A typical afternoon in modern day Salem, Massachusetts
Why do the Salem Witch Trials continue to fascinate after three hundred and twenty five years? Why do tourists and locals, wiccans, witches, warlocks and wizards continue to walk the crowded streets of this pretty little seaside city in Massachusetts in search of magic and mayhem? What propels them to stroll the narrow streets, licking ice cream cones and crowding into The House of Seven Gables, the Witch House and Frankenstein’s Castle? Why do so many people take the walking tours of a city that only boasts two buildings that existed in the 17th century and never claimed Dr. Frankenstein as a resident?
When I visited in 2016, I was stopped by a nice lady wiccan who after cooing over my dog, informed me that my wire-haired terrier was an old soul who may have been one of the first victims of judiciary malfeasance. While this may explain Dingo’s behavior, it didn’t explain why this city continues to fascinate. After all, most of the historical action took place in the nearby town of Danvers, formerly known as Salem Village. In this bucolic town you can search for the secret grave of witchcraft-trial victim, Rebecca Nurse, who bravely declared her innocence to the end. She is buried somewhere on her graceful homestead which is maintained to this day by volunteers – her house a picturesque bright red colonial saltbox. Or you can walk along the lonely remains of the parsonage of the Reverend Samuel Parris and ponder how could so much suffering and horror emerge from such a tiny dot on the landscape of Massachusetts Bay Colony?*
Better to get back to Salem and join the pirates and ghouls – where terror and death are neatly packaged and sold as tourist trinkets!
The Rebecca Nurse Homestead
The foundation of the parsonage of the Reverend Samuel Parris where the trouble began.
The founding of the Massachusetts Bay Colony in New England in the early 17th century brought enormous financial benefits to both the new world and the old world in industries such as shipbuilding, fur trading, fisheries and lumber. As this colony developed, it also became a midway trading point from Europe to Africa and the Caribbean. Goods from England, Portugal, France and Spain were used to purchase West African slaves to work in the sugarcane brakes and tobacco fields. In turn, luxurious products such as tobacco, sugar, molasses, indigo dye, rice, rum and cotton, produced by slaves and slave masters were exported back to Europe. This is the notorious “Triangle Trade” of molasses, rum and slaves. But for the yeoman Puritans of New England, they could only scratch out a living on a hard and rocky soil, living on the edge of enormous dark forests while enduring brutal winters and terrifying Indian raids and massacres. It is this harsh background, along with a religion obsessed with soul-crushing Original Sin, that many historians believe produced the unhinged behavior that would eventually lead to the gallows death of 19 innocent souls on a charge of witchcraft.**
In January of 1692, two children, Betty Parris and her cousin, Abigail Williams, fell ill in the household of the Reverend Samuel Parris. Their illnesses were unusual in that they appeared to be violent fits rather than ordinary childhood indispositions. According to “The Witches: Suspicion, Betrayal, and Hysteria in 1692 Salem” by historian Stacy Schiff, “they barked and yelped. They fell dumb. Their bodies shuddered and spun. They went limp or spasmodically rigid…Abigail attempted to launch herself into the air, flinging her arms and making flying noises.” Frightened, Rev. Parris was reluctant to turn to his congregation for help. The villagers had gone through many ministers, all of whom failed to pass muster, including the hapless Parris.
The Reverend Samuel Parris
Born in England and raised in Barbados by an English plantation owner, Samuel Parris arrived in Massachusetts from the Caribbean in approximately 1680 after failing as both a large-scale farmer and businessman. It was there he may have acquired the slave Tituba who would play a leading role in the witchcraft drama.*** He enrolled at Harvard yet failed to acquire a degree. In desperation, he turned to the ministry and eventually drifted to this flinty community by the sea. He soon discovered that after chores, the villagers’ main hobbies included endless litigation over property rights, denying their pastoral leader much needed firewood and expressing displeasure at what they considered his high-handed demands****. Nonetheless, he called in a Salem Village doctor, William Griggs, who took one look at the girls’ bizarre behavior and diagnosed “An Evil Hand” at work. Reverend John Hale of nearby Beverly also confirmed the diagnosis of witchcraft. Hearing that, the girls, along with a 12 year old afflicted neighbor, Ann Putnam, accused Tituba and two other women of tormenting them through supernatural means. These women were Sarah Good and Sarah Osborne. As is often the case with witchcraft accusations, both were considered ne’er do wells and shrews. Goodwife Good was a near vagrant.
The phrase “all hell broke loose” has never been put to better effect. Within a month, Ann Putnam’s father, Thomas, from a large, litigious family and a militia sergeant during the brutal King Philip’s War, filed formal complaints against the women with local magistrates, John Hathorne and Jonathan Corwin. As Mary Beth Norton notes “In the Devil’s Snare,” “the accusations moved from the religious to the legal realm” with devastating speed and ease. So many people were accused by so many accusers that the judges were compelled to move the court from a tavern to the meetinghouse which had also served as Salem Village’s church. When the head count exceeded thirty, Constable Joseph Herrick apparently moved the prisoners from his own home to the dank prisons of Salem Town and Boston.
A reconstruction of the Salem meetinghouse which stands close to the parsonage and Rebecca Nurse’s farm.
The slave Tituba was one of the first called to testify and while refusing to call herself a witch, admitted to dabbling in witchcraft. She testified to hellish culinary achievements such as baking a witchcake and suggested to the court she may have signed the Devil’s Book. (Signing legal documents with Lucifer appears to have been a New England invention not an Old England one.) She too implicated Good and Osborne and evoked fearsome images of the three of them riding broomsticks in the night as far as Boston. Her confession was a shrewd move on her part because, invariably, those who quickly admitted their guilt escaped execution while those who did not invariably wound up on the gallows. Both Good and Osborne denied being witches; Good was hanged and Goody Osborne died in a stinking prison awaiting execution.
Such unusual jurisprudence to our modern minds was nonetheless a consequence of colonial law which looked for guilt far more than innocence. The highly imaginative accusations of very young girls – demonstrated in histrionic fashion whenever court was in session – carried far more weight than the protestations of law-abiding and church-going adults. People who quickly admitted to wrongdoing might escape with a prison sentence or be set free. Admirably if tragically, very few of the accused admitted to consorting with the Devil.
One of the victims testifies in typical fashion
In many ways, New England witchcraft accusations and trials mirrored the trials and convictions of Common Law England. Witches were not burned at the stake in either country and torture was generally avoided. In both countries, accusations of witchcraft frequently arose over unexplained losses or petty disputes. According to David D. Hall, writing in 1985 in The New England Quarterly, “this conflict emerged whenever someone rejected a neighbor’s request for aid. Hence…the sequence of rejection, anger, guilt and accusations of witchcraft. Guilt turned into accusations of maleficium (sorcery) when and if misfortune followed, for misfortune lent itself to interpretation as revenge by the offended party.” Thomas Putnam, father of afflicted Ann, had recent unexplained losses of livestock – a horse and cow had dropped dead without explanation. It was he who brought one hundred and twenty accusations of sorcery to the court. That appears to have been one-third of all accusations. He, himself, modestly testified against only seventeen of the accused.
Although the Salem Witch trials are remembered for the wild behavior and absurd accusations of the “victims” (memorably dramatized in Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible”) the colonial behavior also differed markedly from the Europeans. Firstly, the head count of the executed were puny compared to Europe. Approximately 80 people died during the century of witch-hunting in America. According to David D. Hall “…in the same decades that saw some 300 English witches executed, the Scottish authorities put to death an estimated 1,300 persons out of a much smaller population.” Secondly, American witches tended to lead far duller, more constrained lives – almost puritanical in their wizardry. They flew on broomsticks from one hick burg to another or had dull legal conferences with the devil. Occasionally they moved furniture around households in mischievous fashion or fiddled nastily with Saturday night’s baked beans. It must be said, though, that at the Salem trials, the accusations of spectral violence – from biting throats to choking to pricking with hot pokers and pins – far exceeded the usual witchy claims and must, in some way reflect repressed fury and depression on the part of the young women. On the other hand, as Stacy Schiff points out: “Continental witches had more fun. They walked on their hands. They made pregnancies last three years. They turned their enemies’ faces upside down and backward.” When European witches flew, they traveled to far more exotic places than hidebound Boston. They had lascivious encounters with the devil and his minions while sexual affairs were strictly verboten among the Massachusetts Bay sorcerers.
By early autumn of 1692, nineteen people were led to the gallows, convicted of being witches. (Several more died in prison.) Some of their names come down to us in culture and history: John Proctor, who maintained his innocence to the end became the hero of “The Crucible.” Giles Corey, irascible and vitriolic towards the judges and accusers, was the only victim tortured to death: pressed with larger and larger stones upon his naked body until he expired. The seventy-one year old Rebecca Nurse was a paragon of virtue within the community until Thomas Putnam’s wife accused the old woman of engaging her in a spectral wrestling match. Dragged in front of Judge Hathorne, she remained unruffled and quietly defiant. Meanwhile, her large and worthy family took up her cause, bravely submitting petitions testifying to her good character. They directly confronted the Putnam family and one sharp-eyed daughter witnessed one of Rebecca’s accusers, Goodwife Sarah Bibber, surreptitiously jabbing herself with pins to produce bloody pricks. This was too much even for a Salem jury – Rebecca was acquitted. At this good news, the judges flew into a fury and jurors was forced back into the jury room. They deliberated twice more and emerged to unanimously convict her. She, along with four other women, were sent to the gallows on July 19th, 1692. While Rebecca Nurse maintained her dignity it is noteworthy to mention that Sarah Good did not. Pulled and prodded up the stairs of the gibbet, she harangued her judges and added a final curse on Judge Nicholas Noyes: “God will give you blood to drink!” Many years later, he died during a hemorrhage, blood filling his throat.
An over-the-top depiction of Tituba bewitching the Parris household
By late autumn, the crisis had exhausted itself and accusations tapered off. Increase Mather, a leading Puritan and president of Harvard, wrote a treatise condemning the use of spectral evidence at witchcraft trials. His writings on the subject happily influenced future judiciary proceedings.
Author Christopher Bigsby evokes the bleak aftermath of the witch hunt: “depredations of the countryside: unharvested crops, untended animals, houses in disrepair…the breaking of the social contract that binds a community together, as love and mutual respect binds individuals.” Despite the cruel upheaval of the summer, life slowly resurrected itself. Salem villagers returned to their neglected farms for harvest while others quietly buried their dead in unmarked graves. Many of the children and teenage girls who made accusations left the village only to find they were not wanted in other villages. Several of them ended up accused of crimes such as adultery or had children out of wedlock or made abusive marriages. Many of the them died young. And yet one remained to tell a tale:
*The parsonage was excavated in 1970 by local historian, Richard Trask. He maintains that the town of Danvers was unhappy with the archaeological dig because it once again brought up the trial and its attendant horrors. Mr. Trask is a descendant of John Proctor.
**According to historian David D. Hall, traditionalist Salem historian, Charles W. Upham, “insisted that Calvinism, or the Puritan version of it, perpetuated a literal belief in witchcraft that clergyman such as Cotton Mather put to devastating use.” This has since been disputed although it is demonstrably true that the Puritan clergy of New England at this time had a very real belief in the supernatural and its attendant evils upon the populace.
***The origins of the slave Tituba have been disputed. Many historians believe that she was a black slave from Barbados while others suspect she may have been a Native American because she was married to a man eponymously named John Indian. All agree she was not native to the Massachusetts Bay Colony.
****Parris irritated his congregants when he purchased gold candlesticks to replace the pewter ones used at the meeting house. The candlesticks are used to comic effect in Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible.”
Witchcraft and the Limits of Interpretation by David D. Hall published in The New England quarterly, Vol. 58, No 2 (June., 1985), 253-281.
The Witches: Suspicion, Betray and Hysteria in 1692 Salem by Stacy Schiff, published by Back Bay Books/Little, Brown and Company, 2015.
In the Devil’s Snare by Mary Beth Norton, published by First Vintage Books, 2003.
The Devil in Massachusetts by Marion Starkey, published by Alfred A. Knopf, 1949.
The Crucible by Arthur Miller, published by Penguin Books, 2003.