Katherine Howe is the New York Times bestselling author of the novels The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane, The House of Velvet and Glass, and the young-adult novel Conversion, a modern-day retelling of The Crucible set in a Massachusetts prep school, and is the editor of The Penguin Book of Witches. She teaches in the American Studies program at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. Caitlin Keefe Moran‘s previous work for The Toast can be found here.
The first question could be an easy or hard one: why witches? You’ve written novels about witches several times before, including The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane, which takes place partially during the Salem witch trials. What draws you back to witches again and again?
Part of it has to do with personal context. I started writing Dane while in graduate school for American Studies. I was living in Marblehead, MA, which is unusual in that it has the largest collection of standing eighteenth-century houses in the US. It’s a weird, evocative little town. My husband and I rented an apartment in a house built in 1705. I’m a history person and have been on historic house tours and all that, but I’ve never lived in a house that’s been continuously occupied for that long. One afternoon, when I was working in my office, I suddenly thought: someone who lived in this house was alive when the trials happened.
Dane came out of thinking about how we look at people from history with a kind of pity—oh those poor dumb people, and so on. But the people who conducted the trials weren’t stupid. They were educated men. Generally when I was giving a talk about the book, I ended up not talking about the book much at all and talking about witchcraft instead. It’s a hard thing to learn about when you’re outside of it, and it was a subject of enduring interest for people. That’s how I ended up editing for Penguin.
In your press materials, it mentions that you are the descendent of three accused witches from Salem. I have to ask—did you tell other kids this on the playground and threaten to curse them? Because that’s absolutely what I would have done.
[Laughs] If you read the introductions to other books about Salem, like In the Devil’s Snare by Mary Beth Norton and Entertaining Satan by John Putnam Demos, you learn that when someone does research on witchcraft, they inevitably discover they are the descendent of witches—it’s just a case of math. I found out about the first two as a teenager, from my aunt who was doing some family tree research. One of them had the same last name as me, so that wasn’t too much of a surprise. My reaction, being a teenage in the ’90s, was “Oh yeah, this is awesome!” But it didn’t really change my interest. What really got me interested was just living in this area. If you look at the type of women who were accused of being witches, they were middle-aged, angry, argumentative, out of step with culture. The accused witch made people around her uncomfortable, she was too conspicuous. She probably had an unhappy marriage. For so many of us, there is this sense of “there but for the grace of God go I….” If I had lived in that time period, it could have been me.
The third witch I found out about a few months ago, while I was wasting time on the internet, putting off working on my new novel. I was clicking through on some genealogy sites and click, click, click, I was at Deliverance Dane! She’s my third great grandmother. I had no idea until after I had written the book.
How did you go about selecting which pieces to include in the Penguin Book of Witches? For example, the chapter on Salem doesn’t include examinations of all 19 accused witches. What made you choose the ones you did?
It was tricky, I’m not going to lie. So much material has already been anthologized. I wanted to make sure there was enough of the theological stuff—in the narrative we’re used to seeing about the Salem trials in particular, there’s a sense that belief in witchcraft was a holdover from an older era, a coda. But I wanted to show that belief in witchcraft made sense, for lack of a better word.
But I also wanted to include some things that might not be as well known, some weird little examples from the “After Salem” section, for example. There is a tendency to believe that after Salem, we awoke to a sudden enlightenment and witchcraft disappeared. But what actually happened was that witchcraft moves out of the legal realm but stays very active in the cultural realm. In the Anti-Witchcraft Act of 1735, witchcraft moves from being a felony crime to a crime of fraud: now there are punishments for the pretense of practicing witchcraft. So people still believed in witchcraft, or else they wouldn’t have to be protected from themselves and their own credulity.
Several times in the book, you mention the curious fact that no one who confessed as a witch was hanged in Salem, and those who held out and asserted their innocence were executed—which was a distinct break from previous witch trials. Can you walk us through why a seventeenth-century Puritan wouldn’t have wanted to confess to save her life?
There are a couple of reasons: first and foremost, until Salem, confession basically sealed your death warrant. In one of the first case studies in the book, the case of Ursula Kempe in Essex, England about 150 years before Salem, she confessed and was put to death. We look back with 20/20 hindsight—there were no guarantees in Salem that confessing would save you.
Reason number two: the Puritans had a very rigid religious system. Lying was a mortal sin. If they confessed to something knowing it was untrue, on purpose, they would have been damning themselves. One of the things I argue at various points of the book is that Salem is a lens through which we look through our present, the most famous example of this being The Crucible. But this wasn’t the first interpretation of Salem; in the nineteenth century, Salem was used in a series of religious morality plays, to demonstrate the importance of maintaining honor and truthfulness even in the face of death. That’s the lesson they drew from it.
A good example of someone not confessing is Sarah Good, who is (in my opinion) the most badass of the condemned witches. She was a beggar. She had a baby who died while she was imprisoned. She had a four-year-old who was imprisoned with her and lost her mind, and for whom her husband later sued the village for support. When she was taken to the scaffold, she said this amazing line, which Hawthorne later stole for The House of Seven Gables: “I am no more a witch than you are a wizard, and if you take away my life, God will give you blood to drink.”
Of course Hawthorne gave the line to a man.
On a related note: do you have a favorite accused witch? Mine was absolutely Martha Cory—the sass!
Of course, Sarah Good, and Martha Cory is great just for the incredulity that she is even being accused, and the shock and denial. Rachel Clinton is also a great character. She had had a bad reputation for a really long time. She had come from a really wealthy family, and suffered a dizzying fall from economic power—she married a transient at a time before there were a lot of transients, he absconded with her money, and she was disinherited. This was a time when social hierarchy was enforced in really visible and public ways. Sumptuary laws determined what colors and materials you were allowed to wear—she was brought to court for violating these laws by wearing something she would have once been allowed to wear. This was also the case for seating patterns in the meeting house—she had to sit in the back of the church, and was taken to court for elbowing a woman of higher social standing as the woman walked past her. It’s fascinating to see women from this time period who were angry, and expressed this anger with physical violence. This makes her a usual suspect as far as witch trials go.
The only accused witch I remembered from my class trip to Salem in middle school—besides the horrifying animatronic man being crushed to death by stones who I learned from this book was Giles Cory—was Tituba, the Barbadian slave of the minister Samuel Parris. Tituba’s story highlights the way that racial otherness hovers at the edge of the Salem trials. Was this a distinctly colonial phenomenon? Did this influence the outcome at Salem?
Definitely, is the shortest answer to that. Tituba is one way to talk about it. Interesting thing about Tituba: if you look at popular representations of Salem, she is always black. But her last name is given as “Indian,” and so is her husband’s. There’s also this kind of persistent idea that Tituba had been casting spells for girls in the woods, and that’s what tipped this off. That’s absolutely not true. Samuel Parris’s daughter and then his niece, who was a servant in the house, fell ill first, and they accused Tituba because she’s in the house, she’s a slave, and she has very little power.
Mary Beth Norton has made a very strong argument for the influence of violence along the Maine frontier on the Salem witch trials. Accusations start in Salem Village, and then spread—to Andover, and Wells, which was actually in Maine. We don’t think of Salem as a frontier village, but it was. Salem Village is modern-day Danvers, which is relatively inwards. Salem Village was a frontier community. A lot of people who were engaged in making accusations were refugees from the Maine frontier. As a community, they believed they were under siege from an outside force, of which the French and the Indians are part, and witches are part. If you look at the language that’s used to describe the native population and used to describe the devil—it’s the same. That’s why there is this tangling between that which is not Puritan—that which is devilish—and that which is both papist and heathen.
Zombies and vampires are having a moment right now in popular culture, but it seems to me that witches have always been popular. My parents grew up watching Bewitched, just as I grew up watching Sabrina the Teenage Witch and teens today grew up watching The Wizards of Waverly Place, to say nothing of the Harry Potter phenomenon. What is it about witches that holds our imagination so?
My theory—and I do participate in a certain part of this cultural production surrounding witches—is that witches are enticing because of their relationship to power: the same thing that made them threatening in the early modern period makes them enticing now. Witches were claiming power that should have belonged to God, or the state, or the devil, power that was not hers to control.
And if you look at the Harry Potter stories, for instance—we’re all here, living our lives full of anxiety and economic worries, etc., and who wouldn’t want to get a letter from an owl saying, “Guess what! You have magic powers!”? It’s sexy and exciting and interesting, because—and this is one of the things that made it scary in the early modern period—you can be a witch and not show it. All of these people in Salem looked like our neighbors—how do we know which of these people is a witch?
Almost all accused witches in the English and American witch-hunting tradition were women. We can still see echoes of this today—American society still punishes women for failing to conform to prescribed norms, whether legally (for example, as is often the case with transwomen) or through cultural sanctions. Has history provided us with any lessons on how to push back? How do we make space for these women?
It’s hard to answer because history doesn’t exist to provide us lessons. I think about these women in the 1690s who bear this enormous symbolic weight, but they didn’t think of themselves as symbols. They were just trying to live their lives.
But on the other hand it’s worth remembering that these categories in which we all live and have to build our lives are not static. They are historically contingent, and subject to change. Today, we still have this 1950s idea of the woman as the guardian of the home and the center of moral authority. It’s a woman’s job to keep her man in line, and create a home. But this originated in the Victorian era. In the 1600s and 1700s, women were considered physically and morally weaker—this was a Biblical idea, from Adam and Eve. By virtue of moral weakness, women were more inclined to sin and wantonness; we were in need of male authority in the home to keep us from temptation. That’s one of the reasons why more witches were women. It was easier for Satan to tempt women to hand over their souls.
We all live in our culture—as individuals we are constituted within our given role. I explore this a lot in my fiction. What would I, Katherine Howe, be like in 1692? But Katherine Howe would not be in 1692. I am a product of my culture. And it’s hard, in short, to be able to deconstruct your cultural constraints, and yet be insufficient to free yourself from them. So I suppose I would say, to answer your question, to insist on more control over these narratives. To recognize that we can claim control over these things.