by Fred Pelka
Go to Gallows Hill Park in Salem and you will find no indication that 14 women and five men were hung there as witches. The rolling terrain is punctuated by gray boulders, covered with graffiti and the shards of broken beer bottles. An asphalt basketball court and a children’s playground cover the most likely site of the executions. An American flag snaps in the wind, over the faint sounds of traffic on Proctor Street.
What Really Happened During Those Dark Days In The Puritan Colony – And Why Are We Celebrating?
From this spot the sisters Rebecca Nurse and Mary Esty proclaimed their innocence, and George Burroughs, in a final effort to save his life, recited the Lord’s prayer, knowing that common wisdom held a witch incapable of uttering those sacred words. When the confused crowd threatened to stop the hangings, Boston minister Cotton Mather rode up declaring, “There will be no reversal of justice in this place.” And here too, Sarah Good was defiant to the end, telling Salem Town minister Rev. Nicholas Noyes, “I am no more a witch than you are a wizard. If you take my life away, God will give you blood to drink.”
Between March and November of 1692, 22 accused witches lost their lives in eastern Massachusetts. At least 150 were imprisoned, with accusations outstanding against some 200 others. In the town of Andover, at least 50 out of its estimated 600 inhabitants were arrested. Fields stood abandoned during planting season as families trekked to Salem courthouse to watch the trials, or were jailed, or fled to escape the bailiffs, until the authorities began to fear a famine. The vast majority of the accused were women.
This year marks the 300th anniversary of the Salem witch trials, and a number of commemorations are planned – by the neo-pagan/wicca community, by feminists, by the official Salem Tercentary Committee. But the mainstream response to the witch hunt remains ambivalent: Part self-righteous condemnation of Puritan “superstition,” part Halloween hucksterism. Salem Village (today called Danvers), where the witch hunt began, marks a few of its historical sites with unobtrusive plaques, others are ignored entirely. Salem Town, by contrast, calls itself “the Witch City,” and local bars offer a “Witch’s Brew” of Kahlua and Bailey’s Irish Cream. The logo of the Salem Police Dept. is the profile of a witch on a broomstick, while the high school athletic teams are called “the Salem Witches.”
“Witch business,” writes Wilma Bullard, of the group No More Witch Hunts!, “has become big business. This must be the only town in America that has built a major tourist industry around the abuse of women.”
The history of the witch hunts is primarily a history of women’s oppression. It is estimated that anywhere from several hundred thousand to nine million people were tortured to death in the massive European witch hunts of the 15th, 16th, and 17th centuries, 85 percent of them women. In “The Burning Times,” Donna Read’s excellent film documentary, this era is called “the women’s Holocaust.”
The causes of “the witch craze” are varied and complex: The desire of the urban Catholic elite to suppress the mother goddess/pagan traditions of peasant culture; the nobility’s efforts to deflect blame for plague and war onto suitably powerless scapegoats; the rise of a male medical profession with its need to eliminate competition from women healers and midwives; the disdain of women too old to bear children and too poor to fend for themselves; the expropriation of women’s property; male fear of women’s sexuality; and so on. Carol F. Karlsen, author o£The Devil in the Shape of a Woman, believes that to understand the witch hunts we must “confront the deeply embedded feelings about women – and the intricate patterns of interest underlying those feelings – among our witch-ridden ancestors.”
The witch hunts in North America never reached the murderous enormity of those in Europe. And in the English, French, and Dutch colonies, the notion of a vast satanic conspiracy with women as its primary agents took hold only in Puritan New England. Here a radical religious sect had fled persecution in Europe, only to found a rigid theocracy which by the 1690s was under pressure from the Anglican royal government and an increasingly secular merchant class.
Sally Smith Booth, in The Witches of Early America, describes Puritan Massachusetts as a place “where almost every facet of an individual’s life was closely regulated by church dogma., .games, dancing, social gatherings, and physical recreation were all forbidden as evil practices. Repression of sexual activities…was stringent and open display of affection was frowned upon.” It was considered eccentric, even suspicious, to name and show affection for a pet, or to enjoy a walk in the forest. Court records tell us of lower-income women arrested for wearing silk, other women for “walking disorderly.”
In this Puritan patriarchy, women were seen as “helpmeets” for men: Docile, obedient, and above all uncomplaining. This standard was rigidly enforced. Immigrating Quakers, who believed in the equality of women and men, were arrested before they could leave the boat in Boston harbor, then imprisoned and expelled. Those who persisted in returning were hung. When Anne Hutchinson questioned the orthodoxy, she was tried for heresy and driven from Massachusetts.
The traditional Christian notion of women as the “daughters of Eve” also played a central role in Puritan thought. Women were seen as morally and intellectually inferior to men, sexually depraved, continuously dissatisfied and thus easily tempted by Satan. Any exercise of women’s power was suspect, and so healers and midwives were especially vulnerable to charges of witchcraft. Under Puritan law, women were the chattel of their fathers, husbands, or brothers, and a woman without male supervision was regarded with suspicion and dread. For a woman to voice dissatisfaction was immoral, since God Himself had blessed the social order. When church elders accused Anne Hutchinson and her followers of heresy, they also began a whispering campaign charging them with fornication, adultery – and witchcraft.
It was in this context that several girls from Salem Village began, in November 1691, to meet at the parsonage to have their fortunes told by a slave named Tituba. Eight-year-old Betty Parris and 11-year-old Abigail Williams were the daughter and niece of the Rev. Samuel Parris, a failed merchant turned minister who had alienated half his new congregation with his insistence that the parsonage be deeded to him in perpetuity. Tituba had been purchased by Parris in Barbados, and she brought north with her beliefs and customs considered little more than “devil worship” by white Christians. She cared for the girls while their elders worked or went on visits to Parris’ far-flung congregants. Using eggwhites in a glass bowl as a crystal ball, Tituba tried to answer what for Puritan girls was a question of maximum importance – what sort of man will I marry?
Though the girls tried to keep it secret, word of their seances spread, and Tituba’s circle expanded to include girls and young women from nearby Salem Town. By some accounts, the younger girls became frightened when they saw floating in the eggwhites the image of a tiny coffin.
Sometime in January 1692, Betty Parris and Abigail Williams began to suffer seizures so violent that eyewitness John Hale believed them “beyond the power of…natural disease to effect.” The sickness spread to others in Tituba’s circle, chief among them 12-year-old Anne Putnam Jr., and the symptoms proliferated – intermittent blindness, deafness, and loss of speech and appetite, amnesia, choking, hallucinations. “The afflicted,” as they came to be called, cried out that they were being stabbed, bitten, pinched, burned, mutilated by specters only they could see. Several developed stigmata – actual bruises or welts – as if in response to these invisible assaults.
Modern medicine might use terms like “hysteria” or “conversion reaction” to describe what was happening, but Salem physician William Griggs told Parris that “the evil hand” was upon his girls. When Betty cried out for Tituba, Parris took this as an accusation. He beat the slave until he had a “confession.” Tituba admitted to being a witch, implicated Village residents Sarah Good and Sarah Osborne (whom Betty and Abigail had also cried out against), and spoke of other witches and “a tall man of Boston” whom she couldn’t identify. Tituba, Good and Osborne were arrested.
Accusations, hearings, trials and executions followed in rapid succession. Bridget Bishop became the first accused witch to die on Gallows Hill on June 2,1692. On July 19, Rebecca Nurse, Susannah Martin, Elizabeth Howe, Sarah Good and Sarah Wilds were executed, followed on August 19 by George Jacobs, Martha Carrier, George Burroughs, John Proctor and John Willard. On Sept. 19 Giles Corey was tortured to death in a nearby field for refusing to cooperate with the court. On Sept. 22 came the turn of his wife Martha, executed along with Margaret Scott, Mary Esty, Alice Parker, Ann Pudeator, Wilmott Redd, Samuel Wardwell, and Mary Parker.
By November, the witch hunt was spent. In part, this was due to the behavior of the afflicted girls. By accusing “respectable” women like Rebecca Nurse and Elizabeth Proctor, and men (not to mention a former justice of the court and the governor’s wife), they made the ruling elite itself vulnerable to accusations of witchcraft. Governor Phips ordered an end to the sessions of the special court he had appointed, and within months a new court, using different rules of evidence, acquitted almost all those still in jail awaiting trial. Those convicted were pardoned, but some of the accused, too poor to pay the required fees for their imprisonment, would remain in jail for years. Lydia Dastin died there. And the Commonwealth of Massachusetts would not exonerate those executed until 1954.
As with the European witch craze, the reasons for Salem are diverse and complex. Puritan society was under great strain, its very survival in doubt. The original Massachusetts charter, which had given the colony unprecedented freedom from the crown, was revoked in 1684, the new charter imposed in 1692 lessened this autonomy and doomed Puritan hegemony. For the first time, nonPuritans would be allowed a role in government, and there would be no more hangings of Quakers. This threat came at a time when Native Americans, allied with the French, were making successful attacks on Puritan settlements, and both Salem and Boston were filled with refugees from the threatened frontier. Salem Village itself was torn by the choice of Parris as minister, and by commercial and property disputes.
Little of this figures in contemporary accounts of the trials. The first of these was by Boston minister Cotton Mather, the leading cleric of the day. Although Mather privately opposed the court’s reliance on the versions of the afflicted – so-called “spectral evidence” – he also feared that public revulsion at the trials’ excesses would undermine an already tottering Puritan theocracy. His book The Wonders of the Invisible World was rushed into print in late 1692, or early 1693, despite a ban imposed by Governor Phips on works related to witchcraft.
Mather takes every opportunity to excoriate the accused. Bridget Bishop, for example, was “notorious to all beholders,” as a woman of loose morals. Phrases such as “old witch,” “old hag,” and “ignorant old woman” pepper the manuscript. The accused, said Mather, had conspired with Satan to achieve nothing less than the destruction of that one commonwealth on Earth founded in accordance with God’s law: Puritan New England. He notes too how many witches made “most Voluntary Harmonious Confessions,” not mentioning the use of sleep deprivation, psychological abuse and physical torture during interrogations. The accused had the added incentive of knowing that confessing would save them from immediate hanging, their executions stayed as long as they agreed to implicate others. In her letter to the court “confessed witch” Margaret Jacobs wrote how “they told me if I would not confess, I should be put down into the dungeon and would be hanged, but if I would confess, I should have my life…” One accused wizard, William Barker, alleged that 307 fellow residents of Essex County were minions of the devil.
The confessions, especially those by children, make for pretty sad reading. Booth recounts how “seven-year-old Sarah Carrier freely admitted she had been practicing witchcraft since age six and announced that she preferred to afflict people by pinching them.” Children often had “no idea what they were confessing to, and may have accused others simply on the basis of whether or not their names were familiar.” Among those imprisoned were five-year-old Dorcus Good (daughter of Sarah), eight-year-old Abigail Faulkner, and 11-year-old Abigail Johnson.
Still, Mather has had many sympathetic readers. Chadwick Hansen, for instance, makes much of the fact that Tituba did indeed engage in “white magic,” and concludes that it is “extremely probable that Bridget Bishop was a practicing witch.” He admits that the “evidence” – the discovery by workmen of dolls “with headless pins stuck in them” in the walls of her house – is “circumstantial,” but asks us to consider how “evidence is hard to find in witchcraft cases.” Hansen’s book, Witchcraft in Salem, was published in 1969.
A more widely accepted explanation of Salem is that the afflicted, motivated by malice, boredom, or guilt over their meetings with Tituba, were simply lying. For Puritans this was a much safer way to criticize the trials than attacking Chief Justice Stoughton, the clergy, or the court. George Jacobs may be excused for calling one of the afflicted “a bitch witch” – he was after all accused and hung. But the refrain of the “bitch witches” recurs thereafter with remarkable consistency. Robert Calef, in his vitriolic response to Mather published in 1700, described the afflicted as “a parcel of possessed, distracted, or lying Wenches, accusing their Innocent Neighbors, pretending they see their Spectres…” Many historians note with pleasure how John Proctor temporarily cured the affliction of his servant Mary Warren by threatening to beat her and setting her to work at a spinning wheel. Thomas Hutchinson wrote that “the whole scheme was a fraud and an imposture, begun by young girls…” while Charles Upham speculated that the afflicted wanted “to gratify a love of notoriety or of mischief by creating a sensation…”Upham dismisses the possibility that the afflicted might themselves be “victims of the delusion into which they plunged everyone else,” because of their “deliberate cunning and cool malice.”
There may have been “deliberate cunning and cool malice” at Salem, but the afflicted, especially the youngest in Tituba’s circle, seem hardly the principal culprits. It is true that Mary Warren told the court that she and the others “did but dissemble,” while one witness testified he heard one of the afflicted cry out “There goes Goody Proctor! Old witch, 111 have her hang.” But consider this excerpt from the notes taken by Parris at the trial of the same Elizabeth Proctor, as the court questioned the afflicted witnesses.
“Q. Mercy Lewis! does she hurt you?/Her mouth was stopped/Q. Ann Putman, does she hurt you?/ She could not speak/ Q. Abigail Williams! Does she hurt you?/ Her hand was thrust in her own mouth.” At this point John Indian, Tituba’s husband and one of the few afflicted males, testified that Proctor “came in her shift and choked me.” (Indian’s affliction began after Tituba’s confession. His motivation seems obvious – the husband of a confessed witch, and a slave himself, he faced certain death unless he could distance himself from his wife’s guilt. He became one of the court’s most articulate accusers.) Quizzed again, Parris records how the girls couldn’t “make any answer, by reason of dumbness or other fits.” It is only when questioned a third time that 12-year-old Ann Putnam Jr. finally gave her inquisitors the answer they so obviously wanted.
A post-Freudian version of “the bitch witch” theory appears in Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible,” without doubt the most widely read account of the Salem trials. Miller modernized Upham’s thesis by adding female lust and jealousy to the list of motives. Specifically, he purports to show how a sexual affair between John Proctor and Abigail Williams turned sour after John spurned Abigail to return to his wife Elizabeth. Out of spite, Abigail accuses Elizabeth, and then John, of witchcraft. In this 17th-century “Fatal Attraction,” the ultimate persecutors are women, their victims wrongfully accused men like John Proctor, or well-meaning but gullible clerics like the Rev. Sam Parris. Of course, to make all this plausible Miller has to raise Abigail’s age, from 11 to 17. She becomes a conniving temptress, a true “daughter of Eve,” while her 19-year-old friend Mercy Lewis is described as a “fat, sly merciless girl.”
Historian Carol Karlsen has a different view of the afflicted and their role at Salem. Pointing out how it was the authorities, spurred on by Parris, who first insisted that the girls name names, she then describes how Sarah Churchill, coming out of her fugue, sought to stop the trials – until threatened by the court with trial and hanging. We should also remember that the majority of accusations came not from the afflicted girls, but rather from “confessing” witches bargaining for their lives, while all of the corroborating evidence – accounts of spoiled milk, vanished beer, sickened livestock and murdered infants – came from adults not among the afflicted. The trials became a way for these adults, most especially the elder Putnams, to settle long-standing scores against the Nurse/Esty clan over property, politics and status.
An affidavit filed with the court by one Samuel Barton gives us a clue as to how this worked. “I being at Thomas putnams a helping to tend the afflicted folds…I heard them teel mercy lewes that she Cryed out of goody procter and mercy lewes said that she did not Cry out of goody procter nor nobody…and Thomas putnam & his wife & others told her that she Cryed out of goody procter and mercy lewes said if she did it was when she was out in her head for she said she saw nobody…” This troubled adolescent, badgered by the adults around her, bears little resemblance to the “sly and merciless girl” of “The Crucible.” The court ignored Barton’s sworn statement.
Instead of seeing the afflicted girls as malicious liars, Karlsen describes their “possession” as “a special, altered state of consciousness which some women enter as an involuntary reaction to profound emotional conflict. This conflict emerges from the need simultaneously to embrace social norms and to rebel against them…With no legitimate way to express this conflict directly, the unbearable psychic tensions are expressed physically – through women’s bodies.” The afflicted could have done no harm to anyone had it not been for Parris, Noyes, Mather, the court, and the willingness of Puritan society in general to accept an essentially hateful view of women. Had their elders been less repressive, and less misogynist, the girls might not have been afflicted at all.
Still, the “bitch witch” and “hysterical girls” theories remain the most popular explanation for Salem. It is, for instance, the line taken at the Salem Witch Museum. For four dollars, visitors are led into a darkened room, with a red lit circle at the center of the floor inscribed with the names of the martyred. After a “Phantom of the Opera” type organ fanfare, a Vincent Price sound-alike begins his monologue. One moldy diorama after another is illuminated while the afflicted are described as “hysterical,””restlessandresentful…wild and destructive…” To hammer home the point that the witch trials were simple insanity and not repression, we are told that Gallows Hill today stands “in sight of a mental hospital,” managing in one breath to blame the afflicted and demonize the mentally ill.
After the show, the doors open into the museum gift shop. Items on sale include “Good Luck Kitchen Witches,” “Stop By for a Spell” T-shirts, “Witch Travel Mugs,” “Scooting Skulls,” and “Brewing Bucks” – witch-shaped ceramic piggie banks. Witch-dolls, (like the poppets that condemned Bridget Bishop?) are a popular but relatively high-priced item: $16.95, tax not included.
The afflicted eventually recovered. As an adult, Anne Putnam Jr. publicly apologized for her role in the trials, telling the congregation at Salem Village, “I desire to lie in the dust and be humbled for it.” Only one of the justices who presided at the trials, Samuel Sewall, was as public in his repentance, and no judge suffered politically for his part in the witch hunt. Booth points out that in 1693 every one of them won a seat on the Governor’s Council, the highest elected post in the Commonwealth. Samuel Parris was forced out of his pulpit in Salem Village and disappeared from history, his only monument a stone-rimmed hole which today marks the site of his parsonage. Tituba was sold south. And Nicholas Noyes, taunted from the gallows by Sarah Good, died years later of a throat hemorrhage. Perhaps God (or the Goddess) had indeed given him “blood to drink.”