Emerson Baker ’76 Discusses Witchcraft Through Archaeological Evidence

Stories of warding off witches and magic echoed throughout the Peabody Museum of Archaeology on Tuesday night, when Emerson Baker ’76, author and Professor of History at Salem State University, gave his presentation called “Witchcraft, Counter Magic and Archaeology in Salem and New England.”

The presentation focused on the ways in which people from the 1690s believed in countermagic, a form of protecting oneself against evil, and how they used it to expose witchcraft.

“In some ways, counter magic is closely related to apotropaic magic, which is the Greek word for turn away. Essentially, there are all sorts of things you can do to try to reveal witches and try to protect yourself from witches…You can even use puppets, what we would call voodoo dolls, where you take the doll and you stab it with a pen, you put its feet over the flames, and the person is inflicted,” said Baker during the presentation.

The “Witchcraft, Counter Magic, and Archaeology in Salem and New England,” presentation is part of monthly series held in the Peabody Museum by leading history and archeology experts.

Baker cited examples of countermagic in New England, ranging from the witch cakes of Salem Village in 1692 to the daisy wheels carved into houses for protection against evil.

“To make a witch cake, what you essentially do is take the urine of the inflicted people and you mix that with some lovely things like the nail clippings from a dog, you bake it up, and then, in this cake, you feed it to the dog, and when the dog eats it, it reveals the witch,” said Baker.

“And it makes sense in a weird scientifically twisted 17th century way. There is an invisible current that goes from the witch to the person afflicted, and when they go to the bathroom, what of that infliction goes into the urine, so when you bake it into a cake, and the dog eats it, it is harming the inflicted particles of the witch, essentially harming the witch, so the witch starts yelling and screaming and comes out of hiding,” Baker continued.

Baker also presented the findings from his latest book, A Storm of Witchcraft: The Salem Trials and the American Experience, which examines the Salem Witch Trials in the broader context of American history. The Salem Witch Trials were a series of hearings and prosecutions of people accused of witchcraft in colonial Massachusetts in the 1690s.

“I knew from the research on Salem of examples of countermagic on the houses and it became clear to me that there was a lot of examples of this being used in early New England. When I started re-examining the archaeological work that I’ve done… [it] made me realize there was more going on [in New England] than I believed. The neat thing about studying archeology and material culture, is it gives you a different way of looking at society,” said Baker.

In an interview with The Phillipian, Baker also discussed the connections between National Security today and the U.S government back in 1692. He said that although both governments sought to protect the country and its people, they did so at the expense of the accused witches back then and at the expense of people’s privacy today.

“If we were in our world in 1692, we would think witches are real. Here’s the problem, we don’t know who they are. They could be anybody, our neighbors, our wives, our children, what do we do? Well, we tell our government to try to solve the problem and they say they are working on it, but how on earth are they going to do this?” said Baker.

“Unfortunately, as long as we have hatred and prejudice, we will always have scapegoats and witches. And frankly, as long as we have those fears, we’ll also have our countermagic. And that countermagic may take form in a witch’s bottle, or it may take form of electronic eavesdropping [in modern day government],” continued Baker.