Posts Tagged witches

Who Haunted Betsy Bell?

14 January 2012

Elizabeth Bell

The visitations began with sightings of strange animals about the Bell homestead, and of a unknown girl in green swinging to the limb of a tall oak. Soon there came an unaccountable knocking about the door and exterior walls of the house, followed by scratching and gnawing sounds that searched from room to room. It assaulted the boys in the night, ripping the sheets from their beds and pulling their hair as they tried to sleep. Whenever candles were lit to investigate, they would soon hear screams coming from their sister’s room. 

Betsy Bell was 12 years old in 1818 when she became the thrall of an unseen tormentor who, for some three years, relentlessly beat her, mangled her hair, pinched and pricked her skin, and once caused her to vomit pins and needles. Her family, early, well-respected settlers of Robertson County, TN, at first tried removing her from the home, but to no avail—the disturbances followed her wherever she went. It was intelligent and, moreover, able to communicate. 

At first the communication was mediated through conventional spirit rapping techniques, but soon it achieved a faltering whisper that grew into a disembodied voice, able to be heard distinctly by everyone in the room. The so-called Bell Witch—or “Kate,” as she came to be known—went on to grant many interviews, over the course of which she sang, gossiped, played tricks, and aped the sermons of local ministers, all the while heaping violent torments on Betsy, her family, and visiting skeptics.

Above all, “Kate” hated Betsy’s father—John Bell, or “Old Jack,” as she addressed him—and swore that she would torture him to death. Coincident with her arrival, he had begun suffering from facial seizures that limited his ability to speak and consume food, and when he ultimately died in 1820, the witch pointed out a vial of poison that she had used to do him in. It was only after John Bell was thus dead that the witch began to release her grip on Betsy, the manifestations more or less coming to an end by 1821. 

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Elizabeth d’Espérance’s “Shadow Land”

1 October 2011

Elizabeth d’Espérance grew up in a tired old house on the East End of London, filled with dark, oak-paneled halls and desolate, forbidden rooms that compelled her to explore. “I was very fond of wandering about from one empty room to another,” she wrote, 

and of sitting with my dolls on the broad low window seats, whence I would be fetched with an exclamation of horror and wonder by our servant, who considered my liking for the haunted rooms as “uncanny” and unnatural, threatening me with the ghosts and their vengeance if I persisted in invading their domains by myself.

I could never quite understand nurse’s remarks about the lonelines of the rooms, though her threats about the ghosts frightened me. To me the rooms were never empty nor lonely;—strangers were constantly passing to and fro, from one room to another; some took no notice of me, some nodded and smiled as I held up my doll for their inspection. I did not know who the strangers were, but I grew to know them by sight…

On this note, d’Espérance sets the tone for Shadow Land, her 1897 memoir of life as a medium during the heyday of Victorian spiritualism.

Her career began, naturally enough, in experiments with table rapping and automatic writing, but before long she was performing full-form manifestations in the manner of Florence Cook, Annie Fairlamb, and other star mediums of the era. Her usual controls were “Walter,” a light-hearted American soldier, and the professorial “Humnur Stafford,” but she is best remembered for manifesting female spirits like the “Yolande:” a playful Arab girl whose favorite trick was to materialize (“apport”) exotic flowers into the room. 

Accounts of purported spectral phenomena like these are familiar to any student of spiritualism. What sets Shadow Land apart is that d’Espérance weaves them into a powerful, first-personal narrative that delves into the subjective experience of giving over one’s body as a conduit to the spirit world, together with its attendant doubts, fears and anxieties. Enough has been written about whether it is possible for a medium to lend her substance to strange, otherworldly entities—Shadow Land gives us a basis to imagine what it might actually feel like to do so.

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Aleister Crowley’s “White Stains”

16 July 2011

Aleister Crowley - The Big Book of Weirdos

Aleister Crowley in "The Big Book of Weirdos"

Readers will likely be familiar with Aleister Crowley, the notorious English occultist, bisexual libertine, recreational drug user, founder of the Thelemic religion, leader of the Ordo Templi Orientis (O.T.O.), and all-around scary wicked person. Those familiar with Crowley strictly through his esoteric writings, however, may be interested to know that one the “Great Beast’s” first forays into publishing consisted of a perverse little volume of erotic poetry entitled White Stains.

It was issued in Amsterdam in 1898 by Leonard Smithers; a leading publisher of English pornography, but also of controversial literature. His clients included Aubrey Beardsley, Arthur Symons, and Oscar Wilde. White Stains was published in a print run of one hundred copies which, according to rumors in the book world, Crowley is said to have white-stained himself. Most of these were destroyed in 1924 by British Customs; the surviving first editions currently sell for around $4,000 – $10,000.

The authorship of White Stains was attributed to George Archibald Bishop, a “neuropath of the second empire;” Bishop being the family name of Crowley’s hated, fundamentalist uncle. A lyrical exploration of every sexual taboo from bestiality to pederasty to necrophilia, Crowley conceived it as a literary response to Richard von Krafft-Ebing’s Psychopathia Sexualis. “The thesis of von Krafft-Ebing’s book was that sexual aberrations were the result of physiological disease,” says an essayist at lashtal.com, but Crowley…

“…was of the opinion that any such aberration were psychological in nature and turned to artistic expression to make his point. Crowley states [in his 1989 Confessions] “I therefore invented a poet who went wrong, who began with normal innocent enthusiasms, and gradually developed various vices. He ends by being stricken with disease and madness, culminating in murder. In his poems he describes his downfall, always explaining the psychology of each act.”

True to form, Crowley saw fit to invoke the blessing of the Virgin Mary in the prefatory sonnet to this work. Let’s look at some excerpts.

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Who was Madame Restell?

18 June 2011
Ann Lohman arrested by Anthony Comstock

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The cover of The New York Illustrated Times for February 23rd, 1878 depicts the arrest of the notorious abortionist Ann Lohman, alias “Madame Restell,” by the moral crusader Anthony Comstock. Flanked by reporters and deputies, the statuesque crime-fighter is pictured with a search warrant in hand, which he reads to the lady villain in the attitude of a holy messenger, banishing evil by its sacred words. Comfortably situated amongst the opulent furnishings of her Fifth Avenue mansion, Madame Restell wears a cool, appraising expression, as if to say “Ah, Comstock, my nemesis—I have been expecting you.” Her right hand is clenched into a fist, which overlaps the womb of a veiled woman who weeps with shame in the background.

Dubbed the “wickedest woman in New York,” Madame Restell built an empire of cruelty; promoting vice, and profiting upon the mistakes of married women and wayward girls. She plied her trade openly, publicizing her services through thinly-veiled advertisements in the penny press. Though she was object of perennial public scandals and outbursts of moral outrage, she shamelessly flaunted her wealth, parading about the city in a showy carriage with four horses and a liveried coachman. She evaded justice by bribery, by clever legal maneuvering, and by threatening to expose the identities of her wealthy clientele—or so, that’s how the story goes.

Ann Lohman and her relations left no journals or correspondence to offer us insight into her true actions, personal feelings or motivations. She has been the subject of two modern biographies, Allan Keller’s Scandalous Lady and Clifford Browder’s The Wickedest Woman in New York. Each of these, in weaving its narrative, has been forced to rely heavily upon hostile newspaper accounts, courtroom transcripts, police memoirs, and anti-abortion tracts, as these are virtually the only sources available. History has recorded the story Madame Restell almost exclusively in voice of public condemnation—a circumstance that immediately begs the question: who was she, really?

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The Witches of New York

21 May 2011

In the 1850’s the humorist Mortimer Thomson, writing as Q. K. Philander Doesticks, set his sights on the fortune-tellers, clairvoyants, and astrologers of New York City. Under the pretense of wanting their services, he visited a cross-section of his local oracles and documented his experiences in a series of newspaper articles that became the 1856 book The Witches of New York; a volume that is one part humor, one part skepticism, and one part anthropology.

Thomson was a colorful figure whose obituary credits him with having been expelled from Michigan University for “too much enterprise in securing subjects for the dissecting room.” His prose is highly comedic. In one chapter he impersonated a woman in order to obtain an interview at a ladies-only establishment; a “Crinolinic Stratagem,” as he put it, that afforded him the opportunity to glimpse an image of his future husband.

Much of the humor in The Witches of New York plays upon the contrast between expectations and reality. One by one, the mysterious oracles advertising themselves in local newspapers are revealed to be unassuming alcoholics and former prostitutes who recite vague, boilerplate fortunes, employ cheap parlor tricks and make poor attempts at cold reading. Here is typical example in which a well-established sorceress named Madame Prewster attempts to divine the name of Thomson’s true love:

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