On Salem’s Witch House, Conversion Disorder & Witch Cake (though you may want to skip the slice of cake)

The Witch House (left), home of Salem witch trials judge Jonathan Corwin, is the only structure with direct ties to the 1692 trials that still exists in Salem, Mass. It’s now a museum. Mary Silbley, the most powerful witch in the WGN America television series Salem, lives in a house (right) clearly inspired by Corwin’s.

In the WGN series (Season 2 premiers Sunday, April 5), Mary Sibley is a main character. But the real-life Mary Sibley was only a minor one. Historical records show that the real Mary, a neighbor of Puritan minister Rev. Samuel Parris, encouraged Parris’ slaves Tituba and John Indian to make a witch cake, which was believed to have the power to reveal witches. Parris’ daughter Elizabeth and niece Abigail Williams were among the young girls barking like dogs, screaming wildly and acting up in ways that villagers believed could only be the result of witchcraft.

As the video here featuring an educator from the Salem Witch Museum explains, a witch cake was a form of old European white magic made out of rye meal and urine from the afflicted girls. The finished cake would be fed to a dog, with the belief that as the dog ate the cake, the witch would cry out in pain as the invisible, “venomous and malignant particles” sent from her body into the bewitched girls were mashed by the dog’s teeth. When this occurred, the identity of the witch would be revealed.

As we know now, all kinds of false beliefs and happenings contributed to the frenzy that became the Salem witch panic. One of the more fascinating aspects is the possibility of a medical condition called Conversation Disorder, which the Literary New England Radio Show talked about with best-selling author Katherine Howe when her latest novel, Conversion, was released this past July.

Hear Katherine talk about her book and Conversion Disorder in the Literary New England Radio Show archives, which she describes this way:

Conversion disorder is when you are under so much stress that your body converts it into physical symptoms. And when it happens in a group the term for that is “mass psychogenic illness.” But the term we’re more familiar with, the term that’s an old-fashioned Freudian term is “hysteria.”

Learning about Conversation Disorder was part of the inspiration for Conversion, which is set at a private school in Danvers, Mass. There, teen-age girls are falling into uncontrollable frenzies. As the media arrives, and the community scrambles to find someone or something to blame, a student who’s been reading The Crucible for extra credit realizes what nobody else does: Danvers was once Salem Village, where another group of girls suffered from a similarly bizarre epidemic 300 years ago.

As Howe explains in our interview, the novel was inspired by several real-life events, including the Salem witch trials, of which she’s pretty much an expert. In addition to being a direct descendant of three Salem women accused of witchcraft, she is the author of The New York Times best-selling novel The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane (about a young woman who discovers her ties to Salem) and the non-fiction The Penguin Book of Witches.
All of her books cast a spell 🙂

If you’ve enjoyed this article, check out the others we’ve posted as part of Literary New England’s 5-day Witch-A-Thon. Between now and Sunday, we’ve got witch book giveaways and lots of other frighteningly wonderful things going on!

Witch-A-Thon Giveaway #1: Win MJ Rose’s Witch of Painted Sorrows

“Fear, desire, lust and raw emotion ooze off the page.” That’s how Pittsburgh Tribune-Review book reviewer Jeff Ayers describes Connecticut author MJ Rose’s latest novel, The Witch of Painted Sorrows.

Between now and Sunday, April 5, use the #witchathon hasgtag to Tweet us the name of your favorite fictional witch, and you’ll be in the running to win a copy of The Witch of Painted Sorrows, which many call Rose’s most provocative and magical spellbinder yet. One winner will be randomly chosen from entries.

Set against the lavish spectacle of 1890s Belle Époque Paris, the novel tells the story of Sandrine Salome, who flees New York for her grandmother’s Paris mansion to escape her dangerous husband. Yet what she finds there is even more menacing.

The house, famous for its lavish art collection and elegant salons, is mysteriously closed up. Although her grandmother insists it’s dangerous for Sandrine to visit, she defies her and meets Julien Duplessi, a mesmerizing young architect. Together they explore the hidden night world of Paris, the forbidden occult underground and Sandrine’s deepest desires.

There, Sandrine discovers her erotic nature as a lover and painter. But darker influences threaten: Her cold and cruel husband is tracking her down, and something sinister is taking hold. Sandrine is becoming possessed by La Lune–a witch, a legend and 16th century courtesan, who opens Sandrine’s life to a darkness that is either a gift or a curse.

The Literary New England Radio Show has been fortunate to have this best-selling novelist as a guest several times, including a 2013 interview for her novel Seduction and a 2012 interview for The Book of Lost Fragrances.

Rose recently spoke about her inspirations for The Witch of Painted Sorrows:

What attracted you to 1890s Paris?

Belle Epoch Paris was a mélange of many different styles of art, poetry and philosophies. The old guard still ran the salons. Impressionism battled for wall space with symbolism. Cults sprang up around occultism, spiritism and inspired artists and writers. All that diversity fascinated me. I spent a long time at the Gustav Moreau museum, looking not just at his masterpieces, but examining the hundreds of sketches hidden away. I searched out art nouveau buildings and visited museums to look at the work of the Nabis whose name itself which came from the Hebrew word for “prophet,” evoked both their mysticism and determination to develop a new artistic language.

What inspired this book?

I was in Paris and visited an exhibition of a late sixteenth century female painter, Artemisia Gentileschi. She was a rarity and anomaly: A woman artist who succeeded despite enduring so much. While there was no suggestion she dabbled in the occult, her resilience and determination inspired me to create a woman named La Lune, a sixteenth century courtesan, the muse of a great artist who becomes a great artist herself.

While she isn’t the main character in the book, she is at its heart.  It’s her descendant, Sandrine, who three hundred years later, comes to Paris and has to overcome society’s rules and mores in order to live out her passions — as a woman and an artist.

Art plays an important part in The Witch of Painted Sorrows— did you ever study painting?

Yes. I was six when I took my first art class. It was at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. And I’ve never stopped studying or wanting to be painter. When I visit a city the first place I go to is the museum. I am more at home looking at paintings and sculpture than doing anything including reading. Of every subject I am always drawn first to art and artists.

Why are you interested in the occult?

Being interested in and writing about the mystical and magical is in my blood. My great grandmother, who was French, hailed from a long line of Jewish gypsies. Grandma Berger read cards and used a crystal ball for decades to tell fortunes. She was the one who gave me a Ouija board when I was ten.

As I grew up, my great grandmother’s card and crystal ball readings continued, as did my interest in the paranormal and spiritual. Shortly before she died, and left me her own magical crystal ball, my great-grandmother tried to save my life. I was nineteen, and studying painting at Syracuse University. One morning Grandma Berger called my mother.  In an urgent voice, she told my mother that I was going to be in a fire that afternoon and she needed to warn me. My mother called, told me what Grandma Berger had said and asked me please, wherever I went that day, to stay near an exit. I did. But nothing happened. Or so I thought.

At nine that night my boyfriend, who went to Cornell, called. He sounded terribly shook up. His apartment had burned down that afternoon. He was all right, but all his clothes, books and records were destroyed. And along with them fifteen canvases I had painted. Through my paintings, I had indeed been in a fire.

Is there one place in Paris that Sandrine visits that readers can visit still?

Café de Flores. It opened its doors at 172 Boulevard Saint-Germain in 1885 and has been one of the best people-watching cafes in Paris ever since.  It’s not only one of the oldest but one of the most prestigious coffeehouses in Paris. Even though it’s next door neighbor is Les Deux Magots, frequented by Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Albert Camus, and others, Flore is the more prestigious and less touristy of the cafés. It’s worth waiting for a table on the terrace but the art deco interior with its red seating, mahogany and mirrors transports you back in time to pre-World War II.  They also serve one of the best fromage and jambon omelets that can be had in Paris.

We’re hosting a 5-day Witch-a-Thon that starts today!

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Books and stories about witches and magic rarely fail to cast a spell.

New England’s witch history has inspired countless works of fiction and non-fiction, as well as films and television series like the WGN America’s “Salem,” which broadcasts its season 2 premier this Sunday night, April 5.

Inspired
by all the hubbub going on around the start of Salem’s 13 episodes of
“Witch Wars,” we at Literary New England decided to host a 5-day
Witch-A-Thon, featuring witch-related book giveaways, author interviews,
reading lists, feature authors and more!

Several times a day
between now and Sunday, we’ll post witchy articles, photos and lots of
other New England witch-inspired  content, so check back often!

On Twitter, @LitNewEngland and Literary New England Radio Show host @WriterCindyWB
will also post favorite #witchquotes from #witchbooks and authors who,
like us, are drawn to all things related to witches and Salem … though
as one of our upcoming articles will explain, Salem wasn’t the only New
England village to experience a witch panic. In fact, Salem wasn’t even
the first
.

More to come later. Stay tuned and become part of our
#WitchAThon by spreading the word! If you haven’t got a broom, use
Twitter, Facebook or maybe even send your familiar 🙂