The Witch Who Put The World On Trial

— by Barbara Wade Rose, author of The Priest, the Witch & the Poltergeist.

When you hear the phrase “a witch trial,” you probably think of 17th-century villagers in Salem, Massachusetts or Samlesbury, England deciding a local woman is a witch, capturing her, and inventing hopeless tests for her to try and prove herself otherwise in order to save her own life. The persecution of witches and other societal outsiders has cast a dark shadow on cultural history around much of the world. But have you ever heard of a trial where the witch was the plaintiff?

In rural France in 1850, only some 160 years ago, a priest blamed a local male witch — part of a group called les rebouteux, or “bonesetters”, who acted as nurse-practitioners in the neighborhood — for causing unexplained loud noises that had started in the priest’s parsonage. The priest was living with a poltergeist, and this one was loud: some reports said it could be heard from two kilometers — over a mile — away.

More after the jump.
The priest, Father Jean Tinel — driven slightly crazy, as we all would be by the noise — blamed the witch, Felix Thorel, and said so to several members of his parish. He allowed a visiting marquis to hold a séance in the parsonage to quiet his house. When nothing happened, he grew even angrier with the witch. After a member of his household claimed to have seen the witch in a dream, the priest sought out the witch and beat him until he was unconscious. Father Tinel, who must have thought he had solved his problem, gone home, washed his hands and waited for the noises to stop.

But Felix Thorel stood up for himself, literally and figuratively. After recovering from his injuries, he sued the priest for slander and assault. In 1851 in the court of Yerville, near Cideville a witch trial was held — the only one in history where a witch was the plaintiff, not the defendant.

This fact makes the Cideville witch trial unique (although it’s pretty special for being about a poltergeist as well). Both the witch and the priest brought lawyers and witnesses to lend credence to their versions of events while the poltergeist continued to rage at the Cideville parsonage miles away. A French account of the trial called “Le Diable sera it — il dans le Canton?” seemed, despite its supernatural focus, to take the unusual position of Felix Thorel as plaintiff for granted. There is a very French explanation for this: Felix Thorel was a French citizen 70 years after the first Revolution, and he as well as any other Frenchman were considered to have the right to sue whomever they pleased. A contemporary 1850 book by essayist Frederic Bastiat affirmed it. In The Law, Bastiat stated about the French: “each of us has a natural right — from God — to defend his person, his liberty, and his property.”

The Cideville trial therefore should not be imagined as a 17th century witch trial: no duckings, no soakings, no floatings or other soggy and sorry pursuits. It proceeded with affidavits and witnesses as if it were an ordinary suit over a quarrel. To the court he was a citizen whose employment happened to be witchcraft — just as was shepherdry, his day job. Although the fact that he was a French witch may have worked slightly in his favor. According to Oxford historian Robin Briggs’ excellent book on the cultural aspects of witchcraft, “France […] displayed persistently low levels of persecution. Jurists and clerics […] plainly disagreed over the scale and nature of the danger.” It should be noted that although whether Thorel was a witch or not was irrelevant to his suit, it would become relevant during the course of the trial.

Poor, shunned and uneducated, Felix Thorel was courageous, definitely, but privileged compared to some courageous plaintiffs in history such as Dred Scott, an American slave from the same time as Thorel. In 1857 Scott sued for his freedom after he was taken briefly to a non-slave state, and lost, although his case was one of the sparks for the Civil War. But it’s their courage that lingers, and in Thorel’s case what it must have taken for an outsider, an odd man, a witch, to tell a local priest, the community leader — and, briefly, his bully — that he’d had enough.

Barbara Wade Rose is a former investigative journalist and the author of The Priest, the Witch & the Poltergeist.

Golden Slipper Club Makes Special Delivery to HUP

(Left to right) Roy Kardon, president of the Golden Slipper Center for Seniors, Stephen H. Frishberg, president of Golden Slipper Club & Charities, board member Gil Klein, member Barbara Frishberg, and Burt Rose, past president of Golden Slipper Club & Charities with assistant to the president, Celeste Rose (seated).

— by Scott D. Bluebond

The Golden Slipper Clubs & Charities is well known in the community for its unmatched summer camp for children, a college scholarship fund for deserving students, a welcoming center for senior citizens, and many other initiatives. It has now added yet another new endeavor: delivering challah on Friday evenings and Jewish holidays to hospitalized Jewish patients at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania (HUP). Challah is a special often braided bread that is eaten on the Jewish Sabbath and on holidays; it is being provided by Jewish Family and Children’s Service of Greater Philadelphia.

Under the leadership of Roy Kardon, president of the Golden Slipper Center for Seniors, Golden Slipper members are training at HUP, located at 3400 Spruce Street in Philadelphia, prior to the commencement of the delivery program. It is expected to be fully operational in August. The GSC executive director is Paul Geller and the chair of the board is Stephen H. Frishberg.

“Our mission is wide, and this is yet another wonderful family service charitable program” states Paul Geller. Adds Steve Frishberg: We’ve provided assistance in so many ways. This new initiative is one designed to warm the heart.”

King Lear of a Role: Tovah Feldshuh in Bristol Riverside’s Gypsy

Broadway veteran and four time Tony nominee Tovah Feldshuh will star as Momma Rose in the Julie Styne-Sondheim-Arthur Laurents musical Gypsy at the Bristol Riverside Theatre December 6, 2011—January 15, 2012.    I had the chance to interview Ms. Feldshuh about the upcoming show and her life as a performer.  

Gypsy opens on December 8, which is a good omen, as Tovah noted it’s the yahrzeit (anniversary) of Golda Meir’s passing as well as the date of her own Bat Mitzvah.    Tovah performed Golda’s Balcony, the longest running one-woman show on Broadway, at the Bristol Riverside in 2010.  

Tovah was not always called Tovah: “I was named after my Aunt Tilley who died in her 30s from tuberculosis.  The Sue comes from my Great Grandmother.”  After she changed her name from Terry Sue to Tovah, her Hebrew name, and began her performance career Tovah said that “it changed the landscape of my life.”  She starred in Yentl on Broadway and in Golda’s Balcony on Broadway, the longest running one-woman show.  But interestingly, she has worked hard not to let her notable Jewish name typecast her: “I’ve played all kinds of roles from Diana Vreeland to judge Danielle Melnick in Law & Order and now, Rose in Gypsy.  What’s in a name? Everything.”

Gypsy is loosely based on the 1957 memoirs of Gypsy Rose Lee, the famous striptease artist, and focuses on her mother, Rose, whose name has become synonymous with “the ultimate show business mother.”  Following the dreams and efforts of Rose to raise two daughters to perform onstage, the musical contains many popular standards, including

Interview follows the jump.

LG:   When I look at the all the things you do between Law and Order and your one-woman shows, films, and now Gypsy, I wonder how you do it all.  Would you consider yourself a driven person?

TF:  I’m at the prime of my faculties as an artist.   I’ve worked hard for my achievements.  As I get older, the process slows down, but the wisdom increases

LG: Gypsy is a play about a lot of things, but at its heart, it explores the mother-daughter relationship.   How has being a mother and a daughter shaped your life?

TF:  Gypsy is a King Lear role for a woman.  I’m trying not to be derivative in my performance.  Rose is a woman of flesh and blood and guts, not a beast.   She’s driven.  I think the abandonment of her mother is the key to her character.   From the moment you have children, they come first.  So you necessarily have to slow down.   But I think my husband and I did ok – as Amanda’s at MIT studying physics and Brandon is at Harvard studying economics.  

Tovah began to sing some lines from the song, Rose’s Turn for me.    

LG: Did you encourage your own daughter, Amanda, to become an actress?

TF:  I discouraged my own children from going into show business.  

LG:  Why?

TF:  I’m very bourgeois.  

LG: What would you have been, if not an actress?

TF: I came into the theatre after I was wait-listed at Harvard Law School.   My Father went to Harvard Law, and it just so happens so did my husband, who I adore.  You don’t need Freud to figure out how this work!.   It was my brother, (David Feldshuh a Pulitzer price nominated playwright for Miss Evers’ Boy) who encouraged me to apply for the McKnight Fellowship, which I received, and this launched my career.

LG: You have worked in show business for 37 years.    You have done film, television, musical theater, drama – how does this fit into your bourgeois bias?

TF:  I’ve been on my own since I was 21.  I had to live life on a budget and worry whether I had enough money for cab fare in NYC.  At 23, when I was starring in Yentl on Broadway, I decided I didn’t want to be poor.    I was committed to making enough money so I could have some freedom.   I have always tried to balance more commercial jobs with more artistic projects.   I also married a Harvard trained lawyer, which helps!

LG:  Do you have stage fright?

TF:  No, I’m at home on the stage.    Being on the stage is like a warm bath.  I let the gold dust settle where it settles.  I try to remain very loose on the stage and let the truth of the character bubble up.  I hope audiences will see my full skill set in action in this performance of Gypsy at the Bristol.  

LG:  What are you currently reading?

TF:  I’m listening to the book American Rose about Gypsy Lee Rose’s life.  I’m also listening to my voice teacher on an Ipod, as I have to stay focused on my singing.  

Tovah sang a few more bars of Rose’s Turn for me and had to return to rehearsal.  

Tovah Feldshuh stars in Gypsy at Bristol Riverside Theatre as part of its 25th Anniversary Season on December 6-January 15.  With music by Jule Styne, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and book by Arthur Laurents, the production is directed by Keith Baker and also features Robert Newman, Amanda Rose, Brittney Lee Hamilton, Joe Grandy, Bethe B. Austin, Kathryn Kendall, and Demetria Joyce Bailey.

Previews begin Tuesday, December 6 with opening night on Thursday, December 8.  Performances run Tuesday through Sunday until January 15.  Tickets start at $40, with discounts for students and groups.  Tickets are available online or by phone at 215-785-0100.  Bristol Riverside Theatre is located at 120 Radcliffe Street in Bristol, PA.