Sunday, 29 November 2015

Crafting Gaskell's Witch: Witchcraft in the 19th Century

Salem Witch Museum stands in Massachusetts USA remembering the town’s hanging of twenty accused witches between 1692-1693. Women and a few men were accused of witchcraft – literally signing themselves over to the Devil by writing their names in his book, pledging to carry out his work on earth. The mass trial began after young girls in the town became ill, and when examined, blamed their illness on the alleged witches. Following the hangings, when the trails had long finished, people of the town were regretful of their actions and many of the girls who had ‘fallen ill’ admitted to not understanding the severity of the situation.  These trials have sparked literary and cultural interest ever since.
Witch Hill/The Salem Martyr - Thomas Satterwhite 1869
          Elizabeth Gaskell’s lesser-known novella, ‘Lois the Witch’ (1860) is a fictionalised account of the trials from the perspective of an orphaned English girl. Gaskell’s version of the trials is closely based on Charles Wentworth Upham’s Lectures on Witchcraft: Comprising a History of the Delusion in Salem in 1962 (1831). Gaskell like many others uses the real historical characters for the trials, but renames them, for example the first condemned witch is renamed Hota, instead of Tituba. Some of her characters are fusions of multiple from the real case.
Tituba and the Children - Alfred Fredricks 1878
         Interestingly Gaskell removes many of the gory aspects of the trials, for example the discovery of needles in the bodies of the ‘ill’ girls, as a result of voodoo conducted by the witches. Gaskell tends of focus on the psychological effects of the trails. Our protagonist Lois travels to the strange new world of the USA after the death of her parents. Not only does Gaskell make this wholly American story more accessible for an English audience – she also turns Salem into a crazed psychological space. “Crossing the sea from old England to New England is a voyage from the ‘normal’ to a fearful psychic landscape” (Uglow 476). It is as though Gaskell is presenting the tale as domestic fantasy, with America as a bizarre unjust yet magical place.

          Despite this, Gaskell hints towards a kind of infection of America, Lois tells her cousins of a disturbing experience she had as a child:
“They were all gazing towards the water, and the maid held me up in her arms to see the sight above the shoulders of people; and I saw old Hannah in the water, her grey hair all streaming down her shoulders, and her face bloody and black with the stones and mud they had been throwing at her, and her cat tied around her neck. I hid my face, I know, as soon as I saw the fearsome sight, for her eyes met mine as they were glaring with fury – poor helpless, baited creature! – and she caught the sight of me, and cried out. “Parson’s wench. Parson’s wench, yonder in thy nurse’s arms, thy dad hath never tried for to save me, and none shall save thee when thou art brought up for a witch.”
                                                                                          Gaskell 114

In the novella Lois is wrongly accused of witchcraft, therefore the English witch’s prophecy comes true (in a way). This idea of passing on the witchcraft is echoed in the courts, when accused witches claim that others are also witches.
A depiction of inside the Salem court - Joseph Baker 1892

Gaskell also draws on witchcraft in her short story ‘The Heart of John Middleton’ (1950).

But why was a political woman such as Elizabeth Gaskell interested in Witchcraft? 

The Witchcraft act of 1735 in Britain made it illegal for someone to accuse someone else of having magical powers or of practicing witchcraft. People no longer believed that people could possess these powers. This act marked the end of the early modern period of witch hunting. However, in 1824 a new statute was introduced as members of the social classes rekindled beliefs in witchcraft, it seemed be as relevant as it was in Shakespeare’s time. Gaskell was very much of this class; whilst I am not sure Gaskell believed in witchcraft, she was certainly interested in its presence.
         Soon after the reform of the law, Sir Walter Scott published Letters of Demonology and Witchcraft (1830) exploring this newfound belief and why people recessed to old beliefs despite the advances in modern science.
Henry Fuseli - The Three Witches 1783
         Gaskell’s friendship with Nathaniel Hawthorne, author of The Scarlet Letter (1850) may have sparked some interest in the trials, as his ancestor John Hathorne acted as the sole judge for the trials. Hawthorne was ashamed of his ancestor’s actions, and lack of repentance, and so added the ‘w’ into his surname in order to distance himself from the tragedy. Shown here are the Examinations and Mittimus of Sarah Good, Sarah Osburn and Tituba, as recorded by John Hathorne. 
        Within Gaskell’s social circle both Mary Howitt and Charles Dickens had connections to the Danish fairy tale writer Hans Christian Anderson. Howitt published the first English translations of his works, whereas Dickens had a fleeting friendship with Anderson. Dickens played host to Anderson on two occasions. Following his second stay (a six week stint) Dickens decided enough was enough, he had overstayed his welcome, Dickens never wrote to Anderson again.

The Sea Witch - Bertall (1820-1882)
         Aside from this drama, Anderson’s infamous tale ‘The Little Mermaid’ (1837) is another Victorian depiction of Witchcraft. Anderson’s ‘Sea Witch’, otherwise known as Ursula is, I would argue, the best (worst) villain ever. Anderson’s witch bargains with the little mermaid, allowing her to walk with humans in exchange for her voice (which involves cruelly cutting out her tongue). In addition to this, if the mermaid fails to get the prince to fall in love with her, she will die (and turn into sea foam) when he marries another. Anderson’s description of this witch harks back to biblical ideas of Satan, and a typical attribute of a witch – overt sexuality. The witch owns two ‘sea snakes’ that you may remember from the Disney film, she calls them her ‘babies’. The snakes are used to re-associate the witch with Satan: his baser form the snake.

“There sat the sea witch, letting a toad eat from her mouth, the way humans let little canaries eat sugar. She called the hideous fat water snakes her little chickens and let them swarm over her big spongy breasts.”
                                                                              Anderson, 78

Bat Woman - Albert Penot 1890

When we compare this to ‘Lois the Witch’, in which Lois’s communication with Pastor Nolan (John Hale) causes extreme jealousy in her cousin Faith (Abigail), resulting in Faith condemning Lois as a witch, sending her to her death. Both examples suggest that a witch is someone with sexual power over others. Even the cutting out of the mermaid’s tongue allows the sea witch to have more sexual prowess, by removing others. Victorians may have used the image of the witch as a symbol for prostitution.  Much as Arthur Miller used the Salam trials in The Crucible (1953) as a mask for the Cold War, he makes a point about cultural problems without directly addressing them. Prostitution in the Victorian period was rife -- Gaskell may be using the Salem trials to show how harshly judged prostitutes were by the majority. There are boundless such judgments in Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor (1851).


Salem from Sabrina the Witch 
Evidently the Salem trials had a large cultural impact, it is recognised even today, there is a popular television show in the US called ‘Salem’ where the witches really are magic. There are many places that reference the trials that I had not noticed before, even Sabrina the Witch’s cat is called Salem!

It surprises me that Gaskell’s ‘Lois the Witch’ isn’t as celebrated as her other works, when the topic is still relevant in modern day culture. Gaskell’s interest in the trials seem to be mainly based on the injustices of the cases and their prevalence in Victorian life, with debt being a crime punishable by imprisonment – of which Charles Dickens’ father was a victim. I think it is very interesting that the Victorians had a newfound belief in witchcraft, and Gaskell’s writings are a perfect example of this.
      I leave you with the wonderful Ursula from Disney’s ‘The Little Mermaid’:

Work Citied:

Anderson, Hans Christian. Fairy Tales. Trans. Tiina Nunnally. London: Penguin, 2004. Print.

Gaskell, Elizabeth Cleghorn. The Heart of John Middleton. Whitefish, MT: Kessinger, n.d. Print.

Gaskell, Elizabeth Cleghorn. Lois the Witch. London: Penguin, 2008. Print.

Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Scarlet Letter. London: Penguin, 2012. Print.

Mayhew, Henry. London Labour and the London Poor. New York: Dover Publications, 1968. Print.

Miller, Arthur, and Susan C. W. Abbotson. The Crucible. London: Methuen Drama, 2010. Print.

Scott, Sir Walter. Letters on Demonology and Witchcraft. N.p.: U of Adelaide Library, 2011. Print.

Scovell, Nell. "Sabrina, the Teenage Witch." Sabrina, the Teenage Witch. ABC. United States of America, n.d. Television.

The Little Mermaid. Dir. Ron Clements and John Musker. Perf. Jodi Benson. Disney, 1989. Web.

Uglow, Jennifer S. Elizabeth Gaskell: A Habit of Stories. London: Faber and Faber, 1999. Print.

Upham, Charles Wentworth. Lectures on Witchcraft Comprising a History of the Delusion in Salem, in 1692. Boston: Carter, Hendee and Babcock, 1831. Print.

Image Source:

Baker, Joseph. Representation of the Salem Witch Trials. Digital image. Legends of America. N.p., n.d. Web. <>.

Bertall. The Sea Witch. Digital image. Wizzley. N.p., n.d. Web. <>.

Fredericks, Alfred. Tituba and the Children. Digital image. History of Massachusetts. N.p., n.d. Web. <>.

Fuseli, Henry. The Three Witches. Digital image. N.p., n.d. Web. <>.

Goya, Francisco. Linda Maestra. Digital image. Wikipedia. N.p., n.d. Web. <!.jpg>.

Hathorne, John. Examinations and Mittimus of Sarah Good, Sarah Osburn and Tituba as Recorded by John Hathorne. Digital image. Salem Witch Trials Documentary Archive and Transcription Project. N.p., n.d. Web. <>.

Penot, Albert. Bat Woman. Digital image. Pictify. N.p., n.d. Web. <>.

Salem from Sabrina the Witch. Digital image. Hexjam. N.p., n.d. Web. <>.

Salem Witch Museum. Digital image. Tourist Book. N.p., n.d. Web. <>.

Satterwhite, Thomas. Witch Hill or the Salem Martyr. Digital image. Huffington Post. N.p., n.d. Web. <>.
Ursula. Digital image. Ghipy. N.p., n.d. Web. <>.


Elsley, Susan Jennifer. "Images of the Witch in Nineteenth-Century Culture." Diss. U of Liverpool, 2012. Print.

Gibson, Walter B. Witchcraft: A History of the Black Art. Trowbridge, Wiltshire: Redwood Limited, 1973. Print.

Hole, Christina. Witchcraft in England. New York: C. Scribner's Sons, 1947. Print.

"Timeline of Hans Christian Andersen's Life." The British Library. The British Library Board, n.d. Web. 19 Nov. 2015. <>.


  1. Hi Sydney,
    I was scrolling down the home page and your blog post really caught my eye! Before reading your post I must admit I knew very little about witchcraft within the Victorian period, especially in reference to laws and reasoning's. Your blog post has given me a wider understanding of this topic and I love the connection you drew between witchcraft and Salem in Sabrina the teenage witch (I watched that show for years and never even realised the connotations linked with the cat). Thank you for sharing such a great post!

  2. Hi,
    Thanks for this post. Loved the pun in the title. I like how you use Gaskell as an anchor whilst bringing in such a wide variety of elements, such as Arthur Miller, Anderson, and Sabrina the Teenage Witch. It made for very entertaining reading. I enjoyed the contrast you showed between Anderson and Disney in their handling of the fairy tale. Also, great use of the gif. Do you know if Gaskell had visited America, or if she was writing purely from imagination and research?

  3. Thank you both for your comments!

    Alastair, to my knowledge Gaskell never travelled to America, however she did travel frequently to France, Italy and Germany. Personally, I think this helped develop the 'otherness' that Lois experiences after arriving in America (New England) as she moves away from Gaskell's reality of the UK (Old England).