Rebellion, Trauma, and Toxins: Rethinking Witchcraft and Possession in Colonial New England

Header image: “Brujeria” by Pamela Enriquez-Courts. I am a huge fan of her artwork, and proud to list her among my friends. Follow her on Facebook and Instagram.

It’s the height of spooky season, and ghosts, jack-o-lanterns, monsters, and witches are everywhere you look. While Halloween is more of a lifestyle than a season in our house, it’s the perfect time to talk about witchcraft and possession, and something I have yet to see anyone else mention in the discourse surrounding where the two intersect. (I’ll get to that last part in just a minute.)

Belief in witchcraft and possession was commonplace in 17th century New England—I mean is there anyone who hasn’t heard of the Salem witch trials? Possession, whether by a witch, the Devil, or pure fancy, was experienced and witnessed frequently in the time period. As Carol F. Karlsen, professor emerita of history at the University of Michigan, states in her book, The Devil in the Shape of a Woman, reasons for possession varied.

Considering that many of the possessed were young, orphaned or semi-orphaned girls forced into roles of servitude, Karlsen argues some cases may have been a ruse that satisfied a need for attention, particularly when the afflicted were thought to have “spectral vision,” a special insight into the identities of witches, and were treated as important sources of information.

And who couldn’t resist capitalizing on the chance for a reprieve from a grueling and oppressive life? (Not me!) Some servant girls may have seized a temporary but precious bit of agency by deliberately acting as though possessed, simply to avoid certain chores, as in the cases of partial or complete paralysis, and catatonia. This hypothesis is given further credence by the testimony of one servant who admitted to suffering possession more frequently after becoming a servant.

Karlsen believes it may also have been a form of rebellion to assume a role of bewitchment, as the possessed were reported to say awful and profane things to those in positions of authority, including their masters and clergy. Perhaps under the guise of possession a young, subjugated girl in a strict, patriarchal society could rage against her treatment and social station in a manner she otherwise could not. (Let ‘em have it, sister!)

Witches giving babies to the Devil. Woodcut, 1720. Image from Wellcome Collection.

Scholars offer plenty of non-supernatural motivations and causes when it comes to witchcraft and possession in the colonies, but here’s an aspect I rarely see discussed: Most possession symptoms and behaviors could have been evidence of medical or psychological issues.*

Here’s the revelation I had more than a decade ago when simultaneously taking classes in history, psychology, and environmental geography: Mood disorders, numbness and tingling in the extremities, abdominal pains—all mentioned as signs of possession—are also symptoms of . . . wait for it . . . lead poisoning! Yup. A great many colonists of the time period ate and drank from lead-glazed stoneware, and from pewter—a lead-tin alloy—which through repeated exposure could have led to these very same symptoms. How could it be that this connection exists so far outside of the conversation around witchcraft and possession that I feel like I’m the one to discover it?

With the revelation of lead poisoning out of the way, it’s time to also talk about the manifestations of trauma. Paralysis and catatonia could be subconscious coping mechanisms for difficult physical and emotional situations. The life of a 17th century servant could be traumatic enough in its own right, but a young woman experiencing hormone changes, and who may have recently experienced the trauma of losing one or both parents, followed by being forced into servitude, would be particularly vulnerable to psychogenic ailments. Depression could also easily account for several of the symptoms, as could episodes of conversion disorder—particularly during an outbreak of reported witch activity. The power of suggestion has very real ramifications and could easily spread through overworked, stressed servants.

There are so many possible extra-occult explanations for the possession phenomenon, including willful deceit, a way to protest without suffering the dire consequences of insubordination in that strict society, or a need for attention. Deflecting accusations of witchcraft onto someone else was another motive to claim possession. Symptoms could have been manifestations of lead poisoning or psychological disorders. When all the data is analyzed, and modern knowledge applied to the available information, it’s quite reasonable to conclude that the possession phenomenon was not supernatural in origin, but extremely natural.

The big takeaway from this piece is examining the potential role of lead poisoning, trauma, and mental illness in witchcraft-related possession in a colonial New England populated by superstitious religious zealots, and is in no way intended to invalidate anyone who is a practitioner of any form of witchcraft. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a bubbling cauldron to check on.

*A decade or so has passed since I looked into the matter with any real depth, however, a 2019 article for BBC highlights more potential environmental and physiological causes, but still no mention of lead poisoning.

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