Charles G. Leland was an American scholar, folklorist, humorist and prolific author who wrote several classic books on English Gypsies and Italian Witches. These include Etruscan Roman Remains, Legends of Florence, The Gypsies, Gypsy Sorcery and perhaps his most famous book Aradia: Gospel of the Witches. During his time he wrote more than fifty books on a variety subjects, and penned uncounted articles for many major periodicals. His writings inspired the likes of Gerald Gardner and Doreen Valiente as well as many other pioneers of modern day Witchcraft. In America he is also recognised for his effort to establish Industrial Art as a branch of public education.
Born of old English descent Leland’s ancestral lineage can be traced back to a John Leland who in 1530 was a chaplain and librarian to King Henry VIII. He is distinguished in that a special position was created for him in 1533 when he became the first person to be appointed Royal Antiquary. Another distinguished ancestor is Charles Leland who was Secretary of the Society of Antiquaries during the reign of Charles 1. Other members of his linage moved to America in 1636 and were prominent among the early pilgrims to settle in Massachusetts.
Leland was born to parents Henry Leland and Charlotte Frost Godfrey in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on the 15th of August 1824. His father Henry was a descendant of Hopestill Leland, one of the first white settlers in New England. His mother on her side of the family often referred to an ancestress that had married into “sorcery”. In his own memoirs Leland wrote: “My mother's opinion was that this was a very strong case of atavism and that the mysterious ancestor had cropped out in me”. His parents were both Episcopalians but during his early youth converted to Unitarianism and brought Leland up in that belief. His parents encouraged his curiosity and he was exposed to a variety of ideologies as he grew up.
A few days after his birth Leland’s Old Dutch nurse carried him up into the garret of their home and performed a special ritual. She placed upon his breast a Bible, a key and a knife, and then placed lighted candles, money and a plate of salt at his head. The purpose of the rite was to ensure he rise up in life to be lucky and to become a scholar and a wizard. As a child Leland suffered from a serious bout of a meningitis-like illness, which continued to dog him throughout his early childhood. As a result he often appeared to be weak, nervous and frail. Later he grew to a strapping six-feet, and enjoyed a vigorous adult lifestyle.
Leland grew up fascinated with folklore and magic, for as a child he was regaled with stories of ghosts, witches and fairies. The family being prosperous, they lived in a household that employed servants, from one (an Irish immigrant woman) he learned about fairies, and from another (a black woman working in the kitchen) he learned about Voodoo. By the age of 6 or 7, Leland was already familiar with his parent’s library and was a voracious reader; he even memorised Prospero’s speeches from Shakespeare’s play ‘The Tempest’. His interest in folklore and all things occult would occupy much of his adult life.
Leland was first educated in a series of private schools in Philadelphia and during the summer stayed with cousins in the New England countryside to benefit his health. Although Leland was a great reader, he was a poor student and hated school. His teachers, and even his father, regarded him as stupid due to his extreme weakness in mathematics. Later he went on to Princeton University where he studied languages, wrote poetry, and pursued a variety of other interests, including Hermeticism, Neo-Platonism, and the writings of Rabelais and Villon.
After graduating from Princeton, his father financed his post-graduate studies and sent Leland to Europe where he studied at the universities of Heidelberg and Munich before moving on to the Sorbonne in Paris. While in Paris, Leland played an active part in the French Revolution of 1848. As captain of a group of Revolutionaries at the hotel where he was staying, he constructed barricades and fought on the streets of Paris. Later that year he returned to America after the money his father had supplied ran out.
Back home in Philadelphia, Leland apprenticed for a time in a law firm and passed the bar association exams to practice in Pennsylvania. Law however proved to mundane for his adventurous spirit and in 1853 he opted for a career in journalism. During his years as a journalist, Leland wrote hundreds of essays, reviews and articles for some of the major periodicals of the time, including Vanity Fair, Graham's Magazine and the Knickerbocker Magazine. He also wrote for the Illustrated News in New York, the Evening Bulletin in Philadelphia and eventually took on editorial duties for the Philadelphia Press.
In 1856 Leland married and became deeply devoted to his wife of 46 years ‘Eliza Bella “Isabel” Fisher’. While acting as an editor for Graham's Magazine, he published the first of his German-English poems “Hans Breitmann's Party” (1857). These he wrote in a mixture of German and broken English, imitating the dialect and humour of the Philadelphia Germans (also called Pennsylvania Dutch). Collectively they were first published in the 1860’s and 1870’s and so popularised Leland that he soon became a sought-after and prosperous writer. The poems were later collected in “The Breitmann Ballads” (newly edited in 1895).
It was about this time in the late 1850’s and during the build up to the American Civil War of 1861-65, that Leland developed strong pro-Union sentiments, and founded the Continental Monthly, a pro-Union Army publication to support their views. He coined the term “emancipation” as an alternative to “abolition” in reference to the Union’s anti-slavery position. After the war broke out on the 12th April 1861, Leland enlisted in 1863 and joined an emergency regiment at the Battle of Gettysburg. After the war ended Leland traveled extensively throughout America developing his knowledge of folklore and the occult. On one occasion he tried his hand at prospecting for oil and on another while traveling through the old Wild West, he stayed for a short visit with General Custer at Fort Harker.
During his travels he lived and studied with the Algonquin Indians for months at a time recording their stories, myths and legends. He also studied the myths and legends of the Eskimos, the Finno-Ugric languages of the Finns and Lapps, and delved into the anthropology of a number of Mongoloid peoples. He found parallels in various Norse and North American Indian myths in as much as the Algonquin Indian stories could be related to Norse legends; he then developed a theory on their themes. He postulated that certain myths had spread from Greenland down to Canada and into Northeastern America. Leland’s studies led him to the conviction that the US did not have a meaningful legitimate folk ethos, and maintained that the American Indians understood nature and spirituality better than even Ralph Waldo Emerson or Walt Whitman.
In 1869 Leland’s father died, and with the inheritance from his estate together with the income he was generating from sales of his “Breitmann” poems, Leland abandoned journalism, being able finically to pursue his interest in folklore, mysticism and the occult. In 1870 he moved to England and began his study of the English Gypsies. Over the course of time he won the confidence of the then “King of the Gypsies” in England, Matty Cooper. From Cooper, Leland learned to speak Romany the language of the Gypsies, but it took many years before the Gypsy people accepted him as one of their own. They called him Romany Rye, meaning a non-Gypsy who associates with Gypsies.
While in England Leland was profoundly impressed by the growing appreciation of the newly formed Arts and Crafts movement inspired by the likes of the English reformer, poet and designer William Morris. So impressed, in 1879 Leland returned home to Philadelphia and established the Industrial Art School. Initially it was a school to teach Art and Crafts to disadvantaged children in Philadelphia, but became widely known later when it was visited and praised by Oscar Wilde.
In a lecture given in New York and reported in the Montreal Daily Witness on the 15th May 15 1882, Wilde is quoted: “I would have a workshop attached to every school...I have seen only one such school in the United States, and this was in Philadelphia, and was founded by my friend Leland. I stopped there yesterday, and have brought some of their work here to show you”. In a letter to Leland also in May 1882, now preserved at Yale University, Wilde wrote: “When I showed them the brass work and the pretty bowl of wood with the bright arabesques at New York they applauded to the echo, and I have received so many letters about it and congratulations that your school will be known and honoured everywhere, and you yourself recognised and honoured as one of the great pioneers and leaders of the art of the future”.
As a result of his efforts Leland unknowingly kick-started a popular resurgence of Arts and Crafts in America and was an important influence on the Arts and Crafts movement. Later the Home Arts and Industries Association was founded in imitation of his initiative. In 1883 Leland returned to England to continue his studies on the Gypsies. While traveling around Europe with his Gypsy friends, Leland also discovered a secret language used by traveling tinkers called Shelta. During this time he wrote two classic books on Gypsies and established himself as the leading authority on the subject. Later in 1888, Leland founded and became the first President of the Gypsy-Lore Society.
In the winter of 1888 Leland moved to Florence in Italy, where he lived for the rest of his life. It was here he began an in-depth study of “Stregheria” or Italian Witchcraft. His greatest source of information came from a mysterious lady called Maddalena, who worked as a Tarot reader telling fortunes in the back streets of Florence. Leland believed her to be a practicing hereditary witch and employed her as his research assistant. She in turn introduced him to another Tuscan witch called Marietta, who also helped to provide material for his research.
Leland was particular interested to learn about old medical treatments and magical rituals performed by witches across the rural areas of Tuscany. Many of the treatments he found to be similar to those used by the ancient Etruscan Civilizations of the early centuries BC. Passed down orally from generation to generation many of these age-old treatments were still being used at the beginning of the 20th century. They included common treatments for dreams, toothaches, eye problems, headaches, bladder stones, colic and most all types of bodily pains.
Overtime Maddelena passed on to him more than 200 pages of written folklore, incantations and stories. Later Leland wrote that her memory seemed inexhaustible, and that the incantations she had learned seemed endless. He also felt sure that the incantations were originally Etruscan. Although it took her ten years to do so, it was Maddalena who eventually provided Leland with the material he needed for his most famous book Aradia: Gospel of the Witches.
Leland was a prolific collector and spent most of his spare time collecting Witch lore and purchasing items of antiquity. One of his most prized possessions was the Black Stone of the Voodoos. It is believed that there are only five or six of these stones, or “conjuring stones” existing in the whole of America. The stones are small black pebbles thought to have originally arrived from Africa during the slave trade, and whoever succeeds in obtaining one would become a Master of Voodoo recognised as such by all other Voodoo practitioners in America. Leland somehow obtained one and this he exhibited at the Folk-Lore Congress in London during 1891.
Surviving the death of his beloved wife Isabel on the 09th July 1902, Leland himself died on the 20th of March 1903 in Florence. He had suffered with in ill health for the pervious seven years, and toward the end a bout of pneumonia and resulting heart problems caused his death. Leland was cremated in Florence and his ashes returned to America, where they were buried at Laurel Hill Cemetery, Philadelphia, PA.
Elizabeth Robins Pennell, Leland’s niece who inherited much of his notes, letters and unpublished materials, wrote a two-volume biography on him: Charles Godfrey Leland: a Biography (published in Boston by Houghton, Mifflin and Co in 1906). Her biography is filled with comments on his early passionate interests in witchcraft, magic and the occult, of his passion she writes:
“As might be expected of the man who was called “Master” by the Witches and Gypsies, and whose pockets were always full of charms and amulets, who owned the Black Stone of the Voodoo’s, who could not see a bit of red string at his feet and not pick it up, or find a pebble with an hole in it and not add it to his store – who in a word, not only studied witchcraft with the impersonal curiosity of the scholar, but practiced with the zest of the initiated”.
Sadly Leland departed without completing his work on Italian Witchcraft, however his legacy lives on through his books. Until his time, no other books existed claiming to contain material obtained directly from a practicing witch. His book Aradia: Gospel of the Witches became one of the most influential works to affect and influence modern Witchcraft and Wicca. It is also one of the few books on Witchcraft to remain in print for over one hundred years.
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