“It’s funny to me how many people think I’m an actual witch,” says UNE history student Molly Northcott. “My dad is constantly asking for the lotto numbers!”
For two years, Molly has pored over records of the Salem witch trials in Massachusetts in 1692 for her honours thesis, a topic she became increasingly drawn to through the Bachelor of Historical Inquiry and Practice, and an interest that has taken her and her family by surprise.
“I have a massive passion for animals, and for most of my life, this led me towards wanting to be a vet. My Poppy particularly encouraged me in this aspiration; he’s a highly trained orthopaedic surgeon and was the first to use the arthroscope in knee surgeries in Australia.
“However, English and history were the most enjoyable part of high school for me. I continued with biology through year 12 but dropped maths in year 10 after I struggled so much my teacher politely asked me twice to please pick something else!”
Drawn to UNE almost by magic – “I picked out a university prospectus that stood out the most from a pile. It was a bright green brochure for UNE” – she soon saw it ticked all the boxes. “They didn’t have vet science and part of me was a little relieved! I knew that following my passion, history, was my new path,” she says.
Molly planned her move to Armidale, a place she soon discovered was not, as she had assumed, a suburb on the outskirts of Sydney, but rather a seven-hour drive north of her home in the Canberra region. This small setback couldn’t dampen her enthusiasm for the move.
“Nothing could stop me, I was so excited! The core units in the Bachelor of Historical Inquiry and Practice were so close to what I had done in extension history in year 12 and the elective units were so varied and interesting it never crossed my mind to do anything else.”
While enjoying all her units, it was the dedicated witch hunting unit that she found most compelling.
“Professor Thomas Fudge is an incredible orator and he made this topic so interesting that it just utterly fascinated me.”
Now, with Professor Fudge’s support, Molly is exploring the role, meaning and motivation behind the actions of the group of ‘Salem girls’ whose strange fits and accusations instigated the witch trials.
“I bought Records of the Salem Witch Hunt, a 2.2kg, over 900 page book that has every single trial document ever in Salem and with lots of support from Professor Fudge, I read the entire thing in two months, writing 66 pages of notes.
“I guess what I love about Salem specifically is the complexity of it and its humanity. I think you can lose the humanity of a topic that’s almost 400 years old, but the trial documents are rich with sympathy, empathy, confusion, compassion, anger, sadness, desperation, manipulation, pleading and begging, and it just weaves the most amazing tragedy that Shakespeare himself could not write!”
But there’s nothing quite like exploring the original places and documents to breathe life into a long ago event.
“At the end of 2018 I actually went to Salem and Danvers – they were Salem Village and Salem Town in 1692 – which was honestly mind blowing. My grandma came with me and we went to Salem, Danvers, New York, Boston and Washington DC on a research trip I was able to mostly fund with a grant from the UNE School of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences. I was so lucky to hold the original trial documents in Massachusetts and the New York Public Library.”
With the end of her honours studies in sight, Molly foresees history continuing to play a big role in her future.
“I would love to do a PhD and become a lecturer like all the amazing lecturers at UNE who have inspired me – and Dr Northcott has a nice ring to it! To be a witchcraft historian, publishing my own works and teaching others is honestly the dream. I can also see working in museums and leading history tours for school kids – I love to talk!”
Describing her time on-campus at UNE as “the best six years of my life”, she even sports a tattoo symbolising her beloved Mary White College. Though it’s unlikely she’ll need the physical reminder.
“Living, working and studying on campus at UNE, I’ve seen the university from lots of sides and I can tell you that the support, passion, enthusiasm and care are aspects I will never forget, and will carry with me, on my broomstick, forever.”