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If You Seer, Say Hello

Clairvoyant Tita Jones, rubbing elbows with the spirits for 15 years

This time of year, our thoughts tend to turn to those in the netherworld. We’ll dress up as ghosts, witches and the like, and we’re likely to find those little back-o-the-neck hairs standing a bit stiffer as we tiptoe around a cemetery, seemingly feeling the thinness of the partition between the world of the living and that of the spirits.

But psychic reader Tita lives among them daily. She can see them, talk with them, summon them, utilize their talents. She’s even in good with those of the malevolent variety. “I send disruptive entities after the perpetrator,” she says while discussing her crime-solving methods.

Leif Zurmuhlen

“They can’t do anything to me,” Tita adds. “They wouldn’t dare tread on my territory.”

Antonia “Tita” Jones knew she had a gift for clairvoyance as a young girl of 7 or 8, living in the Albany neighborhood that was razed for the Empire State Plaza. “I could make things move around the dinner table,” she says laughingly. But sending the gravy boat sloshing along the tabletop didn’t raise many eyebrows in her family, as a peek into her mother’s ancestry reveals many generations of witches.

“We had one grandmother that used to heal everyone in town,” Tita says, referring to her Italian progenitor. “She was an herbalist. If anybody would step on a weed, she would have a fit. She knew what it was, and she knew the medicinal potential that it had.”

Tita’s mother, however, shunned the craft, turning instead to the Catholic church; and Tita ignored her skill for a time. “My mother told me it was sinful,” she says.

Tita attended Catholic school, and her questioning nature occasionally landed her in the hot seat, so to speak. She’d inquire into the mechanics of hell, claiming that it just didn’t compute, and her inquisitive mind spent a lot of time mulling over the similarities and differences between the Catholic religion and witchcraft. “I didn’t know why they used rituals and incense and oils,” Tita explains, instinctually believing that those rituals sprung from traditions other than those found within the church.

But it would be years before Tita would realize her skill, and use her powers for good; meanwhile, the life she lead was definitely as colorful. She graduated from New York University, won herself an audition for the Metropolitan Opera, and received a Fulbright Fellowship that sent her to Rome for four years to study opera and fine art. Tita returned to the area, however, after her father died suddenly, giving up her singing career as a result of the trauma.

Tita married Wally Jones 23 years ago, but it took three of those years, and a pitcher of martinis, for her to get the guts to come clean about her witchy proclivity. (The martinis were for him, by the way.) When Tita finally decided to fully embrace her Wiccan craft, she did so in a rather large way. “WMHT filmed my coming out,” she says, referring to her appearance on a TV show hosed by Nancy Barrow. Barrow went on to radio, the Grego and Barrow show on PYX-106, and invited Tita to share some airtime (“The rating went through the ceiling,” Wally claims). While on the air, Tita described callers she could not see, assisted people with various problems, and offered spells of healing, matchmaking and the like.

She giggles liberally as she remembers seeing one phoner in his blue terrycloth robe in his living room (all correct observations), she says. “I said, ‘Would you close your robe please,’ ” Tita says. He replied that he was holding his cat. “I said, ‘Your cat’s not long enough.’ He forgot his question.”

Tita has some high-profile folks contacting her for services, among them Leona Helmsley, a Russian double-agent (“He always asks if he’s in any kind of danger,” she says), who spends many of his rubles on weekly phone calls to the psychic, and various law-enforcement agencies. She says she has helped solved a few crimes, one in particular by doing a reading for a cat that witnessed a murder (the memory of the state trooper humbly seeking that particular deed elicits a hearty laugh), and she’s now working on an abduction case.

Recently, Tita was contacted by the National Register of Who’s Who in Executives & Professionals, and she is now included in the 2003-2004 edition—the only one in her field—and People wrote about her feats back in 1991.

Tita’s powers can be summoned quickly and unintentionally at times: Some spirits just make themselves known without an effort on her part. In the basement of Proctor’s Theatre, she came across Fritz, a German immigrant who moved to the states in the ’40s. “He thought America was rich and things would be different for him, “ she says. “He was having a hard time in Germany. . . . He committed suicide down in Proctor’s basement. Shot himself in the head.”

Or her powers can sometimes be used for amusement, as she can become a voyeur into the lives of the unsuspecting. “She’ll tell me that the waitresses’ husband just left her,” Wally remarks. But she cannot tell you the winning lottery number. “If she could do that,” Wally muses, “we’d be rich.”

—Kate Sipher

Cauldron of Capitalism

An ancient holiday takes on a new commercial life as Halloween goes global

Rebecca A. Morgan

While Marie Carassus was growing up in Lille, France, Halloween was never part of her childhood. She’s never been trick-or-treating or bobbing for apples, or spent countless hours figuring out whether to be a ghost, goblin or witch on Oct. 31. But, now that Carassus has a son of her own, she soon may be taking part in the American way of celebrating Halloween, whether she wants to or not. In the past few years, she says, Halloween has become a big part of French culture. “Now it’s a big preparation,” says Carassus. “All the store windows are decorated. They have pumpkins and witches. The children try to find costumes, the most frightening as possible, and they celebrate it in the schools.”

While Carassus and her husband Mathieu Cooren do not plan on dressing up their son this year, they know that as he gets older it will be impossible to avoid.

“We don’t want to support this marketing operation,” says Cooren. “But with the school, it will be hard to prevent him from doing it. Children love it so much that the pressure is too strong on the parents.”

While they admit that Halloween may have some positive influences on the culture—for example, bringing neighborhoods together—they also view it as an infiltration of the American way of life and a frightening example of commercialism’s effect on other cultures. “In France it’s purely a commercial invention,” says Cooren. “There was no commercial event during this period, so it was considered an opportunity by the stores to sell more products.”

France is not alone in catching Halloween fever. Sweden, Hungary, Germany and the Bahamas all have gotten in line to take part in this once-Celtic tradition. And many are quick to point out that its origins are European rather than American. It was in ancient Britain and Ireland that the pagan festival was first observed on Oct. 31, the eve of the New Year in both Celtic and Anglo-Saxon times. It is on this day that the souls of the dead were said to revisit their homes.

“Most French people who celebrate it say that it is a Celtic celebration,” says Carassus. “In other words, they justify their celebration in saying it’s not truly American, but Celtic.”

Whatever they are using to justify Halloween, it seems to be working, at least for the many corporations that stand to make a buck off of the holiday. In 1996, Halloween was virtually unknown in France, but now even the national telephone company France Telecom advertises with orange billboards announcing the pleasures of “Alaween.”

Marie-France Gueusquin, an ethnologist at the Museum of Art and Popular Traditions in Paris, says that she has suddenly been seeing pumpkins everywhere.

“This is emphatically not a traditional French festival,” says Gueusquin. “My only explanation is that we have belatedly discovered the power of marketing.”

“It is weird,” says Anne-Marie Carluis, spokeswomen for Hallmark in France. “We suddenly get requests for Halloween cards. We’ve shipped thousands. A new festival has been born.”

But has this new festival suddenly been born, or has it been strategically invented in other countries through smart marketing strategies? In the United States alone, Halloween has become the second most profitable holiday, trailing only Christmas. According to the American Express index, American consumers will spend, on average, $98 per household this year on Halloween candy, costumes and decorations. The U.S. Halloween market generated close to $7 billion in sales in 2001, and estimates are even higher for this year.

Deidre Parkes, spokeswomen for Hallmark in the United States, says that the amount of money people are spending on Halloween is up 40 percent from 1999. “We have increased our party wear up 35 percent just from last year,” says Parkes. “Its popularity has increased because Halloween is a reason to have a fun, festive holiday. People are not required to participate. You don’t have to get together with your family.”

But not all are taking this bait. Mark Grogan, who lived in Germany for six years and now resides in Albany, said that it is the manipulation and strategic marketing of advertising agencies and big corporations that have imposed Halloween here and throughout the rest of the world.

“This is not about people seeing Halloween as this cool celebration that they think has some cultural benefits in their country,” says Grogan. “This is about American TV, movies, and advertising taking hold and destroying other cultures. It’s globalization at its worst. When was the last time Americans adopted a holiday or anything from somewhere else?”

Even so, others like Cooren find the success of Halloween in France puzzling.

“In the U.S., it used to be a traditional celebration, and it became a commercial operation,” Cooren says. “In France, it’s the opposite: It used to be a purely commercial operation, and it is now becoming an institution.”

—Nancy Guerin

Trial by Ignorance

A short history of the church’s persecution of European ‘witches’

Like May Day and the two solstices, Halloween is one of the traditional witches’ sabbats. The familiar sight of little girls in witch costumes trick-or-treating, however, stands in stark contrast to the gruesome story of the European witch-hunts of the 15th to 18th centuries. Like the Holocaust and other horrors of times past, the tragedy of countless lives lost to ignorance and superstition is a lesson of history not to be forgotten.

After Europe was evangelized in the centuries following the fall of Rome, pockets of pagan belief with goddess worship persisted, and wise women skilled in the use of herbal medicines were not uncommon. Christianity, though, had been developing a contemptuous view of women ever since St. Peter pronounced them “the weaker vessel.” In the second century, St. Clement of Alexandria wrote, “Every woman should be filled with shame by the thought that she is a woman,” and the sixth-century Christian writer Boathouse declared in his work The Consolation of Philosophy, “Woman is a temple built upon a sewer.” Elements of the coming confrontation were already falling into place by the eighth century as the Church legislated against wicce-craeft: heathen practices such as evil spells, sacrificing to demons, and divinations.

By the ninth century, women claiming to have flown at night astride animals, in the company of many other women and the goddess Diana, came to the attention of the Council of Ancyra. The council, however, soberly dismissed these assertions as products of dreams and officially dismissed them as illusory, thus impeding the persecution of witches for centuries to come. In his classic 1958 study Witchcraft, British scholar Geoffrey Parrinder suggests that some of these claims, a common thread in the confessions of witches, could have been inspired by the use of the hallucinogen belladonna, and that dreaming about flying is not unusual anyway, even while not under the influence of drugs.

After rats on grain ships from the Crimea brought bubonic plague to Europe in 1346, killing an estimated third of the population within three years, a demand for scapegoats arose. The Inquisition, which had been established to root out heresies in 12th-century Europe, was armed with torture as a means of extracting confessions, and began with Jews rather than the as-yet-undiscovered bacterium Yersinia pestis as the plague’s probable cause. In Germany, most Jews were executed, although some fled to Eastern Europe. But with the plague continuing to recur about once every 10 years, a great fear of witches seized Europe. The Inquisition’s gaze then turned to those it suspected of the banned heathen practice. And they were mostly women.

The Council of Ancyra’s decree holding that there was no such thing as night riding or nocturnal congregations of witches stood in the Inquisition’s way, though. In an instance of ecclesiastical chicanery, the old edict was circumvented in 1458 when an inquisitor named Nicholas Jaquerius held that witchcraft was a new sect altogether different from that the council had spoken of, and tied it to Satan by claiming that women had confessed to consorting with the devil, appearing in the shape of a goat, during their sabbats. And besides, he maintained, even if the night riding was an illusion, these women still clung to Satan during the day. The Inquisition was only too happy to see it Jaquerius’ way.

In 1484, Pope Innocent VIII issued a papal bull declaring war on witches in which both the church and secular authorities were given full power to proceed against them. Within five years, Germany’s two chief inquisitors, Fathers Kramer and Sprenger, wrote a notorious textbook for conducting witch trials, the Malleus Maleficarum, translatable as “the hammer of witches.” Under the new rules, torture could be kept up for days on end, children could turn in their parents, criminals could give evidence, and even defense lawyers could become suspect. A denial of witchcraft was seen as sure sign of guilt. Convicted witches were to be handed over to local authorities and burned at the stake. And conveniently, only the inquisitors were somehow immune from the satanic influence that seemed to be spreading like the plague itself.

With Innocent VIII’s bull in one hand and the Malleus Maleficarum in the other, the inquisitors fanned out through Europe hunting, torturing and burning witches. The popular belief was that witches engaged in lustful revels with Satan, mocked the Christian religion and, worst of all, ate unbaptized babies at their sabbats. The hapless people accused by friends, neighbors and relatives trying to save themselves from the stake were expected to confess to all this. Only a steadfast denial of guilt under torture could save the accused. Most, of course, confessed to avoid the agony of the racks, thumbscrews and other tools of the inquisitors’ trade. Estimates of how many perished range from 100,000 to 1 million, with the greatest loss of life occurring in France and Germany. Fortunately for England, common law forbade torture in most cases, and relatively few executions took place. In Spain, too, the chief inquisitor, Frias Salazar, examined hundreds of cases and found merit in none of them. But elsewhere on the continent, entire villages were sometimes wiped out. With the Reformation, Protestant inquisitors joined the hunt as well.

The witch-hunts were an orgy of misogyny—scholars estimate that 80 to 90 percent of those burned as witches were women. Of the male victims, many were simply trying to protect the accused women from the hunters. Single women, elderly and feeble peasant women, midwives, lesbians, and women who had pets that could be brought into evidence as “animal familiars” all became targets. And yet, through it all, history does not record a single instance of anyone ever having witnessed a witches’ sabbat. The phenomenon of witchcraft, Parrinder writes, was entirely in the minds of the inquisitors. And even though the Age of Enlightenment brought the witch burnings to an end, history always seems to provide enough events to prove that wherever ignorance and blind obedience to either religious or temporal authority prevail, innocent people will be in danger.

—Glenn Weiser

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