To keep each post somewhat on topic, I hopped around in the timeline. We were in Salem two days. Today’s post is witchy, and yesterday’s was everything else. They aren’t chronological.
After a cold, wet morning on the sea looking for whales, we arrived in the wet afternoon at the city of Salem, Massachusetts. Salem is famous nationwide for being the locus of the infamous Witch Trials. I honestly didn’t know much about them before we went. I didn’t ask Will what he knew, but luckily he was ready to take a close look at the witch history with me, and by the end of the visit I had learned a lot.
In 1692 three girls in Salem Village, ages 9, 11, and 12 began a game of fortune telling. After playing at fortune telling over time they started acting oddly, making strange gestures and sounds. When the 9 and 11 year-olds, the daughter and niece of Reverend Parrish, began spasming and screaming, Doctor Griggs was called. The girls said they had been bewitched by three people: one family’s slave woman, Tituba, a homeless beggar-woman named Sara Good, and an elderly, bed-ridden woman named Sara Osborn. Dr. Griggs diagnosed bewitchment (not sure if the diagnosis came before or after the accusations), and soon after, other girls in the town began displaying the same uncontrollable behavior, and naming the so-called witches in town who caused it. Some people suggest that contributing factors of the hysteria may have included the severe Puritan lifestyle, the harsh living conditions, fear of Indian attack, a smallpox epidemic, belief by many colonists in the existence of witchcraft, and the fact that the slave Tituba used to tell neighborhood children wild stories of beasts and magic that she recalled from her Barbados upbringing (thus igniting their imaginations). Basically everyone was under a lot of stress.
The three women were hauled into court and proceedings began. The two white women denied being witches, though 70-year-old Sara Osborn barely knew what was going on. Tituba originally denied it, but after being harrassed for some time, confessed and said she had done a deal with the devil. She also claimed that there were other witches working with her, after coming to understand that she could get off with her life by becoming an informant. After hearing from Tituba that there were other witches, the whole town became hysterical, believing her story and accusing each other of witchraft. When pressed in court, several other women also followed Tituba’s lead, confessing and naming other witches, in order to receive a lesser sentence. Not only children were seized with fits of hysteria, but adults as well. Not only outcasts were accused, but also upstanding members of society, including a former minister (who had since moved to Maine but was hauled back), and eventually including one of the main accusers, 80 year old Giles Corey. By the end of 1693, over 200 people had been accused and tried, 19 of them hanged, 5 had died in custody, and one was pressed to death (more on that later).
Will found the site of a memorial, and led us there. See the photo at the top for a full view. The memorial is a grassy rectangular area with trees, surrounded by a low rock wall. Inset in the wall are 20 stone benches. Each bench has someone’s name, the means of death, and the date of their death. Each bench has flowers and beads left in remembrance. I don’t know why the 5 who died in jail weren’t honored. I feel the court was just as much responsible for their deaths as for the ones who were actively hanged or pressed.
After walking through the solemn memorial, we entered the cemetery nearby. We were interested in the gravestones with the very old dates and the scary skull with wings adorning so many of them. The cemetery is called The Burying Point. It contains the graves of Capt. Richard More, a Mayflower pilgrim and witchcraft trial judge John Hathorne, an ancestor of Nathanial Hawthorne.
The next day we finally made it to the Salem Witch Museum and I was finally educated on the story I told above. I had never heard about the part the slave woman played, and I didn’t realize actual trials were held and the people found guilty or not guilty, and I didn’t realize men were charged as witches too. Fourteen of the deaths were women, six were men.
The Salem Witch Museum is beautiful. There is a gorgeous, wizard-like statue of Roger Conant, the founder of Salem, in a tall hat and flowing robes. However suggestive the statue and its placement may be, Conant had nothing to do with witches or the witch trials. His evocative memorial is misleadingly situated directly in front of the museum by coincidence.
As you can tell by looking at it, the building was orginally a church. The statue of Conant was erected in 1913 beside the church. In the 1960s it was a vintage car museum. The building was opened as a Witch Museum in 1972. Sadly, visitors who don’t take the time to read the plaque or ask any questions, often assume the statue is of a witch.
The museum is unlike anything I’ve experienced before. You pay for your ticket and wait with a very large group until they have assembled enough people, then usher everyone into the theatre room at once. There is seating for maybe 80 people in the center of the room on stools or benches. Turns out, you want the stools, and you want to be in the center of the room.
When the program begins, all the lights go out and a recording begins playing, and lights illuminate different static displays along the walls. Each new chapter of the story illuminates a new scene with life sized people surrounding us. Will and I were too close to the side of the room, so we couldn’t see the first three scenes that were above our heads. But soon the story circled around enough that we could see better. As the light moved around the room, we turned on our stools to follow the story.
The recording told the highlights of the story of the witch trials. They also told the story of wealthy Giles Corey. This man was caught up in the accusations of bewitchment and was a loud supporter of the need to punish the witches. He so firmly believed in the proceedings that when his own wife Martha was accused, he believed at first that she was a witch! One month later, Giles himself was accused and suddenly he got a whole new perspective. Once a person made a plea of guilty or not guilty to the court, their property was seized by the government. He wanted his assets to go to his sons, and refused to enter a plea. The court insisted that he plea, but Corey refused. They decided to torture him till he plead guilty or not guilty. They placed 80-year-old Giles Corey on a table, placed a board over the top of him, and began loading it up with boulders. Each time they demanded that he plea, Corey instead shouted “More weight!” and they complied. For two days this continued. On the third day he died.
The final scene in the museum was when the reverend from Maine was on the platform before his hanging. He recited the entire Lord’s Prayer without a single mistake. People at that time believed it was impossible for a witch to do that. But he was already up there, with the noose around his neck, and people were frenzied. They voted to hang him anyway, and Reverend George Burroughs was killed.
There was a brief sumary by a narrator then, and it ended by saying that the people of Salem and Massachusetts realized how ridiculous it all was and apologized and paid reparations, “…and we never gave in to our fears again.” Will and I have been laughing about that ever since. Oh sure, we humans learned from our one mistake once and for all, and were never motivated toward violence due to our fear ever again. Good grief, what a claim.
Off to the side of the theatre is a small actual museum with artifacts and information boards. There was a docent who guided us through and gave us information about famous witches on TV and movies, and on more real life witch hunts, like the red scare, where Americans were outed for being secret communists, the Japanese internment camps where Japanese Americans were imprisoned for being culturally Japanese, and the ostracizing of homosexual men due to the HIV/AIDS scare. She concluded with information about real witches today, who have a legitimate religion based in living in harmony with nature.
After that, Will wanted to hunt down the actual spot where Giles Corey was pressed. We think we found it, but there is no memorial to know for sure. We found the location of the jail where the accused were held while awaiting trial, now called The Witch Gaol.
On our walking tour of the city of Salem that morning, we saw The Witch House. It was the home of Judge Jonathan Corwin, who served on the court that found 19 people guilty of witchcraft. He purchased this home in 1675 and lived there all his life. It is now a museum, which opened in 1948.
8 thoughts on “I am introduced to Salem witch history”
An informative history
I was fascinated!
the danger of mob hysteria – and fear
Its a real thing. But still, I’m shocked to hear of examples.
We keep repeating this in varying forms throughout history. It hurts so much to know that humans are capable of such atrocities. I wouldn’t be able to go to this area or witness the memory of it. I’m sure it was very informative for you.
It was one more layer of awful after another. I knew the “witch trials” were famous, and I knew Salem was famous for its witch history, but I did not know any of the details of this story before I went. As painful as it is, for those people who are able to absorb and think about this history, we need to. It is shocking to find out we were behaving like this so recently. It was important to me to research for this blog post and educate myself on the details and really put the story together in a way that’s hard to do on vacation.
You are right to think you would not be able to be in that place. Like I said, Will and I went through the memorial without even knowing the story, and even then it weighed on us.
I found it so important to me that the link to other American examples of witch hunts were highlighted at the museum. I don’t want anyone to come away from Salem thinking there is no more work for us to do.
I honestly believe I was caught in that in a previous incarnation. I’ll tell you a story about it next time we talk.
Oh my goodness. No wonder you wouldn’t be able to visit the place. I look forward to hearing about this.