A Brief History of Witches in America

By Scan by NYPL, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
By Scan by NYPL, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Before J.K. Rowling started dabbling in the American history of witches, we had our own traditions: Native American myths, the Salem Witch Trials, Bewitched, the 1970s resurgence, and the current phenomenon tell a long narrative of witches in America.

First, as in most cultures, the conceptions of witches and witchcraft have been around for a while in the North American region. The witch-like concept of skin-walkers, or yee nahgloshii, comes from the Diné culture, or Navajo people. However, it can be difficult to find information about Native peoples’ concepts and histories of witchcraft, mostly because they’re not very interested in going into detail about it with people outside of the culture. As Dr. Adrienne Keene wrote, “These are not things that need or should be discussed by outsiders. At all. I’m sorry if that seems 'unfair,' but that’s how our cultures survive.”

We do know a lot about American colonial conceptions of witchcraft, if only because it led to a lot of drama and death. But in 1658, predating the Salem Witch Trials, there was Elizabeth “Goody” Garlick, Long Island's Witch of Easthampton (modern day East Hampton), who had been accused by an ill 16-year-old mother right before the teenager died. The local magistrates—even then overwhelmed by the gossiping and pettiness of their constituents—deferred to Hartford, Connecticut’s court (at the time, Long Island had administrative ties to Connecticut). Luckily for Goody, the Governor of the colony was John Winthrop, Jr., who saw these accusations of witchcraft as mere community pathology—a viewpoint he carried throughout all the witch trials he oversaw over the next decade.

Salem, Massachusetts, as we all know, was not so lucky between 1692 and 1693. There have been several reasons cited for what led to the witchcraft hysteria—among them: colonists displaced by King William’s War pouring in from the north; ergot poisoning in the rye grain; and Salem Village’s first ordained minister, Reverend Samuel Parris, who the people of Salem generally thought of as greedy and rigid (or, in modern day parlance, a “hardass”).


By Alfred Fredericks, Designer; Winham, Engraver - from "A Popular History of the United States", Vol. 2, by William Cullen Bryant, New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1878, p. 457, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

So it was particularly fascinating when Parris's 9-year-old daughter Elizabeth and 11-year-old niece began experiencing contortions and tantrums, or “fits,” alongside another 11-year-old girl. All three were pressed for why, and in turn blamed Parris’s slave, a woman named Tituba; Sarah Good, a homeless beggar; and Sarah Osborne, a woman who had a reputation for breaking social norms.

While the latter two women denied being witches, Tituba made up strange, fascinating stories that captivated and went along with the leading questions asked by John Hathorne, the Salem town justice who handled most of the town depositions.

All three were jailed, though Tituba was the only one who lived; she was let out of prison 13 months later. (Osborne died in prison while Good was hanged after giving birth in prison; her baby died before her hanging.) Meanwhile, special courts were put in place for these Salem witch trials, and nearly four months after the initial accusations, Bridget Bishop—who was known for her gossipy nature and promiscuity—was the first person hanged as a witch. In all, 19 people were hanged as witches—including John Proctor, who eventually became the protagonist of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible—and one was pressed to death before the special courts were disbanded and “spectral evidence” (i.e. dreams and visions) was no longer usable during trial.

The next time witches were part of popular culture—beyond the condemning of the Salem Witch Trials—was in a much smaller context. In the early 1900s, when women’s magazines were giving advice on throwing Halloween parties, they were describing an opportunity for mixed-sex courtship rituals. This meant making elements of the holiday more palatable to the decade’s New Woman, depicting witches as beautiful and alluring instead of terrifying and devilish.

The cute witch trend continued into the 1960s with Bewitched, a popular TV series about a then-modern-day witch who decides to live as a suburban housewife. Before the show, the citizens of Salem were ashamed of the trials—to the point that no one would speak to Arthur Miller when he went there to do research. But with The Crucible’s success, and Bewitched filming episodes on location in Salem—including one where main character Samantha Stephens calls out the ridiculousness of the trials—the city experienced a resurgence, enough to boost the local economy through kitschy acknowledgement of the trials. This included, incidentally, a statue of Elizabeth Montgomery, the actress who played Samantha on Bewitched.

Elizabeth Montgomery stars in 'Bewitched'
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Around the same time in the 1960s, the independent feminist group Women’s International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell, or W.I.T.C.H., was founded. (They also went by “Women Inspired to Tell Their Collective History," "Women Interested in Toppling Consumer Holidays," among other names.) They were interested in a feminism based on several methods of social change, not just toppling the patriarchy, and viewed witches as “the first guerrilla fighters against women’s oppression." They spread their message by carrying out witch-like publicity stunts, such as protesting and “hexing” Wall Street, giving out garlic cloves and cards that said “We Are Witch We Are Women We Are Liberation We Are We” at a restaurant.

In the 1970s, witch collectives began to gather and organize more openly. Dianic Wicca, or Dianic Witchcraft, founded by Zsuzsanna Budapest and started on the Winter Solstice of 1971, is unlike other Wiccan traditions in that it has women-only covens, and worships only a monotheistic goddess (though it perceives goddesses of any culture merely as other incarnations of the main goddess). When asked about this during a 2007 interview, Budapest said, “It’s the natural law, as women fare so fares the world, their children, and that’s everybody. If you lift up the women you have lifted up humanity. Men have to learn to develop their own mysteries. Where is the order of Attis? Pan? Zagreus? Not only research it, but then popularize it as well as I have done. Where are the Dionysian rites? I think men are lazy in this aspect by not working this up for themselves. It’s their own task, not ours.”

In 1973, the American Council of Witches was founded and convened in April 1974 to draft a set of common principles of Wicca and Witchcraft in America. Unfortunately, they disbanded that same year because they could not agree for long, though they did come up with 13 Principles of Wiccan Belief (the first of which is, “We practice rites to attune ourselves with the natural rhythm of life forces marked by the phases of the Moon and the seasonal Quarters and Cross Quarters”), which is still used today. In fact, in 1978, these principles were put into the U.S. Army’s Religious Requirements and Practices of Certain Selected Groups: A Handbook for Chaplains.

If we’re going to look at a more modern witch, we’d want to turn to Alex Mar, author of Witches of America, last October’s cultural history of modern witchcraft and Wicca in America. According to an article she wrote for Cosmopolitan, “Since the '80s, Pagans have been gathering in outdoor festivals and indoor hotel conferences all around the country, sometimes in groups of a few thousand. And with the rise of the Internet in the '90s, vast networks have also spread online, making it that much easier for someone Craft-curious, in an area without a visible Pagan presence, to connect with a mentor in a chat room.”


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The internet has also definitely changed witchcraft. It’s become a cornerstone of modern feminism. It’s led to fights and discussion about the capitalist uses of witchcraft, which involves selling spells on Etsy. The website Broadly, in particular, has regular witch news about local covens, pagan festivals, and guides to celebrating the fall equinox.

What about the future of American witches? Well, next year will see the release of Basic Witches: A Guide To Summoning Success, Banishing Drama and Raising Hell With Your Coven, by Jaya Saxena and Jess Zimmerman.

Suffice to say that witches have come a long way in America.

When Mississippi Once Banned Sesame Street

Children's Television Workshop/Courtesy of Getty Images
Children's Television Workshop/Courtesy of Getty Images

Since it began airing in the fall of 1969, Sesame Street has become an indelible part of millions of children's formative years. Using a cast of colorful characters like Big Bird, Bert, Ernie, and Oscar the Grouch, along with a curriculum vetted by Sesame Workshop's child psychologists and other experts, the series is able to impart life lessons and illustrate educational tools that a viewer can use throughout their adolescence. You would be hard-pressed to find anyone—even Oscar—who would take issue with the show’s approach or its mission statement.

Yet that’s exactly what happened in early 1970, when a board of educational consultants in Mississippi gathered, polled one another, and decided that Sesame Street was too controversial for television.

The series had only been on the air for a few months when the newly formed Mississippi Authority for Educational Television (also known as the State Commission for Educational Television) held a regularly scheduled meeting in January 1970. The board had been created by the state legislature with appointees named by Governor John Bell Williams to evaluate shows that were set to air on the state’s Educational Television, or ETV, station. The five-member panel consisted of educators and private citizens, including a teacher and a principal, and was headed up by James McKay, a banker in Jackson, Mississippi.

McKay’s presence was notable for the fact that his father-in-law, Allen Thompson, had just retired after spending 20 years as mayor of Jackson. Highly resistant to integration in the city during his tenure in office, Thompson was also the founder of Freedom of Choice in the United States, or FOCUS, an activist group that promoted what they dubbed “freedom of choice” in public schools—a thinly veiled reference to segregation. Mississippi, long the most incendiary state in the nation when it came to civil rights, was still struggling with the racial tension of the 1960s. Systemic racism was an issue.

Entering this climate was Sesame Street, the show pioneered by Joan Ganz Cooney, a former journalist and television producer who became the executive director of the Children’s Television Workshop. On the series, the human cast was integrated, with black performers Matt Robinson and Loretta Long as Gordon and Susan, respectively, appearing alongside white actors Jada Rowland and Bob McGrath. The children of Sesame Street were also ethnically diverse.

Zoe (L) and Cookie Monster (R) are pictured in New York City in November 2009
Astrid Stawiarz, Getty Images

This appeared to be too much for the Authority, which discussed how lawmakers with control over ETV’s budget—which had just been set at $5,367,441—might find the mixed-race assembly offensive. The panel's participants were all white.

The board pushed the discussion aside until April 17, 1970, when they took an informal poll and decided, by a margin of three votes against two, to prohibit ETV from airing Sesame Street—a show that came free of charge to all public television stations. (The decision affected mainly viewers in and around Jackson, as the station had not yet expanded across the state and was not expected to do so until the fall of 1970.)

The members who were outvoted were plainly unhappy with the outcome and leaked the decision to The New York Times, which published a notice of the prohibition days later along with a quote from one of the board members.

“Some of the members of the commission were very much opposed to showing the series because it uses a highly integrated cast of children,” the person, who did not wish to be named, said. “Mainly the commission members felt that Mississippi was not yet ready for it.”

The reaction to such a transparent concession to racism was swift and predictably negative, both in and out of Mississippi. Board members who spoke with press, usually anonymously, claimed the decision was a simple “postponing” of the show, not an outright ban. The fear, they said, was that legislators who viewed ETV as having progressive values might shut down the project before it had a chance to get off the ground. It was still possible for opponents to suffocate it before it became part of the fabric of the state’s television offerings.

The concern was not entirely without merit. State representative Tullius Brady of Brookhaven said that ETV exerted “a subtle influence” on the minds of children and that the Ford Foundation, which funded educational programming, could use its influence for “evil purposes.” Other lawmakers had previously argued against shows that promoted integration.

Grover is pictured at AOL Studios in New York City in May 2015
Slaven Vlasic, Getty Images

Regardless of how the decision was justified, many took issue with it. In an anonymous editorial for the Delta Democrat-Times, a critic wrote:

“But Mississippi’s ETV commission won’t be showing it for the time being because of one fatal defect, as measured by Mississippi’s political leadership. Sesame Street is integrated. Some of its leading cast members are black, including the man who does much of the overt ‘teaching.’ The neighborhood of the ‘street’ is a mixed one. And all that, of course, goes against the Mississippi grain.”

Joan Ganz Cooney called the decision a “tragedy” for young people.

Fortunately, it was a tragedy with a short shelf life. The following month, the board reconvened and reversed its own informal poll result, approving of Sesame Street and agreeing that ETV could air it as soon as they received tapes of the program. Thanks to feeds from Memphis, New Orleans, and Alabama, Sesame Street could already be seen in parts of Mississippi. And thanks to the deluge of negative responses, it seemed pointless to try to placate politicians who still favored segregation.

In the fall of 1970, the Sesame Street cast appeared in person in Jackson and was met by representatives from the board, which helped to sponsor the live performance, though it’s not clear any apology was forthcoming.

Sesame Street would go on to win numerous awards and accolades over the proceeding 50 years, though it would not be the only children’s show to experience censorship on public television. In May 2019, ETV networks in Alabama and Arkansas refused to air an episode of the PBS animated series Arthur in which a rat and aardvark are depicted as a same-sex couple getting married.

10 Facts About Harry Houdini

Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Though Harry Houdini passed away more than 90 years ago, his mystique has never faded. The famed magician captured the imagination of the world with his death-defying stunts and performances, many of which still baffle modern magicians. Whether he was escaping from a straitjacket while suspended from a crane above the streets or getting out of his famed “Chinese water torture cell” with just moments of air to spare, Houdini had a habit of leaving everyone in awe. And with performances that spectacular, it shouldn’t come as a shock that his life was just as fascinating. Read on for some interesting facts about Harry Houdini.

1. Harry Houdini's real name was Ehrich Weiss.

He likely took the first part of his stage name from his childhood nickname, "Ehrie," although some sources say that his first name was a tribute to magician Harry Kellar. His last name, however, was definitely a tribute to French illusionist Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdin.

2. According to legend, He also named Buster Keaton, although inadvertently.

Along with Houdini, Buster's dad, Joe, was the co-owner of a traveling show called the Mohawk Indian Medicine Company. The story Buster tells (though some believe it's a myth) is that one day, when he was only about 6 months old, he took a tumble down a flight of stairs while he was under his dad's watch, but came out of it completely unscathed. Houdini remarked, "That was a real buster!" In those days, according to Keaton, buster meant a spill or a fall that had the potential to really hurt someone. Joe started calling him Buster, and the nickname stuck. His real name was Joseph Frank Keaton, if you're curious.

3. He introduced his famous milk can trick in 1908.

If you're not familiar with it, Houdini invented an oversized milk can that would be filled with water for his act. Once in the can, he would be handcuffed and sealed inside, then left behind a curtain to make his daring escape. When this became too commonplace, he further encased the milk can in a wooden crate. Perhaps building on this stunt, the folks at Joshua Tetley & Son, the brewers behind Tetley's beer, invited him to escape from a cask of their fine product. Houdini accepted and gave the stunt a go, but the task proved too difficult and he had to be rescued by his assistant, Franz Kokol.

4. Houdini probably didn't die from a sucker punch.

Houdini had long boasted of his physical prowess—and one of his claims was that he could withstand a punch from anyone. After a performance in Montreal on October 20, 1926, a student from McGill University asked him if this was true, and when Harry said it was, the student immediately punched him three times in the gut. Surprised by the blows, Houdini didn't have a chance to tighten his abs, which was part of his secret. He ultimately died of a ruptured appendix days later, which many people said was brought on by the punches. But that's not necessarily true.

Houdini had actually been suffering from appendicitis for a few days beforehand but hadn't done anything about it. In fact, he had continued to travel and do shows afterward. Finally, on October 24, 1926, he gave one last show and was immediately hospitalized. Unfortunately, he had let it go too long: on October 31, 1926, he died of peritonitis from his ruptured appendix.

5. The symbol of the Society of American Magicians is engraved on his tombstone.

Houdini was president of the Society of American Magicians when he died. And members are still invested in making sure the famed magician's gravesite at Machpelah Cemetary in Queens, New York, receives routine maintenance and restoration. Sadly, his beloved wife, Bess, is buried 10 miles away in Westchester; she wasn't allowed to be buried with him because she wasn't Jewish.

6. His wife, Bess, held a séance every year for 10 years on the anniversary of his death to see if he would get in touch.

Before Harry Houdini died, he and Bess made a pact that if there was a way to do it, Harry would contact her from the beyond. They even agreed upon a phrase that he would tell her so she would know it was really him speaking to her and not a ghostly imposter. When he failed to contact her on the 10th anniversary, she gave up, but the Houdini Museum in Scranton, Pennsylvania, still holds the séance every year. So far, no one has gotten Harry to communicate. 

The secret code, by the way, was "Rosabelle- answer- tell- pray, answer- look- tell- answer, answer- tell." "Rosabelle" was the name of a song she sang in her vaudeville act when the two of them met, and the other words corresponded to letters of the alphabet in a language the two concocted for themselves. Combined, they spelled out "Believe."

7. Houdini was an avid aviator.

Though there's some dispute over the claim, Houdini is often recognized as the first person to ever make a controlled flight in a powered plane on Australian soil. The flight took place on March 18, 1910, in Diggers Rest, which is near Melbourne. In June, 1920, it was reported that Houdini was even making plans to embark upon what would have been the first transatlantic flight from Paris to New York. The plans, unfortunately, never materialized.

8. Houdini could also escape from copyright restrictions.

By 1912, Houdini added another act to his routine: the escape from the infamous "Chinese water torture cell," where the magician would be lowered upside-down into a water-filled tank while his feet were locked in stocks. It was a hit with crowds, and despite the overwhelming danger, Houdini repeatedly performed the stunt without a hitch. In fact, he was the only one who could legally perform this death-defying act. That's because Houdini found a way to copyright the cell routine in a pretty ingenious way. Since you couldn't copyright magic tricks, he first performed this escape as part of a one-act play called Houdini Upside Down! Well, you can copyright a play, and by incorporating the cell escape into the script, he was allowed to copyright the effect and would actively sue anyone who tried to imitate the stunt.

9. Although the Chinese Water Torture Cell didn't do him in, one of his performances nearly did.

In 1915, Houdini was buried in a pit with just dirt shoveled right on top of him for a stunt in Santa Ana, California. While trying to dig his way out, he started to panic and use up his precious air. He tried to call for help, but that's not exactly the easiest thing to do while covered in mounds of dirt. Finally, his hand broke the surface, and he was pulled to safety, where he promptly passed out. He later wrote that "The weight of the earth is killing."

10. You can still see one of his most famous stunts.

The straitjacket escape is one of Harry Houdini's most famous acts. For this one, Houdini would be strapped into the jacket and then suspended by his ankles very high in the air, usually from a crane or off a tall building. Once hoisted in the air, he would make a death-defying escape with countless onlookers below. You can still watch it below:

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