American Horror Story is known for melding historical fact with horrific fiction, and Kathy Bates's AHS: Roanoke character, Thomasin White, is no exception. Inspired by a variety of terrifying figures, much of the inspiration behind the character comes from Tomasyn White, the wife of Roanoke settler John White. She's largely absent from records of John White's life, leading to much speculation about what she was really doing when John White was exploring America and founding doomed colonies.
The Butcher on American Horror Story, then, is primarily a fictional creation with real roots. Though the inspiration for Thomasin White may never have gone to the Roanoke colony, her absence from records allowed the writers of AHS to spin a wild story of witchcraft, sacrifice, and vengeance. The meta-narrative of Season 6 lets Bates's acting shine, as she delivers a performance that mixes history with fiction, obsession with vengeance, and dangerous instability together into a character that's difficult to pin down.
Here's all the real and imagined inspiration for one of American Horror Story's most chillingly evil characters.
Before we can understand Tomasyn, we must understand her husband, John White. Unfortunately, historical women are often tied inextricably to their husbands, especially because there isn't much information available about Tomasyn at all. John White was an artist and the governor of one of the Roanoke expeditions, specifically the one that ended in the entire colony going missing.
When White returned to Roanoke after visiting England to ask for more supplies for the struggling colony, he found it empty. The colonists were never found, including his daughter and son-in-law.
Tomasyn White is harder to track than her husband, especially because she seems to vanish from all the records after their marriage in 1566. It's unclear whether Tomasyn (spelled Thomasin in American Horror Story) accompanied John White to America, but that leaves enough room for speculation for AHS to blend fantasy and reality. Though the show's character is mostly an invention, the real lack of information about Tomasyn means it's possible to write about her as a frightening figure without contradicting history.
Of course, Tomasyn probably wasn't a terrifying witch who performed human sacrifice, nor was there any evidence she was ever at Roanoke, but that's all part of the story's mystique.
White's colony at Roanoke was seemingly doomed from the beginning. Which, of course, provided ample room for the bloody reimagining of American Horror Story's sixth season. The colonists weren't supposed to settle at Roanoke at all, but their ship captain refused to let them back on board after they arrived. Once there, they found out the first colony had been wiped out by hostile Native tribes. To top things off, it was late in the year and there was little time left to plant crops to get them through the winter.
Hostility between the Native tribes and the colonists grew, especially because White's group attacked friendly Native people by mistake. White returned to England to seek aid, but was stuck there for several years due to tensions between the English and Spanish - by the time he returned, the colony was mysteriously gone.
American Horror Story is fiction, and its imagining of Tomasyn White as a homicidal witch is entirely invention, but it's not hard to see how they came up with such a tale. The true story of the colony is rife with tragedy, and the lack of information about Tomasyn makes her a perfect avenue to speculate about the more sinister versions of what might have happened there.
Given early America's attitudes about witches and women, American Horror Story's Butcher feels like a folktale of the era, or even like a Nathaniel Hawthorne-esque imagining of Puritan parables about morality and the wiles of women. Fictional or not, American Horror Story perfectly blends the fears of the historical setting with a twist of fantasy and modern horror.