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Where to find witchcraft

The history of witchcraft after Salem has primarily focused upon Native Americans and African Americans. But race is not the only influence on the way in which the geography of witchcraft has been imprinted on the American mind. You do not see witches in Westerns, for example, but the belief in them travelled with those pioneers who trekked west in the mid-nineteenth century and settled there. The long history of European witchcraft accusations in the former Spanish territories of New Mexico and Texas has already been touched upon, but belief in witchcraft was present amongst Europeans elsewhere in the Wild West. Witchcraft crops up in the macabre story of the serial-killing ‘Hell Benders’ of Cherryvale, Kansas. The Bender family consisted of German immigrants John Bender and his supposed wife, their daughter Kate (not by John), and a young man who posed as her brother. In 1870 they built a cabin and set up a small grocery store and rest stop along a well-worn trail. Kate, in her early twenties made a modest name for herself as a spiritualist medium touring the surrounding settlements. She also had a reputation for darker powers, her ‘brother’ informing one visitor that ‘she could control the devil, and that the devil did her bidding’. Kate apparently accused another female visitor, who escaped their clutches, of bewitching her coffee. In a region notorious for gunfighters and bandits the Benders quietly went about their business murdering weary travellers, taking their possessions and burying the corpses in the garden. The family fled the area in 1873 after a visit by a fifty-strong posse led by Colonel York, who was looking for his missing brother, a physician who was one of the Benders’ victims. Despite rumours to the contrary, the Benders were never brought to justice.49

Yet many people would find it surreal to see a witch turn up in a Western movie. Pulp literature and films about the Wild West have shaped our perceptions of what life was like, and witches are not part of it. By contrast it would not seem out of place for witchcraft to be central to a late nineteenth-century drama set amongst hillbillies in the Appalachians and Ozarks, or amongst the Pennsylvania Dutch. The hex reputation of the latter will be discussed later in the book, but as a perceptive New York Times journalist cautioned in 1911, ‘A man named Smith is just as likely to believe in charms and incantations as a man named Schmidt’.50

Urbanizing America represents an equally glaring blank in the geography of witchcraft. As already noted, early folklorists tended to avoid the cities as barren ground for the gamering of old traditions and beliefs.51 Urbanization may have generated terrible squalor and chaotic slums, but they were also characterized as beacons of industry, rationality, and cynicism. Cities represented progress, and although it was recognized that fortune tellers, astrologers, prophets, and quacks flourished in the search for prosperity and the American dream, despite a few shady spots, the social and physical urban environment were thought to leave little space for ‘traditional superstitions’ to flourish. But again, the reality was clearly otherwise. Many of the witchcraft dramas studied in this book were acted out in urban America, which, on reflection, is not surprising. It was to the cities that millions of immigrants flocked, and where they found themselves thrown together in a chaotic multicultural whirlwind. Some of the northern industrial towns of the early twentieth century were made up mostly of recent arrivals from diverse cultures. They became American on paper but for at least a generation spoke their old tongue in the home, sent their children to church schools where no English was spoken, and clung to the culture, food, and customs of their homelands. People sought to recreate their old family and community structures in the new world. Italian Americans are an obvious example. In 1870, the Italian-born population of Philadelphia, for instance, was only 300, but by 1930 there were more than 155,000 Italians in the city forming their own close-knit neighbourhoods sometimes based around ‘old country’ local and regional links. A Chicago social worker in the 1920s reported several instances amongst the city’s Calabrian Italian population where sickness was attributed to witchcraft and was cured traditionally within the community.52

In the short term, witchcraft accusations were generated through the psychological disorientation and social disruption of rapid urbanization. This was sometimes expressed in terms of mental illness, often played out within intimate, claustrophobic domestic settings. At other times it arose from the suspicion or misunderstanding of other cultures’ rituals and beliefs in melting-pot communities.

In the longer term, settled and stable neighbourhoods with broadly shared local identities formed in which certain individuals develop reputations for witchcraft over decades through gossip and the collective accumulation of strange coincidences and misfortunes. As an initial example of such urban witches, let us see how witchcraft disputes played out in the streets of early nineteenth-century New York.

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