Alewives, Witches, and Modern Folklore (Pt. 2)

Category: River Culture

on: Oct 29, 2018

Image Credit: From A Visit to the Witch, Edward Frederick Brewtnall, 1882, Mercer Art Gallery (Harrogate)


Alewives, Witches, and Modern Folklore (Part Two)

 Two weeks ago, I introduced the increasingly prevalent report that stereotypical images of witches derive directly from those of medieval alewives. It’s a tantalizing idea, but it is historically inaccurate. It is also a relatively recent claim. Alan Eames, the revered writer on all things beer, popularized this idea in an article for Ale Street News in 2005, and it has taken off since then.

 Although Eames overreached, he wasn’t entirely off the mark in assuming some connection between alewives and witches. Early English literature offers a few hints. For example, The Witch of Edmonton, a drama from 1621, invokes a “great-bellied alewife.” Travelogues written in the nineteenth century speculate on the relationship between tavern names and their signs (such as for the infamous Mother Red Cap in London) and stories of witches and alewives. The English orator William Johnson Fox wrote an essay on witchcraft in 1822 and cited a tradition of Italian alewives who transform visitors to their taverns into horses and sell them at markets and fairs.

 The basic premise that alewives were demonized and treated as threats to social order (that is, male-dominated social order) is certainly salient. Judith Bennett’s essential Ale, Beer, and Brewsters in England (Oxford, 1996) and Marianne Hester’s related research underscores how both alewives and witches ran afoul of male-controlled brewing guilds and the Church starting in the 1300s. The reasons behind this are plentiful, but they all orbit around masculinist anxiety over women having power and economic and social capital.

 In other words, some alewives were associated with or condemned alongside other women treated as witches. But not all alewives were thought of as witches nor all witches were alewives, and the two should be treated as separate phenomena.

 Readers may know that some of the earliest trials and executions for witchcraft in what would become the United States occurred in the Connecticut River Valley. Long before the Salem Witch Trials of 1692, investigations of accused witches stretched from what is now Old Saybrook, at the mouth of the Connecticut River, as far north as Hadley, Massachusetts. Alse Young of Windsor, Connecticut, was reportedly the first person in the Colonies executed for witchcraft, in 1647.

 As far as I am able to ascertain, none of the women swept up in this delusion were tavern owners, although they all likely were expected to possess brewing skills for their domestic labors. Beer did come into play, however, in the accusations and trials of several New England “witches.”

 Katherine Harrison was tried in 1669 for witchcraft in Wethersfield, Connecticut. She was convicted, but the sentence was eventually overturned and she fled thereafter. One of the people who testified against her recounted a time when Harrison’s daughter came to ask for “emptyings” and was denied. Soon thereafter, a barely used beer barrel owned by the uncharitable accuser broke, allowing the “head and the hops” to fly with tremendous velocity towards the end of the hall, frightening children. Harrison was blamed for the event.

 The belief that witches could spoil beer was common at that time. Hugh Parsons, a man accused of witchcraft in Springfield, Massachusetts in 1651, did not ruin the beverage, but he prevented a guard from accessing it. In testimony delivered against Parsons, a certain John Taylor explained how he went to retrieve beer but was unable to wring out the tap. No amount of strength could make it budge, and he eventually cut his hand in vain attempts. He complained to the house owner, who was accompanied by Hugh Parsons. She was able to move the tap with the mere touch of her finger, an outcome taken as a sign of Parson’s diabolism.

 Although it did not occur in the Connecticut River Valley, perhaps the best example of an accused witch reportedly spoiling beer is that of Elizabeth Godman of New Haven, who was twice accused in 1653 and 1655. During her second trial, a witness testified that Godman begged for beer from William Hooke, a clergyman. He refused, and although his daughter obliged the request, Godman walked away angered and muttering to herself. Hooke’s beer that was “good and fresh” in the evening became “hot, soured, and ill-tasting” the next morning. It was so hot, indeed, that the barrel grew warm and steam escaped. Subsequent attempts at brewing clean beer failed. (Godman was also accused of talking to herself—or to an invisible being—about fetching beer.)

 In 1659 a neighbor testified that John Godfrey of Andover, Massachusetts, advised that when witches appear they should be given beer and victuals or they would summon the devil and see to it that one’s cellar of beer would drain out mysteriously. And in the testimony against Mercy Disborough of Fairfield, Connecticut in 1692, a neighbor claimed that her spectral powers caused beer to jump out of its barrel. It would be tempting to investigate the potential science behind all these occurrences and to consider if they were misunderstandings of the brewing process interpreted by people who wanted to see witchcraft afoot.

 The “good” news is that none of these five people were executed for witchcraft. But their lives were disrupted in heinous ways and although oddities of beer were not the only element, alcoholic beverages did play a role in accusations against innocent people. Think about that the next time you take a sip of a hazy New England IPA. And maybe, just maybe, raise a glass to honor those who once suffered a great injustice.

 Happy Halloween and until next time, cheers!

 Stephen Olbrys Gencarella