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The Haunting of America
From the Salem Witch Trials to Harry Houdini
By William J. Birnes, Joel Martin
Tom Doherty Associates Copyright © 2009 William J. Birnes and Joel Martin
All rights reserved.
Colonial America: The Devil in Salem
He who believes in the Devil already belongs to him.
— THOMAS MANN
For us believing physicists the distinction between past, present, and future is only an illusion, even if a stubborn one.
— ALBERT EINSTEIN
Kimberly Padula awoke with a start, shaking uncontrollably. It was that dream again. She'd been having it since 1997, only now it was growing more intense. The faces were sharper, the smells more acrid, the details more frightening. In her vision, this bright and pretty young New York fashion designer saw herself wearing military fatigues as she grabbed and pulled people to safety in what appeared to be a site that had been struck by a bomb. As she looked around her, there were army tanks rolling through the streets, soldiers and other official personnel in blue uniforms, while planes roared through the sky above.
"It was just like a war scene," she recalled. "It looked to me like Armageddon. The dream was so real. Buildings were collapsing and crumbling as if they'd gone through an earthquake. They were just folding and falling. But I didn't seem to be a victim. I was helping victims. People were scared and I kept pulling them back into a bombed out area that had already been struck."
Every several weeks the unnerving dream vision returned, sometimes even more vivid than the night before. Kimberly would wake up panting, shaking with fright, the sounds of occasional cars and trucks just below her window only adding to her sense of disorientation. At the time, Kimberly was living in Manhattan's Little Italy, a small enclave of narrow, but crowded, streets and lots of family restaurants. Her small apartment was on the second floor of an old tenement, typical of the buildings that lined the streets in this old neighborhood.
Kimberly was haunted by her recurring dream. So persistent and realistic was that dream that one day she purchased a canvas bag in which she placed green army pants, shirts, boots, flashlights, and other survival gear. "I put the bag behind my bed in the event I had to escape, although I had no conscious reason why I wanted to," she said.
Kimberly's dream was especially ominous because ever since she was three years old she had experienced what she called "psychic feelings," an overpowering sense of intuition. But the predictions she sometimes innocently made in school were not well received by peers. "What are you, a witch?" she was often asked. The frequent taunts caused her to retreat into herself, and so she kept her psychic gifts hidden.
After attending the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York, Kimberly allowed her psychic sensitivity to emerge. By then, close friends were more accepting. "Sometimes they believed me more than I believed myself," she admitted.
By October 1999, Kimberly was convinced her recurring vision of disaster was a premonition. Not certain where to turn for advice, she asked a shaman she regarded as a father figure how he would interpret her dream. "He told me something bad would happen," she said. The shaman added, "You don't belong in New York. You are too sensitive," although outwardly Kimberly gave the appearance of being confident and in control.
"I felt psychically like I was being pushed out of the city," she recalled. "It was as if some bigger force was pushing me out. It was time to go."
Kimberly decided to leave New York, where she'd been born and raised. She packed her belongings, sold some, and shipped the remainder to California, where she'd only visited briefly on several earlier occasions. Her choice to fly to the West Coast was based simply on the fact that a girlfriend in California invited Kimberly to live with her.
"Friends and colleagues were surprised that I was suddenly moving," she explained. "And they were afraid when I told them about my dreams of buildings collapsing. For some reason, the buildings looked like mirrored glass."
Kimberly arrived in Los Angeles in October 1999, expecting whatever disaster she'd dreamed of to take place the next year, in 2000. She assumed because she was in California, the catastrophe would be an earthquake.
Then, while living in Los Angeles, Kimberly had another vision in which she saw two "tower cards," a part of the tarot deck. She paid little attention to the first dream. The second of the "tower card" sent her reeling around Labor Day of 2001. "I freaked out," she said. Was an earthquake coming? Her ability as a clairvoyant or sensitive could go no further in interpreting her persistent vision.
On the morning of September 11, 2001, at about four A.M., Kimberly awoke suddenly with a sharp pang of anxiety. Not knowing what it meant, she uneasily returned to sleep.
She learned of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York a few hours later when a neighbor banged on the door, woke her, and told Kimberly of the terrible tragedy, not far from where she'd formerly lived and worked in Manhattan.
At first, Kimberly did not recall her premonition about the terrorist disaster until a friend's phone call from New York that day reminded her. Only then did she associate her recurring dreams with the World Trade Center collapse.
She was, of course, devastated by the news of the many deaths, injuries, and destruction, as all Americans were. "I was also surprised. It was confirmation to me that there was something psychic to what I'd felt and dreamed," she said.
Asked why she thought she had premonitions about the terrorist attack, Kimberly answered, "I don't know. I don't have all the answers, although I've had many psychic dreams."
Today, Kimberly lives in Los Angeles where she has since developed a practice as a professional psychic and sensitive, at the urging of friends who've benefited from her clairvoyant abilities.
Kimberly Padula was not alone in experiencing premonitions about the World Trade Center assault; nor, by any means, was she the first to experience premonitions of disaster, either to individuals or to a collective. In fact, were Kimberly to have reported her premonitions 350 years ago in any of the New England colonies, she would have been declared a witch and sentenced to burn at the stake.
Life in the small New England village of Salem in the Massachusetts Bay Colony as the year 1692 began was as harsh as the bitter winter winds that howled and beat against the clapboard houses. No Christmas or holiday festivities ushered in the New Year because according to strict Puritan religious belief and law those would have been regarded as frivolous and pagan practices.
Salem had been founded in 1626, only six years after the Pilgrims arrived to settle Plymouth, and before the Puritans set foot there in 1630. With a royal charter received just a year earlier, their home in the New World was now far from England which they'd left in search of a place where they could practice their Calvinist religion as they saw fit; away from the domination of the Church of England with whom they'd had increasing friction. They'd grown disgusted with what they felt were church corruption and a straying from the purity they'd wished to see maintained in the Anglican Church.
The Puritans who settled in New England had no intention of shedding either their unyielding Bible-based religious convictions, including predestination, or occult fears that they tightly wrapped together as one. Democracy, as we know it, was never much of a consideration; and separation of church and state was virtually nonexistent; they were locked in a theocracy in which religious beliefs often influenced civil and political decisions. As God-fearing Christians, the Puritans saw the devil as their archenemy whom they needed to be ever vigilant against, for Satan always lurked, ready to strike anywhere at any time. For the Puritans, fear and superstition held a firm grip.
Life in Salem, as in other Puritan communities was never easy: hard work and prayer consumed most of one's time. There was the genuine dread of insufficient crops and food supplies, illness and epidemics — notably smallpox and infections — Indian attacks, as well as frequent squabbles and disputes between neighbors. For many of the religious — and superstitious — the wrath of God was deemed responsible for nearly anything that went amiss from inclement weather to the miseries of disease. Perhaps God-fearing Puritans needed to be more prayerful to improve their fortunes, went the thinking of the time.
Underlying many of the Puritans' problems was a feeling of helplessness and terror of the unknown. That uneasiness and anxiety created the perfect climate for seeking scapegoats: the eccentric, argumentative, demented, and elderly to whom nearly any affliction could be attributed. It was convenient to accuse them of being witches or sorcerers, in league with the devil and his demons, even if it was irrational. There was no room for dissent. Two well-known instances of voices that spoke up in opposition to Puritan rigidity were theologian Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson, a courageous woman whose opinions resulted in her being banished from Boston in 1638. She then moved to Rhode Island, founded by Williams two years earlier; "her strange opinions" were not welcomed in the Massachusetts colony, she was told.
While the adults in Puritan communities faced both imagined and genuine stresses, girls and boys were permitted few if any joys or freedoms associated with childhood. Youngsters were to be seen and not heard, "obedient, industrious, and prayerful." Boys were taught the skills they would ultimately need as adults: hunting, farming, and building. They learned to read and write so they could comprehend the Bible, the Holy Word of God. Girls, on the other hand, were not required to be literate; it was sufficient for them just to learn sewing, cooking, and other domestic skills. Little else broke up the monotony of their days and nights. Nathaniel Hawthorne later wrote in The Scarlet Letter that Puritan childhood was "grim."
Not surprisingly, the tedious lives of Puritan children encouraged boredom, especially during the long and dreary winters. In turn, the tedium led to mischief that was responsible for America's first major paranormal incident: the witchcraft hysteria of 1692, begun by several young girls in Salem Village, whose apparently innocent curiosity about the occult spun wildly out of control.
The belief in witches, who could carry out Satan's evil deeds, was as real to the Puritans as the constant threat from the devil himself. The Bible admonished, "Thou shall not suffer a witch to live," and the Puritans took the words literally. In England, witchcraft had been a crime punishable by death since 1542; by 1647, witchcraft was against the law in the New England colonies of Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Connecticut, where there were witchcraft outbreaks at various times. A witch's spell cast on livestock might make an animal ill or die. Witches, in league with the devil, even had the power to deform or kill newborn babies, according to Puritan conviction, ignoring high infant mortality rates; and an inappropriate look, pointed finger, or imprudent word might be construed as an evil curse.
In 1655, Anne Hibbins, a quarrelsome Boston widow, seemed to know that two women were talking about her. Perhaps she'd overheard them — or she had a degree of genuine psychic or intuitive ability. Whatever the explanation, the women were certain that Mrs. Hibbins's prescience represented something occult and, therefore, dangerous. She was charged with witchcraft, tried, found guilty, and hanged the next year.
In Hartford, Connecticut, in 1662, a woman named Ann Cole suffered "strange fits," marked by wild behavior. A minister who observed her wrote that Cole's "bodily motions [were] extremely violent." Cole also confessed she heard "strange voices," a phenomenon that in the seventeenth century was evidence of evil or demonic spirits at work. Today, of course, she would be given psychiatric treatment. But in the words of her day, "She did have familiarity with the devil."
Another of the accused in Hartford, an elderly and uneducated woman named Rebecca Greensmith, confessed to her acquaintance with the devil and acknowledged that he "used my body." Her description of sexual intercourse with the devil was not unusual in the European history of witchcraft. However, her story is rare among New England accounts. The sexual aspects of witchcraft centuries ago were common, especially among those classified as "hysterics." "What is involved is apparently an erotic fit in which the woman actually goes through the motions of copulation and achieves an orgasm; similar fits have been observed in mental patients in the twentieth century," author Chadwick Hansen wrote in Witchcraft in Salem.
Found guilty of witchcraft, both Rebecca, and her husband Nathaniel Greensmith, went to the gallows in 1663, an ignominious year in the history of New England witchcraft for there were flare-ups of witch hysteria in several communities; the worst, an outburst that sent panic through Hartford, Connecticut.
What was unique about Salem Village to bring the devil there? For one thing, unlike larger towns such as Boston, which had grown more sophisticated, Salem Village did not have a cosmopolitan or well-educated citizenry, even though it was only about thirty miles north of Boston. Salem Village must also be distinguished from nearby Salem Town, a more tolerant environment. Salem Village (now called Danvers) was, in one historian's words, "a backwater." This small, rural community, with an adult population at that time of 215, was beset by friction and quarrels between various factions, fomenting enough hostility and jealousy for it to become the perfect place to incubate a witchcraft outbreak.
The "Salem witch hysteria," as it came to be called, began, ironically, in the home of the Reverend Samuel Parris. He'd been pastor of the Salem Village Church only since 1689, and although relatively inexperienced, was considered as pious and strict as any Puritan minister could be; and 1692 would prove to be a year unlike any he could have imagined in his worst nightmares.
In the Parris household lived the reverend, his wife, their nine-year-old daughter Elizabeth, his eleven-year-old niece Abigail Williams, and Tituba and her husband John Indian, a West Indian slave couple. The Parris home served as the local parsonage. Elizabeth and Abigail had been fully indoctrinated in the Puritan faith, with its fear of the devil, demons, and witches. How could it be otherwise in such a religious home? The girls were often left in the care of Tituba, and with idle time on their hands and owning young restless minds, the children were eager to hear the tales Tituba told of her culture, so vastly different and unimaginable from their limited Puritan world.
West Indian traditions held belief in voodoo, ghosts, necromancy, and magic — all anathema to Calvinist or Puritan tenets. Tituba's skills, other than as a domestic servant, included fortune-telling, sorcery, and palmistry. So, in secret, Elizabeth and her cousin Abigail huddled in the kitchen of the Parris residence near the hearth, where Tituba would enthrall them with tales of the supernatural and occult she told with such an intensity that the children found them exciting, perhaps all the more so because they were forbidden.
It wasn't long before other girls in the village quietly joined Elizabeth and Abigail to hear Tituba's storytelling and demonstrations of fortune-telling and palm reading. Now the children had something to look forward to that was both secret and captivating. Of course, had their parents discovered what their daughters were learning, they would have been mortified, branded Tituba's behavior as absolute heresy, and punished her severely. Sometimes Tituba's tales of the occult were tinged with evil, something that would arouse the wrath of any responsible Puritan parent. The hidden gatherings generated excitement, but also produced feelings of fright, guilt, and even sinfulness in the children who'd gone way beyond the boundaries of accepted Puritan teachings. Her stories proved difficult for naïve Puritan children to safely absorb in a provincial community in which everything they learned from the young West Indian woman was a contradiction to the indoctrination of home and church.
The first sign of any serious problem occurred when Elizabeth and Abigail began displaying "peculiar" behavior. They gazed emptily at the ceiling above, and seemed to be experiencing strange muscular contractions, twitches, and fits.
What was happening? Reverend Parris and his wife, although shocked and deeply concerned, had not the slightest idea. As quickly as they could they summoned the village doctor, William Griggs, for his advice. While Reverend and Mrs. Parris waited, they resorted to what were then considered traditional solutions in such situations, "prayer and fasting."
Excerpted from The Haunting of America by William J. Birnes, Joel Martin. Copyright © 2009 William J. Birnes and Joel Martin. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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