Tag Archives: Salem

Witching Well

Salem, Massachusetts, brings to mind images of intolerance and a culture ossified in superstition. That’s not really fair, of course. Even in the late seventeenth century the people of Salem were living during the Enlightenment and they understood enough of science to question the legitimacy of the spectral evidence of the kind that would stand in Washington DC today. With twenty direct deaths due to witchcraft accusations and many more lives disrupted or ruined, this tragic episode has perhaps unfairly cast New Englanders as credulous rubes willing to believe just about anything. If you’re like most of us, you may not be aware that other witch trials were going on around that same time period, but with differing results. Richard Godbeer’s Escaping Salem: The Other Witch Hunt of 1692 recounts the events in Fairfield County, Connecticut in Salem’s haunted year. As in Salem a young woman began experiencing fits. Medical explanations—rudimentary as they were—didn’t explain everything away, so supernatural causation was considered. Witchcraft was suspected. Accusations were made.

In the case of Kate Branch of Stamford, as Godbeer shows, Connecticut was learning the lessons of Salem in real time. The belief in witches and witchcraft was just as real, but realizing the bad press their northern neighbors were receiving, the Connecticut Yankees insisted on more stringent evidence. Indeed, judges dismissed the jury to reconsider their decision and even overturned it based on reason. These were people who knew that human lives were at stake. They also knew that Salem was doing nothing to vindicate the cause of either Puritans or justice. We don’t hear about it so much, I suspect, because those in power did the right thing. Given present circumstances, reading about Americans who actually learned from history is encouraging. We read daily of a president woefully unaware (and proudly so) of his own nation’s history. What could possibly go wrong?

Witch hunts are sad miscarriages of justice in the best of times. In days when minorities are being scapegoated for the problems capitalism itself causes, we have to wonder if, apart from those in contemporary Connecticut, we’ve learned anything from Salem at all. Wasn’t it clear that targeting women—many of them social outsiders, and pretty much all of them recently descended from immigrants—was in itself just plain wrong? We pride ourselves on having outgrown belief in magic, and yet we go into that voting booth without a rational reason to elect a self-evident bigot and abuser of women and do it anyway. Reading, knowing where we’ve come from, prevents all kinds of tragedies. And this isn’t alternative factual history. It happened in the very shadow of the calamity of Salem, Massachusetts.

Gray Magic

Fashion. Okay, I’ll wait here while you check your URL to make sure you’re on the right webpage. Back? Okay. Fashion is something about which I care so little that it surprises even me that I’m addressing it. I can blame my wife, since she sent me the article. In The Guardian. Entitled “Salem style: why this is the season of the witch.” Now it all starts to add up, even if it doesn’t make sense. Witches are among my favorite topics. If I have to go through fabric swatches to get there, I will. So it seems that the fashion world has cast its eyes back on Salem this year. A number of recent, high-profile books have addressed witches, and a number of movies have backed them up. As Priya Elan points out in his article, the political situation helps too. We’ve got a witch-hunter as the GOP candidate and, like in the good old days, being a woman is enough to qualify you as as witch in the language of elephants. Could it be that the fashion industry is making social commentary?

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Why are witches so compelling? Perhaps the failure of true gender equality to take hold has spawned a backlash. Women are still paid less than men for the same work. White men line up at the white elephant sale to say how marginalized they are. How hard it is to exist in a world where you can’t even buy a slave or two any more. Unless you call them employees and then you have to pay them something. Primate society rebels against unfairness. This, pure and simple, is evolution. Biologically, we’re told, evolution has no goals. Where we are, however, is progress. We don’t live in the Dark Ages, after all. In the Dark Ages they believed in witches. Wait, what?

Our throwbacks to Salem should be telling us something. The Witch remains one of the most haunting movies of last year. In just a month the Blair Witch reboot opens in theaters. The Harry Potter series has come back from the dead. Like Rosemary opening the brown paper parcel, we realize witches are everywhere. We fear those with power over us. We call them evil and try to find legal ways to burn them at the stake. Or hang them. Or invoke the second amendment. I may not care for fashion, but I can still spot a prophecy some distance off. It doesn’t take a witch to see the future. Or perhaps it does.

Gallows Hill

Over the past couple of weeks it has been in the news that the site of the “witch” hangings in Salem, Massachusetts has been identified. The actual site had long been suspected, and it was only recently confirmed by a group of historians using the empirical evidence available to historians. Although my interest in the Salem trials pre-dated my wife, nothing brings you so close to history as being a part of it. Descended from the brother of three of the women accused of being witches at Salem, my wife brings a sense of reality to the tragic accusations of three centuries ago. Although toyed about in the media (an episode of Sleepy Hollow, “Spellcaster,” in season two, featured an actual Salem witch) the fact is that nineteen innocent people were executed for a fanciful belief that the Devil was roaming about New England, and when you can’t catch the Devil, you have to use a scapegoat.

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One of those investigating the location of Gallows Hill was Benjamin Ray of the University of Virginia. I’m sure Professor Ray wouldn’t remember me, but one day as I was doing a campus visit for Routledge, I had taken AmTrak to Charlottesville to visit the religion department. Many of the faculty declined to see me, and as I sat on a bench in the hall (one of my academic dates had stood me up), Dr. Ray walked up to me and asked me if he could help. I explained who I was and he invited me to his office where we talked about Salem. I told him was wife was related to Rebecca Nurse, Mary Eastey and Sarah Cloyce, the two former, as he knew, executed for an imaginary crime, and the third accused. A strange quiet settled over the office. He told me his interest began because he too had descended from a Salem family. His ancestor, however, had been an accuser rather than a victim. It was a strange rapprochement. Opposite sides brought together in scholarship.

What truly frightens me about Salem is that we have not outgrown it. Presidential hopefuls spew the same fear and hatred toward Muslims, the hispanic immigrants who make our economy possible, and women (this should sound familiar) trying to “take the place of” men. And the crowds cheer, as crowds will do. Even though Donald Trump cussed twice in his Liberty University speech (an infraction for which a student would have to pay), President Jerry Falwell, Jr. (typing that makes me shudder) shrugged it off saying that we’re all sinners. Some sinners, however, carry a wicked, knotted rope with them while other sinners try to eke out a living in a nation where some can get rich by owning casinos while others frantically spend their inadequate cash hoping to win Powerball. We now know where innocent people accused of witchcraft died, but have we learned anything from it over these past three centuries?

Founding Principles

That feeling is in the air. Autumn began to stretch its melancholy fingers into August this year. Even before the month was half over the mornings had that chill in them that sparked the trees to begin their slow process of shutting down for the winter. Not wanting to admit that it was time to send my daughter back to college, I resisted what is one of the most compelling senses of self-abnegation that can be known—fall, in all its glory. When I saw a blog post on the Salem Witch Trials, I knew I wasn’t alone. The nights are already longer, and that sunset over summer’s beach comes earlier each day. Salem has a way of bringing that home to me. Innocent people murdered for fictitious crimes. Much of the fear that led to this miscarriage of justice was, of course, inspired by religion. The colonials had a great fear of new religious movements. Although it is difficult to believe, Baptists were such a new religion at the time. Considering how Baptist sensibilities now drive much of the Religious Right, it is difficult to imagine that once upon a time, being a Baptist could lead to accusations of being a witch.

As much as the Religious Right likes to make claims to a primitivism that is completely fiction (Christianity has always been this way), we have lost touch with what it meant to be a Christian in early America. States (still colonies) had their religious preferences, some even established. If you were a Baptist you’d be most comfortable in Rhode Island. If you leaned Quaker, Pennsylvania was for you. When these disparate colonies banded together into a country, it was quickly realized that religious freedom was the only way for them to work together. The government, the state, could not determine matters of individual conscience. Until, that is, that we could declare that the views of particular individuals on birth control—as informed by their religious authorities—could legally deny their employees full health benefits. Oyer and Terminer, anyone?

Freedom is a beautiful idea. It is a concept that only works, however, if it is shared equally. When one faction claims liberty for itself while limiting it for others, we’ve fallen back into times when the Baptist at your door was more dangerous than the Devil in his Hell. And so we revise our history and make claims that America was founded as a Christian nation. Evidence can be ignored, or, failing that, revised. Nothing is written in stone. When you visit Salem, there is a quiet little park, off the beaten path. Under some weary old trees are a set of stone benches against a stone wall. On each of the benches are engraved the names of those executed for being imaginary monsters. The leaves on those trees are, I’m sure, beginning to turn. Soon they will silently fall, and only those who are made of stone will deny that autumn is upon us again.

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Candle, Book, and Bell

AmericaBewitchedHaving married into a family descended from the surviving relatives of women executed as witches at Salem, I have long been saddened and fascinated by the story. Not just the story, but also by the cultural milieu. We all know about the witch trials and the tragic massacre of innocents (mostly women) that took place in late Medieval and early modern Europe; the Salem miscarriage of justice came at the very end of that, after the start of the Enlightenment. Owen Davies is also fascinated by witchcraft, and his America Bewitched: The story of witchcraft after Salem is an exploration—mostly via newspapers and court trial records—of witchcraft accusations in America that continued up until about the 1950s. The coincidence of the 1950s with the “witch hunts” of McCarthyism will not escape some readers, and indeed, from the time of Arthur Miller’s nemesis on, those who vociferate against witches have kept rather quiet. Unless, of course, you count those who subsequently feared “terrorists” or any other group that might be profiled. We could learn from history, if we’d let ourselves.

Davies’s book brings together largely overlooked, nearly forgotten instances of how many cultures, including that cultural mix of Europeans who were to become “whites,” feared and sometimes killed witches. The difference from Salem was that almost all of these cases took place at the hands of self-appointed accusers (vigilantes) who hounded, punished, or killed someone suspected of being a witch. Surveys still show that a large percentage of people in the United States, although not a majority, believe in witches. It is an idea that has a primal hold on human psyches, and, as Davies points out, it is often used to explain misfortune. As I read this book I reflected how Americans come across as pretty gullible and not exactly sensible in this matter. The germanic strains of immigrants, it seems, were particularly susceptible to such beliefs. We also find witches, however, among Native Americans and African Americans as well. Misfortunate plays no favorites.

There are those who claim technology will save our culture. The other day a friend reminded me of the third of Arthur C. Clarke’s laws: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Even the most scientific of us knows, whether or not s/he will admit it, that “spooky action at a distance” does occur. It is perhaps only a matter of time before we find the hidden laws that operate the mechanism, but I can’t help but feel a little bit uncanny when I see more and more lifelike robots operating with what seem like human intentions. Of course, those intentions are programmed by humans. And it is often otherwise rational adults who with gun in hand, up until fairly recent times, accused flesh-and-blood neighbors as witches. America Bewitched can be a scary book, especially since unlike vampires, witches do cast their reflections in a mirror.

More Witches

WitchHuntAronson It’s been some time since I’ve been to Salem. It’s been even longer since I’ve read Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. The events of 1692, however, continue to haunt me. I recently read Marc Aronson’s Witch-Hunt: Mysteries of the Salem Witch Trials. Intended for a young adult readership, Aronson’s book really isn’t proposing any new theories about why religious violence was perpetrated against the vulnerable, mostly female, pool of those living in a very superstitious society. It does, however, show some of the issues in sharp relief—more academic books sometimes cloud the issues with erudition. Historians will continue to debate what happened in Massachusetts at the end of the seventeenth century when the Enlightenment was getting underway and the explanatory value of science was overcoming the world of miracle and magic. Even with science on our side, however, adequate explanations of the sad social madness of Salem are still lacking.

As Aronson points out, there seems to have been a certain amount of greed involved as laws allowed the property of “witches” to be confiscated. Equally culpable are the learned clergy of the day, some of whom overrode their disinclination towards belief in witchcraft to hang a few women (and fewer men) for an imaginary crime. Lack of full historical documentation and the unrecorded lives of women often combine to raise many questions about Salem. It remains clear, however, that the outlook of the clergy influenced perceptions on the ground. Aronson suggests that Cotton Mather’s earlier accounts of Goodwife Glover of Boston—a woman executed as a witch without even her first name having been recorded—may have “inspired” similar violence among the population of Salem. When devils are suspected, the clergy are never far.

When the mania died down after a lethal year, the clergy, both Increase and Cotton Mather among them, recanted the easy execution of a few expendable women, and fewer, less expendable men, in Salem. Since we lack documentation, we will never know fully what was behind the witch-hunts, apart from misogyny and misperception.

Aronson ends his little book by asking us to consider modern terrorist hunts and the eerie similarities to the mindset of Salem. Listening to some media interviews, particularly on Fox, after the Boston Marathon bombings, we haven’t traveled so very far from Salem. In a world of high technology, where Satan is said to once again stroll the streets of Massachusetts, we have to wonder if the witch-hunts will ever truly end.

Strixology

One of the fascinations of parenthood is learning to see things through the eyes of a young person again. When my daughter was fascinated with dinosaurs, I found myself learning such tongue-twisters as micropachycephalosaurus (I spelled that without looking it up just now) and struthiomimus just to remain conversant with her. (That, and I never really grew up.) When she took a childhood interest in insects, I found myself picking up bugs that would have sent me running just a few short years before, in my bare hands, to take them home to show her. All of this is by way of introducing my current continuing interest in witch trials. My wife (and consequently our daughter) is a direct descendent of the Towne family that included three innocent women accused as witches in the 1690s—Rebecca Nurse, Mary Easty, and Sarah Cloyce. When my daughter found out, the next long weekend from school we drove to Salem. I’ve been reading about witches ever since. I recently finished Brian A. Pavlac’s excellent Witch Hunts in the Western World. Well, as excellent as any book about such a gruesome topic can be. In the course of reading it, an unexpected connection dawned on me.

Many of those accused of witchcraft in the early modern period in Europe were accused of killing babies. The vast majority of them were women, often midwives. Those so accused had their bodies stripped and examined in public venues, generally only to have confessions tortured out of them later, under the eyes of male magistrates. The church had given credence to the superstition that witches actually existed and were in league with the Devil. Suddenly as I read, I heard the echo of a familiar refrain that comes from modern witch hunters. Those who, like the magistrates of old, are men; men telling women what they may or may not do with their bodies. Who draw their self-righteousness from their religion and who claim that birth control is of the Devil. Who accuse women of killing babies. Texas begins to sound like the rebirth of the Holy Roman Empire. In all of Europe that was where the most women were slaughtered, in thousands, by men who burned with the zealotry of a religion that had lost touch with reality.

Time spent on history is never wasted. At times we seem to have come so far, but then I look back over my shoulder and see the suchomimus of unbridled male fantasy closing fast. We have worked hard to bring equality to all people, but at the start of yet another millennium, we are still measuring the worth of humans by the gonads they carry. Based on outdated views from a book that was once meant to be inspirational. Sadly, the legacy often left by religion is only a residue of superstition. The reasoning behind the witch hunts of yesteryear and those of today is the same—the desire to control the behavior of others. It is the cocktail of religion and politics that inebriates those who crave power. What was true then remains true today. In the words of Pavlac, “A history of the Middle Ages shows the intensifying entanglement of magical thinking with political power, which produced the European witch hunts.” Substitute “Modern Day” for “Middle Ages” and “Planned Parenthood” for “European” and see if you can’t find a pattern.