By Owen Davies
The history of American witchcraft is indelibly associated with Salem, Massachusetts, where in 1692 nineteen people were executed as witches after the accusations of two young girls sparked a wave of fear. The village of Salem, the centre of the events of 1692, is now the town of Danvers, with the focus of today’s witchcraft industry centred on Salem city. But there are numerous other Salems in America, born of the country’s religious heritage – Salem in Hebraic means “peace”. But forget colonial Salem for a moment, as on two occasions in America’s more recent past Salem was the scene of trials related to witchcraft.
Salem 1878. In May 1878 the Supreme Judicial Court at Salem, Massachusetts, considered:
That the said Daniel H. Spofford of Newburyport is a mesmerist, and practices the art of mesmerism, and that by his power and influence he is capable of injuring the persons and property and social relations of others, and does by said means so injure them. That the said Daniel H. Spofford has at divers times and places since the year 1875 wrongfully, maliciously and with the intent to injure the plaintiff, caused the plaintiff by means of his said power and art great suffering of body, severe spinal pains and neuralgia, and temporary suspension of mind.
The charge reads remarkably like the indictments for witchcraft two centuries earlier, and the trial’s location further underscored the association in the minds of commentators.
Profoundly influenced by both mesmerism and spiritualism in her early adult life, the founder of Christian Science, Mary Baker Eddy (1821-1910), conceived a source of spiritual harm that came to be known as “malicious animal magnetism” or “MAM”. This was the malign use of willpower, the projection of harmful thoughts to cause physical damage. MAM become something of a preoccupation amongst early members of the movement.
In 1870 Daniel Spofford and his wife had entered into an agreement with Eddy that she would teach them the healing art for the sum of $100 cash and ten per cent of the commercial income from their future Christian Science healing practice. The Spoffords fell out with Eddy over other matters and declined to pay the tithe. So in 1878 Eddy launched a lawsuit against them. It was one of several legal actions that the litigious Eddy instigated against former followers at the time.
Things got worse for Spofford when, as this case was pending, Lucretia Brown, a 48-year-old spinster who lived with her mother and sister in one of the oldest houses in Ipswich, lodged a suit against Spofford that Lucretia had suffered a spinal injury as a child, but while an invalid she was able to run a crocheting agency, employing local women working for pin money. An erstwhile Congregationalist, she was converted to Christian Science in 1876 after successful treatment by a female Christian Science healer from the town of Lynn named Dr Dorcas Rawson, herself a former Methodist. Lucretia was rejuvenated and was able to walk for miles for the first time since childhood, but she had a relapse following several visits by Spofford. She consulted Dorcas again who diagnosed that Spofford had been using mesmerism against her. And so Lucretia decided to take legal action, with some subsequently suggesting that Eddy put her up to it. The case was dismissed.
Salem 1893. The town of Salem, Columbiana County, Ohio, was a thriving settlement founded by the Quakers. Its inhabitants numbered over 6,000 by the end of the nineteenth century, at which time it was described by one observer as displaying “order, prosperity, thrift, and comfort”. But in 1893 the peace after which the town was named was shattered by a virulent witchcraft dispute.
A few miles south of Salem, at a place known as McCracken Corner, lived a farmer named Jacob Culp. Born in Germany around 1839, he and his family emigrated to America when he was a boy. By 1860 the young man had taken up farming and married Hannah Loop, a Pennsylvanian woman fifteen years his senior, becoming step father to two children from her previous marriage. Culp worked hard and became one of the most prosperous members of the community. Sometime during the 1870s Hannah’s mother Mary Loop and her disabled brother Ephraim moved in to the Culp’s home for a few years. When Mary died, some neighbours, including a couple of the Loop sisters, cast accusing glances at Jacob. When Hannah also died sometime around 1887 and Jacob married Hattie, a woman twenty-five years younger, rumour had it he had bumped Hannah off too by his witchcraft.
The principal rumour-monger was Culp’s sister-in-law, Sadie Loop. Sadie was a key member of Hart Methodist Church, having served it as a Sunday School teacher and sexton. In November 1892, following further family misfortunes and illnesses, which no doctor could help, Sadie decided to call upon a herb doctress named Louise Burns. She told Sadie that she had a very bad brother-in-law, and when she was asked which one, Burns replied “the one that came across the ocean.” This could only be Jacob.
Sadie told a farmer and church Class Leader named Homer B. Shelton of her suspicions. He subsequently made a formal complaint about Sadie:
The undersigned a member of the Methodist Episcopal church, complains to you that Sadie Loop, a member of the same church, has been guilty of immoral conduct, and she is hereby charged therewith as follows: Charge, falsehood.
Specification 1. The said Sadie Loop on or about the 27th day of April, 1893, did utter and publish, contrary to the word of God and the discipline, the following false and evil matter of and concerning Jacob Culp, to wit that he, meaning the said Jacob Culp was a wizard and practiced witchcraft.
A church trial was held in the classroom of Salem Methodist Church. The presiding Judge, Rev. Smith, concluded after hearing all the evidence that he had no alternative but to expel Sadie Loop from the membership of the Methodist Episcopal Church. Hart Church never recovered from these traumatic events. Today it is marked only by a small graveyard along Route 45 a few miles south of Salem.
These nineteenth-century Salem witch trials are a reminder that, two hundred years after the last legal executions for witchcraft in the USA, accusations of witchcraft and malign occult influence could still shake communities to their core, revealing that fear of witchery was as much a part of modern American life as it was in the colonial days.
Owen Davies is Professor of Social History at the University of Hertfordshire and has written extensively on the subject of magic. His new book America Bewitched: The Story of Witchcraft after Salem is the first full history of witchcraft in modern America.
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Image credit: From John George Hohman’s The Long Lost Friend: A Collection of Mysterious and Invaluable Arts & Remedies (Harrisburg, 1856). Image provided by Dr Owen Davies. Do not reproduce without permission.