Recently, I realized how far the hysteria about Portsmouth mayor Jane Murray had gone when I overheard an educated, usually mild-mannered Portsmouth gentleman who lives on the Hill blurt out angrily, “She’s a witch!” I thought, “Has it come to this, when not just the peasants on the floodplain but the patricians up on the Hill are out for blood?”
Historically, those who were accused of witchcraft were almost always women, who were believed to be the accomplices and sexual partners of the devil, who gave them the supernatural power to cause pain, injury, and distress by casting spells, performing rituals or simply giving somebody the evil eye. The belief in witches and the evil eye was carried by the Scotch Irish to America where it persisted in the hollows and hills of Appalachia. Vestiges of it can be found in Appalachian Ohio and even, apparently, in cities such as Portsmouth, and not only among the uneducated. A woman with a history of mental illness, a protégée of the ex-mayor’s mentally disturbed wife, went around accusing another woman, a critic of Kalb, of being a witch. A friend of mine recalls seeing someone on on of the chat rooms call for the mayor to get her broom and fly out of town.
Witch hysteria doesn’t arise in a vacuum. It doesn’t arise when things are going well. Things were not going well early on in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, in the 1630s, when the conservative and radical Puritans struggled for control of the colony. The leader of the radical Puritans was a woman, Anne Hutchinson, who challenged the Puritan patriarchy by questioning the authority of the ministers, all of whom were males. Hutchinson was not accused of being a witch, but she was suspected of a terrible sin characteristic of witches: she was believed to be having a sexual relationship with the devil. When she had a miscarriage that resulted in a deformed fetus, that was all the evidence the Puritan patriarchy needed, for “monstrous” miscarriages were believed to be common among witches. A follower of Hutchinson, Mary Dyer, also had a miscarriage that resulted in a “monstrous” miscarriage, or devil's spawn, that was seen as further proof the two troublesome women were the devil’s disciples.
Banished from Massachusetts after being found guilty of heresy, Hutchinson went to Rhode Island where she helped establish a new settlement, which they named Portsmouth. The “Portsmouth Compact,” which called for the separation of church and state and greater freedom of conscience, was a milestone in the evolution of American democracy. Hutchinson later moved to Long Island, in what is now New York, where she and her family were murdered by Indians. When he heard of her bloody death, the Massachusetts governor saw it as God’s punishment of a wicked woman. Mary Dyer, who had gone her separate way, converting to Quakerism, was later hanged by the Puritan patriarchy for her persistent heresy. In expiation, the Massachusetts government subsequently placed statues of Hutchinson and Dyer outside the statehouse in Boston, where they were seen as martyrs to freedom of conscience.
Statue of Anne Hutchinson outside the statehouse in Boston
The radical spirit of Anne Hutchinson lived on in the Puritan colony. Historians speculate that the witchcraft hysteria that arose in Salem and other towns in Massachusetts early in the 1690s was a panic reaction by the Puritans, who felt they were losing control of the hearts and minds of the younger generation, who were espousing radical notions, such as rationalism and democracy. New ideas were infecting New England, ideas of the European Enlightenment, which challenged the blind faith of the first generation of Puritans in everything in the Bible, including the belief in witches. The so-called Salem witch hysteria was centered not in what we know as the seaport of Salem, but inland, in a rural conservative farming community, then called Salem Village, now called Danvers, which was the Appalachia of Essex County. Danvers was later chosen as the site of the State Lunatic Hospital, which had the dubious distinction of being the place where the frontal lobotomy operation originated.
Witches tend to pop up when things are going badly, and things have been going badly in Portsmouth for at least a half century. Mayor Murray is now accused of being a witch, but she was viewed as a witch even before she was elected, when she was characterized as a threat to “our town,” as the political sign on Kinney’s Lane (shown below) warned, even before she allegedly went on to do such terrible things as ask for a renegotiation of public employees contracts. Most recently, Murray is being accused of dissing one of the most influential and tightly knit groups in Portsmouth, the bikers. The motorcycle panel on the Flood Wall, from my observation, attracts more tourists, on motorcycles naturally, than any other single panel, so slighting bikers is akin to a Catholic spitting on the image of the statue of the Virgin or a Muslim hawking hotdogs on the Hajj.
The hysteria surrounding Murray is a reaction to the changes that are taking place not just in southern Ohio, but throughout our financially imperiled nation. Many Americans fear that outsiders will or already have taken over the country and destroying what they believe God intended to be a white, Christian nation. The Tea Party movement is fueled by some of the same distrust that is fuelling the Murray hysteria. SAVE OUR TOWN is the local version of SAVE OUR COUNTRY. The distrust of outsiders in Appalachia is legendary, and the incestuous character of Appalachian politics only intensifies this distrust. The anti-Murray lawn sign that appeared during the last mayoral campaign nailed the nativist sentiment exactly: “Don’t Be Screwed by a Stranger.” Though Murray is a native of the area, she is viewed as a stranger, as an outsider, having spent part of her career elsewhere, where she acquired strange attitudes and ideas, such as balancing a budget instead of robbing Peter to pay Paul.
To put the the current controversy about Mayor Murray in perspective, we need to go back to 1980, when Portsmouth was in the throes of a similar political hysteria. The culprits back in the 80s were three male council members who were accused of standing in the way of a new mall and the prosperity it was supposed to bring. The precursor of the SOGP, with lawyer Clayton Johnson in the picture, had used the media to mobilize most of the town, even school children and ministers, against the three councilmen, who were called many names, but because they weren’t females, nobody called them witches.
If Murray is recalled, next in line to become mayor, in the corrupt line of succession the SOGP has arranged, is an evangelical serial adulterer who is a wizard with figures. But, unfortunately for the fiscal future of the city, they are figures of the wrong kind. With his notion that Portsmouth can pray its way to prosperity, the next-in-line is more like the Wizard of Ooze than Moses. Last year, twenty local governments in Ohio, and one county, Scioto, of which Portsmouth is the county seat, were on Ohio's fiscal emergency list and were being supervised by state-run commissions. Will Portsmouth become the twenty-first? What the media and the Portsmouth Daily Times in particular is performing, with the assistance of a couple of public school teachers, is the frontal lobotomy of the public so they won’t be conscious of the city’s severe financial crisis. Alcohol, the anesthesia for the operation, is being supplied by the teachers at a bar—oh, excuse me—a pub on Portsmouth’s blighted East Side. Once the lobotomy is completed, they will try to burn, i.e., recall, the mayor. Where else but in Portsmouth could this happen? The hysteria that has been whipped up against Murray may result in her recall, but the fiscal crisis she insists on calling the public’s attention to won’t go away, even if she does.