First lady of witchcraft Laurie Cabot is 85 and still working to undo 2,000 years of propaganda
The following is excerpted from the new book, Wicked Salem: Exploring Lingering Lore & Legends
In most of the interviews that I’ve conducted for Wicked Salem, one name kept coming up like a well-crafted spell whispered from the Witch City’s collective lips.
The “Official Witch” of Salem known for her outspoken and sometimes controversial approach still has that all-knowing fire that magically emanates from the high priestess well into her twilight years.
“She might be eighty-five but she’s still going strong,” said my friend Memie Watson when I asked about setting up an interview with her mentor. Watson, a high priestess who also teaches at Enchanted in Salem’s Pickering Wharf, said Cabot is still wicked busy “writing books, teaching classes and making her crafts and oils.”
Then I got the call. Cabot agreed to meet with me. When I walked into her workshop, I was immediately overwhelmed by Cabot’s positive energy. She radiates wisdom. It’s all around her.
“I didn’t plan on living in Salem,” she told me about her move from Boston’s North End to the Witch City in the late 1960s. “My purpose in life at the time was to teach witchcraft as a science. I had no idea anybody was going to notice me.”
While I’m chatting with the grande dame of witchcraft, I’m amazed by the artifacts assembled behind her. There’s a wall full of antique dolls—including a miniature version of Cabot—and stacks of books from all religious traditions. Her desk is covered with beads and objects that sparkle.
Think Alice in Wonderland. And I fell into Salem’s rabbit hole.
“I didn’t plan any of this,” she said, adding that the universe has been her guiding force throughout most of her magical life. “It was all by accident. But I have to admit, I was naive at the time.”
As the high priestess is speaking, I hear three loud knocks on the wall behind her. I looked up. Was it ghost? “Oh, those are my fairy knockers,” she said, checking with her daughter Penny to make sure the front door was locked. “They were sent over from Cornwall. It’s usually a warning of some sort.”
Apparently, Cabot gets a heads up when there’s danger nearby. In fact, she avoided an issue with carbon monoxide a few years ago thanks to her Cornish pixie friends. “The knockers saved my life,” she insisted.
Unfazed by the phantom knocking incident, Cabot continued talking about her early days teaching a ten-session class on the science of witchcraft in Wellesley followed by stint at Salem State. Apparently, she was too “flamboyant” for the college circuit even though her classes were popular with the students.
“I dressed a bit more conservative back then,” she said with a smile, pointing out her signature look that includes a black robe, two-tone hair, cat-eye makeup, a tattoo on her cheek, black-rimmed glasses and a large pentacle hanging around her neck. “I’m much different now.”
There’s no doubt that Cabot’s legacy continues to thrive in the North Shore’s tight-knit Wiccan community. But what about Salem’s coven of commercialism in October? It’s her fault.
Well, kinda sorta.
It actually started when Cabot’s black-cat familiar, Molly Boo, climbed up a tree when she lived on Chestnut Street. “Molly Boo outed me,” she said about the incident that catapulted her into international fame. Her cat climbed a tree outside of her apartment and got stuck about fifty feet up. Molly Boo wouldn’t come down for three days. Cabot contacted everyone including the police. No one would help her. She feared that Molly Boo would die.
In desperation, Cabot called the local newspaper. “They were only interested in the story because I was a Witch,” she recalled. “I told them that Molly Boo was my familiar and I wanted my cat out of the tree.”
According to Cabot, a man came with a pole that had a loop and he quickly rescued Molly Boo. “One of the guys said, ‘don’t put a curse on us’ and I just rolled my eyes,” she said with a laugh. Of course, a local photographer captured the animal rescue and the photo was picked up by hundreds of papers across the globe.
Soon after, Cabot opened Salem’s first “witch shop” in 1970. Armed with her newfound notoriety, Cabot wanted to dispel the myths and misconceptions related to modern-day witchcraft. However, she had no idea how difficult it would be to educate the public.
“How do you undo two-thousand years of propaganda?” she emoted. “People used ‘witch’ as an umbrella term for magic in all cultures. There was so much false information and misinterpretation.”
Witches, she explained in a New York Times article published in the 1970s, “don’t sacrifice animals or people or drink blood or eat babies or any of that stuff.”
When asked about the hysteria in Salem more than three centuries ago, Cabot said witchcraft has been associated with evil intentions and devil-worshipping for generations. “They couldn’t find a witch in Salem in 1692 because they had no idea what they were looking for,” she responded. “They had it all wrong.”
Cabot did shy away from the history associated with the witch trials. However, she believes the Salem of today is the polar opposite compared to 1692. “In many ways, I believe those innocent people gave their lives for us,” she said, adding that the local Wiccan community honors the twenty victims from the Salem witch trials during Samhain, the Celtic feast of the dead.
For the record, she doesn’t believe the victims of the witch trials were actually practicing pagans.
After being declared Salem’s “Official Witch” by then Governor Michael Dukakis in 1977, Cabot’s popularity flourished. She appeared on scores of television shows including Oprah, radio broadcasts and was featured in dozens of newspapers and magazines. Cabot even ran for mayor on a so-called witch’s platform before publishing her book, The Power of the Witch, in the 1980s.
In an article published in the Salem Evening News on October 25, 1989, Cabot was dubbed the “first lady of witchcraft” and the piece also talked about how she made Salem the “witch capital of the world.”
She even wrote an opinion piece for the New York Times that ran on October 31, 1989. “As a witch, I am appalled at the way society views us,” she wrote. “On the one hand, we are portrayed as silly, green-skinned hags flying on broomsticks across children’s Saturday cartoons. On the other, we are used as scapegoats for all the bizarre cult crimes and violent rituals staged by misguided individuals who think they are practicing witchcraft.”
The op-ed was called “Witches, Without Warts.”
While Cabot’s fame skyrocketed, a backlash started to develop in the 1990s. Salem wanted to focus on its maritime history and totally forget that its past was soaked in blood. “Our witch history makes us special,” she said. “Every single city up and down the coast has maritime history. They all have pirates and lighthouses. Salem’s history was becoming polarized.”
Yes, Salem can celebrate both witches and pirates.
In 1997, she was involved in a minor courtroom drama and newspapers wanted to tarnish Cabot’s reputation. “It was hard to tell who was real then,” she said, obviously hurt by the backlash. What would she say to the people from the dark period in her life? “Do your research,” she shot back. “Study what I’ve studied. Ignorance is bliss.”
As Cabot talked about the painful episode from her past, the soundtrack from Disney’s Frozen mysteriously started to play from a TV next to her workshop. The song? “Let it go.”
Now in her eighties, Cabot’s fire has simmered a bit. However, she’s still passionate about educating the masses. When asked about the witch-on-broom silhouettes that are still perpetuated in pop culture, she told me that it’s demeaning. “If you are going to have witches fly on brooms, there’s no reason to make us look horrific,” she said, referring to Margaret Hamilton’s green-skinned crone stereotype from the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz. “Either they portray us as horrific looking with warts or supercilious,” she added.
As far as the Spooky World-style shenanigans that has transmogrified Salem every October, Cabot isn’t a fan. “I’m still not sure what a guy with an ax in his head and blood dripping down his face has to do with witchcraft,” she told the Boston Globe in 2017. “Some of it is offensive. The fun house. The scary murderous stuff. It brings bad vibes. It’s projecting the wrong kinds of things.”
Cabot is also wary of the ghost hunters on TV who don’t respect the dead. Witches, she explained to me, communicate with spirits during rituals by calling in their ancestors. As a high priestess, Cabot is able to cross between both worlds. She’s able to invoke both the living and the dead. “Ghosts don’t harm people,” she said. “They don’t scratch or sit on us.”
She also talked about poltergeist phenomenon saying that it’s a “quirk of energy from the living,” she explained. In other words, people can manifest “thought forms” without even knowing they are doing it. “A poltergeist is not from another realm,” she said “It’s not a ghost or spirit. It’s something else.”
As my interview with the grande dame of witchcraft was coming to an end, she asked me what I was calling the book. “Wicked Salem: Exploring Lingering Lore and Legends,” I said. “Of course, you’re the legend.” Cabot’s face lit up. “I like that,” she said with a smile.
I then asked one more question before heading out. How does the first lady of witchcraft respond to people who blame her for Salem’s commercialism? “I say ‘thank you,’” Cabot mused. “And you’re welcome.”
Sam Baltrusis, author of Wicked Salem: Exploring Lingering Lore and Legends, produces the MASS ParaCon slotted for Lenox, MA on September 27-29, 2019 and is featured on the 100th episode of A Haunting airing on the Travel Channel in June. Visit SamBaltrusis.com for more information.