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10 Weird Facts About Witches

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The practice of witchcraft is deeply rooted in history, and has—excuse the joke—conjured up some very interesting myths. Here are a few facts.

1. Most witches weren't burned at the stake.

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The common image of a witch’s execution shows a large group of hysteric people surrounding the guilty person on a burning pyre—but immolation was not the primary means of execution used for those accused of witchcraft. During the Salem Witch Trials, no one was burned to death; all of the accused that pled their cases and were found guilty during the Trials in 1692 were hanged. In fact, no one found guilty of witchcraft was ever executed by burning in the American colonies—immolation wasn't permissible by English law. But one person was pressed to death by large stones: Giles Corey, a man who refused to plead guilty or not guilty for charges of witchcraft during the Trials. The court found Corey guilty despite staying mute by using the French legal precedent of “peine forte et dure.” Corey is the only person in US history to be pressed to death by court order.

2. Witch hunts didn't specifically target women.

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Historically-rooted misogyny led many to believe that women were somehow more susceptible to the dark arts or temptation by the Devil, and therefore more likely to be witches. For instance, the Laws of Alfred, written by King of Wessex Alfred the Great in AD 893, specified witchcraft as an expressly female activity. But men practiced, too, and were called many different names, including a wizard, a warlock, or a sorcerer.   

Countless women and men were indiscriminately persecuted for witchcraft throughout history. During the Trier Witch Trials in Germany, which lasted from 1581 to 1593, a total of 368 people were executed—and many of the victims were leading male figures of the cities and surrounding villages, including judges, councilors, priests, and deans of colleges. In the Würzburg Witch Trial, which stretched from 1626 to 1631, 157 men, women, and children were burned at the stake for such random reasons as allegedly humming songs with the Devil to being a vagrant unable to give an explanation as to why they were passing through the town of Würzburg.

3. Not all Witches were Bad.

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Even though we’ve got that common image of an evil witch—a warty old woman dressed all in black, riding a broomstick, with a pointy hat—anybody familiar with The Wizard of Oz knows that there can be good witches too! Glinda the good witch was a representation of the benevolent half of witchcraft, known as white magic. Historically, practitioners of white magic were known as white witches, and they were more folk healers than devious people out for double, double toil and trouble. However, writer C.S. Lewis reversed the notion for The Chronicles of Narnia saga, making one of the main antagonists the icy and evil White Witch.

4. People could be convicted of witchcraft without any solid evidence.

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During the Salem Witch Trials, most of the legally-recognized evidence used against those accused of witchcraft amounted to spectral evidence, or “witness testimony that the accused person's spirit or spectral shape appeared to him/her witness in a dream at the time the accused person's physical body was at another location,” which was accepted “on the basis that the devil and his minions were powerful enough to send their spirits, or specters, to pure, religious people in order to lead them astray.” Other evidence used against them were so-called “Witch’s Marks” on their skin that allegedly proved they had made pacts with the devil. Contemporary research suggests these marks were possibly small ordinary lesions or supernumerary nipples.

5. We don't know where the word "witch" came from.

All the etymology geeks out there may or may not be surprised to know that the word “witch” is of indeterminate origin. The closest and most obvious possible origin is the Old English word wicce, which means “female sorceress,” and is the basic linguistic root for the modern day pagan religion, Wicca. Another more specific possibility is a split meaning coming from the Old English wigle, meaning “divination” and wih, meaning “idol,” both coming from the Proto-Germanic word wikkjaz, which means “necromancer,” or “one who wakes the dead.”

6. People wrote entire books dedicated to witch hunting.

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In the 15th century, witchcraft was of grave concern to a lot of people, and major pieces of literature were written about witches. The most famous was the Malleus Maleficarum, a legal and theological document that became the de facto handbook on how to deal with witches and witchcraft, and spurred the nascent hysteria caused by witch-hunting in Europe that would last well into the 18th century. The book was written by two clergyman of the Dominican Order—Jakob Sprenger, the dean of the University of Cologne, and Heinrich Kramer, a theology professor at the University of Salzburg—and used Exodus 22:18, “You shall not permit a sorceress to live,” as its basis to detect and persecute any and all witches.

Even people as important as kings got in on the action. James I of England’s 1597 book, Daemonologiewas a treatise that threw his support behind the importance of the practice of witch hunting. James himself even presided over the 1590 North Berwick Witch Trials when he believed a devious Earl plotted to overthrow the then-King of Scotland with the help of a coven. 

7. A Pope Once Confirmed that Witches Exist.

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The Catholic Church saw witchcraft as a threat to all of its followers. In 1484, Pope Innocent VIII issued a papal bull titled “Summis desiderantes affectibus” (“Desiring with supreme ardor”) that recognized the existence of witches, saying, “many persons of both sexes, heedless of their own salvation and forsaking the Catholic faith, give themselves over to devils male and female,” and that they “afflict and torture with dire pains and anguish, both internal and external, these men, women, cattle, flocks, herds, and animals, and hinder men from begetting and women from conceiving, and prevent all consummation of marriage; that, moreover, they deny with sacrilegious lips the faith they received in holy baptism; and that, at the instigation of the enemy of mankind, they do not fear to commit and perpetrate many other abominable offences and crimes, at the risk of their own souls, to the insult of the divine majesty and to the pernicious example and scandal of multitudes.” The papal bull effectively gave Kramer and Sprenger—the writers of the Malleus Maleficarum—the God-given authority to begin their Inquisition.

8. Laws About Witchcraft were in place in the mid-20th Century.

Technically, England’s Witchcraft Act of 1735 was still official and on the books until 1951, when it was replaced with the Fraudulent Mediums Act. The language of the original Act wasn’t about persecuting witches per se, but rather made it illegal for people to claim that others were witches. Yet being legally convicted meant that you purported to have the powers of a witch—and in fact, a woman named Jane Rebecca Yorke was found guilty in 1944 under the law, though she was convicted mostly because she was defrauding people with bogus séances.

9. Witches probably didn't wear pointy hats.

The origin of the association of the broad-brimmed, pointy hat with witches is murky at best. One school of thought is that it is based on the peaked cap Jews were required to wear after a 1215 decree by Pope Innocent III. Rampant anti-Semitism soon caused folks to associate heretics, pagans, and demons with wearers of the so-called Judenhat. In the early 1700s, the image was co-opted by artists who immortalized the image in paintings of the old hag in the witch’s hat we know today.

10. Witches really did "fly" on broomsticks, in a way.

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The origins of the broom as a witch's preferred mode of transportation is ... pretty weird. People who practiced witchcraft experimented with herbs and potions in rituals that may have used the mandrake plant. Mandrake contains scopolamine and atropine, two alkaloids that cause feelings of euphoria in low doses and hallucinations in higher doses.

The rituals—performed in the nude—called for the participants to rub an herbal ointment containing the mandrake on their foreheads, wrists, hands, and feet as well as on a staff that they would “ride.” The friction of the ointment-coated staff on the witches', uh, lady parts would absorb the ointment into their system and cause a floating sensation—and their description of that feeling is what perpetuated the symbol of the witch flying on a broomstick.

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Museum of the City of New York
New York City Exhibition Celebrates the Rebellious Victorian-Era Women Who Made History
Museum of the City of New York
Museum of the City of New York

At a time when women wore corsets and hooped skirts, the American Jewish actress Adah Isaacs Menken caused quite a stir when she appeared onstage in men’s clothing. It was the early 1860s, and her portrayal of a man in the play Mazeppa saw her ride into the theater on a horse while wearing a flesh-colored body stocking. Critics were shocked, but Menken paid no mind. Both on stage and in her daily life, she continued to disregard the norms of that era by cutting her hair short and smoking cigarettes in public.

Menken is just one of the daring women featured in a new exhibition at the Museum of the City of New York. Rebel Women: Defying Victorianism celebrates the New York women who challenged the rigid expectations of the Victorian era, and includes a collection of photographs, clothes, and prints from the period.

A caricatures of the "Grecian bend"
Museum of the City of New York

The 19th century was a period of constraints for women. "During this era, a woman could be considered a rebel simply by speaking in public, working outside the home, or disregarding middle‐class morality or decorum," according to a museum statement. “Yet 19th‐century New York City was full of women who defied those expectations in both overt and subtle ways.”

The exhibit highlights the accomplishments of historic figures who contributed to the advancement of women’s rights, like Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, but it also casts a light on lesser-known figures—many of whom history was unkind to.

A photo of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony
Museum of the City of New York

An illustration of women voting
Museum of the City of New York

There’s Ann Trow Lohman, also known as “Madame Restell,” who was dubbed “The Wickedest Woman in New York” for providing birth control to women. Similarly, Hetty Green earned the moniker “The Witch of Wall Street” for her successful career as a stock broker.

Visitors will also learn about a predecessor to Rosa Parks: Elizabeth Jennings Graham, a black New Yorker who refused to get off of a segregated street car in 1854.

Not all of the women had such noble goals, though, and the exhibition shows that men didn’t have a monopoly on crime. Notorious pickpocket and con-woman Sophie Lyons used her smarts and beauty to steal from wealthy men and earned a reputation as "the most notorious confidence woman America has ever produced."

The exhibition will be on view until January 6, 2019, and tickets can be purchased online.

Marshall McLuhan, the Man Who Predicted the Internet in 1962

Futurists of the 20th century were prone to some highly optimistic predictions. Theorists thought we might be extending our life spans to 150, working fewer hours, and operating private aircrafts from our homes. No one seemed to imagine we’d be communicating with smiley faces and poop emojis in place of words.

Marshall McLuhan didn’t call that either, but he did come closer than most to imagining our current technology-led environment. In 1962, the author and media theorist, predicted we’d have an internet.

That was the year McLuhan, a professor of English born in Edmonton, Canada on this day in 1911, wrote a book called The Gutenberg Galaxy. In it, he observed that human history could be partitioned into four distinct chapters: The acoustic age, the literary age, the print age, and the then-emerging electronic age. McLuhan believed this new frontier would be home to what he dubbed a “global village”—a space where technology spread information to anyone and everyone.

Computers, McLuhan said, “could enhance retrieval, obsolesce mass library organization,” and offer “speedily tailored data.”

McLuhan elaborated on the idea in his 1962 book, Understanding Media, writing:

"Since the inception of the telegraph and radio, the globe has contracted, spatially, into a single large village. Tribalism is our only resource since the electro-magnetic discovery. Moving from print to electronic media we have given up an eye for an ear."

But McLuhan didn’t concern himself solely with the advantages of a network. He cautioned that a surrender to “private manipulation” would limit the scope of our information based on what advertisers and others choose for users to see.

Marshall McLuhan died on December 31, 1980, several years before he was able to witness first-hand how his predictions were coming to fruition.

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