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The occult history of the European races which occupy the territory now known as the United States of America does not commence until some little time after their entrance into the North American continent. It is probable that the early English and Dutch settlers carried with them the germs of the practice of witchcraft, but it is certain that they brought with them an active belief in witchcraft and sorcery. It is significant, however, that no outbreak of fanaticism occurred in connection with this belief until nearly the end of the seventeenth century, in 1692, when an alarm of witchcraft was raised in the family of the Minister of Salem, and several black servants were charged with the supposed crime. It is quite likely that these negroes practised voodoo or obeah, but, however this may be, the charges did not stop at them. The alarm spread rapidly, and in a brief space numerous persons fell under suspicion on the most frivolous pretexts. The new Governor of the Colony, Sir William Phipps, appears to have been carried away with the excitement, and authorised judicial prosecutions. The first person tried, a woman named Bridget Bishop, was hanged, and the Governor feeling himself embarassed among the extraordinary number of charges made after this, called in the assistance of the clergy of Boston. As events proved, this was a fatal thing to do. Boston, at this time, possessed a distinguished family of puritanical ministers of the name of Mather. The original Mather had settled in Dorchester in 1636, and three years later had a son born to him, whom he called Increase Mather. He became a clergyman, as did his son, Cotton Mather, born in 1663. Increase was President of Harvard College, and his son occupied a distinguished position therein, and also preached at Boston. The fanaticism and diabolical cruelty of these two men has probably never been equalled in the history of human persecution. Relying implicitly upon the scriptural injunction: "Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live," and blinded by their fanatic zeal, they cost the colony many precious lives. Indeed, beside their regime, the rigours of Sprenger and Bodin, pale into insignificance. That ministers professing to preach a gospel of charity and love could have so far descended as to torture and condemn thousands of human beings to the gallows and the stake, can only be regarded as astounding. In 1688 an Irish washer woman, named Glover, was employed by a mason of Boston, one Goodwin, to look after his children, and these shortly afterwards displayed symptoms which Cotton Mather, on examination, stated were those of diabolical possession. The wretched washerwoman was brought to trial, found guilty, and hanged; and Cotton Mather launched into print upon the case under the title of Late Memorable Providences Relating to Witchcraft and Possession which displayed an extraordinary amount of ingenuity and an equally great lack of anything like sound judgment. As was the case with the works of the European writers on witchcraft and sorcery, this book fanned the flame of credulity, and thousands of the ignorant throughout the colony began to cast about for similar examples of witchcraft. Five other persons were brought to trial and executed, and a similar number shortly met the same fate, among them a minister of the Gospel, by name George Borroughs, who disbelieved in witchcraft. This was sufficient, and he was executed forthwith. Popular sentiment was on his side, but the fiendish Cotton Mather appeared at the place of execution on horseback, denounced Borroughs as an impostor, and upheld the action of his judges. Another man, called Willard, who had been employed to arrest suspected witches, refused to continue in his office, and was himself arrested. He attempted to save himself by flight, but was pursued and overtaken, and duly executed. Even dogs accused of witchcraft were put to death, but the magistrates who had undertaken the proceedings, ignorant as they were, began to have some suspicion that the course they had adopted was a violent and dangerous one, and popular sentiment rose so high that the Governor requested Cotton Mather to write a treatise in defence of what had been done. The result was the famous volume, Wonders of the Invisible World, in which the author gives an account of several of the trials at Salem, compares the doings of witches in New England with those in other parts of the world, and discourses elaborately on witchcraft generally. The witch mania now spread throughout the whole colony. One of the first checks it received was the accusation of the wife of Mr. Hale, a minister. Her husband had been a zealous promotor of the prosecutions, but this accusation altered his views, and he became convinced of the injustice of the whole movement. But certain persons raised the question as to whether the Devil could not assume the shape of an innocent and pious person as well as a wicked one for his own purposes, and the assistance of Increase Mather, President of Harvard College, was called in to decide this. He wrote a book, A Further Account of the Trials of the New England Witches, and added many cases concerning witchcraft and evil spirits personating men, in the course of which he unhesitatingly affirmed that it was possible for the enemy of mankind to assume the guise of a person in whom there was no guile. A new scene of agitation was the town of Andover, where a great many persons were accused of witchcraft and thrown into prison, until a certain justice of the peace, named Bradstreet, who deserves special mention for his enlightened policy, refused to grant any more warrants for arrest. The accusers immediately fastened upon him, and declared that he had killed several people by means of sorcery, and so alarmed was he that he fled from the town. But the fanatics who made it their business to accuse, became bolder, and aimed at persons of rank, until at last they had the audacity to impeach the wife of Governor Phipps himself. This withdrew from them the countenance of the Governor, and a certain Bostonian who was accused, brought an action of damages against his accusers for defamation of character. After this, the whole agitation died down, and scores of persons who had made confessions retracted; but the Mathers obstinately persisted in the opinions they had published, and regarded the reactionary feeling as a triumph of Satan. A Boston girl, named Margaret Rule, was seized with convulsions, and when visited by Cotton Mather, was found by him to be suffering from a diabolical attack of obsession. He did his best to renew the agitation, but to no purpose, for a certain Robert Calif, an influential merchant of the town, also examined the girl, and satisfied himself that the whole thing was a delusion. He penned an account of his examination exposing the theories of the Mathers, which is published under the title of More Wonders of the Invisible World. This book was publicly burned by the partisans of the fanatical clergy, but the eyes of the public were now opened, and opinion generally was steadfastly against the accusation and prosecution of reputed witches. The people of Salem drove from their midst the minister, Paris, with whom the prosecution had begun, and a deep remorse settled down upon the community. Indeed, most of the persons concerned in the judicial proceedings proclaimed their regret; the jurors signed a paper stating their repentance and pleading delusion. But even all this failed to convince the Mathers, and Cotton wrote his Magnolia, an ecclesiastical history of New England, published 1700, which repeats his original view of the power of Satan at Salem, and evinces no regret for the part he had taken in the matter. In 1723, he edited The Remarkables of his father, in which he took occasion to repeat his theories. Increase Mather died in 1723, at the age of eighty-five, and Cotton lived on to 1728. It has been claimed that they acted according to their lights and conscience, but there is no doubt that their vanity would not permit them to retract what they had once set down regarding witchcraft, and their names will go down to posterity with those of the inquisitors and torturers of the middle ages, as men, who with less excuse than these, tormented and bereft of life hundreds of totally innocent people.
Apart from the doings at Salem, colonial America has little to offer in the way of occult history; but the modern United States of America is extremely rich in occult history. This, however, is a history of outstanding individuals— Thomas Lake Harris, Brigham Young, the Foxes, Andrew Jackson Davis, and so on, biographies of whom will he found scattered throughout this work. But that is not to say that various occult movements have not from time to time either originated in, or found a home in the United States. Indeed, the number of occult or semi-occult sects which have originated there, is exceedingly great, and the foundation of occult communities has been frequent. Such were the Mountain Cove community of Harris; the Society of Hopedale, founded by Ballou: and so on. The notorious community, or rather nation of Mormons had undoubtedly a semi-occult origin. Its founder, Joseph Smith, and its first great prophet, Brigham Young, both had occult ideas, which rather remind us of those of Blake, and were decidedly of biblical origin. Smith purported to discover tablets of brass upon which was engraved the new law. This was the germ of the Book of Morman the Prophet, and a certain pseudo-mysticism was associated with the Mormon movement. This, however, wore off after a while. More fresh in the recollection are the blasphemous absurdities of the prophet Dowie, who purported to be a prophet of the new Christianity, and succeeded in amassing very considerable wealth. Later, however, he became discredited, and many of his disciples seceded from him. Sects of Adventists have also been fairly numerous. These persons at the call of their leaders have met in cemeteries and elsewhere arrayed in white robes, in the belief that the Last Day had arrived; but finding themselves duped, they invariably turned upon the charlatans who had aroused these false hopes. There is an instance on record, however, where one such person succeeded in bringing about the repetition of such a scene.
Theosophy, as will be seen in the central article on that subject, owes much to America, for it may be said that in the United States it received an almost novel interpretation at the hands of William Q. Judge, and Katherine B. Tingley, the founder of the theosophic colony at Point Loma, California.
The United States is frequently alluded to as the home and birth-place of "queer" religions par excellence. If Paris be excepted this charge holds good, for nowhere is pseudo-occultism so rife. It would indeed be difficult to account for this state of things. Shrewd as the average American is, there is no question that he is prone to extremes, and the temper of the nation as a whole is not a little hysterical. Such sects are often founded by unscrupulous foreign adventurers, and worshippers of Isis, diabolic societies and such-like abound in the larger cities, and even in some of the lesser communities. But on the other hand many such cults, the names of which for obvious reasons we cannot mention here, are of native American origin. In course of time these duly invade Europe, with varying fortunes. There exist, however, in America, numbers of cultured persons who make a serious study of the higher branches of mysticism and occultism, and who compare favourably in erudition and character with advanced European mystics. It might indeed with truth be said that America has produced the greatest occult leaders of the last quarter of a century.
American Indians. Among the various native races of the American continent, the supernatural has ever flourished as universally as among peoples in an analogous condition of civilisation in other parts of the world. They will be treated in the present article according to their geographical situation. Mexico, Central America and Peru have been noticed in separate articles.
North American Indians. The oldest writers on the North American Indians agree that they practised sorcery and the magic arts, and often attributed this power of the Indians to Satan. The Rev. Peter Jones, writing as late as the first decade of the nineteenth century, says: "I have sometimes been inclined to think that if witchcraft still exists in the world, it is to be found among the aborigines of America." The early French settlers called the Nipissing Jongleurs because of the surprising expertness in magic of their medicine men. Carver and Fletcher observed the use of hypnotic suggestion among the Menominee and Sioux about the middle of last century, and it is generally admitted that this art, which is known to modern Americanists as orenda, is known among most Indian tribes as Mooney has proved in his Ghost Dance Religion. Brinton, alluding to Indian medicine-men and their connection with the occult arts, says: "They were also adepts in tricks of sleight of hand, and had no mean acquaintance with what is called natural magic. They would allow themselves to be tied hand and foot with knots innumerable, and at a sign would shake them loose as so many wisps of straw; they would spit fire and swallow hot coals, pick glowing stones from the flames, walk with naked feet over live ashes, and plunge their arms to the shoulder in kettles of boiling water with apparent impunity.
"Nor was this all. With a skill not inferior to that of the jugglers of India, they could plunge knives into vital parts, vomit blood, or kill one another out and out to all appearances, and yet in a few minutes be as well as ever; they could set fire to articles of clothing and even houses, and by a touch of their magic restore them instantly as perfect as before. Says Father Bautista: 'They can make a stick look like a serpent, a mat like a centipede, and a piece of stone like a scorpion.' If it were not within our power to see most of these miracles performed any night in our great cities by a well-dressed professional, we should at once deny their possibility. As it is they astonish us but little.
"One of the most peculiar and characteristic exhibitions of their power, was to summon a spirit to answer inquiries concerning the future and the absent. A great similarity marked this proceeding in all northern tribes, from the Eskimos to the Mexicans. A circular or conical lodge of stout poles, four or eight in number, planted firmly in the ground was covered with skins or mats, a small aperture only being left for the seer to enter. Once in, he carefully closed the hole and commenced his incantations. Soon the lodge trembles, the strong poles shake and bend as with the united strength of a dozen men, and strange, unearthly sounds, now far aloft in the air, now deep in the ground, anon approaching near and nearer, reach the ears of the spectators.
"At length the priest announces that the spirit is present, and is prepared to answer questions. An indispensable preliminary to any inquiry is to insert a handful of tobacco, or a string of beads, or some such douceur under the skins, ostensibly for the behoof of the celestial visitor, who would seem not to be above earthly wants and vanities. The replies received, though occasionally singularly clear and correct, are usually of that profoundly ambiguous purport which leaves the anxious inquirer little wiser than he was before.
"For all this, ventriloquism, trickery, and shrewd knavery are sufficient explanations. Nor does it materially interfere with this view, that converted Indians, on whose veracity we can implicitly rely, have repeatedly averred that in performing this rite they themselves did not move the medicine lodge; for nothing is easier than in the state of nervous excitement they were then in to be self-deceived, as the now familiar phenomenon of table-turning illustrates.
"But there is something more than these vulgar arts now and then to be perceived. There are statements supported by unquestionable testimony, which ought not to be passed over in silence, and yet I cannot but approach them with hesitation. They are so revolting to the laws of exact science, so alien, I had almost said, to the experience of our lives. Yet is this true, or are such experiences only ignored and put aside without serious consideration? Are there not in the history of each of us passages which strike our retrospective thought with awe, almost with terror? Are there not in nearly every community individuals who possess a mysterious power, concerning whose origin, mode of action, and limits, we and they are alike, in the dark?
"I refer to such organic forces as are popularly summed up under the words clairvoyance, mesmerism, rhabdomancy, animal magnetism, physical spiritualism. Civilised thousands stake their faith and hope here and hereafter, on the truth of these manifestations; rational medicine recognises their existence, and while she attributes them to morbid and exceptional influences, confesses her want of more exact knowledge, and refrains from barren theorising. Let us follow her example, and hold it enough to show that such powers, whatever they are, were known to the native priesthood as well as the modern spiritualists and the miracle mongers of the Middle Ages.
"Their highest development is what our ancestors called 'second sight.' That under certain conditions knowledge can pass from one mind to another otherwise than through the ordinary channels of the senses, is shown by the examples of persons en rapport. The limit to this we do not know, but it is not unlikely that clairvoyance or second sight is based upon it."
In his autobiography, the celebrated Sac chief, Black Hawk, relates that his great grandfather "was inspired by a belief that at the end of four years he should see a white man, who would be to him a father." Under the direction of this vision he travelled eastward to a certain spot, and there, as he was forewarned, met a Frenchman, through whom the nation was brought into alliance with France.
No one at all versed in the Indian character will doubt the implicit faith with which this legend was told and heard. But we may be pardoned our scepticism, seeing there are so many chances of error. It is not so with an anecdote related by Captain Jonathan Carver, a coolheaded English trader, whose little book of travels is an unquestioned authority. In 1767 he was among the Killistenoes at a time when they were in great straits for food, and depending upon the arrival of the traders to rescue them from starvation. They persuaded the chief priest to consult the divinities as to when the relief would arrive. After the usual preliminaries, their magnate announced that the next day precisely, when the sun reached the zenith, a canoe would arrive with further tidings. At the appointed hour, the whole village, together with the incredulous Englishman, was on the beach, and sure enough, at the minute specified, a canoe swung round a distant point of land, and rapidly approaching the shore brought the expected news. Charlevoix is nearly as trustworthy a writer as Carver. Yet he deliberately relates an equally singular instance.
But these examples are surpassed by one described in the Atlantic Monthly, of July, 1866, the author of which, the late Col. John Mason Brown, has testified to its accuracy in every particular. Some years since at the head of a party of voyageurs, he set forth in search of a band of Indians somewhere on the vast plains along the tributaries of the Copper-mine and Mackenzie rivers. Danger, disappointment, and the fatigues of the road, induced one after another to turn back, until of the original ten only three remained. They also were on the point of giving up the apparently hopeless quest, when they were met by some warriors of the very band they were seeking. These had been sent out by one of their medicine men to find three whites, whose horses, arms, attire, and personal appearance he minutely described, which description was repeated to Col. Brown by the warriors before they saw his two companions. When afterwards, the priest, a frank and simple-minded man, was asked to explain this extraordinary occurrence, he could offer no other explanation than that "he saw them coming, and heard them talk on their journey."
Many tales such as these have been recorded by travellers, and however much they may shock our sense of probability, as well-authenticated exhibitions of a power which sways the Indian mind, and which has ever prejudiced it so unchangeably against Christianity and civilisation, they cannot be disregarded. Whether they too are but specimens of refined knavery, whether they are instigations of the devil, or whether they must be classed with other facts as illustrating certain obscure and curious mental faculties, each may decide as the bent of his mind inclines him, for science makes no decision.
Those nervous conditions associated with the name of Mesmer were nothing new to the Indian magicians. Rubbing and stroking the sick, and the laying on of hands, were very common parts of their clinical procedures, and at the initiations to their societies they were frequently exhibited. Observers have related that among the Nez Perces of Oregon, the novice was put to sleep by songs, incantations, and "certain passes of the hand," and that with the Dakotas he would be struck lightly on the breast at a preconcerted moment, and instantly "would drop prostrate on his face, his muscles rigid and quivering in every fibre."
There is no occasion to suppose deceit in this. It finds its parallel in every race and every age, and rests on a characteristic trait of certain epochs and certain men, which leads them to seek the divine, not in thoughtful contemplation on the laws of the universe and the facts of self-consciousness, but in an entire immolation of the latter, a sinking of their own individuality in that of the spirits whose alliance they seek.
The late Washington Mathews, writing in Bulletin 30 of the Bureau of American Ethnology, says:
"Sleight-of-hand was not only much employed in the treatment of disease, but was used on many other occasions. A very common trick among Indian charlatans was to pretend to suck foreign bodies, such as stones, out of the persons of their patients. Records of this are found among many tribes, from the lowest in culture to the highest, even among the Aztecs. Of course, such trickery was not without some therapeutic efficacy, for, like many other proceedings of the shamans, it was designed to cure disease by influence on the imagination. A Hidatsa, residing in Dakota, in 1865, was known by the name of Cherry-in-the-mouth, because he had a trick of producing from his mouth, at any season, what seemed to be fresh wild cherries. He had found some way of preserving cherries, perhaps in whisky, and it was easy for him to hide them in his mouth before intending to play the trick; but many of the Indians considered it wonderful magic.
"The most astonishing tricks of the Indians were displayed in their fire ceremonies and in handling hot substances, accounts of which performances pertain to various tribes. It is said that Chippewa sorcerers could handle with impunity red-hot stones and burning brands, and could bathe the hands in boiling water or syrup; such magicians were called 'fire-dealers' and 'fire-handlers.' There are authentic accounts from various parts of the world of fire-dancers and fire-walks among barbarous races, and extraordinary fire acts are performed also among widely separated Indian tribes. Among the Arikara of what is now North Dakota, in the autumn of 1865, when a large fire in the centre of the medicine lodge had died down until it became a bed of glowing embers, and the light in the lodge was dim, the performers ran with apparently bare feet among the hot coals and threw these around in the lodge with their bare hands, causing the spectators to flee. Among the Nahavo, performers, naked except for breech-cloth and moccasins, and having their bodies daubed with a white infusorial clay, run at high speed around a fire, holding in their hands great faggots of flaming cedar bark, which they apply to the bare backs of those in front of them and to their own persons. Their wild race around the fire is continued until the faggots are nearly all consumed, but they are never injured by the flame. This immunity may be accounted for by supposing that the cedar bark does not make a very hot fire, and that the clay coating protects the body. Menominee shamans are said to handle fire, as also are the female sorcerers of Honduras.
"Indians know well how to handle venomous serpents with impunity. If they can not avoid being bitten, as they usually can, they seem to be able to avert the fatal consequences of the bite. The wonderful acts performed in the Snake Dance of the Hopi have often been described.
"A trick of Navaho dancers, in the ceremony of the mountain chant, is to pretend to thrust an arrow far down the throat. In this feat an arrow with a telescopic shaft is used; the point is held between the teeth; the hollow part of the handle, covered with plumes, is forced down toward the lips, and thus the arrow appears to be swallowed. There is an account of an arrow of similar construction used early in the eighteenth century by Indians of Canada, who pretended a man was wounded by it and healed instantly. The Navaho also pretend to swallow sticks, which their neighbours of the peublo of Zuni actually do in sacred rites, occasionally rupturing the esophagus in the ordeal of forcing a stick into the stomach. Special societies which practise magic, having for their chief object rainmaking and the cure of disease, exist among the southwestern tribes. Swallowing sticks, arrows, etc., eating and walking on fire, and trampling on cactus, are performed by members of the same fraternity.
"Magicians are usually men; but among the aborigines of the Mosquito Coast in Central America, they are often women who are called sukias, and are said to exercise great power. According to Hewitt, Iroquois women are reported traditionally to have been magicians.
"A trick of the juggler among many tribes of the North was to cause himself to be bound hand and foot and then, without visible assistance or effort on his part to release himself from the bonds. Civilised conjurers who perform a similar trick are hidden in a cabinet, and claim supernatural aid; but some Indian jugglers performed this feat under observation. It was common for Indian magicians to pretend they could bring rain, but the trick consisted simply of keeping up ceremonies until fain fell, the last ceremony being the one credited with success. Catlin describes this among the Mandan, in 1832, and the practice is still common among the Pueblo tribes of the arid region. The rain-maker was a special functionary among the Menominee.
"To cause a large plant to grow to maturity in a few moments and out of season is another Indian trick. The Navaho plant the root stalk of a yucca in the ground in the middle of the winter, and apparently cause it to grow, blossom, and bear fruit in a few moments. This is done by the use of artificial flowers and fruit carried under the blankets of the performers; the dimness of the firelight and the motion of the surrounding dancers hide from the spectators the operations of the shaman when he exchanges one artificial object for another. In this way the Hopi grow beans, and the Zuni corn, the latter using a large cooking pot to cover the growing plant."