After spending decades unable to settle on one period of history or even one country to write about, I have apparently settled into a niche I enjoy (without using the tarot deck there, thank you!). I suppose it makes sense, if I think about it. I’m a character-driven writer. So instead of creating a career in the history of Regency or Victorian England or the American west or whatever, I have apparently taken root in writing about two distinctly different families through the generations and across continents. This way I don’t feel confined by their environment, and I can explore anywhere I like.
And most excellently, even when I place my Malcolm/Ives in contemporary settings, I have an opportunity to explore history. I’ve currently enmired (did you know Webster doesn’t recognize that as a word? Why? Everyone else knows what it means!) my Malcolm/Ives in a contemporary Southern mystery which requires me to call on my vague memory of early witch history.
Since my memory is never reliable, I dug in for a refresher course. It’s rather frightening to see how history repeats itself.
Picture a climate similar to today’s, where malicious gossip snowballs based on no facts at all. During the 1600s, everyone, even the most educated, believed in magic. Whether or not people believed the devil was behind magic was a matter of personal opinion (just like the crazy arguments about Covid: take a side and shout about it. Back then, they barely had science, and religion ruled, so the argument could be won by the biggest bully pulpit and not necessarily the most educated voices).
Now, in the midst of this divisive fear and hostility over the possibility of the devil walking among us, picture an unexpected death, probably someone young. The young don’t die! Something or someone must be blamed. And since, of course, they had no science to figure it out, it always makes sense to blame another person. (Just like poor Dr. Fauci blamed for a virus!)
Outrage roars—although back then, it would have been over the back fence, at church, or the local pub, not Twitter and Facebook. And some unlucky person—almost always a helpless female with no rights and usually one the community doesn’t like—becomes the focus of a literal witch hunt. Suddenly, everyone remembers awful things that happened when she was around. One wild tale must top the other. And before long, the poor woman is labeled witch and ends behind bars or at the end of a rope.
So my weird psychic Malcolm women with their herbs, otherworldly knowledge, and bluntness would easily have attracted that suspicion and hostility. It doesn’t take much imagination to believe some would sail off to the New World with hopes of anonymity and freedom in a brand new land.
I really didn’t want the cliché of Salem for my Malcolm history, so I dug around some more—and came up with East Hampton, New York, on the remote tip of Long Island. (image is of an old sufficiently spooky home from the area!)
One would think a place like that might be enlightened. But in 1658, Easthampton, as it was then, was a village and not the height of civilization. All it took was a dying teenager to shout a witch was in the room and name a neighbor she probably disliked, one Elizabeth Garlick, and the terrified community went berserk. Before long, her neighbors attested that she cast evil eyes, sent animal familiars, made children sick by touching them, and vanished livestock. They only just realized that, right?
I can play this story ten thousand ways—she had a well-respected husband, so the unattached widows in town saw a chance to eliminate his wife. Or Elizabeth argued with the wrong people, cursed them under her breath, helped people with herbs, didn’t go to church—anything works as a reason for the community to turn on her.
This is the fun part about history—when it diverts down unexpected paths. Instead of immediately being hung or burned or dunked, Elizabeth was a very fortunate lady. The town became so hostile and divided over her case (her husband was a respected businessman, which probably helped) that the local magistrates threw the hot potato to a higher authority. The case landed in the hands of a rather more enlightened judge, John Winthrop Jr.
Winthrop was a scholar and a healer and a man of science, even if that wasn’t a term used back then. Look right here—I already have a witchy Malcolm and a scientific Ives! Except in this case, Winthrop tried to make science out of witchcraft and doubted women capable of performing acts of magic without his training—definitely a typical Ives reaction!
As became his pattern, Winthrop didn’t find Elizabeth guilty or the community wrong. He diplomatically told them all to behave themselves and live together peacefully. Which they did, her son becoming a prominent miller in the years to come. Apparently the devil’s side lost this one. And Elizabeth had a very narrow escape.
But imagine my truly psychic Malcolm families living with that kind of ax hovering over their heads—I have a good case for them getting the heck out of New York and moving to even less populated areas in the south. South Carolina was settled by the English in the 1670s, and they needed every hand they could get. So maybe my colonial Malcolms managed to fit in somehow. That’s the theory I’m working on at this point anyway.
So I now have a back story for why a family of Malcolms occupies a small town in the middle of South Carolina cotton fields without any of their extended family knowing of their existence, even in the 21st century. They’ve created their own safe haven in a town where their weirdness is expected. After all these centuries, they’re still not cash rich, but there’s a lot of them and they own property. That makes them an influential—if eccentric—force in town.
(For those interested, the very first Malcolm title is Merely Magic, in the Magical Malcolm series, just reissued)
I’ll eventually need to introduce my contemporary California Malcolms to the South Carolina group, of course, but right now, I’m enjoying creating this new sandbox to play in.
If you lived in the 1600s, what are the chances that you’d be classified as a witch? I’m pretty sure my wandering around, muttering to myself, would shorten my lifespan considerably!