Tag Archives: Witch Trials

The Woodcut Witch

Witchcraft and witch trials are by no means an academic focus for me, but any European historian who studies and teaches the early modern era must take these subjects on. Consequently I developed an undergraduate course called “Magic and Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe” just a few years after I came to Salem, in part because I also felt that I had a certain obligation, given the local unawareness of the fact that over 100,000 people were put on trial for witchcraft in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries across Europe and the consequential belief that the 1692 trials were the largest/most important/consequential in world history. My course goals consequently included: 1) putting the Salem Trials in a wider geographical and chronological perspective and; 2) placing the European witch trials in a longer and larger intellectual tradition, hence the “magic”. The course title is partially a misnomer, as we spend half our time in the medieval era, laying essential theological and historical groundwork, and the last few times I taught it, I became somewhat stalled in the fifteenth century. I think this was a bit frustrating for my students, as the most intensive period of witch hunting was the century between 1560 and 1660 (can’t we get to the trials?), but the more I studied both the primary and secondary texts the more I came to realize that the fifteenth century was absolutely key to the intensification that was to come. This is true not only because of the publication of the famous Malleus Maleficarum, an incredibly accessible, even riveting, “how-to” manual of witch identification and prosecution which itself is a consequence of fifteenth-century trends regarding what was seen increasingly as a “pestilential heresy” on the Continent, but also because of the visualization of diabolical witchcraft, most prominently in Ulrich Molitor’s De lamiis et pythonicis mulieribus (‘On Witches and Female Soothsayers, 1489). A Professor of Law at the University of Constance, Molitor’s point of view is traditional in terms of his opinions on witchcraft, unlike the more radical authors of the Malleus, Heinrich Kramer and  Jacob Sprenger, whose perspectives were inquisitional rather than reasoned. In the course of a ten-chapter dialogue, Molitor ultimately concludes that witches are generally products of demonic illusion. So his words did not incite, but one could argue that his images did, as De lamiis was the first illustrated treatise on witchcraft, and a text with a remarkably long run: 43 editions were published between 1489–1669—more than the Malleus Maleficarum. Molitor’s insistence on the illusionary  powers of witches was definitely undercut by the inclusion of woodcut illustrations of middle-aged “witches” engaging in some of the things Kramer and Sprenger accused them of: stirring up storms, flying to the sabbat, frolicking with their demon lover. And so, in both words and woodcuts, stereotypes were created, and cemented over the next century.








Woodcut illustrations from the 1489, 1500, and 1544 (last one) editions of Ulrich Molitor’s De lamiis et phitonicis mulieribus. [first published in Reutlingen: Johann Otmar, not before 10 Jan. 1489]. University of Glasgow Sp Coll Ferguson An-y.34. For more and the later visualization of witches and witchcraft, see Charles Zika’s excellent The Appearance of Witchcraft: Print and Visual Culture in Sixteenth-century Europe.

Samantha Should Go

If I were Queen of Salem for a day the very first thing I would do is smite Samantha. I like Bewitched and Elizabeth Montgomery as much as the next person, but a television character has no business occupying such a prominent parcel in Salem in statue form–especially such a bad statue. I think public art should either be beautiful or significant and Samantha is neither: she should go. I never really understood exactly how she was deposited right there, in Lappin Park on Town House Square, in June of 2005. It was a deal struck between the TV Land television channel, who commissioned the statue from StudioEIS in Brooklyn, then-mayor Stanley Usovicz, and the Salem Redevelopment Authority. Is she supposed to be with us forever? I was in one of my periodic disengagement-from-Salem-because-it-is-driving-me-crazy moods at the time so I wasn’t among the protesters, but even one of the statue’s creators admitted it was crass at the time:

“If I were one of the people who had a house on the beautiful common there, would I hate it?” asked Ivan Schwartz, sitting at a conference table last week and discussing the Samantha statue. “Yes, probably. But it seems like [Salem] was going down that path long before this TV Land thing ever surfaced.” (Washington Post)

Well, Mr. Schwartz is correct: Salem has been “Witch City” for quite a while, which is why my feelings towards Samantha have evolved: I don’t really want to destroy her anymore, I’d just like to move her–to a less prominent and more appropriate place–where she can represent Witch City rather than Salem. Maybe in front of the Witch Museum? That’s a perfect pairing.

Samantha Destination Salem

The Samantha Statue in Lappin Park (somewhat dressed for winter, but before our recent snow), courtesy Destination Salem.

So who or what could replace Samantha?  That is a difficult question, despite, or perhaps because of, Salem’s rich history.

An “old planter”?  Well we already have the magisterial statue of Salem founder Roger Conant by the Common. Unfortunately he is often mistaken for a “witch” because of his proximity to the Witch Museum as well–maybe he and Samantha could trade places? No, I think not.

Accused “witches”?  Well, we already have the subtle but stately Witch Trials Memorial on Charter Street. This is a reflective place (when it is not full of tourists eating sausage rolls on its memorial benches) deserving of its official status, but is could be supplemented by a more humanistic installation at Town House Square, I suppose. Statues of Bridget Bishop and George Jacobs–the victims from Salem Town?  Philip English–who escaped, survived, and sought revenge? My very favorite memorial to a witch-trial victim is the relief sculpture of Katharina Henot, burned at the stake in Cologne in 1627, in which she is paired with Friedrich Spee, a Jesuit priest who served as a participant/confessor in several witch trials before he wrote an extremely influential indictment of such proceedings (the Cautio Criminalis (1631)), on a facade of the Cologne City Hall. They are actually quite modern creations, one of 124 relief figures carved for the exterior of the Rathaus. The Lappin Park site is a courtyard, rather than a building, so I think we need to go for something/someone more freestanding.

Rathausturm Koeln - Friedrich Spee von Langenfeld, Katharina Henot

Samuel McIntire? Revolutionary War soldiers and sailors from Salem? Timothy Pickering? One of the Derbys? We already have a great statue of Nathaniel Hawthorne on Hawthorne Boulevard. The great philanthropist Captain John Bertram and/or his granddaughter Caroline Emmerton, founder of the House of the Seven Gables Settlement Association? If I had my druthers (which I would, because I would be Queen), I’d probably go with Captain Luis Fenollosa Emilio of the Massachusetts 54th, a Salem native and author of The Brave Black Regiment (1891). He fought with the 54th for three years and was the sole surviving officer of the ferocious battle of Ft. Wagner in 1863: he deserves commemoration somewhere.

Statue Emilio

Captain Luis F. Emilio of the Mass 54th and 23rd, Library of Congress.

If I step down from my throne, however, I think it’s probably best to install something less literal and more abstract or conceptual in this particular location: something that could speak to as many people as possible and really make both passersby and crowds stop and think (or at least stop). I could even go in a more whimsical direction: the people who like the Samantha statue generally mention its “whimsy” but I think whimsy has to emanate from good art and Samantha looks like she is sitting on a turd rather than a cloud. We can do better.

Just to get the ideas flowing, I rounded up some of my favorite installations: most are public, some I have seen in person rather than just in pictures, some are memorials and some are just “statues”, all are (in my humble opinion) just great.

Reading Chaucer Jackson

Philip Jackson (b. 1944), Reading Chaucer, Portland Gallery, London.

Statue Les Voyageurs Marseilles

One of Bruno Catalano’s Voyageurs in Marseilles–travelers with missing parts!

Statue Shoes Budapest

The extremely poignant installation of “Shoes on the Danube” in Budapest by Gyuala Pauer and Can Togny, dedicated “to the memory of the victims shot by Arrow Cross militiamen in 1944-45”.


A “house” with roots by Leandro Erlich at the Summer Festival in Karlsruhe, Germany via Designboom. (I would LOVE to see something like this in Salem–a 17th century house!)

Appendix: Just adding a few lines as this post was shared quite widely on Salem Facebook groups and there was a lot of commentary that readers of the blog won’t see. Lots of love for Samantha; she is widely credited (not the statue so much as the television character and show, which filmed in Salem in 1970-71) for saving Salem from the wasteland that it was becoming at that time. So the statue is seen as a symbol of revival through witchcraft tourism. Also: tourists love her so she should stay, she’s “whimsical” so she should stay. There were some people that supported a move: to the Willows & the Hawthorne Hotel in particular. No support for Captain Emilio!

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.

PicMonkey Collage

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.

PicMonkey Collage

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

PicMonkey Collage

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).

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