An Acquisition Adventure: “Loco Foco Witches Laying a Spell Over the Country”

The following is a guest post by Sara W. Duke, Curator of Popular and Applied Graphic Arts, Prints and Photographs Division.

“Exceptionally rare and believed to be previously unknown,” in the seller’s letter intrigued me. On offer, an 1836 anti-Martin Van Buren woodcut print, depicting Van Buren as a witch and riding the coattails of President Andrew Jackson. As a curator who acquires cartoon art for the Library, when offered a work of art that no other institution in America has recorded, I am concerned about authenticity, and set to research the contents and background of the print.

Print shows five witches flying on a single broom over a rural landscape.

Loco Foco witches laying a spell over the country. Woodcut, ca. 1836. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.71357

The cartoon, entitled “Loco Foco witches laying a spell over the country” depicts five witches in black dresses flying on a single broom over a farm; their faces are masculine. The first witch, President Andrew Jackson, smokes a pipe from which the smoke spells the word “Veto.” The last witch on the broom is incumbent vice president Martin Van Buren, called The Red Fox of Kinderhook, and he sports a bushy foxtail. The three witches in the center of the broom, likely Democratic politicians and supporters of Jackson and Van Buren, will be the work of scholars to identify. By calling it “Mattie’s magic broom,” the cartoonist makes it clear that Van Buren is in charge, while comically positioning him in the rear.

Cartoons do not illustrate the news, they express an opinion about a person, event, or social situation. By using the term “Loco Foco,” sometimes used in a derogatory way by opponents, the cartoonist makes it clear that he thought a victory by the Democrats would spell economic disaster for the land. Radical Jacksonian Democrats, who opposed government intervention into trade and banking, are here being characterized as a faction of the party, the Loco Focos, out to cast a political spell on the country with an election win. The reaction of the man on the ground and verses appearing above the broom-riding figures offer dire predictions should Democrats continue to rule (“Hoblum, Goblum, we imps of hell Fixes o’er this hopeless land a spell. There let it be thro’ years of woe, Descend ye mists, blind all below. All social bonds henceforth asunder, That we may promise, deceive and plunder.”)

Despite the sentiment against them, in 1836 incumbent Vice President Martin Van Buren won the presidential election as a Democrat, perhaps in part because the rival Whig Party split their vote, fielding four candidates.

Half-length portrait, seated, facing slightly left, a book on the table in front of him.

Martin Van Buren. Eighth president of the United States. Lithograph by D.W. Kellogg & Co., between 1840 and 1849. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/pga.11256

Although unsigned, we attribute the “Loco Foco” print to Robert H. Elton, who published several well-regarded comic almanacs during this period, as well as printed ephemera.

As I searched for origins of the poetry that appears on the print, using the line Fixes o’er this hopeless land a spell, to see who might have written the poetry, I made a satisfying discovery: a mirror image with a different set of witches, published around 1833, in London, as The Political Drama No. 17. And more satisfying still, an impression was available for sale.

Color print showing five witches flying on a single broom over a rural landscape.

The political drama. No. 17. State witches laying a spell over the country. Wood engraving by Charles Jameson Grant, ca. 1833. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.71330

This cartoon, like its American counterpart, depicts five witches flying on a single broom over a farm. At the head of the broom flies Charles Grey, 2nd Earl Grey, who served as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from November 1830 to July 1834. The most notable achievement of his administration was the passage of The Reform Act of 1832, which dramatically increased parliamentary representation in the United Kingdom. Behind him sits Henry Peter Brougham, 1st Baron Brougham and Vaux (perhaps purposely spelled as “Broom” in the print) who served as Lord High Chancellor. He is followed by Chancellor of the Exchequer, John Charles Spencer, Viscount Althorp.

The only woman in the group is the spouse of William IV, Queen Adelaide, known to have been strongly against the Reform Act, although non-committal about it publicly. Bringing up the rear is the comic character Billy Lackaday, from James Kenney’s play, “Sweethearts & Wives.” The character, a servant, flirts with the lady of the house, and seated behind the queen, may be someone recognizable to British audiences in 1833. It may be her Lord Chamberlain, the Tory Richard William Penn Curzon-Howe, with whom Queen Adelaide had been falsely accused of having an affair. Lord Grey played an instrumental role in having Curzon-Howe removed from the Queen’s residence.

While a British anti-Reform Act cartoon print from 1833 may seem distant to Americans today, the opportunity to acquire the two prints and to compare them and the political views they expressed helps us to understand how cartoonists working in the United States drew inspiration from their compatriots in England while still creating their own uniquely American visual vocabulary.

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