Folk Medicine

Herbal remedies are certainly part of folk medicine. Tonics were a regular part of the health regimen and reading the ingredients explains why. Willow and poplar bark, spearmint, wormwood and ginseng – all used in various ways now.

But there is a lot more to it. Beech leaves (astringent and used for skin injuries) might be boiled down into a poultice, but other parts might be added to the remedies. For example, regular nose bleeds might be treated by a mixture of alum, red bath root and blood root mixed together into a powder that can be inhaled. The blood root and the red bath root symbolize the blood. Many folk medicine relied on both sympathetic and contagious magic. So a knife might be placed under an expectant mother to cut the pain of childbirth.

Or, in contagious magic, items that were in contact with the body would have special powers. Sailors relied on the caul (the membrane covering a new baby) as protection against drowning. A sore throat would be cured by applying camphor to a sock (that had been work on the right foot) and wearing it around the neck. While we still use the camphor, we no longer expect it to be smeared over a dirty sock.

Incantations or blessings were also said over the cure or affected person.

To us, folk medicine is suspect, partly because of some of the farm ingredients. Cow manure might be used as a poultice of sheep manure strained with cider and drunk. Ugh. Croup might be cured with a spoonful of skunk oil.

There were also people reputed to have special powers. Blood stoppers were credited with the power to stop bleeding (kind of like the dowsers who find water.) Some of them could find lost things. The seventh son was especially powerful.

Modern medicine has moved away from most of these old remedies although faith healing is still practiced in certain sects. However, progress to current medicine has a down side. We have lost touch with nature and the natural remedies found in herbs and tree bark.

Next up: The Shakers and Herbs.

 

Malice, resentment – and witchcraft

No doubt there were many causes of the hysteria. The summer was cool and wet, prime growing conditions for a fungus called ergot on the rye.  It releases a toxin similar to LSD. So it is possible that people were suffering hallucinations and genuinely thought they saw the devil and women flying around. If so, the climate that summer had a tremendous effect on history.

Another contributing factor: Tituba, a slave owned by Samuel Parrish.  Variously described as an Indian or a black slave, she told Samuel Parrish’s daughter and a group of girls stories which  drove much of the content of the visions. Her testimony and was a direct cause of the eventual hangings of women described as her confederates.  (Ironically, Tituba was set free.) A shadowy character, she has been also described as practicing voodoo. Her testimony. at least to me, reads more like the Christian belief in demons and the devil.

Then there are the girls themselves. To modern eyes, the easy belief in the veracity of a group of girls is incredible. Samuel Parrish believed in the truth of the accusations until the end of his life. I suspect there is another explanation. Women, and young girls especially, at this time were supposed to be quiet, meek and submissive. The claims  made by these girls and the charges against others in the village put them on center stage. I do not wonder that they kept ratcheting up their stories; anything to keep that attention.

The hysteria ended in 1693. After 1700 reparations began to be paid to the surviving victims and families of the executed. But belief in witches and the trials did not end.  In the new United States a trial and a judicial solution to perceived witch craft became unlikely (and I imagine that the uncritical acceptance of spectral evidence by Samuel Parris in Salem had a lot to do with increasing skepticism) but accusation and hanging by  mobs could still happen.

In Europe women were still attacked and in some cases executed for witchcraft: in Denmark – (1800), in Poland( 1836) and even in Britain (1863). Violence continued in France through the 1830’s. Accusations continued in  the United States as well.  In the 1830s a prosecution was begun against a man (yes) in Tennessee.

Even as recently as 1997 two Russian farmers killed a woman and injured members of her family for the use of folk magic against them.

There were two incidents of note in New York State. In 1783, Ann Lee, the spiritual heart of the new faith now commonly known as the Shakers, was arrested and charged for blasphemy One hundred years earlier she might have been hanged as a witch or devil worshipper. But she was released. Persecution of the Shakers continued however. And Lydia, my primary female character who is a former Shaker, would have been a target.

The final trial for witchcraft took place in 1816 in Nyack. Jane Kannif, the widow of a Scotch physician, lived in a small house on Germonds Road in West Nyack. An herbalist and widow of an apothecary, she treated neighbors that came to her with herbs and methods she learned from her late husband. But she was eccentric. According to the people at that time she dressed oddly, was unsociable and wandered around talking to herself. She was regarded as insane or worse yet a witch. It was decided to take her to Auert Polhemus’s grist mill and using his great flour scales weigh her against the old Holland Dutch family Bible, iron bound, with wooden covers and iron chain to carry it by. If outweighed by the Bible, she must be a witch and must suffer accordingly. She was taken to the mill, put on the scales, and weighed. Since she weighed more than the Bible, the committee released her.

So what happened in Salem? It seems as though the town lost its collective mind.

Despite the attention paid to the accusations and the trials and hangings, for me the real focus lies with the rest of the village, those who saw family and friends turn on them. Think what it must have been like living there at this time. Salem was a small community. Those accused were friends, family and neighbors of their accusers. How could you forgive the ones who hanged one of your family members as a witch and terrorized the others? Especially since the accounts make is clear that  some of the charges sprang from the worst of human nature: greed, revenge and malice. What kind of amends would be enough?  Would financial reparations ease the grief? I know this is something I could never forgive. And I would guess that, despite the end of the witch hunts, this village remained troubled for years. In fact, many of those whose family members had been accused or hanged moved away to a new village called Salem’s End. After those experiences, how could anyone ever trust again?

Although PTSD is not a term they used, I am certain those who survived their experiences in Danvers suffered from it the rest of their lives. People on both sides: the accused and the accusers, changed their names. One of the hanging judges was a Hathorne; Nathaniel Hawthorne added the w. And the Nurse family, right in the thick of the storm, moved away and became Nourses.
That brings me full circle, back to The Devil’s Cold Dish. Rees has a history with several people in his hometown and Lydia, a former Shaker, would surely be suspect. What if -?

Witches and witchcraft – not just Salem

Although I don’t address witchcraft of the trials in Death in Salem, I write about a period 100 years later, I do use it in The Devil’s Cold Dish.I am fascinated by the persistent belief in witches.

Although the trials ended before 1700 and reparations began to be paid to surviving victims and families of the executed, belief in witches and the trials did not end then. As I have written in other posts, belief – and accusations – continued well into the 1800’s. ( And actually into modern times ). With Halloween only days away, it seems appropriate to address the topic again.

The craze in Massacheusetts came after several centuries of the trials and burnings in Europe. Belief in magic was widespread. Girls used spells to try and see the faces of future husbands and superstitions regarding illness, birth, harvest were rife. Harelips were caused when the mother saw a rabbit, birth marks because the mother ate strawberries, for example. One of my favorites: to protect a mother and child during birth put an ear of corn on the mother’s belly.

Reasons given for the explosion of belief and hangings in Salem are many. I just read several pieces on Tituba. Variously described as an Indian or a black slave, her testimony apparently drove much of the content of the stories and was a direct cause of the eventual hangings of women described as her confederates. (Although they all protested their innocence, sixteen were hanged. Tituba was set free.) A shadowy character, she has been also described as practicing voodoo. Her testimony. at least to me, reads more like the Christian belief in demons and the devil. Once she was released, however, she, like the girls whose fits started the terror, faded into obscurity.

By the late eighteen hundreds her name was used to frighten children and she is shown in illustrations in the witches’s black dress holding her broom.

Considering the amazing staying power of accusations, one has to wonder about the psychology behind these beliefs. Of course malice plays a huge role as does mysogyny. But why the belief in evil supernatural powers and submission to the Devil? I still have trouble wrapping my mind around it.

 

 

Devil’s Cold Dish

I am happy and so excited to announce that I have received the cover for the new Will Rees mystery – A Devil’s Cold Dish. The graphics arts department at Minotaur is so good. In my opinion, they have scored with every single cover.

devils cold dish

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Will and Lydia Rees return to Dugard after their adventures in Salem and find themselves in new trouble. Not only is Will accused of murder but Lydia finds her own life in danger.

Coming June, 2016

Witchcraft – Salem and More

I ‘ve had a couple of questions about my most recent book, Death in Salem. Why didn’t I fully explore the witchcraft angle? Well, as I’ve said in earlier posts, Salem by 1797, was a very cosmopolitan city. It was not only the sixth largest, one of the most diverse (with the first East Indian immigrant populations in the US) but it was also the wealthiest. Salem’s witchcraft past was more an embarrassment.

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House of one of the judges.

 

 

 

 

The witchcraft spell has never completely left Salem, however. On one of our tours, the guide was the descendent of one of the accused witches. Reminders of this past abound.

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Graveyard includes memorials to those that were executed.

 

 

 

 

Although Salem became something other – a huge center of shipping and trading, however, the belief in witchcraft did not fade. In an earlier blog I wrote about trials that continued, right up to one in Russia in 1999. Belief that women are witches never completely disappear.

And I wonder what is behind these accusations? Belief? Greed, malice, revenge? Hatred of women. With Gamer gate and all of the Internet attacks on women we  cannot discount that as a motive.

Christianity certainly plays a part.I think most of us are familiar with the quote from the Bible about not suffering a witch to live. During the middle ages and right up to modern times this has been used to execute any number of innocent people, primarily women.

I will blog  in the future about my research into witchcraft and goddesses – I think the two are tied.

To answer the question I have asked, I decided, that since I did not explore witchcraft and the psychologies behind it in Death in Salem, I would do so in the next book. That book, titled The Devil”s Cold Dish, will be coming out next year. Spoiler alert: it does not take place in Salem.

Death in Salem – and the next new book

I am thrilled to announce that I have received my first copies of Death in Salem and they look stunning. Here is the cover:

death in salem

The books look even better in real life. I will probably be having another Goodreads giveaway later in the summer.

To summarize the plot: Will Rees is on a weaving trip and stops in Salem to buy some imported cloth for Lydia. He gets stopped by a funeral and sees an old friend at the head. Anstiss Boothe, the deceased, has been ill a long time but the very next day her husband Jacob. a wealthy Salem merchant, is dead and this time it is clearly murder. Rees has already left Salem but his friend rides after him and draws him back to investigate.

Smuggling, piracy, prostitution, and of course all the dynamics of interpersonal relationships keep Rees investigating.

I had a lot of fun roaming Salem when I researched this book.