Official Witches

Magic Monopoly


The witch trials wrapped up 315 years ago, but the city of Salem, Massachusetts, is still basking in the publicity. Every October brings a month-long Halloween celebration, Haunted Happenings, when the town is flooded with tourists and supernatural enthusiasts. The visitors used to include a small army of fortunetellers, but not anymore: In June the city council unanimously passed a law regulating would-be psychics and issuing only a small number of licenses for "palmistry, fortunetelling, phrenology, card reading, [and] astrology."

If you ask Laurie Cabot, the change was long overdue. The Oklahoma-born Cabot is Salem's official witch, appointed by Gov. Michael Dukakis in 1977 in recognition of her charitable work. She has organized a Witches' Ball for 34 years and watched a small community of psychics sprout up in her city. In her view, the competitors who came to town during Haunted Happenings were bilking the real psychics.

After Cabot lobbied the city to change its laws, the council came up with rules inspired by San Francisco's guidelines for psychics. There are now five licenses available for purchase by psychics in this city of 40,000. That doesn't count longstanding fortunetellers like Cabot, who have been grandfathered in.
Salem's homegrown psychics are happy with the compromise, but Cabot wishes everyone could get certified the way she was in the 1970s. The police department sent a sergeant to her for a reading. Impressed by her skills, the cop gave her credentials and let her practice.

"Maybe a sit-down with the Salem police would be a fair test for everyone," Cabot says. "If they're really psychic, they won't have a problem with sitting down and doing a psychic's work."