Have you ever noticed how spring is bewitching? I fall under its spell of simple beauty. I have a very positive view of witches and wish I knew more of them.
Of course, the world hasn’t always been kind to the bewitching. Connecticut seemed to take the lead on witch persecution, long before Salem, MA lost its head over witches in 1691. The first witch was tried in Connecticut in 1642 and the first hung in Windsor, CT five years later, when witchcraft was not only condemned in the Bible, but was also a capital offense.
Virginia Wolf (a great name for an actress specializing in witches!) brings the stories of the mostly women accused of witchcraft in “Panic in Connecticut: Accused Witches Have Their Say.”
Wise women, who often also worked with herbs for medicines, were generally the ones accused. The pattern was eerily prescient for the horrors of Salem to come.
A woman was accused when a cow died after she passed by or a child took ill after her glance. A woman was blamed for the murder of her lodger, and the man who did the deed became a respected property owner. Drought was blamed on witches.
A Dutch woman was accused because a girl she “possessed” started speaking with an accent. She successfully appealed to the Governor of neighboring New Amsterdam (now New York), the powerful Peter Stuyvesant, for help. “God help the woman who doesn’t have a strong man behind her,” she wrote.
Most of the accused were middle-aged women (who were considered no longer productive in society). Insidiously, widows were often targets, as property owners. The township could seize the property of a witch.
One test of a witch was the presence of “witches’ teats” from which she nourished the devil. Wolf put perspective on this test–middle aged women often grow moles and skin tags, considered “strange markings” and a convenient excuse. One women described in detail how all her hair was combed, as she was stripped of clothes in front of a judging set of women. Her pubic hair was deemed “not normal,” whatever that meant.
Men were taken to trial, too, if they were in close association with an accused woman.
Neighbors turned on neighbors, suspicions dominated interactions. Some thought their punishment would be lighter if they pulled a McCarthy and named names.
And the horrific test of a witch was present in Connecticut before Salem. The accused witch’s thumbs were tied to opposite toes, and she was dropped in water. If she sank, she was innocent (and dead), and if she floated, she was confirmed as a witch (and condemned to die).
Witch trials and executions were held around the state, including in New Haven, and up into Massachusetts in nearby Springfield. All before Salem.
By 1663, the madness played itself out, as a married couple were the last to be hung (although others still went to trial). Part of the change came with a new, learned Governor. He was an alchemist who believed in magic and its potential. He changed the law so that two people had to witness the bewitching event.
A year after Salem started to roar, witch persecution came back to Connecticut in 1692 and lasted about a year. Fortunately, no witches were executed. Many of the accused escaped to Rhode Island, known as the place of freedom, rather than be dogged by the label. Rhode Island alone in New England (plus the Virginia colony) did not accuse or persecute witches. I think New York stayed well out of it, as the Dutch tolerant culture was dominant even after the peaceful English transfer.
The persecution of witches ended by 1750 and the understandings of science–the discovery of germs and bacteria ironically helped save lives of these berated women.
Witches and witch hunts have been with us through history, and often focus on the poor, weak, or suppressed voices in society.
But today, I experienced a witch with a huge voice, mezzo soprano Aleksandra Romano, the niece of my friend Margaret. At today’s Yale graduation recital, she sang three selections, each bewitching. But the most compelling evidence of her witchcraft came with William Bolcom’s Amor. The lyrics make the point:
It wasn’t the policeman’s fault in all the traffic roar. Instead of shouting halt when he saw me, he shouted Amor.
Even the ice-cream man (free ice-creams by the score). Instead of shouting Butter Pecan, one look at me, he shouted Amor.
You get the picture. This character caused so much trouble, she was taken to court, and you guessed it, she bewitched the judge and jury.
Here’s an earlier performance she did of the song.
Romano is a bewitching talent, one you’ll likely see as she continues her career. Good thing we’re tolerant of witches now!