“What the boys did to the cow.” Postcard. Date unknown. Toronto Reference Library. Arts department. ARTS-PC-117. Public Domain.
Note from Andrea: When I found out that Stephanie is doing her dissertation on the history of witchcraft in early French Canada, I immediately started harassing asking her to do a special blog post about her work for Halloween. Because how super cool is that topic? And, kind person that she is, she has obliged. Enjoy!
I spent the first few years of my life in Cheticamp, Nova Scotia. After moving with my parents to Sydney, I channeled my teenage resentment into learning as much as I could about my real home at the library. This is where I first heard the story of the Cheticamp witches, in an old collection of Cape Breton ghost stories. Around the turn of the twentieth century, two warring camps in the village, the Acadians and the Jerseys, would take turns casting spells upon each other. The Jerseymen had their witch, and the Acadians had their “counter-witch.” When the Jerseys were displeased with someone in the community, they would respond with witchcraft, and the battle would begin. For example, if a fisherman didn’t come in with the expected haul, he might come home to find the family cow had stopped milking. He would call the “good” Acadian witch to solve the problem, and “unbewitch” the cow. There was one particularly amusing story of the Acadian witch getting particularly frustrated and enchanting a number of buckets to chase after the suspected Jersey witch.
I had never heard of any of this growing up, and my grandmother didn’t think it was important. Having grown up in a fishing family, I think my focus on the past worried her a bit. She wanted me to be a woman of the future, with an education and the ability to depend only on myself and nobody else. We did, however, live next door to the run-down Anglican church, which by my time was an extremely spooky place, and my dad has told me stories about using his shotgun to scare off Satanists. But since Satanists are not witches, I’ll move on.
Fast forward several years, and I came across a casual mention of the 1684 witchcraft trial of Jean Campagnard in Beaubassin, Acadie. I nearly jumped out of my chair. If you can imagine me yelling “WHAT!” and spilling my coffee everywhere, that was essentially my reaction. I had no idea that Acadia had ever had a witchcraft trial. None. And a passing mention in a book that I can’t even remember the title of now was not going to be it for me – I needed to read that trial. It turns out that Jean Campagnard was Acadie’s only prosecuted witchcraft case. An expert dyke builder from Aunis, he was accused of causing the death of his employer by blowing a mysterious substance into his eyes. My favourite part of the case is during the confrontation, when one of the witnesses has his testimony read out loud
“The witness states that he saw the accused spread mysterious seeds into the marsh while reciting an incantation and the next fall he had a terrible crop,” and Campagnard replied, “He doesn’t need magic to be a terrible farmer.”
So of course, this led me down the academic rabbit hole, and now here we are.
When most people think about witchcraft in early colonial North America, they immediately think of Salem, Massachusetts. In fact, those trials are so ubiquitous that I don’t even need to explain what I am talking about. But witchcraft and witchcraft trials were also relatively common in another part of early colonial North America: French Canada. However, these two locations had very different experiences with witch trials. So in today’s blog post, I am going to talk about the history of witchcraft and witchcraft trials in colonial French Canada and share some of my favourite stories!