In 1692, panic swept Salem, Massachusetts. More than 200 people – mostly women – were accused of witchcraft; 20 were executed and five others died in prison. What turned a quiet New England town against itself, and why do these trials still fascinate Americans three centuries later?
A new exhibit at the New-York Historical Society (N-YHS), The Salem Witch Trials: Reckoning and Reclaiming, transports viewers to this bleak New England winter—and invites us to reflect on how we responded to such events might have reacted.
“It’s a call to reconsider our own behavior in times of crisis,” says Anna Danziger Halperin, deputy director of the N-YHS Center for Women’s History and coordinating curator of the exhibition. “Everyone wants to think they’re on the side of justice, but it’s really easy to get carried away and turn against each other.”
The exhibition commemorates this story primarily through rare documents, including the confession, undoubtedly made under duress, of Tituba, an enslaved indigenous woman. But it also contains modern reclamations, including photographs by Frances F. Denny, a descendant of one of the Salem judges, that focus on contemporary people who identify as witches.
As it turns out, Denny has not one, but two ancestors who were directly involved in the witch hunts of 17th-century America – Samuel Sewall, the judge, and Mary Bliss Parsons, a woman accused of witchcraft a few years earlier and was acquitted. Denny, who has long focused her lens on the way female identity is constructed in America, began reflecting on the term “witch” as “an original female archetype.”
In her series of portraits and her book entitled Major Arcana: Portraits of Witches in America, She captures how the word “witch” evolved from a potentially deadly term rejected by her ancestors to something that many people embrace today.
“Witch” has always been a broad term. “Never a thing, she was several different beings at once,” writes historian Lyndal Roper The witch in the western imagination. seductress and witch at the same time; a cunning shapeshifter and a gullible fool who has turned himself into the devil’s service. The late journalist and Wiccan priestess Margot Adler wrote Pulling Down the Moon: Witches, Druids, Goddess Worshipers, and Other Pagans in America that it is precisely this “inaccuracy,” this ambiguity, that gives the word “witch” its power.
Major Arcana doesn’t try to narrow down what it means to be a witch; The power of the series lies in expanding our perspective on who witches are and what they believe in. “As soon as I started taking pictures, I realized there was nothing special about a witch,” says Denny. “You can hardly call it a witch community because it’s so diverse.” Denny’s themes vary not only by race, but also by age, geography, gender identity, belief system, and more.
Some of their subjects, who chose the outfits they would be pictured in, wore black capes – and yet most of them don’t like the stereotypical witches that will be flooding the streets this Halloween. One, the high priestess of a Wiccan church and surgical coordinator at an organ procurement agency, is pictured in her gown.
The group includes Wiccan and Vodou priestesses, green witches and kitchen witches, sex witches, cat witches, anarchist witches and a great many activist witches. Along with many of the portraits in Denny’s series, both in the book and in the exhibition, the subjects provide texts that define “witch” or “witchcraft” for themselves. (Many of these texts are read by the subjects themselves in an audio track that accompanies the portraits in the NYH-S exhibit.)
“Honestly, if your witchcraft isn’t political, I think you’re still asleep,” Leonore Tjia, a witch from Montpelier, Vermont, told Denny. “In a culture as racist and patriarchal and transphobic and homophobic and materialistic as ours, you need to wake up if you don’t see how radical and revolutionary witchcraft is.”
“Generations of suffragettes have viewed the history of witch hunts as a means of controlling and repressing women’s behavior,” says Halperin.
In 19th-century America, transcendentalism and first-wave feminism swept the nation, and suffragists saw accused witches as fellow victims of a violent and ignorant patriarchy. In the second wave of feminism in the 1960s and 1970s, witchcraft was viewed as code for women’s skills, knowledge, or independence that men viewed as a threat, such as healing, midwifery, or financial independence. In recent years, as the #MeToo movement took hold, a new generation of witches shared on WitchTok (the occult corner of social media platform TikTok) and in mainstream publications like Spells Against Patriarchy. TeenVogue.
Indeed, as Bianca Bosker writes in the Atlantic, Witchcraft’s popularity has always increased during times of turmoil in the United States, from the Civil War to the Trump era, as people disillusioned with the status quo seek something new. The tides of feminism and witchcraft have always been closely linked.
“Show me your witches and I’ll show you how you feel about women,” writes Pam Grossman, author and host of The Witch Wave podcast. and one of Denny’s themes in her own book Waking the Witch: Reflections on Women, Magic, and Power.
Of course, you don’t have to identify as a woman to be a witch. Major Arcana includes witches who are transgender, non-binary, and genderqueer. Even men can be witches, although none appear in the portrait series.
As in any heterogeneous community, disagreements will arise. For some of the “old guard” witches who emerged in the counterculture of the ’60s and ’70s, the mainstreaming of the occult is an assault on an identity dependent on their marginal nature. Meanwhile, some modern witches, who have used this identity against themselves by abusers and family court systems, see it as a path to safety and acceptance.
What unites the group, Denny thinks, is that so many of the witches are there Major Arcana use witchcraft as a healing method. They turned to the occult to process trauma, endure chronic illness, or find empowerment. Brooklyn-based witch Alex Patrick Dyck writes Major Arcana“we can heal ourselves to better heal others and our communities.”
This is a far cry from the historical definition of a witch – the one denied by Denny’s ancestor – as a malevolent person who harms others through magical means.
In fact, one of the most widely accepted definitions of magic within the community, coming from British occultist Dion Fortune, who lived in the first half of the 20th century, is “the art of altering consciousness at will”. Magic is very similar to meditation, therapy, or psychedelics in this sense. It feels a bit mysterious, maybe even ridiculous, to those who don’t practice it, but for those who do, it’s a tool to change the way they interact with the world.
“At the end of the day, what is witchcraft?” says Denni. “It’s about finding alternative systems to process the world around you, to connect to the earth and to heal something in yourself or something in someone else.”
What’s more human than that?