From Bewitched to Bewitching

In my constant yet intermittent pursuit to chart Salem’s course from global, glorious port to Witch City, I am now focused on the moment (which may be a decade or more) when the 1692 Witch Trials ceased being something to be ashamed of and began being a “trademark” of sorts, a calling card, something light and even fanciful rather than something that was dark, dark, dark. After this transitional moment, the path was clearly paved toward collective capitalization: Salem was released to embrace its past–and profit from it. There’s more research to do, but I now think that this moment came in the mid-nineteenth century, in the 1840s, to be somewhat more specific. You’ve got to capture such a transition in expressions of popular culture: Nathaniel Hawthorne and his burgeoning ancestral guilt just won’t do–so that’s why I have been looking in more ephemeral publications, and there are some very interesting little stories in the newspapers of that decade which clearly indicate the shift from shame to celebration. I particularly like a series of stories which represent an interchange between New Hampshire and Salem newspaper editors in which the former are poking at, and the latter embracing, Salem’s seventeenth-century past in a very “modern” way.

Bewitched 1843 Salem Register

Bewitched 1845 NH

The Salem Register, Oct. 9, 1843 & the New Hampshire Sentinel, July 30, 1845.

This first story represents an attitude that is a far cry from the previous remorseful century: mocking an isolated case of “witchcraft” in Hollis, New Hampshire, the editor of the Salem Gazette offers to “investigate” the matter thoroughly, and even hang the supposed “witch” on the same old hill where her predecessors suffered. So cavalier! Both stories convey a sense of bewitching as a captivating quality that is far more alluring than demonic. And from this time and place, we’re off to Witch City.

Bewitcher 1884

Thomas & Fancer, She’s a Bewitcher, 1884; Library of Congress.



10 responses to “From Bewitched to Bewitching

  • Michelle

    Fascinating finds. I read the first piece a little differently. I think there is some sensitivity to being called out as the center of witchcraft knowledge, and a tone of condemnation of others for making light of something so serious that the material culture has been maintained (“the same” pins, etc). In other words, I think the Salem writer is saying, essentially, “make fun of this if you must, but the witch trials were real, and cruel. Your joke is gruesome.” The connotation of “Are you satisfied now?” indicates to me a tone of overstated enthusiasm meant to reflect the interlocutor’s own impropriety back at them.

  • Michelle

    Also, noteworthy that it’s outsiders needling Salem about witchery, not Salemites themselves bringing it up as a joke.

  • daseger

    I see both of your points very clearly, Michelle…….and this is exactly why I’m posting in the blog prior to publishing in a journal article I’m working on now! Still, I think the Salem voice is a bit too enthusiastic even before he gets to his last line. But I’m considering…

  • MSD

    I did a bit of work on this myself in my second book.

  • Psychic Witch Myrtlelyn

    Reblogged this on Witchcraft For One and commented:
    Amazing writer. I love the Bolg.

  • Brian Bixby

    I suppose that once it became possible to enjoy and laugh at horror and supernatural stories, accepting the witchcraft trials would come more easily. Poe is writing around that time, and Lippard’s “Monks of Monk Hall” comes out in ’44.

    And the craze for animal magnetism was in the late 1830s, raising the dangers of occult influences over the souls of the innocent. Poor Rev. La Roy Sunderland (1802-85) had to reply to an 1845 pamphlet claiming he had seduced his second wife using mesmerism!

    Just thoughts . . .

    • daseger

      I appreciate your thoughts, Brian. I am always in this perplexing situation, transfixed by Salem but yet not an American or modern historian! So I need a lot of context and help to find my way…..

  • Direct descendant

    Were you to ask the descendants of those accused or killed (and I speak as one of these people), I don’t think you’d find many ready to embrace a view of the witch hysteria as “something light and even fanciful rather than something that was dark, dark, dark.”

    The truth of the matter is that this was a very dark time when lack of reason took hold and innocent people were tortured and murdered. Even those that survived lost their homes and livelihood. What’s to embraced about that? We should learn from history and hold this up as an example of something that should NOT be made light of, that was indeed truly horrific, and that–if we do not take care–could happen again.

    • daseger

      Well that attitude–which I share–would be at odds with the present-day celebratory environment of Salem in full Witch City mode, whose origins I was probing in this post.

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