A Brief History of Witches in America

By Scan by NYPL, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
By Scan by NYPL, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Before J.K. Rowling started dabbling in the American history of witches, we had our own traditions: Native American myths, the Salem Witch Trials, Bewitched, the 1970s resurgence, and the current phenomenon tell a long narrative of witches in America.

First, as in most cultures, the conceptions of witches and witchcraft have been around for a while in the North American region. The witch-like concept of skin-walkers, or yee nahgloshii, comes from the Diné culture, or Navajo people. However, it can be difficult to find information about Native peoples’ concepts and histories of witchcraft, mostly because they’re not very interested in going into detail about it with people outside of the culture. As Dr. Adrienne Keene wrote, “These are not things that need or should be discussed by outsiders. At all. I’m sorry if that seems 'unfair,' but that’s how our cultures survive.”

We do know a lot about American colonial conceptions of witchcraft, if only because it led to a lot of drama and death. But in 1658, predating the Salem Witch Trials, there was Elizabeth “Goody” Garlick, Long Island's Witch of Easthampton (modern day East Hampton), who had been accused by an ill 16-year-old mother right before the teenager died. The local magistrates—even then overwhelmed by the gossiping and pettiness of their constituents—deferred to Hartford, Connecticut’s court (at the time, Long Island had administrative ties to Connecticut). Luckily for Goody, the Governor of the colony was John Winthrop, Jr., who saw these accusations of witchcraft as mere community pathology—a viewpoint he carried throughout all the witch trials he oversaw over the next decade.

Salem, Massachusetts, as we all know, was not so lucky between 1692 and 1693. There have been several reasons cited for what led to the witchcraft hysteria—among them: colonists displaced by King William’s War pouring in from the north; ergot poisoning in the rye grain; and Salem Village’s first ordained minister, Reverend Samuel Parris, who the people of Salem generally thought of as greedy and rigid (or, in modern day parlance, a “hardass”).


By Alfred Fredericks, Designer; Winham, Engraver - from "A Popular History of the United States", Vol. 2, by William Cullen Bryant, New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1878, p. 457, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

So it was particularly fascinating when Parris's 9-year-old daughter Elizabeth and 11-year-old niece began experiencing contortions and tantrums, or “fits,” alongside another 11-year-old girl. All three were pressed for why, and in turn blamed Parris’s slave, a woman named Tituba; Sarah Good, a homeless beggar; and Sarah Osborne, a woman who had a reputation for breaking social norms.

While the latter two women denied being witches, Tituba made up strange, fascinating stories that captivated and went along with the leading questions asked by John Hathorne, the Salem town justice who handled most of the town depositions.

All three were jailed, though Tituba was the only one who lived; she was let out of prison 13 months later. (Osborne died in prison while Good was hanged after giving birth in prison; her baby died before her hanging.) Meanwhile, special courts were put in place for these Salem witch trials, and nearly four months after the initial accusations, Bridget Bishop—who was known for her gossipy nature and promiscuity—was the first person hanged as a witch. In all, 19 people were hanged as witches—including John Proctor, who eventually became the protagonist of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible—and one was pressed to death before the special courts were disbanded and “spectral evidence” (i.e. dreams and visions) was no longer usable during trial.

The next time witches were part of popular culture—beyond the condemning of the Salem Witch Trials—was in a much smaller context. In the early 1900s, when women’s magazines were giving advice on throwing Halloween parties, they were describing an opportunity for mixed-sex courtship rituals. This meant making elements of the holiday more palatable to the decade’s New Woman, depicting witches as beautiful and alluring instead of terrifying and devilish.

The cute witch trend continued into the 1960s with Bewitched, a popular TV series about a then-modern-day witch who decides to live as a suburban housewife. Before the show, the citizens of Salem were ashamed of the trials—to the point that no one would speak to Arthur Miller when he went there to do research. But with The Crucible’s success, and Bewitched filming episodes on location in Salem—including one where main character Samantha Stephens calls out the ridiculousness of the trials—the city experienced a resurgence, enough to boost the local economy through kitschy acknowledgement of the trials. This included, incidentally, a statue of Elizabeth Montgomery, the actress who played Samantha on Bewitched.

Elizabeth Montgomery stars in 'Bewitched'
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Around the same time in the 1960s, the independent feminist group Women’s International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell, or W.I.T.C.H., was founded. (They also went by “Women Inspired to Tell Their Collective History," "Women Interested in Toppling Consumer Holidays," among other names.) They were interested in a feminism based on several methods of social change, not just toppling the patriarchy, and viewed witches as “the first guerrilla fighters against women’s oppression." They spread their message by carrying out witch-like publicity stunts, such as protesting and “hexing” Wall Street, giving out garlic cloves and cards that said “We Are Witch We Are Women We Are Liberation We Are We” at a restaurant.

In the 1970s, witch collectives began to gather and organize more openly. Dianic Wicca, or Dianic Witchcraft, founded by Zsuzsanna Budapest and started on the Winter Solstice of 1971, is unlike other Wiccan traditions in that it has women-only covens, and worships only a monotheistic goddess (though it perceives goddesses of any culture merely as other incarnations of the main goddess). When asked about this during a 2007 interview, Budapest said, “It’s the natural law, as women fare so fares the world, their children, and that’s everybody. If you lift up the women you have lifted up humanity. Men have to learn to develop their own mysteries. Where is the order of Attis? Pan? Zagreus? Not only research it, but then popularize it as well as I have done. Where are the Dionysian rites? I think men are lazy in this aspect by not working this up for themselves. It’s their own task, not ours.”

In 1973, the American Council of Witches was founded and convened in April 1974 to draft a set of common principles of Wicca and Witchcraft in America. Unfortunately, they disbanded that same year because they could not agree for long, though they did come up with 13 Principles of Wiccan Belief (the first of which is, “We practice rites to attune ourselves with the natural rhythm of life forces marked by the phases of the Moon and the seasonal Quarters and Cross Quarters”), which is still used today. In fact, in 1978, these principles were put into the U.S. Army’s Religious Requirements and Practices of Certain Selected Groups: A Handbook for Chaplains.

If we’re going to look at a more modern witch, we’d want to turn to Alex Mar, author of Witches of America, last October’s cultural history of modern witchcraft and Wicca in America. According to an article she wrote for Cosmopolitan, “Since the '80s, Pagans have been gathering in outdoor festivals and indoor hotel conferences all around the country, sometimes in groups of a few thousand. And with the rise of the Internet in the '90s, vast networks have also spread online, making it that much easier for someone Craft-curious, in an area without a visible Pagan presence, to connect with a mentor in a chat room.”


iStock

The internet has also definitely changed witchcraft. It’s become a cornerstone of modern feminism. It’s led to fights and discussion about the capitalist uses of witchcraft, which involves selling spells on Etsy. The website Broadly, in particular, has regular witch news about local covens, pagan festivals, and guides to celebrating the fall equinox.

What about the future of American witches? Well, next year will see the release of Basic Witches: A Guide To Summoning Success, Banishing Drama and Raising Hell With Your Coven, by Jaya Saxena and Jess Zimmerman.

Suffice to say that witches have come a long way in America.

See What It Was Like to Live in a Secret NYC Library Apartment

YouTube
YouTube

Ever wanted to live in a library? For the dozens of custodians who once helped take care of New York Public Library branches, that dream was a reality. Recently, Sarah Laskow of Atlas Obscura stepped into one of these now-vacant apartments in upper Manhattan and explored it in all of its creepy, dilapidated glory (think falling plaster and unsafe floors—there's a reason the space isn't usually open to the public). Since the branches no longer require live-in custodians to shovel the coal that once kept the furnaces humming, the apartments have all been closed down, and are slowly being converted into new public uses. In 2016, one custodian's apartment in Washington Heights was converted into a teen center and programming space. The secret apartment at the Fort Washington library will also eventually be converted—which means that Laskow's trip helped document a space that may soon be only a memory. You can see more inside the space, and learn more about the history of these apartments, in the video below.

The British Codebreaker Who Convinced the U.S. to Join WWI

National Archives
National Archives

On January 16, 1917, Nigel de Grey, a cryptologist working for the British military, intercepted a coded German telegram sent via standard diplomatic channels. This alone was nothing special. The British cryptanalytic office where de Grey worked, called Room 40, had cracked a handful of Germany's ciphers and intercepted their messages daily. Today, however, was different: The jumble of numbers revealed a political bombshell.

We intend to begin on the 1st of February unrestricted submarine warfare. We shall endeavor in spite of this to keep the United States of America neutral. In the event of this not succeeding, we make Mexico a proposal of alliance on the following basis: make war together, make peace together, generous financial support and an understanding on our part that Mexico is to reconquer the lost territory in Texas, New Mexico and Arizona.

The coded message, sent by the German Foreign Minister Arthur Zimmermann, was destined for the German Minister in Mexico City. (Along the way, it had passed through Germany's ambassador in Washington, D.C., Count Johann Heinrich von Bernstorff.) At the time, America was not involved in the Great War. In fact, President Woodrow Wilson had just secured a second term by riding the slogans "He Kept Us Out of War" and "American First." The decrypted message plainly indicated that Germany was hoping Wilson would stick to his campaign trail talking points.

But the message also showed that Germany was afraid. An escalation of submarine warfare could provoke the United States, compelling it to abandon its isolationist policies and enter the war. If that happened, Germany hoped to distract the U.S. by forcing American troops to focus on an enemy closer to home: Mexico.

Upon realizing the message's significance, de Grey immediately sprinted to the office of his superior, William Reginald "Blinker" Hall.

"Do you want America in the war, Sir?" he shouted.

Hall gave de Grey, who was gleaming with sweat, an incredulous look. "Yes, why?"

"I've got a telegram that will bring them in if you give it to them."

According to an exhibit at the National Cryptologic Museum in Fort Meade, Maryland, "[The British] realized that they held a cryptanalytic 'trump card' that virtually guaranteed America's entry into WWI on the Allied side." Historian David Kahn put it thusly: The "codebreakers held history in the palm of their hands."

When a select few in the U.S. federal government were finally notified of the secret message, many doubted its authenticity, believing it was just a deceitful ploy by the British to win American support. The British assuaged those doubts by acquiring a fresh copy of the coded telegram and handing it over to the Americans. On February 23, a U.S. diplomat saw the message be decrypted with his own eyes—again with the help of codebreaker Nigel de Grey—and independently verified Germany's intentions. The diplomat immediately contacted President Wilson.

When Wilson saw it, he was shocked and insulted. "Good Lord! Good Lord!" he shouted. About one week later, he leaked the message to the press. Americans were similarly outraged.

(As for Mexico, the country knew it was getting a raw deal and never took Germany's bait. Reclaiming the American southwest—what was formerly Mexican territory before the Mexican-American War in the 1840s—was a recipe for disaster. Besides, Germany would have never been able to help anyway: They were blocked by the British Navy.)

By early April, the secret code had compelled the U.S. to join Britain and its allies. Today, the work of de Grey and the other Room 40 codebreakers is widely considered one of the most consequential events in cryptologic history.

 

Hungry for more details about the Zimmermann telegram? Mental Floss’s coverage of the World War I Centennial has you covered here and here.

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