Respectable Lady Seeks Dependable Shopgirl.
Must be well versed in sums, etiquette, tea making, and the language of flowers.
Room and board provided.
Those averse to magic need not apply.
It is 1880 and New York City tea shop owners Eleanor St. Clair and Adelaide Thom are doing a brisk business at their shop, Tea and Sympathy. Eleanor, a hereditary witch with a sympathetic ear makes potions, curative teas and spells that give comfort and insight to the women who come to her for advice. Adelaide, whose past includes sideshow huckster, develops a genuine gift for fortune telling after a devastating acid attack scars her face and causes the loss of her right eye.
A shepherdess sees to the care and feeding of her flock, a seamstress sees to the cut of a lady’s dress. Witches see to things best sorted by magic: sorrows of the heart, troubles of the mind, regrets of the flesh. This is what we do. That is who you are. Madame Delphine St. Clair
Though she won’t admit it, Eleanor is feeling the stress of their success with overwork and sleepless nights. Adelaide is concerned, but when she brings up the matter Eleanor cuts her off. So without asking, Adelaide puts an ad in the paper hoping a suitable assistant will appear whom Eleanor won’t refuse. In her small town north of the city, Beatrice Dunn sees the ad and hopes this will be her ticket to a new life. From the moment she enters the city her latent magical abilities emerge. And to Adelaide’s relief, Eleanor takes her ‘gift’ under her wing and Beatrice’s talents blossom. Overseeing the young women is the magnificent raven, Perdu, who sits on his perch high above the actions of the shop. An old, literally talkative soul who belonged to Eleanor’s mother, he sees all and protects the women as best he can.
They meet Dr. Quinn Brody through one of their clients, Judith Dashley, who with her husband, own a well-known hotel. Dr. Brody is an alienist, but has become interested in the after life and communication with the dead. He is anxious to test a device left to him by his father, which he simply called a spiritoscope and though his father’s only experience with the machine was in exposing frauds, Quinn hopes to find a true spiritual medium. When Beatrice admits she can see the dead son of Judith Dashley, Adelaide believes she is the perfect subject for Dr. Brody’s machine and Beatrice agrees. After preliminary tests it is clear the machine through Beatrice is picking up something. They arrange a public demonstration of Beatrice’s abilities at a hall in the Dashley’s hotel, but just before she is scheduled to appear, she goes outside looking for Eleanor, who she can’t find in the audience. A hand closes over her mouth and she is whisked away.
Beatrice is not the only woman disappearing from the streets. A push back against anyone deemed progressive, different, antireligious is in full force. Independent women, especially have been targets of accusations of immorality and witchcraft. Reverend Townsend, a preacher whose demented mind has twisted scripture to construct a one-man army of God against suspected witches in particular has taken it upon himself to bring these women to repentance. He walks the streets in search of prey and tortures the women into admitting their “wrongs.” If they die, it is better that they are off the streets.
His fiery sermons against the immorality of the times has affected one of his flock who is certain evil is going on at Tea and Sympathy and writes to a Mr. Comstock, whose Society for the Suppression of Vice is aimed at cleaning up what goes through the mail as well as what goes on in the streets. People like Sister Piddock write in about their neighbors, shop owners, or anyone they believe are “engaged in questionable activities.” When agents of the Commission investigate the shop nothing untoward is found, but the women are still on the Piddock radar.
It is Townsend who has taken Beatrice and for days she is suffering his torture in his basement cell. Eleanor and Adelaide are frantic to find her and enlist the authorities as well as people from the neighborhood to help find her. By magic and the visitation of the ghost of one of Townsend’s previous victims, she is able to escape.
Ami McKay has created a very suspenseful story in the way she uses historical details as a foundation for many of the events that effect the characters. In the late 19th century, contact with the dead through private séances and public demonstrations interested many who were grieving over friends and family members. The Comstock Laws of 1873 initially attacked material sent through the mail that had to do with preventing conception, but went on to attack any material or behavior that was considered lewd or lascivious.
Women who needed to prevent pregnancy or end it, could not do so openly. Eleanor and women like her had the recipes, the tinctures, the experience to help in these situations, but their discovery to authorities could prove tragic. It wasn’t uncommon for people to take these laws into their own hands to attack neighbors or others on the streets. McKay populates the book with a range of character types that give the novel a depth of atmosphere. Some are so vulnerable and exposed due to circumstance you fear for their safety against those who want to clean up the streets. Yet, some are so bold that they protect the weak against the hypocrisy of the so-called do-gooders.
When Beatrice boards the train to New York City to apply for the job at Tea and Sympathy, it stops suddenly to make way for a massive box that has stopped on the rails. She is told it contains a great obelisk called, Cleopatra’s Needle and it is making its way from Egypt to Central Park. She has her first mystical experience when she gets off the train to inspect it.
The obelisk is real and its journey to the city in 1880 elicited great excitement. Erected in Egypt in 1450 BC it was sold to the US with specific instructions that it would go to New York City. New Yorkers were enraptured by Egyptomania as merchants and entrepreneurs created specialty foods, costumes and accessories with an Egyptian theme.
Finally, one of the greatest strengths of this novel for me is the friendship between Eleanor, Adelaide and Beatrice. Their support and encouragement of each other’s gifts and purpose even when they have differences in approach is what makes their friendship successful. When Tea and Sympathy is targeted and Beatrice goes missing, it is the good will that the three women have created between themselves and among their friends, the community and even the street people who ultimately come to their defense.
This book affected me in all the right areas: I love its attention to, as well as, bending the historical record; personally, I am on the lookout for a 21st century Tea and Sympathy; and, culturally, I am encouraged by its depiction of community support when any of its members are in trouble.
Read more about:
Cleopatra’s Needle, its history and journey to New York City
How, in the aftermath of the Civil War, Spiritualism rose to its apex in the late 19th century:
The Apparitionists: A Tale of Phantoms, Fraud and Photography, and the man who Captured Lincoln’s Ghost, by Peter Manseau.
Title: The Witches of New York
Author: Ami McKay
Publisher: Harper Perennial
Full plot summary
Challenges: Historical Fiction