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Real-life story of a recent witch hunt in Oakridge, Oregon. How fundamentalist christian paranoia can get out of hand 1 of 2
"THE GREAT OREGON WITCH HUNT"
A high school girl commits suicide and a small town falls victim to
fears and hysteria right out of the Middle Ages...
By Stephanie Fox
OAKRIDGE is a little town nestled in the green mountains of the Pacific
Northwest. It's a typical small Oregon lumber town, the sort of place where
people still talk about the day the town's brothel burned down back in 1928.
In the spring of 1983, a politically ambitious police chief and a
fundamenalist minister managed to stir up enough excitement to last the town
through another 60 years.
Durring the winter of 1982 a young girl named Ginny Walker* killed herself
in a fit of adolescent despair, leaving behind two shocked parents. But the
Walkers' grief was disturbed only a week after her death, when they were
approached be police chief John Schurz who said he had evidence that Ginny
had been involved with witches. These witches, Schurz claimed, were responsible
for the girl's suicide.
Before her death Ginny had told some friends how she had rescued the head of
a childhood doll from a trash fire and how she found a coyote's skull in the
forests surrounding Oakridge. In going through Ginny's possessions after her
death, her parents found the scorched doll's head, the coyote's skull, an
incense burner, and buttons of various rock groups. Her friends later recalled
Ginny's mundane explanation of these items, but to the police chief they were
proof of her involvement with witchcraft.
The police began an investigation of the girl's friends and found that
Ginny's best friends mother , Susan Newell,* was calling herself a witch.
Newell actually knew nothing about modern-day Withcraft or Pagan beliefs.
She was not aware of the basic tenets of modern Witches--that the earth is
sacred,that everything is connected to everything else,and that each person
is responsible for his own actions.**
Newell had no notion of witchcraft's origins in the ancient nature-worshipping
religions of pre-Christian Europe. All she knew she had learned on the
late-late show and in cheap Gothic novels. But that was sufficient for the
Newell was taken to the police station for interrogation, where for several
hours police chief Schurz asked her questions.
Schurz: "In my line of work, I work with alot of people. Sometimes I can tell
alot about people. You know what I think? I think that you're a high priestess.
Schurz: "You're a witch,aren't you?"
Newell: "I guess you could call it that."
When further questioned in the manner, Newell claimed that she was the high
priestess of the Golden Dawn, the name of her coven, so Schurz related.
That she was an actual member of the Golden Dawn is highly unlikely. This was
a notorious group of early-20th-Century British occultists who included
Aleister Crowley as well as the Irish poet William Butler Yeats. It disbanded
in 1947. It may have been the only real occult group Newell had ever heard of
and was probably the first name that came into her mind.
Under the pressure of the interrogation Newell named six other witches
residing in Oakridge. Several of these people had been friends of Ginny Walker.
Selected portions of the tapes of Newell's interrogation were played to the
city council and local ministers. Durring these selected playings only two of
the accused witches' names were mentioned. The newly accused were two young
women, Betty Taylor* and Jennifer Lindsay.* Both attributed the public relase
of their names to Schurz's personal dislike of them.
"I'm an uppity woman," said Taylor. "I live with my boyfriend and I don't
wear a bra. I don't have church connections. I'm not one of them." She said
that since the tapes were released publicly indicating that she was a witch,
"grocery store people whisper and scurry away, pointing fingers."
Lindsay left town to avoid the harassment to which she was subjected. Taylor
continued to live in her Oakridge home, spied upon by neighbors.
MEANWHILE, Dave Stewart, a minister and part-time police officer, took the
doll's head and other "evidence" of witchcraft to show his and other
Witchcraft had caused Ginny's death, the people were told. No other reasons
were advanced as causes of her suicide. Never mentioned were the rumors of the
Walkers' marital problems, Mr. Walker's failing health, of Ginny's possible
lack of adult guidance.
Public meetings were schedualed, led by Schurz and a fundamentalist minister,
the Rev. C. E. Thomas. The first meeting attracted only a handful of people
but the second drew nearly 40, quite a crowd for the small town. And the press
was there in force.
Although state law says that public meetings must be opened to all, announce-
ments distributed in the churches contained this sentence:"Unwanted people
will be excluded from the meeting." The meetings were advertised to "discuss
witchcraft, sexual abuse, child abuse and pornography," but witchcraft was the
only topic ever spoken of at the meetings.
Dispite the "evidence," the Walkers doubted that witchcraft had any part to
play in their daughter's suicide. "We'er not blaming anybody," they told
The Walkers' doubts notwithstanding, Thomas and Schurz were riding high on the
wave of hysteria. They called a third meeting at the high school. Three
hundred persons showed up. The press, too, arrived but television and tape
recorders were banned from the auditorium in direct violation of state law.
The meeting opened with a plea to bring Christianity and prayer back into the
schools. Ministers told the crowds that the only protection they had against
the evils of witchcraft was "to come to church." The ministers advised them
that there would be counseling and classes taught by the ministers themselves.
Another former Oakridge police officer, who claimed to have had ties with the
occult but who recently had been "born again," testified. He, too, had a
late-late-show view of witchcraft. Not everyone in the audience believed his
stories about witchcraft.
But most accepted what the ministers told them. One man asked Reverend Thomas
for his credentials to discuss witchcraft. Thomas raised a Bible over his
head. "This is my credentials!" he shouted. And the crowd cheered.
"We used to be able to burn them or cut off their heads," said the reverend
of witches. "We can't do that now, but we can sure stop them."
Newspapers, television and radio all over the state were covering the story.
Although Thomas wanted the public to be aware of the existence of witches, he
was not happy with the media coverage. It had made the town the laughingstock
of the state.
Besides the public meetings, the city council, school board and police
advisory board convened in secret.
* All names with astericks are pseudonyms.
**See Bjom Thorsson's "The Rebirth of Witchcraft," April-May 1988 FATE magazine.
---= Part 1 of 2 =---
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