The Great Oregon Witch Hunt

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 fundamentalist minister managed to stir up enough excitement to last the town through another 60 years.

During 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 Witchcraft 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-worshiping 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 police.

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 a lot of people. Sometimes I can tell a lot about people. You know what I think? I think that you're a high priestess.”
Newell: "What?"
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. During 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 release 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 congregations.

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 scheduled, 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, announcements 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.

Despite the "evidence," the Walkers doubted that witchcraft had any part to play in their daughter's suicide. "We're not blaming anybody," they told the press.

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.

It was in the secret meetings that officials may have made the decision to remove all books pertaining to the occult from the school library. Student president Shannon McPherson protested. "It's lousy," he said. "They're trying to keep us in the dark." The school superintendent, Ken Carver, denied that the books had been removed from the shelves. He claimed that he had merely "checked out" all 40 of the books "just like anybody can." He then passed them on to a censorship committee made up of parents and teachers.

With the books gone, the lack of information available on witchcraft only helped spread to alarm through the school student population. Any excuse was enough for one student to accuse another and they enacted medieval tests to determine whether another student was a witch. One student was suspected because she wore a black sweater and skirt. She was approached by another student who pressed a paper cross against her arm.

"You must not be a witch," the student accuser said, "because the cross didn't burn you."

Other students used the situation to get attention. They pretended that they were witches; they left death-threat notes on other students' lockers or claimed they'd hexed or been hexed by other students and teachers.

The school superintendent made up a list of all students who had ever checked out any of the occult books and distributed it to the teachers. Those on the list were watched for possible involvement with witchcraft.

Reverend Thomas advised parents to watch their children for signs of occult activity. He told parents and students to look to him and other local ministers to lead the fight against non-Christian religions such as witchcraft, Hinduism and Buddhism.

"If you aren't a Christian, you can't fight it," he declared. "The devil will deceive you. This is a spiritual battle and the Devil is as real as God is. We have witches here in Oakridge from the very pits of hell."

But the reverend and police chief had long since lost control of the situation, and the monster they'd created began to turn on them. Thomas was receiving negative letters from other ministers around the country. "They tell me I'm off the wrong end. Well, that's what told Peter and John," he said.

Betty Taylor, one of the original women accused of being a witch, hired a lawyer who started making slander-suit noises. Accusations could no longer be made without proof for fear of litigation. Although it was announced that there would be other meetings, none was ever held.

Several weeks after the final meeting, the Walkers appeared on a statewide television talk show. They told the audience that after learning about Paganism and Witchcraft from legitimate members of the Old Religion and other occult groups, they concluded that Newell wasn't a witch, although they still disliked her and thought she might have some responsibility for their daughter's suicide. They said they saw nothing wrong with Witchcraft and nature religions and felt everyone should be free to choose his own style of worship. "We don't believe in banning any religion," they said.

The reverend continued to rail against witchcraft, other non-Christian religions and liberal Christianity, which he called "tommyrot." But he could no longer make direct accusations against individuals for fear of legal action. The police chief was subsequently demoted.

Ironically, during the entire episode no one ever explained how so-called witchcraft had led to Ginny Walker's suicide.

Since the episode Oakridge has again become the quite little town it once was. But beneath the surface here, and in places like it, runs a fear of things and people who might be different. Persecution takes many forms and comes in many guises. Witch hunts — real witch hunts — are not dim memories from the Dark Ages. They are real, they still happen and they can happen again.

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