133: America Bewitched by Owen Davies

by Gerard


133.430973: Davies, Owen. America Bewitched: The Story of Witchcraft After Salem. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2013. 226 pp. ISBN 978-0-19-57871-9.

Dewey Breakdown:

  • 100: Philosophy and Psychology
  • 130: Parapsychology and occultism
  • 133: Specific topics in parapsychology and occultism
  • 133.4: Demonology and witchcraft
  • 133.43: Magic and witchcraft
  • +0973: United States

It was a curious episode in American history. Between February 1692 and May 1693, the town of Salem, Massachusetts believed itself to be infiltrated by hordes of witches. The trials of suspected witches left dozens of lives shattered (and one man pressed to death). And then, curiously, people came to their senses. While most people believe that witch-hunting in America ended at Salem, Owen Davies’ America Bewitched follows the history of American witch trials and witchcraft from Salem to the present day.

There haven’t been high-profile witch trials in the US since Salem, but newspaper accounts and civil suits concerning supposed witches can be found all through history. There are a ton of interesting tidbits in this volume, some entrenched in folklore and some random goodies about things associated with witchcraft. Davies looks at the history of “witch-hunting” from both a sociological and a legal perspective. Laws regarding the practicing of magic, the creation of potions and hexes, and the forcible possession of people have at one time or another appeared on American books (my favorite is still the 1604 Act against Witchcraft and Conjuration).

The other interesting perspective is the social one: if, at any given time, there existed a group of “others” who had a non-ordinary gathering, ritual, or oath, then the label of witchcraft was sure to be affixed. Early Pilgrim settlers used it against other settlers, supposed heretics, and Native Americans. Native Americans used it when large swaths of their own people were waylaid by European diseases. Long-time citizens of 19th century America hurled it at immigrants and slaves. If all the parties are to be believed, apparently early America was a Wicca nation, not a Christian one.

Even though this is an Oxford University Press book, it’s only slightly stuffy and academic. Davies’s approach to historical research is readable, well-researched, and fun to follow. You will get a lot of new American history from this one, especially on just how unnervingly stubborn a group of accusers could be. Some of the accounts of witch trials are comical, while others are just sad. Davies’s history, though, winds down with the introduction of Wicca and witches in American pop culture to end it on a lighter note. A jam-packed and enlightening book.