When people think of witchcraft in the United States, they often think of the Salem Witch Trials of the seventeenth century. However, that is far from the end of the story as far as witchcraft in America is concerned. In 1848, at the conclusion of the Mexican War, New Mexico Territory was added to the United States. Many of the people already living in New Mexico suddenly found themselves living in a new country, and many of them believed in witchcraft. Back when I first started my Clockwork Legion steampunk books, I originally expected the series would have more of a supernatural/horror element than it did and I started researching these tales of witchcraft.
One of the books I found was Witchcraft in the Southwest: Spanish and Indian Supernaturalism on the Rio Grande. The book is available at Amazon.com and serves as the source for these tales.
In 1882, a man named Felipe Madrid was arrested in the town of Tierra Amarilla in Northern New Mexico. He was accused of torturing a woman he believed was a witch. Years before, Madrid had an affair with the woman. After they broke up, he started seeing other women, but came down with a “loathsome disease.” He believed that his ex-girlfriend was a witch and she had cursed him. Following an old belief, he planned to abduct her and make her cure him. He sent three of his friends to where she lived and they brought her to his house. Madrid tied the woman’s hands and told her that he would whip her to death if she did not cure him. She protested her innocence and said she could not cure him. He whipped her until she finally promised to cure him. She called for ointments and medicines and while she was waiting for them to be delivered, she finally escaped. Madrid was arrested and put on trial. He was convicted of committing assault and battery and had to pay a fine of $150.
Just a few years later, in the town of Chimayo, New Mexico, a 40-year-old woman was accused of being in league with the Devil. She was taken from her home by three men, stripped of her clothes and stabbed to death.
These two accounts come from New Mexico’s court records and illustrate that people in New Mexico still held a strong belief in witchcraft during the late nineteenth century. People in New Mexico generally thought there were three ways someone could become a witch. First, it was believed that certain children were fated to become witches. Parents grew fearful if any of their children showed any signs of strange or deviant behavior. Second, many witches were said to have voluntarily taken up the craft to get revenge on someone who had wronged them. The third group of witches consisted of those who were said to have sold their souls to the Devil himself for money or power.
There are stories of women who would seek out advanced practitioners of witchcraft and learn from them. In the village of Las Placitas, near Albuquerque, a woman named Juanita was ostracized because she had a bad temper. She sought out a known “bruja” named Felicia, who taught her how to prepare herbs and use them to make magic.
Occasionally, advanced practitioners in witchcraft would get together and conduct formal schools in how to bewitch people, cast spells, and transform into animals. Legend has it that one such school existed in the Central New Mexico town of Peña Blanca. Aspiring witches who attended this school were said to have learned from the Devil himself how to transform into such animals as owls, doves and dogs.
The witches of New Mexico were often said to gather in conclaves. There is the story of a man who lived near Taos who noticed that some of his aunts and uncles would all disappear from time to time. One night he decided to follow them. They rode out to a house concealed in an arroyo. The man crept up to a window and saw his uncles and aunts dancing in the house with some other people. After a while, a goat was led into the room. All the people ceremonially kissed its tail. Once the goat was led away, a black snake came into the room and flicked its tongue at each of the people in turn. As the snake slithered out of the room, some of those gathered went into the other room and retrieved a man’s corpse. All of those present sat down and dined on the human flesh. It seems many of the stories of witch conclaves from New Mexico include this bizarre combination of dancing, kissing a goat’s tail and the involvement of a black snake.
As the first novel of my Clockwork Legion series developed, it soon became apparent that Fatemeh Karimi wasn’t a witch, or even close. She was a strong-willed woman accused of witchcraft and tried. I’ll look at a couple more tales of nineteenth century New Mexico witchcraft next week, plus tell the story that set me on the path that led to the creation of Fatemeh, who ended up nothing like the people of these stories. However, if you want to see what did end up in the book, read Owl Dance. Although this novel isn’t scary in it’s own right, I have written scary stories in this world. A Cthulhu-mythos inspires story from this world will appear later this year in the anthology Lost Trails II: More Forgotten Trails of the Weird West.