Around Halloween, we call them “witches.” At other times of the year, we use a rhyming word. But our anxieties about powerful women haven’t changed much since the late 17th century when Salem, Mass., burned with a fatal witchcraft fever.
Katherine Howe, a descendant of accused Salem witches, has written several popular novels spiced with magic, including “The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane.” As a lecturer on American Studies at Cornell University, she also has a deep knowledge of the culture of witchcraft. Her new anthology, “The Penguin Book of Witches,” offers a fascinating selection of historical accounts – including the 1692 cross examination of the Salem slave Tituba and the 1697 apology of Samuel Sewall, the only Salem judge to publicly express his regret for participating in that deadly ordeal.
In the interest of public safety, The Washington Post presents Howe’s sure-fire 10-step test to determine if someone is a witch. Please report all suspects to the appropriate authorities immediately.
By Katherine Howe
1. Is the suspect a woman?
Women, as we know, are morally weaker than men, and so more susceptible to temptations into sin. Their natural hunger for ease of living and fine things means the Devil can lure them into signing their name to his book without too much trouble. Okay, so she’s illiterate, but she can still make her mark in the book with her blood. Just look what happened to Adam, when he didn’t provide his wife with sufficient moral guidance and fortitude.
2. Does she have a pet?
After she’s signed away her soul, the Devil will give her a small spirit familiar to attend to her. This creature can shape-shift and be sent out to do her bidding, and she might be able to assume its shape as well. She’ll try to convince you that only black cats are suspicious, but she’s lying. Don’t believe her when she says “Oh, this yellow bird? That’s just my canary.” Be on guard for small snakes, birds, cats, rats, dogs, and griffins.
3. Does she have a wart?
Her spirit familiar has to nurse on her body, and so she has a special diabolical teat concealed on her person somewhere for that purpose. Check closely. It could be between her fingers, or in a more intimate area. If necessary you might need a panel of expert women to help you search. (Sometimes men don’t quite know how to find things in that intimate area, and need guidance.)
4. Is she irritating?
She’s always asking for something, or coming by when she’s unwanted, or making a spectacle of herself. Some people just can’t take a hint, can they? I mean, they come by, begging for scraps of food because they’re destitute, with no respect for how tough other people have it.
5. Is she weird around your kids?
Maybe she doesn’t have any of her own. Or maybe hers all died. Who knows? But she’s definitely prone to paying too much attention to your kids. Maybe she wants to give them plums and entice them to come live with her. Maybe she insists on helping out with them when they get sick, and comes by even when you don’t want her to. See #4, above.
6. Is she middle-aged?
No longer young enough to be beautiful, but not old enough to be venerable, women at middle age are in their peak risk years for temptation into witchery. She’s somewhere between 40 and 60, and so she should be a pillar of the community, head of her own family, active at church, involved in supporting her husband’s work. If she’s alone, or didn’t get elected to full church membership, you should be suspicious.
6. Is she pissed?
Is she quick to anger? Has she ever attacked a constable for no reason? Has she been known to scream at people and call them whoremasterly rogues? Have you seen her hunch someone of quality with her elbow? Inappropriate anger is a definite warning sign. Women should really be able to keep it together no matter what.
7. Has she stopped going to church?
She might try to offer an excuse, such as being dressed only in rags. Maybe she’s too busy romancing her former indentured servant. In any case, she’s supposed to be at church with everyone else, for all eight hours. If she’s not, it could be because she’s too tired from attending witches’ sabbaths and drinking red wine in the rye field behind the minister’s house.
8. Has she’s threatened you — and then it totally came true?
Remember that one time she came over to borrow some butter, and you sent her away? She’s SO annoying, always asking for things, isn’t she? Anyway. So remember how when she went away, she was muttering under her breath, and she said you’d regret not giving her any butter? And remember how later that same evening, the butter wouldn’t come? Yeah. That happened. Just saying.
9. Have you seen her spirit in your house at night?
Okay, admittedly, some people think that the Devil can assume anyone’s shape, regardless of whether they’re really witches or not. So it’s possible, in theory, that the shape you saw come in at the window was the Devil pretending to be her. Possible. Not probable, though. I mean, would God really let the Devil assume the shape of an innocent? Would He really? Didn’t think so.
10. Has she confessed?
So maybe you did have to ask her repeatedly. Maybe you did ask her to prove she wasn’t a witch. And maybe you did have to help her remember her guilt with a quick beating. Big deal. She’s confessed! And there’s no better method to finding out other witches than the word of a confessed witch. Now she can tell you who her confederates are. Now you can find them all.
Count the number of times you answered “Yes”:
0-2: You’re probably safe – for now.
3-5: Lock up your children – and your cows.
6-8: Prepare the ducking stool.
9-10: Get a rope.