Who was Ruth Edna Kelley and why am I obsessed with her?
Kelley was a twenty-six year-old librarian who literally wrote the book on Halloween. Back in 1919, Kelley wrote The Book of Halloween, which I picked up in a slightly crumbling hardback first edition (!!!) from the Brooklyn Public Library (why and how they let these nearly century-old books circulate I can’t imagine, but I’m glad they do!). Published by Lothrop, Lee & Shepard, The Book of Halloween stood alone as one of the only serious scholarly works on the subject of Halloween for thirty years. The only thing that even came close to it wasn’t published until thirty years later, Halloween Through Twenty Centuries by Ralph and Adelin Linton. This latter book was a “curious and repulsive mix of fact and misinformation so sensationalized that it could best be described as horror fiction.”* No really adequate and properly researched scholarly books would follow until the 1990s, meaning that Kelley’s book stood alone for about seventy years as the preeminent source on the meanings and traditions behind Halloween.
According to Lisa Morton, author of Trick or Treat: A History of Halloween, Kelley did right by the holiday. Kelley’s history is “good overall,” and the young librarian-slash-historian evidences an enthusiasm for the more, shall we say unbridled, aspects of the holiday that makes her a positively endearing figure.
Which is where we get to the part about her being a total badass.
First of all, this girl was only twenty-six when she wrote this intensively researched, full length, scholarly volume combining history, mythology, and folklore… in her spare time. For fun! All while holding down a full-time gig at the Lynn Public Library — library sciences, it goes without saying, being one of the most badass professions out there, so two points for her. She dedicates the book to her mother and the memory of her departed father, which is sweet, so there’s another point.
Now so far, I’m painting a pretty demure picture. A sweet girl, a spinster librarian, dedicates her book to her folks. Then, slowly, into her book creeps a whiff of something elemental, like smoke from a fire, curling, subtly, filling the air. From her sympathetic detailing of Druids and Celts, Bretons and Teutons, witches and ritual, and her coverage of St. John’s Day (Midsummer) and Walpurgisnacht (May Eve), there’s something about her descriptions that comes across as rather lovingly detailed. In short, we get the sense that Kelley really relishes Halloween and everything it stands for. When she quotes Sudermann’s St. John’s Fire, it is easy to imagine it as something of an endorsement of pagan-inspired holidays in general:
“For you see… within every one of us a spark of paganism is glowing. Once a year it flames up high… once a year comes Free-night. Yes, truly Free-night. Then the whole wild company skims along the forest way, and then the wild desires awaken in our hearts which life has not fulfilled.”
In other words, I think Kelley would have a been an extremely fun spinster librarian to hang out with. Or, as Lisa Morton puts it, she “would undoubtedly have approved of the Greenwich Village Halloween parade.”
Later in life she wrote A Life of Their Own (1947), which “dealt with immortality and spirituality,” and is much harder to find. It’s definitely on my list of books to watch out for, though, and I will by all means be the first to brag about it very loudly if I do come across it. In the meantime, even if you don’t subscribe to my theory that Ruth Kelley was a secret badass, surely you can find some pleasure in the quaint joys of reading a 1919 book that blithely declares “no custom that was once honored at Halloween is out of fashion now.”
If anyone out there reading this know more about Ruth E. Kelley, drop me a line! Until then I’ll be fashioning stories in my mind of a librarian who quietly lived an awesome secret life as a witch.
(Coincidentally, just as I was writing this blog post, I came across this article from Smithsonian Magazine, about how witches between 1905 and 1915 were portrayed as attractive, independent, and lovely. This is a really interesting social and cultural moment for a sassy spinster to write a book basically endorsing the more pagan aspects of Halloween, isn’t it?)
* According to Lisa Morton