This entry treats Native American and European American contributions
to parapsychology and the occult. See also related items on
Mexico, Central America, and South America. For the history of
Spiritualism in America, see the entry on Spiritualism, where a summary
of the subject will be found.
Native Americans
Among the various native races of the American continent,
the supernatural has flourished as universally as in other parts
of the world. The oldest writers (of European and Christian
background) on Native Americans agreed that they practiced
sorcery and the magic arts, and were quick to attribute their
prowess to Satan. For example, the Rev. Peter Jones, writing as
late as the first decade of the nineteenth century, stated ‘‘I
have sometimes been inclined to think that if witchcraft still exists
in the world, it is to be found among the aborigines of
The early French settlers called the Nipissing Jongleurs because
of the surprising expertness in magic of their medicine
men. Some writers observed the use of hypnotic suggestion
among the Menominee and Lakota (Sioux) about the middle
of the last century, and it is generally admitted that this art,
which is known to Americanists as orenda, was familiar among
most Indian tribes, as James Mooney noted in his Ghost Dance
Religion (1896). D. G. Brinton, alluding to Indian medicine
men and their connection with the occult arts, observed
‘‘They were also adept in tricks of sleight of hand, and had
no mean acquaintance with what is called natural magic. They
would allow themselves to be tied hand and foot with knots innumerable,
and at a sign would shake them loose as so many
wisps of straw; they would spit fire and swallow hot coals, pick
glowing stones from the flames, walk with naked feet over live
ashes, and plunge their arms to the shoulder in kettles of boiling
water with apparent impunity.
‘‘Nor was this all. With a skill not inferior to that of the jugglers
of India, they could plunge knives into vital parts, vomit
blood, or kill one another out and out to all appearances, and
yet in a few minutes be as well as ever; they could set fire to articles
of clothing and even houses, and by a touch of their magic
restore them instantly as perfect as before. Says Father Bautista
‘They can make a stick look like a serpent, a mat like a centipede,
and a piece of stone like a scorpion.’ If it were not within
our power to see most of these miracles performed any night
in our great cities by a well-dressed professional, we should at
once deny their possibility. As it is they astonish us but little.
‘‘One of the most peculiar and characteristic exhibitions of
their power, was to summon a spirit to answer inquiries concerning
the future and the absent. A great similarity marked
this proceeding in all northern tribes, from the Eskimos to the
Mexicans. A circular or conical lodge of stout poles, four or
eight in number, planted firmly in the ground was covered with
skins or mats, a small aperture only being left for the seer to
enter. Once in, he carefully closed the hole and commenced his
incantations. Soon the lodge trembles, the strong poles shake
and bend as with the united strength of a dozen men, and
strange, unearthly sounds, now far aloft in the air, now deep in
the ground, anon approaching near and nearer, reach the ears
of the spectators.
‘‘At length the priest announces that the spirit is present,
and is prepared to answer questions. An indispensable preliminary
to any inquiry is to insert a handful of tobacco, or a string
of beads, or some such douceur under the skins, ostensibly for
the behalf of the celestial visitor, who would seem not to be
above earthly wants and vanities. The replies received, though
occasionally singularly clear and correct, are usually of that
profoundly ambiguous purport which leaves the anxious inquirer
little wiser than he was before.
‘‘For all this, ventriloquism, trickery, and shrewd knavery
are sufficient explanations. Nor does it materially interfere
with this view, that converted Indians, on whose veracity we can
implicitly rely, have repeatedly averred that in performing this
rite they themselves did not move the medicine lodge; for
nothing is easier than in the state of nervous excitement they
were then in to be self-deceived, as the now familiar phenomenon
of table-turning illustrates.
‘‘But there is something more than these vulgar arts now
and then to be perceived. There are statements supported by
unquestionable testimony, which ought not to be passed over
in silence, and yet I cannot but approach them with hesitation.
They are so revolting to the laws of exact science, so alien, I had
almost said, to the experience of our lives. Yet is this true, or
are such experiences only ignored and put aside without serious
consideration Are there not in the history of each of us
passages which strike our retrospective thought with awe, almost
with terror Are there not in nearly every community individuals
who possess a mysterious power, concerning whose origin,
mode of action, and limits, we and they are like, in the
Amandinus Encyclopedia of Occultism & Parapsychology • 5th Ed.
‘‘I refer to such organic forces as are popularly summed up
under the words clairvoyance, mesmerism, rhabdomancy, animal
magnetism, physical spiritualism. Civilized thousands
stake their faith and hope here and hereafter, on the truth of
these manifestations; rational medicine recognizes their existence,
and while she attributes them to morbid and exceptional
influences, confesses her want of more exact knowledge, and
refrains from barren theorizing. Let us follow her example, and
hold it enough to show that such powers, whatever they are,
were known to the native priesthood as well as the modern spiritualists
and the miracle mongers of the Middle Ages.
‘‘Their highest development is what our ancestors called
‘second sight.’ That under certain conditions knowledge can
pass from one mind to another otherwise than through the ordinary
channels of the senses, is shown by the examples of persons
en rapport. The limit to this we do not know, but it is not
unlikely that clairvoyance or second sight is based upon it.’’
In his autobiography, the celebrated Sac chief, Black Hawk,
related that his great grandfather ‘‘was inspired by a belief that
at the end of four years he should see a white man, who would
be to him a father.’’ Under the direction of this vision he travelled
eastward to a certain spot, and there, as he was forewarned,
met a Frenchman, through whom the nation was
brought into alliance with France.
An anecdote related by Captain Jonathan Carver, an English
trader, in his little book of travels, describes his travels
among the Killistenoes. In 1767 they were in great straits for
food, and depending upon the arrival of the traders to rescue
them from starvation. They persuaded the chief priest to consult
the divinities as to when the relief would arrive. After the
usual preliminaries, their magnate announced that the next
day, precisely when the sun reached the zenith, a canoe would
arrive with further tidings. At the appointed hour, the whole
village, together with the incredulous Englishman, was on the
beach, and sure enough, at the minute specified, a canoe swung
round a distant point of land and brought the expected news.
More spectacular is an account by Col. John Mason Brown
published in the Atlantic Monthly (July 1866). Some years earlier
as the head of a party of voyagers, he set forth in search of a
band of Indians somewhere on the vast plains along the tributaries
of the Copper-mine and Mackenzie rivers. Danger, disappointment,
and the fatigues of the road induced one after
another to turn back, until of the original ten only three remained.
They were also on the point of giving up the apparently
hopeless quest when they were met by some warriors of the
very band they were seeking. The leader of these warriors had
been sent out by one of their medicine men to find three whites
whose horses, arms, attire, and personal appearance he minutely
described, which description was repeated to Col. Brown
by the warriors before they saw his two companions. Afterward,
when the priest, a frank and simple-minded man, was asked to
explain this extraordinary occurrence, he could offer no other
explanation than that ‘‘he saw them coming, and heard them
talk on their journey.’’ Many additional tales such as these were
recorded by later travelers.
Those nervous conditions associated with the name of Franz
A. Mesmer were also nothing new to the Native American magical
practioners. Rubbing and stroking the sick, and the laying
on of hands, were very common parts of their clinical procedures,
and at the initiations to their societies they were frequently
exhibited. Observers have related that among the Nez
Percés of Oregon, the novice was put to sleep by songs, incantations,
and ‘‘certain passes of the hand,’’ and that with the Dakotas
he would be struck lightly on the breast at a preconcerted
moment, and instantly ‘‘would drop prostrate on his face, his
muscles rigid and quivering in every fibre.’’
White observers also saw magicians working magical tricks,
a fact that supported the general distrust of Indians pervading
the white culture. In Bulletin 30 of the Bureau of American Ethnology,
Washington Mathews stated
‘‘Sleight-of-hand was not only much employed in the treatment
of disease, but was used on many other occasions. A very
common trick among Indian charlatans was to pretend to suck
foreign bodies, such as stones, out of the persons of their patients.
Records of this are found among many tribes, from the
lowest in culture to the highest, even among the Aztecs. Of
course, such trickery was not without some therapeutic efficacy,
for, like many other proceedings of the shamans, it was designed
to cure disease by influence on the imagination. A Hidatsa,
residing in Dakota, in 1865, was known by the name of
Cherry-in-the-mouth, because he had a trick of producing
from his mouth, at any season, what seemed to be fresh wild
cherries. He had found some way of preserving cherries, perhaps
in whiskey, and it was easy for him to hide them in his
mouth before intending to play the trick; but many of the Indians
considered it wonderful magic.
‘‘The most astonishing tricks of the Indians were displayed
in their fire ceremonies and in handling hot substances, accounts
of which performances pertain to various tribes. It is
said that Chippewa sorcerers could handle with impunity redhot
stones and burning brands, and could bathe the hands in
boiling water or syrup; such magicians were called ‘fire-dealers’
and ‘fire-handlers.’ There are authentic accounts from various
parts of the world of fire-dancers and fire-walks among barbarous
races, and extraordinary fire acts are performed also
among widely separated Indian tribes. Among the Arikara of
what is now North Dakota, in the autumn of 1865, when a large
fire in the center of the medicine lodge had died down until it
became a bed of glowing embers, and the light in the lodge was
dim, the performers ran with apparently bare feet among the
hot coals and threw these around in the lodge with their bare
hands, causing the spectators to flee. Among the Navaho, performers,
naked except for breechcloth and moccasins, and having
their bodies daubed with a white infusorial clay, run at high
speed around a fire, holding in their hands great faggots of
flaming cedar bark, which they apply to the bare backs of those
in front of them and to their own persons. Their wild race
around the fire is continued until the faggots are nearly all consumed,
but they are never injured by the flame. This immunity
may be accounted for by supposing that the cedar bark does
not make a very hot fire, and that the clay coating protects the
body. Menominee shamans are said to handle fire, as also are
the female sorcerers of Honduras.
‘‘Indians know well how to handle venomous serpents with
impunity. If they can not avoid being bitten, as they usually can,
they seem to be able to avert the fatal consequences of the bite.
The wonderful acts performed in the Snake Dance of the Hopi
have often been described.
‘‘A trick of Navaho dancers, in the ceremony of the mountain
chant, is to pretend to thrust an arrow far down the throat.
In this feat an arrow with a telescopic shaft is used; the point
is held between the teeth; the hollow part of the handle, covered
with plumes, is forced down toward the lips, and thus the
arrow appears to be swallowed. There is an account of an arrow
of similar construction used early in the eighteenth century by
Indians of Canada, who pretended a man was wounded by it
and healed instantly. The Navaho also pretend to swallow
sticks, which their neighbors of the pueblo of Zuñi actually do
in sacred rites, occasionally rupturing the oesophagus in the ordeal
of forcing a stick into the stomach. Special societies which
practice magic, having for their chief object rainmaking and
the cure of disease, exist among the southwestern tribes. Swallowing
sticks, arrows, etc., eating and walking on fire, and trampling
on cactus, are performed by members of the same fraternity.
‘‘Magicians are usually men; but among the aborigines of
the Mosquito Coast in Central America, they are often women
who are called sukias, and are said to exercise great power. According
to Hewitt, Iroquois women are reported traditionally
to have been magicians.
Encyclopedia of Occultism & Parapsychology • 5th Ed. AMERICA, UNITED STATES OF
‘‘A trick of the juggler among many tribes of the North was
to cause himself to be bound hand and foot and then, without
visible assistance or effort on his part to release himself from
the bonds. Civilized conjurers who perform a similar trick are
hidden in a cabinet, and claim supernatural aid; but some Indian
jugglers performed this feat under observation. It was common
for Indian magicians to pretend they could bring rain, but
the trick consisted simply of keeping up ceremonies until rain
fell, the last ceremony being the one credited with success.
Catlin describes this among the Mandan, in 1832, and the
practice is still common among the Pueblo tribes of the arid region.
The rain-maker was a special functionary among the Menominee.
‘‘To cause a large plant to grow to maturity in a few moments
and out of season is another Indian trick. The Navaho
plant the root stalk of a yucca in the ground in the middle of
the winter, and apparently cause it to grow, blossom, and bear
fruit in a few moments. This is done by the use of artificial flowers
and fruit carried under the blankets of the performers; the
dimness of the firelight and the motion of the surrounding
dancers hide from the spectators the operations of the shaman
when he exchanges one artificial object for another. In this way
the Hopi grow beans, and the Zuñi corn, the latter using a large
cooking pot to cover the growing plant.’’
European Settlers
The occult history of the European races that occupy the territories
now known as the United States of America begins with
their initial settlement of North America. The early English,
German, and Dutch settlers brought with them an active belief
in magic, witchcraft, and sorcery (malevolent magic). Settlers
were aware of a range of magical practices such as image magic,
and had a particular fear of curses aimed at them. Should such
curses come to pass they would often attribute it to the sorcery
of the person pronouncing the course. As early as 1638 in Massachusetts,
Jane Hawkins was indicted for practicing witchcraft,
though no record of a trial survived. Less than a decade later,
however, Alice Young was tried and executed in Connecticut.
Hers was the first of a steady stream of trials and a number of
executions prior to the famous outbreak at Salem.
The numerous accusations of witchcraft prepared the way
for the events at Salem Village (now Danvers), Massachusetts,
as did the writings of two leading ministers, Increase Mather
(1639–1723) and his son, Cotton Mather (1662–1728). As president
of Harvard Increase Mather collected numerous accounts
of what today would be called psychic occurrences as evidence
of supernatural actions operating in the life of people and published
these in An Essay for the Recording of Illustrious Providences.
Cotton, a brilliant child who entered Harvard at the age of
twelve, was only 25 years old when he was placed in charge of
North Church, Boston, the largest congregation in the colony.
During the early years of his pastorate, he followed his father’s
interests and collected accounts of some unusual negative experiences
of his parishioners which he viewed as the actions of
supernatural forces among the people. He argued for the reality
of witchcraft, both because the Bible declared it a reality and
because he saw instances of it in the deranged behavior of Boston
citizens. His conclusions were published in a widely read
book published in 1689, Memorable Provinces Relating to Witchcraft
and Possessions.
The strong belief in the power and presence of negative
magic in Salem Village, supported by the writings of the Mathers,
emerged in the context of a deep community division between
the wealthier landowners and the poorer elements in the
village as well as the threat of a war with the natives. For a generation
Salem Village had been afflicted by economic tensions
and the entire colony faced the threat of open hostilities breaking
out as colonists continually expanded into Indian lands.
It began in the depths of winter when the daughters of parish
minister the Rev. Samuel Parris began to play games of fortunetelling
using the white of an egg as a crystal ball. Panic ensued
when one of the girls saw a coffin in the egg. The
fearfulness soon found expression in unexplained fits, which
disrupted the household and on occasion the church services.
A physician suggested witchcraft and while that suggestion was
under consideration, a young woman in the village suggested
to Tituba and John Indian, a Caribbean Indian couple (not African
as is often alleged) who were slaves in the Parris household
that they prepare a witch cake (rye meal mixed with the
urine of the afflicted girls) to determine if in fact witchcraft was
at work. When this plan came to light Tituba and two other
women were arrested.
Unfortunately, the girls’ fits did not end. They began to
name residents of the village who were subsequently arrested.
Through the spring months the jails were filled with the accused
who could not be tried as the colony was in the midst of
a crisis—their charter had expired and had not been renewed.
A court was finally and hastily established in June 1692 and the
trials began. The first woman tried, Briget Bishop, was sentenced
to death. There was little evidence to support the cases
against the accused beyond the claims of the girls that spectres
of the accused afflicted them and caused their fits. During the
trials, when the accused appeared, they would often react as if
their mere presence caused them harm. And, as the trials and
executions continued and the number of accused grew, the situation
in Salem became a matter of colony-wide concern.
Cotton Mather played an active role in the trials. He believed
the Devil was at work in Salem, and authored the response
of the Boston ministers on the necessity of the trials.
However, he warned against a too ready acceptance of spectral
evidence. Additionally, he spoke on the occasion of the hanging
of former parish minister George Burroughs. When Burroughs
flawlessly spoke the Lord’s Prayer, which supposedly a
witch could not do, Mather rose to quiet the crowd and allowed
the execution to continue. However, it was Mather who personally
called upon Governor Phelps, who had spent much of the
summer away from Boston fighting the Indians, to stop the trials
which had reached such large proportions.
In the end, the court sentenced 31 (including 25 women) to
death. Nineteen who pleaded not guilty were hanged. One
Giles Cory refused to plead, thus making use of a legal provision
that would prevent his property from being confiscated.
One escaped jail and left the colony; two died in jail, and two
who were pregnant survived and were freed. Five joined the 55
people who confessed and were later freed.
Reaction to the trials was widespread. Among the most vehement
detractors was Thomas Brattle, an educated citizen of
Boston, who attacked the proceedings and termed the whole
affair utter nonsense. Mather published a reply, defending the
court and the idea of witchcraft, The Wonders of the Invisible
World (1693), but the tide of public opinion was slowly turning
against the complex of ideas underlying the trials. Mather continued
the debate in his later writings, but his reputation was
severely damaged by Robert Calef’s attack in More Wonders of
the Invisible World (1700). Eventually, on January 15, 1697, the
jurors who had brought in the guilty verdicts joined in a day of
fasting and repentance for the injustices of the trials. In 1702,
Samuel Sewell, the judge who presided, publicly confessed his
guilt and asked pardon for his role in the proceedings.
Calef’s view of Mather and the trial was largely adopted by
later generations who came to deny the reality of witchcraft.
His reputation was only resurrected when a vigorous reappraisal
of witchcraft in seventeenth-century New England occurred
by such scholars as Chadwick Hansen, Paul Boyer, Stephen
Nissenbaum, and John Putnam Demos.
The whole magical supernatural world present during the
Salem trials is also evident in the consideration of alchemy. For
example, while condemning witchcraft, Cotton Mather praised
John Winthrop, Jr., and his son Wait Still Winthrop
(1642–1717), both prominent citizens and both also alchemists.
While governor of Connecticut, the elder Winthrop conducted
alchemical experiments in the governor’s mansion. He built
AMERICA, UNITED STATES OF Encyclopedia of Occultism & Parapsychology • 5th Ed.
one of the largest alchemical libraries in America and on occasion
hosted visiting alchemists from Europe. Both the Winthrops
joined the debates then going on in medical circles over
the introduction of nonorganic substances, i.e., chemical preparations,
for the treatment of illnesses.
The Occult in the Nineteenth Century
Post-Revolutionary America is extremely rich in occult history
as evidenced in the writings of Spiritualist, magical, and
metaphysical teachers such as Thomas Lake Harris, Andrew
Jackson Davis, William Q. Judge, Mary Baker Eddy, and the
people who followed them into Spiritualism, Theosophy, and
Christian Science. Hundreds of occult and metaphysical movements
have either originated in, or found a home in the United
States from the nineteenth century onward.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the Mormons)
had undoubtedly a semi-occult origin. Its founder, Joseph
Smith, Jr. claimed to discover tablets of gold upon which
was engraved the new revelation, the Book of Mormon, which he
translated by a process similar to modern channeling. Smith
also tied the church loosely to Freemasonry.
Theosophy became firmly rooted in America through the
efforts of William Q. Judge, and his successor Katherine B.
Tingley, the founder of the theosophical colony at Point Loma,
California. In recent years, however, the American society formerly
led by Judge declined and most theosophists now adhere
to the Theosophical Society headquartered in Adyar, India.
Modern American Occultism and Parapsychology
Throughout the twentieth century, old and new religious
movements have appeared, and a few have flourished. Ceremonial
magic and Neo-pagan Witchcraft have been imported
from England and both have enjoyed their greatest success in
the United States. One noteworthy aspect of the American
scene has been the association of revivalist evangelism with
paranormal healing, an association begun in the holiness
movement but finding its greatest expression in Pentecostalism.
Interestingly enough, Spiritualism (which had grown from
the Hydesville rappings association with the Fox Sisters in the
nineteenth century) took a firmer hold in Great Britain, Europe,
and Brazil, than in America. While Spiritualism swept
across America, claimed many cultural leaders, and developed
into a large organizational structure, it remained a relatively
minuscule movement in the midst of a large population. It did
become, as in Europe, the subject of a much public scrutiny, but
declined in the wake of the discovery of widespread fraud.
However, the National Spiritualist Association of Churches,
founded in 1893, still has more than a hundred affiliated congregations.
The emergence of Spiritualism eventually led in 1885 to the
formation of the American Society for Psychical Research as
a branch of the London-based Society for Psychical Research.
It investigated the mediumship and the phenomena associated
with that movement over the next several generations and included
in its leadership a number of outstanding scientists including
William James, Walter Franklin Prince, James H.
Hyslop and Hereward Carrington. In 1930, American biologistpsychologist
J. B. Rhine gave a new direction to the whole
of psychical research as director of the Parapsychology Laboratory
at Duke University, North Carolina. Whereas psychical research
was largely concerned with the phenomena associated
with Spiritualist mediums, Rhine and his associates moved research
from the séance-room into the laboratory and, under
systematic control conditions, began testing the unknown or
‘‘extra-sensory’’ faculties (ESP for short) of ordinary individuals.
The new term, parapsychology, with its experimental
methodology has now largely superseded the earlier approach
of psychical research. Organizations also founded in the United
States to pursue parapsychological research include the
Psychical Research Foundation and the Parapsychology
Foundation in New York, linked with the work and paranormal
talents of Eileen Garrett. Rhine also led in the foundation of
the Parapsychological Foundation, now the international professional
association of parapsychologists.
At a popular level, belief in divination, especially astrology,
has experienced a steady increase throughout the twentieth
century, and is now widespread. More than 20 percent of the
population express some acceptance of belief in astrology.
A major occult explosion took place in the 1960s, marked
by an increased interest in psychic and occult phenomenon.
This phenomenon merged into the New Age movement of the
1970s and 1980s, and earned a new respectability for those involved
in the psychic movement, despite the concurrent interest
in the more sinister aspects of occultism symbolized by the
new Satanism.
The 1960s revival built upon earlier, if less intense, waves of
interest, most notably those occurring during the 1920s and
30s. These earlier activities were of specialized coterie interest
in line with the more structured society of the period, constituting
a kind of occult underground of the kind described in
books like Witchraft Its Power in the World Today by William Seabrook
(1940). The witch craze of the colonial period had long
ago died out, although magical practices and beliefs could be
found throughout the country’s rural areas and in the poorer
sections of the urban centers. The last of the witchcraft trials
was held in the early eighteenth century, when there were a few
cases in Virginia. The twentieth-century revival of witchcraft
and Satanism owed more to the freedom of the cities and the
new climate of religious and cultural pluralism of the postWorld
War II era, undoubtedly strengthened by the widespread
use of psychedelic drugs.
One of the most widespread popular preoccupations has
been the phenomena of flying saucers or unidentified flying
objects (UFOs), mysterious aerial objects of a disk-like shape.
Such sightings had been reported for many centuries, but during
the emerging space age of the 1950s, the idea that these
UFOs might be spacecraft from other planets captured the
popular imagination. In addition, many individuals (who in
earlier generations would have become Spiritualist mediums)
claimed to have met the occupants of these spacecrafts, taken
trips in their crafts, andor received psychic communications
from space intelligences. With many thousands of claimed
sightings, UFO groups sprang up all over the United States
and interest spread to other countries of the world. At its lowest
level, the flying saucer phenomenon has become something of
a new mythology, comparable with other modern preoccupations
such as near-death experiences. At a more responsible
level, there remains a residuum of inexplicable phenomena
that deserves closer investigation.
The emergence of a post-Enlightenment occult belief has
been opposed at every level by leaders in the scientific community.
The ongoing controversy has most recently led to the formation
of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of
Claims of the Paranormal, which is devoted to debunking occult
and related claims and publishes a journal, Skeptical Inquirer.
The United States remains home to a vital popular interest
in matters psychical and occult. Fate, the oldest of the occultrelated
periodicals, is but one of hundreds. The occult forms
the basis for numerous books, movies, and television shows,
and provides the substance for hundreds of religious groups
and spiritual organizations, all of which provide the Committee
for the Scientific Investigation of the Claims of the Paranormal
with an endless agenda.
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