Drive around enough of Vermont’s picturesque streets, and you’ll become puzzled over an architectural anomaly that even the locals can’t explain. Or, maybe it’s just that the explanation is a little too eerie for comfort. You see, the anomaly in question is called a “witch window…”
Witch windows are cockeyed windows that have been a staple of Vermont’s traditional farmhouse aesthetic ever since the 19th century. “It’s the crooked window tucked up under the eaves in the gable end — and it’s just tucked in there at a crazy angle,” explained State Architectural Historian Devin Colman to VPR Radio in 2017. The local lore is that this slant makes it difficult for witches to fly in on their broomsticks.
Being on the East Coast certainly comes with its fair share of witchy baggage, with the culprit famously being the Salem Witch Trials of 1692-1693. “For more than a century, tourists have been buying witch souvenirs and visiting witch houses,” explained a representative from the New England Historical Society, “In 1890, a Salem jeweler named Daniel Low [even] began selling souvenir sterling “Witch” spoons to tourists.”
Vermont actually only had one witch trial, in the little town of Pownal. The victim was woman they called “the widow Krieger,” who was charged with the “possessing extraordinary powers.” She was thrown into the icy winter waters in a test to see if she’d sink or float, with the latter meaning she were possessed by black magic. Luckily, she began sinking and was rescued.
So what’s the deal with the witchy windows? Seeing as they started popping up centuries later, the likelihood of their being a defence against broom riding sorceresses isn’t high. “They are very agile,” an actual Wiccan in Vermont told Urbo magazine in 2017, “I don’t think you could stop a witch from going through a slanted window unless they were overweight like me.” Anyone whose watched those Quidditch scenes in Harry Potter, she adds, would agree.
“You’ll also hear them referred to as coffin windows,” explains the Historical Society rep, “The idea being that it’s difficult to maneuver a coffin with a body from the second floor down to the first floor in these narrow staircases, so slide it out through the window and down the roof.” Then again, she says, that “does not seem any easier.” At the end of the day, every conclusion drawn about the curious windows ends with a question mark. Why on earth create a completely lopsided, and by all means impractical, window?
Plenty of cultures have created architectural styles that are supposed to fend off of evil spirits. What else did you think those pointy roofs on Chinese temples are for? Or the fact that in the Philippines, basements are traditionally seen as a breeding ground for evil spirits (if you want to stay safe, you have to have an exit to that basement that descends even lower).
Maybe the legend isn’t so far-fetched after all. For now, we’ll let you draw your own conclusions about the origins of the windows. Personally, until we find the root of this fable’s strange and tangled storyline, we know we’d sleep a little sounder with one in a Vermont farmhouse…
By Mary Frances Knapp, our Californian in Paris & beatnik at heart.