Witches have been having a pop culture moment, exemplified by AMERICAN HORROR STORY: COVEN (which did for ‘bitchy’ what Suicide Squad seems to be trying to do to ‘edgy’) and THE WITCH, but I’m one of those feminists who’s long been fascinated by witchcraft (I’ve used that line before, and you can bet I will use it again). I went through a period of devouring books on Salem in elementary school. That “You know Hermione Granger would be studying right now” image from last Life Update is my current wallpaper. I even have plans for a witchcraft-themed MG series. So when I saw a Twitter giveaway for an ARC of Susan Fair’s book AMERICAN WITCHES: A BROOMSTICK TOUR THROUGH FOUR CENTURIES, I was very excited! And to my surprise, I won! This was especially exciting because this is my second social media win and my second ARC review!
AMERICAN WITCHES covers the extended history of witchcraft in America, ranging from Native American witch-hunts all the way to The Blair Witch Project. The notorious Salem witch trials unsurprisingly get three entire chapters, but Susan Fair also covers earlier witchy happenings during the early colonial period and even colorful incidents post-the 17th century, like how a certain super-low-budget film turned Internet phenomenon ended up bringing the witch craze to the tiny historic town of Burkittsville, Maryland.
It won’t surprise anyone that Salem gets a whole section, as it well deserves. What’s impressive is that, given how well-known and well-covered that nasty chapter of American history is in the culture–does anyone else find it a little distasteful how much of pop culture likes to use Salem in stories about ‘real’ witches?–Fair makes the decision to emphasize that was a very real and very human tragedy. She does this most acutely, of all things, in the chapters on Cotton Mather (like most everyone, she doesn’t paint a very rosy picture of him, and he almost certainly deserves it, but she does allow him humanity, noting his own troubled background and the devastating loss of a son) and one titled “Salem by the Numbers”. Included: “Age of Youngest Person Jailed for Witchcraft” (four), “number of dogs executed for witchcraft” (two), “total amount of restitution” (578 pounds and 12 shillings, puny compensation for the victims even in 1710), and “what cost two pounds and ten shillings in 1692” (the price Ann Foster’s son had to pay for the return of her body).
My favorite part of the book, though, is how much it covers aside from Salem. Think the history of American witchcraft ended in 1693? Consider the so-called “Second Salem Witch Trial” of 1878, when Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of Christian Science, testified against one of her followers for trying to “mentally assassinate” her through “mesmerism”. (The case was thrown out, but the name wasn’t metaphorical: it actually took place in Salem, MA!) Or the York Hex Murder, which was even less metaphorical and involved physical assassination in Rehmeyer’s Hollow. This tragic 1929 incident involved John Blymer, a disturbed young practitioner of pow-wow, a form of Pennsylvania Dutch folk magic, who murdered farmer Nelson Rehmeyer after he became convinced he had cursed him. (This chapter ends with the chain mail-worthy but no less sad note that Rehmeyer–considered a swell guy–was a pow-wow practitioner himself who seemed to genuinely believe his charms would help people…and had in fact saved the life of an infant Blymer.) And then there’s the Tenskwatawa, Tecumseh’s brother and the “Shawnee Prophet”, whose witch-hunts among Natives extended to slow-roasting an old Delaware woman, and Mortimer Thomson, an investigative journalist who wrote an undercover expose of the “Witches of New York”, or mediums in the 1850s.
Susan Fair delivers on her promise to cover “four centuries” of hysterical history, and it shows in the impressive research and depth. But it’s written in a breezy, accessible style with tongue-in-cheek humor and pop culture references, making it an easy as well as comprehensive and informative read. (Some are more successful than others, but the undisputed best is “Most Kanye Witch Trial Moment”, in what’s quite probably my favorite chapter, “Witch Awards”. The award is well-earned, by the way: Job Tookey, a 27-year-old laborer during the Salem craze, was apparently accused of boasting that “he was not the Devil’s servant–the Devil was his servant.” Actually, that might even surpass Kanye. He only said he was a god, not that God was his servant!…well, not yet at least.)
But the most truly unexpected thing about this book is that, even with all the darkness and talk of the Devil, there are touches of really startling empathy. Even as we see human folly and cruelty at its worst, AMERICAN WITCHES emphasizes what a lot of the current witch craze in pop culture media doesn’t. The history of American witch-hunts isn’t just a catalog of eccentricities and oddball tortures. It’s one about real people, real tragedy, and real shame. Also, it’s often real, real weird. Even weirder than you think.
Thanks to Skyhorse Publishing for the book! I enjoyed this and learned a lot. To express my gratitude, I’m going to close this review with a shoutout to my favorite witchy women:
The Potterverse has so many badass women (shoutout to Luna and Molly!), but I’ll just put one more: