America Bewitched: The Story of Witchcraft After Salem

Simon Middleton on an exploration of the ways in which 'witchcraft' has influenced US culture since the 18th century

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Reviewed by: Simon Middleton
Author: Owen Davies
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Price (RRP): £20

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Owen Davies’s new book, America Bewitched, opens with the notorious witch-hunt that transfixed a small Massachusetts farming community in the spring and summer of 1692. But Davies is less concerned with the oft-studied and, even in the 17th century, aberrant Salem Village trials and more with the evidence of witchcraft beliefs and practices in the centuries since. Often assumed to have faded with the spread of Enlightenment commitments to reason and science as explanations for community anxieties and natural disasters, witchcraft beliefs proved a remarkably tenacious feature of the American social and cultural landscape

In nine richly researched chapters, Davies surveys the multiple provincial and immigrant folk traditions that flowed into America’s cultural ‘melting pot’. He shows how transplanted beliefs concerning witchcraft and the supernatural informed attitudes towards Native Americans and African Americans, and continued to supply explanations for misfortune and evil deeds as much for those who settled in burgeoning eastern cities as those who headed west. Witchcraft suspicions and accusations were a regular feature in the new American republic and continued through the 19th and early 20th centuries.

The book examines the connections between reports of witchcraft and related occult and magical and supernatural beliefs. It covers topics as diverse as the civil and criminal law, folk medicine and plant pharmacology, mesmerism, hypnosis and early psychiatry, as well as the modern ‘pagan’ religion of Wicca.

Davies, who is professor of social history at the University of Hertfordshire and the author of many previous books and articles on magic, witchcraft and paganism, does not lack for tales to tell. The strength of America Bewitched is in the marshalling of evidence, much of it drawn from 19th and early 20th-century newspapers, concerning the prevalence and continuing relevance of witchcraft beliefs and practice. More critically, there are times at which these anecdotes perhaps stretch the meaning of witchcraft and rather stack up one after the other, obscuring the broader argument: for example, when Davies guides readers through such diverse topics as 18th-century legal considerations, 19th-century legislation against crime, and US politician Christine O’Donnell’s 2010 denial that she was a witch during her campaign for election to Congress.

By the 1960s, Davies argues in an excellent final chapter, stories of witchcraft and magic appeared in the press less and less frequently. However, as revealed by connections drawn between – among other things – Playboy magazine, feminist politics, the cinematic horror of Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby and the real-life terror of the Manson Family murders, they remained a powerful theme in political, popular and criminal culture.

Davies’s work succeeds best as a record of instances, richly detailed and described, of the continuing influence of notions of witchcraft and the occult in the modern United States, leaving the causes and meaning of this endurance to be explored elsewhere.

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Simon Middleton is senior lecturer in history at the University of Sheffield