This time of year, I find myself getting excited. Something about the sudden chill in the air (or this year, the sudden deluge in the air!) gets me nostalgic for apple cider, pumpkin lattes, and Halloween costumes. I always enjoyed the dark trappings of the holiday.
But something happened a few years ago to dampen my embrace of all-things-Halloween. I learned that in 1656, my 11-greats grandmother Mary Bliss Parsons was accused of witchcraft. Her neighbors blamed her for their small Massachusetts town's typical bad luck: livestock dying, sickly newborns, painful falls in the forest. They also fingered her for some bizarre things, like being able to walk into the river and come out dry.
Mary was able to get enough witnesses on her side to be acquitted. The court ordered her accuser to pay a fine and publicly apologize. But her village's size meant that she was not able to "fade into the woodwork" and resume a normal life; there were only 32 houses in Northampton, Mass. at the time.
And sure enough, 18 years later, neighbors accused her again. This time the charge was more grave: magical murder of a young woman.
Mary spent months in prison awaiting trial (this at a time when prisons had dirt floors and no planned food - family members had to bring food or pay the jailers so the prisoner wouldn't starve). She was transported to Boston for a more serious trial, with the governor in attendance. Incredibly, she won her freedom again.
Her story ended "happily" (as much as is possible when one's neighbors believe the court freed a devil worshipper in error)... many weren't so lucky. New England mostly hanged its witches, while those in continental Europe burned at the stake. It is difficult to imagine a more painful, terrifying death.
Sadly, witchcraft persecutions continue today. Dungeons in Europe gather dust, but in other parts of the world, people still face torture and even death for the mistaken belief in witchcraft. In just the last two years, I've blogged about disturbing events in modern-day India, Papua New Guinea, and the African countries of Gambia, Nigeria, Angola, Kenya, Tanzania, Zimbabwe, Congo and Congo Republic. And those are just the news stories I picked up without heavy research.
Take a look at a few of the ridiculous accusations.
Soccer fans in eastern Congo became convinced a player was a witch; the resulting panic left 15 people, many of them teens, trampled to death in September 2008.
A mob in Congo attempted to lynch male "witches" who had stolen their penis (I'm not joking) in April 2007. Those victims fared better than five accused of the same thing in Benin six years earlier: four of them were doused with gas and set on fire; the fifth was hacked to death.
In January of this year, a young woman in Papua New Guinea was set on fire for spreading AIDS through witchcraft.
In March of this year, Tanzanian women were killed for causing a child's death of diarrhea. This accusation rang old bells for me: my ancestor was accused of the very same thing in her first trial.
We're used to the idea of the old, female crone as witch; modern-day accusations are just as often leveled at children. In a single Angolan town, over 400 children were pushed from their homes to live on the streets because their families felt they were witches. A shelter has been set up to house these witches, children as young as four years old.
The accusations arose out of desperation, as war-torn families found themselves with limited food supplies. If one person is pushed out of the house, there is more food for those doing the accusing.
You can see why a holiday that makes light fun of a woman on her broomstick doesn't have the same thoughtless appeal it once did. But that doesn't mean I won't happily hand out candy to your kids as they ring my doorbell. I can remember my ancestor and those like her at the same time that I'm grateful that the U.S. is a relatively safe place to live.
Erika Mailman blogs about witchcraft issues at www.erikamailman.blogspot.com. This column appeared in slightly different format in the Gilroy Dispatch. She's the author of the novel The Witch's Trinity.
Causes Erika Mailman Supports
Amnesty International, Oakland Heritage Alliance