Features

A new witch trial

National | But now it's witch vs. witch-as Christians pray for peace

Issue: "Peretti on publishing," Oct. 25, 1997

These are tough times for the witches of Salem. Though its high unholy day is coming up, the Boston-area town that has cashed in on the 17th-century trials finds itself divided by warring witches. Laurie Cabot, the woman designated by then-Gov. Michael Dukakis as the Official State Witch, is battling her former female friend over domestic issues-and dominance of the tourist trade. And to their dismay, the neo-pagans are being prayed for by Christians in the community.

On an October weekend, Salem's streets are filled with tourists and the odd hangers-on who are attracted to the place. Banners advertise the town's "Haunted Happenings" festival. Most of the tourists know the story: In 1692, a group of girls began accusing townspeople of witchcraft. The court allowed "spectral" evidence (which could not be proven) and it hanged 19 people (one accused witch was pressed to death). The trials were halted and the remaining prisoners were freed when one of the girls accused the governor's wife of witchcraft. The Puritan town leaders later acknowledged their fault.

The tourists make their way past the old town hall and churches, toward a pedestrian square bulwarked by looming brick buildings. The small retail shops sell Salem T-shirts (I was enchanted in Salem, The Goddess is alive and well in Salem) and witch-kitsch (cauldrons, statuettes of pagan gods and goddesses, and enough black cloaks and leathers to outfit an entire cast of Xena, Warrior Princess). In one shop, a tired-looking, tattooed clerk -a twenty-something Goth girl-leafs through a women's magazine and tries to smile at the tourists as they wander through. With her Poe-black hair and her pale pancake makeup, it's hard to imagine she's looking through Mirabella for fashion tips. So far today, she says, she's sold a few postcards, a couple of Tarot decks, and some incense. "Maybe it will pick up closer to Halloween," she says.

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Most of the tourists amble into the Witches' Dungeon Museum, a recreated courtroom and town jail built in an old home off the main square. For $4.50 each (children are free), tourists can watch a 15-minute reenactment of a witch trial that rivals community-college theater in its earnestness. Various victims of the witch trials are portrayed; one exemplary victim is John Indian, a man who baked barley cakes with baby's urine (the cakes were fed to dogs, in an effort to cure smallpox). Salem has long since left off denouncing the trials for their true injustice (ignoring the proper rules of evidence) and now focuses on the victimization of proto-feminists, alternative healers, and century-challenged New Agers.

Then there's a spooky tour of the tiny jail, filled with chains, black lights, stocks, and mannequins. Indeed, it's the commercialization of the Craft that seems to be at the center of what the Salem Evening News (its logo is a hag on a broomstick) calls a "Witch War."

Laurie Cabot was taken to court last summer by her live-in companion, Janet Andrews. They had planned to open an art gallery together, but after a falling out, Miss Andrews says Miss Cabot, who allegedly had a pistol in her car, threatened her and her family. Miss Cabot, the official state witch since the 1970s, has her own website and lectures at Salem State College.

In a two-day hearing, charges flew like broomsticks. Miss Cabot's disciples were accused of trying to scare Miss Andrews by throwing a voodoo doll on her lawn; Miss Andrews was accused of stealing Miss Cabot's "sacred" black robe. At the conclusion of the hearing, the Ipswich District Court ordered Miss Cabot to stay 100 yards away from Miss Andrews and her children.

It was an excuse for "religious leaders from a host of pagan and Wiccan groups" (according to the paper) to denounce Miss Cabot-and her commercially tainted style of witchcraft.

But schmaltz and squabbles are only part of the problem for Salem's witches. There's also a Christian presence in the community that is growing bolder. Pastor Ken Steigler arrived in town in 1991. During August and September, he and other ministers have led Christians on prayer walks through the city, praying for God's love and grace for each home and person in Salem. A prayer service was held Oct. 8 at Gallows Hill, the site of the hangings.

Mr. Steigler contends that in 1972, a witch went around the borders of the town to "take the city for Satan." Five years ago, he says, he went around the same borders seven times, Joshua-like, hoping to take the city back.

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