9. The Witch-Burning
of Key West
Who forgot it? Surely nobody! Because although it’s already four hundred years ago, the story of the witch of Key Largo is still alive in the lore of the region. I was interested in what’s really true in this story, and so I went to the Conch Republic’s archive in Key West and looked through hundreds of books and tomes, letters and files, all of them already some Centuries old. And the result was worth the work:
We write the year 1607. Key Largo then was not the small quiet town for tourists, but trying in the rising Spanish empire, together with Villariba and Villabajo, to become the new trade center of the world. And nearly this would have worked out, to take over the position of Sevilla and New Amsterdam all around the Atlantic Ocean.
Because on June 12th, 1607 Key Largo’s city chronicler Seat Altea noted: “When then will arrive the 37 half pints of wheat from Villariba and the quarter of tonne of delicious tree bark from Villabajo, the once high traders of Sevilla and Newe Amsterdame will beye destroyed on the grounde.”
But Altea obviously was a little bit too optimistic. Because a note in the customs files of Roanoke in North Carolina on June 18th proves, that both goods – „in amounte, that both ofe them filleth half of the cumstoms buildings bathroom” – were confiscated, as the city of Key Largo was not willing to pay the customs’ duties. They needed the money for a new car for the fire brigade instead.
Key Largo - 400 years ago on the way to become a world metropole - allegedly cut down by a witch
And it even got worse for the young metropole: Since this said June 18th no more rain fell. The beautiful white buildings with their beautiful Bougainvillea plants were in danger to vanish behind brown undergrowth. Also Altea became a little bit careful, when he noted on September 30th: „Long ago the Lorde punished the world due to humans’ sins by the great flood, or flattened Sodom and Gomorrha to the grounde. But why, oh Lorde, you punishes us now?”
A good question, because slightly too expensive souvenir postcards, or slightly too small portions of ice cream, were common in other towns too. And hotel rooms with defect air conditioning were quite common in the early 17th Century, as contemporary complaints show.
It gets interesting when we read an article of the „Key Largo Kourier” – then written still by hand – published on November 4th, 1607: „Key Largo Bewitched!” the Paper titled sensationally in 72-Dot-Italics. Bewitched by whom? This was not said by the former colleagues of mine. Instead they spread wild theories on the paper. „Find the Witch” have been the letters, which formed the last large words.
Also the „Key Largo Sunday Letter” hit into the same spot: „The Witch Must Burn! Who is the Witch?” were basically the only words decorating the front page. But even with less text this paper went further as the „Key Largo Kourier” did, because on page two a bounty of 500 Keyllars (today’s worth 17,35 US-Dollars) was set for everybody, who dared to blame someone being a witch.
Altea noted the first quick results in his chronicle: „Withine few days we made it, to finde 754 citizens of the towne, which mighte be witches. These became a huge problemer for magistrate and the mayor, as the towne of Key Largo in totalle just has 817 inhabitants within its walles.”
A really big problem, obviously. As it was solved is reported in the magistrate’s report, published in the „Key Largo Kourier” of December 19th, 1607. Here it said: „The magistrate here decided, that witch is without any doubte an worde female and she muste possesse a cat, therefore all of the mens folk cannot be the witche.” Pragmatic, practical, good. By this the number of suspects was cut to half.
The reporter B. Lackride also explains the next step of the search: „Key Largo’s councilmembers cannot be fooled by witches. As everywhere an ugly women is expected to be a witch, the witch will definitely hide behind the face and in the body of a beautiful being of the female sexe.” Again a wise move of the council members, as it reduced the number of the suspects to around one hundred. Oh yes, and she must be blonde. So now just fifty women were left.
Also all young people were excluded. This had no logical reason, but was just explained by the fact, that the newly built high school had to be closed again, when all teens were burned on the stake. So 34 women were left, who could have blamed to have bewitched the town and cursed it into an eternal state of a small village.
The mayor of Key Largo (left) intensely observing
the interview of the suspects
The high school argument led to the next criteria of exclusion: If the high school should stay alive by the teens, their mothers couldn’t be witches too.
The Florida Keys’ chronicler M. Arathon remarks on this fact in his 1664 written chronicle of the Florida Islands: „Between Key West and Miami everyone knoweth, that alle children terribly woulde have died, when their motherfolk woulde have been throweth on the stake.”
Leaves a small number of suspects: Twelve! All of them were lead to a „painefulle interviewe” in spring 1608 – means they were tortured.
All the chroniclers report, that the members of the city’s council left nothing off the list: rack, iron maiden, thumbscrews, glowing irons. Well, they even didn’t stop at hours of reading of the tabloid „The Sun”.
And the last lead them on the trace: Because one of the four women left – the other eight „diedth unter the torturer’s hands” – criticized the style of writing of the newspaper “and therefore bared herselfe to be abel to reade and write.”
The witch, whose name is mentioned nowhere, was found. „We have her!” headlined the „Key Largo Kourier” on March 12th, 1608, again in 72-dot-Italic handwritten, to invite two pages later to a „Burning-Witch-Festival” on the Saturday evening following. Just in time, before the prohibition to burn garden waste – only not valid in March and October – was to be applied again.
Altea noted: „Everywhere is a great happienesse, that branchlets and twiglets from the gardening can be used in such a way for a goode reason.”
The candidates left had to undergo the water test:
when they swam, they were witches -
when they drowned, they were not
Outside of Key Largo (upper left) the witch was
burned in 1608. Garden trash heated the fire
As we see, already then the people in today’s Key Largo had a sense for the environment and were aware of a use of bio material to entertain the people. As oil and coal were not existent for use at all, an understandable decision too.
But it wouldn’t make sense to turn the tragic story of the burning of the witch of Key Largo into a discussion of sustainable energy now. Just let’s be happy that after fossil fuels got common no more witches are burned.
And so it happened, that the great chronicle of the Florida Keys sais on page 12813: „Close to the ende of Marech at Keye Largo, once a truly prospering towne in the chaine of the Florida Keyes, a witche was burneth, who due to her eveilness the towne cursed into eternal village livve.”
Grim fate in a dark time. Just one thing was forgotten by the people of Key Largo. Before burning her, they should have asked the witch to take away the curse…
© Mig Phönix 2008