Today is Halloween, the spookiest day of the year. And nowhere in the United States is Halloween more or better celebrated than the town of Salem, Massachusetts, where in 1692 a fair slice of its population was hanged as witches.
Some say Berry and Abigail, who started the frenzied finger-pointing, were traumatized to psychosis by their nanny, Tituba, a slave from Barbados who toyed with their minds through séance, magic and other occult practices deriving from voodoo.
What is known for certain is that the two girls convulsed and hallucinated and blamed their sickness on local witches.
A more likely explanation for their odd behavior was ergotism, otherwise known as St. Anthony’s Fire, a consequence of ingesting rye bread contaminated by a fungus called ergotamine, from which LSD is synthesized. It causes hallucinations and convulsions, psychosis and delusion.
This was a theory originally proposed, in 1979, by a psychology graduate student at UCSB. Linnda Caporael argued that the symptoms—muscle spasms, sweating, nausea—were identical to ergot poisoning. She also noted Tituba’s concoction of a “witch cake,” which was made with rye flour that might have been tainted with ergot, either by accident or design.
By the time it was over, 19 convicted “witches” were hanged based on “spectral” evidence, that is, on the say-so of Berry and Abigail, who also inspired to get others into the act, mostly as a way of settling scores with rivals or as a means of stealing their property. “It was as if,” wrote one colonist at the time, “Satan had been loosed upon Salem.”
Most poignant was the story of Giles Corey. Accused of witchcraft, he refused in disgust to enter a plea and, in a lame attempt to induce one, Salem’s burghers pressed the 81-year-old Corey with large stones, asking occasionally, “How do you plead?” Corey defiantly replied, “More weight!” After three days of such stone-pressing, Corey died.
Tituba’s girls would later repair to a local tavern where they would reenact their courtroom performance. If someone objected, that person became the new object of the girls’ accusations.
It is this enduring legacy that has rendered Salem a magnet for real witches everywhere—an irony and poetic justice combined. Halloween in this town is celebrated the whole month of Oct
ober and its numerous boutiques peddle spell potions, magic wands and vintage Ouija boards.
Practitioners of Wicca, recognized by the United States in 1985 as a religion, believe that God is within and without, synonymous with nature. Modern witches are not devil-worshippers and do not believe in the existence of Satan. If they have a creed, it is Do no harm to others. Wiccans believe that whatever you do to others will revert back to you three-fold.
Halloween was originally a 3-day Celtic festival, commencing All Hallows on the eve of November, which signifies an autumn transition between light and dark, day and night, life and death—and starts the Celtic New Year. It was—still is for some—a time to celebrate the dead, remember them, respect them—and hold close all the links that you, the sum of your ancestors, to those who delivered you.
On All Hallows Eve, Celts and Wiccans gather to tell stories about those no longer among us—be they relatives, friends or pets—and celebrate their spirits by bringing out heirlooms and talismans handed down through the generations.
Christianity, from about 400 A.D onward, viewed the Celts as pagans and threw up a smokescreen by adopting pagan holy days as their own, which is why they have All Saints Day on November 1st and celebrate Jesus of Nazareth’s birthday (a fabricated date, historians believe it was in June) to coincide with the Celtic Winter Solstice.
So, here’s what you do for a very old-fashioned Halloween: Once all the pageantry and trick-or-treating is exhausted, build a fire in an open-air fireplace (the Celts would gather around bonfires) and follow an ancient “Samhain” (pronounced “sow-in”) tradition: using pen and paper, write down bad situations and destructive relationships, scrunch up the list and toss it into the fire. Poof, they’re gone—allowing you to start the Celtic New Year tomorrow without any further burden from whatever or whomever may trouble you.
My favorite Halloween costume, though I’m never allowed to wear it, is my KKK robe and hood.
Stay calm—and tune into the second part of this column for significant context…
Readers have asked about my inspiration for creating The Investigator, which is an investigative column and not conventional investigative reporting.
The distinction between a column and news reporting is that the former incorporates voice and style, perhaps a smattering of opinion; the latter should be “just the facts, ma’am” though you wouldn’t know it these days because so much journalism that masquerades as “reporting” comes with an overdose of spin-oriented adjectives and adverbs.
The Investigator is a confluence of many influences, starting with the Sunday People, where I cut my teeth as an investigative reporter over 40 years ago.
Two men—Investigations Editor Laurie Manifold and his deputy, Alan Ridout—each week produced a full page of investigative stories (sometimes just one big one) under the banner Man of The People Investigates. They worked 5 days a week (Tuesday through Saturday) beavering away at 4-5 stories at any given time in an office insulated from the rest of the newsroom to protect their sources and stories, which were never shared with anyone other than the newspaper’s editor—and supported by an odd assortment of freelancers “doing shifts.” (In Britain, newsrooms were understaffed and thus freelance was a perfectly acceptable way to practice journalism, unlike in the USA where “freelance” is thought to be a euphemism for “unemployed.”)
Every week the Sunday People investigative page exposed villains and conmen, sex scoundrels and scammers—and in its heyday exposed some of the most dangerous gangsters in London’s East End.
My break in journalism came when I infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan. It began with a tip that the Grand Dragon of the Invisible Empire, Knights of the Ku Klux Klan in South Carolina desired to establish a “klavern” (Klan-speak for branch) in Britain. Posing as a wannabe Klansman, I contacted Robert E. Scoggin (the Grand Dragon who doubled as Imperial Wizard) by phone and we had a long chat during which he determined that I should be his main facilitator. He then proceeded to recite to me the names and phone numbers of prospective Klan members from all around Britain.
I took what I had to the Sunday People. They bought it for a good chunk of change and put me to work for them.
Guided by the pros, I made contact with those on Scoggin’s list and invited them all to a hotel room near King’s Cross, one of London’s main train stations. The room was wired with microphones, add a photographer with telephoto lens who clicked away as our targets—about a dozen—came and went, including a thuggish family (a father and two sons) who claimed to possess an arsenal of illegal guns. They talked of abducting inter-racial couples to tar-and-feather them. They were an ugly bunch.
We had our story—a good one.
But then it got even better: Grand Dragon Scoggin invited me to visit him in Spartanburg, South Carolina for the purpose of being “naturalized” into the KKK.
“You can’t run a branch of the Klan,” he drawled, “until you’re initiated in a ceremony.”
The editor of The Sunday People agreed, so off we went—me and Alan Ridout and Angus Mayer, another freelancer who was brought in to assist.
First thing, in the back of a van, Klansmen hit us up for $20 each for “dues.” Arriving in front of Scoggins’s ranch house—pickup trucks parked everywhere—we were escorted into a dark garage pointed up the narrow, creaky stairway.
At the top, a door opened and the Imperial Wizard stood before us, decked in a gold satin robe and cone-shaped hat; around him, posters glorifying the KKK were boldly illuminated with ultraviolet light. In the center of the room, an altar with a Holy Bible opened to Corinthians 12.
The room soon filled with about two dozen Klansmen (and women) wearing white robes, fully hooded. They formed a semi-circle around us and the 30-minute ceremony began.
Scoggin anointed us with holy water and tapped our shoulders with the flat side of a sword—rendering us knighted into the secret fraternity of haters. At one point, the Imperial Wizard pointed to a snakeskin nailed to the wall and said, “That’s what happens to traitors!”
The lights came on, hoods removed, donuts and coffee served—and out came a tape measure.
Why a tape measure?
Because bespoke robes and hoods were to be hastily tailored for us. Not normal white ones, mind you, but red satin robes, which identified us as “Kleagles” (Klan-speak for “officers”), who would return to London and run the UK Klavern.
Or so they believed.
Because that’s not what happened, of course.
No, what happened was this: Two successive front-page, center-spread stories “splashed” (Fleet Street lingo) over two Sundays exposing names and photographs of those who would bring hate to Britain.
It blew the UK KKK out of the water.
Literally. That was the end of the KKK in Blighty.
And, tipped off (by me), Special Branch (police) raided the home of thuggish father and two sons, found the guns of which they spoke—and confiscated them.
One anecdote of that experience stands out above all others: On our final day in town, the Imperial Wizard took us on a tour of the Blue Ridge Mountains leading, that evening, to a “Tri-State” KKK rally across the border into North Carolina and a field reached only by a single lane gravel road. Sitting bumper-to-bumper in a long stream of vehicles, I noticed a state police roadblock up ahead—and could see that the state trooper was asking each driver for ID.
Problem: The only ID I had was my UK driving license—in my real name, not the alias I was using for Bob Scoggin, who was sitting in the passenger seat next to me.
My turn came.
The trooper leaned in. “Driver’s license and car papers,” he drawled.
I opened the glove compartment and handed him the car rental agreement.
“I said driver’s license,” he repeated.
“It’s in the trunk,” I said.
“Well, go get it.”
I got out and walked around the car, followed by the state trooper. And then, uh-oh, Scoggin got out too and met me around the other side as I rifled through my duffel bag, mind racing about an escape ramp if Scoggin discovered I wasn’t who I said I was. But there was no escaping. And I remembered the snakeskin nailed to the wall: That’s what happens to traitors!
Just as I put my hand on my license, Scoggin extended his right arm in from of me and offered to shake hands with the trooper. “Hi, I’m Bob Scoggin, Imperial Wizard for South Carolina.”
The trooper smiled, shook Bob’s hand and drawled, “Well, why didn’t you say so? You boys go right on through!”
(Our newly tailored robes awaited us at the rally.)
Over the next few years I infiltrated violent anarchist cells and neo-Nazi organizations for the Sunday People. It became a specialty of mine, infiltrating hate groups and reporting on their activities from the inside. This kind of undercover journalism was an accepted practice in Britain, but only as a last resort for getting the story on evil-doers, based on the principle that if a particular entity was presumed to be up to no good and no one involved would talk about it to an outsider, it was ethical to penetrate them to get at the truth.
Another early influence was Paul Foot who wrote an investigative page for the Daily Mirror, another Fleet Street newspaper. Paul was known as a “campaigning” journalist, which meant he was on a crusade to expose evil and change society for the better—and urged readers to send tips “I ought to investigate.”
And then there was Nicholas Davies, the Daily Mirror’s dapper foreign editor, who could digest an extremely complicated international situation then distill it into a mere 150 words that would explain everything in a way any reader could understand.
A fourth influence appeared when I settled for a time on the Jersey Shore and read the Asbury Park Press. This daily newspaper ran a twice-weekly column called Trouble Shooter. Readers would write the anonymous columnist and seek assistance to settle a dispute. Trouble Shooter would do so—and publish the results.
Finally, there was the Weekly World News (little sister to The National Enquirer) and a columnist by the name of Ed Anger, obviously a pseudonym, who ranted and raved about anything and everything and started stories with lines such as “I’m madder than a zombie with a mouth full of Biden’s brain.” I found it amusing—and it somehow found its way into one of the nether-reaches of my mind.