Day 977: The Last American Witch

originally published September 3, 2014

In the throes of one of America’s most delightfully absurd episodes of mass hysteria, twenty people were executed in 1692-93 for the crime of probably being witches. Maybe. The Salem Witch Trials – which were merely the American performance of a fad that had been lighting it up in Europe for decades – have leaked into all formats of American high art: poems, novels, movies, and a segment of The Simpsons’ “Treehouse of Horror VIII” episode.

But while we, the sophisticated and wise citizenry of the modern age, can look back upon our ancestral paranoia with a wry titter, our bubbly sense of smug urbanity goes flat upon learning that witch trials are still happening in 2014. So-called witch-children were slaughtered in the Congo in 1999. An angry Kenyan mob burned eleven suspected sorcerers in 2008. In India, it’s estimated that between 150 and 200 women are lynched each year for being witches – some are accused of such simply because they turned down a sexual advance.

This is an era in which a car can pilot you to your destination while you restructure your fantasy football league in the back seat, and people still freak out over witchcraft? Fortunately, the good ol’ U.S. of A. has evolved significantly in the last 321 years. In fact, there hasn’t been an actual case of witchcraft accusation since… wait, 1970?

Welcome to Flowing Wells High School in Tucson, Arizona; a solid 6/10 on the national GreatSchools rating system, and home of the Mustangs. It’s also the kind of place where a rumor can be as dangerous as a drunk holding a lit match in a tumbleweed factory. This fact became evident in the aftermath of a late 1969 visit by Dr. Byrd Granger from the University of Arizona. Yes, this story about witchcraft features a woman named Granger – Harry Potter fans, feel free to rejoice. This prof happened to be an expert on witchcraft and folklore, and was happy to pass on her knowledge to the local juniors and seniors.

Part of that knowledge included the physical characteristics of a typical witch. Dispelling the belief that the stereotypical witch bore a close resemblance to Margaret Hamilton in The Wizard Of Oz, Dr. Granger explained that the standard witch look includes blonde hair with a widow’s peak, blue or green eyes, a node creating a small point on the left ear, and a penchant for wearing “devil’s green”, which lands somewhere between chartreuse and lime green.

English teacher Ann Stewart had to chuckle; the description fit her perfectly.

Every blonde teacher and student in the audience instinctively checked their ears for a subtle point. Ann didn’t need to. When she returned to her classroom, her students wasted no time in pointing out that she possessed all the signs of witchdom. They asked if she was a witch.

“What do you think?” she replied. In retrospect, a solid “No” might have been a better answer.

It had been a social studies teacher who had commissioned Dr. Granger to the school; Ann Stewart taught American literature. While she had never pieced together an all-out unit on the occult, the topic did flitter into her lessons from time to time, depending on the story she was teaching. The prospect of her potential allegiance with the world of witchcraft was amusing to Ann and her students, and she felt the silly rumor was helping to keep the kids engaged. Toward the end of the school year, she encouraged her kids to look into the history and meaning of astrology. Also, this was around the time she dressed up as a witch for a local junior high class. It was all in good fun.

But for some, it was evidence.

The incoming freshmen in the fall of 1970 brought with them the fevered tales of Ann’s appearance at their junior high the previous spring, all done up in full witch regalia. People spoke in hushed tones about the teacher – and it wasn’t only the students. A petition was circulated among the faculty, with the majority of her colleagues scribbling their names to support her removal from the school. This was a fairly conservative Tucson neighborhood, and I suppose these people simply had nothing more important to worry about.

Ann was suspended with pay on November 27, 1970. The official reason given was that she taught subjects not covered in the curriculum, that she was a poor influence to students, insubordination, that she caused mental stress in other teachers, and for “teaching about witchcraft, having stated you were a witch in a way that affects students psychologically.”

Keep in mind, the woman never said she was a witch.

Within a fortnight, the news of Ann’s suspension went international. She appealed the decision, believing it to have been made as a result of personal discord between herself and Victor Meneley, the principal. She began wearing an ebony cross around her neck – a family heirloom, but also a piece of jewelry that a witch would specifically not wear. She changed her hairstyle to hide her widow’s peak. Suddenly the fact that students (and her husband) used to greet her with, “Hey, witchie!” was no longer a cute joke. She tried to crank down the heat on the rumors after they’d already sparked an inferno.

The school and school board also did their best to downplay the witch angle. They insisted it was the other factors – the insubordination, her teaching against the curriculum – that led to Ann’s suspension. Of course they don’t believe in witchcraft, or so they claimed.

But for Ann, the damaging dents to her career, her social life and her community standing had already been kicked in.

Ann fought for her job, but spent the remainder of the school year at home with pay while her husband continued to report to the junior high where he taught. Her contract was not renewed.

I have no knowledge of what happened to Ann Stewart after 1972 when the last news story about her bizarre firing appeared in The Tuscaloosa News. She was worried about her future, about the death of her 11-year tenure with the Flowing Wells Unified School District, and deducing that obtaining her doctorate so that she could teach at the university level was pointless at her age (47 at the time).

In this era in which witch-hunting still occurs around the world – and it should be noted that warlock-hunting is not nearly as prevalent; these are ugly swipes at women in impoverished, backward cultures who are light years from getting their collective shit together – we should keep in mind that Ann Stewart’s bizarre tale occurred within the past half-century.

And as an aside, I’d like to applaud both Jerry Cohen and Betty Liddick of The Tuscaloosa News, who separately contributed some journalistic boots to the feminism groin in their coverage of this story. Jerry felt the need to point out that Ann was a “tall, plump woman”, while Betty saw it important to note, “She’s good looking in a robust sort of way.” Well done, fellow writers. I suppose dignity is relative when your subject is a wicked witch.

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