The forgotten witch burnings of Chicago

A backyard witch and other Halloween decorations adorn the yard at the Liebernman house on North Maplewood Avenue in Chicago in 1960. (Jack Mulcahy/Chicago Tribune)
A backyard witch and other Halloween decorations adorn the yard at the Liebernman house on North Maplewood Avenue in Chicago in 1960. (Jack Mulcahy/Chicago Tribune)

Ask an old-timer to recount the Chicago Halloweens of their youth, and they’ll likely describe all the familiar trappings: jack-o’-lanterns, bobbing for apples, candy and costumes for the younger children and mischief and alcohol and perhaps a bonfire or two for the older ones. But they may or may not also mention another peculiar tradition, one that you certainly wouldn’t expect to find in an urban environment like the Windy City and are not likely to see anywhere else, for that matter: witch burnings. Just as strange as the tradition itself is the fact that it is now almost entirely forgotten.

As a 2018 investigative retrospective in the Chicago Tribune reports:

Details are spotty, photos are tough to come by, but in many neighborhoods and suburbs around Chicago, from the early 1930s until the late 1980s (and later in some places), Halloween wasn’t Halloween without a witch burning. And yet today it’s a tradition so forgotten that local historians, folklorists and urban history professors were alternately repulsed and dumbfounded to learn it happened. Julia Sniderman Bachrach, former historian for the Chicago Park District, said: “Burning witches in Chicago parks? OK, now I’m thrown for a loop.”

No real witches were burned, of course — rather, people set fire to witch effigies, often made of papier-mache and stuffed straw, painted Wicked-Witch-of-the-West green. In some cases, the effigies themselves weren’t actually burned and instead were saved for reuse year after year (makeshift coffins, purportedly containing the witches, were incinerated instead). These witch burnings often served as the climax of a Halloween evening.

In Chicago, witch burnings centered on the south side; they could also be found in suburbs such as Schaumberg, Lisle, and Berwyn. The tradition appears to be unknown outside of the Chicagoland area, at least within the context of 20th century American Halloween celebrations. Some analogs (and, perhaps, precursors) persist overseas. For instance, Prague’s “Witches Night,” or Pálení carodejnic, burns witch effigies annually on April 30 to mark the end of winter. Similarly, November 5 sees Guy Fawkes effigies burnt across England to commemorate the failure of the Gunpowder Plot.

Chicago’s tradition began to decline in the 1980s. The Chicago Tribune suggests that around this time, activist Wiccan and pagan groups started to protest the practice. Willowbrook, for instance — a Chicago suburb — discontinued its Halloween witch burnings following testimony from members of a witches association at its village board meeting. (Others point out that the decline may relate to the racial turnover of neighborhoods: “I’m trying to find a polite way to put this — I would be surprised if burning witches would have gone over too well in those black communities.”) While some parts of the Chicago area saw witch burnings continue into the late 1990s, you would be hard pressed to find one anywhere today.


The Kowloon Walled City

The Kowloon Walled City was something straight out of dystopian fiction – but it was very much factual for the 33,000 people who lived there. Kowloon, as Wikipedia succinctly puts it, was a “densely populated, largely ungoverned settlement in Kowloon, Hong Kong.” In fact, the 6.5-acre 

English: Kowloon Walled City, Hong Kong, photo...

English: Kowloon Walled City, Hong Kong, photographed from an airplane Deutsch: Kowloon Walled City, Hong Kong, Luftbild (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

enclave was the most densely populated space on earth: approximately 1,255,000 inhabitants per square kilometer! For comparison, Wikipedia points out that “Hong Kong as a whole (itself one of the most densely populated areas on earth) had a population density of about 6,700 inhabitants per square kilometer.” The settlement dates back to AD 960, but its namesake walls were built by the Chinese in 1847, after the British took control of Hong Kong proper. Following Japan’s surrender at the end of World War II, the Chinese reclaimed Kowloon and opened it to refugees; it was then that its population dramatically increased. The Walled City was ultimately cleared and demolished in 1994. 

Right now, there’s an ongoing “ask me anything” thread at Reddit, posted by Reddit user Crypt0n1te, a former inhabitant of the Walled City. He writes: 
I lived in KWC when I was 2-3 years old but I have no recollection of that time. Later on, even though our family moved out of there, but since I was enrolled in the schools near there and my parent worked during the day, so my bro and me were dropped off at my relative’s place in KWC everyday. I got to know the place pretty well because I spent at least 4 hrs there everyday from 1984 to 1991. So ask away!
You can see more pictures of the Kowloon Walled City here
Enhanced by Zemanta