The Same People, Different than Before

Eric O. Scott —  September 13, 2013 — 10 Comments
Buffalo_reflex_Buffalo_Mo_18690821 (1)

The first issue of the Buffalo Reflex, the object of my desire, from 1869. Ah, for the days when poetry got top billing. Retrieved from the Missouri Digital Newspaper Project.

The research room of the Missouri State Historical Society Archives is not much to look at. It’s a dark room in the basement of the Ellis Library at the University of Missouri, the institution I now call home. The largest section is nothing but work tables and census catalogs, tracking the names of every person who has lived in the state for more than a century. Rows of obscure books stretch off in the opposite direction; I have no idea what any of those books are. I come here for newspapers; the archives have virtually every newspaper ever printed in the state of Missouri since its inception, all maintained in cabinet upon cabinet of black 35 millimeter microfilm. For the third day in a row, I have been sitting here in the dark, staring at the projection of the microfilm on a computer monitor, looking for something I doubt anybody but me even cares to find.

It was not that long ago – just about two months, now – that I spent most of my time in a different basement room, also staring at a computer screen. In some ways, my days have not changed much.

But make no mistake: in the month since I last wrote here, I have changed almost everything about my life.

I don’t say that to brag; when I made the decision to quit my (admittedly awful) job, leave my beloved hometown of St. Louis, and come here for my doctorate, I figured that the odds of it being the worst decision of my life were around 40%. It might still turn out to be – I’m going for a PHD in English, after all, and the job market for that particular specialization tanked over a decade ago and hasn’t yet stopped sinking. One of my classes is, essentially, a semester-long investigation into ways this might turn out poorly.

But in the meantime, I’m having a tremendously good time. I tend to spend about twelve or thirteen hours every day working, and I make less than half of what I did at my “real world” job. But it’s good work, and I feel more welcome here in my new home than I have felt anywhere else in years.

We’ll see how it turns out.

I’m searching in the archives for newspaper articles from the region around Springfield, Missouri, dated late October or early November 1983-84. I’m searching for stories about a fire that would have happened just after Samhain. According to my coven’s legends, we held our sabbat on a member’s farm a little ways north of Springfield, near the town of Buffalo, Missouri, which is small enough that I had never heard of it before despite living in this state my entire life. We had built a cabin on the farm to sleep in after the ritual; after everyone had gone home, someone had burned the cabin to ashes. The person who had owned the cabin told me her sister had seen a story about it in the paper, including the detail that the reporters had discovered chicken bones in the fire pit nearby and declared it proof of animal sacrifice – when in actuality, we had merely eaten roasted chicken for dinner that night and thrown the bones in the fire.

(It strikes me, as I read over that paragraph, how effortlessly I slipped into the first person plural: I wrote that “we” did this. Of course, I had nothing to do with it. If this happened in October 1984, I was still nearly two years from being born. But perhaps that illustrates what it feels like to be a second-generation Pagan. What they have done, I have done; what has happened to them has happened to me. It is impossible for me to think of my family’s history objectively – I know too well how every event in it has shaped me.)

As best as I can tell, the newspaper article does not exist. The universe described by the local paper, The Buffalo Reflex, does not contain witches; as best as I can tell, it doesn’t contain anything except for the school lunch menu and an occasional syndicated editorial about Grenada. Perhaps the story ran in a church newsletter or some other kind of small, barely-circulated publication; perhaps that detail was just an embellishment of the story, now told so often that as far as anyone can remember it actually happened. The first thing one learns in memoir is how fickle memory can be.

What I did find, looking for articles written in the same region and roughly the same time, was one article from the Springfield Daily News, dated Halloween, 1979. Springfield, for those who think of the Midwest as flyover country, is the third-largest city in Missouri, with about 150,000 residents. Lorelei, one of my coven-mates, spent her college years there, and recalls it as a conservative place, not very welcoming to weirdoes like us.

And yet there’s this article, titled “Real witches shatter diabolical stereotypes.” It’s about the writer Kathy Maniaci’s experience meeting with members of Springfield’s Shadow Coven. It’s not a long article, and some of it plays with a vision of Wiccans that must have been clichéd even in 1979. The article begins with Maniaci running late, with the words of an unnamed friend in her mind: “The last thing you want to do is make a witch wait.” Presumably because she would shortly find herself a toad, I suppose. When one of her interviewees mentions how hard it is to find a good robe, Maniaci responds, “I winced, as if I’d just heard a vampire say, ‘You know, a good grave is so hard to find these days.'”

But I am fascinated by the article, nonetheless. While engaging in some annoying spectacle, I am moved by the attempt, however fumbling, to humanize Pagans. The Daily News served a small city in the middle of America, after all; I doubt they had any particular obligation to look out for us. The stereotypes are there, but she allows the members of the Shadow Coven to gently debunk them; at no point does she belittle them personally, nor suggest that they are anything but proud of their identities. Considering this was written on the cusp of the Satanic Panic, I find that commendable.

And considering that in a little over a month we will undoubtedly be flooded with articles not terribly dissimilar to this one, I find that certain things really haven’t changed that much.

The archives close at 4:45 most days, and my time is up. I rewind the microfilm and put it back on the cart to be reshelved, and then head out. Only a few other researchers are still there when I leave; each of them is much older than me. I doubt that anybody but me, outside of the staff, is under the age of 60. They come here for genealogy, mostly, combing through census records and obituaries, trying to fill in the bare spots of their family trees. Trying to figure out where they come from.

And of course, I understand. I spend most of my time trying to do the same thing.

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Eric O. Scott

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Eric O. Scott was raised by witches. He is a staff writer for The Wild Hunt and a contributing editor at Killing the Buddha. He won the Moon Books prize for Best Pagan Fiction Writer Under 30 in 2012. His first book, The Lives of the Apostates, was published in 2013. He received his MFA in Fiction and Creative Nonfiction from the University of Missouri - Kansas City in 2010, and is currently a PHD student in Creative Nonfiction and Medieval Studies at the University of Missouri - Columbia. His middle name is not "Odin."
  • Baruch Dreamstalker

    Ah, you take me back to my youth in a double echo. When I was a college freshman I did a newspaper review paper on the Scopes Trial. This was fifty years ago, and I dealt with real newspapers in a big folio, yellowing and edge-frayed. And of course I was reaching thirty-five years further back, so I ran across some fascinating tidbits, like a man on the East Coast getting twenty lashes for beating his wife.The other echo is from when I had just become Pagan in the late 1980s — I didn’t think of my forties as part of my youth at the time but I certainly do now — and the witch who trained me and I composed a reply for the local newspaper to its printing a story about an “occult crime expert” lecturing the police department (on the taxpayer’s dime no less) as though the content of his talk were factual, and to their not interviewing anyone the guy was talking about for balance. Occult experts seem to be passé but the Scopes Trial is still germane.

  • https://www.facebook.com/ThePaganNaturalist Nicole Youngman

    I did archival work for my dissertation. It’s great fun, and what a pleasure to see it discussed in our Pagan context! I think your comment about the article in question possibly having existed in a church newsletter or such is very plausible–hope you can follow up on that. Meanwhile, hope you continue having a fabulous time in your program. (And yes, the job market sucks to the point of being really scary. It helps if you’re willing to live any damn place you can get a job, and if you accept the reality that most of it isn’t traditional tenure-track anymore.) Careful with those student loans, they DO make you pay ‘em back!! ;)

  • Ash McSidhe

    Eric, FWIW, I have a vague memory that seems to resonate with that coven history. You might also check issues of The Green Egg for that period, there may be mention of it there.

  • Hecate_Demetersdatter

    Spent long hours working on my master’s thesis in the Maryland State Archives. In a lovely room just off the grounds of the Naval Academy & St. John’s in Annapolis, a librarian would bring me the beautiful wooden boxes that held the records of, I am not making this up, the Lunacy Commission. I’d dive back into the 1800s. I was so much older then; I’m younger than that, now.

  • harmonyfb

    I don’t know how to feel about the mid-80’s (when I was a grownup already) being discussed as though it’s ancient history, while I’m sitting here thinking, “It wasn’t that long ago.”

    (Also, 1984 is the year I began to realize that there was a name for the religious call I felt – and right around that time there was a huge newspaper article on a local professor who had become Pagan; I had first read about Wicca and Witchcraft in magazine articles in the early ’70’s, so it’s not like it was unheard of.)

    • Baruch Dreamstalker

      I understand your sentiment. Scanning through Eric’s article I misread the dates as late 1880s just from the “feel” of the writing. Then I thought, “A coven with a trad going back to the 19th Century!?” and went back and checked it.
      After a while one gets used to it…

    • Eric Scott

      Obviously it wasn’t unheard of if there were already multiple groups in a place like Springfield, Missouri, by the late ’70s. I’m not meaning to imply the things I’m looking at in this column are “ancient,” but events that happened close to 35 years ago do deserve to be thought of as (recent) history. (Considering Wicca itself is at best only about 80 years old, 35 years is a pretty big chunk of its existence!)

  • Obsidia

    I remember reading Women’s magazines in the late 70s/early 80s, and there were articles about Witches in the neighborhood. I remember a particular article in Women’s World magazine. It was around Halloween (of course!), but it was a very positive article about a Witch who lived in the neighborhood and loved plants and animals and did positive spells. It was around the same time that Belly Dancing had its first surge of popularity in middle class America.

  • P. Sufenas Virius Lupus

    You know, your comments on the use of the first-person plural are interesting, and echo something I was thinking about earlier today. Human tendencies to stereotype entire groups of people by what one individual among that group does has a kind of deep root in our consciousness, because each person represents their tribe, their people, their ancestors, and thus any action they do *must* (in theory) reflect that group as a whole. This does not excuse people making such assumptions now when they’re unfounded, by any means, but back in the day, when everyone knew how “those wacky Eumolpids” or “those crazy Thracians” or “that Ó Domhnaill clan” acted, they did so with a deep sense of individuals having accountability to their tribe/people/etc., and reflecting their best aspects (as well as their worst).