“Witch, witch, you’re a bitch!” This is the accusatory chant leveled at the sister protagonists of “Practical Magic,” one of my favorite movies to watch at Halloween. In a flashback, we see their ancestor — a real, live witch — use her magic to escape the gallows in 17th century Salem.
My ancestor was not so lucky.
Her name was Rebecca Nurse, and she was hanged in 1692 after being wrongfully accused of witchcraft in the Salem witch trials. Like the city, I’ve capitalized on the mystique that the trials evoke, playing up my link to their dark history. Three hundred years seems like a long time, until you realize that the last Salem victim was exonerated just this year, or that some European countries — post #MeToo — are only now reckoning with their even older histories of witchcraft-fueled femicide.
In reading more about what Nurse and women like her faced, I think of the many reasons I could have been accused. I am considered “other” (queer, married to a woman, no children at 35). I own a cat. I’m sure I’ve had an argument with someone who, in a completely unrelated way, got sick or experienced misfortune afterward. Natural disasters, poverty, and a global pandemic have increased fear and anxiety in the community around me.
My ancestor, historians agree, was one of the most surprising victims of the 1692 Salem witch trials. She was a respected wife, mother, community elder and covenant church member — the highest station a Puritan woman could hold. But as Gary Foxcroft, executive director of the Witchcraft and Human Rights Information Network (yes, people are still being accused of witchcraft) has pointed out, when “people look for someone to blame … it is almost exclusively the most vulnerable members of the community who are accused.”
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