On Witch Hunts: A History of Gender, Politics, & Labor

Few phrases in the English language evoke the unique horror associated with the words “witch hunt” in any context. That specific form of religious persecution has become synonymous with injustice, so much so that notorious criminals will routinely invoke the words when deflecting questions about legitimate charges. The historical phenomena of witch hunts peaked between the 16th and 17th Centuries in Western Europe and the Americas. The social upheaval caused by the Hundred Years War, and the Black Death put women into positions of power that challenged the established patriarchal hierarchies of the old feudalism. Joan of Arc was a young peasant girl who dressed in masculine clothing and assumed the role of a charismatic leader at a critical time in the war against the English. Regardless of whether her visionary testimonies where manifestations of a mental illness, or merely the expression of the intense religiosity of the era in which she lived, they were cruelly turned against her in a trial that sought to strip her of all power and destroy her heroic status through public humiliation. In the aftermath of Joan’s grizzly defamation, her former second-in-command, one of the richest and most powerful men in France began staging lavish spectacles reenacting Joan’s military victories and glorifying her as divinely inspired martyr. Authorities concerned about his extravagant spending on these performances would ultimately charge Giles de Rais with not just witchcraft, but having committed heinous crimes against children during Satanic rituals. The penalty for these charges was not just death, but the forfeiture of all of his lands and titles to the Duke of Brittany, who stood to acquire a tremendous amount of wealth upon his conviction.

Some modern French historians have recently asserted that Giles de Rais was innocent, and that the coerced confessions were fabricated to ensure what amounted to the legalized theft of both his property and his place in history. Whether one accepts the case against him as valid, or believe he was the victim of a conspiracy; the question itself speaks to the material effect of the witch hunts as a phenomenon. As Silvia Federici argues in her book Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body, and Primitive Accumulation, the practical outcome of the witch hunts was the systematic subjugation of women into an inferior class of people. From Ireland’s Dame Alice Kyteler to the Hungarian Countess Bathory, rich and powerful women where persecuted into submission on the threat of torture and death. For lower class women whose social power was not backed by political influence, the witch hunts set strict constraints on their options in life. Women became defined by their reproductive fertility, as their primary social function became the perpetuation of the working classes. Women who did not conform to this narrow set of gender roles would be harshly punished, ostracized, and often killed.

In the Catholic world the business of hunting witches was regulated by the Church and focused on suppressing heresies. Non-Christians suffered extreme intolerance from secular authorities, Jewish people were forced into ghettos, the Roma people were excluded from entering towns or even crossing their boarders, and the practice of indigenous folk religions were systematically criminalized. Non-conformist Christian groups like the Cathars, who advocated gender equality and rejected marriage, were persecuted out of existence. The Protestant Reformation and resulting Wars of Religion allowed the feudal nobility to further enrich themselves by rejecting the authority of Rome and starting their own churches. Thus, the first Protestant King of England would use charges of witchcraft to order the killing of his own wife. As Protestantism in the British Isles splintered into competing denominations, the authorities governing just who could hunt witches became deregulated. Local noblemen and church leaders took it as their right to prosecute all manner of crimes including witchcraft, with disastrous results for the women across the British Empire. Matthew Hopkins styled himself a Witchfinder-General, despite having no relevant religious ordination or legal mandate to the title, he traveled the British countryside enriching himself as he terrorized towns and villages. In all reality, the man was not significantly different from a sadistic serial killer except that by call himself a witch hunter he was able to abduct torture and kill his victims in plain sight of their own communities.

The witch hunt as a historical phenomena peaked in Europe at the same time that feudal economies gave way to capitalist industrialization. The conventional narrative of Western History ascribes this to the benefits of the scientific revolution that manifested in the so called Age of Enlightenment. An equally valid understanding of the same events turns focus on how the Enlightenment was a direct product of coerced labor. The decline in European witch hunts followed the enclosure of the commons and transfers of rural peasants into factory towns, a restructuring of the workforce that reduced the social power of women dramatically and imposed greater material restrictions on personal freedoms across the board. In the Americas the virtues of the Enlightenment were unevenly distributed from the start, manifesting strongly in specific regions and not at all in others. Witch hunts were essential to the forced conversion of indigenous peoples to Christianity, and in the suppression of African cultural expression among the enslaved. However, the scientific revolution gradually transformed the reasoning applied to witch hunts as the Modern era progressed.

Over the course of the 17th Century the authority of clergymen to diagnose demonic possession and witchcraft was replaced by that of medical doctors who diagnosed mental defects and social diseases. Modern society no longer believed in witchcraft making the fear of witches an increasingly ineffective tool of social control. The ever increasing popular belief in science made an individual’s sanity every bit as valuable as their soul, and to those who dismissed belief in the supernatural all together their sanity was even more precious. The Royal Bethlehem Hospital was formally established as a modern “lunatic asylum” within the same decade Matthew Hopkins embarked on his quasi-legal killing spree, a full fifty years before the Salem Witch Trials. It is a significant fact that the only person who appears to have had any practical knowledge of witchcraft in Salem at the time was an Afro-Caribbean slave.

Perhaps the best proof of the validity of Frederici’s approach to viewing witch hunts as a form of economic control is found the American witch hunts of the 19th Century. The atheistic regime of Napoleon Bonaparte was no less repressive of Haitian Voodoo that his royalist predecessors, because his personal racism was founded on science rather than religion. In the context of the ongoing revolution for Haitian liberation, the practice of Voodoo took on a political potency as an act of resistance. This adherence to shamanic tradition as a rejection of the colonizers’ religion manifested in North America when a Shawnee prophet named Tenskwatatwa inspired his older brother Tecumseh to forge an inter-tribal solidarity movement to resist the Westward expansion of the United States. The young republic, lead by rational men of science, nevertheless prosecuted a series of witch hunts that amounted to the prototype of modern concepts of genocide.

If you are having any doubt regarding the premise that gender is socially constructed, examine the gender norms imposed upon the enslaved. As chattel, the enslaved are expected to reproduce in order to expand the workforce. They were only permitted gender identities that were useful to their masters. Anything that facilitated non-conformity was brutally made to conform. This view of the working classes was not restricted to the chattel slavery of the Americas, although that model horrified labor organizers around the world. Unlike religious dogma, scientific rationality does not provide static irrefutable facts upon which to establish power structures. Just as science invalidated presumed dogma about racial hierarchies, it has conclusively invalidated hierarchical assumptions about gender.

Despite the advent of scientific reasoning dominating superstition, the phenomena did not entirely die out with the onset of the Modern Era. As the ecclesiastical authorities lost their monopoly on both the law and academic sciences, this secularization of state authority made anti-witchcraft laws archaic relics of the past. In England, the Witchcraft Act of 1735 abolished the death penalty for witches. The act made it a crime to accuse someone of witchcraft, or make claims that witchcraft was real. George II wanted to replace the superstitious laws of the Stuarts with ones based upon rational science.

According to the scientific reasoning of the early 18th Century, witches simply were not real. They were at worst charlatans exploiting the ignorant superstitions of the uneducated. The philosophical bent of the Enlightenment held that the natural world was one in which life is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short” to quote Thomas Hobbes. This negative view of nature gave Enlightenment rulers like George II of England the belief they had a moral imperative to create conditions that removed their people from such a state. It was seen as a great moral good for people to be introduced to the benefits of Civilization. A culturally loaded term by which I simply mean, gathering the agrarian population together into towns and providing them with “useful work” within the town. It was merely a felicitous coincidence that this process of making their people civil allowed the rulers to accumulate vast capital resources.

While the ruling classes built baroque pleasure palaces, the business of civilizing the working classes was made easier by the creation of standing professional armies and police forces. Following the Act of Union, a series of kings named George civilized the Scottish Highlands and the North of Ireland with genocidal force. Those who would not going willingly to work in the mills or the mines were either shipped overseas in chains, or put to death. This system of violent subjugation was applied across the British empire and the dehumanizing view of “uncivilized” peoples became increasingly racialized along the way. In the Americas, converting native peoples to Christianity became secondary to clearing the land for Civilization; and, the belief that “civilized life” was healthier and happier even for the enslaved rationalized the depraved inhumanity of the European colonizers.

The imposition of civil law and order by no means liberated witches or other folk who would have been accused in past witch hunts. Gender non-conforming people were now subject to laws that forbade women from joining most professions and criminalized cross-dressing. The same act that made it a illegal to hunt witches in the U.K. also made claiming magic and witchcraft are real a crime. Those who wished to make a living from their practice would be forced to demean themselves as “entertainers” or work outside the law. This concept of “Civilization” would spread across the entire globe during the 18th and 19th Centuries, as capitalist enterprises became increasingly interdependent upon each other’s sustained productivity. Starting in 1848, critiques of this economic system inspired the working classes to organize against the violence inherent to the capitalist civil order frequently resorting to revolutionary actions to overthrow their rulers. The ensuing class wars have shaped the collective consciousness of the 21st Century every bit as strongly as the wars of religion shaped the 17th Century.

Between the Haitian Revolution and the Two World Wars the enslaved and working classes achieved great victories over the most feudal and atavistic of rulers in the world. The backlash against these progressive advances manifested in reactionary panics popularly remember as Red Scares. American playwright Arthur Miller most famously drew a direct comparison between the anti-communist Red Scares and the Early Modern Witch Hunts.

Anti-Communist panics were not the only expression of the Modern Witch Hunt. The intermittent relaxing of the strict gender norms of the imposed civil society inspired new generations of women to start demanding the repeal of the laws that directly oppressed them all across class lines. While the equality of the sexes is a central tenet of Marxist-Socialist theory in general, and Communist ideology in particular, the overwhelming majority of the early Feminists were entrenched members of the capitalist ruling classes.

The sexist laws and institutions which Feminism set out to overturn where often oppressive to men and women alike, most particularly those who did not conform to civil society’s gender norms. From the get-go reactionaries who opposed Feminism attacked it as an existential threat to “Civilization” and a Trojan Horse for sexual depravity of every kind. Paternalistic psychologists constructed scientific theories to pathologize various non-conforming gender expressions, and rationalize the decriminalization of gender non-conformity. These scientists were very handsomely compensated, not just financially but with the professional authority to sway academic consensus.

When Sigmund Freud first introduced “Seduction Theory” in his 1896 paper Zur Ätiologie der Hysterie his peers compelled him to make multiple revisions before the paper was accepted for publication. In his original thesis Freud proposed that his patients’ neuroses were rooted in early childhood trauma resulting from incestuous abuse. Under revision the man who would come to be touted as the “Father of Modern Psychotherapy” would shift from recognizing his patients’ repressed memories as valid to publishing the victim-blaming proposition that children fantasized about and later invited the sexual attention of adult family members. A decade later, he would fully reject the “Seduction Theory” in favor of the even more regressive theory of the “Oedipus Complex” which asserted the cause of the trauma was repressed childhood sexual fantasies. This corruption of his original theory illustrates how the status quo is maintained. In recent decades, evidenced based science has demonstrated that Freud’s original theory was correct. Too correct.

Over the course of the past hundred-odd years Freud’s incorrect theories have been applied to validating the marginalization of gender non-conforming people. This scientifically validated marginalized status set the pretexts for Modern Witch hunts targeting gender non-conforming people. This resulted in a phenomena remembered as the Pink Scares.

The Pink Scares carried on the Puritanical invasion of personal privacy based upon the premise that gender non-conforming people were psychologically unstable. To understand the full extent of the Pink Scares, it was not just openly Queer people who were violently excluded from civil society. The case of Oscar Wilde shows how people who were too openly Queer were made to suffer. Straight couples who could not have children were also marginalized, and they suffered discrimination during the Pink Scares.

Beloved TV personality Julia Child was a gender non-conforming person whose celebrity belays the price her partner paid for being married to a tall charismatic woman. Paul Child worked for the U.S. Department of State, and as a diplomat he we subjected to intense scrutiny. Because he and his wife could not conceive, there was talk. His career did not advance. This was the most harmless cruelty that arose of the Pink Scares. In Germany, under the Third Reich, what was then the largest body of scientific research into human gender expression and sexuality was thrown onto bonfires. Gender non-conforming people were among the very first folk rounded up under the Nuremberg Laws. In the U.K., Alan Turing, the mathematician who cracked the German Enigma Code shortening the Second World War by Devil only knows how many years, was rewarded by his government with chemical castration because he was a homosexual.

The Red and Pink Scares of the 20th Century destroyed innocent and honorable peoples lives every bit as much as the violence of the Medieval Witch Hunts. When I was a young man, a gender non-conforming civil rights activist named Matthew Shepherd was brutally beaten, abused, and left crucified on a fence. That same decade a gender non-confirming person named Brandon Teena was killed under equally horrific circumstances. Violence against gender non-conforming people is so commonplace that just listing every prominent case over the past three decades would double the length of this article.

So far we’ve been through the literal Witch Hunts of the Early Modern era in Europe and the Americas, exploring the social and political factors that were material motivations for charging people with supernatural crimes. The industrial and scientific revolutions that defined the Modern Era removed the supernatural pretenses, but metaphorical witch hunts continued to function as a tool of systematic oppression. Soviet dictatorships were every bit as oppressive and exploitative as their Fascist counterparts, while the capitalist classes within the world’s Liberal democracies used the threat of both as political boogie-men. The Red Scares of the 20th Century didn’t result in any public executions, but, they left behind a visceral terror of “communism” that resonates within the American psyche. Interestingly, the segments of the American public that seems to fear “communism” the most happen to display a persistent fear of witchcraft and the occult as well.

Post-Modern is a nebulous term rooted in academic philosophy and fine arts, and later applied to political science. It is generally accepted that the historical epoch we call the Modern Era ended in 1945. The horrific violence of the Second World War was a repudiation of the Enlightenment idylls of civilization and modernity, and the realities of the Atomic Age demanded radical new philosophical and political responses. While some will argue the Post-Modern Era concluded at the Millennium, A.D.2000 did not actually mark a significant divergence from the established norms of the 20th Century. Social, political, and economic power structures have remained unchanged, resulting in growing critiques of those power structures and rebellions against the injustices they produce.

The anti-communist investigations and hearing of U.S. Senator of Joseph McCarthy’s Mid-Century Red Scare occurred at the very beginning of the Post-Modern Era. In response to the blatant censorship of the totalitarian regimes that caused the World Wars, the public demanded transparency from their governments. As existing broadcast networks added television signals to reach larger segments of the population, TV news became a singularly trusted source of information. Unlike in the past, McCarthy’s hearings were televised and the public saw the injustice of the witch hunt in a whole new way that validated the skeptical perspectives of Post-Modern philosophers and ideologues. This new transparency was accompanied by a general boost in the signal range of the news media, and with an increased signal comes increased noise.

The Civil Rights Movement of the late 20th Century was rooted in a rejection of the authoritarian dictatorships of the Rome-Berlin Axis and Soviet Bloc. In the U.S., particularly, anti-censorship campaigns to challenge obscenity laws ensured that English continued to be the language of the free press. Controversial authors like William S. Burroughs, Henry Miller, and Anton LaVey published books about the most taboo subjects and found a receptive audience among the rebellious Post-Modern youth culture. The capitalist classes’ eagerness to profit from trans-Pacific commercial air travel, inadvertently allowed disenchanted Americans to encounter yogis and gurus teaching anti-materialist spiritual philosophies that would inspire a renaissance in Neo-paganism, Witchcraft and New Age religious movements.

The traditional power structures most threatened by this populism took full advantage of the evolving media landscape to introduce counter-programming into the public consciousness. Secular atheism was increasingly cited as the cause of the amorality of fascist and communist alike, Modernity itself was the source of the decadence and violence of the past century. Evangelical preachers warned that we were entering the End of Days, and pointed to Anton LaVey’s Church of Satan as proof that the Devil walked among us. This reactionary rejection of Modernity made people increasingly suspicious of scientific authorities and produced growing solidarity among right-wing religious groups.

In the early 1980’s, a psychotherapist from British Columbia made himself very wealthy by proposing the unsubstantiated theory that there was a Satanic cult trafficking children for purposes of ritualized abuse. In his bestselling book, Michelle Remembers, psychiatrist Lawrence Pazder spun out impossible allegations of an all-powerful international secret society brazenly engaging in horrific rituals whilst hiding in plain sight. Pazder was highly regarded in his profession, and a devout Catholic who was able to bring his case to the Vatican. Despite going on to marry the former patient he had hypnotized into believing she was abused by her own parents, Dr Pazder maintained a professional dignity that inspired a new wave of witch hunts mixing key aspects of the preceding eras to the worst possible effect.

Pazder’s fame was not just due to the novelty of his theories, his deep religious convictions gave the narrative a spiritual redemption arc. His book became a bestseller because there was a growing audience of folk primed to believe his conclusion that Michelle had been saved from the cult through her faith in Christ. A growing movement based on deeply conservative Biblical theology was bringing the fear of actual witches back into our story. Beginning in the early 1960’s, a California based minister named Jack Chick merged Old Time Religion and Post-Modern Art by producing evangelical Protestant polemics in comic book form. Chick shipped his mass-produced “Chick tracts” to churches and missionary groups around the globe as a means of proselytizing to the widest possible audience.

Chick tracts depicted a worldview more consistent with that of the Witchfinder General Matthew Hopkins, rejecting the science-based perception of reality for one wherein The Devil was a living being and an active threat to humanity. In Chick’s comic books scientists, Catholics, Freemason, non-Christians, homosexuals, feminists and all liberals were servants of Satan. Any thought or action which strayed from Chick’s Puritanical standard of Christian virtue was shown as a slippery slope toward Damnation. The stories synthesized early modern conspiracy theories regarding Judaism, the Catholic Church, and Freemasonry into a singular Satanic cabal intent on implementing a so-called New World Order. These ideas were not original to Chick, but his influence in tying them together popularized them to a credulous and fearful public. The hypothesis proposed by Lawrence Pazder in Michelle Remembers was popularly accepted as credible vindication of these conspiracy theories promulgated by the Evangelical movement, resulting in what has come to be known as the Satanic Panic.

Followers of my Occult Crime Watch series will know that there was a spike in criminal activity with esoteric religious motives in the last quarter of the 20th Century. At the same time, across North America and Europe thousands of innocent people were accused of involvement in a non-existent Satanic cult. The case of the McMartin preschool trails stands out as the most famous of the actual witch hunts that took place during this era. Although Virginia McMartin and her family were exonerated at trial in 1990, the six year ordeal effectively destroyed their lives. A year later, preschool owners Dan and Fran Keller would be wrongly convicted of abusing children in their care and sentenced to forty-eight years in prison. In 2017 the State of Texas declared that the Kellers were in fact innocent, dismissing all charges against them and awarding them to compensation. In these cases, and many others like them across Canada and the U.K., the only abuse the children involved suffered was the coercive interview tactics and invasive medical examinations perpetrated by the investigators.

However, in the case of the West Memphis Three, an actual child murderer has managed to escape justice because police and prosecutors were fixated on proving the crime was the work of a Satanic cult. Based on little more than their outsider status, interest in heavy metal music and occult aesthetics, three teenage boys would spend eighteen years in prison protesting their innocence. It was only through the dedicated work of a team of investigative journalists supported by civil rights activists and celebrities that proof of prosecutorial misconduct convinced the State of Arkansas that the young men had been wrongly convicted. We must not allow the injustice that Echols, Misskelley, and Baldwin suffered prior to their 2011 release, overshadow the fact that because of the witch hunt to convict them, the brutal killing of three eight-year-old boys remains unsolved. The guilty party is unlikely to ever face justice because instead of identifying the killer, officials focused attention on interrogating adolescent non-conformists in search of a scapegoat they could punish for the crime.

Damien Echols was sentenced to death as the alleged ring-leader of the West Memphis Three due to his professed belief in Wicca, a mainstream Neo-pagan nature religion. There was no actual evidence he knew anything about Satanism, Black Magick, or human sacrifice, but the fact he did not attend church was proof enough to convict him of a crime he had no hand in. The McMartin and Keller cases focused on accusations against men working in the traditionally feminine profession of childcare. Once again the theory that witch hunts target non-conformists to enforce obedience to the status quo is supported by the fact no one in these cases was even remotely guilty of the charges they faced.

Pazder legitimized the conspiracy theories at the heart of Jack Chick’s polemical comic books, and Oprah Winfrey legitimized Pazder and his fantastical tales of Satanic Ritual Abuse. Daytime talk show hosts competing with Oprah picked up the story, as did the more serious nighttime news shows, reinforcing the unsubstantiated fear that non-Christians and gender non-conforming individuals pose a general threat to civilized society. At the same time that the collapse of the Soviet Bloc marked a clear victory for liberal democracies and free market capitalism, anxiety over the impending Millennium generated a popular fascination with the supernatural. Occult crime, both real and imagined, spiked in the 1990’s and early 2000’s.

The first decade of the new Millennium was marked by a wave of socially progressive advances that reactionaries interpreted as harbingers of Armageddon. The decriminalization of homosexuality and legalization of same-sex marriage outraged the conservative religious leaders who had historically villainized gender non-conforming people as diabolical. The global financial collapse of 2008 galvanized the generations born after the fall of the Berlin Wall to become receptive to Marxist-Socialist critiques of capitalism. When the U.S. elected their first African-American president, his political enemies asserted he was a non-Christian despite his regular church attendance and aptitude for quoting scripture.

During the 2016 elections both sides attempted to deploy opposition research to discredit their competitors, from which emerged a uniquely Post-Modern conspiracy theory. Wild accusations of depraved Satanic rituals involving child sacrifice were leveled against prominent liberal politicians and entertainers. The heightened absurdity of these charges attracted derisive attention from journalists, which further alienated believers from trustworthy sources of news and information. Using internet message boards and social media, a collective of unidentified disinformation agents staged a disturbingly effective Psy-Op convincing hundreds of thousands of Americans to accept a twisted alternate reality. Through cryptic messages termed “Q drops” believers were informed of an impending day of reckoning when a military coup would usurp the U.S. Constitution and impose Biblical Law, leading to the violent executions of the Satanic cult and all of their supporters. Following the 2020 elections believers in this theory formed the core of a mob that stormed the U.S. Capitol intent on manifesting the great day of judgment prophesied by Q.

In the weeks since I started writing this piece, the story has developed in strange and shocking ways. In an interview published on April 21st a sitting member of the U.S. House of Representatives said that Catholic charities assisting migrants at the U.S.-Mexico boarder were “Satanic” and that the work they were doing was evil. These statements reflect an ongoing escalation in a drive to inspire stochastic terrorism that has already produced the Comet Ping-Pong shooter, the Tree of Life Synagogue massacre, and many more leading to the Capitol Riot. To aggravate this tension, on May 5th a leaked decision from the U.S. Supreme Court cited two 17th Century British jurists, Matthew Hale and Edward Coke. These contemporaries of Matthew Hopkins, the Witchfinder General, were the architects of the laws he used to torture and publicly murder hundreds of innocent women. So as I conclude this article, I am in no position to tell you that Witch Hunts are a thing of the past. I regret very much to inform you that I expect to be writing more about this topic in the near future.

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