Texas Witchcraft Murder Archive Finds a Home

I have diversity right here in the trunk of my rental car, officer.

The first problem on any university campus finding a parking spot. I pulled in behind the Panhandle Plains Historical Museum, which is part of West Texas A &M University, and all the faculty spaces were full.

There was an empty place for the president’s office. Hmmm.

Ah, there! “Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer.” I reckon that by being on their campus, I am bringing types of diversity that this edu-crat never thought of.1)Put me in charge, and I would fire his/her ass and give all that bloated salary money as pay raises to adjunct professors in the English Department. I call the museum’s research center director, a soft-spoken archivist named Warren Stricker, and tell him that M. and I have arrived. He promises to be right down.

A campus cop drives up, but he is talking to someone else. I am unloading cartons out of the trunk, like I have a perfect right to do so. A timid squirrel sneaks up on a spilled cup of Sonic french fries. The campus cop looks at M. and me, but stays in his vehicle.

Three months ago, I completed an article for the Journal of Religion and Violence on what happened when one of the higher-up figures in the Church of Wicca was tried for murder back in 1980.

The defendant, Loy Stone, and his wife, Louise, were both alumni of West Texas State University in Canyon, Texas — now known as West Texas A & M. 2)The university still plays up the fact that that a young Georgia O’Keefe taught there from 1916–1918. I had approached Texas State University about taking my archive of documents about the case, but Texas is so big that the university archivists (except maybe at UT in Austin) think regionally. TSU’s response was, “We’re all about south Texas. You should talk to the Panhandle Museum.”

And so I did. Warren Stricker was immediately interested.

Dimmitt, Hereford, Plainview — these locales are all right in their front yard, so to speak.

I came away with a Temporary Custody Agreement, but Stricker assured me that his committee had already talked over the donation and wanted it all — the psychic impressions, the private investigator’s reports, the correspondence, the legal depositions, the evidence tags, all of it. Hurray! I am not in the archive business, but I could not bear to just toss all of that in the trash, not after the Stones’ two daughters had saved it all for forty-plus years.

And I like the idea of seeding America’s university libraries with witchcraft materials.

Notes   [ + ]

1. Put me in charge, and I would fire his/her ass and give all that bloated salary money as pay raises to adjunct professors in the English Department.
2. The university still plays up the fact that that a young Georgia O’Keefe taught there from 1916–1918.

Paganism(s) Grow in Costa Rica

Carrying on Ronald Hutton’s observation from some years back that Wicca (whatever exactly Wicca is) has become a world religion, here is an article on Costa Rican Wiccans, Druids, Asatruar, and other Pagans. So they are are “world religions” now.

Costa Rica’s indigenous communities have long practiced animism, but it was only in 2010 that the first formally organized pagan group, Kindred Irminsul, was formed. At least six more such pagan groups formed in the following three years. Since 2012, the multiple pagan groups have banded together to form broader partnerships. There’s the Asociación Ásatrú Yggdrasil de Costa Rica, a group self-described as “dedicated to ancient Nordic and Scandinavian religious practices.” Its membership has grown by 60 percent since 2013, says 31-year-old Esteban Sevilla, the group’s president. There’s also the Pagan Alliance of Costa Rica, which consists of Asatruar, Roman Reconstructionists, Wiccans and Druids. .  . .

 

Petitioning the government for a formal religious status is not cheap. There’s the cost of hiring lawyers to read over the paperwork, and the fees of submitting applications. Sevilla notes it could cost his group $1,000. “We’re working on it,” he says, “but it’s expensive.” The review process is long and bureaucratic. Sevilla and his colleagues need to prepare a statement detailing their activity, get a minimum of 50 member signatures — but the more signatories, the greater the likelihood of approval — and then draft and present the religious organization’s statutes. The government can then take its time vetting the request.

Read the whole thing.

“Solitary Pagans,” a New Academic Study

Back in the mid-1990s, Nancy Mostad, then the acquisitions editor at Llewellyn, told me that they estimated that 70 percent of purchasers of books on Paganism were solitaries.Hence the immense success — by their standards — of Scott Cunningham’s Wicca: A Guide for the Solitary Practitioner.

Meanwhile, sociologist of religion Helen Berger has been studying American Pagans for decades herself. Her earlier works are A Community of Witches: Contemporary Neo-Paganism and Witchcraft in the United States and (as co-author) Voices from the Pagan Census: A National Survey of Witches and Neo-Pagans in the United States and Teenage Witches: Magical Youth and the Search for the Self.

Her new book, Solitary Pagans: Contemporary Witches, Wiccans, and Others Who Practice Alone is available for pre-order. It will be released at Lammas. Since I probably will not read it until next fall, here is what the publisher (U. of South Carolina Press) is saying:

Solitary Pagans is the first book to explore the growing phenomenon of contemporary Pagans who practice alone. Although the majority of Pagans in the United States have abandoned the tradition of practicing in groups, little is known about these individuals or their way of practice. Helen A. Berger fills that gap by building on a massive survey of contemporary practitioners. By examining the data, Berger describes solitary practitioners demographically and explores their spiritual practices, level of social engagement, and political activities. Contrasting the solitary Pagans with those who practice in groups and more generally with other non-Pagan Americans, she also compares contemporary U.S. Pagans with those in the United Kingdom, Australia, and Canada.

Berger brings to light the new face of contemporary paganism by analyzing those who learn about the religion from books or the Internet and conduct rituals alone in their gardens, the woods, or their homes. Some observers believe this social isolation and political withdrawal has resulted in an increase in narcissism and a decline in morality, while others argue to the contrary that it has produced a new form of social integration and political activity. Berger posits the implications of her findings to reveal a better understanding of other metaphysical religions and those who shun traditional religious organizations.

“A Texas Witch on Trial” Now Published

Former home of Loy and Louise Stone near Hereford, Texas

A lonely farmstead in the cotton fields of the Texas Panhandle became the site of Halloween harassment and possible murder.

In August 2016, I mused about having a Contemporary Pagan Studies on “Paganism and Violence” at the American Academy of Religion annual meeting, inspired by a recent gift of multiple cartons of archival material related to the murder trial of a prominent Wiccan figure in 1980.

The universe was listening, but gave my thought a different spin. As I wrote last fall in a post called “Feeding My Little Archives to Bigger Ones,” instead of a conference panel session, I was asked by Massimo Introvigne, a leading scholar of new religious movements (NRMs) to contribute to a special issue of the Journal of Religion and Violence with the theme of NRMs and violence.

Finally, there was the venue for an article that I had messed around with since the mid-2000s.

“A Texas Witch on Trail has now been published in the Journal of Religion and Violence and is available to subscribers — or to people who know how to make an interlibrary loan request.

I have also uploaded the paper to Academia.edu for those who use that site — the journal permits uploading a ms. in Word format, but not the final PDF.

Yes, there is one obvious question that I will not answer in print. And now to deal with those archives.

Season of the Witch(crap), Part 3

As a rule, media witches are always young and female (Mercator).

Season of the Witch(crap), Part 1

Season of the Witch(crap), Part 2

“Witchcrap”: superficial journalistic treatments of Wicca, Witchcraft, and related Pagan paths.

• In The Atlantic,Young black women are leaving Christianity and embracing African witchcraft in digital covens.” Except the article discusses a convention and gets to the digital stuff later. I think the “penchant for digital religion” extends across racial boundaries

• Meanwhile, “Though it is the subtext of savagery that animates narratives around witches, white women who take up the mantle of witch magic rarely understand themselves to be engaging in Indian or savage play,” proclaims the online magazine New Inquiry.

• The Australian Catholic magazine Mercator keeping an eye on Wicca too, but the article is by Massimo Introvigne, who is a well-known scholar of new religious movements and also a Roman Catholic. “The Rise and Rise of Wicca.”

Spike groans, “Spare Me This Pagan Revival.” “Pagans are generally perverts, and not even sexy ones.”

• And from India, Swarajya magazine offers “The Religion They Want to Build,” which notes the Indo-Europeaness of much revived Western Paganism:

As is expected from the linguistic kinship among Indo-European languages, European Pagan cultures show striking similarities with various Indic indigenous traditions. For instance, among Lithuanian Neo Pagans, the notion of Damumas as a foundation of the world order is a central idea. According to Lithuanian ethnologist and Romuva ideologue Jonas Trinkunas, the word Damumas is linked etymologically to the Sanskrit dharma and the Pali Dhamma. J P Mallory, a prominent Indo-European scholar cites another linguistic parallel in a Lithuanian proverb — ‘Dievas dave dantis; Dievas duous duonoss’. The proverb translates as ‘God gave us teeth, God will give bread’. The Sanskrit equivalent of the proverb is Devas adadat datas, Devas dat dhanas.

Not so crappy. And another indication that some Hindus are realizing that they have more in common with us than with the Middle Eastern monotheisms.

Season of the Witch(crap), Part 2

Candace Aguilera trained in Guatemala’s jungle (Colorado Springs Independent).

“Season of the Witch(crap), Part 1” here.

Continuing . . .

• One more “high” priestess joke, and you’re out of here. From the Colorado Springs Independent, the weekly that gets all the cannabis advertising because the chain-owned daily paper won’t touch it: “Meet Colorado’s High Priestess of Cannabis.” Yes, it’s that favorite form of American creativity: Let’s start a church!

• The Catholic News Agency views the number of self-proclaimed witches with alarm: “Number of Americans who say they are witches is on the rise.” With video.

• If you dare . . . “Go inside a Wiccan ceremony.” Also with video. Fairly mild sauce, actually.

• It’s the Guardian again: “The season of the witch: how Sabrina and co [sic] are casting their spell over TV.”  “Diverse, digitally savvy and definitely feminist” — yes, that’s all it takes to be a media witch.

• And on public [sic] radio, “When you hear the word ‘witch,’ what does your mind conjure?” Damn, that’s clever writing. This time it’s the 1A show: “Hex in Effect: Why Witches are Back.” (Were we gone? Did I miss that memo?) A teaser for the radio show, which you can listen to if you have unlimited earbuds time.

• On Halloween, Vox.com covered the Sephora witch-kit kerfuffle, which is already old news. “The occult is having a moment. Companies want in, but not if witches can help it.” So much is wrong with this. Is there something measurable called “the occult”?  Sigh. I wanted to list everything Vox gets wrong, I would need a bigger blog. At least The Onion tells you that it is non-serious. Anyway, this one is over.

Maja, photographed by Frances Denny of Brooklyn. Denny is descended from a Salem witch-trial judge of 1692. That qualified her to “explore what it means to be a witch today.”(Daily Mail).

• Ah, those millennials. Now they are “ditching religion for witchcraft and astrology.” I could be snarky and say, “Hey, the Seventies called and they want their headlines back.” Or I could say that this is something that is always going on. Decades. Centuries.

The Daily Mail just goes for the photo shoot. If you don’t look like these “actresses, authors, and a technician,”  are you a real witch?

At least the photographer was inspired by a a worthwhile book, Stacy Schiff’s The Witches: Suspicion, Betrayal, and Hysteria in 1692. (What does it say that the Daily Mail cannot even get a book title right?)

Link fixed — sorry.

Don’t go away. There will be more. And guess what is missing from almost all of these articles.

Too Late for Protestors, Term “Mabon” is Taking Hold in Pop Culture

Saturday was the fall equinox (as I usually call it), and various various voices reminded us again that the term “Mabon” was not Authentically Celtic. (Although disagreeing, John Beckett sums up the objections here.)

Others disagreed: Jason Mankey suggested that perhaps a god wanted it that way.

Mankey linked to an older blog post by Aidan Kelly, one of the pioneers of 1960s California Paganism and also a man whom I consider a co-founder of the field of Pagan studies, based his textual criticism of the Gardnerian Book of Shadows back in the 1980s.

Back in 1974, I was putting together a “Pagan-Craft” calendar—the first of its kind, as far as I know—listing the holidays, astrological aspects, and other stuff of interest to Pagans. We have Gaelic names for the four Celtic holidays. It offended my aesthetic sensibilities that there seemed to be no Pagan names for the summer solstice or the fall equinox equivalent to Yule or Beltane—so I decided to supply them.

By now, “Mabon” is showing up more and more in popular culture, such as Modern Drunkard magazine. (What is more popular than booze?) Their “Today’s Reason to Drink” for September 22nd read,

If you live in the Northern Hemisphere, it’s the first day of Autumn. Summer just blew by, didn’t it? If that makes you a little melancholy, well, it’s also the International Day of Radiant Peace. Yeah. Also? It’s Batman Day. And Car Free Day. And Chainmail Day. Yes, Chainmail Day is finally upon us. Also? It’s Dear Diary Day. And Fish Amnesty Day. And Hobbit Day. And Ice Cream Cone Day. And International Rabbit Day. If you don’t have a rabbit, some grocery stores keep them in the freezer section. They’re called fryers, and I think we know why. If none of those strike your fancy, it’s also Love Note Day and Elephant Appreciation Day. You can combine those, if you don’t mind getting odd looks down at the zoo. And it’s National Museum Day. And if you’re a Wiccan, it’s Mabon, which sounds a bit sinister, but it’s just their version of the Autumnal equinox. The list goes on. It’s National Centenarian’s Day. National Hunting and Fishing Day. National Public Lands Day. National Rock n’ Roll Dog Day. I don’t even want to know what that’s about. And National Singles Day. National White Chocolate Day. READ in America Day. And finally, Remote Employee Appreciation Day. There are others, but they’re even more frivolous than National Rock n’ Roll Dog Day, if you can believe it. It’s like everyone with an agenda or wacky idea picked the first day of Autumn, so as to steal from its majestic power, and they just piled on. So pick one and raise a drink. Or, since it’s Saturday, pick a lot of them and raise a lot of drinks. Why not? It’s freaking Wiccan Hobbits in Chainmail Riding a Centenarian Elephant Day! Let’s go nuts!

One-hundred-year-old Wiccan hobbits in chainmail . . . how are you going to come back at that?

Feeding My Little Archive to Bigger Ones

Brilliant idea of the day: clean my desk. No, I don’t mean just shove things to the edges and sweep up the crumbs, I mean uncover some mahogany!

I spent the last two weeks of August crashing to meet a deadline for a special issue of the Journal of Religion and Violence devoted to violence and new religious movements. Wicca is, of course, a new religious movement, but it is an outlier in many ways, as I discuss (no charismatic leader, no millennarian prophecy, etc.)

Two years ago, in a post titled “Kicked Back in Time,” I wrote about receiving cartons of material relating to the murder trial of a Texas Wiccan leader: witnesses’ depositions, correspondence, legal paperwork, psychic impressions of what really happened and where, dozens of yellowed newspaper clippings, not to mention a tape cassette of one witness’s statements after he had been hypnotized by the sheriff of Deaf Smith County.1)The incident occurred in a neighboring county. The sheriff had a reputation as a hypnotist, apparently, and the 17-year-old witness’s parents requested the session.

Then Massimo Introvigne2)Founder of CESNUR [Centro Studi sulle Nuove Religioni] announced that he was guest-editing this issue of the journal, and I submitted a proposal, which was accepted — and then I procrastinated until, oh no, it’s due at the end of the month. And I wrote it. Chores went un-done, the dog got minimal walks, but I generated my 8,000 words. And damn, that felt good.

The journal is published three times a year, online only, and apparently costs $45/year with access to the archives. I do not know when this special issue will appear.

So let’s not lose the momentum. Let’s get back to Project X.

Problem: There is a low, two-drawer file cabinet next to my desk whose top is stacked with books I need. And there was a substantial pile of files, printouts, partial rough drafts of book sections, and who-knows-what on the desk itself. Plus more in a desk drawer.

In the filing cabinet were . . . files, organized by subject (“New Wiccan Church,” “polytheism,” “sacred prostitution,” “Victor Anderson”) that had built up over the last thirty years. Some was material used when writing Her Hidden Children: The Rise of Wicca and Paganism in America or various articles; some I never got around to using — and I probably never will.

Solution: it goes into one or more cartons and goes to the New Age Movements, Occultism, and Spiritualism Research Library at Valdosta State University in Georgia. (The source materials for the murder-trial article belong in Texas, however.)

Many of the Pagan magazines I used for book research already went to the American Religions Collection at the University of California, Santa Barbara. It even has its own name! (Scroll down at the link.) Got to spread the wealth.

Now if I can get all the material from the desk top and drawer sorted into a fresh set of file folders, I might actually be ready to make use of it. (Never fear, there is plenty of digital material too!)

For today, the writing life is the filing life.

Notes   [ + ]

1. The incident occurred in a neighboring county. The sheriff had a reputation as a hypnotist, apparently, and the 17-year-old witness’s parents requested the session.
2. Founder of CESNUR [Centro Studi sulle Nuove Religioni]

Central American Pagans, Wicca and #MeToo, and Good Writing

• Costa Rica now has a Pagan presence: Asatru, Witches, and Druids:

Think paganism [sic], and you probably don’t think of a conservative, Catholic-majority country in Central America. But Costa Rica, with its beautiful beaches and tropical charm, is emerging as an unlikely base for a growing pagan movement battling stereotypes and discrimination to assert its distinct identity. Denied the status of adhering to an official religion, pagans here have long been pushed to the fringes of society. Now, they’re pushing back, and publicly.

• I was interviewed for this article last January or February. The writer said she was a student at Columbia University, and all that she was interested in was Wicca-as-empowering-young women. (Too bad for the headline that #MeToo has had its fifteen minutes of fame.) Oh well, it’s good to see The Pomegranate name-checked in the New York Times.

• I find The Wild Hunt less and less interesting these days as a venue for Pagan culture — except when Eric Scott’s writing appears in it. Then it’s good. CORRECTION: The piece was by Luke Babb. My error. It’s still good! (I blame the influences of the Undisclosed Location.)

Turning Dead Puritans into the Mighty Dead: Redefining Salem

Inscription: John Proctor. Hanged. August 10, 1692. At the 1692-1992 memorial site in Salem — which is not the execution site and not the victims’ burial place.

The last time that I walked through the Salem witch trials memorial adjacent to the Charter Street cemetery, I saw that someone had left a rolled-up paper at John Proctor’s memorial bench.1)No one ever seems to sit on the benches, perhaps because they usually hold offerings of one sort or another. Was it a petition? An announcement of an upcoming workshop on Tarot reading? Maybe Proctor, a prosperous farmer before he and his wife were accused, would have been interested in a farm-auction flier.

Obviously, I did not pull out the paper and read it. Doing that might have been good journalism but poor manners.  Even though the memorial is not a cemetery, I feel that cemetery etiquette applies. But if it was a missive addressed to Proctor, that could mean that someone now considers him to be among the Mighty Dead.

There lies the paradox. I cannot explain it rationally, and neither could Stacy Schiff in her fine new book The Witches, where she writes,

In a turn of events that would have mystified [accused witch] Ann Foster, it is easy to buy a broomstick in Salem, home to a large Wiccan community. Hotels are booking now for next Halloween.

We have been talking for decades — since Margaret Murray’s time — about reclaiming the word witch from its satanic and evil-doing associations.2)I am fully aware that some people, however, want to keep them. We could do that without dragging in John and Elizabeth  Proctor, Sarah Cloyce, Ann Foster, and the other 150 or so people who were charged in 1692, of whom 19 were executed.

But we have dragged them in. We are (apparently) treating them as honored ancestors, the Mighty Dead, sometimes defined as “those practitioners of our religion who are on the Other Side now, but who still take great interest in the activities of Witches on this side of the Veil.”

Wiccan writer Christopher Penczack equates the Mighty Dead with the Secret Chiefs or Hidden Company that various occult groups invoke. Yet at least in their 17th-century lives, those Puritan colonists would have been horrified to think of themselves as “practitioners of our religion,” wouldn’t they?

Still someone is tending the memorial stones, there are Samhain processions to the execution site, people leave offerings at the execution site, and so on.

We like to say, “What is remembered, lives,” but are we really remembering the Rev. Samuel Parris, Tituba, Judge Hathorne, Rebeca Nurse, and all of them as they were?

Or are we just performing civil religion with robes and incense, “[expressing] the implicit religious values of a nation, as expressed through public rituals, symbols (such as the national flag), and ceremonies on sacred days and at sacred places (such as monuments, battlefields, or national cemeteries)”?3)“Civil Religion,” Wikipedia. Is leaving flowers and pretty stones and coins and costume jewelry at the Salem witch-trial memorial merely expressing our admiration for the First Amendment?

Somehow I think that it is more than that. Parallel and occultly linked to the transformation of maritime Salem and manufacturing Salem into “Witch City” has been the transformation of the accused Christians of 1692 into “witches”  whose deaths — eventually — produced  a Witch-friendly little city today. It’s not conventionally rational, but it is what it is. And we are thanking them for that transformation.

POSTSCRIPT: I do not plan any more posts about Salem right now. Although no documents or artifacts from the witch trials are on public exhibit in Salem itself, thanks to the policies of the Peabody Essex Museum, which has many of them, there is a digital archive online at the University of Virginia.

Notes   [ + ]

1. No one ever seems to sit on the benches, perhaps because they usually hold offerings of one sort or another.
2. I am fully aware that some people, however, want to keep them.
3. “Civil Religion,” Wikipedia.