In 1838 a magazine correspondent recalled how around seventeen years before he had been told by a schoolmistress of a case of three children having been bewitched in Batavia Street, New York. The teacher earnestly believed it was a genuine case.53 A few years later witchcraft accusations swirled around the streets of downtown Manhattan.
On 20 January 1829 a New York police court heard a complaint of assault and battery brought by Mary Boman against Martha Ann Sloan and Catharine Lane.54 The events took place in Water Street, Manhattan, near the docks. It was a crowded bustling place of boarding houses and stores. Brothels and drinking holes catered for the sailors and dockworkers. With its proximity to the marshy waters, the inhabitants were prone to bouts of cholera and malaria. Tenements were built there in the early 1830s, leading to overcrowding, and the street would soon become notorious as a den of moral iniquity. Its population was poor with a considerable proportion being recent immigrants from Europe, the Irish—like Martha Sloan—in particular. But in 1829 it had not yet slid all the way down.
Appearing before the magistrate, Sloan and Lane denied assaulting Boman and instead claimed they were fearful of the threats made by Boman who they suspected was a witch. When questioned as to Boman’s being a witch, Catharine Lane replied:
Why, I do believe some part of it, because she has made her brags that Mrs Dexter should never get off her bed again; and it was so, for she is bedridden now; and I have heard that woman say, that Mrs Dexter had sent for her to come in and see her, and she had refused to do it, because in that case all the evil which she had caused to fall upon Mrs Dexter, would recoil upon herself.
Martha Sloan added:
Yes — and more than that: there is a girl that she has boasted to have given a disease of which she can never be cured. Her face is twisted and deformed by convulsions, so that she is terrible to look upon. They have had a great many physicians to see her, but they have declared her incurable, and one of them said that if he had a hundred dollars down, he could not remove the disease.
Lane described how she had seen Boman making human figures out of rags into which she placed salt and pepper. She stuck pins and needles into them, and then placed them in the fire, muttering some spell as they burned. A sailor named Williams who was present in the police office confirmed he knew of Boman’s reputation for witchcraft, noting that her landlady believed she had injured several other people in her boarding house. Williams made it clear, however, that he personally did not believe in witchcraft.
The magistrate also questioned a sailor named Bright who had accompanied the two defendants to the police office and had offered to provide bail for their appearance. Referring to Boman, Bright told the magistrate, ‘she is what I call a “Five Point Ranger”.... I believe she can do a great many uncommon things. I have heard her say, that she could raise the Forties any time she liked’. The Five Points was an area not far from Water Street named after a large five-pointed junction of roads. During the 1820s the population swelled, predominantly by Irish immigrants but also by a sizeable minority of African Americans. By 1830 it had a reputation as the poorest, most violent and vice ridden spot in the city. Waterborne diseases thrived in the swampy polluted waters that frequently flooded the area. The squalor and violence of the place worsened over the next few years as more and more immigrants poured in and were dragged into the gutter where crime and prostitution flourished. In 1842 the inquisitive Charles Dickens visited the Five Points accompanied by a police escort, and like other
British visitors familiar with the London slums, was nevertheless shocked: ‘Ruined houses open to the street, whence, through wide gaps in the walls, other ruins loom upon the eye, as though the world of vice and misery had nothing else to show: hideous tenements which take their name from robbery and murder; all that is loathsome, drooping, and decayed is here’. The powerful ‘Forties’ that Bright believed Boman could raise through her witchery referred to the criminal gang from the Five Points known as the Forty Thieves. This was the first recorded organized criminal fraternity in America. It was founded in the mid-1820s by immigrant Irishmen and was initially led by one Edward Coleman. The Forty Thieves pretty much controlled the area and to be able to call them up through magic would have been a pretty impressive boast.
‘The charge of witchcraft is a somewhat curious one’, said the magistrate after hearing all the testimony. ‘It is not so serious now, as it would have been some centuries back, although it may have considerable effect upon the minds of the ignorant part of the community’. One of the women was bound over to face criminal prosecution for assault and battery, and when she and her bail were asked to sign the bond they had to mark with a cross because they were illiterate. The magistrate, sharing the widespread assumption that education was an antidote to such beliefs, commented that it was no wonder that they believed in witchcraft.
Witchcraft after Salem was clearly not just a story of fireside tales, legends, and superstitions. It continued to be a matter of life and death, souring the American dream for many immigrants, and spoiling the lives of those who had been settled for generations. Witches were integral to the cultural fabric of America. They were part of the story of the decimation of the Native Americans, the experience of slavery and emancipation, and the immigrant experience; they were embedded in the religious and social history of the country. Yet the history of American witchcraft also tells a less traumatic story, one that shows how different cultures interacted, and shaped each others’ languages and beliefs. It reveals shared cultural traits, fears, thought patterns and weaknesses. The history presented in the ensuing pages will, I hope, spark greater scholarly and public interest in a subject that plumbs the depths of what it meant to be American.