Common section

Times a-changing

Americans had a lot on their minds in the early 1950s. The Cold War was intensifying, American troops were dying in Korea, and Senator Joseph McCarthy was pursuing his corrosive ‘witch hunt’ against real and illusory communists. In 1952 Arthur Miller’s The Crucible dramatized the Salem witch trials as a trenchant allegory of McCarthyism. Racial segregation was still deeply entrenched, and the Civil Rights movement was moving into a new phase, with the growing influence of the Nation of Islam. Yet witches were still very much on the minds of some across the country. 1950 was the year that the trial of Helen Evans caused the Delaware authorities so much national embarrassment. It was also the year that Carl Walters, a forty-year-old resident of Carters Valley, Rogersville, Tennessee, walked into the local store where Alberta Gibbons and her mother Alta Woods were drinking pop and shouted at them, ‘This has gone far enough’. He drew a pistol and shot Alberta dead as she held her baby in her arms. Alta pleaded, ‘Please don’t kill me’, but Walters put three bullets in her anyway. He then got into his car, drove to Kingsport some twenty miles away, went to the police station and reported matter-of-factly, ‘I have just shot two women down in Hawkins County. I was tired of being bewitched’. It was the 15 August.

Walters’ wife Ruby, sister of Alta Woods (nee Blair), had recently fallen down stairs, breaking her hip. One of their children had died not long before, and Walter was suffering from a strange complaint. In April and May 1949 he had been to see Dr Herbert Pope at Knoxville. Walter confided in Pope that ever since he was thirteen people had been ‘against him’, and related a story of an eleven-year-old boy he knew who hanged himself while under a witch’s spell. On one occasion Walters brought his eleven-year-old daughter Sylvia and said she was bewitched too. Pope gave Walters some shock treatment and recommended he go to a clinic. Walters agreed and spent two weeks at St Albans psychiatric hospital, in Radford, Virginia. It evidently did not help. When he returned home he told numerous neighbours that he and his family were bewitched.

As Walters lay in Rogersville jail a few days after the shooting, the residents of Carters Valley organized a lynch mob some seventy-five strong, which assembled at midnight and marched on the jail. There followed one of the more remarkable shoot-outs of the era. At least twenty shots were exchanged during an hour-long siege, with one of the mob managing to fire through the jail door. Leading the defence was Sheriff Bradley Blair, a cousin of Ruby and Alta. He and his officers shot two of the crowd before it finally dispersed. Blair subsequently got wind of plans to cause a riot when Walters was due to appear at the county courthouse. Blair knew who the ring leaders were and managed to prevent any such occurrence. Walters was tried in December. Nineteen of his neighbours and acquaintances gave evidence that they had heard him complain of his troubles with witchcraft. Most testified that they believed Walters sane. A separate insanity jury also found him sane despite the evidence of three psychiatrists that he suffered from dementia praecox—the same condition diagnosed in Albert Shinsky. Walters calmly chewed gum as he heard the Hawkins County court jury return a guilty verdict. He was sentenced to die in the electric chair on 3 February 1951. The defence immediately launched an appeal, and in May, Walters was taken to Nashville hospital to undergo further psychiatric tests.1 These proved more convincing and he avoided the chair. So another witch murderer sat out his days in the asylum.

Meanwhile in Knoxville, Tennessee, the latest round in the long drawn-out trial of an African-American woman, Alberta Jefferson, for shooting dead a young conjure doctor, Obie Lee Roddie, had recently come to end. Alberta, aged thirty- one, claimed Roddie had put a ‘death hex’ on her and her husband. Police searched his premises and found herbs, powders, and a little black book containing spells and recipes written in green ink. It included one for ‘laying a burden on your enemy’s heart’. His paperwork showed he had treated 174 patients in 1947, and had been paid more than $2,000. Finally, in 1952, the Tennessee Supreme Court ruled that Jefferson’s belief in ‘voodoo’ did not mitigate her crime, but nevertheless affirmed a lenient three-year sentence.2

1952 was another notable year in the annals of witch shooting. In Mission, Texas, Alfredo Medrano shot waitress Maria Acevedo in the chest with 0.22- calibre pistol. She was not serious hurt fortunately. Medrano and Acevedo had been friends but when he began to suffer headaches and his family fell ill he came to the conclusion that she had paid a witch doctor to put a hex on him.3 The same year, Joe S. Chavez, a forty-two-year-old Arizona rancher shot dead Mrs Maria Estrella Miranda.4 Chavez ran a cattle ranch and alfalfa farm in the aptly named Superstition Mountains, some thirty-five miles east of Phoenix. Around 1942, Chavez’s wife Josie, who he had married in 1929, started going blind and experienced constant spinal pain. He spent many days and much money travelling America and Mexico seeking out doctors and healers who might cure her eyesight. Chavez heard gossip, though, that one of his female relatives had paid a healer named Miranda to put a spell upon Josie.

The forty-one-year-old Maria Estrella Miranda, wife of Antonio Miranda, lived near the village of Guadalupe, south-east of Phoenix. At the time it was a settlement of some 850 people, mostly Hispanics and Yaqui Indians who had fled to the area from their Mexican homeland during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century as a result of political persecution. Miranda had a reputation for witchery or brujeria. The local sheriff, L.C. Boies, observed, ‘Everyone in Guadalupe who suffered any kind of a disease blamed Mrs Miranda. Lots of people thought they had a reason to kill her’. Then again, he said, she had her friends who considered her a devout religious woman. A neighbour told Chavez that she had seen pictures of him and his wife in Miranda’s cabin and that she used them to work her spells. Chavez said he pleaded with Miranda to make Josie well again, even offering her $9,000. She replied dismissively that he should try and take her to court.

On 12 September 1952 Chavez decided to pay Miranda a visit to demand the return of the pictures. He brought a pistol with him. According to Chavez’s version of events, Miranda refused and ordered him to leave. He took a step forward towards a box of photos, and Miranda reached for a shotgun. Chavez took out his pistol and shot her four times. He was arrested five days later. When police searched Miranda’s home they found a small Catholic shrine on which were some 100 photos, amongst them, curiously, three depicting Democratic politicians defeated in that year’s elections, Ernest McFarland who was running for the Senate, Joe C. Haldiman for governor, and Ralph Watkins for the House of Representatives. It would seem that Miranda was praying either for their good or ill fortune. Chavez’s trial was originally scheduled for 15 December but it was postponed as most of the witnesses only spoke Spanish and it took time to hire an interpreter. It finally began in April 1953. The defence team put together a case based on temporary insanity and self-defence. Six neighbours testified that Miranda was a witch. Chavez was convicted of a second degree murder, a verdict that judge Ralph Barry described as ‘more than merciful’. Barry was unwilling to countenance that the belief in witchcraft was instrumental in such a crime, and told Chavez ‘you do not believe in hex’. He suspected that Chavez had murdered Miranda to ‘shut her mouth’ because she knew about his extra-marital affairs.

Chavez was sentenced to twenty-five to forty years in prison. Miranda’s family filed a suit for damages against him with the Maricopa County Superior Court. $34,500 was demanded but only $2,000 was awarded.

After this last rash of witch shootings, witchcraft disputes were covered less and less in the press. The age-old neighbourly suspicions and accusations still occasionally played out between individuals. In i960, for instance, eighty-three-year-old Minnie Gilland of Detroit suspected an elderly neighbour, Mary Donaldson, aged seventy-five, of witching her much younger husband away from her, so she painted a ‘hex sign’—a ring of tar and chicken feathers—on Donaldson’s house. Donaldson, who bought her coal from Mr Gilland, sued for damages, saying it would cost $75 to remove the tar sign. ‘I had to do something’, said Gilland. ‘After I had done it I felt better’—that old refrain of the bewitched who went on the offensive.5 But by i960 the assault and abuse of suspected witches had largely become a thing of the past. That does not mean that belief in witchcraft had likewise disappeared. Folklorists continued to collect stories about witches, but few people complained of being victims.

The witch doctors continued to ply their trade. In 1950 a New Jersey Bureau of Employment report on disability relief noted that they had received one claim certified by a Pennsylvania ‘hex doctor’.6 State disability claims had to be signed by a medical practitioner but there was no sanction against non-licensed physicians doing so. Moving south, in 1958 a police investigation was launched regarding a series of arson attacks against the home of an African-American labourer named Calven Tuck, of Talladega, Alabama. It transpired that Tuck had visited a hoodoo doctor to hex the person responsible. The doctor instructed him to bury a bottle containing a half pint of vinegar, nails, pins, and a biscuit upside down at a 45 degree angle. The arson attacks ceased afterwards, leaving the police puzzled. A year later, John Jemigan, Chief Deputy Prosecutor of Little Rock, Arkansas, issued a raft of summonses against African-American conjure doctors after he had been visited on several occasions by a man who claimed a local conjure doctor named Dr Snake had put a spell upon him. Snake, John Richmonds, and another practitioner nicknamed ‘The Bishop’, were charged with practising medicine without a licence.7

No doubt witchcraft constituted less and less of the business of the doctors. Although they had always offered more than just counter-witchcraft services for their respective communities, they were becoming increasingly irrelevant due to the diminution of this part of their trade. The profession was undoubtedly losing its identity, becoming culturally marginalized, just as we saw with the Native-American medicine men in the early twentieth century. German-American pow-wow doctors in comparison had never been reliant on witchcraft belief for their custom; their practice depended on a broader conception of illness and medicine, and was attuned to a strong Christian brand of faith healing and self- help. As a consequence, the pow-wows retained a distinct identity and a significant role in folk healing as witch belief waned. In 1969 the journalist and best-selling author Arthur H. Lewis interviewed several Pennsylvania practitioners. ‘One needn’t be a detective to locate powwowers’, he revealed. ‘None of them are inclined to conceal their talents or seem the least bit reluctant to discuss their modus operand?.8

One could try and argue that the rise of the Cold War and the fear of communist infiltration into every nook and cranny of American society (note I do not use the psychiatric term ‘paranoia’), somehow displaced the concern regarding witches: reds under the bed replacing witches riding you in bed. There are certainly parallels, as Arthur Miller and others observed. Propaganda such as the US Army pamphlet issued in 1954 explaining how one could identify closet communists by the way they talked, the terms they used, and the people they associated with, certainly fed into the deep-seated suspicion of the enemy within.9 But parallel lines do not intersect. The communist booger was an abstract global threat to national American security, and not relevant to domestic personal wellbeing on a day-to-day level. The analogy works well regarding the old theological concerns of a satanic conspiracy heralding the apocalypse, but in everyday life communists did not replace witches as the killers of pigs, the nocturnal riders of horses, and evil-eyed baby kissers. No, witchcraft accusations declined because they became less relevant as personal well-being became more secure thanks to the state: at the same time, Americans’ sense of insecurity regarding a global threat grew to epic proportions.

Witchcraft belief became more private. Those who considered themselves bewitched no longer felt confident in discussing their suspicions with friends and neighbours. Communities no longer generated outsider witches through gossip and collective memory. Twentieth-century sanitary and medical advances, such as the introduction of penicillin and painkillers, no doubt played their role in attenuating witch belief bom of medical conditions, but the institution of a comprehensive welfare state also had an impact, albeit less obvious. Compared with Western and Northern Europe, the United States was relatively late in introducing such safety nets for the poor as unemployment benefit and pension insurance. But the New Deal of the 1930s introduced a raft of radical legislation, so that for a time the US was in advance of the welfare state provision of Europe. Most witchcraft accusations were bom of necessity, the inability to understand or cope with misfortune. The creation of a welfare state created a comfort zone for the masses, so that the need to explain misfortune became less of an impulse, less necessary. The child fell ill and the cows ailed but witchcraft was no longer required as a diagnosis leading to a solution, and consequently witches did not need to be identified. Take away this basic comfort blanket and maybe witchcraft will become an explanation once again. After all, a majority of Americans, like many Europeans, believe in divine and satanic intervention in earthly affairs.

In 1986, a survey of University of Texas students revealed that 22 per cent believed in witchcraft. A rather more representative national Harris Poll in 2007 showed that 31 per cent believed in witches, rising from 28 per cent in 2005, though the figure dropped to 23 per cent in 2009.10 The population of the United States was over 308 million in 2010, so that makes some 70 million witchcraft believers. A recent American opinion poll on book censorship revealed that 41 per cent of respondents thought that books including witchcraft and sorcery should not be available in school libraries.11 The concern over witchcraft has clearly not gone away. But what did the people answering these polls understand by the terms ‘witch’ and ‘witchcraft’?

Reinventing witchcraft

In 1940s England a new era of witchcraft was brewing as a former colonial civil servant named Gerald Gardner (1884-1964) set about creating a modem pagan religion called Wicca.12 Building on his knowledge of folklore, occultism, spiritualism, and freemasonry, and inspired by Charles Leland’s book Aradia, which claimed to reveal the existence of an ancient Italian pagan cult, and the works of Margaret Murray, who proposed that those persecuted as witches in the early modem era were members of a pre-Christian fertility cult, Gardner invented a founding myth for his new movement. He claimed that one night in 1939 he was initiated into a coven of witches in the New Forest, Hampshire. This group, headed by a priest and priestess, had kept alive the ‘Old Religion’ of the witches, worshipping a fertility goddess and a homed male deity. He revealed all in Witchcraft Today, published in 1954, and Wicca was bom. If Gardner and his followers were correct then the history of witchcraft had to be completely rewritten.

Back across the Atlantic, 1964 was a watershed in the history of witchcraft in America. The year that Gardner died was also the year that the American comedy hit Bewitched first screened, and when a flamboyant English woman named Sybil Leek brought Wicca to the consciousness of the American public. While the writings of Gardner and his followers were not completely unknown in the US, the idea of witchcraft as a religion was a new concept for 99.9 per cent of the population at a time when the old traditional concerns regarding witches, as recounted in this book, were waning but far from forgotten. Now here were witches who formed covens and met for sabbats as in the legends of old, but who were claiming to be followers of an ancient pagan fertility religion, motivated by good intentions, celebrating the power of nature; not outsider, conflict, or accidental witches destroying humans and livestock out of malicious pleasure. It was a tough sell only a decade or so after people were being shot dead as witches.

Still, the United States was far from being virgin territory for esoteric groups espousing a mix of magic and ancient wisdom.13 The country hummed with prophets, cults, masonic orders, and occultists. The terms ‘Hermeticism’ and ‘Rosicrucianism’ were frequently bandied about in some quarters of this mystic milieu. The former was based on a series of Greek philosophical and religious texts originating in late antiquity that were thought to be the profound musings of Hermes Trismegistus, a man-god combination of the Greek deity Hermes and the Egyptian Thoth. A version of this Corpus hermeticum was translated into Latin in the late fifteenth century and became a key source for Renaissance magic. Rosicrucianism referred to the tenets of a legendary fifteenth-century German knight who led a Brotherhood of the Rosy Cross. Their mission was to institute a spiritual reformation through the embrace of Hermetic and Kabbalistic magic. Rumours of the Brotherhood first emerged in the early seventeenth century, and despite their being no proof of its existence, it caught the imagination of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century freemasons and occultists.

The earliest American groups were bom out of the era of spiritualism and mesmerism, such as the Rosicmcian Fraternity founded by African-American spiritualist Beverley Randolph (1825-75), who espoused the use of magic mirrors and ritual sex. Then there was the Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor founded in 1888 by a Scottish violin maker, Peter Davidson, who scratched a living in Georgia selling occult paraphernalia and herb doctoring. Back in Britain, in the same year, the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn was founded on the basis of a series of rites and rituals culled from ancient Egyptian and Greek texts, freemasonry, Kabbalah, and Renaissance Christian mysticism. The tensions between those members subscribing to Christian esotericism and those to pre-Christian religion and magic contributed to its demise in the early years of the twentieth century. One of the troublesome former members of the Golden Dawn, the notorious magician Aleister Crowley, went on to set up a British franchise of a German ritual magical order known as the Ordo Templi Orientis (ОТО).

Crowley made a couple of visits to America during the early twentieth century. A lodge of the ОТО was set up in California in 1914, and a short-lived offshoot was founded in Chicago in 1931. By the end of the 1930s, America was the last surviving home of the ОТО, with the British Order disbanding in the 1920s and the Nazis suppressing the German branches. Lodges of the Rosicrucian Order of the Alpha and Omega, an outgrowth of the disbanded Golden Dawn, were created in Chicago and New York by 1914, and new lodges sprung up in New

York, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, and San Francisco between 1919 and 1921, but they did not flourish for long. One of those who joined the New York lodge in 1920 was a former Vaudeville musician, Paul Foster Case, whose occult interests stemmed back to his childhood. Case was expelled from the Lodge two years later and embarked on creating a new ‘school of wisdom’ in Boston called the Builders of the Adytum or B.O.T.A., which he subsequently relocated to Los Angeles in the early 1930s. The school offered correspondence instruction on a range of occult subjects such as astrology, tarot, and Kabbalah, as well as borrowing heavily from Golden Dawn material and ritual.

During the early twentieth century various other home-grown Rosicrucian groups sprung up, such as the Order of the Rosicrucian Fellowship founded by Max Heindel in Oceanside, San Diego, which claimed to have 7,000 members in 1913.14 The most successful and most publicized was the Ancient Mystical Order Rosae Crucis (AMORC), which was founded in 1915 by New Jersey commercial artist, Harvey Spencer Lewis. It claimed to be based on the mystery schools of pharaonic Egypt. Its headquarters moved from New York to Tampa before settling in San Jose, California. Lewis had grand visions. In Tampa he tried to build a fifteen-storey temple, and briefly set up the Order’s own radio station. Then in 1928 he announced he was taking some members on a trip to Egypt where they would hold an ancient rite in full costume at the Kamak temple complex.15

None of these American occult groups of the nineteenth and first half of the twentieth century linked themselves with witches or witchcraft though. So as in Britain, Wiccans had the task of establishing their ancient inheritance by earnestly but dubiously rebranding the persecuted witches of the past as their benign pagan ancestors, thereby having to overcome centuries of ingrained prejudice and tradition about witchcraft. The process was not helped by a penchant amongst some early Wiccans, following in Gardner’s footsteps, for myth-making about their own pasts. Leek was no exception. She claimed her family had been witches since 1134, and that she was descended from a legendary early eighteenth-century witch of Burslem, Staffordshire, named Molly Leigh. According to her autobiography she was brought up on an English Estate and the French Riviera, where she was first initiated into a witch coven in the hills above Nice. Aleister Crowley was a highly improbable family guest during the 1920s. At sixteen she said she married a famous but unnamed pianist who died two years later. Back in England, she spent time living with the gypsies learning their secret lore and was initiated into an ancient coven in the New Forest. What civil records reveal is that she was bom on 22 September 1917, near the smoky potteries town of Stoke-on-Trent, Staffordshire. Her father was Christopher E. Fawcett (d. 1955), and her mother’s maiden name was Booth. In 1944 Sybil Fawcett married John B. Delves, a butcher’s son, at a ceremony near Cheadle, not far from Stoke. Then, in 1952, she married again to antique dealer Reginald B. Leek in Bournemouth, Hampshire.

In the early 1960s we find her in the village of Burley, in the New Forest, running an antiques shop, and beginning her campaign to educate the public about the witch religion. A feature spread in the News of the World in October 1963 called her ‘Britain’s No. 1 Witch’ and reported Sybil’s intention to set up a school for witches. It was one of numerous photo opportunities in which she posed with a pet jackdaw nick-named Hotfoot Jackson on her shoulder.16 In early 1964, she was involved in the creation of the Witchcraft Research Association and the founding of its magazine Pentagram. In its first edition one of its other founders, Doreen Valiente, expressed the hope that the WRA would act ‘as a kind of United Nations of the Craft’.17 Sybil was briefly its first president but clearly put the backs up of her fellow founders.

Leek began to attract coverage in the America press in late 1963. Early the following year reports appeared with titles such as ‘Black Rumors Oust White Witch’, in which it was revealed that Sybil was being evicted from her home and her antiques shop due to accusations that she was involved in orgies and black magic. Over the previous months churches and churchyards across the country had been vandalized and desecrated in a manner that suggested ritual activity. The press went into overdrive, and the police did not help by suggesting that in some cases Black Masses had been held by Satanists. At Clophill in Bedfordshire, for instance, a vault was smashed, and the skull of its eighteenth-century occupant, Jenny Humberstone, taken and impaled on an iron spike, with the rest of her bones scattered around. There is no evidence that such acts of desecration were the work of Satanists or ‘black witches’. The culprits were most likely delinquents influenced by Dennis Wheatley’s black-magic novels, and the hit film version of one of them, The Devil Rides Out, and who enacted copy-cat desecrations inspired by the lurid press reports.18 Leek’s public expressions of interest in the cases harmed her reputation though, despite her explicit condemnation of such dark doings. The New Forest locals turned against her she complained, ‘It is heartless. They are taking away my livelihood’. ‘I’m a white witch’, she insisted, ‘my witchcraft does nothing but good’.19

She first visited America in the spring of 1964 to promote a book on her experiences of the antiques trade, A Shop in the High Street. Within weeks she was appearing on the long-running syndicated talk show, the Mike Douglas Show, one of many television appearances over the next decade. In May she told reporters that she had sold the idea of a television comedy series called ‘Dear Witch’ to an American company, and intended to use the proceeds to set up her long-planned school of witchcraft back in Britain.20 Seeing an opportunity for further reinvention, she swiftly adopted the title of Dame, something she could not get away with back in England. When asked once as to why the honour was bestowed upon her, she replied evasively that it was ‘for bravery for something but it was so long ago, I can’t remember’, before then recalling as an afterthought that she had saved some lives as nurse while tending to wounded soldiers in the Hebrides during the Second World War.21

Leek returned to Britain in June, announcing to the press that she intended to emigrate to the US to escape continued persecution.22 She resigned as president of the Witchcraft Research Association, claiming she was forced out because her colleagues frowned upon her interest in black magic.23Whether this was true or not, Leek, in turn, had issues with her fellow witches. For one, she disliked the use of ritual nudity as employed by Gardnerians and others. ‘I can get enough power for occult healing with six fur coats on. All I need is my mind to generate power’, she argued.24 As to her coven meetings, she described them to one journalist as consisting of ‘lots of singing and dancing and drinking. Rather like one of your debutante parties, I should imagine’.25

She moved around America drumming up interest in herself and her numerous publications. Ever patient with the habitual enquiry as to whether she had arrived on a broomstick, she was always ready with a newsworthy soundbite or extraordinary claim. No Halloween passed without Sybil being interviewed somewhere. In 1966 she claimed that America’s 400 witches had more power than the Mafia. The same year she told Sports Illustrated that she was turning her psychic power to the Kentucky Derby, having picked six winners out of six at Ascot a few years before.26 It was claimed that she foresaw the assassinations of John F. Kennedy and his brother. Playboy stated that an impressed military at Cape Kennedy consulted her. Yet Leek’s powers failed to prevent the burglary of her St Louis motel room in July 1966. A purse, which she said was a gift from Ian Fleming of Bond fame, containing $450, was taken along with three magic rings, one of which she warned could ‘have a disastrous effect on anyone else who wears it’. Leek was so angry that she declared she was weaving a hex on the thief: ‘it’s been 20 years since I’ve felt this vicious and the hex I conjured then was so terrible I won’t even tell you about it’. She was also sorely tempted to hex a female journalist who called her ‘a jolly little pudding of a woman’.27 By 1968 Britain’s former ‘No. I Witch’ was being described as ‘America’s most famous resident witch’. But she increasingly preferred to be known for a much wider portfolio. As described by the Los Angeles Times in 1972, she was an astrologer, entrepreneur, lecturer, publisher, radio and television producer and personality, mother, and manufacturer of sailboats and jewellery. Oh, and she had previous claimed to be a scriptwriter for the BBC.28

The earliest investigations into the modem witch religion in America were conducted from unusual quarters. In the summer of 1964, Don Shepherd of

Channel 6 Philadelphia did some research on witchcraft in connection with the station showing the first series of Bewitched. This led him to former actress Mary Manners Hammerstein, one-time wife of Reginald Hammerstein, brother of the famed lyricist and theatre impresario Oscar. Mary, who seems to have described herself as a white witch, made ‘witch brooms’ for distribution to children, invented cooking utensils, and marketed a pie-making kit. In early May 1964 it was reported that Mary’s hill-top home Sky Island, in Upper Black Eddy, Pennsylvania, was haunted by a noisy ghost, causing Mary to lose her beauty sleep. Flying saucers had also been spotted in the area. She invited the Polish parapsychologist Alexander Imich and his wife, who had emigrated to the US in 1952, to investigate. A member of Mary’s coterie, artist Tavis Teichman, painted a portrait of Sybil during a visit to a psychic party at Sky Island that also included a spiritualist and the Philadelphia television presenter Bill Hart, who hoped to record the spirit activity for his afternoon show on WCAU.29

Don Shepherd told Bob Feldman of television station WHYN about Hammerstein, and Bob then had a chat with Massachusetts newspaper columnist Brian F. King, who related their conversation in his column in September. ‘What I’m looking for is a real live witch that I can book for an interview on one of our television shows’, said Bob. He was having problems finding one, though. King suggested he try Sybil Leek. ‘Don’t think I haven’t thought about her’, he replied, ‘but what I’d really like to find is a real live witch who lives right here in Western Massachusetts’. Three weeks later King reported in his column how Bob had faired. ‘I’d say the results were good’, said Bob, ‘even though I didn’t hear from a witch or a warlock who was willing to publicly identify her or himself as such’. He received a few telephone calls from people who claimed to be witches, ‘but they were sort of vague, and what they had to say didn’t seem to ring true’. A few letters trickled in, one from a person who explained, ‘I never knew I had some qualification for becoming a witch’, but after reading Bob’s description of witches having extra-sensory perception and clairvoyance, felt that her own experiences in these fields now made sense. Another more knowing correspondent, signed ‘A Warlock’, wrote:

Dear Mr Feldman:

You are quite right in assuming that there are those of us who practise the ‘Old Religion’ in this area. I myself am a warlock and have been for years.

I am a descendant of Alice and Mary Parker, who were hanged as witches at Salem on Sept. 22 1692.

Your interview in Mr. King’s column was honest, and I trust it will help lift the heavy censure placed on us by those who would persecute us, especially here in Massachusetts.

I would like to mention, however, that not all of us belong to covens, especially here in Massachusetts. Fear of detection and reprisals force us to practice in deepest secrecy, with perhaps the assistance of an apprentice witch or warlock’.

The mystery warlock was unwilling to be interviewed, though, suggesting that Sybil Leek might be of assistance. Bob was left still looking for an American witch to interview. They would begin turning up within a few years.30

Sam Tate of Edison, New Jersey, a buyer of baby clothes for a major department store, was another contemporary witch-finder, who attracted press attention in 1965 when he placed this advertisement in the New York Times: ‘Author wishes to interview witches for completion of serious book on Witchcraft Religion. Legitimate replies only’. Tate was not overwhelmed with correspondents. ‘A lot of newspapermen have called’, he revealed, ‘and a couple of researchers, two sweet little old ladies, three drunks and a man looking for an apartment’. Described as a big, blonde fellow, Tate began to research American witches after he was approached by a New York radio producer to talk on the subject. He had seen some magazine articles Tate had written on psychic phenomena. Tate confessed he was no expert on witchcraft though. ‘How long would it take you to become an expert on witches?’ asked the producer. ‘When was the show on?’ Tate replied. ‘Tomorrow night’, came the answer.31 Tate was inspired and began his researches. He said his family did not mind his interest in witchery but preferred him not to join a coven.

Tate had learned about the movement from three main sources: Pentagram magazine; Patricia Crowther, a leading Gardnerian who had set up a coven in the northern English town of Sheffield, and who with her husband had written a book that year called The Witches Speak (1965); and Fanny Carby, an actress he described as a ‘lonely’ or solitary witch. Carby had appeared on Broadway in the hit show ‘Oh, What a Lovely War’, and in 1970 appeared in a British television adaptation of James Herlihy’s play ‘The Season of the Witch’ about a teenage girl’s immersion in the hippie subculture. She had roles in many other British television programmes and films between the 1950s and 1990s, including The Elephant Man (1980).Tate declared that the Old Religion was ‘as genuine as Druidism but it’s gotten a bad press ever since that messy business up in Salem in the 17th century’.32 He estimated that there were no more than fifty or so witches in the US at that time. The book he intended to write, ‘The Working Witch’, seems never to have made it into print.

In 1969 Leek estimated that there were 300 covens in the USA. It does not sound improbable if the meaning of coven is interpreted broadly, as there must have been a fair few groups that had only a fleeting existence.33 The witch religion was growing. Some covens were founded by other British arrivals during the 1960s, most notable amongst them Raymond and Rosemary Buckland, followers of Gerald Gardner, who settled in Long Island in 1962 where they set up the first Gardnerian Wiccan group in America, and created the Buckland Museum of Witchcraft and Magick in New York. Their profile grew after the publication in 1971 of Raymond’s book Witchcraft from the Inside, and a few years later he created a breakaway group following what he called ‘Seax-Wicca’ or Saxon Witchcraft. This new tradition accepted self-initiation, thereby opening up a new path for the involvement of curious individuals. Another early Wiccan coven was founded in Chicago by Donna Cole after she had gone to England to be initiated into Gardnerian Wicca in 1969.

‘If I were 18’, said Sybil Leek in 1969, ‘you would see the hippiest, yippiest, yappiest hippie you’ve ever seen!’34 But, as she recognized, a new generation was taking over the scene, and she stepped back into the shadows as far as witchcraft was concerned. Most of her numerous publications were on astrology, psychic phenomena, reincarnation, and prediction. She repeatedly told journalists that she did not want to be styled an evangelist for the witch religion. ‘I’m not the Billy Graham of Witchcraft’, she said with her typical flair for a neat phrase. By the mid-1970s Leek had pretty given up talking about witchcraft to the media.35 She died of cancer at her home in Melbourne, Florida, in October 1982.

The new generation of American witches was more strident—as much concerned with the social challenges of the present as fantasies about the ancient past. As a religion, witchcraft developed in distinctive ways through its embrace by the counterculture and civil rights movements of the era. American witches were pioneers in espousing environmentalism and feminism, for instance.36 Indeed, interest in feminism and ecology were pathways into Wicca. As one historian of the movement has noted, while England may have given Wicca to America, the United States exported eco-feminist witchcraft back across the Atlantic.37 The feminist movement adopted witchcraft as an example of the crushing and terrible misogyny of a patriarchal past that had yet to be eradicated from western society. One women’s rights group called itself WITCH—the Women’s International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell, though other sources of the acronym were also formulated. They picketed the 1968 Miss America contest, and on Halloween that year, one cell dressed up as witches to picket and humorously hex Chase Manhattan Bank in an action called ‘Up against the Wall Street’. The movement also funded practical services such as Judo classes and an abortion referral service in New York.38

The one big negative in the coming together of feminism and the witch movement was the promulgation of the ‘Burning Times’. This was a term coined by Gerald Gardner to describe the historic persecution of the witches he had adopted as pagan ancestors. As the majority of those executed as witches in the early modem period were women, the notion was propagated in feminist circles, particularly by the American radical Mary Daly, that the Burning Times represented ‘gendercide’, a female holocaust instigated by a male patriarchal society that used the fear of witchcraft to exterminate millions of women across Europe. This was a monumental distortion of the historical record, based on a completely unsubstantiated calculation for the number of people executed as witches. Probably no more than 50,000 people were executed in the European witch trials, a tragic figure but nevertheless far from a female holocaust. It took a couple of decades to drain this misinformation from the Wiccans’ narrative of their own past and the pseudo-sense of grievance and victimhood, and yet the myth of millions of victims continues to be repeated in books like Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code.39

In the late 1960s Morgan McFarland, the daughter of a Protestant missionary, set up a Dianic witchcraft group that had a strong ecological and feminist underpinning.40 She was inspired in childhood by reading Roman and Greek myths, and in adulthood was active in the Women’s Liberation Movement. Her home in Dallas was notable for having a coffin in the front yard, and one interviewer described her as a woman ‘with Mary Poppins sincerity and mystic persuasion’. Her ecological message was simple, ‘if you destroy nature you are destroying Mother and you are destroying me’.41 Morgan and her fellow founder of the Dallas Dianic group, Mark Roberts, published a witchcraft journal New Broom, and created a short-lived business named Witch Way Tours inc. In 1972 they announced a fifteen-day tour of Britain. The itinerary began with a visit to the Buckland Museum of Witchcraft followed by a Pan Am flight to London. Once in Britain ticket holders would be given membership of the Spiritualist Association of Great Britain, hear talks by Druids, Wiccan priests and priestesses, attend seances by England’s leading mediums, and spend several nights in haunted inns and ghost- ridden manor houses.42 The eco-feminist message of witchcraft was further defined by Miriam Simos, better known as Starhawk, who promoted witchcraft as a Goddess nature religion with a strain of transcendentalism that can be traced through America’s past. Her book The Spiral Dance (1979), which expressed the rebirth of an ancient religion, apparently sold around 50,000 copies in the first six years, and is still in print today. In it she explained that witchcraft was ‘a religion, perhaps the oldest religion extant in the West. Its origins go back before Christianity, Judaism, Islam—before Buddhism and Hinduism... [it] is closer in spirit to Native American traditions or to the shamanism of the Arctic’.43

In an era of protest and activism, it would be surprising if Wicca did not develop a militant wing. Leading it from New York was Leo Martello, a graphologist, hypnotist and gay rights activist. On Halloween 1970 he organized a ‘witch-in’ event in Central Park, New York, that the authorities tried to ban, mimicking the ‘sit-in’ protests of the previous decade and the ‘bed-in’ by John Lennon and Yoko Ono in protest at the Vietnam War. He then founded the Witches’ Liberation Movement and later the Witches Anti-Defamation League, and demanded reparations from the Catholic Church for their role in the Burning Times. ‘Today witches are treated like refugees from a psychotic ward’, Martello complained to a journalist in 1974, as they sat in his red and black ritual chamber.44 Thanks to his energies and media savvy, though, ‘for the first time in history, modem witches are fighting for their constitutionally guaranteed civil rights’.45 That said, there was nothing actually illegal about practising witchcraft as a religion. The old state laws against obtaining money by fortune-telling, palmistry, mediumship, and other ‘crafty science’, were still in place, tinkered with and updated here and there. The District of Columbia innovated, for instance, by licensing this occult trade. But the laws were rarely stringently enforced and did not impinge on the new witch religion.46

Two clear indicators that modem witchcraft had lodged itself firmly in American culture were when it was linked with Playboy and when it was recognized by the Internal Revenue Service. In 1970, Playboy Bunny Starr Maddox, a member of a Miami Wiccan coven, was photographed in glamorous witch pose alongside one of her in a Bunny costume. Maddox told journalists, ‘It bothers my parents’— Wicca that was, not posing as a Bunny. ‘They’re strict fundamentalists and they don’t believe in witches’. Her parents sent a minister round to talk to her, but he soon made his excuses once she began questioning him. A couple of years later she was in Chicago promoting a Playboy production of Macbeth, confiding that in a previous life she had been burned at the stake for witchcraft.47 The same year, 1972, the IRS certified that the Church and School of Wicca was a religious association and therefore tax exempt. The Church had been founded by British engineer Gavin Frost and his American wife Yvonne in Missouri in 1968. They created the first and longest-lasting correspondence course in pagan witchcraft.48

Who were these modem witches? They were nearly all white, urban, mostly middle class, and over half, female. Morgan McFarland’s seventy-five members seem representative. They included dentists, solicitors, secretaries, students, professionals with postgraduate degrees, nurses, and track drivers. Most were in their mid-twenties and mid-thirties.49 The media coverage pioneered by Leek helped normalize interest in the movement, but outside the main cities, those wanting to join a coven faced challenges. Desiring to be a witch was not something to discuss with the parents over Sunday lunch or to pin on the local town noticeboard. So advertisements began to appear in the personal columns of the regional press, such as this one from an Ohio newspaper in 1973, ‘I am interested in Wicca. Persons with information please call...’; this from a Louisiana paper, WICCA study group forming. For information, write... and from Alabama, ‘Couple interested in Wicca Traditions wish to contact other persons with similar interests’.50

By no means was all media coverage neutral, relaxed, or humorous. Wicca took off at a time when fears of satanic cults had been fuelled by other darker strains in the late sixties counterculture.51 Roman Polanski’s superbly atmospheric film Rosemary’s Baby caused a sensation in 1968 with its creeping paranoia that a New York occult group was engineering the sacrifice of an infant. It transpires that they are Satanists heralding the birth of the child as a Satanic messiah. Then, the following year, the Charles Manson murders shocked America, further fuelling concerns over the growing influence of satanic cults. Scare stories multiplied shortly after. ‘Hippie commune witchcraft blood rites told’, screamed a headline from the Los Angeles Herald Examiner. It reported that police in Santa Cruz were concerned about the growth of ‘witchcraft cults that sacrifice animals and turn humans into “slaves of Satan”’.52 In 1972, a Christian evangelist named Mike Wamke published a best-selling book entitled The Satan-Seller in which he shocked and fascinated readers with his purported former life as the leader of a Satanic cult in the late 60s, practising magic, invoking demons, taking drugs, indulging in orgies, and committing rape. It was denounced by some as a tissue of lies, but the template was repeated in other spurious ‘I was a Satanist’ books over the next couple of decades. No wonder that Morgan McFarland complained to a journalist in 1972, ‘too many people in the United States confuse it with Satanism, and how could it be? Witchcraft, real witchcraft, doesn’t recognize the existence of Satan or the Devil. That’s a Christian concept’.53 Unfortunately an increasingly powerful evangelical media stoked the fires of misinformation and suspicion.

In 1972 the Rev Hershel R. Smith travelled across America in his funky ‘witchmobile’, a van containing an anti-occult display of paraphernalia that had been constructed by Wamke and the controversial Pentecostal evangelist Morris Cerullo, head of the World Evangelism, Inc. ministry. Cerullo was a vocal campaigner against the modestly burgeoning witchcraft movement, preaching that 10 million Americans were dabbling in the occult, and that there were 100,000 practising Satanists. At the age of twenty, Smith claimed he was a member of a coven in San Francisco; that would have been in the early 1960s if true, but it was not. He said he was a morphine addict and alcoholic, supporting himself by drag dealing, emanating demonic pressures, and hexing people. He made a pact with the Devil to take his life at the age of twenty-five, but found God before sacrificing himself. Ordained a minister, he ran Teen-Power, a centre for rehabilitating witchcraft believers in San Bernardino, California, and took to the road in the witchmobile.54 While attracting the interest of the press, his local visits were not necessarily a smashing success. An encounter arranged in St Louis between Smith and the Frosts, who were well prepared with an audio-visual presentation of their craft, ended as a damp squib. Smith failed to turn up and the eight Wiccans present outnumbered an audience of five.55

Still, the drip of Satanism scare stories made an impression on the American public. When, in 1972, the decomposed body of a girl was found in a quarry in Union County, New Jersey, police reported that they found bits of what they described as wooden crosses over her head, and pieces of wood around the body ‘like a coffin’. The authorities said the murder might be linked to a witchcraft coven that was rumoured to exist in the area. The girl’s parents agreed that she might be the victim of black witchcraft or Satanism. The following year the murder of a seventeen-year-old amusement park worker on Daytona Beach was described as a ‘witchcraft slaying’ committed by a gang of transient teenage beach- bums. A local resident reported that a satanic witchcraft coven operated at a house nearby, and he had heard that they signed their names in blood in a register.56As with some of the so-called hex slayings of the 1920s and 1930s the introduction of witchcraft and Satanism was sensational spin generated by press reportage and an overly loquacious police, with the murders usually turning out to be have more mundane origins.

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