Witchraft at Salem Village, Public Domain. Now we are in a trial setting in a Colonial Salem and withches are on trial.

Salem Witch Trials: Hanged and Stoned

|

,

Fascination with Witches

The first thing readers ask me: why do you write about witches in your books? My interest in witches and witchcraft began with The Crucible, a play written by Arthur Miller and required reading in high school. After reading the play, I developed a fascination with the Salem witch trials and the history of witchcraft. I managed to milk the subject matter through all four years of high school and my freshman English composition class in college.

Examination of a Witch, Public Domain image. A witch is on trial in a large room.
Examination of a Witch, Public Domain

You could ask me anything about the Salem witch trials and the witchcraft hysteria in Europe back then, and I could give you a long diatribe on the subject, wanted or not. Each paper was written with a different research approach, sometimes intermingling it with other areas like paganism, satanism, folklore, and its use in television and movies. I had some innovative teachers who allowed me to do comparisons of literature with tv miniseries productions of the day.

The Crucible by Arthur Miller

For those who have hidden under a rock for decades or don’t attend the theater, The Crucible tells the a fictionalized story of the Salem witch trials that occurred in the Massachusetts Bay Colony in the late 1600s. It premiered on the Martin Beck Theatre stage in 1953.

Written as a political allegory about McCarthyism (the United States government persecution of people accused of being communists), Miller became accused himself. In 1956, the House of Representatives Committee on Un-American activities questioned him. Later, the House convicted him of contempt of Congress for refusing to hand over names of others who attended meetings with him.

I so admire playwright Arthur Miller for standing up against the paranoid government of the day. If you want to read more about his reasons for writing the play and why he used the Salem witch trials as a backdrop for his message, you can read them in this article from the New Yorker.

Salem Witch Trials: Doing the Devil’s Work

Although the witch hysteria in Europe where thousands were burnt at the stake was diminishing, the authorities persecuted witches in the colonies in full force. From 1692 to 1693 in the colony of Massachusetts, more than two hundred people were accused of practicing witchcraft in the Salem Witch Trials.

Witchraft at Salem Village, Public Domain. Now we are in a trial setting in a Colonial Salem and withches are on trial.
Witchraft at Salem Village, Public Domain

The authorities based their accusations of witchcraft on the belief that witches received special powers from the devil to harm others in return for their loyalty. The practice of witchcraft has nothing to do with devil worship. This is a pet peeve and I’ll address this misconception in a future blog.

Hearings and prosecutions ensued. Out of the thirty found guilty, 19 were executed by hanging. 14 of those were women and five were men. In addition, a man named Giles Corey was pressed to death for refusing to confess. Another five lost their lives in jail. Several towns made arrests: Salem, Salem Village (Danvers today), Andover, and Topsfield. The grand juries and trials took place in Salem Town and hangings followed there as well.

Living a harsh life in the Puritan community of Salem Village (Danvers) with fears of attacks from Native Americans added to the rivalry with Salem Town (present-day Salem), a more affluent community. Tensions and resentment were high. When two young girls, Elizabeth Parris (9) and Abigail Williams (11) began having fits, a local doctor diagnosed bewitchment.

Other girls began to have fits, and ultimately, they accused three women: Tituba, a Caribbean slave; Sarah Good, a homeless woman; and Sarah Osborn, a poor elderly woman. The hysteria spread and resulted in the establishment of a special Court of Oyer and Terminer for three counties, Suffolk, Essex, and Middlesex.

A Public Becomes Fatigued

Eventually, the public grew tired of the hearings and prosecutions, and Massachusetts Governor William Phips dissolved the special courts. Eventually, the General Court of Massachusetts decided the witch trials were unlawful and a day of fasting was declared for the victims.

The General Court passed a bill, clearing the names of the condemned and giving their heirs restitution. Considered the deadliest witch hunt in North America, it became an example of mass hysteria that influenced writers like Arthur Miller who wrote The Crucible. If you are interested in learning more about the Salem Witch Trials, I recommend starting with the History Channel and The Salem witch trials.

Memorials for the Salem Witch Trials

Memorial in Danvers, MA, CC BY-SA 4.0 reads "In memory of those innocents who died during the Salem Village Witchcraft Hysteria of 1692.
Memorial in Danvers, MA, CC BY-SA 4.0

Over the years, the general assembly of Massachusetts passed acts absolving the victims of the Salem witch trials, one in 1957 and another in 2001. In 1992 to mark the 300th anniversary of the witch trials, a park (in Salem) and a memorial (in Danvers) were dedicated to commemorate the victims of the trials.

Memorial Park in Salem, CC BY-SA 3.0. A park reserved in memory of the victims of the Salem Witchcraft Hysteria.
Memorial Park in Salem, CC BY-SA 3.0

Visit Salem, MA

It’s been years since I visited Salem. As a young mother, I had it on my list of towns to visit in New England. Salem was cheesy when I first visited, but I didn’t care. I was thrilled to experience the history of that horrible tragedy. Today, Salem has so much offer.

Today, Salem is a touristy, New England harbor town. Major renovations to its waterfront began in 2006. In 2010, the Salem Harborwalk opened to celebrate the rebirth of Salem’s waterfront. With the competition of an extension to Salem Wharf, cruise ships began to dock at Salem Port in 2014 increasing tourism to the witchy town.

There is plenty to see: witch trial reenactments, witch and magic stores, police cars with witch logos. You can even attend a live spell casting presentation performed by a practicing witch, and you can participate. If you fancy a psychic reading, several options abound. A plethora of museums exist like Pioneer Village, the Salem Maritime National Historic Site, the Saugus Ironworks National Historic Site, the International Monster Museum, and the Witch Dungeon Museum.

By Tichnor Bros. Inc., Boston, Mass. - Boston Public Library Tichnor Brothers collection #83010, Public Domain. This is an old-time postcard from the Pioneers' Village showing a view of how the Kitchen in the Governor's Faire House might have looked during colonial times.
By Tichnor Bros. Inc., Boston, Mass. – Boston Public Library Tichnor Brothers collection #83010, Public Domain
House of Seven Gables, CC BY-SA 3.0 in Salem, Massachusetts with the simple garden in front.
House of Seven Gables, CC BY-SA 3.0

A wealth of historic homes and sites set the mood for the town like the House of Seven Gables, The Witch House, and the home of Judge Jonathan Corwin. If you are looking for outdoor experiences, there are many public parks and beaches, and the Salem Common, a common area in existence since the 17th Century, is right in the downtown area. With the renovation of the waterfront since my visit, the harbor must be enchanting.