Witch hysteria never died down in America, says Owen Davies, professor of social history at the University of Hertfordshire in England, whose book “America Bewitched, The story of witchcraft after Salem,” was published in May. Davies, who has also written scholarly treatments of paganism, ghosts and books of magic spells, recently answered some questions from the Salem News.
How prevalent was the belief in and accusation of witches in America after 1692?
Numerous commentators during the 19th century considered the persecution of witches to have ended at Salem — bar a few extraordinary instances. The Salem trials were part of a colonial past distant from the enlightened and progressive state of independent America. This was a reassuring story, but completely false. I have found more cases of people being murdered as witches after Salem than were executed officially before 1692.
According to your introduction, accusation of witches was in part renewed by new groups of immigrants. Did they bring their own traditions with them?
The descendants of colonial populations did not lose their fear of witches, and the millions of immigrants from myriad countries brought with them their own beliefs and concerns about witchcraft. I have come across witch assaults and murders in Irish, British, German, Italian, Swedish, Serbian, Mexican, and African-American communities.
What do these beliefs tell you about all the cultures where they occur? Have they changed over time?
Witchcraft beliefs and the persecution of supposed witches during the Salem trials era and beyond seem like another world, aspects of another time unconnected with ours, but they are not. At the heart of witchcraft accusations are fundamental fears, misfortunes, insecurities, uncertainties and personal experiences that people in America experience today.
How did the accusation of witchcraft serve as a cover for racism on the part of accusers after 1692, beyond the Puritan context?
Native Americans and African-Americans were regularly criticized for being far more prone to a “superstitious” belief in witchcraft and magic. This was based purely on racism, on the idea that non-Europeans with their “pagan” religions were innately intellectually inferior, more fearful, lacking the moral and spiritual purity of Christianity that was thought to dispel superstition. As “America Bewitched” demonstrates, though, devout Christian Americans of European descent were equally prone to commit murder, assault, and slander regarding suspected witches. Numerous witch killers defended themselves saying that they had read (correctly) in the Bible “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.”
Why do you enjoy studying witchcraft, magic, the occult?
I’ve been researching the history of witchcraft, magic and ghosts for 25 years. They are topics that once you start exploring are very difficult to drop, that can lead you down so many interesting paths in human behavior past and present. To understand the significance of witchcraft requires researching religion, social relations, politics, and psychology.