The beloved, bestselling author of The Birth House and The Virgin Cure is back with her most beguiling novel yet, luring us deep inside the lives of a trio of remarkable young women navigating the glitz and grotesqueries of Gilded-Age New York by any means possible, including witchcraft...
The year is 1880. Two hundred years after the trials in Salem, Adelaide Thom (Moth from The Virgin Cure ) has left her life in the sideshow to open a tea shop with another young woman who feels it's finally safe enough to describe herself as a witch: a former medical student and gardien de sorts (keeper of spells), Eleanor St. Clair. Together they cater to Manhattan's high society ladies, specializing in cures, palmistry and potions--and in guarding the secrets of their clients. All is well until one bright September afternoon, when an enchanting young woman named Beatrice Dunn arrives at their door seeking employment.
Beatrice soon becomes indispensable as Eleanor's apprentice, but her new life with the witches is marred by strange occurrences. She sees things no one else can see. She hears voices no one else can hear. Objects appear out of thin air, as if gifts from the dead. Has she been touched by magic or is she simply losing her mind? Eleanor wants to tread lightly and respect the magic manifest in the girl, but Adelaide sees a business opportunity. Working with Dr. Quinn Brody, a talented alienist, she submits Beatrice to a series of tests to see if she truly can talk to spirits. Amidst the witches' tug-of-war over what's best for her, Beatrice disappears, leaving them to wonder whether it was by choice or by force.
As Adelaide and Eleanor begin the desperate search for Beatrice, they're confronted by accusations and spectres from their own pasts. In a time when women were corseted, confined and committed for merely speaking their minds, were any of them safe?
First Chapter or Excerpt
City of Wonders. In the dusky haze of evening a ruddy-cheeked newsboy strode along Fifth Avenue proclaiming the future. "The great Egyptian obelisk is about to land on our shores! The Brooklyn Bridge set to become the Eighth Wonder of the World! Broadway soon to glow with electric light!" In his wake, a crippled man shuffled, spouting prophecies of his own. "God's judgement is upon us! The end of the world is nigh!" New York had become a city of astonishments. Wonders and marvels came so frequent and fast, a day without spectacle was cause for concern. Men involved themselves with the business of making miracles. Men in starched collars and suits, men in wool caps and dirty boots. From courtrooms to boardrooms to the newsrooms of Park Row; from dockyards to scaffolds to Mr. Roebling's Great Bridge--every man to a one had a head full of schemes: to erect a monument to genius, to become a wizard of invention, to discover the unknown. They set their sights on greatness while setting their watches to the drop of the Western Union Time Ball. Their dreams no longer came to them via stardust and angel's wings, but by tug, train and telegraph. Sleep lost all meaning now that Time was in man's grasp. In the building beneath the tower that held the time ball, a mindful order of women sat--side by side, row on row, storey upon storey, one hundred young ladies in all, working round the clock to translate the wishes of men to dots and dashes. Transfixed by the steady click-clack of their task, the ghost of Mr. Samuel Morse hovered near. He'd tried to get to Heaven on numerous occasions, but could never seem to find his way past the tangled canopy of telegraph lines that criss-crossed the skies above Manhattan. What he needed was an angel, or better yet, a witch. Someone to translate the knocks and rappings of his soul, to convey all the things he'd left unsaid. Where could one be found? Were there any left? In a halo of lamplight near the Western Union Building, a prostitute leaned her aching back against the bricks. Lips rouged, eyes rimmed with charcoal, she was waiting for a man. Puffing on a cigarette she'd begged off a stranger, she blew a steady stream of smoke rings in the air. At the edge of her sight, a shadowy figure in the shape of a fine-dressed gentleman appeared--five feet off the ground, coattails flapping in the breeze. Rubbing her eyes, the girl shook her head, thinking she'd had too much to drink. She swore, hand to God, she'd get off the booze one day, not now, of course, maybe in the spring. As the ghost dissolved from her view, the girl flicked the stub of her cigarette to the ground and crushed it with the heel of her boot. Hand in her pocket she reached for a trinket she'd been given by her last john. "A lucky rabbit's foot," he'd said, "blessed by a bona fide witch." "Liar," the girl had complained when he'd offered her the charm along with half of what he was supposed to pay. "No, no, no," the john had insisted. "I tell you, she was real . . . a real witch with a very fine ass." With that, the girl had grabbed the trinket and sent the john on his way. Something was better than nothing. She needed all the help she could get. Stroking the soft fur of the rabbit's foot, the girl thought of all she lacked. She was tired, she needed sleep, but she wanted more booze. When she glanced at the spot where she'd snuffed out the butt, there was a shiny new dime in its place. Picking the coin off the ground, she wondered if maybe the john had been right after all. Maybe the damn foot was lucky. Maybe the witch was real. Maybe her luck had changed because the john had dipped his willy in a witch and then dipped it in her, leaving behind some strange magic. There were worse things she could catch, she guessed. In the shadow of the Great Bridge, a young widow knelt to plead with the river. Just after supper she'd spied something terrible in the soapy murk of her dishwater, a vision she'd seen once before, and she'd just as soon forget. Each time she closed her eyes, it came to her again--a man's face, bloated and blue, gasping for air. The last time she'd seen it, it'd been her husband's. This time it was a stranger's. "I understand," the woman said to the river, touching the surface of the water with a finger. "I know how it feels to be slighted." She also understood that the river required payment from those who wished to cross it. Blood, flesh and bone were what it liked best. The widow didn't have much of anything to give as an offering--a few pennies, a splash of whiskey, the cheerful tune of an ancient song--but she hoped that if she were gentle, persuasive and kind, the river might change its mind. Was it witchcraft she was plying? She didn't care so long as it worked. Something had to be done. Something was better than nothing. In the cellar of a modest house on the edge of the Tenderloin, a weary housekeeper lit a candle and said a prayer. Taper in one hand, glass jar in the other, she poured wax around the edge of the jar's lid to seal it shut. The jar--filled with stale urine, old needles, shards of mirror, brass buttons, bent nails and thirteen drops of blood from her left thumb--was what her wise grandmother had called a "witch's bottle." While others might call it humbug, the housekeeper saw the jar and its contents as her last hope to dispel the strange darkness that'd settled in her midst. What else could explain all that'd happened since the master of the house had passed? For weeks she'd been plagued by what she thought was a ghost or, perhaps, a demon, lurking in her room, stealing her sight, shaking her bed, night after night. What did it want? Where had it come from? Why wouldn't it leave her alone? Prayers, hymns and a desperate stint of almsgiving hadn't driven it away. She feared the terrible thing wouldn't rest until it saw her dead. Had she been cursed? Something had to be done. As her grandmother would say, Wo gibt es Hexen, gibt es Geister. Where there are witches there are ghosts. In a quiet corner of a cozy teashop just shy of Madison Square Park, a magnificent raven sat on a perch, preening its feathers. As the bird tugged and fussed at its wing, three women conversed around a nearby table--one, a lady of considerable wealth, the others a pair of witches, keepers of the bird and the shop. "Can you help?" the lady inquired, worry catching in her throat. "I'm at my wit's end. Something must be done." One witch answered with a confident, "Of course." The other humbly replied, "Leave it with us." The raven cast an indifferent eye upon them. He'd witnessed this sort of thing before--the woman, unable to manage her affairs, needed a witch (or two) to make things right. That was all fine and good, but he was more interested in a faint sound coming from overhead, an enchanting jangle akin to when prisms on a chandelier touch. But how could that be when there was no chandelier to be found in the shop? He was certain unexpected magic was afoot. Tea was poured, complaints and concerns heard, sympathy given. Crystal ball and grimoire consulted. Palms and tea leaves read. How pleased the bird was when he noticed the tray of teacakes in the centre of the table had barely been touched. How pleased the lady was when the witches presented her with a small package tied with red string. The lady was sure she felt something move within the parcel. A tiny tremor of mystical vibration, perhaps? A sign of things to come? She'd heard rumours from a friend of a friend that these women could work miracles. She prayed it was true. She wanted to believe. Lowering her voice, she said, "You swear this thing has been touched by witchcraft?" One of the women gave a polite nod and said, "Of course, my dear, of course." The other replied with a smile and a shrug. "Call it what you like." The raven simply cocked its head. It was all he could do not to laugh. Excerpted from The Witches of New York by Ami McKay All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.