Friday, October 30, 2015

Halloween Blog Hop: Exploring the History of Witchcraft in Salem and Elsewhere or "Burn the Witch?"

Greetings and welcome to Day 3 of the Halloween Blog Hop.

And Happy Halloween!

When I was invited to participate in this blog hop, I wanted to bring to the table a subject that often seems misunderstood by the modern mind. Playing the role of real life "witch" Mary Bliss Parsons for the Depreciation Lands Museum's Cemetery Lantern Tours piqued my interest in this piece of history even more. When we think of witch trials, barbaric mobs of simpletons with their pitchforks, shovels, and torches screaming "burn the witch" as they drag the accused woman from her home is often what comes to mind.
While I'm not saying that there may not be a little truth in that, when you really start looking into things, it becomes obvious that the trials and accusations run far deeper. You also start to recognize what was likely over-dramatized for Hollywood.
For instance, it is often assumed that once someone was accused of witchcraft, they were automatically screwed. This was not always the case. In fact, Mary Bliss Parsons, whom I portrayed, was accused twice and acquitted both times. She and her husband were also able to file a slander suit against her accusers and ended up winning that suit.
It is also often assumed that only women were accused. Not true. Several men were also accused, convicted, and executed for witchcraft.
People also often assume that accused witches were only burned. To that, I say yes and no. In Europe, burning was among the most chosen forms of execution. In early America though, hanging seemed to be more common, according to recent findings I've made.
It is also said that the trials created "mass hysteria" due to the preachings of the clergyman putting fear into the minds of their 17th century parishoners. However, according to Chadwick Hansens's book Witchcraft at Salem, witchcraft was widely practiced throughout Europe and the Americas. Hansen reports that knowledge of witchcraft was as common among 17th century Puritans as it was among Anglicans, Lutherans, Quakers, and Catholics. The "mass hysteria" could also more accurately be described as public excitement. And according to Hansen, this was more due to the already popular fear of witches and witchcraft than it was the preachings of the clergy putting fear in their minds. In fact, Hansen suggests that the clergy was - in fact - chief opponents of the events at Salem, from beginning to end. This includes Cotton Mather. Many may know Mather as the wide-eyed bloodthirsty fanatic of tradition and the driving force behind the events taking place in Salem. But Witchcraft at Salem indicates that he went above and beyond to protect those who were innocent.

The writings of Chadwick Hansen might also shed some light on the story behind Moll Derry, also known as the Monongahela Witch or The Witch of the Revolution. As I state in my article for The Parting of Veils Webzine, Moll Derry was also a historical figure portrayed in the Cemetery Lantern Tours at the museum. Thomas White talks of her in his book Witches of Pennsylvania: Occult History and Lore. 
Derry was born in Germany during the year 1760. During the Revolutionary War, she moved to America with her husband, who was a Hessian soldier.
After the war ended, they moved to Fayette County in the 1790s. It is said that Derry lived in Georges Township until her death from old age in 1843 (which would have made her 83 at the time of her death).

Throughout her lifetime, Derry was said to have told fortunes, removed hexes, and cured ailments. There is even a story of how she tried to help a young woman by warning that young woman of what seemed to be an abusive fiance. Unfortunately, the young woman did not listen and she was later found dead. Derry was also said to have a vengeful side to her, and pity the fools that dared cross her. There are many stories of curses and affliction place upon those that angered Derry, from farmers having their livestock mysteriously perish to men that tormented her having their lives cut short by hanging.
Either way, her reputation as "the most well-known witch of the western side of the [Pennsylvania] state" made her a legend long before her earthly life ended.
In my article, I share my own wonder at how in a time and place when such practices were said to have been severely frowned upon, how did Derry - a supposed well-known witch - manage to slip through the cracks without any legal trouble? At least none that has been found recorded. Perhaps people did fear 'crossing her,' but it is also possible that perhaps witchcraft, as Hansen suggests, was a more common practice than many tend to believe. But at the same time, not everyone was as fortunate as Derry. So why them and not her?

I am going to continue researching this further and will bring you all more info as I go.

For the second part of this article, I will go back in time even further. Since I have learned to spin yarn and thread on a drop spindle and am currently learning how to spin on a spinning wheel, I found this article at the American Folkloric Witchcraft blog particularly interesting. The article gets into the Masculine and Feminine mysteries of the craft and the stang and distaff.
When the article gets to the feminine mysteries, the author goes into the following:

"The third branch of witchcraft, and the third use of the stang, is as a traditional woman's tool -- that of the distaff. The older versions of a spinner's distaff was either a two or three pronged "stang" ("stick"). The distaff and spindle were once the main daily working tools of all women...The distaff is a traditional handspinner's tool used for holding raw fibers as they are spun into thread on a spindle.
Sarah Lawless, in her excellent post about magical sticks, suggests from her studies that the distaff/stang wrapped in flax for spinning was mistaken for a broom in folklore and art. Quite possibly. The stang is certainly a tool for travel."

So as I said earlier, I will continue researching all of this and present more information as I go. And as I research history and the events surrounding it, the more I come to recognize how true the following statement is. That history truly is a giant, mysterious labyrinth with many different and unexpected twists and turns.

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Article Sources:

-Mary Bliss Parsons:
-Witchcraft at Salem by Chadwick Hansen 
-Sample of Witches of Pennsylvania by Thomas White: 
-American Folkloric Witchcraft: Stang and Distaff
- Salem Withch Trials:
- Parting of Veils Webzine: Haunted Monongahela

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