Tag Archives: Witch Trials

Witch Houses

Central to Salem’s evolution as the Witch City was the Witch House, a first-period structure that was the residence of one of the Trials’ judges, Jonathan Corwin. It was referred to as the Witch House back in the nineteenth century, when it housed a number of businesses–a longstanding drug store, later an antiques shop–and looked quite different than it does today, but it really became the Witch House when its evolving image was published on variant postcards from around 1900 on. The Corwin House acquired its seventeenth-century look in the middle of the twentieth century through a “restoration” under the direction of Boston architect Gordon Robb, and was opened to the public as the official “Witch House” by the city of Salem in 1948. As I’ve written about this House and its history before, I want to widen its context today by featuring some other Witch Houses, near and far, past and present, material and immaterial. There are at least two other houses in Essex County which were identified as such on postcards from a century ago, a time when there was a limited effort to turn the entire region into “Broomstick Country”. This was historically correct–the “Salem Witch Trials” were indeed a regional phenomenon–but commercially tricky, so Salem eventually claimed its exclusive title as the one and only “Witch City” with the Witch House.

The Old Witch House--Scene of Examinations at Salem. Illustration from Columbus and Columbia (Manufacturers' Book Co, c 1893).

Witch House Salem 1905

Witch House Danvers

Witch House Rockport 1910

Salem’s “Witch House” in 1893 (Columbus and Columbia Manufacturers’ Book Co, c 1893) and 1905: the George Jacobs “Witch House” in Danvers in 1907 (located in what was then Salem in the seventeenth century) and Rockport’s “Witch House”, also known as the “Old Garrison House” and still standing, in 1910. Supposedly two brothers from Salem built this house as a refuge for their accused sister or mother (depending on the source).

Farther afield, Witch Houses don’t have anything to do with witch trials: they just look like the sort of gothic structure that a romanticized witch might inhabit, like the Spadena “Witch’s” House in Beverly Hills, California, a storybook-style house built in 1921, or the famous Carl Van Vechten photograph of a long-lost “Witch House” in rural Maine during the Depression. The fairy-tale witches of the nineteenth century had created a more whimsical images of their houses in the twentieth, and clearly gables were seen as integral architectural details, so it is quite suitable that Salem’s Witch House would soon be enhanced with several.


Witch House Van Vechten

Witch House Pyle 1887

Witch House Key Nielsen 1921

The California “Witch’s House’ in its original Culver City location, courtesy Beverly Hills Heritage; Carl Van Vechten, “Witch House”, 1936, Library of Congress; the Prince visits the Witch’s House in Howard and Katharine Pyle’s The Wonder Clock: or, Four & Twenty Marvelous Tales, Beind One for Each Hour of the Day (1887); The Witch’s confectionary cottage from Hansel and Gretel, by Kay Nielsen (1921).

Even farther afield in terms of both space and time is the woodcut print of a Witch House from the later sixteenth century by an anonymous English artist. This image, quite unusual as witches were generally depicted outside, in the wild, at this time, is often cited as appearing in the Swiss theologian Thomas Lieber (Erastus)’s Two Dialogues Concerning the Power of Witches (1579), but as Charles Zika points out in The Appearance of Witchcraft. Print and Visual Culture in Sixteenth-century Europe, the image appears to have been simply inserted into a 1579 English edition. Another fantasy house, although in this case it’s more about the exit than the architecture!

Witch House 1590


Pyewacket: lots of cats named “Pye”, why? If you’re of a certain age (born in the 60s at the very least) you might associate this name with the 1958 Jimmy Stewart/Kim Novak film Bell, Book and Candle, in which the modern sexy witch Novak had a Siamese familiar named Pye OR the children’s book by Rosemary Weir titled Pyewacket published a decade later. The origin of this name goes way back to the seventeenth century, when the notorious and self-proclaimed “Witchfinder-General” Matthew Hopkins tried several women for witchcraft (among many others) who claimed to have a number of “imps” or familiars in their service, including Holt, Ilemauzar, Pyewackett, Pecke in the Crowne, Grizzedl Greedigutt, Jarmara, Sacke & Sugar, Newes, and Vinegar Tom. All of Hopkins’ “discoveries” are proudly proclaimed in the 1647 pamphlet THE Discovery of Witches: IN Answer to severall QUERIES, LATELY Delivered to the Judges of Assize for the County of NORFOLK. And now published By MATTHEVV HOPKINS, Witch-finder. FOR The Benefit of the whole KINGDOME.

Pyewacket Life

Pyewacket finally

Pyewackett Hopkins 2

The pamphlet reports that in March 1644 there were some seven or eight of that horrible sect of Witches living in …. a Towne in Essex called Maningtree, with divers other adjacent Witches of other towns, who every six weeks in the night (being alwayes on the Friday night) had their meeting close by his house, and had their severall solemne sacrifices there offered to the Devill, one of which this discoverer heard speaking to her Imps one night, and bid them goe to another Witch, who was thereupon apprehended, and searched by women who had for many yeares knowne the Devills marks, and found to have three teats about her, which honest women have not: so upon command from the Justice, they were to keep her from sleep two or three nights, expecting in that time to see her familiars, which the fourth night she called in by their severall names, and told them what shapes, a quarter of an houre before they came in, there being ten of us in the roome. Holt appeared “like a white kitling”, then Jarmara, “who came in like a fat Spaniel without any legs at all, she said she kept him fat, for she clapt her hand on her belly, and said he suckt good blood from her body”. Next was Vinegar Tom, “who was like a long-legg’d Greyhound, with an head like an Oxe, with a long taile and broad eyes, who when this discoverer spoke to, and bade him goe to the place provided for him and his Angels, immediately transformed himselfe into the shape of a child of foure yeeres old without a head, and gave halfe a dozen turnes about the house, and vanished at the doore”. Sacke & Sugar appears like a black rabbit and Newes, a polecat, and the rest of the imps, including Pyewacket, are not identified, so among them we only have one cat, Holt (kitling is an old form of kitten). I have searched in vain for Pyewacket references in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and found none: the author of the 1950 play on which Bell, Book and Candle was based, the English playwright John van Druten, must have plucked Pyewacket out of semi-obscurity and associated the name with a cat, because by that time, everyone knew that familiars were feline.

Set in Salem (sort of)

I have heard so many dreadful things about the new WGN series Salem that I was desperate to see it: our cable provider does not carry that station but I was able to watch it online and I also checked out the series website. It is indeed horrible, in more ways than one. Its central premise, that there were witches in Salem who themselves initiated the 1692 trials in a devilish divide-and-conquer strategy against the voiceless Puritans, sustains that mythology and ignores decades of research, but of course it is fiction, so I suppose all is well. Or is it? One of the series’ executive producers, Adam Simon, maintains that the history is fantasy but the magic is real and that Salem reflects all the knowledge we now have about the reality of European witchcraft. His reality is a strange mishmash of witchcraft folklore from the Continent, England, and the New World, with no cursing crones: a very sexy head witch, empowered by her very sexual pact with the Devil and aided by the very sexy Tituba, stores her familiar frog in her bewitched/incapacitated husband and prepares to face off against a very sexy Reverend Cotton Mather, whose father Increase burned scores of witches back in Essex (England, I presume, though to my knowledge Increase never visited there; he is better represented by his iconic assertion that”It were better that Ten Suspected Witches should escape, than that one innocent Person should be condemned”.) Geography–a sense of place–is not a strength of this show, which is odd because it is named after a place. I get the feeling that the producers and writers don’t even know where Salem is (was): the big city is New York, not Boston, and the costume designer comments that In Salem they had more [sartorial] rules than the rest of Europe. I could go on with my critique, but I think you get the picture.

Set in Salem WGN

The Streets of “Salem”, according to WGN America

This “Salem” got me thinking about other screen “Salems”, and there are many. Salem on film is a huge topic, impossible to capture in one post. If you differentiate between films that are supposed to be set in Salem (lots of Scarlet Letters, The Maid of Salem (1937), The House of the Seven Gables (1940) and several Crucibles, and films that were filmed in the actual Salem (the more recent Hocus PocusBride Wars, and American Hustle), it is more manageable. I’m more interested in the former, and it basically comes down to “Puritan films”  in the earlier part of the twentieth century and “witchcraft films” thereafter, with notable exceptions and overlap. I haven’t seen all the Scarlet Letters (the first one dates to 1911!) but I prefer the 1973 Wim Wenders version (in which Portugal stands in for 17th century Salem) to the 1995 Demi Moore film, and The House of the Seven Gables (starring Vincent Price) has nothing at all do with Hawthorne’s novel: we need a real/reel “remake”! There are also several versions of The Crucible: a 1957 French film adapted by Jean-Paul Sartre, entitled Les Sorcières de Salem, and Arthur Miller’s own 1996 adaptation, which was filmed for the most part up the coast on Hog Island in Ipswich Bay.

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Set in Salem 1973

Set in Salem 1937


© Copyright 2010 CorbisCorporation

Set in Salem 1957 Crucible

Posters for the 1926 and 1934 versions of the Scarlet Letter, and a screen shot of the 1973 Wim Wenders film; Posters for the Maid of Salem (1937) and The House of the Seven Gables (1940), and a photograph of the latter’s Salem opening at the Paramount Theater on Essex Street; Poster for Jean-Paul Sartre’s Les Sorcières de Salem (1957).



Spring Semester 2014: Tudors and Trials

Classes started last week, but I really don’t get my mind focused on teaching until after the long MLK weekend, which marks the commencement of the spring semester just as Labor Day cues the fall. The administrative work of my other role as department chair is continuous, which makes teaching even more special: a regular break from the tedious. I get three course releases for being chair, which means I am reduced to teaching just one course (Tudor-Stuart England) per semester, but this particular semester I’m also teaching a graduate course (Topics in European History: the European Witch Trials): this particular combination of content and community will make for an interesting semester, I am sure.

The Tudor-Stuart class is always filled with the best and the brightest students, not only among our History majors but also English and Theater majors. The Tudors have been so consistently topical in popular culture over the last decade or so that my students will feel that they “know” them; the Stuarts are more elusive. We’ll cover all the big events, most prominently the English Reformation in the sixteenth century and the English Revolution in the seventeenth, but two of the course texts will (hopefully) enable my students to get a bit more into the homes and heads of Tudor and Stuart people. I’ve never used Orlin’s text in class before (but what could be more essential than privacy?), but Friedman’s subject matter–cheap print–opens up a much wider window into the Revolution.

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I teach two courses on the European witch trials of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, one undergraduate and one graduate, and I much prefer the latter. The reasons why more than 100,ooo people were tried for witchcraft in this (early modern) era are complex, and I find that undergraduates want them to be simple. They don’t have the background, the patience, or the time (or inclination, really) to read all the texts they need to read in order to figure out all the factors that went into this frenzy. But graduate students read: we go through at least one book (or series of scholarly articles) a week in my class. It’s a dynamic field, so there are always great titles to choose from: I always start with a few texts on the fifteenth century to lay the foundation, and then take a regional tour around those areas that experienced intensive witch-hunting. There are definitely some universal causes of the witch hunts in this era, but the catalysts are more local, even personal, so this is a topic that can be well-served by case studies such as Carlo Ginzburg’s Night Battles, a classic study of counter-magic in northern Italy, Thomas Robisheaux’s Last Witch of Langenburg, and James Sharpe’s Bewitching of Anne Gunter.

Tudor Book 5

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We will try to understand sensationalistic cases of demonic possession in France (through Sarah Ferber’s Demonic Possession and Exorcism in Early Modern France), some of the anthropological and psychological factors present in the region which experienced the most intense witch-hunting in Europe (through Lyndal Roper’s Witch Craze. Terror and Fantasy in Baroque Germany), and one of the last major European series of trials (30 years before Salem, through P.G. Maxwell-Stuart’s Abundance of Witches. The Great Scottish Witch-Hunt). I always try to switch out the books every time I teach a class to keep everything “fresh”, but two perennial texts for this course are Friedrich Spee’s Cautio Criminalis (1631), a plea for judicial caution and against torture by a Jesuit confessor and poet who had witnessed (and participated) in the worst trials in Germany and Charles Zika’s The Appearance of Witchcraft. The image of the witch, projected far and wide through the relatively new medium of print, is one of those universal factors I was referring to above, and Zika’s visual analysis is masterful.


Tudor Book 4

The Witchfinder on Film

Between weekend errands, I organized a little Vincent Price mini-marathon for myself, culminating in a truly horrible (in more ways than one) movie called The Conqueror Worm (1968), which was produced and released in Britain under the more appropriate title Witchfinder General. The film is very loosely based on Matthew Hopkins, the self-appointed “Witch-finder General” who was responsible for the condemnation and execution of more than 100 people for witchcraft in 1645-46, during one of the more chaotic phases of the English Civil War. Hopkins’ reign of terror in Essex represents the peak of the witchcraft hysteria in England, which was rather less hysterical than many hot spots on the European continent. I suppose that the American title, which alludes to a poem by Edgar Allen Poe, was chosen to take advantage of the popularity of Vincent Price’s Poe films like The Fall of the House of Usher, but the film has nothing at all to do with Poe.

witchfinder_general 1968


I have a distant childhood memory of seeing bits and pieces of this film on television, certainly without my parents’ knowledge, as it is intensely and gratuitously violent: Price’s Hopkins (about 30 years older than the actual Hopkins) is lecherous and his fellow “witch-pricker” John Stearne is absolutely sadistic. These men might have possessed these qualities and tendencies, and they did torture their victims, but it’s no matter: the film is all about sensation, not context, and certainly not history. And in that typical 1960s manner, everyone is running around with swinging sixties hair. There are too many historical inaccuracies to list here; perhaps the most egregious is Hopkins’ ability to just string up his victims, with no presentation of evidence or trial. Even in this chaotic era, lawlessness did not reign. When Hopkins engages in “due process”, it’s the notorious, and seldom-implemented, “swimming test” for witchcraft. The posters above represent the general anachronistic and sensationalistic nature of the film quite well, while also conveying the spirit of the “burning times” when in fact all English witches were condemned to death by hanging. Better to refrain from the film altogether and view Hopkins through Malcolm Gaskill’s substantive-yet-accessible Witchfinders: A Seventeenth-Century Tragedy.

Witch Finder General 1647

Frontspiece to Matthew Hopkins’ “Discovery of Witches”, published by Richard Royston, 1647, British Museum; Illustration from C.R. Weld’s History of the Royal Society, 1848; Malcolm Gaskill’s Witchfinders. A Seventeenth-century Tragedy (2007).

Witches and Trees

It strikes me that there are many historical, folkloric, and cultural connections between witches and trees: witches are often described and depicted as gathering under, hanging from, and riding on branches of trees, “witches’ broom” is a tree disease or deformity, the rowan tree was traditionally associated with the warding off of witches. I’m leaving aside the arboreal associations of modern witchcraft. There’s something about the forest primeval in general, and trees in particular, that creates an environment of secrecy and sorcery: this was a setting that was cultivated by Renaissance etchers and resurrected by Victorian illustrators. The trees are often spindly, haggard, misshapen, and barren, like the women underneath them.

Witches Hopfer BM

Witches under a tree 1878


Daniel Hopfer, Gib Frid (Let me Go), early 16th century etching, British Museum; Edward Gurden Dalziel, illustration from Judy Magazine, 13 February 1878, British Museum; Arthur Rackham, ‘The Witches Sabbath’ illustration for ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow’, George Harrap & Co, 1928.

The association seems to be strongest in the folklore associated with Italian witchcraft. In Benevento, the “City of Witches” (occasionally referenced as the “Italian Salem”), witches from all over the world were said to gather annually under a storied walnut tree–a tree that was definitely fruitful. It’s an age-old, deeply-rooted story whose origins seem impossible to trace (at least for a short blog post), but the streghe under the walnut tree have certainly inspired a variety of cultural expressions and commodities, from works of art to musical compositions to the famous Strega digestif, manufactured right in Benevento since 1860.

Witches at Walnut Tree Guglielmo della Porto mid16th met


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Guglielmo della Porta, The Witches at the Walnut Tree of Benevento, pen and ink drawing, mid 16th century, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Lithographed songsheet for Paganini’s Dance of the Witches, 1830s, British Museum; Strega label and walnut tree outside the Alberti factory in Benevento.

To the north there is another representation of witches gathered under a fertile tree:  the famous mural of Massa Maritimma, dating from the mid- to late 13th century and uncovered in 2000. Situated on a wall in the town center enclosing the communal “Fountain of Abundance”, this tree bears strange fruit:  phalluses which the women below are picking and gathering. The discovery of the obscene (???) mural was shocking for some (and its subsequent cleaning remains controversial—you can read about it here), but not to anyone who has any familiarity with the Malleus Maleficarum (the “Witches’ Hammer)  a practical guide to identifying, detecting and prosecuting witches published in 1487. Due to its sheer popularity, which is evidenced by many editions and translations, most historians believe that the Malleus contributed to the intensification of witch-hunting in the early modern era, though its exact role is open to debate. It seems pretty clear to me that the book’s popularity is based in its accessibility, and the sensationalistic anecdotes that its authors (Heinrich Kramer and Jacob Sprenger–probably more the former than the latter) include, among them oft-cited passages about witches stealing men’s “virile members” and hiding them in nests nestled in the branches of trees.


Massa Maritime detail

The Massa Marittima Mural and detail; you can see it in situ here, and read more about its symbolism here.

Pendle and Salem

While weeding in front of my house yesterday I encountered a group of tourists who had come to Salem for the “witches” but were surprised to find so many nice buildings too. Poor people! Once we started chatting I couldn’t stop myself from subjecting them to a lecture, well, several really: first I told them all about Samuel McIntire and the merchants and sea captains who built Chestnut Street and then we got into the witch trials. They did ask questions, but clearly it’s a good thing that the semester is about to start.

One thing became clear in our “discussion”: they thought Salem was the only place in the world that prosecuted accused witches, at least after the “Dark Ages”. Even after fifteen years of teaching a popular course on the thousands of witch trials that occurred in early modern Europe, I was surprised. The singularity of Salem always bothers me; “our” trials are so seldom placed in western or global context, at least outside of academia.

There are important parallels between the Salem trials and the largest and most notorious English witchcraft prosecution, the Lancashire (“Pendle”) trials in northern England in 1612. The Pendle trials were held 401 years ago this week, and their 400th anniversary was commemorated last year. Salem and Pendle were both (relatively speaking) “frontier” communities, with the Pendle district of Lancashire located in the “dark corners of the north” of England, where various types of nonconformity still reigned. Salem cast a much wider net (185 accusations, 59 trials, 31 convictions, 19 executions, one death by torture/interrogation) than Pendle (16 trials and 10 executions, with one death in prison), but both were notoriously collective, conspiratorial episodes–unusual in the history of English prosecutions for witchcraft. Both trials were well-publicized, with the Pendle “source”, (more of a personal reflection really), clerk of the Lancashire court Thomas Potter’s Wonderfull Discoverie of Witches in the Countie of Lancaster (1613) being particularly influential.

Pendle and Salem 1


Thomas Potts, The Wonderfull Discoverie of Witches in the Countie of Lancaster. London, 1613. STC 20138.

But the most important comparison/connection between Pendle and Salem was the admission of legal testimony by a minor in the former trials, which set the precedent for the latter. Before the Pendle trials, the testimony of children under the age of fourteen was inadmissible in English courts, but nine-year-old Jennet Device was the star witness of the 1612 trials, offering up testimony that implicated her entire family as well as others. Jennet’s family would have been vulnerable anyway–they were a marginalized family led by a “cunning” matriarch, and probably represented the lethal mixture of nuisance and nonconformity to the community–but her vivid testimony was key to their conviction. Jennet was the informer at what became a sensationalistic show trial. Like Salem, the Lancashire trials seem to have become a somewhat self-generating process, engulfing the accusations of the “Pendle Hill” witches as well as so-called “Samlesbury Witches” who were also implicated by the testimony of an adolescent girl. The Salem girls most definitely had their forerunners, and perhaps their inspiration.

Then, of course, there is the cultural aftermath, theatrical and fictional accounts based on Pendle and Salem, tourism, commemorations. Several decades after Pendle, Thomas Heywood brought his comedy to the London stage, while several centuries after Salem, The Crucible transformed the American trials into an ongoing allegory. Salem has, of course, transformed itself into “Witch City”, and in the Pendle district there is a Witch Way bus service with individual buses named after the officials and victims of the Lancashire trials. There are statues in both places, although Pendle’s is of a real victim, Alice Nutter of the village of Roughlee, and ours is of Samantha Stevens, a fictional television character! (Of course we have the beautiful and meaningful 1992 Witch Trials Memorial, but I am afraid that more tourists see Samantha). There are also logos galore, on both sides of the Atlantic, official and otherwise, with just a sampling below.

Witchcraft Plays


Witchcraft Statues

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