If you read my Halloween-themed kids vs. monsters novel, Trick or Zombie Treat, then you might remember the character of the witch. Trick or treaters go to her house, and when they eat her “special” homemade candy, they magically transform into real-life versions of their costumes. What you may not know is that the character of the witch, Jane Kaniff, was based on a real person.
Jane “Naut” Kanniff was the wife of a Scottish physician who lived from the late 1700s to early 1800s. They settled in Clarksville, New York, now known as the town of Clarkstown and hamlet of West Nyack (my hometown). After her husband’s death, she continued to work with medicinal herbs. An eccentric woman, she had colorful hair and clothing, a pet black cat, and a talking parrot. She and her son mostly kept to themselves, which was odd in a small town where everyone knew each other.
After a series of unlucky occurrences around Clarksville, such as difficulty churning butter and a cow failing to produce milk, the townspeople looked for someone to blame. The eccentric loner, Naut Kanniff, was an easy target. She was accused of using diabolical witchcraft to deliberately cause the unfortunate events in the town.
Most of the witch trials in America took place in the 1600s, and by the 1800s they were largely considered an uncivilized practice of the past. However, some people remained superstitious. An official judge at the time likely would have dismissed an accusation of witchcraft, so the local farmers and townspeople decided to try Jane Kanniff on their own. The Kanniff witch trial of 1816 has the distinction of being the last witch trial in the state of New York.
The townspeople demanded Kanniff be thrown into a mill pond with her hands and feet bound together with heavy metal. If she floated, that meant she was a witch and would be burned at the stake or hanged. If, however, she sank in the pond, that meant she was innocent. They would tie a rope to pull her from the pond if she sank, but often times, they weren’t fast enough, and many innocent women drowned from this practice.
Fortunately for Kanniff, the townspeople reconsidered the dunking method and decided to use an alternative witch test. They’d use a scale to weigh her against a brass-bound Dutch Bible. If she was lighter, it meant she was a witch; if she was heavier, it meant she was not a witch. Naturally, Kanniff passed the test and avoided execution.
Kanniff’s story had a happy ending, but most witch trials did not. Between the 15th and 18th centuries, an estimated 50,000 women were killed for witchcraft in Europe and America. Since there’s no such thing as actual supernatural witchcraft, most of those women were just as innocent as Jane “Naut” Kanniff. Women who fell victim to witch-hunts were targeted due to a combination of sexism and religious superstition. When something bad happens, it’s human nature to look to blame someone else or the supernatural rather than admit it was your own fault or no one’s fault and just bad luck.
Sources and links:
- The History of Rockland County by Frank Bertangue Green, M.D. https://archive.org/details/cu31924028832974
- “Crossroads of Rockland History” https://soundcloud.com/cbsheridan/jane-naut-kanniff-the-witch-of-west-nyack-linda-zimmermann
- Trick or Zombie Treat