America’s Last Witches?

America’s Last Witches? August 9, 2019

I have two themes today: one about the history of witchcraft; and another about an illustration of media ignorance of religion that has even stunned me.

Through the years I have written on the history of witchcraft, in many aspectsthe historical realities, but also the popular culture elements, and the abundant mythologies. Recently I have been intrigued by one question, namely how and when classic witchcraft persecutions faded and ceased in North America. The answer is: a great deal later than might be thought. That has many implications for general statements we often make about the impact of modernity – of literacy and urbanization – in the West.

Everyone knows about Salem (1692), and there were odd outbreaks of mob violence in the colonies in the early eighteenth century. Just for convenience, look at the Penguin Book of Witches, edited by Katherine Howe (2014), which actually has a  strong American focus, rather than covering witchcraft generally. She quotes a 1712 story from South Carolina where suspected wiutches were tortured and “roasted,” but not actually killed, by a vigilance committee; and then there is a 1720 case of a bewitched family in Littleton, Mass.

This fits the English chronology quite well, and obvious cases fall off steeply after 1720 or so. The last witches executed legally in England died in 1716, and the last in Scotland in 1727. In 1735-36, England repealed laws against witchcraft, but retained penalties for those who deceptively claimed occult powers to get money. The last English conviction under that witchcraft law occurred in 1944 (that is not a typo). The last remnant of the Witchcraft Act finally vanished in 1951, and that gave the signal for the modern “revival” of witchcraft in the form of Gerald Gardner’s Wicca movement.

So let’s say that in the English-speaking world, the turning point comes around the start of the eighteenth century, with a few stubborn holdouts thereafter. Continental Europe lagged a bit behind in these matters, and Switzerland managed to behead a witch as late as 1782. There are lots of good histories of occult and witchcraft belief in later periods also, for instance in Judith Devlin, The Superstitious Mind: French Peasants and the Supernatural in the Nineteenth Century (1987).

But there is an afterlife to the witch persecutions, and on a considerable scale. Even if we are looking at the North American colonies and the USA, witchcraft beliefs continued steadily through the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, as did accusations. These latter-day cases very much followed the classic Anglo-American format, of malicious individuals targeting the innocent for supernatural harm, maleficia, without any of the Continental trappings of Devil-worship, covens and Sabbats, organized conspiracies, Black Masses and so on. Nor, crucially, did Anglo-Saxon justice use the kind of torture that so infallibly produced confessions confirming such insanities in European courts following Roman law.

The difference from earlier times was that the authorities could not legally be involved, so that we are dealing with degrees of mob justice or lynch law. That has the added difficulty of making it very hard to find records of persecutions. We must instead rely on chance references and recollections, which are nothing like as certain as the formal documents we have for earlier cases.

I give full credit here to Owen Davies’s important book America Bewitched: The Story of Witchcraft After Salem (Oxford 2013), which discusses the uses of witchcraft and Salem in popular culture, as well as actual instances of witch killing and persecution. With some really admirable digging in newspapers and printed records, he traces some 150 unofficial or illegal witch killings in American history, mainly through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. I am certainly not going to run through these, so will just say here “Read Davies for details.” Briefly, Americans killed far more witches after 1700 than before that date.

One American case in particular has been cited quite a bit in work on the early National period, and the era of the Constitution. In 1787, an “Old Whig” published an anti-Federalist pamphlet, and in order to make his point about liberty of conscience, he told this story:

It would have been treated as a very ridiculous supposition, a year ago, that the charge of witchcraft would cost a person her life in the city of Philadelphia; yet the fate of the unhappy old woman called Corbmaker, who was beaten—repeatedly wounded with knives—mangled and at last killed in our streets, in obedience to the commandment which requires “that we shall not suffer a witch to live,” without a possibility of punishing or even of detecting the authors of this inhuman folly, should be an example to warn us how little we ought to trust to the unrestrained discretion of human nature.

That appears to be a classic example of a mob persecuting and actually killing a witch, and were it not for this one pamphlet, we would know nothing about it. And if we are reading the text correctly, this suggests a mob killing in the streets of Philadelphia itself. This is also about five years after the Swiss case I noted above, which has gone down as “the last witch execution in Europe.”

The obvious question is just how many other such instances were occurring around this time, or in the larger period from, say, 1740 to 1840, and especially in out of the way regions of the country? Davies tells us a lot, but (despite all his research skills) he might well be missing plenty that never made it to the newspapers. How many such instances happened, but stopped short of actual killing? How many people were expelled or ridden out of town on a rail, possibly after suffering severe physical harm, or “roasting”? We honestly don’t know, and we can’t.

So much of the relevant material here is scattered around in studies of local history and folklore, work that is of enormously variable quality. Take one example that is reported in a reputable and indeed excellent book by Thomas White, Witches of Pennsylvania (History Press, 2013). In 1802, B. F. Brewster was a judge who had settled in Allegheny County, not far from Pittsburgh. One day, he was startled to find an angry mob dragging a woman to his door, and demanding that she be punished as a witch. To calm them down, he began a sham trial, but matters soon escalated as the mob started demanding her immediate execution. He withdrew with an excuse that he had to consult his law books, and he used the opportunity to help the woman escape. The crowd of witch-hunters was predictably furious, and he was lucky to avoid injury himself.

Over that century after 1740, were there ten such non-lethal cases? A thousand? How would we know?

Other questions arise. How did local churches and clergy respond to such cases? Did they preach against witches, or urge sanity and restraint? This raised real theological questions. As John Wesley famously complained in 1768,

The English in general, and most of the men of learning in Europe, have given up all account of witches and apparitions as old wives’ fables. I am sorry for it …. They well know (whether Christians know it or not) that the giving up of witchcraft is in effect giving up the Bible. With my latest breath I will bear testimony against giving up to infidels one great proof of the invisible world; I mean that of witchcraft and apparitions, confirmed by the testimony of all ages.

On the other side, also in the 1760s, William Hogarth published his savage satire of an evangelical preacher extravagantly warning his terrified congregation about witches, demons, apparitions, and other mythical nightmares. The work is titled Credulity, Superstition and Fanaticism. A real religious debate was in progress (for which, in the English context, see Owen Davies’s 1999 book Witchcraft, Magic and Culture 1736-1951.

Thomas White demonstrates the strength of popular witchcraft beliefs in Pennsylvania right up to modern times, with a whole flourishing subculture of hex doctors and pow-wowers, witches and witch finders. Most of those instances were from rural or backwoods communities, but the cities also had their own stories. He reports many instances where communities or churches acted against suspected witches, using various traditional means to test them and their powers. In addition, Richard L. T. Orth has another really good book on these matters called Folk Religion of the Pennsylvania Dutch (McFarland, 2018). There is no reason to believe this region was too distinctive in that way.

We face an interesting paradox of evidence here, as so much of our best recorded evidence about actual witchcraft comes from societies where it is already in steep decline. In the US context, much available material about such cases comes from the later nineteenth or early twentieth centuries, especially from the 1880s onward. In these years, newspapers and folklorists regularly published stories that were deliberately meant to attract a readership fascinated by what they were meant to see as the stupid excesses of those rubes living in the backwoods. One 1928 “witch killing” in York, PA, became a global sensation on exactly those terms. That kind of reporting assumes a more educated and literate readership seeking entertainment, and probably an urban audience that has itself abandoned witchcraft beliefs, at least in their most overt form. It also suggests quite a sophisticated world of media, publishing, and syndication. In earlier years, beliefs and practices were much more widespread, but newspapers and pamphleteers reported them less because at that point they seemed less bizarre and outré.

In a sense, the boom in witchcraft reports in the late nineteenth century actually contributed to promoting modernity, as it sent a message to the newly urbanized about the gulf that would and should separate them from their recent rural kin and neighbors. The reporting drew a line between acceptable behavior, and practices fit only for mockery. Just look at those people! They still believe in witchcraft! Why, we haven’t done anything like that in … oh, about a decade.

In the American context, I am mainly referring to those parts of the new nation with a British/Celtic/German foundation, as opposed to other cultures with potent witchcraft traditions – African American, Hispanic, Native American, and others. In the Philadelphia instance,  the name Corbmaker sounds German, or Pennsylvania Dutch. It’s rather like Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, which is based on the conceit that each group or race or tribe that sets foot in the US brings along its own gods, and those gods remain in the spiritual landscape. Much the same thing has happened as successive waves of immigrants have brought their own ideas of magic and witchcraft. And that process is very much alive and continuing today.

The last person to be killed as a witch in the United States has not yet been born.

This is helpful to remember when we consign witchcraft belief and superstition to the “Middle Ages” (actually, the Early Modern period) and imagine that the Enlightenment transformed the world overnight. It did nothing of the sort. Cases surfaced quite regularly long afterward, and ordinary people were clearly outraged and terrified.

When Western Christians today look at modern Africa, they are often stunned to see the persistence of witchcraft belief, and how strongly those ideas exist within churches. Isn’t that something out of our own Middle Ages? But we are not quite as far removed from that world as we might think.


As to my second theme, on an unrelated matter.

I have a new entry in the keen ongoing competition to find the least-informed comment on religion in the current press. The contender is Jake Bittle, writing in the New Republic, in a scathing attack on the magazine First Things as “The Magazine of American Theocracy. Make what you like of that theme, but Bittle proceeds to denounce President Trump as “a womanizing casino mogul whose favorite Bible verse comes from the imaginary Pauline letter called ‘Two Corinthians’.”

By way of explanation, in 2016, Trump gave a talk presenting an accurate citation from II Corinthians, which he quoted as “Two Corinthians.” Such a reference is exactly correct, although evangelicals usually call it “Second Corinthians.” That is a matter of custom and usage, not accuracy, a distinction without a difference. His evangelical audience reacted with some puzzlement and humor at the candidate’s ignorance of the dialect of the tribe – although it was neither an error nor a gaffe. Yet in liberal mythology, that affair has since morphed to suggest that Trump was citing a non-existent Biblical book, and was too dumb to know the difference.

Boy, that Mr. Bittle certainly shows how ignorant other people are about the Bible! It’s a powerful lesson for all of us. To adapt the words of the imaginary epistle, do not be yoked together with the New Republic! For what do fact-checking and that magazine have in common?

So has anyone else heard of this “imaginary letter” called II Corinthians? I have, and I even have a rough idea where to locate it. Maybe the witches helped me find it.







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