Peek Inside a Trove of Witchcraft Artifacts at This Rare Exhibit

Courtesy of Cornell University
Courtesy of Cornell University

Ithaca, New York is home to perhaps the world’s spookiest library repository. The Cornell Witchcraft Collection contains more than 3000 books, manuscripts, and artifacts, providing a historic overview of European magic, superstition, and persecution. These items are typically accessible to the public only by appointment—but starting this Halloween, a new exhibition will allow visitors to get up close and personal with an assortment of witchy relics.

The World Bewitch’d” will be the university’s first full-fledged exhibition dedicated to the Cornell Witchcraft Collection. Containing around 200 items—including rare books, handwritten trial transcriptions, early images of witches in flight, and more—it will trace how societal views of witchcraft have spread and evolved over the past few centuries, in addition to telling the stories of real-life trial victims. It will also include popular culture depictions of the witch, including 20th and 21st century movie posters.

Cornell’s Witchcraft Collection was originally compiled in the 1880s by university co-founder Andrew Dickson White and his librarian, George Lincoln Burr. White “was interested in things at the margin,” Anne Kenney, a now-retired Cornell University librarian who co-curated “The World Bewitch’d,” tells Mental Floss.

In addition to witchcraft materials, White also collected anti-slavery and Civil War pamphlets, and had a particular fascination “with those who were oppressed and subject to discrimination,” Kenney says. White ended up amassing North America's largest collection of witchcraft artifacts, and one of the world's largest collections of slavery and abolitionist materials.

“The World Bewitch’d” will include a mix of contemporary and archival items, says Kenney, who co-organized the exhibit along with Kornelia Tancheva, another former Cornell librarian. It also contains plenty of “firsts”: the first-known book on witchcraft ever printed, the first printed image of witches in flight, and the first-known illustration of the devil claiming an evil spirit, to name a few.

Woodcut illustration of the Berkeley Witch from the Nuremberg Chronicle, ca. 1493

Woodcut illustration of the Berkeley Witch from the Nuremberg Chronicle, ca. 1493. This image popularized the link between the practice of witchcraft and the devil.

Courtesy of Cornell University

The first book on witchcraft was printed in 1471, and was authored by Alphonso de Spina, a Spanish Franciscan bishop, preacher, and writer. Called Fortalitium Fidei (Fortress of Faith), it “describes the various threats to the Catholic faith, and the last of those threats dealt with the war of demons, which also included witchcraft,” Kenney says.

Also on display will be the Nuremberg Chronicle, the 1493 Biblical world history text by Hartmann Schedel. It contains a woodblock print of the Devil carrying off the Witch of Berkeley, a figure from English folklore. This image “helped popularize the link between the practice of witchcraft and the devil,” Kenney says. “It was reproduced around the 16th century, and lots of people mimicked it in their representation of witches.”

Meanwhile, the first printed image of witches in flight comes from legal scholar Ulrich Molitor’s 1489 treatise on witchcraft, De Lamiis et Pythonicis Mulieribus. It was the first witchcraft book to contain woodcut illustrations, although his witches in flight straddle wooden forks instead of brooms. (Brooms were a “later conceit,” Kenney says.) The witches are presented as animals, to demonstrate their purported shape-shifting abilities.

The first printed image of witches in flight. Ulrich Molitor, 1493, De lamiis et phitonicis mulieribus

The first printed image of witches in flight. Ulrich Molitor, 1493, De lamiis et phitonicis mulieribus

Courtesy of Cornell University

David Hauber Eberhard, 1695 to 1765, Bibliotheca acta et scripta magica: Gründliche Nachrichten und Urtheile von solchen Büchern und Handlungen, welche die Macht des Teufels in leiblichen Dingen betreffen.

David Hauber Eberhard, 1695 to 1765, Bibliotheca acta et scripta magica: Gründliche Nachrichten und Urtheile von solchen Büchern und Handlungen, welche die Macht des Teufels in leiblichen Dingen betreffen.

Courtesy of Cornell University

While largely concerned with popular representations of witches, other parts of the exhibition will shift visitors’ focus back to real-life victims of persecution. One exhibition case will focus on two sensational trials that involved men, including the story of Dietrich Flade, a high-ranking judge in the city of Trier, Germany, whose opposition to witch trials led to his own accusation, torture, and execution in 1589. Another will tell the tales of seven individual women who were accused of witchcraft.

The gendering of witchcraft is yet another key theme in the exhibition—around 80 percent of accused witches were women, Kenney says. Most of the accused women included in “The World Bewitch’d” "had reputations of being difficult and ill-tempered—one of the signs of being a witch was if you swore or cursed,” Kenney says. “Women who were highly independent, and not subservient, might have been more subject to being targeted. All of these women suffered torture. Only two of them—two sisters—were declared innocent, because one of them withstood torture for quite a bit of time and did not confess to any crimes.”

Théophile Louïse, De la sorcellerie et de la justice criminelle à Valenciennes (XVIe et XVIIe siècles), 1861

Théophile Louïse, De la sorcellerie et de la justice criminelle à Valenciennes (XVIe et XVIIe siècles), 1861

Courtesy of Cornell University

R.B., 1632 to 1725, The kingdom of darkness: or, The history of daemons, specters, witches, apparitions, possessions, disturbances, and other wonderful and supernatural delusions, mischievous feats and malicious impostures of the Devil.

R.B., 1632 to 1725, The kingdom of darkness: or, The history of daemons, specters, witches, apparitions, possessions, disturbances, and other wonderful and supernatural delusions, mischievous feats and malicious impostures of the Devil.

Courtesy of Cornell University

In short, "The World Bewitch'd" "isn't an exhibition to take trick-or-treaters to," Kenney laughs. But it's still a must-see for anyone interested in the history of witchcraft—or those who prefer to get their thrills from libraries instead of haunted houses.

"The World Bewitch'd" will go on display in Cornell's Carl A. Kroch Library in the Hirshland Exhibiton Gallery on October 31 and run through August 31, 2018.

Hundreds of 17th-Century Case Notes of Bizarre Medical Remedies Have Been Published Online

Illustrated portrait of Simon Forman.
Illustrated portrait of Simon Forman.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

As medical texts, the writings of Simon Forman and Richard Napier aren't very useful. The so-called "doctors," regarded as celebrities in 16th- and 17th-century England, prescribed such treatments as nursing puppies and wearing dead pigeons as shoes. But as bizarre pieces of history, the 80,000 case notes the two quacks left behind are fascinating. The BBC reports that 500 of them have now been digitized and published online.

Forman and Napier were active in the English medical scene from the 1590s to the 1630s. They treated countless patients with remedies that straddled the line between medicine and mysticism, and their body of work is considered one of the largest known historical medical collections available for study today. After transcribing the hard-to-read notes and translating them into accessible English, a team of researchers at Cambridge University has succeeded in digitizing a fraction of the records.

By visiting the project's website, you can browse Forman and Napier's "cures" for venereal disease ("a plate of lead," "Venice turpentine," and blood-letting), pox (a mixture of roses, violets, boiled crabs, and deer dung), and breastfeeding problems (using suckling puppies to get the milk flowing). Conditions that aren't covered in today's medical classes, such as witchcraft, spiritual possession, and "chastity diseases," are also addressed in the notes.

All 500 digitized case notes are now available to view for free. And in case you thought horrible medical diagnoses were left in the 17th century, here some more terrifying remedies from relatively recent history.

[h/t BBC]

When Sir Arthur Conan Doyle Tried Solving a Real Mystery

An 1892 drawing of Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson, published in The Strand Magazine
An 1892 drawing of Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson, published in The Strand Magazine
Sidney Paget, Wikimedia // Public Domain

On September 1, 1907, the New York Times wrote:

It looks as if Sir Arthur Conan Doyle will eventually come to be considered an even greater detective than he made out Sherlock Holmes to be.

Doyle had found himself embroiled in a case that captured worldwide media attention for the fact that he, and not his famous sleuth, was trying to solve it. In 1906, a man named George Edalji was freed from prison after being sentenced for the crime of animal cruelty. He stood accused of injuring horses and cattle in Great Wyrley, and also of writing letters threatening to do the same to women. Upon his release, he wrote to Doyle asking for the celebrated author’s help in proving his innocence.

Doyle, who typically turned down such requests, was grieving over his wife's death and was eager for a distraction. He suspected Edalji’s Indian heritage was partly to blame for his conviction, as the Staffordshire police were believed to be racially discriminatory and the physical evidence was flimsy. (Another horse had even been attacked while Edalji was in prison.)

Doyle’s theory of the man’s innocence was largely dependent on his eyesight. In a remarkably Holmes-esque observation during their first meeting, Doyle noted Edalji held his newspaper close to his face. Since the animal mutilations had taken place at night and the criminal would have had to navigate a series of obstacles, he figured Edalji’s vision was too poor for the accusations to make sense.

Once Doyle took up his cause, Edalji became a symbol for injustice. Letters poured in, both to Doyle and to the Daily Telegraph, who had published his argument of Edalji’s innocence. The Scottish writer J.M. Barrie (creator of Peter Pan) wrote to say, “I could not doubt that at all events Edalji had been convicted without any evidence worthy of the name.”

Not everyone was convinced. The chief constable, George Anson, did not appreciate Doyle inserting himself into what police considered a closed case. Doyle was not simply posturing as an amateur sleuth: he was a pest, bombarding Anson almost daily with letters questioning their investigation, offering alternative theories, and using his celebrity to keep the case in the newspapers. Since Edalji had already been freed, his intention was to get some kind of financial compensation for the wrongful conviction. Anson responded unkindly, dismissing Doyle’s ideas and delivering sharp retorts.

Doyle was a “contemptible brute,” Anson remarked.

But the author would not be dissuaded, even when an anonymous letter had been delivered to him that was threatening in tone and insisted Edalji was the guilty party. It led him to believe the guilty party was worried enough to try and shut Doyle’s efforts down. By this point, he had isolated his suspicions to Royden Sharp, a former sailor who was said to be aggressive and once showed off a horse lancet capable of inflicting the wounds seen in the injured animals.

Doyle’s actions, the anonymous correspondent wrote, were “to run the risk of losing kidneys and liver.”

Doyle would later learn the letter was not written by a suspect, but instead commissioned by an unlikely tormentor: Constable Anson.

The officer had become so aggrieved with Doyle that he believed forging this letter would either discourage the author or send him on a wild goose chase. In recently discovered records that went up for auction in 2015, Anson even expressed glee that he had fooled “Sherlock Holmes.”

Despite Anson’s attempts to embarrass Doyle, the author had too large a platform for the Home Office to ignore. In 1907, they pardoned Edalji of the mutilation crimes, which allowed him to return to work as a solicitor. But they refused to apologize or offer any restitution.

Doyle was frustrated by their stubborn reaction, but his efforts had one crucial impact on British law: the publicity surrounding Edalji led to the creation of an official Court of Appeals, easing the process for future defendants.

Though Doyle won over the court of public opinion, he failed to solve the case: Sharp was not seriously investigated by police. Whoever had stalked the horses, cows, and sheep during those nights in Great Wyrley has never been identified.

This story was first published in 2016 and republished in 2019.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER