same diabolically phenomena in the Bible and the European and American witch trials. This was no historic coincidence. ‘Stripped of all the foolish notions peculiar to that age’, he wrote regarding Salem, ‘New England witchcraft stands before us the younger brother of ancient demonology, and the elder brother of modem Spiritualism’.98 Spiritualism was problematic for the clergy. While the sceptical wing dismissed it as another ‘popular delusion’ akin to the Salem episode, there was a middle path of neither dismissing nor embracing its basis. The Church Review expressed this position in reviewing McDonald’s book: ‘we have always supposed that the nastiness of the system was, of itself, a sufficient reason for giving the whole thing a wide berth, without asking whether the Devil was the instigator of it’.99

Profoundly influenced by both mesmerism and spiritualism in her early adult life, the founder of Christian Science, Mary Baker Eddy (1821—1910), later exerted considerable energy in distancing herself from both movements. Like other faith healers at the time, however, she straggled to disassociate her practice from public notions of mesmeric healing.100 She denounced mesmerism as the re-emergence of the old errors of witchcraft and necromancy. They were self-deceiving projections of human thought, not the channelling of spiritual essences. The practice of mesmerism, like witchcraft, was essentially a malignant application of psychology, a ‘mind crime’.101 The bulk of Eddy’s theology is not relevant to this study, but aspects of Christian Science healing practice, such as the power of the healer to operate at a distance through the capabilities or ‘science’ of the Christian mind, were equally dismissed as superstitious witchcraft by some. In rejecting mesmerism Eddy defined it as a source of spiritual harm that came to be known as ‘malicious animal magnetism’ or ‘MAM’. This was the malign use of willpower, the projection of harmful thoughts to cause physical damage. The Victorian paranormal investigator Frank Podmore dubbed it the ‘New Witchcraft’ in his study of faith healing, and the early twentieth-century psychologist Joseph Jastrow saw it as ‘a modem variety of witchcraft... its central doctrine, reflects the hold of a worldwide superstition natural to primitive religions, with interesting survivals among less enlightened communities of modem times’.102 MAM become something of a preoccupation amongst early members of the movement. Early editions of Eddy’s founding text Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures, first published in 1875, included a discussion of the matter entitled ‘Animal Magnetism Unmasked’, and accounts of its influence appeared regularly in the Christian Science Journal, frequently described as manifesting itself in the form of having unwanted bad thoughts about Eddy. Such MAM symptoms were relieved through the healing of fellow Christian Scientists.

Malign animal magnetism became a matter of public debate thanks to what was described in the press as the ‘Ipswich witchcraft case’. It centred on one of Eddy’s earliest disciples ‘Dr’ Daniel Spofford, who she subsequently accused of‘immorality’, which in Eddy’s language simply meant disloyalty to Christian Science. In 1870 Spofford and his wife had entered into an agreement with Eddy that she would teach them the healing art for the sum of $100 cash and 10 per cent of the commercial income from their future Christian Science healing practice. The Spoffords fell out with Eddy over other matters and declined to pay the tithe. So in 1878 Eddy launched a lawsuit against them. It was one of several legal actions that the litigious Eddy instigated against former followers at the time.

Things got worse for Spofford when, as this case was pending, Lucretia Brown, a forty-eight-year-old spinster who lived with her mother and sister in one of the oldest houses in Ipswich, lodged a suit against Spofford that was heard in the Supreme Judicial Court at Salem, Massachusetts, in May 1878. The bill of complaint stated:

That the said Daniel H. Spofford of Newburyport is a mesmerist, and practices the art of mesmerism, and that by his power and influence he is capable of injuring the persons and property and social relations of others, and does by said means so injure them. That the said Daniel H. Spofford has at divers times and places since the year 1875 wrongfully, maliciously and with the intent to injure the plaintiff, caused the plaintiff by means of his said power and art great suffering of body, severe spinal pains and neuralgia, and temporary suspension of mind.

The charge reads remarkably like the indictments for witchcraft two centuries earlier, and the trial’s location further underscored the association in the minds of commentators.

Lucretia had suffered a spinal injury as a child, but while an invalid she was able to run a crocheting agency, employing local women working for pin money. An erstwhile Congregationalist, she was converted to Christian Science in 1876 after successful treatment by a female Christian Science healer from the town of Lynn named Dr Dorcas Rawson, herself a former Methodist. Lucretia was rejuvenated and was able to walk for miles for the first time since childhood, but she had a relapse following several visits by Spofford. She consulted Dorcas again who diagnosed that Spofford had been using mesmerism against her. And so Lucretia decided to take legal action, with some subsequently suggesting that Eddy put her up to it. The case was dismissed.103

When, in 1882, the cause of the death of her husband Asa Gilbert Eddy was attributed to heart disease, Mary thought otherwise. She told a Boston Post reporter that she feared that he had been poisoned by arsenic delivered at a distance through malicious mesmerism. Over the next few years she became constantly alert to her enemies using MAM against her, blaming her illnesses on its malign influence.104 The notion of MAM came to overshadow the movement, sowing discord and suspicion amongst her followers, and attracting mockery and scorn from critics. One of Eddy’s close advisors convinced her to remove much of her discussions of demonology and MAM from future editions of Science and Health, and in 1890 Eddy herself wrote in the Journal that the discussion of MAM had ‘better be dropped’.105 The issue seems to have been successfully parked for a few years, but the suspicions festered. When, in 1907, Judge Robert N. Chamberlin was slated to preside over a suit concerning the Trustees of Eddy’s property, he was taken ill before the proceedings were due to begin. The New York Times reported that members of the Christian Science church gathered at the courthouse to use their concentrated mind power to counter the MAM inflicted upon the judge by those wishing to work against Eddy and her true followers.106 Accusations resurfaced in spectacular fashion two years later during another big bust up amongst Christian Scientists when Mrs Maude Kissam Babcock accused another Christian Scientist, Mrs Augusta Stetson, of‘mental assassination’.

Stetson, a former confidant of Eddy, was the leader of the First Church of Christ Scientist in New York, a branch of the Christian Science ‘Mother Church’ in Boston. There were concerns that Stetson was getting too powerful, and rumours began to swirl that she used MAM to increase her power base and destroy her enemies. Stetson, in turn, organized her followers to make ‘mental defenses’ against the MAM she believed was directed at her from the Boston Mother Church. Giving evidence before the directors of the Mother Church, Babcock, a former student of Stetson, explained how, ‘at midnight I was awakened by an icy blast sweeping through the open window from the direction of New York. My teeth chattered. My heart fluttered. Luminous waves rolled toward me covered with the faces of the dead. It seemed, indeed, that my soul went out from my body. And in this hour of agony I saw Mrs Stetson’s blue eyes all around the room’. As we have seen, similar experiences had long been blamed on witchcraft. Babcock and others also lodged complaints that Stetson, through her ‘death thoughts’, had caused several members to commit suicide or go insane.107 Stetson was subsequently excommunicated from the Church.

While the mesmerist and spiritualist establishment were ever conscious of distancing themselves from the world of witchcraft and popular supernatural beliefs, the myriad huckstering mesmerists, magnetizers, hypnotists, and mediums who plied their science from town to town across America were clearly not always conscientious about explaining the humanitarian purpose of their powers. The magnetic forces they claimed for themselves were readily understood in terms of traditional conceptions of magic, and although the Christian Science concept of MAM had limited social reach, it is no surprise that mesmeric powers accrued an ambiguous reputation in popular cultures.

In the 1870s a Mississippi African American, who clearly suffered from some form of mental illness but was otherwise clear-minded and intelligent, worked for a time for a doctor named Mansfield, and witnessed him experiment with mesmerism. Shortly after, he began to experience hallucinations and strange sensations. The man thought hoodoo and voodoo was all nonsense, but that mesmerism was a real power which he defined in terms of witchcraft. He told a psychiatrist that the first evidence he had of the malign mesmeric influence upon him was when ‘he could not think his own thoughts’, and then crazy ideas would enter his head that he could not stop thinking about. At one point he attempted to contact President Cleveland to request that his mesmeric persecutor, Mansfield, be prosecuted under the common law against conspiracy.108 Accusations of witchcraft through mesmerism also emerged from a violent attack on a religious cult that tried to establish itself near the hamlet of Pemberwick, Greenwich, Connecticut, in 1907. The followers of the Apostolic Faith were led by a man claiming to be a Portuguese missionary named Brother Adolph De Rosa, but who also went by the more prosaic name of Henry Spilkins, and his sidekick ‘Sister’ Lucy M. Leatherman. The cult had set up their tents in Pemberwick and gone about evangelizing in the locality, advocating hypnotism and the casting out of devils. One night a lynch mob headed by Marie Birdsall, the twenty-two-year-old daughter of German immigrants and the wife of house painter Walter Birdsall, set out to destroy the camp. She accused Spilkins of using black arts and mesmerism on her husband and young local girls who had come under his influence. A turpentine petrol bomb was thrown into the main tent of the camp causing a blaze. No-one died, fortunately.109

No case reveals better the confrontation between ‘mental science’ and popular magic than the trial in 1901 of Mrs Helen Roth of 1911 Cortez Street, Chicago. She appeared before Justice James Dooley to defend charges of assault and witchcraft brought by Mrs Mary Donovan of 1929 Cortez Street. It transpired that Roth practised healing through hypnotism, but some of her neighbours on whom she tried her benign practice subsequently believed it was the witch’s art. Mrs M. Anderson, a grocer’s wife, testified that Roth tried to cure her sore throat.

‘She looked into my eyes and made peculiar signs’, she said, ‘but she failed to put me to sleep’. Roth broke down in tears in the court room and explained her predicament:

I am not a crazy woman. Neither am I insane nor a witch, as these women would have the court believe. I was bom in Germany and my father was a colonel in the German army. I was nurse in several hospitals in Holland for years, and a successful one. I am familiar with hypnotism and know how to use it. It is the mysteries of this science which puzzle my neighbours and make them believe I am a witch. In their ignorance they misconstrued my efforts to benefit them and have brought disgrace upon myself and family.110

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