The Truth About Witches: An Interview with Katherine Howe

Katherine Howe is a New York Times bestselling author who recently edited The Penguin Book of Witches, a primary-source reader about witches and witch-hunting ranging from the medieval period into the early eighteenth century.

The first thing I noticed about your biography, obviously, is that you are the direct descendant of three accused Salem witches! When did you find this out?

I found out about the first two when I was a teenager because my aunt had this 19th-century family genealogy. One of them was named Elizabeth Howe, and she was put to death; the other was Elizabeth Proctor, who managed to survive. I found out by the third one by myself while futzing around on, and by sort of an unbelievable fluke, she was Deliverance Dane, the subject of my first novel.

Which you’d already written.


That is a ridiculous coincidence. So you were interested in witches totally independent of family history?

Everyone’s interested in witches! And of course my teenage self thought the whole thing was badass when I found out.

I started really seriously thinking about witches when I went to Boston for grad school. I was living one town away from Salem, in Marblehead, which still has an enormous collection of 18th-century architecture because it didn’t develop economically the way Salem did. It was a fun town, very Halloween-oriented; there’s a silhouette of a witch on a broom on the cop cars. And even that pop-culture witch image made me really think about living in a part of the world where people really believed in witchcraft, for real, for generations.

That sounds like a really obvious point, but people forget it. We used to think witchcraft was real. It was a felony crime.

Yeah. You wrote in your introduction: “An idea, even today, does not have to be empirically verifiable for it to matter.”

And the farther we are from these ideas, the more we forget that. We have a tendency to be a little smug about history, to look back at the past and congratulate ourselves for how far we’ve come. We may feel some sort of solidarity with women who were accused, but we dismiss the people who accused them as naive and superstitious.

I wanted to underscore the fact that, for early modern people in America, witchcraft was real and it was rational. It was part of a larger intellectual and spiritual system; it had a function, both on the higher end of culture (in terms of reifying sexist dogma and power structures) but it also had a function on an interpersonal level (to help people cope with tragedy and unfairness).

So, yes: witchcraft was not a weird medieval anomaly. It played a social role, and did that very well, and continued to do that long after witchcraft stopped being against the law. We didn’t wake up in a fit of enlightenment after Salem or anything.

I was super interested in this quote too: “Witchcraft is less a set of defined practices than a representation of the oppositional, as the intentional thwarting of the machinery of power.” You add that witches “pervert the generative properties of womanhood, subvert the church’s authority, they undermine class authority.”

I’d never thought about witchcraft like that: a flexible, catch-all repository for anything that upsets authority and structure. Even in the Bible a witch is defined as someone who does something “that we do not do.”

Witchcraft is very much about power, and we continue to be interested in it because of that! Of course, what is threatening to an early modern religious system is not threatening in the same way today. We have different sources of authority. Back then, there was no difference between government and church and science; today, we’ve split those loci, but that question of power is still one of the reasons we find witches so intoxicating and enticing. What they represent is incredibly exciting: the idea that you have a set of secret powers that no one can perceive.

Yeah, and yet even that idea can get twisted back around to serve the place of power where government/church/science is still connected. I’m thinking of Todd Akin saying women’s bodies have the ability to shut down a rape. If that were true, we’d be witches. And almost, what a cool fantasy that we could do that, and how terrible that even that fantasy doesn’t get to serve us at all.

Yes, absolutely.

Who are your favorite witches in history?

Eunice Cole comes to mind. She was a Massachusetts woman who’d been accused of problem behavior for years, which is common for accused witches. It actually often took a lot before someone could be brought up on witchcraft charges, and historians can check who had a bad reputation but escaped being called up as a witch by just reading the documented cases of slander. Remember: if you live in a world where your economic security is totally dependent on your social relationships, and I mean 100%—it could be incredibly damaging to have someone bad-mouthing you and hurting your reputation. So people who were getting gossiped about would often go to court.

So Eunice Cole was accused of trying to entice a girl to come live with her. She approached a girl named Ann, an orphan who’d been shuffled from house to house, and there was this confrontation. Ann was about 8 or 9, and the two of them were under a tree in a cabbage field, and Eunice hit her over the head with a rock.

There are a lot of really moving and tragic elements to this story: Eunice’s loneliness without a child, Ann’s loneliness without parents. Lots of theological writing about witchcraft invokes a strange sense of violence around motherhood, and some of the language Eunice uses is almost sexual: she talks about wanting to give Ann plums, give her a baby. And then, Eunice is doubly interesting because she has this afterlife in folklore. She moved to a little cottage on the outskirts of the town, and became this Grimm fairy-tale idea of a witch, and her reputation outlasted her after she died. She’s this example of how belief in witchcraft filtered down from the legal and literal realm of early modern New England and transformed into a folk culture that lasted.

My other favorite is Reginald Scot. He’s one of the lone voices in the wilderness who was a skeptic; he’s the one that points out that, if witches had all this power, why would it be the case that so many people accused are destitute and insane?

And then, sorry, one more. I love Grace Sherwood: this anomalous instance of a witch trial in Virginia, which had a totally different religious and settlement structure. I love this case because if you read through the court testimony, they have no idea what they’re doing. They try to duck her, which is something we basically never did.

Ducking is where the person was tied up and thrown in the water? And the court would be like “LET’S SEE WHERE THIS GOES!”

Yes. Most of them happened in England, and actually, duckings were more of a punishment for “scolds,” which is another story. Anyway, they decide they’re going to duck Grace Sherwood in Virginia, then they decide the weather is too bad and she might catch cold. So they reschedule the ducking. Then, they decide that she is probably guilty but they’re not totally sure. So they give her a talking to and don’t kill her.

There’s still a neighborhood in Virginia called “Witchduck” after her.

Why was there way less witch stuff happening in the South?

Part of it is a difference in dominant religion—many parts of the South were settled by Episcopalians, where New England was settled by Puritans—which means a different relationship to theology and hierarchy. It’s also a matter of regional settlement patterns. For example, virtually all the settlers in Essex County, MA came from Essex County, England. There are only two towns in Essex County without analogues in England, and those are Marblehead and Salem (which, of course and ironically, means “peace”).

And Virginia was on a plantation system; people lived farther apart from another, and the whole system relied on slavery.

There were different ways to identify and control otherness in the South.

Yeah, the power structure was much more absolute. But, that being said, witchcraft was against the law in the South as well. And record keeping in the South is more inconsistent, but I have found many glancing references to witchcraft, as well as sort of witch-shaped holes in the record.

So, I have a question for you that I’m not even sure how to formulate. I am curious about: where do witches start? What’s the oldest mention of a witch? You talk about Exodus, “thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.” I think I’ve always assumed that the idea of a witch is basically as old as women and fear. But I don’t know!

That’s a good question and I don’t know if I can answer it. For one, there are so many different dimensions of witchcraft. Today, there are still examples all over the world where people (oftentimes children) are accused of being witches and scapegoated, just as in a witch trial. There are whole populations of children in Central Africa who have been isolated because their families or villages cast them out for witchcraft. So, it’s hard to say: witchcraft is hard to trace back to a single idea, and each case arises out of specific factors. The word is translated differently in different places, too. Even in the Bible it’s hard to understand the difference between witch, sorcerer, wizard, necromancer.

But essentially there are two pieces to the witch idea: scapegoating, and power. It’s safe to say that in any culture, at any time, we might have looked for ways to scapegoat people who are on the outs.

Or people who have power that we don’t want them to have.

And there are always ways to punish people who have gained that kind of power. But I can’t identify a real starting point for witches: I’m a little uncomfortable drawing any broad trans-cultural conclusion about witchcraft.

It is interesting, though, that the idea is almost inherently syncretic. It flips from folk to religion and back, it seems easily transmissible.

Yeah. I will mention that there’s a certain idea about witchcraft and colonialism—the idea that witchcraft is imported into places through colonization, and intense and imported religious activity might bring about this Western idea of a witch.

Where does the like, Walgreens witch come from? The super-simplified pop culture symbol of the witch?

There are definitely very old woodcuts of witches that are very Hollywood-esque. I don’t know exactly how to answer that question, but I can tell you where the major symbols come from.


So the broom comes from early modern descriptions of what witches do. It shows up in early modern and some medieval woodcuts, and one big feminist interpretation is to see the broom as a phallic symbol, of course. One thing that’s different between the Hollywood version and these old woodcuts is that the early modern witches were supposed to carry the broom with the straw facing forward, and they’d melt a candle into the straw to light their way.

That is really beautiful, actually.

Yeah, and there was this sense that witches could send their souls out of their bodies to fly around at night, and the broom is part of that.

That’s so sexual, I love it. Dissociation from the body, traveling at night, riding on a dick-broom.

There’s an account of a guy who claimed a witch came in his window and sat on his chest and crushed him until he couldn’t breathe. Very sexual! Okay, and now, cats: they come from the idea of a spirit familiar. In early modern witchcraft it was believed that witches had to sign the devil’s book, and he would agree to help you out, and he’d give you a spirit familiar—a little demon or an imp—and you would suckle it on a teat.

Yeah, I was reading those court accounts of people being searched for their witch’s teat. Those poor people that happen to have third nipples.

Yes! But frankly, it didn’t matter. If someone is searching your body for something they’ll find whatever they want. A mole, whatever. Often there are descriptions of the witch’s teat being something that can only be the clitoris.

Oh noooo.

Yeah. So, the spirit familiar was something that seemed exotic: cats, yellow birds, snakes. And the hats, I have my own hypothesis about them. The witch hat is a pointy hat with a round brim, which seems to me like a combination of two really common middle class styles of headgear in the 15th and 16th century. The hennen, the pointy cone hat, was just like a party hat; you see it in medieval tapestries, hats with scarves dangling off them. And then the broad brim looks like a wimple, which persists in nun habits today but used to be just a woman’s hat. If you put the wimple and the hennen together, you get a witch hat.

One of the earliest witch trials in England was Ursula Kemp, who confessed. Why did people confess?

One way to answer that is to note that it’s actually not unusually for people under interrogation to confess to crimes they didn’t commit. Part of this just has to do with psychological pressure; if you look ahead at some of the Salem records, they’re just hammering them. Did you do it? Did you do it? Why did you do it? Tell us why you did it. Tell us why you did it.

Historians differ on reasons why they confessed. Regardless, f you confessed, you were usually toast. There was one guy, John Godfrey, one of the few male witches, who seemed to just really enjoy freaking people out. He loved just talking about witchcraft. I can easily imagine him being alive today, some kid obsessed with the Necronomicon. And I’m sure the occasional witch confessed because they really believed themselves to be doing things, or they were made to believe that.

In reading all these court documents did you feel that the women accused were stronger or weaker under pressure than you’d imagine them to be? How would you have handled it?

Oh, I’m a total wuss, are you kidding? It’s hard to imagine being on trial for your life for something that is not possible for you to have done. And often there are women who are like Martha Corey, who just cannot believe what is happening, and says over and over, “Obviously everyone here is crazy, I’ve been a church member my whole life.”

But generally, everyone on trial also believed that witches were real.


They just didn’t believe that they themselves were witches.

Yes. Everyone involved all believed it was a completely real phenomenon. Even after Salem, they don’t say, “We don’t believe in witchcraft anymore.” They say, “We were deluded by Satan.”

The person who I think is the most badass under pressure, though, is Sarah Goode, one of the first three women accused at Salem. She was a sort of usual-suspects person: a beggar, destitute, going door to door; she had a baby in prison that died, and a four-year-old daughter named Dorothy who ended up losing her mind. She had this line before she died, which Nathaniel Hawthorne took for his book House of the Seven Gables and gave to a male witch, of course. She goes, “I’m no more witch than you are a wizard, and if you take away my life I’ll give you blood to drink.”

That is the most metal thing. I would not have been that metal. I would have been begging for my life.

I wonder if I would have been fooled into believing I was a witch if I were accused. Because we’ve always had this easy framework for understanding being overcome by happiness or goodness: you’re “blessed,” or whatever. But when you start feeling your dark side—angry, sexual, hedonistic, in need—what do you get to call it if you’re a Puritan woman? I’m thinking of some accused woman who said that the devil can inhabit bodies just like the saints.

The Puritan worldview was really unforgiving. Puritans believed, unlike other Christians at the time, that you couldn’t do anything to save yourself. You can’t confess, or buy an indulgence, you can’t do penance, you can’t pray for grace and delivery and expect to receive it. The Puritans believed that grace was up to God alone and there was nothing you can do one way or another. The best you could hope for is to maybe get a hint that you might be saved, because maybe you were naturally drawn to good things and goodness.

The extension of this is, to some degree, saying that it’s a sign of God’s favor if your life is going well. They stopped just short of saying that outright, but it’s not a big leap. So sickness, financial reversal, everyday tragedy were all explained in religious terms for the Puritans.

Where witchcraft changes the dynamic is this. Let’s say I’m a housewife, I’m at home, I have three small children, and my irritating destitute neighbor comes by and asking me for something to eat. I don’t have anything to spare, and she’s just always bothering me and I’m busy and she freaks me out. So I send her away and she says I’m gonna regret it. She, likely with the same belief system as me, might mean that I’ll feel guilty because I’ve denied her an act of Christian charity. But later in the same day, my toddler scalds herself and dies from the burn.

Do I want to believe it was my fault because I wasn’t watching? Is it my toddler’s fault? Her sister? Are our souls stained? Or is it the fault of my neighbor, who is possibly a witch? Witchcraft is a way of changing and relieving the unrelenting pressure of that hardline worldview.

And witchcraft was eventually redefined from actually consorting with the devil to just pretending to do so. Witchcraft went from a supernatural act to an act of fraud.

Yes, and what that means is that everyone still believed in witchcraft, but that it wasn’t as threatening to the power structure anymore. At this point, we were moving into the Enlightenment, so religious ideas were changing, and a lot of the shift is also about the nature of household stuff. By the time people get to the 18th century, we’ve got easier access to goods; you get mass production of pottery; everything is less scarce. So much of witchcraft had to do with household goods and food, and when we start to enter a more consumerist society, rather than a subsistence society, witchcraft stops being as powerful a threat.

Are there any big misconceptions about witchcraft in America?

We have this idea that witches were burned at the stake. That’s a common misconception. Witches were burned at the stake on the Continent in Spain and France and Germany, but that’s because witchcraft there was an ecclesiastical crime. We did not have separate ecclesiastic courts, and here, witchcrafts were a felony, punishable like any other felony: like murder. No witch was ever burned at the stake in North America or England.

You write about Salem as not an anomaly or an aberrant expression but an ultimate expression of attitudes that were (are?) in North America surrounding witchcraft. A threat of what we could still become. Do you see witch trials around today?

Yes is the short answer, but I’ll have to think about ways to make it more nuanced. Of course I can’t neglect to mention that witchcraft has become a modern religion, a very 20th-century one, founded in the ’30s. And Wicca expresses a strong solidarity with people who have been accused in the past; the women’s movement made it a way for people to experience a more woman-centered spiritual practice.

But broadly speaking, I think that the questions about gender performance and power are still very much on the lives of women as we try to find our way in the world. I think that for a lot of us we feel very keenly the tension between laying claim to our personhood and reconciling that with the way women are placed in society. And witches tended to be argumentative, they had problems with anger. I wouldn’t know anything about that, of course!

It’s a funny story, actually: when I first started to research this stuff, I was in Marblehead, newly married, totally broke, and my husband’s half-brother was spending the summer with us. One day I was making chili, in the kitchen on a gas stove, no air-conditioning. It’s boiling hot, I’m sweating, sweat’s just pouring down my arms, and I’m stirring this pot of beans with a long wooden spoon. My husband’s half-brother comes in and asks when dinner’s going to be ready, and I turned back to the stove and had this exact sensation: the sweat, the fire, the spoon, the kid. In this exact house—the house was 300 years old—this is what it feels like to be a woman and what it’s always felt like. Not to be reductionist, but it really gave me a moment. For all the change we’ve experienced, there are still moments like that.

The Penguin Book of Witches is available now on Penguin Classics.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

Image via Getty.

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