I couldn’t resist the urge to share a few more witchy stories and spells from the early American period. Let’s start with a little history. Most folks know about the famous Salem, MA (or rather, Danvers, MA to be more accurate) witch trials. While these were certainly a major phenomenon in our collective history, Massachusetts was only one colony among thirteen. So what about witchcraft in the other colonies?
Generally speaking, witchcraft was not treated with such a hard nose nor such an iron fist in other parts of Colonial America. Witchcraft was generally frowned upon, true, but only in that the term “witchcraft” meant intentional magical malfeasance against one’s neighbors. Any such bad behavior—stealing, slandering, etc.—was met with equal disdain. There were witchcraft trials, but these were mostly settled with civil penalties rather than criminal punishments, and religious insurrection did not seem to enter into the argument. Gerald C. Milne, in his tome, Signs, Cures, & Witchery, describes one a Pennsylvania witch trial as overseen by state founder William Penn himself:
“Penn dismissed the charge of bewitching cattle…and suggested (tongue in cheek)that there was no law against ‘riding a broom’ in Pennsylvania. He found her guilty onlyof having a ‘witch’s reputation’ and ordered her to practice good behavior.”
In Pennsylvania, the growing tradition of Pow-wow meant that most settlers in that area were at least familiar with the idea of magic, and recognized that it could be used to heal as well as harm. Chris Bilardi, in his excellent book The Red Church, discusses braucheri, or German-American folk magic and healing. He makes the point that in many communities, a braucher was an essential part of local life, and would no more have been thought of as a “witch” than a country doctor or veterinarian.
In Virginia, by 1706 it was a crime to accuse someone of being a witch at all, as it was a form of slander to a person’s character. No acts of witchcraft after that time were brought to capital trial in that state. In North Carolina, a similar legal precedent was set when a case was dismissed against a woman in 1712, despite her clear confession to the practice of witchcraft. More is available on these incidents here and here.
Still, despite the leniency of most colonies, the chief impressions of American witchcraft from the early days of the Republic have been drawn from those dark days in Salem. To that end, I thought it would be worth looking at a literary example of witch-lore.
Young Goodman Brown, by Nathaniel Hawthorne (I like this version myself, as it is a PDF, but a quick Google search of the title will yield webpage versions of the tale).
I’ll not reprint the entire story here, but I do recommend reading this chilling—and weirdly funny at times—tale of witchcraft in a Puritan village. Hawthorne had a conflicted relationship with witches (his great-great grandfather was a judge at the Salem trials, a fact young Nathaniel would do his best to overcome). The entire tale portrays the spectral encounter of its title character with a town full of occult and devilish witches, and doesn’t make the witches particularly sympathetic at first glance—in fact, the witches seem to be primarily interested in corrupting Goodman Brown and turning him into a diabolical reveler. However, I tend to take the story’s “wicked witch” bent as being critical of the Puritan society to which Hawthorne was so embarrassed to have been connected. There are MANY elements of traditional witchcraft embedded in this piece of fiction, including:
- Meeting a fetch-self/”devil” on a crooked road
- Crossing thresholds (forest boundaries or doorways, for example)
- A serpentine staff, not entirely unlike a stang
- A “flying ointment” recipe, of sorts
- “Staff-riding” to travel great distances quickly
- A Witches’ Sabbath, and an initiation (sort of)
In the end, Goodman Brown is unsure if his encounter was a dream or reality, but it leaves him changed anyway, which can be said for many witches and their experiences between the worlds, I think.
Finally, I thought another witchy (and somewhat less grave) story set in those early days might be a good way to end this post. This one is from Rhode Island, and is recorded in In Old Narraganset, by Alice Morse Earle-1898 (a word of warning, this tale is recorded from an earlier time, and the author clearly did not have a problem portraying racial stereotypes in the broadest and most demeaning fashion…I present the tale here because its magical significance is real, not because its characters or authorial tone are worthy of emulation). From archive.org:
“The Witch Sheep” by Alice Morse Earle.
There are a few things I like about this story. Firstly, that the magical aspects of the tale are fully integrated with daily life—no one questions Tuggie’s abilities, and her occult power doesn’t lead others to shun her unless she’s actually doing a working against them. That the wife actually likes to have Tuggie around during soap-making because she can charm the project and make it work is particularly noteworthy to me. Secondly, I think it’s interesting that “Voodoo” (which sounds more like hoodoo in this story) was a part of the magical landscape up in Rhode Island at this point, and that there are several types of spells with good hints as to how they might be executed in this tale. The rabbit’s foot that Tuggie boils in the pot to work her “project” on Mum Amey makes me think that she was trying to cause her lots of little accidents and stumbles, but nothing seriously harmful. Well, that or there was some kind of Fatal Attraction thing going on. And the final thing I enjoy about this tale is that it is funny. For all the magic in the story, and the hexing and witchery and other toil-an-trouble, in the end it’s a story about a sheep in drag, and that’s downright amusing. At least to me.
Thanks for reading!