By May 1992, Philadelphia was in the grips of a decade-long nightmare. It seemed like the city was under constant attack no matter where you turned. In 1985, a long-simmering dispute between the city and black liberation group MOVE came to a head when the Philadelphia Police Department dropped two one-pound bombs on MOVE’s West Philadelphia compound, killing six adults and five children. Two years later, residents were shocked by the stories of not one but two serial killers preying on women of color when police announced the arrests of Gary Heidnik and Harrison Graham mere months apart. And instead of bringing the kind of change a new decade might suggest, the early nineties brought only further disappointment as violent crime surged; 1990 and 1991 were the worst years in recorded history, both separately nearing 500 homicides.
In response to this growing climate of fear, civic leaders, neighborhood groups, and journalists began probing for answers to the city’s many woes. Why had crime returned after a brief dip in the 1980s? Who was responsible? And what was causing Philadelphia’s long, slow decline?
Locals were blunt in their assessment. In July 1990, Police Commissioner Willie Williams testified before Congress during a hearing on the increasing number of homicides across the country, blaming easy access to firearms. Citizens groups like the Citizens Crime Commission of Delaware Valley agreed to an extent but went a step further and blamed drugs and generational differences.
And then there was the Philadelphia Daily News. On May 20, 1992, it published an article by Joanne Sills titled “Feltonville jittery over Satanic images.” The story detailed efforts by members of the Feltonville Town Watch to counteract crime plaguing nearby Tacony Creek Park by fighting Satanism. In fact, it’s opening painted an evocative picture of a neighborhood stained in blood and ash from animal carcasses and fiery Satanic rituals:
When the smoke billowed up from under the bridge, residents not only called firefighters, they climbed down themselves to investigate. It was the beginning of a maddening ritual.
Over the next several months, members of the Feltonville Town Watch repeatedly climbed down the treacherous slope beneath Roosevelt Boulevard near Bingham Street, stumbling among the trash and brush and discarded auto parts. They would chase away the teenagers gathered there, and put out the fires.
Then they would stare in wonder at the skillfully wrought, but unnerving paintings on the bridge supports—winged demons dancing in flames, Satan, pentagrams—the art and signs of devil worship.
References to Satanic acts were peppered liberally throughout the article. The Feltonville Town Watch claimed to have found animal remains and makeshift altars—the kinds of things you would expect from evil cults seen in movies like The Devil’s Rain or The Believers. Absent were clues to a motive. While Sills and the Feltonville residents could identify images and iconography, none of the parties involved could establish if the paintings were the work of a genuine Satanic cult or a group of rebellious teenagers looking to troll. Michael McCrae (pictured above on the right), a member of the town watch, noted that a few of the people spotted in the immediate vicinity of the Satanic paintings appeared to be teenagers clad in heavy metal tee shirts, and that some of them had made a habit out of “writing on the wall with ketchup.” Sills speculated that this was intended to evoke blood, and closed by cryptically questioning what the paintings meant.
It’s here you might be asking yourself, “What does this odd story of a neighborhood in panic have to do with Philadelphia’s larger crime problem?”
Dawn of a New Era
Generally speaking, new decades are supposed to bring new beginnings, but the 1990s brought only lingering doubts leftover from the Reagan era. Nationwide crack and AIDS epidemics targeted cities, a series of farming crises crippled rural areas, and a sluggish economy lumbered along until fully collapsing into a recession in 1991. Culturally, many of the same boogeymen that had haunted popular culture during the eighties—heavy metal and rap music, violent horror movies, and subversive art—also persisted. So it would only make sense that fears Satan and Satanic cults would crossover along with them. For Philadelphia area residents, especially those who were religiously-minded, these fears continued to manifest in stories in local papers. Over the course of 1990 and 1991, Philadelphia newspapers made reference to Satanism or devil worship in dozens of pieces.
On February 5, 1990, it was reported in local papers that a human skull, a horned goat’s head, and animal bones were found in Tacony Creek Park. While police speculated that the horned goat skull and animal bones were likely the work of local practitioners of Santeria, an Afro-Caribbean folk religion which had planted roots in a number of U.S. cities after the Cuban revolution in 1959, the skull could not be explained as human sacrifice was not a regular part of the religion’s ritual practices. Throughout 1990, references to Satanism continued to pop up, often as excuses for or explanations to grisly events happening in the region.
Take, for example, the trial of Joy Whitted. Whitted’s face was plastered on the front page of Philadelphia and South Jersey newspaper for much of the first half of 1990. Already facing prosecution for the murder of her step-grandfather, Alphonsus Mahoney, Whitted admitted on the stand that she had assisted in the murder of her daughter, Corena Whitted. When asked why, she explained that her husband, David, had said Satan had commanded him to do it. Supporting this claim, police had found strange writings on the walls of the Whitteds’ Penssauken home, which they claimed resembled Satanic symbols. While being questioned by police, David also admitted to disposing of “voodoo stuff” in an empty lot in Camden, New Jersey. Joy Whitted pleaded guilty to aggravated manslaughter, possession of a weapon for an unlawful purpose, hindering apprehension, and the attempted murder of her daughter in March 1990, and David was convicted of Alphonus’s murder later that year, on Halloween 1990.
Then there were the various towns and cities in New Jersey which border Philadelphia. At the same time Joy Whitted’s trial was coming to a close, Willingboro, Washington Township, and Camden were plagued by a series of animal sacrifices, toppled tombstones, and Satanic graffiti. Local law enforcement could make little sense of the crimes, or if they even presented a pattern of any kind. Detective Sgt. Fran Burke of the Washington Township police department bluntly stated, “People laugh at ‘the devil made me do it.’ We usually know why dopers deal or why burglars steal; it’s harder to find a motive for ritual crime.” When it was noted that a witness to one of the sacrifices may have seen teenagers drinking the blood of one of the sacrificed animals, Burke stated, “That’s hardcore.”
Satan Is Everywhere
The thing to note about these stories is that they were part of larger trends nationally. Philadelphia wasn’t alone in its Satanic panic or fear of crime more generally. The term Satanic Panic had become a buzzword among pop psychologists, religious fundamentalists, and television news anchors in the 1980s as specious autobiographies like Michelle Remembers and Exorcist clones littered bookshelves and movie theaters. More than that, the United States had been experiencing three decades of rising crime rates—between 1960 and 1990, violent crime had risen by over 500 percent. By 1992, fear was the primary mode of political discourse. Conspiracy theories involving Satanic cults and child abuse offered compelling answers.
Throughout the 1980s and early nineties, employees at 13 different daycare centers were arrested after claims of Satanic Ritual Abuse (SRA)—accusations which attached physical and sexual abuse to occult practices, often under the direct influence of Satan himself. The most prominent of these cases was the McMartin preschool trial in Manhattan Beach, California. Accusations of abuse were first leveled against McMartin employees Peggy McMartin Buckey and Raymond Buckey in 1983, then further sensationalized in testimonies coerced from child victims by social workers, police, and parents between 1984 and 1987. By the time the case went to trial and was set to wrap up in January 1990, the story had been in national newspapers and covered by local news stations for seven years and cast a long shadow over coverage of SRA as a topic of discussion in the American media. Cynical profiteers like Geraldo Rivera and manipulative fundamentalist Christian churches smelled fresh blood (figuratively and literally) and tried to trendjack by dominating dialogue on the subject. The McMartin trial specifically gave religious pressure groups ample speculative evidence to conjure up demons and produce multiple television specials and direct-to-video pseudo-documentaries, to stoke the flames of Hell before a fearful public all too ready to believe the Devil was real and hiding in their small town or city.
But in July 1990 something unexpected happened. Peggy and Raymond were acquitted on all or most of their charges individually. Soon thereafter, many “experts” on Satanic Ritual Abuse began to be debunked or rebuked in popular media. The FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit even released a monograph debunking claims of SRA and directing investigators on proper techniques for interviewing abuse victims. Suddenly, the public was turning against phantasmagorical claims of devil worship. What’s a desperate charlatan to do when their cash cow is about to disappear? Inflate, conflate, and shut down debate.
So, Satanic apparitions localized further, in places where experts were fewer and church groups could make increasingly wilder claims. It was as if comedy writers had stolen the script and were writing their most deranged caricatures of hysterical religious pundits. In the Philadelphia area, a teen from Morrisville, New Jersey, noticed a picture in which a pattern in Jerry Garcia’s beard formed the word “Lucifer” and that somehow got a youth center closed for code violations in 1995. Various dead animals found in parks were attributed to Satanic ritual practices. Oddly though, despite the wilder and weirder claims being made, the furor over Satanism slowly began to fade, and eventually, it disappeared almost entirely.
That’s not to say Philadelphians don’t still speculate Satan might be hiding somewhere in or near the city. As recently as 2013 desecrated dead animal remains were found in Tacony Creek Park, leading some to argue that devil worshipers may still be hiding in the forest and sacrificing animals under the dark of night. Today, however, if you hear about Satanists at all, they’re more likely to be defending our civil rights by testing the limits of religious freedom laws than they are to be drinking the blood of dead animals or defacing local parks.
The leads us back to the residents of Feltonville. Why did they think they were beings attacked by a cult of Satanists? Scholars from Richard Hofstadter to Michael Barkun have observed that humans need to compress complex issues into smaller, easily-defined narratives of good versus evil as a way of making sense of the world. This often takes shape in answers and explanations which center God and the Devil as pitted in a struggle for the souls of the living. While not explicitly referencing conspiracies, the British mathematician and theologian Ernest Barnes termed this the “God of the gaps,” or that in the absence of a scientific explanation, humans turn to God (and the Devil) for answers.
It may seem like common sense that the Satanic panic and rising crime rates go hand-in-hand but writers trying to understand the former frequently overlook the latter. Emphasis is placed on the cultural factors leading up to the moral panic—the emergence of LaVeyan Satanism as pop kitsch, the explosion in popularity of Satanic horror movies, and the mainstreaming of the counterculture—but rarely discussed is the political turmoil of the 1970s and 1980s.
The late sixties and early seventies saw a near total collapse of American society. Riots protesting state violence broke out in cities large and small across the country, and residents of cities nationwide feared they might be next. Philadelphians responded to the chaos by turning to a strongman named Frank Rizzo, first as the city’s Police Commissioner and, later, as its mayor. His focus on law-and-order policies made him popular with long-time resident but frequently placed him at odds with newer communities and other groups that had historically had little voice in local politics, specifically the city’s growing black population. In one of his more infamous moments, while still Police Commissioner, Rizzo raided the offices of Philadelphia’s Black Panther Party, strip-searched members, and then paraded them out onto the street half-nude for the media to gawk at and photograph.
This growing discontent among members of polite society was tied directly to a belief in an unraveling of America’s religious foundation. In addition to riots against police brutality, the late sixties and early seventies also saw a decline in religiosity and a shifting of political alignments among those who still identified as religious. Increasing numbers of Americans began to leave traditional churches and identify with New Age spiritual philosophies or chose to not identify at all, and court battles over abortion and the teaching of evolution in classrooms favored liberal interpretations of the Constitution. Concurrently, America was undergoing what some historians like Robert Fogel called a Fourth Great Awakening. Although Fogel’s claims of growing egalitarianism were off given the rise of prosperity theology, he wasn’t necessarily wrong about the politics behind the movement. Christians were experiencing a kind of awakening. Mainline Protestant churches saw a rapid decline in influence as congregants either left the church or switched to other more hardline sects. Conservative religious leaders like Billy Graham and Jerry Falwell seized upon this opportunity to step to the forefront of Christianity and push for a merging of political and spiritual life. This culminated in the emergence of Falwell’s Moral Majority in 1979 as one of the pillars of the Republican Party. For the first time in decades, religious leaders were linking law-and-order policies to specific religious institutions and practices.
Hofstadter and Barkun are important references here because both have written about perceptions of disempowerment relative to a willingness to engage with conspiratorial thinking. Simply put, groups that feel powerless or believe their influence is in decline are more likely to believe in conspiracies. While evangelical Protestantism and a conservative brand of Catholicism were gaining power among the remaining members of those brands of Christianity, both movements were under siege on multiple fronts: their overall numbers were in decline, the country as a whole was experiencing a process of liberalization politically and culturally, and crime rates were rising. In this light, it’s understandable that some would look to supernatural forces as an answer to their problems, and once predisposed to a belief in one conspiracy, these individuals would be likely to engage with others even if those beliefs contradicted one another. So, beliefs that the country’s problems were attributable to Satanists, minorities, or liberals weren’t mutually exclusive because all three groups could be tied to the idea of disempowerment—that American Christians were being intentionally replaced in a deliberate campaign—and, in fact, all might be working together as part of a larger effort coordinated by shadowy groups like the New World Order or the Illuminati. Many members of the evangelical Right even made that connection directly. Televangelist and 1988 Republican Presidential primary candidate Pat Robertson released a book in 1991 titled The New World Order linking multiculturalism and liberalism with mind control and Satan.
To bring things back around, Philadelphia has always been a city in transition, and frequently one in decline. The city’s overall population shrank by over 400,000 people between 1960 and 1990. This happened in tandem with its diversification, as between that same time frame the city’s white majority dropped to a near split with black residents. Fears of outsiders are often tied to rapid changes and shifts in social structures. Many of the people moving into Philadelphia during this period didn’t share religious or cultural affiliations with existing residents, so their ideas and religious practices would have seemed unusual and possibly even threatening. Adoption of fringe theories by institutions patronized by those long-time residents would have fueled any number of non-traditional beliefs—in this case, that Satanists were attacking a small Philadelphia neighborhood in Feltonville.
This isn’t to say that these specific residents would have believed in the New World Order or other wilder ideas, but that the concept of Satanic cults had achieved enough of a patina of respectability, that by 1992 it would’ve been considered an acceptable answer to the issue of crime. The political climate both in and outside of the city was such that any rational discussion of the veracity of Satanic cults hiding in Tacony Creek Park would have been drowned out by other larger fears plaguing the city. This is important because it’s leads us to a larger truth.
In times of great conflict people will turn to irrational ideas for answers. As trusted institutions and long-held knowledge fail a society, its members will look to less-credible or previously stigmatized ideas for inspiration. This might include magic or the occult, but it might also mean conspiracy theories involving Satanism. Some of these ideas persist across generations. The Protocols of the Elders of Zion has survived repeated attempts at debunking over its 115-year history because it provides a concise, simple narrative of good versus evil which allows a reader to project their fears and anxieties irrationally onto an amorphous and vague Jewish conspiracy; similarly, belief in Satanic cults allow for religious institutions experiencing rapid decline to look outside church walls to explain their loss of status. It would be easy to mock these groups for this kind of magical thinking but doing so only exacerbates the problem. Understanding and combating these ideas requires long-term research, planning, and strategic communication which exposes individuals to detailed and repeated counter-messages. The first Satanic panic waned as crime in the United States declined and SRA claims were met with greater scrutiny, which led religious groups to create more fanciful and absurd conspiracies that had little chance of mainstreaming. For residents of Philadelphia and Feltonville specifically, this meant the fascination with Satan also faded as the city transitioned from Killadelphia into one that‘s perpetually tagged as one of America’s up-and-coming cities.