A Hinesburg writer untangles the story of witchcraft in America
It doesn’t take a psychic to figure out that the nation’s number-one Halloween hot spot is Salem, Mass.. This year, an estimated three million tourists will hang out on Gallows Hill, lay low at the Witch Dungeon Museum, slurp Salem Witch Sludge ice cream, buy witch books, brooms, pencils and key rings, and vie for a glimpse of the genuine Wiccan worshippers making their own annual pilgrimage to this familiar coastal town for the pagan holiday of Samhain. Take a look at the Salem High crone mascot, the witch-on-broom logo on Salem’s police cars or the witch masthead of the Salem Evening Post, and it’s as clear as a nose wart that this town believes its bewitched past is good for today’s business.
But Salem hasn’t always felt sanguine about its history. For years, the place tried to pass as a mild-mannered maritime community, hoping everyone would simply forget the events of 1692 ever happened. As if. With public interest in the witch hunt ignited by Arthur Miller’s The Crucible in 1952, and fascination with witches in general fired by TV’s “Bewitched,” folks just wouldn’t let it go. Sometime in the 1960s, Salem stopped fighting the inevitable and opted instead to transform its infamy into an asset.
The history of the public’s changing attitudes toward the trials — both within Salem and throughout the rest of the world — is the focus of Hinesburg writer Lori Lee Wilson’s The Salem Witch Trials, a book for middle and high school students published two years ago by Lerner Publications. Wilson, a speaker with the Vermont Council for the Humanities, presented her insights about Salem in Pittsford earlier this week, and will give another talk in St. Albans in December.
The Vermont Historical Society gave Wilson an Award of Merit in 1991 for her book God With Us, a history of Shelburne’s Trinity Episcopal Church. The author, who grew up in California, is currently working on a series of articles for the magazine National Outlaw-Lawman about the Mexican outlaw Joaquin Murrieta. Also in the works is research on Madame Montespan, the mistress of Louis XIV and mother of eight of his children, who was accused of using satanic rites to seduce the king.
Wilson first learned about Salem by watching a 1950s movie on TV when she was 16. The film, based on Marion Starkey’s classic, The Devil in Massachusetts, portrayed the “afflicted” girls as mainly motivated by malice. Wilson wasn’t convinced. “Anyone could see that what the girls were doing was phony,” she says. “Why would the grown-ups have believed them?”
Wilson, now 44, got her answer years later, when she moved from Madison, Wis., to Vermont and took a continuing education course through the University of Vermont’s Church Street Center. The instructor had served as minister at the Congregational Church in Danvers, Mass. — the same church in which witch-hunter Samuel Parris preached when Danvers was still called Salem Village.
The class convinced Wilson that the fires of Salem’s witch mania were fanned by three factors: economic insecurity, rampant superstition and political instability. Faced with a spate of sensational natural events, including a persistent drought, appearance of a comet and the sinking of a crucial supply ship, Salem residents read their misfortunes as signs of a vigorous struggle between God and Satan.
Things came to a head in late January 1692, in the household of Rev. Samuel Parris — a household Wilson paints in distinctly somber tones. Parris was bitter about his backcountry pulpit and upset about losing his salary. He began to see his enemies as devils, Wilson suggests, and to preach about the power of evil in church. He also likely ranted about this force at home, where he was responsible not only for his own children and his consumptive wife, but also his orphaned 11-year-old niece, Abigail Williams.
Abigail was playing a fortune-telling game one day when she became convinced she saw her own coffin. She soon began to suffer inexplicable fits, slipping into trances and having seizures. Even more alarming, these same symptoms soon spread to other girls in the village. Parris prayed and fasted for the girls, and when those efforts failed to cure them, he urged the girls to reveal the names of the people bewitching them. The girls responded by naming neighbors.
Witchcraft charges were hardly new in 1692. Nor were they a uniquely American phenomenon. In 1431, the French burned Joan of Arc at the stake. Church authorities persecuted alleged witches in England, Germany, Italy, Scotland and Spain, as well. According to Wilson, historians estimate that between 1484 and 1782, Church authorities put an astounding 300,000 women to death for witchcraft.
Here in New England, between 1663 and 1689, more than 100 people were accused of being witches. Sixteen people were eventually hanged over that 26-year period — all having “confessed” to witchcraft. But in 1692, in Salem, the trend picked up speed and changed direction. By the end of the year, 19 people had been executed as witches. Rather than condemning confessed witches, as had been done in the past, that year the court pardoned those who confessed, and executed those who asserted their innocence.
At first, the accused fit the witch stereotype: old, unpleasant and outside the social mainstream. The big shift came with the arrest of Martha Corey, a Christian who attended church every Sunday. What distinguished Corey was her refusal to believe the girls’ claims. During questioning, when Corey tipped her head slightly, the girls jerked their heads violently in the same direction. When Corey scratched her neck, the girls clawed theirs.
“The girls’ behavior overrode all other types of evidence,” Wilson recounts. “Martha Corey’s body was examined for witch tits. She had no witch tits. She was asked to recite the Lord’s Prayer. She recited it perfectly. But none of this evidence mattered to the court in light of what seemed to be happening to the afflicted.”
One thing that distinguishes Wilson’s book from other accounts of events in Salem is her emphasis on how the trials, so famous for being instigated by children, also hurt so many other young people. When Sarah Good was arrested, for example, her five-year-old daughter, Dorcas, readily “confessed” and was thrown into jail with her mother. There she watched her shackled mother give birth, saw the baby die, and saw her mother hanged for infanticide. When Martha Carrier was arrested, her four children were imprisoned along with her, and her 15- and 17-year-old sons had their necks tied to their heels to induce nosebleeds. Under this torture, they “confessed” that their mother was a witch.
Though Wilson’s book follows the events of 1692, her primary focus is on how these events have been explained in the 300 years since. One of the first interpretations was Cotton Mather’s Wonders of the Invisible World. Written in 1692 by one of the leading witch “experts” of the day, it supported the court’s activities and took the accusers’ claims at face value. Five years later, Wilson says, a sense of guilt had spread among those who had been involved in the trials. As crops continued to fail, the state of war persisted and the economy didn’t recover, people began to worry that God was punishing Salem.
By 1700, in this climate of remorse, the public was ready for an altogether different version of the story. They got it in More Wonders of the Invisible World written by Robert Calef, a Boston cloth merchant. In his book, Calef mocked Mather’s methods for treating witchcraft affliction. He denounced the witch hunts as superstitious and un-Christian. And he exposed children made fun of him.” Mather invented a vaccine for small pox, but no one would use it because they were sure it must be poisonous, she adds.
No one has ever come to Mather’s defense, though the events in Salem have been analyzed repeatedly, examined through the lenses of history, psychology, feminism, spiritualism, economics, law and religious studies. Feminists see the witch trials as a communal exercise in misogyny. Social critics have called them a precursor to the anti-Communism hysteria of the 1950s.
In 1976, an article in Science magazine diagnosed the girls’ affliction as ergotism, a condition resulting from eating fungus-infected barley. Wilson doesn’t buy this explanation. She notes that the girls didn’t exhibit ergotism’s most common symptoms — stomachaches and diarrhea. She also points out that period cookbooks suggest Salem residents would have recognized ergotism for what it was. Wilson says she has not seen Laurie Winn Carlson’s book, A Fever in Salem, which attributes the girls’ suffering to an outbreak of encephalitis.
How does Wilson explain the girls’ fits? “The most potent argument points to the power of suggestion,” she states. “The children seemed to pull out whatever name they’d heard around the house lately,” Wilson suggests.
Even more striking, however, is the highly suggestive nature of the questions the children were asked, often several weeks before a trial, Wilson says. She sees remarkable similarities between the way the girls in Salem were interrogated and the methods used to question the children who “remembered” being abused in an infamous case in Malden, Mass., in the 1980s, when preschoolers accused Violet Amirault and her staff of sexual abuse.
Whatever mechanism may have produced the girls’ behavior, a more fundamental — and troubling — mystery is what made the town of Salem see it as a reason to turn on their neighbors. This piece or the puzzle is addressed by one of the more recent interpretations of the trials, the Salem Witchcraft Trial Memorial. The memorial was dedicated in 1992, the trials’ tricentennial. Playwright Arthur Miller, historian Marion Starkey and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel attended. The monument is spare: an open “room” defined by a low, rough-hewn wall set with 19 ledges, each of which is inscribed with the name of a different victim, and a quote in which the victim states his or her innocence.
The Wiccans who celebrate Samhain at Salem consider these victims to be martyrs whose deaths made their religious freedom possible. But the memorial makes no such claim. It simply serves as a stark reminder that group fear, unchecked, can lead to tragic consequences.