55. George Lyman Kittredge – Witchcraft in Old and New England (1929)

Kittredge was one of Burroughs’ tutors at Harvard. This book, his magnum opus, is astoundingly well-researched. I’m presuming that Burroughs read it (or at least flicked through it in the uni library), but even if he didn’t it’s hard to imagine Kittredge being able to contain this vast amount of information without occasionally bringing it up in lectures and seminars.

He has trawled through hundreds of years of common law case history to compile a history of witchcraft in both England and America, from the dark ages through to the Salem witch trials. His findings are so logical (and well-grounded in evidence), it’s amazing that modern scholars seem to have paid no attention to the valuable lessons this book contains.

Kittredge’s concludes from his studies that witchcraft was considered logical (there is a dispute in Queen Elizabeth’s time about whether it exists and, based on the evidence available at the time, those in favour of its existence come across much more rational than the deniers), it was often tolerated (witches were only prosecuted for “maleficio”, or evil use of magic, or just “malevolence” or bad thoughts), and although Puritanism did bring a slight increase in witchhunting, witchhunting does not appear to be specific to any sect, belief or leader (King James’ apparent witch-mania is thoroughly and objectively discredited) and is instead, like modern moral panics, a product of social unrest and scapegoating.

One comes out of the book with a clear sense of what witches were and how it fits in quite logically to a pre-Enlightenment world view.

Cases include a beggar woman who is refused a ha’pny cup of ale and so tells the landlord “that’ll be the most expensive ha’pny you’ve ever saved”. A week later two barrels burst.

Another case shows a jealous spinster curse her neighbour’s crying child – “may it soon stop crying, and do so forever!” – after which the child died of typhus.

A third shows a young woman making a love totem and hiding it in a handsome neighbour’s house. She proceeds to sleep with the neighbour, to his wife’s chagrin, and, finding the totem, it is blamed on love magic.

In all three cases the witch admitted to maleficio (which, Kittredge points out, is accurate, as they did wish that bad things would happen) and they were hung (only the continental witchhunters burned witches – English courts sentenced them to hanging, which, for context, was the same punishment as one got for stealing, speaking ill of the King, and forming secret societies).

Before the scientific mindset had propagated, cause and effect were not limited purely to the material world. Today, as Kittredge points out, we still have legal punishments for attempted murder, and endangerment with wilful intent. We separate accidental killing from manslaughter from murder based purely on intentionality.

So maleficio – the legal punishment for witchcraft – was really a punishment for bad intent that led to real-world damages (even if, to the modern mind, the connection is purely coincidental).

So, why is this of interest for the Burroughs’ Syllabus?

Well, Burroughs is a practitioner of magic and “magical thinking” dominates his work, philosophy and mindset from the aftermath of Joan’s death onwards. His interest in witches can be found all over, particularly his providing the voiceover for the movie Haxen, his later celebration of the exorcist book Hostage to the Devil, and his scrying, photomontage, and tape recorder work with Brion Gysin. In later life, Burroughs was made an honorary Master in a chaos magic order called The Illuminates of Thanateros.

Could it be that Kittredge’s logical apology for witchcraft laid the seeds for this later magical flowering?

The book contains key moments useful for cross-referencing.

  • Kittredge twice draws parallels between Puck, Pan, and Robin Goodfellow (it’s this parallel, I argue, that eventually bears fruit in Burroughs’ Ah Pook)
  • Kittredge explains the association of witches and toads as due to olde English cottages’ mud floors, which would attract them. Burroughs’ Welsh nanny, who calls the toads, like grew up in a house like this and so learned her toad-tricks then. Burroughs’ recall of her toad calling is part of a wider fabric of descriptions that make her out to be, if not a witch, at least very witchlike
  • Numerous mentions are made of plaguebringing spirits, and maleficio producing disease. Among these is Caliban’s outburst: “the red plague rid you / for learning me your language!”. Combine this with Poe’s “red death” (which Burroughs recorded a reading of) and you’ve a recipe for the Red Night’s red plagues.
  • A possible Burroughs ancestor – Rev. George Burroughs of Massachusetts – makes an appearance, prosecuted for leading a coven that made “poppets” and stuck needles in them (many of which were found under the house of his local Bishop).

As always, it’s difficult to tell what’s influence, what’s preference and what’s coincidence. Kittredge may have shaped many of Burroughs’ thoughts or even originated them, although he might have simply been sought out by Burroughs due to a pre-existing interest, or else Burroughs may have attended Kittredge’s classes and never once wondered about the man’s main area of research.

It’s difficult to tell, but in this case, I think taking a risk and suggesting that Kittredge was an active influence is worth presuming. Burroughs is so clear throughout his life that magic and magical thinking is not only logical but actually works, that one can very realistically presume his confidence was gained by an encounter with Kittredge’s logical exposition of historical witchcraft and all the scholarly and social authority that Kittredge, as a Harvard professor, brought with him.

Having now read Kittredge myself, I too feel like a door has been opened onto the reality of what witchcraft really was, and when wild stories are told that imply the fear of witches is some kind of collective delusion (a delusion as old as humanity and still held by the majority of the non-Western world) then I too, like Burroughs, sit back and smirk, thinking “ah, you literal minded fools, how little ye know of the craft!”