Witch Hunts Of Yesteryear …

Two closely related events on two close-by days:

It was on 8 February 1692, in the small village of Salem, (now Danvers) Massachusetts, that Abigail Williams and Betty Parris were declared by a competent physician to be under the spell of witchcraft, thereby launching the most famous – really infamous – “Witch Hunt” in History. In 1949, Marion Starkey published her powerful and influential work The Devil In Massachusetts: A Modern Enquiry Into The Salem Witch Trials. Though the work has been criticized as offering no new research findings about the historical events, Starkey’s book is notable in applying 20th Century psychological interpretation to the events of 1692.

The Devil In Massachusetts was a great influence on Arthur Miller’s 1953 masterpiece, The Crucible, which is usually interpreted as a thinly-veiled expose of Senator Joseph McCarthy’s then-current “Witch Hunt” for Communists in the United States government. I find it most interesting that Starkey, in the introduction to “The Devil,” makes a strong case for studying the Witch Trials as a means of helping to forfend against a modern day repetition. Starkey notes that the upheavals and wars of the 1930s and 1940s had produced many a Witch Hunt, and she expresses her hope that by 1949 the world will have grown more mature, and somewhat wiser.

How terribly ironic it is then, that less than a year after the publication of The Devil In Massachusetts, on 9 February 1950 that Senator Joseph “Tailgunner Joe” McCarthy made his first public assertion that the U.S. State Department was completely infiltrated by known Communists. During the next four years, McCarthy would repeat this charge over and over, changing the numbers, and eventually changing his focus from the State Department to the Army, yet managing to retain a high profile in the public eye despite his inability to identify a single “Fellow Traveler” in his investigations.

Speaking before the Wheeling Women’s Republican Club in West Virginia on 9 February 1950, McCarthy made the shocking claim that the State Department was then employing “204 known Communists.” At first there was little media attention paid to this speech; the only first-hand account of it appeared in the local Wheeling paper. But McCarthy was asked about his claim a few days later back in Washington, D.C. and he asserted that there were “at least 81 Known Communists” in the State Department. In the next few weeks, the stated number fluctuated between a low of 10 and a high of 205.

It seems inexplicable in light of what we know today, but the mainstream media did not call McCarthy to account for his wildly varied numbers; the media did not then even request a jot of proof to support the claims. The unsupported and unsubstantiated assertions were repeated as if factual, and many came to believe them. Indeed, the question became not, “Are there Communists in the State Department?” but “How many Communists are there in the state Department?” As my older sister told me many years ago, this was precisely what McCarthy had intended. The “Big Lie,” as some political savant once observed, is more easily sold than the small one. It would seem the absurd and ever-morphing lie is even more readily saleable.

Hundreds of careers were destroyed in the course of nearly four years of fruitless investigations. Hundreds of lives were upended and shattered by the baseless and invidious claims made by McCarthy and his staff. His key lieutenant Roy Cohn made an especial point of exposing homosexuals – generally believed to be especial security risks whatever their politics – as a part of the investigations. Ironically, after Cohn’s death from AIDS in 1986, it became public knowledge that he himself was homosexual.

So fervid was the McCarthy team in its unsubstantiatable attempts to locate subversives within the U.S. government, and so pointless was their probing, that the term “McCarthyism” has become synonymous with “Witch Hunt” to mean a frenzied search for a non-existent threat. Nevertheless, their tactics had a chilling effect on political debate in America for years.

McCarthy’s political downfall came in 1954 after ABC television, alone among U.S. networks, decided to televise McCarthy’s hearings into the affairs of the United States Army. Though the audience share of the broadcast of the hearings was rather small, the impact from those who watched McCarthy and his hatchetmen at work was great. A watershed moment was when the Army’s attorney, Joseph Welch, turned to McCarthy and demanded: “Have you no sense of decency, Senator?!?!! At long last, have you left no sense of decency???!??!” McCarthy was revealed to be a bullying grandstander without substance to his claims. The 2005 film, Good Night and Good Luck focusses on these events.

Later in 1954 the Senate voted to condemn McCarthy for his vicious tactics. President and Mrs. Eisenhower forbade him to attend White House functions. It is hard to appreciate the impact of this seemingly social ban, but it signaled the end of McCarthy’s influence. McCarthy’s political heyday had passed decisively, though the ruined lives and careers he left behind took decades to rebuild, and many never could recover.

Yet, whatever the current assessment of McCarthy’s tactics and impact may be, it must be acknowledged that he acted from a very real and pure motive: McCarthy really, really, REALLY wanted to be politically powerful, and to have his views dominate the political process. From that, it can be seen, as is always the case in politics, any excess is excusable. Or at least explicable. And it is ever thus. It is ever thus …

Jamie Rawson
Flower Mound, Texas

I cannot and will not cut my conscience to fit this year’s fashions.

— Lillian Hellman,
to the House Committee on un-American activities, 1952

Groundhog Day 2012

The much-celebrated and ballyhooed Punxsutawney Phil saw his shadow this morning thereby foretelling six more weeks of hard winter weather. Well, here in North Texas the winter has been astonishingly mild, days averaging the mid-seventies. But for those who set store by the groundhog-as-weatherman, Phil’s shadow is most unwelcome.

So why is today identified as Groundhog Day? What’s that all about anyway? And what about the fact the February 2nd was known as Candlemas in olden times? As with so many apparently simple things, the explanation is a bit involved and convoluted.

An old English rhyme states:

If Candlemas be fair and bright,
Winter has another flight.
If Candlemas bring clouds and rain,
Winter will not come again.

In the Liturgical Calendar of the Church, the second of February was designated “the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord.” The Mosaic Laws of the Old testament decreed that a woman was “unclean” for seven days following the birth of a male child, and that she must stay away from the Temple for a further 33 days, making the period for ritual cleansing a total of forty days. (The period was twice that long if the baby was a female! Gender equality was decidely NOT an Old Testament concept.) At the end of this term, the mother would return to the Temple to make a sacrifice concluding her purification, and to present her child to the Temple community.

From the very earliest days of the Christian Church, the feast of The Presentation (or Purification) was an important event on the Liturgical Calendar. By the end of the Fourth Century A.D., the date of Christ’s birth had been set as December 25; calculating forty days from that date produced February second as the date for The Presentation. So far, so good?

Because this Feast celebrated the entry of The Christ – The Light of the World – into the Temple and the greater world, it became traditional by the Eleventh Century to bless the candles that were to be used in the upcoming year. Originally, just the official church candles were blessed, but eventually household candles were included as well. The Priest would bless all the candles presented, intoning the words: “Lumen ad revelationem gentium et gloriam plebis tuae Israel” (A Light to reveal You to the Gentiles, and the glory of your people Israel.”)

Possibly because the theme of this Feast was the entry of The Light into the world, or possibly because of older pagan traditions about mid-Winter – opinions are highly diverse about this – there was a tradition in lower Germany that if a certain animal should see its shadow on Candlemas day, it presaged six weeks of severe Winter weather. Again, details are hard to come by, but some sources specify that the animal in question should be a badger, others state that it should be a hedgehog. (Both of these animals “hibernate” in the Winter and very often are not awake to be looking around at shadows in early February.)

When William Penn invited German immigrants from the Pfaltz to settle in his new colony, Pennsylvania, the new arrivals carried their homeland traditions with them, including the notion that February second was an important day for weather forecasting. Hedgehogs not being found in the New World, and Badgers still sleeping away their Winter typically, a local substitute was found: the humble woodchuck or groundhog (Marmota monax.)

The first extant mention of Groundhog Day can be read at the Pennsylvania Dutch Folklore Center. It says: “Last Tuesday, the 2nd, (February 1841) was Candlemas day, the day on which, according to the Germans, the Groundhog peeps out of his winter quarters and if he sees his shadow he pops back for another six weeks nap, but if the day be cloudy he remains out, as the weather is to be moderate.”

In any case, the tradition was a highly localized phenomenon, and not widely observed in Colonial America, nor during the years leading up to the Civil War. But, as so often happens, a good promotional campaign took a local tradition and turned into a national event. A couple of Pennsylvania newspaper publishers decided to make a genuine event of “Groundhog Day,” and Pennsylvania’s first formal celebration of Groundhog Day began on February second, 1886 with a proclamation in The Punxsutawney Spirit by the newspaper’s editor, Clymer Freas.

Because of the novelty of the celebration and its homegrown character, early telegraph news services spread the story as human interest “filler” for their subscribers. By the late 1890s, Groundhog day was known across the United States. In the days when radio was the major mass medium, Groundhog Day was duly reported, but it took the advent of television to make a real national spectacle of the occasion. For Groundhog Day 2001, an estimated 35,000 people gathered in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania just to see what the Groundhog would see.

And, just FYI: no meaningful correlation has ever been made between the Groundhog’s prognosis and the actual weather subsequently recorded! But, I must ask: what else would one expect from a giant rodent?

Jamie Rawson
Flower Mound, Texas

“If winter comes, can spring be far behind?” — Percy Bysshe Shelly