In colonial Massechusetts and today
As Halloween rolls around, it's a good time to reflect on the insanity of the Salem witch trials. The Puritans tortured and killed many women for witchcraft. These persecutions happened at the community level: women were reported to the authorities by their friends and neighbors, and their trials and executions were public affairs.
How might you be "identified" as a witch? Historian Marilynne K. Roach identifies the nine most common reasons women were called witches. First of all, being a woman was #1 on the list. Very few men were ever persecuted for witchcraft. Stubborn, outspoken women with a troubled past and a low social standing were the most common targets. (One exception being a 14 year-old girl named Abigail Hobbs who admitted under "questioning" that she had made a covenant with the Devil, along with her stepmother, father, and several friends.)
Witchcraft was persecuted by the Puritans because it was considered to be trafficking with the devil. In other words, this was a religious crime, not a social or civic one. In fact, in most witchcraft cases there was no damage to person or property. In other words, no actual crime as we understand it today.
A cautionary tale, perhaps, about giving too much power to religious conservatives. But surely a thing of the past? Not so, as the contemporary persecution of Christine O'Donnell for having "dabbled" in witchcraft shows. O'Donnell, a Tea Party Republican and conservative religious activist, was a rising star on the political theater.
Right up until Bill Maher released a clip from her 1990s appearance on his show "Politically Incorrect" in which she admitted to having dabbled in witchcraft, "hung around people who were doing those things," and adding that "One of my first dates with a witch was on a Satanic altar." (I crave details. Did they sit on it and have a picnic?) O'Donnell was pilloried by her political party and lost her political race by an embarrassing 57% margin.
Today O'Donnell is struggling financially, has defaulted on her mortgage, and is struggling under a crippling IRS bill for back taxes. Not quite the same as being hanged, pressed to death, or burnt at the stake, it's true. But imagine if you admitted to having once engaged in a pastime which is not in any sense illegal, and it destroyed your career.
As a society, we are obviously still just as afraid of witches as we ever were. Or perhaps to be more accurate, I should say that we're still as afraid of women with power as we ever were.