With Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them coming to theaters November 18, J.K. Rowling has shared a final installment detailing the history of magic and wizarding culture in North America. After learning about the origins of magic and the establishment of the wizarding school Ilvermorny, we get a history lesson on MACUSA, or the Magical Congress of the United States of America. Tying together the Salem Witch Trials, the American Revolution, and a fictional metaphor for America’s dark history of segregation, this Pottermore story tracks the contentious relationship between both American wizards and their British ancestors, as well as American wizards and No-Majes (or American Muggles).
Here are the basics of the story:
A guiding principle in modern wizarding culture, but especially in North America, was the International Statute of Wizarding Secrecy—wizards decided that the best way to ensure their safety, as well as live freer and happier lives, was to go completely underground with a self-supporting political and economic system. No surprise, American wizards were especially keen on this idea after the Salem Witch Trials of 1692-3. MACUSA (pronounced mah-cooz-ah) was established in 1693 with two primary goals: (1) get rid of Scourers, corrupt wizards who hunted their own kind; and (2) protect against wizarding criminals who had fled Europe for America.
MACUSA’s early years were marked by an emphasis on law enforcement; its first President, the “warlike” Josiah Jackson, trained the first dozen Aurors. As these twelve wizards and witches were all volunteers, they and their descendants are well-respected. The original Aurors were:
- Wilhelm Fischer
- Theodard Fontaine (whose direct descendant Agilbert is the present-day Headmaster of Ilvermorny)
- Gondulphus Graves (whose descendant Percival Graves plays a key part in Fantastic Beasts)
- Robert Grimsditch
- Mary Jauncey
- Carlos Lopez
- Mungo MacDuff
- Cormac O’Brien
- Abraham Potter (yes, that Potter, though he’s only a distant relative to Harry)
- Berthilde Roche
- Helmut Weiss
- Charity Wilkinson
Unlike the dark wizards in England, the Scourers’ strategy was much more covert: They disappeared into No-Maj society but ensured that the tradition of suspicion of magic endured. Likely this contributed to the fact that MACUSA did not cooperate with local No-Maj governments, unlike many of their European counterparts.
In 1777, President Elizabeth McGilliguddy presided over the Country or Kind? debate regarding magical involvement in the Revolutionary War: “[D]id the magical community owe their highest allegiance to the country in which they had made their homes, or to the global underground wizarding community? Were they morally obliged to join American No-Majes in their fight for liberation from the British Muggles? Or was this, simply put, not their fight?” The fact that the British Ministry of Magic’s response was a terse “Sitting this one out” further frayed connections between the trans-Atlantic wizarding communities. (MACUSA shot back “Mind you do.”) American witches and wizards did not officially join No-Majes in battle, but there was certainly some magical intervention, and enough of a reason for the American wizarding community to celebrate Independence Day.
But despite this new shared holiday, MACUSUA passed Rappaport’s Law in 1790, which enforced total segregation of the wizarding and No-Maj communities. Created after the daughter of then-President Emily Rappaport and a Scourer descendant almost revealed the existence of magic (though the history does not clarify how), intermarriage and even friendship between wizards and No-Majes was deemed illegal.
Since its establishment, MACUSA had searched for a permanent home. Various interventions by No-Majes forced MACUSA out of the Appalachian mountains, Baltimore, and Washington, with the organization eventually landing in New York City in the 1890s. Interestingly, the Woolworth Building was used by both No-Majes and wizards and witches in entirely separate spheres, thanks to a transformation spell that opened it to the latter.
The history ends in the 1920s, when Newt Scamander stumbles in the middle of MACUSA’s business and threatens to expose the existence of magic thanks to his runaway fantastic beasts. Pottermore provides a few more details:
As with most other magical governing bodies, the Department of Magical Law Enforcement is the largest department in MACUSA.
Rappaport’s Law was still in operation in the 1920s and several offices in MACUSA had no counterpart in the Ministry of Magic; for example, a sub-division dealing with No-Maj Fraternisation and an office issuing and verifying wand permits, which everyone, citizen and visitor, was supposed to carry within the States.
A significant difference between the wizarding governments of the United States and the UK of this time was the penalty for serious crime. Whereas British witches and wizards were sent to Azkaban, the worst criminals in America were executed.
In the 1920s the President of MACUSA was Seraphina Picquery from Savannah. The Department of Magical Law Enforcement was headed by Percival Graves, a well-respected descendant of one of the original twelve American Aurors.
Secrecy, law enforcement, segregation, execution… The history of magic in America is much darker than I ever imagined. In the Potter books, whenever Muggles got mixed up in the wizarding world, it seemed as if Obliviate spells could mostly fix matters; in America, the consequences are much more dire, as are the precautions meant to avoid such fallout.
We do have to point out that there are a few historical inaccuracies… Like, how did the wizarding community know to call their organization MACUSA before it was the USA, or to call their leader a President before there were Presidents? (Unless they had gotten their hands on some time turners…) Not to mention that neither Washington nor Washington D.C. existed in 1777.
I thought it was interesting that the history skipped right over the American wizarding community’s involvement (or lack thereof) in the Civil War. Obviously the international wizarding community had no horse in that race—unless they were simply interested to watch America potentially tear itself apart—but I wonder if wizards and witches’ homes were divided over taking sides. And how did wizards of color feel about slavery, and especially the racial segregation laws that were established among No-Majes after the Civil War and the abolition of slavery?
The notion of “segregation” has a very specific connotation in American history, so it’s a bit odd for Rowling to be inviting a similar comparison between communities separated by race and those separated by magic. In fact, she doesn’t address the issue of race at all, marking the distinction between wizards and No-Majes without delving into the various communities contained within each group. Then there’s Rappaport’s law, established because of a security breach: Even though it doesn’t explicitly seem prejudiced, the ban on intermarriage must mean that there’s a higher percentage of magical purebloods in America, which might lead to the same dangerous mindset as the purebloods across the pond in England.
That final mention of Colin Farrell’s character Percival Graves, descendant of original Auror Gondulphus Graves, was oh-so-casual. We knew that he too is an Auror, but now we learn that he runs the Department of Magical Law Enforcement… yet in the trailers for Fantastic Beasts, he seems to be something of a villain bent on chasing Newt Scamander. I’m even more convinced after the latest preview featuring Graves’ surreptitious talks with Credence Barebone (Ezra Miller), whose mother heads the anti-witchcraft New Salem Philanthropic Society—is this Auror a secret Scourer?
And here’s a quick little preview of MACUSA’s role in Fantastic Beasts, complete with a rad-looking frieze detailing some of the MACUSA history you read on Pottermore: