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The Spellbinding Stories of 6 Historic Witches

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Cygnis insignis via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Today, we regard witches as fictional characters but here are the stories of six women who had a real magic moment.

1. MOTHER SHIPTON // KNARESBOROUGH, ENGLAND

The details of Ursula Southeil's life were handed down orally for some time before being published and have become harder to believe as the centuries passed. According to some legends, Southeil was born in 1488 to an unwed teenage mother in a cave locating in Knaresborough, North Yorkshire, England. (The site of the famous mineral spring that created the cave became a tourist attraction early on.) Other accounts paint her as a witch, the product of a prostitute mother and the devil himself for a father. Either way, she would go on to be known as Mother Shipton, a woman thought to be prophetess and known for her unfortunate looks. (After the prosecution of witches in England ceased in 1736, the legend began referring to her as a prophetess.)

Her predictions were said to be given in verse, like her contemporary Nostradamus. Unfortunately, Mother Shipton never wrote any of those prophetic verses down. The first record of them appeared in 1641, 80 years after her death. The prophesies that “came true” were the ones that were attributed to the long-dead Mother Shipton after the predicted event, and those that predicted a future after publication did not. The most famous of those was the vision that the world would end in 1881. It is very possible that Ursula Southeil was a locally-known medicine woman of some sort, but her much later fame as a prophetess or witch is attributed to the promotion of the cave and mineral spring. She died in 1561 at the age of 73. 

2. KATHARINA HENOT // COLOGNE, GERMANY

Born in 1570, Katharina Henot was the first female postmaster in Germany, a position she and her brother had inherited from their father. Henot was well-respected in the city of Cologne, but she was also caught up in the series of witch trials in the city that ran from 1626 to 1631. In 1627, she was accused of causing sickness amongst a group of nuns. Henot was tortured over a period of several months, but refused to confess to witchcraft. She was found guilty and sentenced to be burned alive at the stake.

However, the court proceedings in Henot’s case were suspect from the beginning, and did not follow legal procedure of the time. In 2012, the case was retried, and Henot was exonerated, almost 400 years after her death.   

3. ALSE YOUNG // WINDSOR, CONNECTICUT

Alse (or Alice) Young was born in 1600 in Windsor, Connecticut. We know very little about her besides the fact that she was the first person to be hanged for witchcraft in the American colonies in 1647, just five years after witchcraft became punishable by hanging in Connecticut. It was the beginning of a witchcraft scare in Connecticut that resulted in quite a few trials and some executions between 1647 and 1662. That’s when Governor John Winthrop declared that one accuser or witness would not be enough to convict someone of witchcraft. Accusations became much less common afterward. The tragic implication is that Young and most of her fellow victims were convicted and executed on the word of a single person. Young had a daughter named Alice Young Beamon who was also accused of witchcraft, 30 years later. Fortunately, Beamon was not executed.

4. MALIN MATSDOTTER // STOCKHOLM, SWEDEN

Between 1668 and 1676, over 200 people in Sweden were condemned to death for witchcraft. That era of witch trials ended with the execution of Malin Matsdotter, possibly because her death was particularly horrific. Matsdotter was also known as Rumpare-Malin. Born in Sweden in 1613, she was accused of witchcraft by her daughters. They said Matsdotter kidnapped her own grandchildren and took them to a witches sabbath rite. Matsdotter denied all charges, and refused to confess to the crime. Her attitude and refusal to confess, even under torture, led to a unique sentence: she would be burned alive. Other convicted witches in Sweden were strangled or beheaded before burning. Matsdotter was executed on August 5, 1676, the same day as another convicted witch, Anna Simonsdotter Hack, nicknamed “Tysk-Annika” (German-Anna). Hack went to her punishment with humility, praying to the end. She was decapitated before the fire was ignited. Matsdotter stood firm and reiterated her innocence as she was burned alive.

Afterward, there were a few more people accused of witchcraft, but executions were stopped. Only one more “witch” was executed in Sweden, and that wasn’t until 1704. After the case of Malin Matsdotter, the accusers were more likely to be arrested instead, and some were even executed for perjury.

5. TITUBA // SALEM, MASSACHUSETTS

We don’t know what year Tituba was born, or what name she was given at birth. But she was a real person and, barring fictional characters, is America’s most famous witch. Samuel Parris brought her back to Boston from his sugar plantation in Barbados in 1680, along with two other slaves. When Parris started a family and moved to Salem Village, Tituba accompanied them. Then, after 9-year-old Betty Parris and her cousin 11-year-old Abigail Williams started exhibiting strange and unexplained behaviors, thought to be the first hint of supernatural possession, Tituba became a suspect. As a slave from the Caribbean, she was a convenient scapegoat. Once witchcraft was mentioned, the young girls accused Tituba, along with several other women of Salem, of oppressing them. Samuel Parris beat Tituba until she confessed to any and all accusations.

Tituba was arrested, along with Sarah Osborn and Sarah Good, on charges of witchcraft on February 29, 1692. It was the beginning of the witch hunt frenzy that gripped Salem in 1692, in which hundreds were accused of witchcraft, twenty people were executed (including Sarah Good), and five died while jailed (including Sarah Osborn). But Tituba, the only one of the three who confessed to practicing witchcraft, sat in jail until the hysteria died down. She was never brought to trial. However, she stayed in jail for 13 months because Samuel Parris refused to pay the fees for her release.   

6. HELEN DUNCAN //  PORTSMOUTH, ENGLAND

In Britain, the Witchcraft Act of 1563, under which many people were prosecuted, was replaced with the more enlightened Witchcraft Act of 1735. The later law did away with the crime of witchcraft itself and ended the era of witch hunts and executions, but replaced it with the crime of pretending to be a witch or to possess supernatural abilities. It was, in essence, a law against fraud.

Helen Duncan was a Scottish medium who traveled through Britain in the early 20th century, telling fortunes and holding séances. She conjured up “ectoplasm” in her act using special effects trickery. Authorities usually ignored such activities unless someone complained. But then World War II happened. British authorities learned that Duncan had revealed the sinking of two British ships during various séances, despite the news being censored by the government. She was arrested in January of 1944. The charge could have been treason or even espionage, but that would have been difficult to prove, especially without disclosing government secrets. Instead, Duncan was tried for witchcraft under the 1735 law. She was jailed for nine months, and by the time she was released, the war was over. The Witchcraft Act of 1735 was finally repealed in 1951.    

See also: Historic Werewolves and Historic Vampires

   

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10 Famous Birthdays in May
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Some of our favorite historical figures were born in May. We couldn't possibly name them all, so here are just a few of the notable people we'll be celebrating.

1. SIGMUND FREUD: MAY 6, 1856

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Sigmund Freud is known as the Father of Psychoanalysis. The Vienna psychiatrist developed a theory of the unconscious mind, where the id, ego, and superego struggle to balance each other out in the human psyche. Freud attributed his patients' neuroses to childhood trauma, often cloaked in a sexual conflict. His work was at first deemed perverted, but his ideas started to spread after a series of lectures in the U.S. in 1909. After Freud's death in 1939, Freudian theory was hailed as genius in mainstream culture. But beginning in the 1960s, Freud's theories started to fall out of favor in academia and are largely discredited today. However, his attempts to map the psyche gave us the language we still use to discuss personality and mental health.

2. FRED ASTAIRE: MAY 10, 1899

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Fred Astaire began dancing when he was just four years old. Soon he and his sister Adele were in a performing arts school and started dancing professionally. First came vaudeville, then Broadway, and when Adele married, Fred headed to Hollywood. Producers were at first reluctant to cast Astaire as a leading man because of his looks, but his dancing soon won them over. Astaire appeared in dozens of films between 1933 and 1981, 10 of them with with dance partner Ginger Rogers. Although his later films did not revolve around dance numbers, Astaire was seen dancing in an episode of Battlestar Galactica as late as 1979, when he was 80 years old.

3. MARTHA GRAHAM: MAY 11, 1894

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Martha Graham wanted to dance from an early age, but her parents disapproved, so she didn't study dance until college. Her wildly emotional dancing led her to performances in New York, and in 1926 she established the Martha Graham Dance Company. Through the company, Graham promoted modern dance as a spiritual and emotional outlet. Over time, she came to be seen as a genius of the genre. Graham danced until she was in her '70s, and continued to choreograph dances until her death at age 91.

4. KATHARINE HEPBURN: MAY 12, 1907

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Katharine Hepburn caught the acting bug in college and headed to the stages of New York upon graduation. She was spotted in a Broadway production and was offered the lead in RKO's 1932 film A Bill of Divorcement. That kicked off a movie career of more than 60 years, in which she was nominated for 12 Academy Awards and won four. Hepburn was a certified box office draw, but off screen she refused to behave like a Hollywood star. She spoke her mind, wore pants, and even appeared in public without makeup occasionally. Hepburn was also known for her devotion to the love of her life, actor Spencer Tracy, who was separated from his wife but refused to divorce her. The last of nine films they made together was Guess Who's Coming to Dinner in 1967, just before Tracy died. Hepburn continued making movies through 1994, when she was 87 years old.

5. PIERRE CURIE: MAY 15, 1859

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French physicist Pierre Curie is often overlooked in favor of Marie Curie, his brilliant student and later wife. Together they discovered radium and polonium, and did extensive research into radioactivity. Pierre, Marie, and Henri Becquerel jointly won the 1903 Nobel Prize in Physics for their research. Curie might have gone onto many further discoveries, but he was killed in 1906 when a horse-drawn cart ran over him in Paris. If he had lived longer, Curie might have also succumbed to illness caused by radiation, as did his wife, daughter, and son-in-law—all Nobel Prize winners.

6. MARY CASSATT: MAY 22, 1844

Mary Cassatt via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Renowned American painter Mary Cassatt wanted to become an artist, but her parents objected and her Philadelphia art school didn't take women students seriously. So she went to Paris and studied privately under teachers from Ecole des Beaux-Arts, as the school did not admit women. Gradually, Cassatt's works sold and her reputation grew. She drew the attention of Impressionist Edgar Degas, and worked with him for years. By 1886, she left the Impressionist movement behind, and afterward refused to be defined by any art genre. Cassatt's body of work often featured women and children in their everyday lives. Her most memorable painting, Little Girl in a Blue Armchair, broke with tradition by portraying a child in a naturalistic, casual pose instead of a formal portrait.

7. SIR ARTHUR CONAN DOYLE: MAY 22, 1859

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Arthur Conan Doyle is best remembered for his many short stories and novels featuring the detective Sherlock Holmes. But Conan Doyle worked full time as a medical doctor until an illness convinced him he had to choose between writing and medicine. Years later, Conan Doyle volunteered with the British army to fight in the Second Boer War, but because of his age (40), he was only allowed to serve as a medical doctor. Upon his return from South Africa, he entered politics in Scotland, but he lost his only race. In 1907, Conan Doyle became involved in a real criminal case in which he helped George Edalji, a solicitor of Indian heritage, beat an animal cruelty conviction by employing the observational technique that Sherlock Holmes used. The fallout from that case led to the establishment of the appeals system in Britain. Conan Doyle also wrote a science fiction novel The Lost World, published in 1912. It was so successful that he wrote four sequels.

8. MARGARET FULLER: MAY 23, 1810

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Born in Massachusetts in 1810, Margaret Fuller was a precocious child who learned several languages but was not welcome at college because of her sex. She became friends with both Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, who admired her philosophical thinking. Fuller became a literary critic for the New-York Tribune and a well-known intellectual.

In 1845, Fuller made history with Woman in the Nineteenth Century, often considered the first major feminist work published in the United States. This groundbreaking book began as an essay in Emerson's transcendentalist journal The Dial called "The Great Lawsuit. Man versus Men. Woman versus Women," in which Fuller argued that men and women must see each other as equals before they can transcend to divine love. Fuller reasoned that ignoring our commonality was the base of much of America's sins, from the slaughter of Native Americans to the slavery of African Americans.

Fuller went on to become a foreign correspondent and the first American female war correspondent, covering the Italian revolution. She also fell in love with an Italian man and had a child with him. On their return trip to the U.S. in 1850 aboard a merchant ship, a hurricane struck the ship near Fire Island, killing all three. Only Fuller's 20-month-old son was found.

9. SALLY RIDE: MAY 26, 1951

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In 1983, Sally Ride became the first American woman to travel into space, aboard the space shuttle Challenger. Ride was a nationally ranked tennis player when she was a teenager. Billie Jean King urged her to turn pro, but Ride went to Stanford University instead. She earned both a bachelor of arts in English and a bachelor of science in physics in 1973, and a PhD in physics in 1978. Ride then immediately applied for NASA's astronaut program. She flew two shuttle missions, in 1983 and '84, and was scheduled for a third, but that mission was canceled after the Challenger explosion in 1986. After leaving NASA in 1987, Ride devoted her life to encouraging students to study science—especially girls. She founded the organization Sally Ride Science for just that purpose, and wrote five children's books encouraging interest in science. Ride died of cancer at age 61 in 2012.

10. "WILD BILL" HICKOK: MAY 27, 1837

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James Butler Hickok was a farmer, soldier, stagecoach driver, spy, lawman, scout, sharpshooter, gambler, and Wild West showman. Many of those occupations came after "Wild Bill" Hickok gained publicity for killing three men in an 1861 shootout. The newspapers followed his exploits from that time on, often embellishing the details until Hickok was more of a legend than the adventurer he was. His various occupations took him to different parts of Kansas, Nebraska, Missouri, Wyoming, and South Dakota. Hickok was playing poker in Deadwood, South Dakota, when Jack McCall shot him in the back of the head and killed him in 1876. The hand Hickok was holding at the time—a pair of black aces and a pair of black eights—became known as the "dead man's hand."

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9 Bizarre Food Museums
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What’s your favorite food? Chances are, there’s a museum dedicated to it somewhere. You might want to include one or more of these museums in your next vacation road trip.  

1. JELL-O GALLERY // LEROY, NEW YORK

Pearle Wait of LeRoy, New York, invented a fruit-flavored gelatin dessert in 1897 that he wife named Jell-O. Appropriately, the town is home to the Jell-O Gallery, a museum dedicated to the gelatin that took America by storm. Visitors will learn the history of Jell-O, see memorabilia and advertising from Jell-O history, and learn about cooking in the past century. The museums operated by the non-profit LeRoy Historical Society, and is not supported by Kraft/General Foods, which owns Jell-O. The museum is open seven days a week through December, and weekdays January through March.    

2. THE SPAM MUSEUM // AUSTIN, MINNESOTA

The Hormel company has its headquarters in Austin, Minnesota, a few miles south of Minneapolis. That’s also the home of the Spam Museum. Hormel opened a small company museum in the local mall in 1991, but quickly found that all their visitors cared about was Spam, so now that classic canned meat has its own building downtown. Exhibits include the history of Spam, cooking demonstrations, Spam memorabilia, and a soundtrack from Monty Python.

3. INTERNATIONAL BANANA MUSEUM // NORTH SHORE, CALIFORNIA

In 2005, the International Banana Club Museum was named by the Guinness Book of World Records as the “most items devoted to any one fruit in the world.” The IBC Museum was established by Ken Bannister and the club in 1975, and amassed its collection of 17,000 banana items from club members who gained “banana merits.” The collection was sold in 2010 and is now the International Banana Museum. It is open Monday through Friday from 11 a.m. to 7:30 p.m.   

4. WYANDOT POPCORN MUSEUM // MARION, OHIO

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Marion, Ohio, is the self-proclaimed Popcorn Capital of the World, due to the existence of the Wyandot Popcorn Company, which was based in the area since the 1930s. The company now focuses on chips, but its legacy is enshrined in the Wyandot Popcorn Museum, which boasts an extensive collection of restored antique popcorn poppers. These commercial poppers range from movie theater models to snack wagons to factory poppers, some over 100 years old. The museum shares space with the Wyandot Historical Society in the town’s historic former post office building. The museum is open Wednesday through Sunday, 1 to 4 p.m. through October, and weekends only the rest of the year.  

5. NATIONAL DAIRY SHRINE MUSEUM // FORT ATKINSON, WISCONSIN

The National Dairy Shrine is a professional group formed in 1949 promote the milk industry. The National Dairy Shrine Museum is a place to learn about all facets of the dairy industry, from the history of midwest dairy farmers to the production of butter, ice cream, cheese, and other products. The Shrine also has educational programs, a Hall of Fame honoring leaders in the industry, scholarships and internships, and more. The museum is open Tuesday through Saturday from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.

6. NATIONAL MUSTARD MUSEUM // MIDDLETON, WISCONSIN

Barry Levenson was once Wisconsin’s Assistant Attorney General, but his real passion is mustard. He’s been collecting different mustards since 1986, and eventually left his law career completely to devote his time to the Mount Horeb Mustard Museum he founded in 1992. In 2000, the growing museum moved to its permanent location in Middleton and became the National Mustard Museum. There you can see 5,624 different mustards and a collection of mustard memorabilia. The museum is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. seven days a week. Admission is free, as the museum is supported by donations and mustard sales.   

7. INTERNATIONAL VINEGAR MUSEUM // ROSLYN, SOUTH DAKOTA

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The world’s only vinegar museum was founded by Lawrence "Vinegarman" Diggs to showcase the many  varieties of vinegar and its many uses. The International Vinegar Museum has 350 different varieties of vinegar, a test kitchen, and vinegar tastings for visitors. The museum is open during the summer only. If you plan to visit Roslyn, the best time would be in June during the International Vinegar Festival.  

8. THE IDAHO POTATO MUSEUM // BLACKFOOT, IDAHO

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Idaho produces more potatoes than any other state, so it only makes sense that they would have a museum dedicated to the state’s crop. The Idaho Potato Museum is housed in the historic Oregon Short Line Railroad Depot in Blackfoot. You’ll learn about potato history, growing potatoes, and the importance of potatoes to Idaho’s economy. The newest addition to the museum is the Potato Station Cafe, which specialized in French fries, of course. The Idaho Potato Museum is open six days a week from April through September, and weekdays from October through March.  

9. HARLAND SANDERS CAFÉ AND MUSEUM // CORBIN, KENTUCKY

Harland Sanders fed travelers at his gas station on Corbin, Kentucky, during the Great Depression, and then opened a restaurant, where he developed his method of pressure-frying chicken, which he breaded with 11 herbs and spices. Kentucky Fried Chicken grew out of that restaurant, which for a time had a motel attached. Sanders set up a sample hotel room inside the restaurant so that travelers could see what the rooms looked like before making the decision to stay. The motel is gone, but that restaurant was restored as the Harland Sanders Cafe and Museum, with many of the original artifacts, including the sample motel room. There is a modern KFC outlet attached. Some of the museum’s artifacts are displayed at the fast food unit, and you can sit down and eat your chicken in the museum.

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