8 February 2017


Susan Fair. American Witches: A Broomstick Tour Through Four Centuries, Skyhorse Publishing. 2016. Reviewed by Lynn Picknett

First, I must declare something of a particular, personal interest in the whole Satan-y subject. A few years ago I was denounced on live (American) radio as an agent of the Devil – literally, apparently. To my Fundamentalist accuser, there was no doubt about it. I was one of his Satanic Majesty’s most brazen PRs. What had I done to deserve this?
Dared to be objective enough to write a book that examined the myth of Lucifer and, sadly, the reality of those who have been condemned as his followers. Oh dear. (If, however, I really had been Satan’s ghost-writer, you’d think he’d have arranged for me to taunt the righteous with blockbuster sales, now, wouldn’t you… Ah well. Interest duly declared.)

Back to this book, hoping that author Susan Fair doesn’t make the mistake of agreeing to do a phone interview for a radio station she hadn’t checked out first…

One of Ms. Fair’s favourite words is ‘quirky’, which seems perfectly apt, as this book most definitely is, and from the get-go is rather too self-consciously intent on being very quirky indeed. Sometimes facetiousness and/or heavy sarcasm works even in books, like this one, on profoundly serious subjects. Just ask that nice Mr Chas. Dickens. Here it’s much more hit and miss.

Examples of Fair’s perhaps trying-too-hard-to-be-‘accessible’ facetiousness include (punctuation sic): ‘There are, as we’ll see, many forms of witch revenge, ranging from the mundane (You know that bread you like to bake? Well, it’s totally not going to turn out very good.) to the terrible. (You didn’t really want all those kids anyway, did you?).’ Then again: ‘Apparently [a priest] displayed the same “well whaddya gonna do when the guys are determined to execute a little old lady?” attitude.’

Quite. But I would urge persistence, because, despite initial misgivings, not only is this a thoroughly well-researched and fascinating book, but – once she calms down – it’s perfectly well-written and even tremendously likeable. (And the author, the jacket photo reveals, has the kind of merry twinkly eyes that seem just right).

There is much, much more to the whole subject of American witches than the infamous Salem hysteria, although of course it is duly examined here – but oddly turns out to be one of the less interesting episodes recounted.

Even, Fair relates, the first immigrant ships saw poor and/or mad old women being hanged for ‘causing’ the usual sorts of tribulations inescapably involved in sailing long distances in appalling conditions. We read how one woman was summarily hanged, while the captain hid in his cabin, only to emerge eventually, declaring ‘in a high voice’ that he had no idea what had been going on. Susan Fair is excellent at painting the picture. Stay with her.

Sometimes the humour arises naturally out of the grim scenarios described. We are told, for example, how two accused ‘witches’ - actually female Quaker missionaries - were forcibly strip-searched by a gang of ‘midwives’, though ‘one of the “midwives”… appeared to be a man in women’s clothing.’

Having related horrors suffered by – usually lone – female travellers on the high seas, Fair darkly lays the foundation for the rest of the book: ‘Before becoming a melting pot, America was a witch’s cauldron of religious literalism, ignorance, dangerous superstition, and grim misfortune.’ (Some might uncharitably suggest that little has changed…)

At first, witches – usually thought of as female – were not a big deal. Why? ‘Early on there were few enough ladies in the colonies: if they started winnowing out everyone who might be a witch – well, winter nights were cold enough as it was.’ Or maybe, she suggests, it was because the Puritans hadn’t yet become a force to be reckoned with. It was only after they were established with ‘their tough stance on all things Satan’ in the mid-1600s that ‘The hangman was about to catch up with America’s witches’.

The sorry litany of quirky folk arraigned on charges of fraternising with the Devil includes a serving maid who, discontented with her lot – emptying chamber pots being the least of her chores – was said to have struck a rather unimaginative Satanic deal. Sadly, apart from causing pigs to run amok, to her great mirth, this brought her no relief from drudgery, and hardly proved the golden ticket out of near-slavery – unless one counts death by hanging as the perfect escape. However, ‘… she died in a frame extremely to the satisfaction of them that were spectators of it.’ Oh good. That’s all all right, then.

There was a whole group of people suspected of witchcraft – and, indeed, often enough suffering for it – i.e. the native Americans, who were routinely referred to as ‘devils’. This was not merely a turn of phrase. They were so different, so ‘savage’, that they had to be in league with the Big Man himself. However, many of the tribes came to return the compliment: the Jesuits in particular were seen as spreading bad magic. And, it must be said, the warring rival tribes tended to see each other as witches.

But as Fair points out: ‘These Indian-on-Indian witch hunts occurred in the early nineteenth century – a little over a century after the 1692 witch hunts of Salem. The Christians… were quick to deride the Indians for something they too had done.’

Personally, I find the second half of the book – the post-Salem, more recent era – most captivating, when Susan Fair’s self-conscious quirkiness has settled down and her genuine fascination and depth of investigation is allowed to shine through.

I had only a vague idea that someone often accused of ‘witchcraft’ was none other than Mary Baker Eddy, founder of the Christian Science cult. A strange, anorexic hysteric as a girl and one-time Spiritualist medium, she followed in the footsteps of Mesmerist ‘Dr’ Phineas Parkhurst Quimby, godfather of both Christian Science and many a modern New Age cult that emphasises the power of the mind in healing. But Quimby actually welcomed the witchcraft analogy, writing: ‘Now [post-Salem] the witches are in the people in the form of disease’, describing one sickly young woman as standing ‘like the innocent girl of Salem…’

The girl in question, her parents asserted, had consumption. Quimby said it was merely a nervous cough. ‘But if the girl’s doctor and her parents told her that she had consumption and she believed it, the girl would surely languish and die from the disease…’ Somehow one suspects that she had cause to believe it only too much.

The Quimby Method set the scene for the emergence of ‘witch’ Mary Baker Eddy, with her insistence that all physical ills were due to spiritual ‘error’ and wrong thinking. Mary herself was much given to strange collapses, which she never hesitated to blame on the ‘Malicious Animal Magnetism [known as ‘M.A.M.’] ’ – basically, targeted ill-wishing – of her (many) enemies, whom she termed ‘demonologists’. At least some of her dramatic collapses were probably due to morphine, to which she was addicted. All the M.A.M. nonsense – which hit the headlines, as you can imagine – was quickly labelled ‘the New Witchcraft’, and the inevitable court cases became ‘the Second Salem’.

Mary did two things against her principle enemy, one Daniel Spofford. She ‘took out a psychic hit’ on him – her very own M.A.M. – and just to make sure, she followed that up with hiring an actual hitman. As he double-crossed the Christian Scientists and appeared to be curiously inept anyway, the whole venture fell through, and the charges against Mary et al were eventually withdrawn.

Today her cult still attracts great devotion and generous donations, but there is little doubt that her belief in, and even encouragement of, Malicious Animal Magnetism was part of ‘the primeval pulse of witchcraft … still beating beneath the shiny veneer of the new century’.

Perhaps, though, the best comes last. Fair’s Epilogue: 'The Reign of the Blair Witch: How a Made-Up Witch Took on a Life of Her Own and Terrorised a Town', is a joy, though not without an implicit cautionary tale.

The tiny, rural – and to many, profoundly creepy – hamlet of Burkittsville, Maryland, where the Blair Witch Project movie was set, is still awash with fans, many of whom are in permanent denial. To them, no matter how many times they are told by the locals, and even by the actual film-maker, that there was never a real Blair Witch, there they still are in great numbers, even cropping up inside people’s houses, poking around and causing mayhem.

One man, found by the local mayor wandering around in her own living room, said: ‘It almost looks as if someone lives here’. When told – perhaps rather sharply under the circumstances – ‘people live in all the houses here’, he replied ‘I guess that explains why so many of the doors are locked.’

Sometimes, tired of being seen as an extra in a long-gone movie, Debbie the Mayor tells people that she’s the witch. It amuses her. But occasionally the madness gets too weird. One very well-dressed woman berated Debbie for bringing up her daughter in Burkittsville, shouting at her: ‘Don’t you even care that children are being murdered? Don’t you care about your daughter?’ 

There really was only one answer to that. Looking down at her little girl, Debbie replied: ‘This isn’t my daughter. This is my lunch.’

But be very careful, Debbie. And be equally wary, Susan Fair. There are those who would not only take your jokes literally, but even take your interest in this subject as evidence of real Satanic dealings. People are that stupid. People are that keen to be religious literalists. Believe me, I know. – Lynn Picknett, Author of The Secret History of Lucifer.

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