In conversation: historian John Putnam Demos on the ‘ubiquitous’ nature of witchcraft

Halloween — or All Hallows Eve — brings to mind images of ghosts, goblins, and, of course, witches.

The history of witches and witchcraft dates as far back as ancient Greece and Rome to the late middle ages and early modern times in Europe, according to John Putnam Demos, the Samuel Knight Professor Emeritus of History.

Demos has authored two award-winning books on witches, witchcraft, and witch-hunts, “The Enemy Within: 2,000 Years of Witch-Hunting in the Western World” and “Entertaining Satan: Witchcraft and the Culture of Early New England.”

YaleNews recently spoke to the historian about the origins of witchcraft, how prevalent witch-hunts were here in Connecticut, what characteristics made someone prone to charges of witchcraft, and whether he is a believer — or not — in witchcraft.

An edited version of that conversation follows.

What led you to research this topic?

As a young historian, I wanted to apply interdisciplinary methods such as anthropology and psychology to historical problems. Witchcraft appealed to me as a good topic for that type of approach. I did not choose this topic because I was especially interested in witchcraft, but rather because I thought the topic of witchcraft offered me the opportunity to do the type of research that I wanted to pursue.

In the 1960s, while researching witches and witchcraft, I was surprised to learn that I am a direct descendent of one of the leading witch-hunters in the famous Salem witch trials. His name is John Putnam; my name is John Putnam Demos. I found that I have ancestry that goes all the way back to Salem.

I remember the moment when I realized that I was a descendent of a witch hunter. I was reading about these people named Putnam who were right in the middle of the witch-hunt. I got up from desk where I was seated, and I went to the other part of the library where there were genealogy books. I found the Putnam family genealogy, and lo and behold I can trace a direct line from these people in the witch-hunt to myself. I remember it made the hair stand up on the back of my neck!

How would you define witchcraft — versus Wicca, for example?

People at the time defined witchcraft as the use of supernatural means to cause harm. And they put the Devil behind it; witches were seen as his followers. Wicca (today) is almost the opposite: a supernatural force for good in the lives of its believers.

Where does the history of witch-hunts begin?

The belief in witchcraft and witch-hunting has been present in cultures all around the world, and there are many where it is still present today. It is not specific to one time and one place like early New England. On the contrary, it’s quite ubiquitous. There was witch-hunting in classical times in ancient Greece and Rome. In the late middle ages and early modern times in Europe there was a very large ramping-up of witch hunting. That time period was what most historians refer to now as the European witch craze of early modern times. More witch-hunting took place during that time than ever before and on a much wider scale. It would be hard to find any moment in the history of the whole world where there was not some kind of impulse toward witch-hunting.

How did witchcraft in New England differ from witchcraft in England?

Almost all of the New Englanders were themselves English people so they brought with them all of their beliefs including their beliefs in witchcraft. If you compare trial records from this side of the ocean to trial records from the same time in England you would find very little difference. It was a pretty direct cultural transfer.

How did witchcraft shape the cultural history of early colonial New England?

It did not shape the culture; it was a central part of the culture, all mixed up with religion, and community life. If you stopped people on street in New Haven in 1660, everyone would have things to say — and stories to tell — about witchcraft. It was a part of everyday life, no more and no less.

How prevalent were witchcraft and witch trials here in Connecticut during that time?

Connecticut was the leader of witch trials and witch-hunting in early colonial New England until the famous Salem witch trials in Massachusetts near the end of the 17th century. If you looked at the history of New England in the 1650s and 1660s, you would see that witch trials were more prevalent in Connecticut than anywhere else. There were several trials in New Haven in the 1650s and 1660s, and a large series of trials around Hartford in the early 1660s, where several “witches” were executed, and others were indicted and jailed. Also, in the early 1690s — the dates coinciding with the Salem trials — there was a smaller “hunt” in Fairfield County, but no one executed that time. Connecticut was out front in this regard until Salem came along, which was by far the largest of any witch-hunt in early America.

What characteristics made an individual prone to charges of witchcraft?

We can start with gender and age. About 80% of accused witches were women. That is a fundamental fact in almost every culture where witchcraft and witch-hunting have been carefully studied. By far, the largest demographic category of accused witches were middle-aged women. This goes against the popular stereotype that witches were old women. This has something to do with the position of women in the community past their childbearing years, in that it was a difficult time of transition for them. Women who were unusually assertive and aggressive with their relationships with other people in the community and women who did not behave according to the peaceful standards of those communities also were especially likely to be targeted in witch-hunts.

Why is this topic still relevant today?

Although we don’t have witch-hunting in the old traditional way, we do have some equivalents. In fact, it is almost commonplace. The anti-Communist McCarthy era so-called witch-hunts in the mid-20th century are an excellent example of this.

Another example occurred in the 1980s and 1990s. In many parts of the United States we saw a kind of witch-hunt centered on the alleged abuse of children in daycare centers. In 1985 or so, teachers in daycare centers in different parts of the country were accused of abusing the very young children they were supposed to be caring for. There were hundreds of these cases, and it spread like a kind of wildfire across the nation. I researched and wrote about one of the more well-known examples, the Fells Acre daycare center case. I spoke to some of the teachers who were accused in the childcare cases, and I am absolutely convinced that they were wrongfully accused. There was a kind of hysteria — similar to what happened in Salem — that ran without check for about 10 years in this country. Finally in the mid-1990s many of these convictions were reversed. There were many common elements in these cases to the literal witch-hunts of several centuries ago.

It is the case that in the vast majority of witch-hunting the people who were accused were not guilty of anything except what their neighbors thought about them.

Do you believe in witchcraft?

No, I do not! I think it has been a terrible mistake and a scourge that has cost people their lives and has wreaked havoc for centuries.