The bewitching of America

  • This artwork by M. Ryder relates to the health care legislation now being cooked up in congressional cauldrons.


On Halloween, the Salem, Mass., city tourism industry goes into overdrive. "Come to Salem and B-Prepared-2-B-Scared! It's Halloween City!" runs one current slogan.

It is a time of harmless fun for many, but the reason Salem is a center of the Halloween industry is, of course, due to tragic events more than three centuries ago. It was in nearby Salem Village (now Danvers), that in 1692 accusations of witchcraft led to the execution of 19 people, with four other accused witches perishing in jail. Within a few decades Salem had become a byword for intolerance, bigotry and credulity.

Over and over again in the 19th century educators, politicians, historians and novelists portrayed it as a full stop in America's colonial past. "Remember Salem! Never Again!" became a motto of the country's promoters of enlightenment and progress.

Today, Salem still looms large in America's historical memory, thanks in part to its place in the curriculum of many schools. It is an episode ripe for illustrating the lessons to be learned from history. American children are far more exposed to the story of 17th-century witch persecution than their counterparts in Europe. This is commendable. Yet the focus on Salem over the centuries is also deeply problematic, for it overshadows America's much more complex and recent history of witch persecution.

The fear of witches that fueled the Salem trials was no aberration, no popular "panic" or wave of "hysteria," but a deep, pervasive response to dealing with misfortune in a precarious everyday world. The trials may have originated with the malicious attention-seeking of two young girls, but it was the accumulated misfortunes of the community that generated the search for those responsible.

Two centuries on from Salem and many Americans were still living in an essentially similar social, cultural, economic, and religious environment. The vicissitudes of life on the edge were all too real, and so was the fear of witchcraft as an explanation for misfortune and envy. Over the last three centuries, thousands of Americans, mostly women, have been abused for being suspected witches. Hundreds of court cases arose from accusations of witchcraft. Most startling of all, it is clear now that we know of more people murdered as witches in America after 1692 than were legally executed before that date.

So Salem not only marks the ending of the Colonial witch trials, but also the beginning of a new era of witch hunting, one that was no longer pursued by the authorities but by individuals and communities. It was an age of witch persecution that reflected the development of the nation, fueled by conflict with Native Americans, the rise of slavery, and the influx of millions of immigrants from all parts of Europe. It is no surprise that the epidemics of European diseases that decimated Native American communities were blamed on witchcraft, that plantation owners feared the strange poisons, potions and spells known to their African slaves, and that Europeans brought with them books of magic to deal with witches in the new land.

As in colonial Salem, the Bible was used to justify the existence and extermination of witches in modern America: the King James Bible found in the homes of millions of Americans was categorical that "Though shalt not suffer a witch to live" (Exodus 22:18). The learned Choctaw politician and minister Solomon Hotema referred to this injunction after shooting dead three people, including his sister-in-law, in 1899.

In Butte, Mont., in 1937, a Serbian immigrant Ilija Martinovich, who shot his policeman cousin in the back of the head for being a wizard, testified in court that during a bout of depression when he was unemployed, he had read the Bible several times. He returned repeatedly to Exodus and, in his own words, the command that "the wizard no live, that means they be killed."

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