Response by Robert Mathiesen to “Investigating a Grandmother Story”

This guest post by Prof. Mathiesen began as a comment to my earlier review ofThe Rede of the Wiccae, which he wrote with Theitic of the NECTW tradition. With his permission, I have moved his comments here.

Thank you, Chas! That’s a handsome and generous post.

My view of the history is close to yours, and I really like the term “Gardnerian magnet.” What follows are relatively minor points only, just to flesh out the picture you have painted so ably. (And I am writing in haste, too, so please forgive any typos and other infelicities of expression.)

(1) In the 1800s a number of Spiritualists maintained that there was no essential difference between a (Spiritualist) medium and a witch (or, for that matter, a real magician). A small number of mediums actually hinted (rarely) that they regarded themselves as witches, or (even more rarely) risked calling themselves witches as a means of enhancing their power in the public eye. No doubt these witches, like most other Spiritualists at the time, did some of their work in circles. Theirs are not *quite* the same thing as witches’ circles today, but there are similarities, e.g., equal numbers of men and women as an ideal.

Spiritualism (like Freemasonry and New Thought) tended to run in families over generations, so this sort of witch might even truly be doing what her mother and grandmothers did, and they, too, might have called themselves witches. Since Spiritualism is a religion, these women would have been religious witches. The family history of Gundella (Marion Kuclo) might be an example here, to judge by some of the hints in her two published books of ghost stories.

(1a) This school of thought within Spiritualism was rooted in a somewhat earlier theory, held by several Mesmerists and scholars of Mesmerism (often called “animal magnetism” by its proponents), that the historic phenomena of magic and witchcraft could be explained as poorly understood forerunners of Mesmerism itself. The most notable exponent of this view was Baron Du Potet de Sennevoy, whose major work on the subject (La magie devoilée) appeared in English translation in 1927 (Magnetism and Magic). Du Potet was an artist of magic, so to speak, and his book offered much inspiration to any would-be witch who wanted to invent a witchcraft of her own.

(1b) Other Spiritualists adapted the Mesmerists’ viewpoint slightly to their own religious assumptions. Here I should mention particularly Allen Putnam, author of a pamphlet “Mesmerism, Spiritualism, Witchcraft and Miracle” (1858) and “Witchcraft of New England Explained by Modern Spiritualism” (1881). Some opponents of Spiritualism flipped this theory on its head, using it to condemn rather than examine what they regarded as genuine powers possessed by [some] human beings. An example of the latter would be Mary Baker Eddy; early editions of her main work, “Science and Health,” express her views somewhat more bluntly than the later editions.

(2) Once Emile Grillot de Givry’s pictorial album on Witchcraft and Magic had appeared in English translation (1931), any woman who wanted to invent a witchcraft of her own as a means of claiming agency and power had lots of useful material to draw on. She might, for instance, have borrowed or adapted some of the spells Givry included in his book, or used a witches’ knife and called it (as Givry did) her arthamé. (A British pronunciation of that odd word might have been misspelled as athamé or athalmé by any English speaker who knew no better.) Robert Heinlein’s second wife, Leslyn MacDonald, seems to have been a woman who did just that, if the character “Amanda” in Heinlein’s “Magic Inc.” depicts her at all. The same seems to have been true of Shirley Jackson, to judge by conversations I had with the daughter of one of Jackson’s closest friends.

(3) William Seabrook’s book “Witchcraft, Its Power in the World Today,” published in 1940 in the USA and 1941 in the UK, offered a whole range of other, much edgier magical practices to the would-be witch, and anyone who had read Jack London’s novel “The Star Rover” (1915) would already have been familiar with some of these practices and the putative power they offered. Gardner or his immediate teachers were almost certainly familiar with Seabrook’s book, and Jack London’s novel is explicitly cited in the manuscript “Ye Bok of ye Art Magical.” Seabrook’s book, issued by a major publishing house, circulated widely, and Jack London’s novel even more widely.

(4) On the West Coast, in particular, there are old traditions of Pantheism, Nature Religion and the “propless mind-over-matter” magic of New Thought that reach back to the days of Joaquin Miller and John Muir, and even beyond them into last decades of the 19th century. These have been moderately well studied by such scholars as J. Stillson Judah, William Everson and Catherine Albanese. [So far as I know, there are few really clear traces of outright Polytheism on the West Coast during those decades, but I may have overlooked something.]

(5) Although in the early days Margaret Murray’s books were not all that widely circulated in the USA, a small booklet that popularized her results (and even went beyond them a little!) was published in 1926 and had a simply enormous circulation. This was Joseph McCabe’s “New Light on Witchcraft,” which was one of the Julius-Haldeman “Little Blue Books.” Anyone who wanted to invent a witchcraft for herself would have found ample inspiration in this brief work.

None of these points, of course, challenges your claim, which is probably correct, that there is no reason to posit the existence of “a self-consciously polytheistic Pagan religion called Wicca or Witchcraft” before 1951 — much less any sort of unbroken centuries-old tradition of such a thing. I’m just putting a few more highlights and shadows on the picture you have painted. The pre-Gardnerian history of religious witchcraft in the USA is rather more complicated than either the proponents or the opponents of all those “grandmother stories” have imagined.

11 thoughts on “Response by Robert Mathiesen to “Investigating a Grandmother Story”

  1. Re. your point 1: I agree that less-dogmatic proponents of Spiritualism and parapsychology might see a connection with operative (but not religious) witchcraft. In fact, the best-known American Craft figure to take that path is probably Yvonne Frost, who came from Spiritualism into a T. C. Lethbridge-style witchcraft, and eventually, a kind of Pagan witchcraft (if I recall correctly).

    Re. #5: I want that Little Blue Book! I have one in my desk, on journalism, that I treasure, but I never knew there was one on witchcraft.

  2. If you want to flesh out grandmother stories, this is what you need to do.

    No one has ever done a scientific study of the grandmother story.
    –No one has ever made a record of all of the grandmother stories.
    –No one has ever interviewed the people who have grandmother stories, and compiled them.
    –No one has ever examined the family heirlooms that may have a bearing on individual grandmother stories, and compiled them.
    –No one has ever traced the ancestry of people with grandmother stories.
    –No one has ever done a “who, what, where, when, and why” cross-analysis of the different grandmother stories.

    Since no one has ever undertaken a scientific study of the phenomenon of the grandmother story, instead of mocking people who have them, or blindly dissecting one or two grandmother stories on a case-by-case basis, why don’t instead simply state, “No one has every undertaken a scientific study of the grandmother story, and therefore we do not understand it.” (???)

    Instead, you place a fictional burden of proof on the ordinary person who happens to have a grandmother story, when in fact you are not doing your jobs. You are not able to cope with the populations before you. You pretend to analyze grandmother stories by retelling them as if you are actually the one who has the grandmother story, and you conclude by explaining what the misguided narrator really meant to say, and who she/he really is, sometimes short of labeling them stupid, an attention grabber, a lunatic, or a liar—and certainly with no thank you for bringing forth private and sensitive information.

  3. Robert Mathiesen

    I basically agree with you, T.L., which is why I attempted to study one grandmother story (that is, Gwen Thompson’s) with all the rigor I could bring to bear on it as an outsider. [Have you read the book I wrote with Theitic?]

    Of course, “scientific” isn’t quite the right word for what one should do with inherited texts, documents and artifacts, but it’s close enough “for government work,” as the saying goes. “Rigorous scholarship” would be my preference over “science” to describe what I do as a professional academic (a medieval philologist).

    And there are thousands of grandmother stories out there, for we have all had grandmothers, and many of us can tells stories about them. To be sure, only a small fraction of these stories bear of magic and witchcraft, but a surprisingly great number bear witness to individual, often eccentric, family religious practices and views.

    I should also mention that I’m not just an academic, but a member of a family with esoteric traditions that go back as far as the 1880s, and eccentric religious views that can be documented as far back as the early 1600s. I have our original documents and artifacts from all those decades. To be sure, we weren’t witches at all, but old-line “magical pantheists” from the San Francisco Bay area, with earlier roots in Spiritualism, New Thought, overlaid with the sort of religious sensibility found in the writings of John Muir and his sympathizers. So we rubbed shoulders with the sort of women who were inventing their own witchcrafts in the USA during the 1800s and earlier 1900s. For the last two decades or more I have been researching all the oral traditions and documents that I inherited and have kept safe, with an eye to eventual publication of my results and then to the preservation of the original documents in some publicly accessible library devoted to history and genealogy (probably the New England Historic Genealogical Society). In that way others will be able independently to judge what I have done.

    In short, I share your frustration at the general lack of rigorous scholarship and the scatter-shot efforts to write off all the grandmother stories en masse.

  4. Very interesting! I’ve been writing a book about folklore on Massachusetts’s North Shore and noticed how much Spiritualist activity happened there in the 19th and early 20th century.

    The last witch trial in Salem happened in 1878, when a woman accused a Christian Science practitioner of taking away her ability to walk. The judge dismissed the case, but it shows how the idea of witchcraft was used to interpret Christian Science/New Thought practices.

  5. That is very very interesting, about the magical pantheists, etc., and maybe that would apply to my family too. I am not sure. I would like to read your book and your next book too. Perhaps something would click. (However, I have two lovely grandsons and a cottage in Maine, so I have decided I am not going to spend the rest of my years doing this. But, I certainly could read a couple of books!)

    Anyway, the problem I have with analyzing grandmother stories is this (for example):

    Both you and Chas agree that this woman was influenced by Spiritualism; however, she never says that she was influenced by Spiritualism. She does not reveal and letters she has written about Spiritualism, or books she owns about Spiritualism, or any friends that are Spiritualists.

    Therefore, you both insinuate that she is hiding her Spiritualism; which insinuates that she is a liar.

    If not that, you both insinuate that she is too stupid or naive to realize that she has been influenced by Spiritualism, and that is why she does not mention it.

    If there are not the resources or manpower to make a record of grandmother stories, conduct interviews, and compare them–do this.

    Find an experienced statistician; develop a sophisticated instrument; use creative networking to distribute it to the relevant populations (including Christians); crunch the numbers; see if you get any hits.

  6. Just as a quick addendum to my note above; if anyone were going to conduct a scientific study, you better do it in a hurry. In a one or two decades all of us are going to be dead.

  7. Robert Mathiesen

    The choices you place before us, T.L., are far too stark to be true to the messy reality of human existence, IMHO. It is not a question of lying versus stupidity or naivete as if they were the only two options.

    Assuming that you are referring to Gwen Thompson, she seems not to have wanted any of her initiates to know enough about her background to let them research it on their own and confirm or deny her stories. People who knew her, or who have access to the oath-bound materials she left to her initiates, have been able to pull aside the veil a little by carefully studying the sources on which these materials relied. Her father seems to have studied with Paul Foster Case in the years right after Case left Moina Mathers’ section of the original Golden Dawn, but before Case really set up as an independent teacher on a large scale. [This we learned after writing the book mentioned here.] Her father’s mother had a store of folklore from her native seaport (Yarmouth, Nova Scotia) and an abiding interest in Irish (and other Celtic) mythology,, and was placed where she could pursue those interests with all the library resources of Greater Boston. And so forth. Also, Gwen was surprisingly well informed about her own genealogy, which reaches back to a documented 17th-century alchemist from old Plymouth Colony and ancestors in Salem at the time of the Witch Hunt of 1692. Everything that she told her initiates can be verified from the best available genealogical sources.

    More generally, most families, even ones with esoteric interests, really don’t save papers and books, etc., from three generations ago. By and large, one can’t expect to find conclusive proof.

    As for scientific study of the problem, with an expert knowledge of statistics — frankly, I think that is a fool’s task. Broad-brush history, by its very nature, isn’t amenable to any application of the methodologies of science, and I have never found any historian who has successfully made a case to the contrary. Family history is even less amenable to that sort of misguided study.

    The sort of problems we face with all historical questions require other methods, which have been cultivated for centuries in some of the humanities. These methods may confirm this or that fact, but they do not yield the sort of levels of statistical significance that one can obtain in the sciences. From these facts one then fleshes out a reasonable history based on one’s feeling for human life. That is all we can do, and it is good enough for me. Some possible interpretations of the facts can be conclusively ruled out, but never all of them. So controversy and doubt remain always. We just have to live with that messiness.

  8. Well, I have one more idea.

    First of all, I will definitely read your books.

    Second, do not worry, I am not going to track you down or contact you.

    You have extensively researched your grandmother story and the heirlooms that you have. What if some of the heirlooms you have are the same ones that I have? What if your people were involved in the same things my people were, came from the same region, or were related, or there were other significant similarities?

    Maybe you could use the web to create a “grandmother story meeting place.” People could list 10-15 terms that are most relevant to their grandmother stories. There would have to be some way to synthesize the entries–perhaps it could happen automatically. There also would have to be some way for the different people to contact each other, while remaining anonymous (or they can give their names if they want to), or discuss on the web. It would not necessarily be scientific, but if patterns emerged, it could be useful, and people might make connections that would help them understand their own grandmother story.

  9. Robert Mathiesen

    I’m not worried, T.L.

    Your idea about a website is a good one. Since I’m in my 70s, I’m not the person best suited to run it. That’s a young person’s job.

    What I have, or (in one case) used to have, that is old:

    * ancestral photographs, well identified by my great-grandmother, from her grandparents on down

    * a human skull, which was prepared as an anatomical specimen in the second half of the 1800s. It was given to my great-grandmother in the 1920s or very early 1930s. She kept it in the box with the ancestral photographs, and brought them all out at Hallowe’en for some sort of ritual that I never got to see, and that bored her grandchildren enough that they didn’t remember the details when I asked.

    * two gazing crystals, faceted like solitaire-cut diamonds, but made of colored “paste.” They crumbled away into dust sometime in the 1960s. You can buy very similar glass objects on the web, or in some Chinatown stores. I have bought replacements very like the originals.

    * a scrapbook and a recipe book, kept by great-great-grandmother in old business ledgers once used by her father. Mostly they hold newspaper clippings, which indicate a strong interest in family history, but also in New Thought, Spiritualism, mystic prophecy, and electro-biological healing of a spiritual sort.

    * a considerable amount of great-great-grandmother’s postcards received from various friends, some with documentable occult interests.

    * a scrapbook from great-grandmother, not as informative or full as great-great grandmother’s scrapbook.

    * a certain number of non-occult family relics, such as an original $8 bill of continental currency, great-great-grandfather’s officer’s sword from the Civil War, and so forth. A few others, such as a blood-stained battle flag from the Mexican War, were passed on to the California Historical Society by my mother sometime around 1960.

    * a strong interest in family history, with a pedigree reaching back to Robert Cushman (who helped put together the financial package that got the Mayflower to Plymouth in 1620, but was smart enough not to come over until the next year.

    To these I have added a collection of the relevant published genealogies for my Cushman-Allerton ancestral line (and other of my lines, too, but there aren’t occult interests to be found in them). I have also assembled either originals or reprints or xerocopies of all the known works published by occultists or esotericists mentioned in these scrapbooks, or by actual ancestors of mine.

    I also have lots and lots of family stories, which I began to collect from my relatives when I was a ‘teen back in the 1950s from people who actually had known the ancestors in question. (And of course the published genealogies provided more stories from earlier times.)

    The ancestral line with the occult interests began with the Separatists who came from England through Leiden to old Plymouth Colony (the SE part of present Massachusetts). Separatists were stigmatized in England as “Brownists,” and there is some interesting literature on that heresy. There may also — a mkere conjecture — be some connection with the much more secret heretical group known as the “Family of Love.” The Cushmans came to England from the Low Countries in the 1500s, which were full of Familists (as they were called) at the time.

    About the time that Plymouth Colony was absorbed by Massachusetts, and the old Separatist Church was taken over by the Massachusetts Congregationalists, my line went down to the territory of Old Saybrook Colony (the small SE corner of present Connecticut) for a while, and then up the Connecticut River to Rutland, Vermont, which at the time was a hotbed of weird religion and occult practices that can be well documented (if not specifically for my ancestors, at least for their close neighbors). Next they went along the Erie Canal to Western New York, and then to South Central Michigan, and then up to Joliet, Illinois. Like most immigrants from Congregationalist New England, they became nominal Presbyterians, but remained weird.

    Great-great-grandmother was born in Michigan, great-grandmother in Illinois. In the 1880s these two women, mother and daughter, moved to the San Francisco Bay area, and jumped feet first into all the very well-documented religious and occult weirdness that flourished there even at that time. — No Witches, but lots of dissenters and eccentrics of various sorts.

    So that’s pretty much what I have to work with. Other projects have kept me busy in my retirement so far, but pulling all this information together is one of the next in line.

    Does any of this intersect with your ancestral artifacts and stories? I have no objection to comapring notes.

  10. No, except my people were from Michigan. That is the only matching thing. Your recall is very entertaining as well as interesting–except now I question whether I will need to buy your book!!

    This woman, Gwen Thompson, you said she kept Celtic folklore in the form of couplets, little thoughts of wisdom. Some of them were about sailors. Did she happen to have The Spoils of Annwyn?

    I agree–a younger person can make the web site. Perhaps a graduate student under the auspices of a professor. That way maybe people will be more likely to participate, and the owner of the web site will be more able to reach the right people. But I think that “grandmother story” has kind of a negative connotation, and I don’t think “grandmother story meeting place” will attract anyone. Maybe they could call it “Survival Paganism Search Word Project,” or something better.

    It is still not really clear to me why someone (like Gwen Thompson) wouldn’t just identify with Gardnerian Wicca. Regardless, whatever her hybrid is, she was very much invested in it.

  11. Hello Robert:

    I have a small web site that you could go to, to help compare notes. I thought the blog listed my web site, but I can see now that it does not. Your recall of your family history made me realize that maybe I have not really ever told my grandmother story, even though I thought that I did. I made a new page at the end of my web site called, “Everything But the Kitchen Sink.” I have placed an outline on it, but even though I have it all written in my head, I am not sure that I will ever actually write it. It is kind of exhausting and I do not really care that much more about it. But, if I ever were to finish it, even if I did not have a grandmother story, I would at least have “a story” when I was done.

    Your story is different than mine. Your people were eccentric and wild and open, and so you are lucky. The people I have researched were not edgy at all. I align them more closely to Starhawk’s tradition in the 1970’s (so I kind of start out with several strikes against me). Still, there was weirdness. Just a different kind of weirdness.

    This is the web site:


Comments are closed.