SALEM, Massachusetts (Reuters) - She brews potions, wears flowing black caftans and says she can speak with the dead and cast spells with a gentle wave of a wand.
Laurie Cabot is a proud witch, and she's fighting for her civil rights.
At age 73, the official witch of Salem says her craft is stronger than ever, as she sits in an overstuffed chair behind a pink table where she does psychic readings -- and where, she says, spirits of the dead often "pop through."
"I can't see them with my eyes, I just know they are there," said Cabot, whose cheek is tattooed with a spiral and whose long grey hair, streaked with black, covers her shoulders and much of her back.
"They talk to me and tell me things that no one would know. And of course the person I'm reading for is either totally shocked or they end up crying a lot," she said.
Cabot says she became the first to openly practice witchcraft in Salem, a historic New England city made infamous in 1692 when young girls accused servants, neighbours and relatives of being witches. As fear, bigotry and denunciation spread, 19 people were executed before reason prevailed.
As Cabot prepares for her busiest season, the Wiccan New Year of Samhain that falls on Halloween, she is doing something she hasn't done in nearly two decades -- fight publicly for the civil rights of witches.
In between psychic readings and running a shop that sells everything a witch needs to get started, Cabot is mailing letters to civic leaders across Massachusetts warning them of the legal perils of portraying witches as grisly old hags.
Posters hung on government property of witches as haggard women on broomsticks or as green-faced outcasts with an evil glint in their eye could lead to defamation lawsuits by witches protesting what they see as violations of their civil rights.
"If they don't protect us and take care of us like everyone else, then they could be sued," said Cabot, who in 1986 founded the Witches League for Self-Awareness after the filming of "The Witches of Eastwick," a movie witches said made them look "stupid."
In the 1980s, Cabot waged a letter-writing campaign to major newspapers and television networks explaining witches are not Satanists, do not practice evil and follow a peaceful pagan witch religion, Wicca, which is legally recognised.
After that burst of activism, she returned to her main passion -- her witchcraft and her shop. "I handed over the work, the letter writing, to another group, but all these years they have done nothing, so we are starting over this month."
"I'd like to canvass the whole of the United States, city by city, and give every official this law memorandum," she said, producing a white four-page pamphlet on the constitutional rights of witches.
In one section, the pamphlet quotes from a U.S. Court of Appeals ruling that reads: "While there are certainly aspects of Wiccan philosophy that may strike most people as strange or incomprehensible, there mere fact that a belief may be unusual does not strip it of constitutional protection."
She also wants the military to let Wiccan soldiers have faith symbols inscribed on their government-issued tombstones.
In 1975, Massachusetts' then-governor Michael Dukakis proclaimed Cabot the official witch of Salem, a city synonymous with witchcraft.
Today the city teems with an estimated 500 to 1,000 practising witches and pagans. Shops that sell Tarot cards and magic supplies line its streets, which swell with tourists leading up to Halloween on October 31.
A "Dairy Witch" parlour sells ice cream. Shops such as "The Broom Closet" and "Angelica of the Angels" conduct "psychic channelling". There's a "Salem Witch Museum", "Witch House" and a "Witch Dungeon."
"This is looked at as fantasy land in the pagan community," said Jerrie Hildebrand, a witch and an ordained minister with the Circle Sanctuary, a Wiccan organisation that provides counselling and spiritual services. "We refer to it jokingly as the rent-a-witch season."
(more about Laurie)