Common section

Reporting witchcraft

The few contemporary historians who have looked beyond Salem have relied heavily on the raft of antiquarian county and town histories that appeared from the 1840s onwards.31 By the mid-nineteenth century some thirty local groups and societies had formed, albeit sometimes fleetingly, to record the history of America’s communities.32 The antiquarian purpose in writing these histories was not only to provide an archive, but to foster local pride. To record one’s history was a mark of social progress, the stamp of civilization for a community. Celebrating the founding of the Antiquarian Historical Society of Illinois in 1827, a leading Mississippi Valley literary figure hoped the work of the Society would ‘remove the film from the eyes of those of our Atlantic readers, who still think, that there is neither taste, oratory, nor fine writing in the backwoods country’. Unfortunately it ceased to exist two years later.33

Some local historians ignored the topic of witchcraft altogether as unbefitting, but others included legends of witches to provide a bit of local colour. While there was sometimes a brief recognition that, in the words of the historian of Norton, Massachusetts, there were ‘some yet living who hug these ideas to their bosoms’, nearly all the legends printed conveniently concerned people and events some forty to a hundred years before. They helped demonstrated how far the community had come. ‘The silly doctrine of witchcraft has fled the Schoharie valley, never more to enter it’, reported the historian of Schoharie County, New York State, in 1845, after relating a couple of stories of witchcraft from ‘many years ago’. The Rev. A.P. Marvin, author of the History of the Town of Winchendon, Worcester County, Massachusetts, expressed his satisfaction in 1868 that his section on superstition and witchcraft was ‘very meagre’. While noting that there were still those who believed in witches, ‘the town traditions are not rich in cases of witchcraft’. Likewise the chronicler of the town of Union, Maine, reported in 1851 that the community was ‘now too enlightened’ for the absurdity of witchcraft, and that, anyway, superstition ‘never gained much credence among the adults in this town’.34 Still, the authors were clearly picking up stories from oral testimony. As the constitution of the Antiquarian Historical Society of Illinois recognized, ‘many important facts respecting its settlement by the present race of inhabitants are preserved only in tradition’. As such they contain useful accounts of beliefs and counter-witchcraft practices, and provide a flavour of the cultural importance of witches, transformed into legendary figures, in what is otherwise a relative blank period in the annals of American witchcraft.

A few perspicacious nineteenth-century observers saw beyond the smeared lens of local pride and stepped above the condescension of racial prejudice to recognize the pervasive belief in witchcraft. One was James Monroe Buckley (1836—1920), a Methodist minister, editor of the Methodist periodical The Christian Advocate, travel writer, and self-educated psychologist of religion. On his numerous pedestrian tours across different parts of the States he had many times stayed with farmers, trappers, fishermen, and labourers, and heard tales of witches and their exploits. But his personal experience was supported by his perusal of the American press. In the late 1880s he made note of more than fifty lawsuits that had been instituted in recent years by persons making accusations of witchcraft. Writing in 1892 he concluded that Witchcraft is at the present time believed in by a majority of the citizens of the United States’. There was some relief for American sensibilities, as, with the exception of the hotbeds of Pennsylvania and the South, he thought that witchcraft beliefs were even stronger in Canada.35

In 1800 there were over 200 newspapers, by 1833 there were at least 1,200 titles, 3,000 by i860, and over 7,000 by 1880. Many of these were short-lived, or of a political or religious nature and little concerned with local news and events.36 Urbanization, cheaper production methods, growing literacy, and an expanding population enabled the growth of daily newspapers from mid-century. Their proliferation, the insatiable desire for news to fill their pages, and the growing role of local newspapers as semi-official records of local events and crime, led to greater interest in everyday witchcraft disputes. Instances of the abuse, assault, and murder of suspected witches sometimes ended up in local courts and were occasionally heard at state level. In many such cases, though, only the journalistic reports of the trials survive. Furthermore, the nature of record keeping at the time meant that the legal archives—the few that survive—rarely report the dialogues that took place during a trial. It was in the drama of the courtroom that the motives behind accusations were often laid bare in detail. It is the newspapers that provide us with such accounts.

In 1847 the New-Bedford Mercury printed a brief thought-piece inspired by the continued belief of witchcraft in Yorkshire, England, as reported in English newspapers. The American journalist observed that he had ‘supposed the United States to be too intelligent for such things’.37 But he was forced to change his mind after reading about a case of witchcraft from Maine in one of the state’s papers, the Northern Tribune. The journalist came to realize that, in this enlightened day, and even in this State, there are many persons who as firmly believe in the existence of witches, as they do in the truth of the Christian religion — men, too, of good common sense in every other respect. We know of neighborhoods where he good women cannot meet with trouble in ‘making the butter come,’ but some poor, withered old woman has to bear the blame... A gate cannot be tom off its hinges, or the cattle get loose in the stable, but the witches have a hand in the matter.38

As this suggests, the accumulating weight of press reports regarding witchcraft from the mid-nineteenth century onwards generated a growing realization that the antiquarians had got it wrong. Witchcraft was an ongoing problem and not a matter of legend.

From around the 1870s onwards newspapers, instead of just repeating hearsay, second-hand accounts, or regurgitated titbits from other newspapers, began to quiz the strange news that came their way. In 1899, for example, the Minnesota newspaper the Winona Daily Republican reprinted a story from the Trempealeau Gazette concerning a court case arising from witchcraft in a German community near Richmond. ‘With a view to getting at the facts’, the Republican newspaper wrote to Justice C.F. Dykeman, who presided over the case, to ask for further particulars. Dykeman duly obliged in order ‘to correct a wrong impression that has got abroad and to prevent injustice to the several parties concerned’.39 The increasing influence of investigative journalism and the growing popularity of human interest stories meant that in the cities journalists could often be found hanging around the police courts waiting for newsworthy cases. Their ears would prick up when some poor souls entered to complain about witches, and instead of just reporting an overheard story they would get talking to the parties involved. Some journalists even visited them at home, accused and accuser alike.

On occasion, journalistic involvement meant the papers also became part of the story. In 1881 a poor Irish couple, Mr and Mrs Richard May, living in Port Richmond, Staten Island, placed the following advertisement in one of New York’s numerous daily newspapers:

If there is any person in New York that can cure witchcraft, man or woman, white or black, let them come and cure if they can, and no cure no pay. Richard May, Port Richmond, S. I.

The New York Times, a daily founded in 1851, which had made its name in the 1870s by exposing political corruption, sent out a reporter to investigate. The result was a fascinating insight into both popular feeling about witches and the development of journalistic style.40

After asking around in Port Richmond, the journalist was eventually pointed in the direction of a small white-painted cottage in a side street where the old Irish carpenter and his wife lived. The journalist began his report by describing his first impressions of the cottage interior and its two elderly inhabitants. Then the interview began:

‘Yes,’ said he, in answer to a question. ‘I had the advertisement put in: at least, my wife did. She has to attend to everything, now. Can you drive out witches?’

The reporter was inclined to think that he might drive one out, if it was a small witch and he had a big club; but he replied, with some caution, that he proposed to publish an account of this witchcraft in THE TIMES, and such publicity would certainly have a good effect upon the witch, and perhaps drive it out altogether.

‘Yes,’ said the old man, ‘yes. I don’t know but it might. I’m sure I wish it would. It’s very hard to be bewitched this way, and kept away from work and left to starve. But I can’t talk much; the witch won’t let me talk much.

My wife can talk.’...

‘He hasn’t done a stroke of work,’ said she, ‘for four years. There he sits all day, just as you see him now. And me too. I’m all wrong. I am bewitched too, but not a bad as him. I’ll tell you all about it, and you can write it down, so as not to forget it. Think you can remember it? Well, some people have great heads. If we were only wise enough we could get over this, and there are plenty of people could cure us — people with great learning — if we could only find them. It was all along of that woman. She did it all.’

‘What woman?’

‘The woman that lived in this house with us.’

She went on to tell of a Scots woman that boarded with them who they believed was the witch responsible. ‘Did you ever see a witch?’ asked Mrs May. The reporter confided to his readers that his experience had been ‘confined principally to witches of the ham sand kind’. The discussion then took a darker tone when Mrs May asked him:

I think a witch is worse than a murderer that kills a person: don’t you? For a murderer only just kills you all at once, and it’s over, but a witch kills you by inches. I think witches ought to be killed. They used to kill them in this country, and they kill them now in Scotland. This woman is a Scotch woman and I think she ought to be put out of the way, and not let go about bewitching folks.

In 1903 a Los Angeles Times reporter made a similar visit to a bewitched German couple living in East Washington Street, Carson. Louis Pfau’s wife suffered from rheumatism and they had paid a local quack doctor to massage her for $1.50 a session. They were poor and had to cancel the treatment, with the quack making his disgruntlement very clear. When the Pfaus started to experience a series of misfortunes with their animals and Mrs Pfau got worse they suspected the quack had bewitched them in revenge. Pfau prepared a statement translated from German that he had intended to request be published in the newspaper, which it duly was under the heading ‘Victims of the Black Art’:

All people of Los Angeles take warning: There is a certain man in this city who claims to be a great healer, and after making people well he can make them sick again. As a controller of spirits he can do great harm to people for if he has taken a dislike to his neighbor he can bring it about that this neighbor must seek other quarters.

He has brought devil’s books, wherein he has learned the art of his evil practices to both man and animal. He has even gone so far that even the hens will cease to lay at his command. He pretends to be a good carpenter, but he is nothing but a practitioner of the black art, and everyone beware of him.41

For some, though, press interest was most unwelcome. Minor incidents became national news, and, when named, those abused as witches found their unwarranted reputations amplified across the communities in which they lived. This was what concerned Dykeman when he wrote to the press, and his fears were certainly borne out in 1893 when a nurse named Irena Oles of Washington, Pennsylvania, was accused of bewitching a fourteen-year-old boy. The matter was reported in detail in a local newspaper. Following its publication she was pointed at and stoned in the street, and people refused to employ her as a nurse. She eventually resorted to the courts to sue the family concerned.42 A few years later it was the press that was similarly threatened with legal action. In 1899, John Dalke, one of numerous Mecklenburg Germans who settled and farmed in Center, Outagamie County, Wisconsin, hired an attorney to institute slander suits against those accusing him of having bewitched his sister-in-law, three of her children, and his neighbours’ livestock. He then threatened libel suits against newspapers printing further accounts of the allegations being made against him by his neighbours. The reports do seem to have stopped after this threat was reported.43

In the late nineteenth century the refinement of techniques allowing photographic images to be reproduced on newsprint quality paper would have a major impact on how people consumed newspapers. Photojournalism instigated the rise of modem celebrity culture, but also captured momentous historic moments with

lasting profound consequences. For us, the photographs of accused witches, the bewitched, and witch killers, some of which are reproduced in this book, bring home both the ordinariness of witchcraft accusations and provoke a more emotional response to the personal tragedies that sometimes resulted. They banish any stereotypical images of the witch that the written word might evoke. In this respect they serve a valuable historical purpose, and yet they raise moral issues. It is not always clear that those concerned wished to be photographed. While some posed for the cameras, enjoying the limelight of notoriety, others were no doubt snapped without consent or regretted their appearance in visual media. When, in 1907, a journalist visited Margaret Gilmore, an accused witch who unfairly found herself in jail (we will return to her in Chapter 3), and asked to take her photograph, she declined saying she did not want her relatives knowing of her predicament. A few years earlier, the witch killer Solomon Hotema expressed reluctance when the press asked to photograph him in prison, but agreed when assured by the journalist that ‘it would be done without the least desire to injure him or to exploit him in any other but a truthful attitude’.44

The founding of the American Folklore Society in 1888 marked the beginning of a new phase in the recording of witchcraft beliefs across American society. Its journal would provide a valuable vehicle for the publication of material gained from oral sources and culled from the literary archive, but there is no avoiding the fact that in the early years the American folklore movement, as elsewhere, shared and reinforced the same cultural biases and prejudices displayed by the newspapers, antiquarians, and missionaries. Some of those who collected and analysed folktales from the mouths of African Americans and Native Americans concluded that they must have European origins because they recognized many of the motifs from the compendious collections of European folktales by the likes of the Grimm brothers. So, it was argued, they must have spread amongst these cultures through early contact with the white population, the Spanish and Portuguese in particular. These assumptions were also based on the idea that African- and Native-American languages were too primitive to have developed and transmitted such creative and culturally rich stories.45

The broad category of ‘superstition’, under which witchcraft was usually included, was also used as a means of defining racial distance and superiority. This is clear from the work of the Louisiana branch of the American Folklore Association during the 1890s. Its membership was all white and linked to the social web of plantation owners and related businessmen in the state, with a strong showing of women and educators. Their work consciously reinforced racial boundaries, with the belief in witchcraft and the practice of Voodoo providing a useful marker. So, as one of the leading Louisiana members, Alcee Fortier, wrote, ‘negroes are still very much afraid of their witchcraft’, while Voodoo was ‘the best proof of the credulity and superstition of the Blacks’.46 One of the messages that came through in this early phase of American folklore studies is that ‘we’ the Europeans gave them sophisticated forms of folklore and ‘they’ gave ‘us’ the grosser forms of superstition.

By no means were all early folklore studies so influenced by racial or class prejudice. African Americans were not passive objects of folklore. In the 1890s an African-American folklore society was formed in Virginia, and one of its voices, the monthly journal the Southern Workman, published regular folklore columns to preserve and record traditions.47 Three decades later, the groundbreaking anthropologist and novelist Zora Neale Hurston began presenting her research on the folklore and life of African Americans in the southern states through academic explorations and fiction. It was the folklorists, furthermore, who, through extensive interviewing, confirmed in a more systematic way than the newspapers that witchcraft beliefs were widespread amongst European-American populations and not just those with dark skins. An excellent example is an article published in the Journal of American Folklore in 1894 on the ‘Folk-Lore of the Mountain Whites of the Alleghanies’, in which there is no attempt to argue that the continued belief in witchcraft belief was due to African-American influence. Instead, the author sought to contextualize the beliefs he collected, exploring the European migration history in the area and the geographical and environmental conditions in which settlers scraped a living.48 Still, one of the great failings of the early American folklorists was their avoidance of urban America. Like their European counterparts, most folklorists were tied to the notion that ‘traditional superstitions’ lingered longest in the mountains, backwoods and remote settlements of the country.

While the racial prejudices evident in the early collection of Native-American and African-American folklore must be recognized, the voluminous material the folklorists collected provided a profound resource for understanding the oral and literary cultures of all of America’s inhabitants. Later generations of folklorists would take a more sophisticated and objective approach to both collecting and analysis, focusing more on the complex interchange of beliefs and practices between Native Americans, African Americans, and Europeans. For those studying witchcraft, though, the folklore archive presents three major weaknesses. First, folklorists rarely interviewed those who were accused and abused for being witches. The legends and stories are nearly always from those who knew of witches or were bewitched by them. Furthermore, as with the local histories, many of the accounts concerned events that occurred several generations before, and about people long dead. This was often a result of the decision making of interviewees who, concerned about being judged credulous or foolish by their ‘betters’, deflected questions about the currency of witchcraft by locating it in the past, resulting in the familiar refrain, ‘there used to be a lot of witches around here in the old days

Thirdly, due to interviewee confidentiality, folklorists did not usually provide hill names of people or their place of residence. Fortunately, newspapers often did. This allows the historian to pursue record linkage research, identifying, and then piecing together the individual histories of those involved in witchcraft cases, providing fresh clues to the origins and nature of the disputes recorded in the newspapers. Such work also confirms the general reliability of reportage, though journalists tended to be poor judges of people’s ages, sometimes adding a decade or more on the basis of care-worn faces and bowed backs. Most of the people mentioned in the disputes in this book have been searched for in the censuses, trade directories, ship passenger lists, and other such sources. In the majority of cases I have been able to trace them. Richard May and his wife mentioned above, for example, can be found in the census, living alone in Northfield, Port Richmond. Just as the journalist had reported, the census tells us they were both Irish-born, and Richard was a carpenter. From the census we find that his wife’s name was Ann, and that she was bom in 1815 and her husband three years later. The journalist had suggested Richard was nearly seventy, but he was actually sixty- two. There are a number of obstacles to such research, however, one being the destruction of most of the 1890 census in a fire in 1921. Many Americans, particularly recent immigrants, moved around searching for work or a better life, making it difficult to track them down and confirm identities, especially if their name was, say, John Smith. Journalists often misspelt or garbled people’s surnames as they busily scribbled notes during court cases. Likewise those conducting the censuses sometimes wrote names differently each time. Through a process of Chinese whispers transmitted via telegraph messages, multiple variants of a person’s name sometimes appeared in different newspapers re-reporting the same case. Names also became anglicized over time. Put together the newspaper research and the folklore sources, though, and we have an archive on American witchcraft every bit as rich and important as that of the seventeenth century.

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