…Salem begins to look like something out of a Monty Python skit.



“In 1692,” Schiff begins,

the Massachussets Bay Colony executed fourteen women, five men, and two dogs for witchcraft. The sorcery materialized in January. The first hanging took place in June, the last in September; a stark, stunned silence followed. What discomfited those who survived the ordeal was not the cunning practice of witchcraft but the clumsy administration of justice.

Their names are legend to any student of women’s history, Rebecca Nurse, Martha Carrier, Bridget Bishop. More than half of the women had been accused before, some were scolds and public nuisances, far too many were accused by their own husbands. Some were involved in an ongoing land dispute and there was never any relief from the constant wrangling over who preached from what pulpit of which church. A credulous, closeted, fractious community of Puritans, pent up together in tiny homes in a tiny village during a dark winter of unceasing rain and blood-numbing cold (in Alaska, we call those cabin fever conditions), in fear of their lives from Indians, Frenchmen, Catholics and Quakers (really), what else were they going to do for entertainment?

So tension was already high when two girls in the Parris parsonage started having fits. The adults, proving even more credulous than their children, decided that that Old Deluder, the devil, had subverted them to his purpose through the agency of his servants on earth. What devil’s hand maiden did this to them? the children were asked, and, reveling in the first attention anyone had probably ever paid them, they begin naming names. With the help of an imaginative Indian slave and a servant, they embellish their stories of demonic service with night flights on brooms, spectral visions only they can see, and midnight meetings with the devil himself. The arrest warrants begin to go out, a court driven by a self-interest arising from a political coup they had all participated in is seated, and the trials, which bear no resemblance to what that word means today, begin. The accusing girls are allowed to flit about the courtroom, seizing and fitting and collapsing at a glance when the accused are commanded to look their way.

More accusations breed more accusations and more arrests and more hangings and the community empties out and the jails fill up until Salem begins to look like something out of a Monty Python skit. Enough pressure is put on the governor (all those pesky petitions) that he finally steps in. When Stoughton, the chief justice and the guy I’d peg as the straw boss for the Old Deluder any day, is out of town Governor Phips pardons the most recently condemned and it’s finally, mostly over.

Except for the shame that sets in immediately and that lingers on even to this day, albeit somewhat subsumed by Salem turning itself into a tourist destination, where brooms are now readily available for sale and a witch on a broom is on the local newspaper’s masthead.

“What sets Salem apart,” Schiff reiterates in conclusion, “is not the accusations but the convictions.”

At other times raving women had been said to be witches and men dreamed of the devil without anyone thinking twice about it. Why the unsparing prosecution in 1692?

It’d be neater and more satisfying if there was only one reason but there were many, beginning with the aforementioned land dispute, a panel of judges determined to justify their control of the situation to England (nothing to see here, move it along), and let’s not forget Salem’s sheriff, George Corwin, who didn’t even wait for those arrested to be convicted before looting their holdings, making off with all the best bits and leaving the children of the accused to starve. Corwin was the son-in-law of one of the judges and a nephew of two others. It’s hard not to see unabashed greed as one of the drivers of these events.

The events of 1692 Salem have never lessened their hold on the American imagination, resurfacing in 1860 where both sides claimed the same kind of madness to have overtaken their enemies, to Arthur Miller pillorying the McCarthy hearings of the 1950s in his play, The Crucible. There could easily be a case made that the Patriot Act, Congress and George W. Bush enacting measures for extreme rendition and extreme interrogation while the smoke from the Pentagon still rose into the sky, was another example of this kind of mass hysteria. Frightened people make bad decisions.

Schiff saved her biggest bang for me for the penultimate page:

Alaska contended with a witchcraft epidemic in the late nineteenth century.

What? What! So I googled up a story in the NYT’s data base from February 11, 1882, titled “Witchcraft in Alaska: A Horrible Story of Superstition from Ft. Wrangell–Old Women and Children Burned and Cut in Pieces.”

A little girl whom the missionary calls Georgia, only 5 years of age and an orphan [emphasis mine], resided with an aunt. This aunt took sick one day, when the child was accused of bewitching her, and “making her bad medicine.”

Three hundred years after Salem, three thousand miles away.

Note: For global perspective on the persecution of “witches,” read Anne Llewellyn Barstow’s Witchcraze, where you will learn that over 100,000 witches were publicly executed all over the world in the 1500s and 1600s. In Witchcraze Salem merits only five citations in the index, one of them a footnote. It was bad enough in Salem, but it could have been so much worse and was almost everywhere else in the Western world. But as Schiff points out, only in Salem did the confessed witches live and the people who refused to confess die.

Across the board, strength of character fared poorly. Even when they did not thumb noses at authority, those who challenged the justices hanged. With one exception, those who confessed did not. (Here New England diverged not only from Sweden but from every other witchcraft trial on record.)

Ratting out your mom? Was necessary for your very survival in Salem in 1692.

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Dana View All →

Author and founder of Storyknife.org.

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