October 26, 2013

Halloween Magic: Grab Your Cabbage

A few weeks ago I was talking with some people at Boston's History Project about the misbehavior that is allowed during Halloween. During the conversation my friend Andrew, who grew up in western Massachusetts and is in his early 30s, said that when he was a kid the night before Halloween was called "Cabbage Night", and it was the designated time for pulling pranks on neighbors.

Halloween in the past was often a multiple day celebration, and each day had its own name. This tradition continues in some places. Detroit is infamous for its Devil's Night on October 30, and a few years ago I wrote about the multiple days of Halloween in Haverhill, Massachusetts in the 1930s. In Haverhill a Beggar's Night was celebrated on October 30, but the local youths also practiced vandalism on Cabbage Night on October 28.

So what's up with Cabbage Night? The connection between the humble cabbage and Halloween is not readily apparent unless you are a gardener, in which case you know that cabbage grows well in cooler temperatures. It can be harvested well into the autumn, and in the past when more people kept vegetable gardens heads of cabbage would have been easy targets for pranksters to steal (and throw).

A vintage Halloween postcard with cabbages, from this great Pinterest board.

Happily, there were also more beneficial Halloween roles for cabbage to play. In Ireland, for example, cabbage and potatoes are ingredients in a dish called colcannon. At Halloween, colcannon would be served with a ring, coins, or other items hidden it. Each item foretold a specific future for the person who found it. The ring indicated a happy marriage, the coins wealth, etc.

Cabbage also had a magical role to play in New England once Halloween began to be celebrated here in the nineteenth century. Clifton Johnson found the following divinatory practice in western Massachusetts in the late 1800s:

On Halloween hang up a cabbage-stump over the door. The first person of the opposite sex that comes in is the one you will marry (What They Say In New England, 1896).

Fanny Bergen also found this more elaborate version in Massachusetts:

On Halloween a girl is to go through a graveyard, steal a cabbage and place it above the house-door. The one on whom the cabbage falls as the door is opened is to be the girl’s husband (Current Superstitions, 1896).

I like Bergen's version better. Not only does the girl need to walk through a graveyard (spooky!) and steal (breaking the law!), but her poor beau will get hit on the head by a cabbage (pranking!). It's a little more transgressive and therefore seems more Halloweeny to me. However, I don't condone trespassing, theft, or dropping cabbages on anyone.

Have a safe and happy Halloween, with or without your cabbage!

October 20, 2013

American Horror Story: Did Tituba Practice Voodoo?

We've been watching season three of American Horror Story, and last week's episode ended with a confrontation between Fiona Goode the supreme witch (played by Jessica Lange), and Marie Laveau the immortal voodoo queen (played by Angela Bassett). As they argue in a New Orleans hair salon, Marie claims that the witches stole their power from Tituba, who practiced voodoo in Puritan Salem. (To be clear, Voudou or Voudoun is an African-based polytheistic religious system; in popular culture, voodoo is a magical system that is derived from Voudou.)

Angela Bassett as Marie Laveau

American Horror Story is of course fiction and created to entertain (which I think it does), but it usually works in some historical information as well. So who was Tituba, and did she really practice voodoo or Voudou?

Tituba was a slave owned in the 1690s by Salem Village's minister Samuel Parris. After his daughter Betty, her cousin Abigail Williams and other local girls began to have fits, they accused Tituba of bewitching them. Some writers, like Marion Starkey, have claimed the girls made these accusations because Tituba taught them voodoo-style magic. In particular, Starkey's The Devil in Massachusetts claims that the guilt and conflict the adolescent girls felt about practicing Tituba's magic was the spark that ignited the Salem witch trials.

This probably never happened, but it sure looks dramatic!
However, there's not much evidence that Tituba practiced any magic at all, let alone voodoo or Voudou. According to Marilynne Roach's The Salem Witch Trials, there's just one documented incident of Tituba performing magic.

On February 25, 1692, before she was accused of being a witch, Tituba made a cake made from the afflicted girls' urine and fed it to a dog. This was a form of diagnostic magic. If the dog became sick after eating the cake, it would prove the girls had witchcraft-tainted urine and were indeed bewitched. Baking a witch cake is not a practice associated with Voudou or voodoo, but is part of English folk magic. Tituba was in fact instructed to make the cake by Mary Sibley, an English neighbor of the Parrises.

When Tituba did confess to being a witch, her confessions matched those of her English Puritan neighbors. She had flown through the air on a pole to the witch meetings, had been pressured by the Devil to serve him, and had been offered animal familiars. These are all part of English witchcraft belief, not Voudou. Another Salem slave named Candy was accused of witchcraft, and her confessions also matched her Puritan neighbors. I think it's safe to assume the slaves were just telling the judges what they wanted to hear. It was the safest strategy to prolong your life during the Salem trials.

It's also not entirely clear if Tituba was of African, or even part-African, descent. The trial records refer to her as Tituba Indian, and her husband as John Indian. It appears they had come originally from the Caribbean, and some historians have claimed they were actually Arawak Indians rather than Africans. On American Horror Story Marie Laveau does mention that Tituba was an Arawak, but any connection between Arawak religion (now extinct) and voodoo or Voudou is mostly speculative.

American Horror Story also has a minotaur in it, so I'm not expecting historical accuracy. The show entertains while discussing broader social themes, and this season seems to be partly about racial conflict. If that turns out to be the case Tituba certainly fits right in.

October 12, 2013

The Spirit Photos of William Mumler

Have you ever seen a horror movie where someone holds a seance in a haunted house? Have you ever played with a Ouija board? If you answered yes to at least one of those, then you have some idea of what Spiritualism is. 

Started in upstate New York in 1848 by sisters Kate and Margaret Fox, Spiritualism claims that the spirits of the departed communicate with the living to give advice and inspiration. Certain people, called mediums, are more attuned to the spirit world and can communicate easily with the departed. For those of us not so gifted, the spirits are more likely to manifest as rapping sounds, movements on a Ouija board, and suddenly extinguished candles.

In the 1860s, Spiritualism swept across the United States like a ghostly wildfire. Hundreds of thousands had been killed in the Civil War, and Americans longed to hear that death was not the end. Spiritualism filled an aching need in the country's heart.

One problem with Spiritualism, though, was that it was so ephemeral. Rapping noises and messages delivered through an entranced medium were nice, but wouldn't it be better to have concrete proof that your deceased loved one was still with you?

William Mumler, a Boston jeweler, was able to provide that proof. He could give you a photo.

There was of course a price. Customers would pay $10 for a dozen photos, a high price for the time, and with no guarantee the spirits would appear. Sometimes they didn't, but when they did the results were pretty spectacular. Look at this photo:

Photo from the American Photography Museum.

Mumler's customers were generally satisfied with the results, even if the spirits in the photos didn't exactly look like their relatives. The veil between the worlds was hazy, and the spirits themselves were perfected and changed in the Summerland where they dwelt on the other side. No wonder they looked a little vague when captured on film.

Skeptical Bostonians argued that Mumler's photos were faked. Was it merely coincidence, they said, that the spirits photographed were usually the same ones that customers had told Mrs. Mumler about while in the studio's waiting room? Local pundit Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote a pointed essay about how easy it was double-expose film, but faithful Spiritualists ignored the criticism and continued to patronize Mumler.

Photo from the American Photography Museum.
That is, until they began to notice that the spirits in the photos looked suspiciously like people still living in Boston. Feeling the heat, Mumler fled Boston for New York and set up a new studio. Things seemed to be going well in the new state until he was arrested and put on trial for fraud. 

Amazingly, he was found not guilty. A string of professional photographers testified they had watched him in the studio and saw no trickery. Many of satisfied customers also took the stand, claiming the spirits in their photos were indeed their dearly departed. If his customers were happy, the defense lawyers said, how could there be fraud?

Mumler returned to Boston after being released, and despite a tarnished reputation set up a small studio at his mother's house in the South End. A small trickle of clients continued to patronize him, including one woman dressed in black who refused to lift her veil until the camera was ready. She had been tricked before and didn't want to be tricked again. She wanted Mumler to prove he was the real thing.

Mumler produced the following photo for her:

Photo from Wikipedia.

The woman was Mary Todd Lincoln, Abraham Lincoln's widow. I think you can guess who the spirit is. This is probably the last photo taken of Mrs. Lincoln before her death in 1882.

Mumler himself died in 1884. Shortly before passing away, he burned all his negatives.

You can find a lot more about William Mumler on the web. In particular I found this essay to be very informative.

October 06, 2013

Abigail Hobbs, Poor Little Witch Girl

As I read about the Salem witch trials, sometimes I feel like I'm really getting to know a particular person. Abigail Hobbs, accused of witchcraft at age 14, is one of them.

Maybe I'm just projecting my modern attitudes onto a completely different historical era, but when I read about Abigail Hobbs I get the impression of a bratty teenage Goth girl. For example, here is the transcript of one of her interrogations. The judge has asked her when she first encountered the Devil:

Abigail: About 3 or 4 years ago.

Judge: What did he say to you?

Abigail: He said he would give me fine things, if I did what he would have me.

Judge: What would he have you do?

Abigail: Why, he would have me be a witch. 

Her use of the word "why" gives the impression that she was relaxed, and almost mocking. "Of course he wanted me to be a witch," she implies. "Why else would I be on trial?"

Before coming to Salem, Abigail Hobbs had lived with her father and stepmother in a settlement at Casco Bay in Maine. In the 1690s Maine was a dangerous frontier area, rife with wild animals and marauding Wabenaki Indians, but Abigail roamed freely outside the palisades surrounding the settlement. She even spent nights alone in the woods.

When asked by neighbors why she was unafraid outside in the dangerous forest, she replied that she had "sold herself body and soul to the Old Boy." I like to think she said this sarcastically, to scare her pious and nosey neighbors. Chadwick Hansen, in his crazy book Witchcraft at Salem, thinks Abigail Hobbs really was a witch based on statements like this. I prefer to think of her as a proto-Goth girl out to shock.

As Indian attacks made Casco Bay increasingly dangerous the Hobbs family moved south to Topsfield, Massachusetts, which is next to Salem. Abigail continued to be a wild child. She mockingly baptized her mother while at a neighbor's house, openly defied her parents in public, and told people who criticized her that she could see the Devil sitting behind them.

Needless to say, these antics soon led to Abigail being accused of witchcraft. Like most of the other accused, she soon realized that the best way to delay execution was to tell the judges what they wanted to hear. She confessed to witchcraft. She claimed she tortured and killed neighbors by sticking pins in poppets, and ate red bread and red wine at the witches' sabbat. She also accused several others of witchcraft, including John Proctor of Salem and George Burroughs, the former Salem minister who had moved to Maine.

In the fall of 1692 Abigail was sentenced to be executed, but by early 1693 the trials had collapsed and the order was never carried out. Governor Phipps signed a reprieve and Abigail was spared the hangman's noose. Unfortunately many of the people she had accused were not so lucky.

I like to think that Abigail Hobbs was a just free-spirited teenager growing up in a dangerous time. Maybe her blasphemous, screw-you attitude started out as a reaction to the unstable environment of Casco Bay, but by the time she arrived in Massachusetts people took her all too seriously.

You can read the transcripts of Abigail's trials here.