Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff
SALEM — It is not her fault, Laurie Cabot declared.
Then she thought for a moment and revised her statement.
“OK, it is kind of my fault,” she said, referring to what has happened to October in Salem since she arrived nearly five decades ago and began the modern witch era in the “Witch City.”
But really, if anyone is to blame for kicking off the events that somehow led to the spooktacular charade that dominates the Halloween season in the city, Cabot argues, it was Molly Boo.
Molly Boo was her cat.
Her black cat.
Had she not gotten stuck up in that tree, Cabot said, none of this might have happened.
Laurie Cabot is a witch. She has been studying witchcraft since she was a child growing up in Boston, and today, at age 84, is easily the most famous practicing witch in the country, the grande dame of witchcraft.
But back then, when she was first beginning her study of the ancient practice of magic, people did not come out and say they were a witch. That kinda thing could lead to trouble.
Eventually, she did take to dressing the part — black robes, pentagram necklace — but by then it was the late ’60s and people just thought she was a hippie.
She was living in the North End at the time, divorced, struggling to raise two children, and another single mom suggested they pool their money and move to the suburbs.
Great, Cabot said. Anywhere but Salem.
“Salem seemed like a bad idea because I didn’t know how anyone would take me because of the witch trials,” she said.
Sure enough, the friend came back with a listing for an apartment on Salem’s Chestnut Street, a broad boulevard filled with stunningly gorgeous homes and postcard-perfect trees, and Cabot could not resist.
But the witch thing, she kept under wraps. Then her cat changed all that.
She had two black cats at the time — “they were given to me by someone who knew I was a witch,” she said with an eye roll — and one of them, Molly Boo, climbed the tree outside her apartment, got stuck about 50 feet up, and would not come down. Her other cat, Sabrina, would climb up and try to show Molly Boo how to get down, but Molly Boo would not follow.
Cabot said she called everyone — animal control, the police, the fire department — and they all told her the cat would eventually come down on its own. That’s what cats do.
But after three days of awful weather and no movement from Molly Boo, Cabot made a move she knew would get attention. She called the local newspaper, the Salem News, and gave them a story they couldn’t resist.
“My cat is stuck in a tree,” she said she told the person who answered the phone. “I am a witch. That cat is my familiar (a witch term for an animal-shaped spirit that serves as a psychically connected servant, companion, and spy). And I want someone to come get my cat out of the tree.”
A photographer came, as did the mayor and several rescue vehicles.
Molly Boo was helped down. And after the photos of a real-life Salem witch hit the wire services, Laurie Cabot’s secret was out.
Plenty of media followed, and soon after, in 1970, Cabot opened the city’s first “witch shop.” She sold wands and potions and other tools of the trade, but she said her real goal was to educate the public about witchcraft — and especially to dispel all the incorrect rumors about evil intentions and devil-worshipping.
In retrospect, she said, she was very naïve to think it would be that easy, and she sees what has happened in the 47 years that have followed as being both incredibly positive and incredibly confusing.
She is proud of the fact that her witch shop and openness turned Salem into something of a safe space for practicing witches, and many began flocking to the city, to live openly, to perform rituals with other witches, and to celebrate the witches’ New Year, what they know as Samhain and everyone else calls Halloween.
More witch shops opened, but so too did all the other stuff that has come to be associated with Halloween but has little to do with witchcraft — the haunted houses and the ghost tours and the zombie walks.
“I’m still not sure what a guy with an ax in his head and blood dripping down his face has to do with witchcraft,” she said. “Some of it is offensive. The fun house. The scary murderous stuff. It brings bad vibes. It’s projecting the wrong kinds of things.”
It is a question of intent, which is a huge part of being a witch. Intent is how witches manipulate environmental energy. And when it comes to dressing up for Samhain, the intent of a costume is to cast a spell projecting the kind of person they want to be for the New Year. “We don’t allow any devil costumes into our parties,” she said.
And intent is something Cabot is thinking about lately, as she looks back through the long lens of all that has happened in Salem since her cat went up that tree.
It is late in her story, and she knows this. She has been suffering significant health problems of late, including a recent bout of dizziness and nausea that lasted for so many weeks that she thought she was ready to go. (Doctors eventually found an ulcer, and medication has curbed the symptoms.)
But she is proud that she helped transform the city, and in some ways became its face. (And what a face it is — with an elaborate tattoo on her left cheek and huge black-framed glasses, all surrounded by a magnificent mane of black hair ringed with white.)
She has trouble walking, and spends most of her time in her apartment, seated at a dining room table covered in jewels and deer antlers and potions and other bits and bobs that she and her daughter, Penny, use to make potions and broomsticks and other tools that are sold at a store just around the corner called Enchanted. Witches from near and far make daily pilgrimages to visit her — one, earlier this week, arrived carrying a gift of a crystal that was nearly two feet long — and she is now at work on her eighth book, a memoir.
But with Halloween just around the corner, and the streets below a chaos of tourists, there is a lot of talk of all it has become.
“It’s not my fault that people practice such silliness. I didn’t set out to make Halloween such a big deal in Salem.”
No, that all started with a black cat.
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