What makes witches so fascinating—and so terrifying? Maybe it’s all the stuff they’ve been accused of doing over the years: eating children, having sex with the devil, making someone’s bread smell funny. Admittedly, some of their hijinks are more fascinating and terrifying than others, but it’s undeniable that witches are a staple of nightmares, fairy tales … and American history. Yet few of us realize what a pervasive presence witches have been in America. This history is traditionally and perhaps justly defined by the Salem witch trials, but we do ourselves a disservice when we limit our awareness of American witches to the year 1692. The purpose of this book is to bring to light some of the extraordinary lesser-known stories from America’s witch history.
You’re about to undertake a strange and startling tour across four hundred years of witchcraft in America, and it’s going to be way weirder than you can even imagine. Our Broomstick Tour will showcase America as you’ve never seen it. Here is a sneak peek at what we’ll encounter along the way. Ready to take off?
Look—down there! On the deck of that storm-tossed ship on its way to the New World we see a mob of angry sailors about to hang an old lady; in a few moments, she’ll be swinging above the deck from a makeshift gallows on the yardarm. And over there, in that seemingly normal Puritan household in New England—are those children flying around the room? And quick, over there at the hearth! Is something trying to pull that little girl into the fire? And what on earth is going on here? It’s the eve of the Civil War; why is that man putting on a dress to go witch hunting in New York City?
You will read about these and many other strange events in American witch history. How do we know these things really happened? Because the witches and their accusers left some very detailed records, including court documents, town ledgers, journals, diaries, letters, and newspaper accounts from an amazing number of witchcraft cases. But it’s those first-person narratives—the diaries and letters—that tell the most compelling tales.
When you write about history, you spend a lot of time alone communing with dead people. Sometimes they come through loud and clear, like those times when you’re up late into the night reading the seventeenth-century diary of a man who cried over the deaths of his children, worried about the state of his eternal soul until he almost couldn’t bear it—yet helped send innocent people to their deaths as witches. That man was the Reverend Cotton Mather, and he, above all others, has come to be considered the real villain in the Salem witch craze. How did this intelligent, Harvard-educated, painfully sensitive man come to believe in witches? Luckily, the very candid diary he kept for much of his life reveals the conflicted person behind the witch-hunter persona. And then there’s the letter sent “from Salem Prison” by accused witch Abigail Falkner, then pregnant with her seventh child and begging the governor for her life. The words left by these troubled souls and others like them reveal the many lived realities behind the word “witch.”
Witches followed settlers to the New World, and witches were already here, waiting on the shores and in the forests. Witches lurk in the all the darkest corners of American history. They are hidden deep within the dry pages of town histories, courtroom archives, and musty newspapers. But they don’t want to be buried; they want to rise up from their forlorn graves and tell us their stories.
So let’s get started. We’ve got some witches to meet.