Advent Calendar of Witches, Day 20, Candy of Salem

The devil, it is said, keeps a book of names where you sign in your own blood or some other potioned ink like a liquid iron gall. There is no erasing it, there is no smearing it.

If your name appears in the devil’s book, to hear the Puritans tell it, he is now your master. If they let themselves think very much about it, the Puritans must have been terrified that what they had done to other people might in turn be done to them.

When Nathan Putnam, master of Mary Black, told her in no uncertain terms she was forbidden to confess to anything the court asked, no matter how they pressed, did she appreciate the encouragement to hold fast to truth or just fear his command more than those of the magistrate?

Unlike Mary Black, the enslaved woman Candy confessed and she also accused. “Candy no witch, Barbados.” She said, “In this country mistress give Candy witch.”  When the magistrates asked how her mistress made her a witch, Candy answered, “Mistress bring book and pen and ink, make Candy write in it.” The historian Cassander L. Smith lingers over the 40 words of hers in this fragmented slip of a trial record we have left from that moment. Smith sees in her testimony an “instance of verbal resistance” when Candy “circumscribed the transcriber’s (and court prosecutors) own rhetorical strategies” and makes us think about who her mistress really is, of what she is capable, and what it means to see your name written on someone else’s pages. She makes those who would have dismissed her as nothing more than property consider what it makes you when you say you have the papers to prove you own someone’s soul. The records say that the afflicted Puritans in the room, upon hearing Candy’s words and then seeing her dunk some knotted rags in a bucket, “were greatly affrighted and fell into violent fits.” 

The truth is here and has been the whole time. Even, or perhaps especially, pathological liars get their tongues all tied up in it. Medieval Christians called this phenomenon the Anti-Christ – every good has its opposite, every Christ his Satan, every Bible its Devil’s Book, every congregation its coven. They preferred to imagine that opposite existed outside themselves.

When I try to imagine the devil’s book, I see the piled-up files as the historian combs through every record, bill of sale, ship’s manifest, and diary, trying to find one enslaved woman’s name in that sea of ink. I try again to see his book, but called to mind instead is that scene out of the transcripts of Salem when a judge asked the enslaved woman Candy if she had signed the devil’s book. She answered that her mistress had once shown her that her name was written in a book and she felt the presence of a great evil, the kind of thing the Puritans called “the devil.” Candy said “Candy no witch in her country. Candy’s mother no witch. Candy no witch, Barbados.”

Margaret Hawkes, on the other hand, the white woman who imagined herself to own Candy, was a very real kind of monster profiting from a very real kind of pact with a devil.

Published by Kathryn Nuernberger

Kathryn Nuernberger's latest books are THE WITCH OF EYE (Sarabande), an essay collection about witches and witch trials coming out in February 2021, and RUE (BOA, 2020), a collection of poems about plants historically used for birth control and pissed off feelings about patriarchal bullshit. The End of Pink (BOA 2016) won the James Laughlin Prize from the Academy of American Poets. Her collection of lyric essays is Brief Interviews with the Romantic Past (The Ohio State University Press, 2017). A recipient of fellowships from the NEA, American Antiquarian Society, Bakken Museum of Electricity in Life, H. J. Andrews Research Forest, She teaches in the creative writing program at University of Minnesota. Recent work appears in 32 Poems, Cincinnati Review, Copper Nickel, Gulf Coast, Paris Review, The Southern Review, and Waxwing.

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