30. Katherine Howe, Author — The Salem Witch Trials: How Values and Beliefs Shape The Law

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In 1692 witchcraft was an indisputable fact of life in Massachusetts. Those accused faced felony charges. The Salem Witch Trials were the result of a rational worldview shared by well-reasoned people who saw witchcraft as the devil incarnate and a threat to daily life. But how did they get there? What can we learn from the trials about access to power and how social dynamics shape legal systems?

Here to help answer all of these questions is New York Times Best Selling and award-winning writer of historical fiction, Katherine Howe. She edited The Penguin Book of Witches for Penguin Classics and authored The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane – a historical fiction novel that travels between witch trials of the 1690s and modern life. She has also collaborated with Anderson Cooper on not one, but two books.

What’s In This Episode?

  • Who is Katherine Howe and what is her family connection to the Salem Witch Trials?
  • Why have witches held such a prominent space in our collective imagination for centuries?
  • What was real and rational about witchcraft in the 1600s?
  • What did the world of 1692 look like for the people who lived through the trials?
  • What does power have to do with WHO gets accused?
  • Why were women both at the center of the trials and the primary accusers?
  • Why would the accused sue for slander?
  • Why did the trials come to an end?

Transcript

Kathrine Howe

What they were being punished for of course, was in some respect, the desire for power, the desire to step out of the lot that life or God, or whoever had determined for them

Sonya Palmer

The audacity to demand power on one’s own terms in colonial Massachusetts was both threatening and attractive.

Kathrine Howe

And the desire to, to dare, to want more or to want something different. Even if that thing that they wanted was respect or the right to express anger or, things that we still feel like we have to demand for ourselves to some degree today.

Sonya Palmer

In 2021, women made up over half of all summer associates – for the fourth year in a row. Yet equity partners in multi-tier law firms continue to be disproportionately white men. Only 22.0% of equity partners are women. We would like to see that change. Hello, and welcome to LawHER, the show where we celebrate the trailblazing attorneys and entrepreneurs who are changing the game for women in the legal field. Be inspired by their stories. Learn from their mistakes. Build community. And look forward to the future they’re helping build for the next generation of women in law. I’m Sonya Palmer, your host and VP of Operations at Rankings. The SEO agency of choice for Personal Injury lawyers. This is LawHER. When we think of the Salem Witch Trials, it is easy to dismiss the accusations and punishments as the result of a backward or less evolved or superstitious way of life. But in this world – in the 1690s – witchcraft was not fantasy. It was “fact” believed by well-reasoned people and a menace to an ordered, peaceful life. A crime as severe as murder. Witchcraft was a felony. And as the way we think about witches has evolved over the centuries I can’t help but wonder: Why has the ‘witch’ had such a stronghold on our imaginations? What does power have to do with WHO getting accused? How do social dynamics shape the legal system? What did the world of 1692 look like for the people who lived through the trials? AND How can we keep from falling into similar cognitive traps? Here to help answer all of these questions is New York Times Best Selling and award-winning writer of historical fiction Katherine Howe. She edited The Penguin Book of Witches for Penguin Classics and authored The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane – a historical fiction novel that travels between witch trials of the 1690s and a modern life. Let’s dive in.

Kathrine Howe

From a historian standpoint, like one of the things that makes Salem such an intriguing evergreen topic of interest is that it’s one of the few instances when we actually get a window into the everyday. Of normal people like normal people and not only normal people, but women specifically are at the center of the drama. They are the majority of the accusers. They’re the majority of the accused. And so from a historian perspective, Salem, which is specifically hold a lot of interest partly for that reason. As for why over time we continue to be interested in witches. there’s a lot of. Ways to answer that question. Certainly the question of power is one of those questions. I The issue of who has power, how do we achieve power? How do we hold onto it?

Sonya Palmer

Power was exactly the word that I had in my head for what I am intrigued by is a strong, powerful female the witch. When were you first drawn to it? Why did you go down that path?

Kathrine Howe

Well, I’m a novelist and a historian and I started writing. I mostly write historical fiction, although I’ve been writing nonfiction lately. Much of my historical fiction is witch-related or witch-adjacent somehow. And it started out when I was in graduate school. I was doing graduate work in American studies, which is like interdisciplinary American history. And I was living in this little town in New England called Marblehead, which has the largest collection of 18th-century houses in the whole country, which not a lot of people know. And it’s also one town over from Salem and Salem today. Witches are a big part of Salem’s tourism industry and culture. And one thing that I find fascinating and intriguing is how many people are drawn to contemporary forms. Witchcraft does a religion like modern paganism or modern CCA feel a very strong sense of solidarity of people who are accused as witches in the past. And as a result, a lot of people kind of gravitate to Salem almost as a pilgrimage place, which is fast. Fascinating to me on many levels. So I was living close to Salem, looking at this really interesting cultural phenomenon and also living in a house that was built in 1705. And I had this one day where I was sitting on the floor and I realized that someone’s foot had been on this floor. Who had actually been present at the hangings because people traveled from all over the colonies to see them, it was a huge spectacle at the time? And that was just for some, something about the tangibility of that, then the spatial recognition of that really brought me to thinking about it. And so my first novel came about my first novels called the physics book of deliverance stain. And it came about because I found myself wondering. If Salem witches had practiced magic, the way that the colonists understood witchcraft to be, rather than in the more fantastic Harry Potter-esque kind of sense. What would it look like? What would it look like and who would do it and why would they do it? Because I felt like we had seen. Plenty of pointy hats, and witch stories. And I felt like we’d seen plenty of totally skeptical. They were all crazy stories, a la Arthur Miller. And I felt like I hadn’t seen a story that took seriously. The fact that for people living in this, the late 17th century in this part of the world, witchcraft was actually just a fact the world looks very different. If you are a reasonably educated person. And witchcraft is a fact of your cosmology. And I enjoyed thinking about that kind of question. And I still enjoy thinking about that kind of question.

Sonya Palmer

Yes. And you have a unique connection to witches.

Kathrine Howe

That’s true. That’s true. Yeah, my last name is Howe and as a teenager, I had learned that we were descended laterally from Elizabeth Howe, who was put to death as a witch at Salem? Rather weirdly I picked Deliverance Stain as a real person and I wrote my first novel about her and she was someone who was accused near the end of the panic and who had. She had a very minor role to play. And chose her for two reasons. One cuz her name was so evocative of this particular moment in time Deliverance it sounded so metal crazy. And secondly, because she was so obscure, I felt like there was room to tell a more fantastical story about her. There that no reader would come with a preconceived notion of who she was, the way they would with a Rebecca Nurse or somebody like that. But rather weirdly in one of. Bizarre twist ate. Some historians I really admire have said that nothing will make you more superstitious than working witchcraft. Years later, after this book came out, I was messing around on a genealogy website and I discovered the Deliverance Stain is actually my eighth grade grandmother. I’m more closely related to her then to Elizabeth Howe and I had no idea when I wrote the novel about her. I definitely got more superstitious. The longer I worked in the witchcraft space.

Sonya Palmer

Yeah, it was whatever you subscribe to fate karma. That is very cool these stories are very painful and it’s easy to dismiss the trials as a result of like superstitious ignorance. For frame of reference for our listeners, we’re talking about colonial Massachusetts in the 15 to 16 hundred in an interview with Jezabel you noted witchcraft was real and it was rational. What was rational about it?

Kathrine Howe

The way that we understand our world today like there’s so many things that we take for granted. That order, how we reason through materials that we don’t pay attention to. So for instance, we’re living, obviously, we’re living in a post-scientific revolution moment in time. We don’t question the heliocentric model of the universe. We don’t question that correlation and causation are different, although even now for some of us, that can be hard to keep in mind. So we live in that moment. We right now live in a post Froidian moment, actually. So for a lot of us, it feels very natural to talk about, things that happen in our unconscious mind, things that motivate us, that we’re not aware of. We constitute our individuality and our understandings of ourselves through these culturally and historically specific rubrics. If that makes sense. And so I wanted to spend some time thinking about what it’s like to be an intelligent, educated, thoughtful, reflective person who does not order their world according to these sets of assumptions. the Salem panic took place in 1692. It was the last big witch craze moment, like the witch craze moment that ripped through Europe and then through what it, what we now call Great Britain. Over the 14 hundreds and 15 hundreds and 1692 is actually pretty late. Most of the witch-hunting had died down on the continent by that time. And so thinking about. A world where it was universally assumed that the devil was real. The devil could assume the shape of a human being and walk around. This was not subject to question. To think about a world that was so ordered by Christianity there was no outside of Christianity. So there was no sense that there could be, other people who adhere to other religions that are just as legitimate, that there was that, which is reality. And then there was everything else was devilish. So trying to understand that rigidity of thinking and that black and white of thinking, this is a post-reformation moment and there wasn’t even a sense that Catholicism was one kind of Christianity and Calvinism was something else. The reason it was called the reformation was because people were trying to reform Christianity to make it into what it was supposed to be. So there was no. You’re this and I’m that it’s fine. There was I’m this and that’s what it is. And so within that context witchcraft has a lot of different meanings. It means a couple of different things like for someone who is a theologian at the time. So during the Salem crisis, the trials were over overseen by theologians and also by legislators. For those people, they had one definition of what witchcraft really was. And witchcraft for them was in some respects, like a challenge to. State authority. And of course in 17th century, Massachusetts, the state authority is also very gendered. The power structure is gendered male amongst common people, amongst average, everyday people there’s actually widespread be like belief in folk magic practices in like charms in. Ways of divining things, not so different from what we have today, we all have these little superstitions that we all stick to. An example I used to sometimes use in giving a talk is. If I’m nervous and I’m gonna give a talk. I might wear my grandmother’s wedding ring because it makes me feel closer to her. It makes me feel a little bit safer. And the word that I’ll use to describe that feeling is, oh, it’s an heirloom. That’s why it has value to me, but actually I’m treating it like a magical talisman. Like I’m actually imbuing this dull object with some kind of ineffable quality because of who it belonged to. And so we still have this kind of mental habit today. So among common people, that mental habit was in place in the 17th century as well. And so what happened with Salem was there was this kind of collision between popular belief and the power structure and the ways that witchcraft represented a challenge to the power structure that was in place at the time.

Sonya Palmer

We have a much deeper understanding of a lot of principles that we take advantage of where back then they were working from a lot less. So that makes a lot of sense. And even though we see state and church at odds even still today then there was not an alternative that was even an option and mere doubt could be perceived as witchcraft or like an alternative type thinking.

Kathrine Howe

At least in 17th century, Massachusetts, there wasn’t really a distinction between. The intellectual universes that were the church and were the state. So in fact, one of the common misconceptions about Salem that I hear all the time is people think that people who were condemned as witches in Salem were burned at the stake. They were not, none of them were they were burned at the stake in Europe because in Europe they were being punished as an ecclesiastical crime in Massachusetts. Witchcraft was a felony. It was the same as murder.

Sonya Palmer

Wow.

Kathrine Howe

And so people who were punished as witches were punished by being hanged at the neck, just the same as they would’ve been if they had murdered someone

Sonya Palmer

Unbelievable. So let’s set the stage for these trials. Why are social dynamics so important and how are women generally viewed?

Kathrine Howe

So you have gender politics in place. You also have class politics in place. So a few different historians have noted that most of the women who were tried as witches were not actually your kind of Hansel and Gretel old crone living in the woods. Stereotype, in fact, most of the women who were tried were women like around my age, at middle age, Forties to the sixties, women who otherwise would have been at the peak of their social power and influence and who for whatever reason were often failing to adhere to the cultural expectations that were placed on them at that time. Maybe they were women who were, who had a dramatic economic reversal. Or maybe they were women who had not been able to have children. In fact, there’s often an interesting relationship between women who are accused as witches who often have a strange or out-of-step relationship with childbearing for that time, either not, they don’t have enough children, they’re too interested in other people’s children. weird inversion of motherhood and how motherhood is supposed to be understood at that time. And broadly what happens is some young girls the panic begins in the home of Samuel Paris, who was Salem village’s minister. His daughter, Betty falls into fits. And so does his. A servant who was also his kinswoman. We don’t actually know how they were related. Abigail Williams and they fall into fits and they’re fits. If you look at the description, if I say fit to you, you probably picture something very somatic. You probably imagine Like seizure, but actually what the way they use that word, then it means just like strange behavior. And if you look at some of the strange behavior, Betty’s around nine and Abigail’s around 11, a lot of their strange behavior to our modern eyes would look like playing and being silly, like Abigail running around in circles, in the kitchen, flopping her arms and saying she could fly and going with, and trying to fly up the chimney to a very doer religious controlled environment would look devilish. And yet to you and me would look like, oh my gosh, it’s an 11-year-old acting like a nut bar because that’s 11-year-olds do. And they can’t find anything physically wrong with the girls. They do call a doctor. The girls are examined. They do know about mental illness at this time period. And so they try to rule out. As best they can that way. And it’s only after a period of time lapses that in fact, Samuel Paris has a public fast and prayer days trying to bring everyone together. If Samuel Paris had been a really responsible Religious leader at this time, he would probably have looked at himself. He would’ve thought to himself, why has God visited this sickness on my house? What have I done to bring this onto myself? But Samuel Paris is unfortunately not a particularly effective leader. And what he decides to do as he says, what have you all done? To bring in the community to bring this sickness onto my house. So he very quickly turns it around and onto the Salem villagers. And one thing that’s interesting. If you look at the trial transcripts and stuff the kinds of long-simmering resentments and hurts that any small community nourishes. All come bubbling to the surface. Things that happened 15 years ago are being, minor slights are being entered as if they are damning evidence of people’s character. It’s a really moving representation of a community under a tremendous amount of pressure.

Sonya Palmer

Amazing. I guess to me, it’s how far we’ve come and like how familiar that still sounds, to digitize that like on a Facebook group, like a Facebook group and what that would look like,

Kathrine Howe

Oh, sure. Yeah, no, I it’s not actually that different. I’ve never, I haven’t actually been in a Facebook group where people suddenly start getting shouted down and purged and so on and so forth. But I read about this kind of thing happening. And so yeah this mentality is still there. There’s still this sense of if you don’t. Behave properly. If you don’t tow the line that you’re supposed to tow. And it can be actually hugely devastating because in a community, a small as Salem village was. Everyone is economically totally interdependent on everybody else. if your reputation isn’t taters, that actually means very dire things for your economic wellbeing and safety. And there are several instances in not outside of Salem, wasn’t the only witch trial in this period. You can see shadows or hints of people who were suspected as witches by looking at trials for slander and defamation. Because if someone was going around saying you were a witch. it could hurt your economic standing in your family. And so there was a strong incentive for women who were under suspicion to Sue for slander to try to clear their names.

Sonya Palmer

Wow. Wow. For them.

Kathrine Howe

Yeah. Yeah. Sometimes it works. The burden of proof. Believe it or not, was actually pretty high for witchcraft. Like it was actually hard to make a case successful for witchcraft. There were theoretical arguments about what kind of evidence was admissible and what wasn’t. And it was its fascinating stuff for legal historians. I’m sure.

Sonya Palmer

What counted as witchcraft? Like, how were those charges leveled. And could you ever prove your innocence?

Kathrine Howe

Yes and no. So what counted witchcraft was a number of different things and a big one was. Like some kind of in insult court or conflict followed by Mafi. So pretend like you’re at home and you’re a typical early colonial Massachusetts. Lady woman. So you’re home, you’ve got a couple of kids at home. You’ve got your mother-in-law living with you. You’ve got your husband. You’ve probably got maybe a couple young kids bound out to you who are working in your house. you’ve got a household you’re running, you’re busy. Things are going on. Let’s say I am having a tough time. Let’s say let’s say my husband has died and maybe I have, maybe have a screw loose or two, I’m hard to deal with. I’m argumentative. I’ve been known to get into fist fights with people at church. And so everybody gives me a wide birth cuz I have an attitude problem. And as a result, because I have an attitude problem economically I’m really in bad shape. So let’s say I come to your house and I’m like, Hey. Goodie Sonya, I’m really hungry. Have you got maybe like some something I could eat or some like extra bread or here, look I knitted you this sock. I wanna trade this sock for, and let’s say you don’t have anything extra let’s, maybe you’re having rough day, things are going on, whatever. And you say, I’m sorry, goody, Catherine, I can’t help you today. You’ve gotta go ask somebody else. I can’t cope. You’re thinking to yourself, why does she always come to me? Am I such a sucker? Why is she, am I such a soft touch? No, I can’t. I can’t be singlehandedly responsible for this irritating neighbor of mine. Go away. SCram I’m busy. And maybe I say, you’re gonna regret it. If you don’t help me, you’re gonna, you’re gonna really regret it. Maybe I feel like maybe what I mean is, you’re gonna feel guilty later. You’re gonna realize that was an un-Christian thing for you to do, to send me away. Maybe that’s what I mean, but for say, like I say this, we have this conflict, you go back in back to your work and maybe then your butter doesn’t come together. It doesn’t sound like a big deal, but this is before the consumer revolution of the 18th century, like actually wasting your time, wasting a lot of milk, having your butter, not to not come together, butter can store milk. Can’t like, that’s actually a big deal. And if your butter doesn’t come together, for whatever reason, like you would think back to this threat that I’d. That to, you could be seen as a sign that I had somehow caused your butter, not to come together, correlation and causation would’ve been tangled together. And so the fact that I issued some kind of threat, the fact that I had this reputation in the first place would be something that’s one kind of evidence that might have been entered into a trial. Another kind of evidence was physical evidence. They would search, it was believed at this time that witches had little Demonn helpers. So if you’re talking about Halloween, think about the black cat sitting next to a witch they had little Demonn helpers called imps, and it was believed that witches would suckle imps from Tets on their body. So in here this very transparent, like inversion of maternal imagery, a thing that’s supposed to be nurturing is actually demonic and horrifying. And as a result the suckling wasn’t at abreast, the suck the teat where the suckling would happen would be somewhere else on the body. So between your fingers or behind your knees or something like that. So women who were accused as witches were often stripped, naked and searched for these telltale Teets. Now of course, by the time you’re being stripped, naked and searched they’re gonna find something like they’re gonna find a mole. They’re gonna find a zit. they might find your clitoris. Rebecca Nurse actually, in, when she was S strip-searched the description of what was found on her body reads to most historians, like a description of her clitoris.

Sonya Palmer

Wow.

Kathrine Howe

So physical evidence, that was a big one. And then another one was something that was subject to a lot of high-level theological debate. And that was spectral evidence. So some theologians. The big question. First of I’ll explain what spectral evidence is, and then I’ll explain the controversy. So spectral evidence is let’s go back to our imaginary example of you and me, where I’m the suspected witch and you are the person who’s gonna accuse me. Say like you’re lying in bed one night and you see my shape float in through the window. And I tell my shape tells you that I through magic in witchcraft am responsible for the death of your sister’s baby. Babies died a lot. That would count as potentially as evidence against me. If you, if so, imagine you’re lying there in bed. You’re already worrying about me. You’re already thinking that I’m iffy and I already make you uncomfortable and your sister’s baby has just died. Something tragic, something horrifying. It’s a mistake to assume that just because childhood mortality was really high and people had more kids during this period that they weren’t also. Devastated when they lost children cuz they often were. And so imagine you’re up there, you’re upset. You’re thinking about me. You dream or imagine that you see me come in the window and confess to this crime. So the big question then for theologians at this time was is the devil able to assume the shape of an innocent person. Was it actually my spirit coming in and telling you that I had done this horrible crime or is the devil pretending to be me? If the devil’s pretending to be me, is he able to impersonate me if I’m innocent or is he only able to impersonate me? If I am guilty, this was a high-level, deep, hardcore theological debate that informed the Salem witch trials. For real.

Sonya Palmer

That is intense because just ha like just having the spectral image. is then evidence of guilt because only you can only, envision that if you’re able to be used by the devil. Yeah, it works very much in favor of the accusers and not at all towards the accused.

Kathrine Howe

Exactly. And Salem is anomalous too. Usually during a witch trial, if you were accused as a witch and you confessed, you were toast.

Sonya Palmer

Yeah.

Kathrine Howe

Salem is weird because people insisted on their innocence. We’re often the ones put to death and people who were, who falsely confessed, maybe they believe themselves to be guilty. I There’s a lot of, you probably are more familiar with research and false confessions than I am, but there has been plenty of research done on it. And so plenty of people confessed during the Salem witch trials. Most of those who confessed then were not hanged. They would often sometimes then join the ranks of the accusers. They would try to name the person who had made them responsible. So for instance, at the very beginning of the trial, we were back at Samuel Paris’s, small kids in his house. The first person that they blame is a woman named Tituba who was an enslaved person, probably of CARAB descent, who was living in Samuel Paris’s house. And who had probably traveled with Samuel Paris from Barbados to settle in Salem. So here’s someone who obviously has very little power within the context of her community. She’s a woman, she is an enslaved person. And so she is a very easy person for the kids to point their fingers at Tituba. Then says that she didn’t want to do it. She was made into which, by other people in the community. And so Tituba introduces, and there’s some evidence that she has two confessions. There’s one confession. there’s another confession. The following day. there’s evidence that she was beaten between those two confessions. And it is in the second confession that she introduces the idea of there being a conspiracy of witches cons Salem village. And I think the title of one of the sermons that Samuel Paris preaches at that time is Christ knows how many devils there are. And so the idea of conspiracy means it can infinitely expand, which is one reason that the Salem panic goes from Salem village up to and over, and then all into the surrounding county.

Sonya Palmer

Multiplies easily.

Kathrine Howe

Yeah,

Sonya Palmer

Did they get lawyers or advocates?

Kathrine Howe

That’s actually a good question. I don’t believe that they did. there was a special court of OEA and termine that was called, but the court of OEA and termine was called in part because there was a weird legal loophole that happened while the panic was starting, and the glorious revolution took place back in England. And so there was a moment where the legal system in Massachusetts was in flux and while the legal system was in. There was a delay in the trials. So usually if someone was accused as a witch or any other accusation, really, the trial would happen. Bam. They’d be, could be executed within three weeks. We think of a murder trial as being long and drawn out now. But so many months actually passed between the first outbreak and the first trial. It was like six months, I wanna say. And in fact, there’s one letter that is from The head of the Massachusetts bay colony at that time, that’s like writing back to England, basically being like, yeah. So everything’s fine. Everything’s cool. Are we going to have a new charter soon which is, it’s a little funny now, but so it’s been positive that maybe the court of OE in terminate wasn’t just for the Salem witch trials. It was actually just because there was a huge backlog of everything, but what has lasted in the historical record is mostly the Salem witch-related stuff. Cuz it was the biggest thing that was happening at that time. But it’s also possible that one of the reasons that the Salem panic. Grew so big because there was this UN unaccustomed delay in how big they could have a trial. And so they were tried individuals were tried by a panel of judges and a jury, if I’m not mistaken, there was a jury. I don’t believe that they had advocates

Sonya Palmer

Okay. Interesting.

Kathrine Howe

Yeah.

Sonya Palmer

Did the accused ever seem like from the court records to believe their accusers or the charges that were against them, you talked about the devil and if you were possessed, would you have known you were possessed?

Kathrine Howe

That’s a good question. It’s funny the attitudes of people who are brought before the bar vary pretty widely. There are a lot of, there’s a lot of blubbering and apology and admitting it. And then there’s also my favorite quote is from Sarah good. And she says, I’m no more witch than you are a wizard. And if you take away my life, God will give you blood to drink,

Sonya Palmer

Wow.

Kathrine Howe

Which is basically the bravest thing that anybody could do. I think anybody could say that at that point, and I don’t think I’ve been that brave. She was so tough and they did take away her life and yeah. Nathaniel Hawthorn actually borrowed that line and put it in the House of the Seven Gables.

Sonya Palmer

While the accusations of the trials may seem like they were wild, baseless conjecture – there was a general consensus. But where did this understanding come from?

Kathrine Howe

We were a late wave. So I mentioned this a little bit earlier, so think about the inquisition and one of the biggest. Witch hunting Manual is a Catholic manual called the hammer of the witches, which is published in I think, 1486. So you, we have a 200-year-long role, basically, that starts swelling up in Germany and France, and then swells and rolls over the channel and into England. And then up to Scotland and then washes with waves of immigration beginning in the 1620s to North America. and then takes hold in North America. But North America is an interesting problem. Isn’t the right word, but North America’s a little bit interesting. The different. The different regions and the different colonies were settled by different groups of people, which is one reason that you see a lot relatively speaking, a lot of which trials in Massachusetts, but you see very few in SU in the Southern colonies. They’re settled by different populations from different, from different regions in Britain, with different religions, with different E economies with different village structures. And so one of the things that make Massachusetts special is that it’s this region of Massachusetts was settled by Puritans, which is a kind of extreme Subec of Calvinism. And so it’s pretty different from a predominantly what you now call Episcopalian slave plantation society in Virginia, for instance, although there are a couple of Virginia witch trials that are interesting. So like the law is the same, but the culture is

Sonya Palmer

It’s different. And you’d just touched on like a manual for witch hunting. And there was another endorsed by the crown,

Kathrine Howe

Oh, there are a bunch of manuals for witch-hunting.

Sonya Palmer

King James himself.

Kathrine Howe

Yeah, James, I first wrote a very derivative witch hunting manual called Demonology. Yeah, he was a, he was it’s like just this side of plagiarized witch hunting manual, which is hilarious, but he was he was a very avid, he was an avid witch hunter James, the first sixth.

Sonya Palmer

Are there any trials, modern-day trials that you can think of that compare to what we saw then?

Kathrine Howe

One historian. John Demos had a book a few years ago. That had, he’s a historian of Salem, a colonial historian, and he had a chapter in one of his more recent books that were about the 1980s daycare, Satanism

Sonya Palmer

Ooh. Wow.

Kathrine Howe

In which there was a I was small at the time. So I’m only gonna remember the broad contours of it from having read professor Demas book. Basically what happened was there was a series of trials in which people who ran daycares were accused of. Hideous child abuse, according to quote-unquote satanic ritual principles. This is a real thing that happened. I think a lot of them were actually convicted and professor Demas watched this happening and he was like, this is insane. This is just the same kind of thing as. What was happening in Salem? You have suggestible, very young kids, you have authority figures, you have a conspiracy, you have an unknown number of people in the conspiracy. It speaks to some of our deepest, we’re as a society, I think rightfully we are very concerned with children and their safety. That was true in the 17th century. It was true in the 20th century. It’s true today. And that is actually an interesting test case. how many children did you abuse your satanic rituals? Like how, what do you, how are you gonna answer that question? You’re when did you stop beating your wife? You, it, that would probably be an example. That would be a pretty close parallel.

Sonya Palmer

I grew up in the eighties, nineties when Satanism, particularly Christian Church was a very real threat

Kathrine Howe

Sure, absolutely. I remember. Yeah, the D and D the worry, the Dungeons and Dragon somehow was an insidious force for spreading for spreading Satanism or the idea that rock music was spreading satanic messages. I remember all of these things.

Sonya Palmer

Similar escalation too. Where if something bad happened in a town or happened to a family, it was clearly the cause of these, alternative non-Christian

Kathrine Howe

Right. These others, the other,

Sonya Palmer

others. Yeah. That isn’t acting properly. Do you think there was any ever actual merit to any of the accusations? Was there a witch?

Kathrine Howe

There’s an interesting. not a Salem witch. He was tried earlier. Actually, he shows up in John Demi’s work. His name was John Godfrey. He was unusual for being a man accused as of witch actually. He seemed, he had a bad reputation for years and he was clearly a difficult character. it seems like he enjoyed his reputation a little bit. It seems like he enjoyed creeping people out a little and be like, I guess you’d better not mess with me if I’m as bad as everybody says that I am stuff like that. And it certainly seems logical that if you live within a cultural context that holds some of these beliefs, certainly people did practice some forms of folk magic. I That’s like. Really open to debate. You still find horseshoe nailed over doors and, that’s pretty mild, but it’s a very widespread cultural practice. In fact, one thing that was interesting was years later, I was working on a different project and I was reading an oral history of folk magic collected in the 20th century in the south. And I found in this oral history from 1932 part of, I think it was part of the federal writer’s project an exact description of a divination method that I had first encountered in the 17th century. In

Sonya Palmer

Wow.

Kathrine Howe

So there’s an interesting syncretism to the ways that, when cultures come together, what gets held onto and what doesn’t did people try out this kind of stuff, who knows? We don’t know. It’s impossible to know.

Sonya Palmer

Let’s talk about power women and witches, What was it that was so terrifying about witches and witchcraft?

Kathrine Howe

In the 17th century, witchcraft was about trying to use diabolical means to achieve power that did, that should not belong to you. And it there’s many stories about the devil coming and trying to seduce witches into his service by offering them soft living and goods and nice things to eat. And in fact, one very prominent skeptic. At this time, there were skeptics who wrote against witch hunting. At this time period too an anti-witch hunting screen was called more wonders of the invisible world, which was designed to take down one called wonders of the invisible world. In one of these anti-witch hunting screens, the writer says, if witches are the real thing, like if this is a real thing, then how come they’re not all young, beautiful, rich, and successful? How come the people that we accuse as witches are all like poor and desperate and crazy?

Sonya Palmer

Powerless.

Kathrine Howe

Powerless exactly. Why are we, why are they, why do they not have the power that’s been promised to them? If this is a real thing, which I think is an interesting point. But what they were being punished for of course, was in some respect, the desire for power, the desire to step out of the lot that life or God, or whoever had determined for them and the desire to, to dare, to want more or to want something different. Even if that thing that they wanted was. Respect or the right to express anger or, things that we still feel like we have to demand ourselves to some degree today.

Sonya Palmer

I think just the notion that they may have access via magic to power that the established state and

Kathrine Howe

that’s not granted by an institution. That’s not granted by the church. That’s not granted by Harvard college. That’s not granted by, court. That’s not granted by gender. Yeah, exactly. Totally. That’s not granted by wealth. The audacity to demand power. On one’s own terms. I think this is one of the reasons that witchcraft was so threatening and also so attractive. It’s one of the things that we are still that kind of gives us all a fresh show of excitement. When we think about what witchcraft can mean,

Sonya Palmer

Yes. How did the trials come to an end?

Kathrine Howe

The accusations rolled out over the countryside and rolled up and up the the social ladder until they finally touched the governor’s wife. and then incredibly the trials were brought to a screeching halt.

Sonya Palmer

Wow. That’s what it took.

Kathrine Howe

That’s what it took.

Sonya Palmer

Amazing. And then how have you seen the concept of a witch change over the years? Briefly talked about this earlier, where now it’s almost like a religious Rite of passage.

Kathrine Howe

Yeah. I, one thing that is that. It’s interesting to see how witchcraft changes. So Wicca is a religion. It was, it’s a, an invented religion. It was assembled and codified by a guy named largely by a guy named Gerald Gardner who was a British folklorist in the 1930s. And it. Really, you start to see it achieve some interest, especially among women in the 1970s as an outgrowth of the women’s movement and an outgrowth of the new age movement. When people are looking for different ways of exploring their spirituality, that might be connected to their ideas of gender or their questions about power or self-actualization and things like that. And so I’ve grown up, in this. Post new age moment as we all have. And most of us know someone who is involved or whose spirituality is really spoken to this way. I think it’s important to remember that the people in the 17th century who were tri witches were Christians. They were Christians who didn’t fit in. They were Christians who were not able to tow the line. For whatever reason. That doesn’t mean that I don’t think it’s important that contemporary pagans and Wickens feel solidarity for the persecution of people in the early modern period. I think that is, an important way of relating. But it’s different. I think that, your average accused witch in 1692 would not recognize. A lot of the kind of ideologies or trappings of witchcraft today as it’s understood.

Sonya Palmer

What we consider to be like just is clearly very fragile and it evolves with time. What can we do to check in with our own thinking and see if we are falling into some of the cognitive traps that resulted in the Salem witch trials?

Kathrine Howe

I think it’s one thing we’re living through a really fascinating moment as so I’m gen X, as generations younger than us are asking a lot of really persuasive and interesting questions about gender. About gender and sexuality. And I’m, fascinated to, to see how that is playing out within our culture. And people seem to be really. Embracing and open to the idea that there is a continuum, rather than some kind of fixed binary along, which we are expected to adhere. I think that’s pretty fascinating and it’s a pretty big sea change. It’s certainly different from, the universe I thought I grew up in a pretty like feminist. And and so it’s, that’s interesting to me to see, and I’m curious to see how that is going to continue to bubble through our culture and what kind of long term changes it might engender for lack of a better word. So that’s really interesting, but I think mainly, there’s, we are living through a moment. Self examination that I think is actually a very productive one. We’re living through a moment where we’re encouraged to interrogate our assumptions about race and privilege and our assumptions about gender and privilege, our assumptions about sexuality and privilege. I think there are a lot of good questions being asked about these kinds of assumptions about power. That we have all grown up with or most of us have grown up with. And so it’s an interesting moment that we’re living through right now.

Sonya Palmer

I really appreciate that you called it a fascinating time because I think there’s a lot of overwhelming. A lot is happening and there, and it can be negative. But I think you’re right. It is very fascinating and to be able to critically challenge established thinking, is always a good thing, and I

Kathrine Howe

It’s hard though. Though because then there’s also this tendency to, of the line towing. And so I think, one of the challenges of the moment that we’re living through right now is creating space for. Questions. That’s a hard, that’s a hard piece. And I feel like we haven’t totally worked through this process yet.

Sonya Palmer

No, I think that most reasonable people can agree that is a good thing, though, regardless of where you may find the answer, that questioning is there’s value in just that. it makes me feel hopeful. Can you preview your next project for us?

Kathrine Howe

So my most recent book is I co-authored a book called Vanderbilt the rise and fall in American dynasty with Anderson Cooper, which is out in paperback. This September.

Sonya Palmer

Nice.

Kathrine Howe

And so it will be, it’ll be fresh off the presses for this Halloween. And then next fall at the moment I’m working on a few different things. I have a novel that will be coming from Holt probably in November of 2023, we’re still working out the title. But it is a, I wish I had a title for you, but it’s probably going to be long and unwieldy. It’s a historical fiction book that I’m calling Gone girl meets Treasure Island.

Sonya Palmer

Oh, wow. Very interested in that.

Kathrine Howe

It is the 18th century, like the golden age of piracy women with guns and cannons. And there’s a parrot adventure that I just really threw myself into and had fun with. And it’s based on historical research. Some of it really happened and it’s a lot of fun and I’m pretty excited about it.

Sonya Palmer

Yes, that sounds right up my alley.

Kathrine Howe

That’ll be fun.

Sonya Palmer

And then what are you reading right now?

Kathrine Howe

To be honest, I’m so deep in book revisions that I’m not reading a lot. I’m very slowly reading my friend, Julia Glass is a novelist. She just published a terrific book called Vigil Harbor, which is set in the near future in Marblehead, Massachusetts, the town I was. Talking about at the beginning, our talk in a kind of a post-climate change sort of world. And it’s about these, the intersections and relationships between people who are living through this, what the world might be like in another 10 years or so in a small coastal community. And it’s it’s fantastic. Vigil Harbor is what it’s called. And her name is Julia Glass. She won the national book award some years ago for her book three tunes and she’s brilliant and fantastic. So I’m very slowly reading her book in between reading edits on my own.

Sonya Palmer

The concept of “The Other” – or an outsider, a pariah – corrupting members of society who ‘belong’ is not a new concept. And is still around today. As values and commonly accepted world views shift, society will often change who gets labeled as unfit or who doesn’t belong. We can learn from the past. Acknowledge that our modern ideas are worth examining. Take them apart, and put them back together. And while the times in which we live may seem overwhelming – critically challenging established thinking is important for every democracy. A big thank you to Katherine for sharing her story and unbelievable insights with us today. Anyone who wants to learn more about her forthcoming pirate book – or her collaborations with Anderson Cooper – check her out on Instagram @ Katherine B Howe or on her website katherine howe.com – which is linked in the show notes. While you’re there, please leave us a review or a five-star rating. It really goes a long way for others to discover the show. You’ve been listening to LawHER with, me, Sonya Palmer. If you found this content insightful, inspiring, or just made you smile, please share this episode with the trailblazer in your life. I’ll see you next week on LawHER where we’ll shed light on how another of the brightest and boldest women in the legal industry climbed to the top of her field.

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