The Last Witch of Parkland

On March 15, 1895, Michael Cleary burned his wife Bridget alive. He claimed his real wife had been taken by the fairies, and a changeling put in its place. After days of folk remedies (including dousing her with urine and force-feeding her herbal concoctions) and attempts to coax the fairy to leave through exposing it to the lit hearth (in other words, burning Bridget with the flames), Cleary finally poured paraffin oil on her smoldering clothing, setting her aflame. The media frenzied at Cleary’s trial, digging into the details of the witness statements and “evidence” of the supernatural at work in modern times.

There was more to this fairy story, however. “The overwhelming message of the fairy legends is that the unexpected may be guarded against by careful observance of society’s rules,” explained Angela Bourke in her 1999 book, The Burning of Bridget Cleary.[1] To Bourke, Bridget presented a more potent challenge to her local society than the supernatural ever could. A trained dressmaker who owned her own Singer sewing machine and also raised her own chickens, she was an educated tradeswoman who earned her own money. Her clientele brought her into contact with men and women in higher social classes, and through them, new ideas about what she wanted and expected from life. A woman who could support herself financially could not be as easily controlled by a husband or society in general. Adding the fact that she had not performed her wifely duty and borne a child to carry on the Cleary name, Bridget was a dangerous anomaly within the social norms of her community.

News coverage of battered spouses always seems to turn up warning signs far too late, and Cleary’s story is no different. A few months before she was killed, Bridget confided in her aunt Mary Kennedy about her troubles at home, saying “He’s making a fairy of me now, and an emergency…he thought to burn me three months ago.”[2] Cleary could have been speaking figuratively, saying her husband was disappointed in her and wished she would revert to the naïve, uneducated woman he married. It also could have been a literal cry for help, voicing her fears that her husband planned to harm her physically. History does not allow us to say with certainty which of these possibilities is true, but we do know Michael Cleary justified burning his wife to death because she was a “fairy.”

Cleary went to jail for fifteen years and his wife became the “last witch of Ireland,” a neat label that both sold papers and kept the public from developing too much empathy for the woman. Bridget Cleary was not a witch. At most she was a victim of the supernatural, or at least a victim of a society that used the supernatural as a cover for forcibly bringing women into line with accepted conventions.

One hundred years later, we pat ourselves on the back for disdaining the supernatural. We say we don’t burn witches, but that’s not exactly true. Modern society retains its own system of rules and punishments to regulate female behavior that is more often than not contradictory to those it holds for males. Our worst censure is reserved for women who defy convention: the ones who speak when they are supposed to be silent, rage when they are supposed to be resigned, act when they are supposed to be accepting. We don’t burn women at the stake; we roast them on social media. There is a reason the slang term for putting someone in their place using a well-timed insult is called a “burn.”

The survivors of the school shootings at Stoneman-Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida on February 14, have come under fire for their response to the massacre. It defies the resigned “thoughts and prayers” that bolster the status quo. Channeling their grief and anger into action, the teenagers built one of the most powerful and compelling challenges to the American gun lobby in recent memory, if not ever. The sincerity of their message, spoken and shouted through tears, is difficult to deny, so detractors took aim at the messengers themselves. NRA leaders and other anti-gun control supporters insisted the teens are too young to be so poised and must therefore be talking heads for adult anti-gun/anti-Second Amendment groups already in place.

The worst insults seem to be reserved for Emma Gonzalez, a young woman whose words are as cutting as her hair is close-cropped. She called B.S., so Leslie Gibson, a Republican candidate for Maine’s House of Representatives referred to her as a “skinhead lesbian” on Twitter. Outrage over Gibson’s comments forced him to drop out of the race, but branding Miss Gonzalez in this manner shows modern America has its own answer to the Irish changeling fairy tale. Women must look and act a certain way to be accepted and must parrot the approved message if they are to be respected. Her haircut is not threatening in itself. Her sexual orientation, whatever it may be, has absolutely no bearing on her stance on gun control. Gibson may have attacked other classmates for their message, but he refused to hear Gonzalez because of her appearance and his interpretation of her sexuality. A non-white female with the courage to stand up to established adult politicians and the strength to stay on message as she attended a month of friends’ funerals and memorial services? Threatening does not begin to describe the woman. Neither does powerful. She again did the unthinkable at the March 24 March for our Lives rally in Washington, D.C. by staying silent. For six long minutes and twenty interminable seconds, Gonzalez stood on the stage, most of them saying nothing as tears dripped down her face. She weaponized silence, bringing the crowd to its feet and her detractors to their knees. The gun control crusader was without speech but had the last word.

In looking to history for lessons, we must remember we will sometimes see things we don’t want to see, including the fact that repeated “thoughts and prayers” are historically ineffective at keeping it from repeating itself. That prejudice, hate, and fear make words like “lesbian” (and “Pocahontas” for that matter) a slur and insult. That over a hundred years of experience, growth, and technology cannot keep us from behaving in the same ways as our “backward” ancestors did when confronted by change and challenge. We don’t burn young women as witches anymore, but we are very keen to crush the spirits of women and men who refuse to conform to societal expectations.

Describing the Cleary case in 1901, historian Michael J. McCarthy bemoaned the fact that the “events took place, not in Darkest Africa, but in Tipperary; not in the ninth or tenth, but at the close of the nineteenth century.”[3] Another century has passed. When will America stop burning its “witches,” or at least accept the fact that we aren’t as enlightened and modern as we would have others believe?

[1] Angela Bourke, The Burning of Bridget Cleary (New York: Penguin Books, 1999), 34.

[2] Bridget Cleary quoted in Bourke, 75.

[3] “Bridget Cleary burned to death,” excerpted from Michael J. McCarthy, Five Years in Ireland, 1895-1900, posted in Library Ireland, accessed March 25, 2018, http://www.libraryireland.com/articles/Burning-Bridget-Cleary/.

KMS 2018

Midwife of the Revolution: Jenny von Westphalen Marx

February 21 was the 170th anniversary of Karl Marx’s and Friedrich Engels’ magnum opus, Manifest der Kommunistischen Partei, commonly known as The Communist Manifesto. This controversial work was built on a controversial philosophy: end distinctions between social classes; abandon capitalism and the free market system; and divorce society from religion and religious practices. Religion, class, and economics were critical drivers of thousands of years of European history. Borrowing a phrase from the Disney movie Pocahontas, if an endeavor did not increase one’s glory, God, or gold (and preferably some combination of the three), it was quickly abandoned.

Amid the censure of his community and frequent run-ins with local law officials, Marx never stopped working for revolution. This is the story we know. What history rarely mentions is the woman who made it possible: his wife, Jenny von Westphalen.

Joanna Bertha Julie Jenny von Westphalen was born into Prussian aristocracy and all of the privileges that entailed. Her father, Ludwig von Westphalen, seemed to enjoy Karl Marx as a conversationalist, but the idea of him becoming part of the family was out of the question. Jenny loved him, however, and turned her back on her family to marry Marx.

It was not an easy life for the former aristocrat—she went from bourgeoisie to proletariat in one fell swoop, trading salons and dinner parties one day for pawn shops and bread lines the next. She firmly believed in her husband’s ideas and teachings, possibly even more so because she had to live them. Her liberal views extended to her stance on women’s place in society, which skewed towards proto-feminism:

“In all these struggles we women have the harder part to bear because it is the lesser one. A man draws strength from his struggle with the world outside, and is invigorated by the sight of the enemy, be their number legion. We remain sitting at home, darning socks.”[1]

Jenny did more than sit at home and darn socks. In addition to giving birth to seven children and enduring the pain of losing several, she kept the household together as the family fled from country to country. In an interesting twist of irony, the economic historian and philosopher could not keep his own accounts straight. If the family owed money, and it always seemed to owe something to someone, Jenny went to the local pawn shop and sold whatever she could to make ends meet. Her ability to keep the family fed and clothed allowed Karl the time to write, think, and occasionally philander (one by-blow resulted in a son that Friedrich Engels adopted as his own to protect Karl’s reputation).

Jenny is also directly responsible for the publication of Marx’s writings. Karl Marx’s handwriting was so messy that his first drafts were illegible. Jenny recopied the pages in her own hand, producing manuscripts that could be sent to publishers for printing. She also acted as Karl’s personal correspondence secretary, answering letters for him when he was too ill to take on the task.[2]

Jenny von Westphalen Marx fought for her husband, for her family, and for the class revolution she believed to be inevitable. The only fight she could not win was against cancer. She died on December 2, 1881 after battling the illness for years. Karl was not well enough to attend the funeral, but family friend Friedrich Engels spoke at the graveside on his behalf. Buried “at the cemetery of Highgate in the section of the damned,” historians also buried Jenny in the historical record.[3] Without Jenny’s work as copywriter and editor, the Communist Manifesto and Das Kapital may never have seen the light of day. Marx and Engels may have given birth to Communist revolution, but Jenny was the revolution’s midwife.

kms

Author’s Note: For more information on Jenny von Westphalen and her relationship with her husband, please see the following sources:

  • Love and Capital: Karl and Jenny Marx and the Birth of a Revolution by Mary Gabriel
  • Red Jenny: A Life with Karl Marx by H.F. Peters

[1] Jenny von Westphalen Marx quoted in “The Life of Jenny Marx,” Harrison Fluss and Sam Miller, Jacobin Magazine, February 14, 2016, https://www.jacobinmag.com/2016/02/jenny-karl-marx-mary-gabriel-love-and-capital.

[2] Peters, H.F. Red Jenny: A Life with Karl Marx. (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1986), 150.

[3] Ibid., 164.