Leo Martello (1931–2000) was a prominent American [Witch], gay rights activist, and author. He drew heavily on his Italian heritage, teaching the Strega Tradition which was named after the Italian word for Witch. Born to a working-class family in Dudley, Massachusetts, he became interested in Western esotericism as a teenager.
As a founder of the Witches Anti-Defamation League (later the Alternative Religions Education Network) he was known for his lively and sometimes confrontational style. For example, in his books he tried to popularize the “Witches’ Curse” which was “I wish you on yourself”. He was profiled in Margot Adler’s Drawing Down the Moon.
Martello was born on September 26, 1930, in Dudley, Massachusetts, being raised on a small farm rented by his father, the Italian immigrant Rocco Luigi Martello. Following the economic turmoil of the Great Depression, the Martellos were forced from their land and moved first to Worcester, Massachusetts and then to Southbridge, Massachusetts. It was here that Leo was baptized into the Roman Catholic Church, but his parents divorced soon after. Unable to care for him alone, his father sent Martello to the Catholic boarding preparatory school attached to Assumption College, Worcester, which was run by the Augustinians of the Assumption. He spent six years at the school, later describing it as the unhappiest period of his life. He began studying graphology, and by the age of 16 was making appearances on radio as a graphologist, also writing stories for magazines.
Martello later claimed to have experienced psychic phenomena as a child, sparking his interest in occultism. By his early teenage years, he had begun studying palmistry and tarot card reading with a Gypsy named Marta. He also later claimed that his father had informed him that his grandmother, Maria Concetta, had been a psychic known as a Strega Maga (“Great Witch”) in her hometown of Enna, Sicily, Italy. According to Martello’s account, Concetta had worked as a folk magician and tarot card reader, and attracted the hatred and envy of the local Catholic clergy. He also related that on one occasion, she had killed a Mafioso using magic when he threatened her husband for not paying protection money.Martello related that when he was 16, his father told him that he had cousins in New York City who wished to meet him. He proceeded to do so and – according to his account – they informed him that they were initiates of an ancient Italian witchcraft religion, La Vecchia (“the Old Religion”). After identifying his possession of psychic powers, they initiated him into the tradition on his 21st birthday in 1951, making him swear an oath never to reveal the secrets of the La Vecchia. Moving to the city, he studied at Hunter College and the Institute for Psychotherapy.
Martello never produced any proof to support his claims, and there is no independent evidence that corroborate them. An anonymous woman who had known Martello informed the researcher Michael G. Lloyd that during the 1980s, he had told her that he had never been initiated into a tradition of Witchcraft, and that he had simply adopted occultism in the 1960s, in order to earn a living.
New York City: 1950–68
Based in New York City, in 1950 Martello founded the American Hypnotism Academy, continuing to direct the organization until 1954. From 1955 to 1957, he served as treasurer of the American Graphological Society, and worked as a freelance graphologist for such corporate clients as the Unifonic Corporation of America and the Associated Special Investigators International. He also published a column titled “Your Handwriting Tells” for eight years that ran in the Chelsea Clinton News, and supplied various articles on the subject of graphology to different magazines. In the city, he also embraced his homosexuality, and began to frequent the gay scene. In 1955, Martello was awarded a Doctorate in Divinity by a non-accredited organization, the National Congress of Spiritual Consultants, a clearing house for registered yet unaffiliated ministers. That year, he founded the Temple of Spiritual Guidance, taking on the role of Pastor, which he would continue in until 1960, when he retreated to devote himself to his writing and to his new philosophy of “psychoselfism”. In 1961 he published his first book, Your Pen Personality, in which he discussed the manner in which handwriting could be used to reveal the personality of the writer.
Martello claimed that in the summer of 1964, he moved to Tangier, Morocco, where he researched the history of the tarot at the University of Fez, resulting in the publication of It’s in the Cards (1964). Returning to the U.S. in 1965, he moved in to an apartment in Greenwich Village, New York City, writing a book on astrology, It’s Written in the Stars, and a book on psychic protection, How to Prevent Psychic Blackmail. He also began attending the Spiritualist gatherings that were operated by Clifford Bias at the Ansonia Hotel. In 1969 he decided to publicly reveal himself as a Wiccan, claiming that he had gained the permission of his coven to do so. Intent on countering the negative publicity that Wicca had been receiving, he set about writing The Weird Ways of Witchcraft (1969), also authoring The Hidden World of Hypnotism (1969).
Gay Liberation: 1969–70
In July 1969, Martello attended an open meeting of the Mattachine Society’s New York branch. He was appalled at the Society’s negative reaction to the Stonewall riots, and castigated those self-loathing gay people in the audience who accepted the categorization of homosexuality as a mental illness. He proceeded to publish his thoughts in an essay in which he stated that “homosexuality is not a problem in itself. The problem is society’s attitude towards it.” Those gay rights activists who rejected the Mattachine Society’s approach and who favored a confrontational stance against the police and authorities founded the Gay Liberation Front (GLF), with Martello elected the group’s first moderator. Martello supported the GLF’s stance that condemned “this rotten, dirty, vile, fucked-up capitalist conspiracy” that dominated American society, and he volunteered by producing articles both for the group’s newsletter Come Out! and for the wider press. He was involved in the GLF’s campaign against The Village Voice’s decision to ban the word “gay” from advertisements; the magazine preferred the term “homophile”, which had also been used by the Mattachine Society. In wanting to break from previous gay liberation organizations, the GLF embraced the term “gay” and Martello dismissed “homophile” as sounding like a nail file for homosexuals.
The GLF was structured around a system of anarchic consensus, which made it difficult for the group to reach conclusions on any issue, and heated arguments became commonplace at its meetings. In November 1969, the group’s membership voted to provide political and financial support to the Black Panthers, an armed African-American leftist group. This was heavily controversial among the GLF, given the homophobic nature of the Black Panthers, and resulted in a walk-out of many senior members, including Martello, Arthur Evans, Arthur Bell, Lige Clarke, and Jack Nichols. That month, Martello was invited to a private meeting of these disaffected GLF members which resulted in the formation of the Gay Activist Alliance (GAA). Although continuing the GLF’s emphasis on taking a confrontational approach to conventional American society and authority, the group was more tightly organized and structured, and focused exclusively on attaining equal rights for gay and lesbian people. Two GAA members, Clarke and Nichols, convinced the businessman Al Goldstein to invest $25,000 in a new newspaper written by, and aimed at, the country’s gay community. It was launched in December 1969 as GAY, and it soon gained a readership of 25,000. Martello contributed a regular column known as “The Gay Witch”, reaching his widest audience to date, also authoring a variety of other articles that appeared in it.
WICA and WADL: 1970–74
In 1970, Martello founded the Witches International Craft Associates (WICA), through which he issued The WICA Newsletter, set up to explain what Wicca was to the wider public and to serve as a resource through which occultists could contact one another. In April 1970 he appeared on the WNEW-TV Channel 5 documentary series Helluva Town, performing Wiccan rites with several assistants in Central Park. That year saw one of New York’s first substantial gatherings of occultists, the Festival of Occult Arts, as well as the first Earth Day celebration and the first Christopher Street Gay Liberation Day parade. These events inspired Martello’s desire to hold a public Wiccan Sabbat celebration. Acting under the auspices of WICA, in late summer he approached the New York City Parks Department asking for permission to hold a “Witch-In” in Sheep Meadow, at the south end of Central Park, on October 31, 1970. The Department refused, and when Martello stated that the Wiccan community would gather there regardless in their capacity as private individuals, he was threatened with police action. Martello gained the legal assistance of the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU), who informed the Parks Department that they were in breach of the First Amendment. The Department subsequently reversed their decision, and the event went ahead.
Inspired by his victory over the Parks Department, Martello founded an organization devoted to campaigning for the religious rights of Wiccans, the Witches Anti-Defamation League (WADL), which would eventually be renamed the Alternative Religions Education Network (AREN). For WADL, he authored an essay titled “The Witch Manifesto”, likely influenced by Carl Wittman’s “Refugees from Amerika: A Gay Manifesto” (1970), which demanded that the Roman Catholic Church face a tribunal for crimes committed against accused witches in the Early Modern period and that they pay reparations to the modern Wiccan community for those actions.
In 1971, a young gay Wiccan named Eddie Buczynski contacted Martello, and requested initiation. Due to Buczynski’s inexperience in the religion, Martello turned him down, although struck up a friendship with him and introduced him to other covens who might initiate him, also introducing him to Herman Slater, who would become his long-time partner. Slater was ill with various medical complications, and on one occasion was rehabilitating at the New York University Medical Center when Martello performed a healing ritual on him with the assistance of Buczynski. Martello would come to be known as a regular at The Warlock Shop, an occult store opened by Slater in New York. Through The WICA Newsletter, Martello had met Lady Gwen Thompson, the founder of the New England Covens of Traditionalist Witches (NECTW), and decided to introduce Buczynski to her, resulting in Buczynski’s initiation into the tradition in Spring 1972. Martello and Thompson later fell out, with some unconfirmed accounts claiming that it was because he lent her money and she did not pay him back. In October 1972, Buczynski founded the Welsh tradition of Wicca, with Martello becoming an early initiate and taking on the name of “Nemesis” within that tradition. In turn, Martello welcomed Buczynski into his La Vecchia tradition, and initiated him up to the third degree.
In November 1972, Martello lectured at the first Friends of the Craft conference, held at New York’s First Unitarian Church. In April 1973, he moved to England for six months, where he was initiated and trained in the three degrees of Gardnerian Wicca by the Sheffield coven run by Patricia Crowther and her husband Arnold Crowther. He continued to encourage acceptance of homosexuality within the Wiccan community, authoring an article titled “The Gay Pagan” for Green Egg magazine.
Martello died of cancer in June 2000.
Pagan studies scholar Michael G. Lloyd described Martello as “a lanky, hungry scrapper with piercing eyes, the face of a dark angel, and a mouth like a bear trap.” He was often noted for his scruffy appearance, typically wearing second hand clothes.
Martello defended the growing rise of feminists in Wicca during the 1970s, criticizing what he deemed as the continual repression of women within the Pagan movement.He also espoused the view that any Pagan who was involved in the U.S. government or military was a hypocrite. He was also critical of Wiccans who espoused a division between white magic and black magic, commenting that it had racial overtones and that many of those advocating such a view were racist.
Martello thought it unimportant that many Wiccans had lied about the origins of their beliefs, being quoted by Pagan journalist Margot Adler in her book Drawing Down the Moon as having stated “Let’s assume that many people lied about their lineage. Let’s further assume that there are no covens on the current scene that have any historical basis. The face remains: they do exist now. And they can claim a spiritual lineage going back thousands of years. All of our pre-Judeo-Christian or Moslem ancestors were Pagans!”.