Saint Agnes of Rome

She was a Christian martyr, beheaded at the orders of the Roman emperor Diocletian, on January 21st, 304 AD. She is the patron saint of girls, virgins, gardeners, and victims of sexual abuse. Her legend includes many supernatural occurrences, and Agnes was one of the most popular saints in 18th and 19th century England. 

Agnes of Rome was said to have supernatural powers. These included the ability to make hair grow at a rapid level, the ability to strike men blind, and even the ability to raise the dead. Her Feast Day falls on January 21st, and on its eve, January 20th, it is said that young single ladies may be given dreams of their future husbands by Saint Agnes. But only if they follow certain rituals. Some of these rituals are quite bizarre and involved—more about them later!

But first, who was Agnes of Rome and how did she acquire such patronage?


Born in Rome, in the year 291 AD, Agnes was the daughter of a wealthy nobleman. She was very beautiful, and very rich. Before her lay a life of extreme privilege. This was both a blessing and a curse, since it ensured, for better or for worse, that many young suitors wanted to make her a bride.

When Agnes was only thirteen years old, the guys came a’ courting. Agnes, however, was a devout Christian. And this was a world where Christianity was illegal, condemned by the government, and Christians were regularly fed to the lions by Roman authorities. Agnes vowed to never marry and keep her virginity. This was a most dangerous decision, indeed. (At the tender age of thirteen, the girl was probably terrified, and rightly so!)

Needless to say, the local young men were not happy about this. They too, were of noble birth and used to getting what they wanted. No way was Agnes going to get away with this pious behavior!


One of Agnes’ suitors happened to be the son of Sempronius, an important Roman prefect. When Agnes refused to marry him, the son got mad and convinced his father to arrest her for being a Christian. For her punishment, Sempronius came up with the most humiliating thing imaginable. Agnes was to walk through the streets naked, subject to all kinds of taunts and embarrassment, not to mention assaults. The walk would end at a brothel, where Agnes would then be forced to work as a prostitute for the rest of her life.  

Agnes was stripped naked and ordered to begin her walk of shame—but her nakedness did not last for long! Agnes’ hair began to grow rapidly, so fast that in no time it was down to her toes, thick and lustrous enough to clothe her entire body. (And you thought Lady Godiva was good?)


Nonetheless, Agnes was forced to enter the brothel. It is said that men came, with the intent of raping her, but upon seeing that she was such a pure and beautiful girl, many could not bring themselves to defile her. The ones that did dare attempt it were instantly struck blind! 

The son of Sempronius, eager to get his due, showed up at the brothel with the intention of raping Agnes. But, before he could even get his toga off, the boy was struck, not only blind, but dead! Agnes, however, was not beyond forgiveness. Maybe she realized she had killed the son of a powerful politician and had second thoughts. For whatever reason, Agnes began to pray over the villain. Miraculously, he was restored back to life.

After this spooky and powerful display of Agnes’ supernatural abilities, Sempronius became terrified. He recused himself from the entire matter. But Agnes was still to be given no peace. Other Roman authorities, sent at the command of Emperor Diocletian, came to the brothel and accused Agnes of witchcraft.  Her punishment was—you guessed it! To be burned at the stake.

They bound Agnes in ropes and tied her to the woodpile. But when they lit the pyre, there was a problem. Apparently, the stakes would not burn, and neither would Agnes!

The Roman authorities were really fed up by now. They ordered one of their guards to behead Agnes and finally put an end to her. And so it was, she died.

Or did she?

Agnes’ parents, being rich noble people, had her buried in a well sealed tomb. According to the legend, eight days later Agnes’ parents went to visit her gravesite. There they encountered a chorus of angels, and Agnes herself, standing outside the tomb. There was also a white lamb by her side.


The lamb, a symbol of purity, is one of the icons still associated with Saint Agnes. She has traditionally been depicted as a young girl with long hair, holding a lamb. The word ‘agnus’ in Latin means ‘lamb’.

The Vatican has even gotten involved with an homage to Saint Agnes!

Ever since the 16th century, the Vatican has performed a ritual of the Blessing of the Lambs on Saint Agnes’ feast day.  On this day two lambs are brought from the Trappist abbey of Tre Fontane in Rome and are blessed by the Pope. The following summer, the lambs are shorn, and their wool is used to weave sacred garments called pallia. On the 29th of June, which is the feast of Saints Peter and Paul, the Pope gives these pallia to the newly appointed archbishops.


Now back to Saint Agnes Eve, as all the single ladies await their dreamy husbands… Be assured that Saint Agnes may send you visions of your future man! But only if you follow certain rituals, which are as follows:

  • You must fast on this evening, and go to bed with no supper.
  • Take one sprig of rosemary, and one sprig of thyme. Place them in each of your shoes. Put the shoes beneath your bed.
  • It also helps to walk up the stairs backwards, if your bedroom is on the second floor.
  • Take pins from a pincushion and transfer them to your sleeve while reciting the Lord’s Prayer.
  • Then, remove all your clothing, and lie naked on the bed.
  • Before you fall asleep, say this prayer:

“Saint Agnes, that’s to lovers kind

Come ease the trouble of my mind.”

Then merely go to sleep, and wait for your dreams. According to some legends, it is said that the man himself will appear in your room, and the two of you will have a great feast (thus making it worth skipping supper!)

For the more adventurous, there is this ritual from Scotland: On Saint Agnes Eve at midnight, girls would gather together in a field.

They would throw grain on the soil, representing growth and fertility. They would then recite this prayer:

“Agnes sweet and Agnes fair,

Hither, hither, now repair;

Bonny Agnes, let me see

The lad who is to marry me.”

So if you happen to live near a field, and have some friends who are game, this might be a fun ritual to try.


Saint Agnes Eve became wildly popular in 18th and 19th century England. John Keats, the famous poet, even dedicated one of his most beloved poems to it, titled “The Eve of Saint Agnes”. 

“They told her how, upon St. Agnes’ Eve,  

 Young virgins might have visions of delight,      

And soft adorings from their loves receive      

Upon the honey’d middle of the night,      

If ceremonies due they did aright;  


As, supperless to bed they must retire,     

And couch supine their beauties, lily white;      

Nor look behind, nor sideways, but require

Of Heaven with upward eyes for all that they desire.”

The entire poem can be read here:

Have a beautiful and blessed feast of Saint Agnes.

Alse Young: The First Witch of the American Colonies

Since Thanksgiving is upon us, I thought it might be fun to continue my Witch of the Week series with a woman that few of us have heard of, but nonetheless plays an important role in American witch history.

Alse Young (also called Alice Young) was the first person to be executed for witchcraft in the American Colonies. She was put to death in 1647, some forty years before the famous Salem Witch Trials, and some twenty years after the Mayflower first landed at Plymouth Rock.

A Scarce Commodity

Nowadays, when we think of witchcraft accusations, we imagine crazed Puritans and religious fanatics who were eager to point the finger at any nonconforming member of the group and have her done away with. But interestingly, the Puritans did not start out like that. In fact, accusations of witchcraft were nonexistent among the early pilgrims.

There was a reason for this. Women were simply too scarce. If the pilgrims ever expected to actually populate their colony, they could not go about executing women willy-nilly.

Case in point: at the first Thanksgiving, there were only four adult women present. That’s right! Four! All the others had died in the harsh New England winter. (So much for those paintings that show a bevy of bonnet-clad females serving up platters of turkey.)

The pilgrims’ ship, the Mayflower, landed at Plymouth Rock in November of 1620. Around a year later, in the fall of 1621, they had a harvest feast that lasted three days. During this time, they dined with the indigenous people of the area, who had taught them much about farming the land, and gave thanks to God for having survived for a year in their fledgling colony. This harvest feast, of course, became our Thanksgiving.

The pilgrims may have been giving thanks for their survival, but truth be told, many of them had not survived. Of the 102 original passengers who came on the Mayflower, only 51 of them were still alive. These included the 4 adult women, 22 adult men, and 25 children and teenagers.

The main concern of the pilgrims would have been keeping people alive. Therefore, accusations that could lead to death were not popular.

But fast forward twenty years. The colonies were now better established. The people had more time to dwell on the Good Book, and come up with interpretations about witchcraft.

“Secret Black and Midnight Hags…”

The main reason Puritans hated witches so much came from two passages in the Bible. These were: Exodus 22:18, “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live”; and Leviticus 20:27, “A man or woman that hath a familiar spirit, or that is a wizard, shall surely be put to death.”

Alse Young lived in the town of Windsor, in the colony of Connecticut, and by 1642, Witchcraft was one of 12 capital crimes decreed by the colonial government. The government was cracking down, and Alse was in the wrong place at the wrong time.

The details of Alse’s life are rather sketchy. She was born in Berkshire, England in either 1615, or 1600, depending on which source you read. She migrated to the American Colonies some time in the 1630’s, which would have made her either a teenager or a thirty-something woman at the time. There is a record of her giving birth to a daughter, also named Alice, in 1640. Some historians think it would have been extremely unlikely, given the times and health care, that a forty-year-old woman would give birth back then, so let’s use the timeline of Alse being born in 1615.

Alse was married to a man named John Young. There was no marriage record, but a document written by a physician named John Winthrop described him as having been “married to a woman hanged as a witch in Hartford”. Since Alse was, thus far, the only woman who had been hanged for witchcraft in Hartford, historians agree that this statement confirms their marriage.

Alse’s marriage may have, ironically, been what led to her witchcraft accusations. John Young was a landowner. Town records confirm that he purchased a forty-acre plot of agricultural land on the Farmington River, and also a home lot directly across from it. The Youngs would have been considered reasonably well off. Alse had also never given birth to a son. This meant, in the event of her husband’s death, Alse would have inherited her husband’s estate. That is… unless! Unless SOMEONE could prevent her from inheriting, by say, having her put to death for witchcraft! In such a case, the land would be given to the government.

I know! How convenient, right?

Satanic Panic

Land was a big deal back in those days. And the society really didn’t like women being landowners. Scholars now believe many accusations of witchcraft against women were, at least in part, based on these types of greedy land grabs.

Alse’s husband, however, was alive and well. But in 1647, an epidemic of either influenza, or some other deadly disease broke out and swept through Windsor. Windsor’s mortality records for that year show that the death rate increased substantially. People of important families died, and many of them happened to be neighbors of the Youngs. In total, twenty-seven people died that year at a rate four and a half times higher than the death rate of six persons the previous year.

This would have really gotten people riled up and put superstitions on high alert. They would have believed evil was at work. Maybe even the Devil was present among them… And maybe even witches, working for the Devil, had created this disease.

No one knows for sure, but historians have speculated that the panic of the epidemic, combined with Alse’s potential to inherit land if anything happened to her husband, may have led to her accusations. She also may have been a healer, as women often were, and unable to prevent deaths in the epidemic. This would have gotten people angry. People often look for a scapegoat in these situations, and it seems Alse was given that role.

On May 26, 1647, Alse Young was taken to the gallows in Hartford’s Meeting House Square and publicly hanged. She was only thirty-two years old.

All in the Family

Interestingly, in this area where Alse lived, there were also several other lots of married sisters, with the maiden name Tinker who also had emigrated from England. All of these women and their families left Windsor shortly after Alse’s hanging. Historians believe that either Alse or her husband were related to this family grouping. John Young left also. There is a 1649 record of him selling his land and moving to another town.

Were the Tinker sisters persecuted or accused? Maybe after Alse’s demise, they decided to get out of town before the hangman came for them. Was Alse really a witch, perhaps even a member of a sisterhood of witches?

We’ll never know for sure. However, some thirty years later, Alse’s daughter Alice, and her grandson, Thomas, were also accused of witchcraft!

Alse’s daughter Alice Young married a man named Simon Beamon of Springfield, Massachusetts, in 1654. They resided in Springfield and had many children there. After her husband died, Alice and her son Thomas Beamon were accused of witchcraft. In 1677 Thomas Beamon sued another man for slander – specifically, for saying that “his mother was a witch, and he looked like one.” (It may sound funny to us now, but remember these kinds of insults were taken very seriously, and people lost their lives. As far as looking “like a witch” – well, that could be anything. You might have an odd birthmark, a crooked nose, or some other imperfection.) Luckily, Thomas won the case, and Alice was never indicted. Historians believe that since Alice had sons who inherited her property, and also a son who went to court for her, it was less likely that her witchcraft accusations would stick.

As it turned out, Alse Young was eventually exonerated, too. In February of 2017, more than 360 years after she was put to death, Alse Young was officially pardoned, and her name cleared, by the Windsor Town Council in a resolution that passed unanimously, declaring her innocent.

Have a wonderful Thanksgiving! Light a candle for Alse. And be thankful that those Witchcraft Laws have been repealed. 😊

Witch of the Week: Geillis Duncan

The spooky season is upon us, and as part of my Halloween tributes, I thought it might be fun to start a new series on one of my favorite topics—Historical Witches! These women were sometimes notorious, sometimes popular, but most often obscure. All Historical Witches are dear to my heart. They suffered horribly and died as unique types of martyrs, usually forgotten along with their mangled bodies and the ashes of the pyres they were burned upon. These women deserve some recognition.

So, come along with me on a journey to 16th century Scotland! Here we will explore the life and death of one young witch who was the first victim in what became the most gruesome witch hunt in the history of the British Isles.

The Healing Touch

Geillis Duncan was a young girl from the small town of Tranet, East Lothian, near Edinburgh. She worked as a maidservant for one David Seton, the town bailiff. We don’t have a birthdate for Geillis, but historians believe that in 1590 she was probably about 16 years old. Geillis had never been formally educated. She was probably illiterate. But she seemed to possess a unique talent for healing. (This may have been a family trait or practice, as many uneducated women at the time worked as herbalists, midwives, and healers, their skills being handed down through generations.)

Geillis’ talent for healing might have gone unnoticed, except for the fact that her employer, David Seton, seemed to have an overactive imagination, and many suspicions about witchcraft. He apparently associated Geillis’ healing abilities with the supernatural.

In the meantime, other events in Scotland were occurring that were making people, and in particular King James, increasingly fearful of witches. It was these events that really made things bad for Geillis.

More about Geillis in a minute, but first it is necessary to understand the milieu she was immersed in, which led to her demise…

Double Double, Toil and Trouble

At this time, King James VI of Scotland was engaged to Princess Anne of Denmark. In September 1589, Anne attempted to sail to Scotland so the wedding could take place. However, storms on the sea were so severe that her journey was stopped short. Her ship, badly damaged, barely made it back to Denmark. The impatient king then decided that he would sail to Denmark himself, claim his bride, and bring her home.

James made it to Copenhagen in January 1590. His crossing had been equally perilous, with several storms at sea. When he got to Denmark, he found more than his bride…

As it turned out, witch hunts and the persecution of witches were in full swing in Europe at this time. A book titled Malleus Mallifcarum (The Hammer of Witches) had recently been published and had become popular across the continent. Malleus was the first book to declare, with a Papal Bull from the Pope, that witches were in league with the devil, and that they intended to hurt, maim, and kill others. Furthermore, witches could control the weather!

This, of course, led to the belief that the storms King James and Anne had faced at sea were most likely the creation of witches. And sure enough, in April 1590, two women in Copenhagen were arrested. They confessed to creating the storms in an effort to kill the monarchs.

When I say “confessed”, I really mean “tortured until they could bear it no more.” Needing desperately to end their own pain, people accused of witchcraft usually admitted guilt. This happened quite often. Torture of prisoners accused of witchcraft was perfectly legal in Denmark. Furthermore, it was expected that since witches worked in groups, there was never just one or two of them alone. Anyone accused was also tortured until they admitted to working with others, who were also witches. Hence, the two women arrested in Copenhagen eventually “revealed” other “members” of their group. Eventually seven women were put to death in Denmark for attempting to kill the king with storms.

Anne and James returned to Scotland, but the seeds of paranoia had been planted in the king. It has been said that it did not take much to rile up King James. Scotland is a dark, stormy and spooky place to begin with. It has a rich folklore of ghoulies, ghosties, and long-legged beasties. Besides that, when James was an infant, his father, Lord Darnley, was murdered. It was suspected that his own mother, Mary Queen of Scots, had participated in the murder. You can see how such events would make James a bit skittish. Apparently it would be quite easy to get James believing in witches, demons, werewolves and the like. He could easily be provoked to launch a full blown campaign against witches.

And that is exactly what he did, beginning with the ill-fated Geillis Duncan.

“Art Thou a Witch?”

In the autumn of 1590, David Seton began to notice that his maid Geillis, in addition to her strange healing powers, had a habit of sneaking out of the house in the middle of the night. He came to the conclusion that this must mean Geillis was a witch. He confronted Geillis, yelling “Art thou a witch?” She claimed she had only been tending the garden. Seton became angry, accused her of lying, and proceeded to torture her to get the truth.

Torture was, apparently, within Seton’s legal rights as her employer. He was determined to get a confession out of her. When Geillis would not talk, Seton, with the help of some other men, employed a device called the Pilliwinks.

The Pilliwinks, also called thumbscrews, was a tool that consisted of two metal pieces, screwed together, like a vise. The victim’s hand was placed inside it, and the device was tightened in an effort to get the victim to confess. Fingers could be crushed, and those subject to the Pilliwinks often suffered permanent damage to their hands.

Still, Geillis did not confess.

Seton then employed another method of torture. He tied ropes around her head and, like the Pilliwinks, tightened them steadily with a vise. The rope torture could lead to fracturing of the skull and facial burns. Her head must have been throbbing, and no doubt the poor girl could not think straight. But still, Geillis did not confess.

Seton then employed another terrifying method. He made Geillis strip naked, and all the hair was shaved from her body. He then “examined” her, looking for “witch marks.” It was believed that when the devil took a woman and made her a witch, he would mark her, like a branding, as she would be forever in service to him. Of course, any normal person could have a number of marks upon their body, such as birth marks, bug bites, scars, etc. But, in this case, it was the finding of a so-called “devil’s mark” that finally broke Geillis.

“All I Have Done Is By Witchcraft”

Seton found a mark on Geillis’ neck. With this, the maid gave an elaborate confession, admitting “All I have done is by witchcraft.” She claimed she was, in fact, in league with the devil, and had given up her mortal soul.

After enduring the Pilliwinks and skull warp, no one is really sure why the finding of the mark made her confess. Some historians believe that Geillis may have been sneaking out at night to meet a lover. The devil’s mark may have been a hickey, and Geillis, embarrassed, may have made up the elaborate confession. Maybe she figured she was already defeated. In the hyper religious and pious world of 16th century Scotland, running out to meet a young lover in the middle of the night would have been her ruin. After undergoing so much torture, she probably just gave up. Historians also agree that this type of “examination” for “witch marks” was akin to rape. Geillis would have been terrified, confused, and utterly unable to defend herself.

At any rate, Geillis’ confession was notable because it was the first occasion of a Scottish witch claiming to have been in league with the devil. It would lead to a horrible, bleak time in Scotland, resulting in the unjust deaths of many people, both women and men.

In November 1590, Geillis was brought to prison in Edinburgh.

Once in prison, Geillis, most likely under pressure of more torture, admitted to being part of a coven. Her confession got more elaborate. She then claimed she had attended a meeting of witches, with over two hundred people present. The meeting was held at The Kirk of North Berwick on Halloween night. The devil had been present. The purpose of the meeting was to plot how to bring about the demise of King James VI, as instructed by the devil. She gave authorities the names of at least eight other women and men who were supposedly involved. And not only that! Geillis claimed that her coven was working with the witches in Denmark, and together they had conjured the sea storms!

A confession like this would have no doubt left James salivating. All his suspicions were coming true! James then insisted upon meeting with the witches in person and hearing their stories, so he could draw his own conclusions. Needless to say, he decided they were all guilty.

Could it be? Did the witches really have magical powers, and a plot to take over the kingdom of Scotland? Or was this the overactive imagination of superstitious king who had witnessed one too many conspiracies?

Young, Fair, and Damned

Sadly, Geillis remained in prison for another year, until it was decided she would be burned at the stake. She was only about eighteen years old.

On the day of her execution, Geillis tried to retract her accusations, claiming that David Seton had forced her to confession with his extreme torture methods. But at that point, no one paid attention to her.  She was executed on 4 December 1591 at Castlehill, Edinburgh. 

The other accused women, once arrested, revealed more names, and in total, over one hundred people were arrested in what came to be known as the North Berwick Witch Trials.

All of these women had unique stories, which I will save for another installment in my Witch of the Week series.

But for now, let’s have a moment of silence to honor Geillis. A teenager. A maidservant. A girl with no money or resources. A girl whose only “crime” was having a natural gift for healing, and possibly a weakness for a boy who may have been her lover.

What do you think of Geillis Duncan? Let me know in the comments!

Marie Laveau, Woman of Mystery

She was one of the most powerful and influential women of nineteenth century New Orleans, rumored to be a great priestess of Voodoo, as well as a practicing Catholic.  She was a healer, a midwife, possibly a hairdresser and mother of at least nine children. To this day, her ghost is said to haunt the streets of the French Quarter, and people come from all over the world to pay tribute to her at her grave.

I am speaking of course, of the famous Marie Laveau.

A great deal of myths and legends have grown up around her, everything from her holding wild orgies on the Feast of Saint John, to her keeping a magical snake called Zombi. But Marie Laveau, much like William Shakespeare, is one of those historical figures of which we know very little. In fact, we do not even have any concrete evidence that she actually was a Voodoo practitioner! Like the religion of Voodoo itself, Marie’s life is shrouded in mystery, and most of what we think we know about her has been passed down by word of mouth.

“Just The Facts, Ma’am”

Marie Catherine Laveau Paris was born around September 10, 1801 in New Orleans’ French Quarter. Her birthday is confirmed by her baptismal record. Approximately one week after her birth, Marie was baptized by a priest named Pere Antoine in Saint Louis Cathedral.   Marie’s father, Charles Laveau, was a wealthy businessman, a politician, and also a “mulatto”. (Mulatto is a rather obsolete term which means ½ black and ½ white.)

 Marie’s mother, Marguerite Darcantrel, was Charles’ Laveau’s mistress. She was also a freed slave. Marie was born in a cottage on Saint Ann Street, the home of her grandmother, known as “Miss Catherine”. It was Miss Catherine who raised Marie. The cottage would stay in Marie’s possession for all her life. The location of this house is marked as a Historical Site in the French Quarter. To this day, people bring trinkets and offerings for Marie, which they leave near the building. 

At age eighteen, Marie married a free man of color named Jaque Paris. She had two daughters with him before he died in around 1824. Following her husband’s death, Marie was ever after known as “The Widow Paris.” The two daughters probably died as well, as there are no further records of them.

Portrait of Marie Laveau, copied from the original, painted in the 1800s by artist George Catlin. This is probably the best rendition we have of her.

 Marie then apparently fell in love with a white man named Christophe Dumensnil de Glapion. She lived with Christophe, and they were together for around thirty years. As a biracial couple, it was illegal for them to marry.

Marie and Christophe had at least seven children together, according to baptismal records. (It is rumored they had as many as fifteen children, although some of these may have been grandchildren.)

Marie was a free person of color, and records show that she owned at least seven slaves in her lifetime. (It was not unusual for black people to own slaves in Louisiana. More on that later.)

An article in the New Orleans Republican published on May 14, 1871,  described Marie Laveau as a “devout and acceptable member of the Catholic communion.” We know that Marie was a practicing Catholic because of her baptismal, marriage and death records in relationship to the Church.

Marie died on June 15, 1881, in the same cottage on Saint Ann Street in which she was born.

Site of the house on Sant Ann Street today.

Medical records list the cause of death as “diarrhea” (yuck, I know) which most likely means Marie had dysentery or a similar illness. She would have been almost eighty years old, which is quite a ripe old age for a woman in those days.

Records show that politicians, lawyers, congressmen, bankers, and wealthy socialites had slush funds, which they tagged as “LAVEAU EXPENSES”, apparently intended to pay The Widow Paris for her services, whatever they may be…

 When Marie died, her obituary in The New York Times claimed: “lawyers, legislators, planters, and merchants all came to pay their respects and seek her offices.”  

 New Orleans Cemetery records prove that she was interred in the “Widow Paris” tomb in St. Louis No. 1 Cemetery.

And that’s it! That is all we know to be fact.

Ahhh, but the rumors! They are infinitely more interesting.

Born Free

Marie Laveau was the first child in her family to be born free – that is, a person of color born outside the bondage of slavery. Marie’s great-grandmother was believed to have been brought to New Orleans as a slave from West Africa in 1743. Marie’s grandmother, “Miss Catherine” was born a slave and was eventually bought by a free woman of color named Francoise Pomet. During her enslaved time, Catherine gave birth to Marguerite, but in future years she was able to buy their way out of slavery as well.

The phrase “free person of color” comes up often in discussions of historical New Orleans. There are many stories of slaves “buying” their way to freedom. How, exactly, was this done? Most of us think of slavery as a complete and final institution. Once born to it you were stuck, unless you wanted to risk running away, a dangerous endeavor indeed. If you were caught, you might be whipped, get your foot cut off, or just be killed altogether.

But in the colony of Louisiana, and later the Louisiana Territory, things were a little different. Louisiana had a law called “Coartacion”, under which, slaves were given the right to own property and purchase their freedom. Slaves could earn money by selling produce in the markets, working as nurses and artisans, and hiring themselves out as laborers. When they saved enough money, they were allowed to petition to their owners to buy themselves out of bondage. If you were a “good slave” — meaning you basically kept your mouth shut and were obedient — the master was legally obligated to accept your petition.

“New Orleans Free People of Color” Painting by Augustino Brunias, 1700s.

 The law of Coartacion existed only in Louisiana. It had impressive results. By the early nineteenth century, 1,490 blacks in New Orleans had acquired their freedom by cash payments. By 1810, the territory had 7,585 free persons of color, most of them living in New Orleans. Free people of color represented 44 percent of the city’s free population. In 1860, right before the Civil War, free people of color paid taxes on property valued at 15 million dollars – the equivalent of around $400 million in today’s money! Additionally, many free people of color were highly educated and had degrees from French universities.

As free people of color became rich, they eventually purchased their own slaves. This was the sneaky catch of the law of Coartacion; it was not really a way to get more people free, but rather a way to increase slavery. It was believed that the institution of slavery would be kept stronger if free blacks began buying slaves along with white people, thus giving the institution a wider scope.

 In the end it all fell apart, but nonetheless, it was not unusual for free black people to own slaves in Louisiana. Marie Laveau herself is confirmed to have owned at least seven slaves during her lifetime.

Beauty Shop

Angela Basset as Marie in American Horror Story

It was rumored Marie worked as a hairdresser, although there are no historical records to prove this. It could very well be true. Marie was confirmed to have served politicians, and prominent people. Everyone knows beauty shop gossip runs rampant. It is therefore surmised that  while working as a hairdresser, Marie serviced elite women of the community and they opened their hearts to her. Thus Marie was privy to many secrets. It was said she had a wealth of information, and was therefore able to advise all the big shots in the community, to the point where they actually had “slush finds” to pay her! (See above.)

And, of course, along with all this juicy information, Marie’s so called psychic abilities also came in handy.

At any rate, Marie’s opinion and advice were well respected. An article in The New Orleans Times Picayune, dated April 1886 (five years after her death) described Marie as “gifted with beauty and intelligence, she ruled her own race, and made captive of many of the other.”

Regardless of what anyone believed about Marie’s “magical powers”, she definitely had a certain natural charm.

The Human Touch

Marie Laveau was known as a humanitarian and healer. She is said to have cured people of yellow fever, which ran quite rampant in New Orleans during this time. She would also go to prisons and visit inmates who had been sentenced to death. She would pray with the prisoners and serve them their last meal, employing Catholic traditions, and often helping them prepare for the afterlife.

 Marie often sought pardons and commutations of sentences for some of the prisoners. She’d wield her influence among authorities (or perhaps she’d threaten them with blackmail!) and was successful in her efforts. Some rumors (unconfirmed) claimed that Marie would give poisons to the prisoners before they went to the gallows, thus saving them the pain of the hangman’s noose.

Rumors circulated that Marie sometimes preformed Voodoo rituals in the prisons. After her death, Marie’s daughter Philomène stated during an interview with a reporter from the Picayune that “only Catholic traditions would take place during these visits.” Because Voodoo took on an undeserved “bad reputation”, it is believed Marie’s daughter may have been trying to downplay her mother’s Voodoo ties in order to keep Marie “respectable” in the public’s mind.

A Catholic, and/or Voodoo altar

That Voodoo You Do

Any report about Marie Laveau would be lacking if it did not have at least a brief analysis of Voodoo – perhaps the most exploited and misunderstood religion in American history.

Voodoo is, quite simply, a religion, just like Christianity or Judaism. Originally, it was called “Vodou” which, in its original African language means “pure light.” West African slaves brought the practice of Vodou to the Americas. They mostly practiced it in secret, and masked it with more acceptable Catholic rituals, so the slave masters did not know what they were up to.

The Voodoo religion relies largely upon communication with ancestors who have gone to the Otherworld, or Afterlife. It also centers around the worship of a variety of nature gods who represent the elements of earth, air, fire and water. Voodoo has ordained priests and priestesses who are trained in elaborate rituals.

In Louisiana, everyone spoke French. The literal translation of “Old Gods” in French is “Vieux Dieux”, pronounced voo doo.

Papa Legba, one of the Old Gods

So there you have it.

To be clear, Voodoo has NOTHING to do with killing chickens, drinking blood, creating dolls to torture people, or anything Hollywood has told you. Somewhere along the line, someone realized that the “exotic practices” said to be associated with Voodoo were a great money maker. Hence the rumors began. They persist to this day.

That being said, Marie herself may have actually been theatrical, and a great marketer, helping to spread the dark, forbidden image of Voodoo. She may very well have taken the “wilder” aspects associated with Voodoo and used them for her own gain. After all, a scary Voodoo priestess is much more likely to earn respect than a mild mannered Catholic. (Debatable, when you consider the Vatican… But that’s another topic altogether.)

Some of the rumors that circulated about Marie’s Voodoo practice involved wild orgies that took place at Saint John’s Bayou on Saint John’s Eve.

Interestingly, the Catholic Feast of Saint John takes place on June 23rd. This is around the time of the summer solstice. Every good Pagan knows the summer solstice, or Beltane, is a time for great merry making, fire festivals, and worship of the god Baal, the goddess Aine, the Oak King, or whatever tradition you happen to follow. In Catholicism, Saint John the Baptist was born around this time (six months before Jesus in December, and also six months before the winter solstice.)

John was known as a wild man. He spent a lot of time out in nature, scantily clad and baptizing naked people. He ate strange things, like locusts and honey. You can see how a tribute to Saint John might get out of hand, especially when combined with those exotic Voodoo practices.

No one knows what really went on in Saint John’s Bayou, but apparently the gossip was endless.

Marie was also rumored to have a snake named Zombi. This magical snake could do all kinds of weird stuff, including curses and blessings. SO WATCH OUT.

Sealed in a Stone-Cold Tomb

Marie’s tomb is located in Saint Louis No 1 Cemetery. Just like the house on Saint Ann Street, the gravesite has attracted numerous tourists. People believe that doing elaborate rituals around Marie’s grave will bring them luck and good fortune. Some of these rituals involve bizarre things like walking backwards around the grave, spitting on it, and drawing three X’s upon the tomb.

Before Hurricane Katrina, people were rather respectful of Marie’s grave. I know this for a fact because I was there in 2005 right before the storm. See how the grave is pristine?

New Orleans Cemetery
Me on the left, with my niece Lauren at Marie’s grave.

But after the storm folks got desperate. The grave was defaced multiple times.

The grave after Katrina. Triple Xs were thought to bring luck.

In January of 2014, someone decided it would be a good idea to paint Marie’s grave pink, the color of pepto-bismol. (The man was believed to be mentally ill.) He painted the grave, which damaged its surface. It took a lot of time and money to restore it. As a result, tourists can no longer visit Saint Louis No. 1 Cemetery, unless accompanied by a formal tour guide.

Paint it pink! Marie’s defaced grave.

Even with a tour guide, it is said you should never take anything from Marie’s grave. This includes rocks, stones and shells. A tour guide once told me that someone on his tour decided to take a stone from the land around the grave as a “souvenir”. Before the end of the tour, that person was stung by a wasp! So if you ever venture around Marie’s grave, please be respectful.

Regardless of what’s true and what’s false, it can’t be denied that Marie Laveau was an interesting woman, a force of nature, and a presence that has managed to live on for over two hundred years.

Happy Birthday Marie! I believe in you.

A Beltane Tale Podcast

Twas a time of dancing and daring and drinking of elderflower wine;
of bewitchings and hauntings and faeries and all things divine.”

With the feast of Beltane nearly upon us, I am thrilled to announce that my story “A Beltane Tale” has been featured in Housecraft – The Witching Hour’s podcast!


Many thanks to the ladies of Housecraft for choosing my story, and much gratitude to producer Kate for your oh-so beautiful reading of the tale.

Beltane is an ancient Celtic fire festival, celebrated on or around May 1st. For those of you who are not familiar — fear not! The Mothers of Mayhem will take you through every aspect. (Warning: adult content. Not for kids.) This festival is all about sex and the Witchy Ladies get a bit spicy. So listen at your own risk! 🙂

Robin Hood and Maid Marian: What happens in the forest, STAYS in the forest.

Tune in anywhere you get podcasts or HERE:

Have a Blessed Beltane!

“The Maypole” 1899 by Clarence H. White

March 1692: The Salem Witch Trials

March is International Women’s History Month. It also marks the beginning of the Salem Witch Trials. Since this disturbing event in American history was centered largely around women, I thought it might be fun to explore the specifics!

Witch Trials continue to fascinate and puzzle historians. Witchcraft hysteria ran rampant throughout Europe in the 15th – 17th centuries, and carried over to the American colonies, solely driven by religious beliefs and outrageous superstition. But there was much more to the Salem Witch Trials than overactive imaginations…

Don’t Have a Hissy Fit!  But They Did…

In the winter of 1692, in Salem Village, nine year old Betty Parris and her eleven year old cousin Abigail Williams  began to have uncontrollable fits. The girls would scream, run around and throw things. They claimed they were being hit and attacked by some unknown presence. Luckily, Betty’s father Samuel Parris happened to be a Puritan Reverend and he had a perfect explanation: the Devil was afoot in New England.

Puritans had a strong belief in the Devil. He walked among men, unseen. He needed to get his bidding done, so he would recruit humans. Sometimes he chose men, but mostly he chose women — as they were weak, vulnerable and easily persuaded. You know. Like Eve.  Old Scratch would bring his book to sign – and it had to be signed in blood.  Once the transaction was complete, a woman gave away her soul and body, leaving the Devil to do with them as he pleased.

As Betty and Abigail continued to have their incurable fits, doctors were brought in. After several weeks, no one could diagnose the problem, but finally the girls blurted out that it was, in fact, the witchy spirit of Tituba, the family slave, who had been harming them.

There was a thing called ‘spectral evidence’ which became very important during the witchcraft trials. Any accuser could claim that the specter or spirit of a witch was harming them, and that claim was taken seriously.  It was not even necessary that another person actually see the specter.

Meanwhile, on the other side of town, a girl named Anne Putnam was experiencing the same kinds of fits. She claimed the witches attacking her were two women – the neighborhood beggars – one Sarah Goode, and one Sarah Osborne.

Sarah Osborne was what Puritans would call a ‘loose woman’. She had lived with a man out of wedlock and did not attend church services. Osborne was elderly and also known to be argumentative.  Sarah Goode was married with a young daughter, but even her own husband suspected she was a witch. Both women were poor.

So, the first women accused were a slave and two social rejects. But the accusations didn’t stop there. They would go on to reach epic proportions. In order to understand the mentality of the trials, it is necessary to look at the outlying events which took place simultaneously.

Blame it on Politics

In 1692’s bleak winter, Salem Village was in bad shape. Fields were frozen and people were starving. Indians, wolves and other wild animals were a constant threat. To make matters worse, the territories of North America were engaged in a civil war.

In 1689, English rulers William and Mary had started a war with France in the American colonies. Known as ‘King William’s War’, or ‘The Second Indian War’, it ravaged regions of  what is now upstate New York, Massachusetts, Nova Scotia and Quebec. Homeless  refugees traipsed into the county of Essex and, specifically, into Salem Village.

The displaced people created a strain on Salem Village’s resources. The harsh terrain of New England had never been very fruitful, and there was only so much firewood and food to go around. Hunger, cold and poverty were rampant. In addition to all this trouble, the village’s two most prominent families – the Putnams and the Porters – were engaged in a power struggle.

Two Households, Both Alike in Dignity

The Putnam family had always been powerful in the Massachusetts Bay Colony.  This stemmed from an English land grant given to their grandfather, way back in 1640.  The Putmans were farmers.  But in the rising change of fortune, new and lucrative opportunities were coming from the busy colony seaport. Commerce and trade, not farming, would be the business of the future.  The Putnams were losing their stronghold. The Porter family – up and coming sea merchants – were the ‘new money’ in Salem Village.

In what was perhaps a desperate attempt to use religion to gain back his influence, Thomas Putnam enlisted the services of Reverend Samuel Parris.

The Reverend Parris had not always been a reverend. He was, in fact, a struggling salesman who had lived most of his life in Barbados. He came to the Massachusetts Bay Colony and took to the pulpit only after his business ventures had failed miserably.  He brought with him his wife, his daughter Betty, his niece Abigail Williams and two slaves – Tituba and John Indian.

Reverend Parris was not popular. People thought he was greedy. For example, one law was imposed requiring villagers to give up their firewood as a new taxation plan that gave the wood to the Reverend. His sermons were guilt inducing, full of fire and brimstone. He strongly warned of dealings with the Devil. Many folk opted to attend a different church in Salem Town, rather than sit through Parris’ sermons. The influential Porters went to church in Salem Town.

It was as though there were two separate cities, and two separate philosophies. Salem Village was ‘Putnam-land’ –  backwater, bumpkin, farm-bound and superstitious.  Salem Town was ‘Porter territory’ – progressive, sophisticated, merchant-driven and logical.

Lizzie and Joseph: Forbidden Love

The story gets better!

Thomas Putnam had a half brother named Joseph. Joseph was the product of his father’s second marriage to one Mary Veren. When the father died in 1686, he left a good deal of his land holdings to young Joseph. Thomas and his brother Edmund were jealous, to say the least. They challenged their father’s will in court, but to no avail. Young Joseph Putman was known as the wealthiest man in Salem Village. And who did Joseph fall in love with? You guessed it – a Porter!

Seventeen year old Lizzie was the pride of the Porter family. Her father Israel was fond of Joseph, and also eager to wed his daughter to a rich landholder.

Twenty one year old Joseph married Lizzie on April 21, 1690. Needless to say, the wedding was much frowned upon by his half brothers. Thomas Putnam now stood to lose even more of his dwindling wealth and power.

Not coincidentally, the girls that made the first witchcraft accusations all had some tie to  Thomas Putnam.  These were: Betty (the Reverend’s daughter) Abigail (the Reverend’s niece) Anne Putman Jr. (Thomas’ daughter) Anne Putnam Sr. (Thomas’ wife) and Mary Walcott (Thomas’ niece).

Similarly, many of the accused had some tie to the Porter family.  These were: Rebecca Nurse, Giles and Martha Corey,  John and Elizabeth Proctor, and George Burroughs — all neighbors and associates of the Porters.  John Proctor and Giles Corey were landholders who sat in at town council meetings and were likely to cast votes to favor Israel Porter. (Of course, once accused of witchcraft, one’s land went forfeit and they no longer held that position… ) George Burroughs had been the Reverend of the church in Salem Town.

‘Fess Up!

On March 1, 1692, Tituba, Sarah Osborne and Sarah Goode were taken for questioning. Tituba confessed, telling a wild story of how the Devil had recruited her, but now she was repentant and wished forgiveness.  Osborne and Goode insisted upon their innocence. On March 7, the three were jailed in Boston.

Astonishingly, Sarah Goode’s four year old daughter Dorothy was put in jail as a witch also, making her probably the youngest prisoner ever. Months later, the child was released on a 50 pound bond — the equivalent of around $10,000 in today’s money.  Dorothy was referred to in court records as “it” rather than “she”.

Tituba was no fool. Puritan law at the time would allow an accused person freedom ONLY if he or she confessed. Those that would not confess would be hung. (Sarah Goode was later hung and Sarah Osborne died in prison.)

The accusers may have started by singling out the lowest of society, but eventually they made their way up the ladder. On March 19, Abigail accused a woman named Rebecca Nurse. Rebecca was considered a pillar of the community. She was kind, charitable, church-going and flawless. Fear spread like wildfire. If Rebecca could be accused, anyone could.

And anyone was! Before the trials were ended, over two hundred people were accused of witchcraft and jailed. Nineteen were hung, one was pressed to death, and at least four died in the squalid conditions of prison.

The Governor, Sir William Phipps, established a Court of Oyer and Terminer to investigate the allegations. It was presided over by all the top officials: Lieutenant Gov. William Stoughton, Nathaniel Saltonstall, Bartholomew Gedney, Peter Sergeant, Samuel Sewall, Wait Still Winthrop, John Richards, John Hathorne and Jonathan Corwin.

Interesting aside — John Hathorne was an ancestor of author Nathaniel Hawthorne of Scarlet Letter fame.

Nathaniel changed the spelling of his name to avoid association with the elder Hathorne, who was the only judge that never apologized for his part in the witch trials.

The accusing girls were at first revered by the community. They had rock-star status, traveling around pointing the finger at anyone they pleased, while onlookers begged to touch their garments.  However, as the accusations accumulated and crept steadily into the elites of society, folks became suspicious. Finally, the girls went too far.

One story claims that an accusation was made against the Governor’s wife, Mary Spencer Phipps.

The Governor adored and cherished his wife. The idea of her being a witch was abominable to him. Plus, by then he may have had his doubts about the accusations — as any reasoning human being would.  At any rate, in October of 1682, Governor Phipps dissolved the Court of Oyer and Terminer. In November he declared that spectral evidence would no longer be considered valid.  In May of the following year, Phipps pardoned all the remaining accused witches.

Fun Facts:

  • Tituba Indian was, in fact, a Native American Indian. Conquered Wampanoags from New England were often brought to Barbados as slaves. Historians believe Tituba was raised on a Barbados plantation, but was a member of the Wampanoag Tribe.

  • Although Tituba is often associated with voodoo, there is no historical evidence that she had knowledge of it. By her own confessions, any witchcraft she knew was taught to her by English mistresses.
  • Tituba even baked a ‘witch cake’ according to English traditions,  made with urine and rye, then fed to a dog who would reveal the true witches. (This tactic either did not work, or people did not believe the dog.)

  • Elizabeth Proctor was an herbal healer and may have been the only true witch in the bunch. She was pregnant at the time of her arrest and her life was spared, although her husband John was hung.
  • Giles Corey was pressed to death with boulders because he refused to declare himself innocent or guilty. Puritan laws stated that once an accused person acknowledged himself as innocent or guilty, his land would be forfeit. Not wanting to give up his land, Giles stubbornly succumbed to the crushing death, asking only for “More weight.”

  • Giles’ efforts paid off. The Corey land was kept in the family up to the 21st century!
  • Accused victims were made to pay for their own room and board in jail. The fees were collected from any savings they may have had. Freed persons usually left jail penniless, or in debt to the state for their rat infested stay.
  • Having confessed, Tituba was never put to death. However, after being released she was unable to pay her fees and was sold again into slavery.
  • Abigail Williams – portrayed as the ‘Femme Fatale’ of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, was, in fact only eleven years old. Miller recreated her as a seventeen year old who had an affair with John Proctor. Sex sells. The play was a huge hit!

  • Years after the trials, Anne Putnam Jr. admitted that she had lied about the accusations. However, she took no personal responsibility, insisting she had been under the influence of Satan. The Devil made her do it.
  • After the tragedy of the Salem Witch Trials, folk finally started to realize how ridiculous Puritanism was.  The religion was abandoned.

Happy Women’s History Month!

A Halloween Treat: Witchcraft Through the Ages


Happy Halloween to all you beautiful ghouls, goblins, horror fans, heretics and lovers of the macabre! Today for your viewing entertainment I have a special surprise!

Long before ‘The Witch’ and  ‘The Blair Witch Project’ terrified movie goers, there was this 1922 silent movie gem, called Haxan ( German for ‘The Witch’.)

IMDb describes it as : “Part history lesson followed by re-enactments with actors, this film takes depicts the history of witchcraft from its earliest days through to the present day (in this case,1922 or thereabouts). The result is a documentary-like film that must be among the first to use re-enactments as a visual and narrative tool. From pagan worship to satanic rites to hysteria, the film takes you on a journey through the ages with highly effective visual sequences.”

It is a thoroughly entertaining and interesting film. Luckily I found a beautifully restored version on youtube. Hope you enjoy it!  Running time is approximately 1 hour, 45 minutes. Have a delightful Halloween!








Welcome October! Day 29


“October had tremendous possibility. The summer’s oppressive heat was a distant memory, and the golden leaves promised a world full of beautiful adventures. They made me believe in miracles.” 
― Sarah Guillory,  from Reclaimed

“October proved a riot to the senses and climaxed those giddy last weeks before Halloween.” 
― Keith Donohue

As we welcome in big, bold October, today we find ourselves with twenty-nine days until Halloween. Are you prepared?

Twenty-nine can be considered a sacred number, because of its reduction to eleven. Its core value is two.  Numerology always reduces numbers to the lowest value. Thus: 2 +9 = 11, and 1 +1 = 2. Eleven is a mystical number, representing the “doorway” or the pillars to enlightenment. Eleven itself even looks like a doorway!

Therefore, today (also a 2, October 2nd) is the perfect time to welcome in our new month.

The intrinsic meaning of the number 29 is a combination of 2 and 9.  The number 2 represents duality, opposites, teamwork, collaboration and cooperation. The number 9 — which is the last before 10, or 1 —  represents the “end of things”. It is care in the final stages that lead to completion and perfection. It also represents health, humanitarian interests and care for our fellow beings.  Both numbers deal with esoteric knowledge — in two, as exploring the nature of duality, and in nine as the striving for completed perfection.

Twenty nine is a combination of these two.

The essence of the number 29 is relationships, and working together as we strive to create a better world for all involved. Imagine all magick channeled into a beautiful coexistence, with its source used as the primary requirement to maintain its own existence. That, in a nutshell, is 29.

It might look something like this.

Or this:

Happy October, and Blessed be!

Circle Dancing