One aspect that makes the witch craze especially frightening is how justified the perpetrators felt in their actions. Consider this instance, from Windsor Connecticut in 1651. As part of militia training, villagers were participating in a mock battle. One young man’s gun fired accidentally and the bullet struck a man next to him in the neck. The man bled to death. The young man whose gun fired was thought to have acted carelessly, and he was sentenced to six months in prison, for the accident. But that didn’t satisfy the people. The element of randomness troubled them. What were the chances that the stray bullet happened to hit a man in the neck and kill him? There had to be a reason, they thought. This tragedy remained the talk of the town, the local gossip, for years. A consensus of suspicion eventually landed on a woman the deceased man had boarded with and was indebted to, and three years after the man’s accidental death, that woman, nowhere near the field the day of the mock battle, was found guilty of orchestrating the event by using supernatural witch powers, called maleficium, and she was executed.
Again, this sounds cruel, and it was, but the event that deeply troubled the community now felt explained and the town felt healed. Often times a single case of witchcraft would be the extent of the damage, but what happened in Salem, in 1692-3, would be an example of a panic outbreak. Panic outbreaks occurred in larger towns, still small enough to have the intimacy of people knowing each other well with shared histories of feuding that spanned generations but so large that an entire network of supposed witches could be “discovered” before an accusation landed on someone so well connected to many upstanding citizens that the accusations were refuted by the community, which is how panic outbreaks eventually came to an end.
The play you read in school, The Crucible, was written by Arthur Miller in 1952. He researched what happened in Salem extensively, but his play was a fictionalized version, as you probably learned. He wrote The Crucible as a commentary of events happening in the 1940’s and 50’s, here in America, during the second “Red Scare,” also known as McCarthyism, named after the senator who led accusations of communism against fellow leaders. When we reflect back on real events we tend to create or stress story elements out of those events, a clear beginning, middle, and end with good characters paired off against bad. What really happened in Salem?
Many books have been written from that time and into the present. The Enemy Within describes what happens in Salem in its second section, after describing the phenomenon in Europe. Theories on what happened have changed over time, and The Enemy Within describes some of these different theories. The most effective way to learn from history, I find, is to immerse yourself in the time and in the thinking of the time and attempt to understand what happened from that perspective. Two important points are the extent that witchcraft was believed to be a real power, the ultimate source of which was the devil, impacting people’s lives, and the duty people felt to root out this evil for the good of society. None of this is meant to excuse the twenty murders of innocent people that occurred in Salem but to understand.
To say what happened in Salem began with the circle of girls who were the initial accusers is imprecise, because “witchcraft” was already present in Salem with suspects and accusers and probably even trials since the town’s beginning but also because it suggests the girls plotted the events that would follow. More likely the girls played with some sorcery thought to be the stuff of witchcraft; something like the Ouija board game sold at stores children will play at slumber parties except here with a heightened sense of the power involved and therefore increased guilt and fear of discovery. This guilt and fear may have led to some of the physical affliction the girls experienced that were interpreted as bewitchment. Some of these physical afflictions may have spread through a group hysteria and some of it may have been mimicked as a form of peer pressure within the circle. There may also have been some outright fakery with or without much sense of the danger and damage they were putting on those they accused. As John Demos says in the book, “the strictness of Puritan life was hard on adolescent girls, for that matter it was pretty hard on the adults.”
The children involved had no power to put supposed witches on trial and imprison or execute them; the adults did that, but the girls’ symptoms were unquestionably dramatic and frightening to witness, and coupled with widespread belief in witchcraft lack of intervention would have seemed irresponsible. Was anyone as certain as John Proctor was portrayed in The Crucible that the girls were all pretending? Probably not. Surely some suspected so but they wouldn’t have known it the way we would know it now and that combined with the worry they’d be next suspected and accused, which could mean death, would have pressured them to go along. Like in Europe, the developed pattern was that guilt was assumed along with accusation and those accused could be spared death by naming other witches seen at meetings. This served to give credibility to the accusations and spread accusations wider and wider. People knew instinctively who to blame, usually women of poor repute, usually older, sometimes widows who were left land by deceased husbands—a woman who owned land would be targeted because her land was coveted. This was an element of the complex motivating factors that directed suspicion; possibly not fully conscious but the jealousy and resentment of a woman, alone, past her child bearing years and thus of less value to the community (a common, possibly universal, value judgment of the period), and possessing land resulted in the genuine feeling that the woman must be under the devil’s influence. If she were outspoken, atypical of how women were expected to behave, that was another powerful factor in her drawing suspicion. While men and women were accused, mostly women were accused and the men who were accused were usually the husbands or sons of accused women. Misogyny was a clear factor in the witch crazes, both in America and in Europe.
In the book special attention is given to Rebecca Nurse. She was admired by the community. When first accused she was ill. Her friends went to break the news to her. Before they could she told them that she’d heard about the girls’ affliction and that she’d been praying for them. Rebecca Nurse was brought to trial but she had forty people in the community willing to vouch for her high moral character. These are forty American heroes, as they risked accusation by taking a stand for their friend. She was found not guilty, but the announcement of the verdict sent the girls, present for the trial, into fits. The jurors reconvened and brought back a guilty verdict. She was hung as a witch July 19th, 1692. A monument was erected in her honor in 1885. I think the author gives Rebecca Nurse special attention because her case was unique in how many risked everything to stand with her, but I feel like it’s important to remember that all the victims of the witch trials were as innocent at Rebecca Nurse.
No sudden realization of the wrongness of the trials brought them to an end. Rather questions that had been along since the beginning got asked by more people, reservations were voiced more loudly. For instance, spectral evidence, which meant an accusation from someone afflicted that they were being poked or prodded or otherwise troubled by the spirit form of someone, became unreliable to officials, but not because they doubted affliction was taking place. Spectral evidence became inadmissible because it was decided the devil could have been impersonating innocent people, who weren’t actually witches. Belief in witches didn’t go away, but public opinion had turned. People were tired of the hanging, partly because more and more people known well and liked were being accused. Trials continued, witches were jailed, even sentenced to death. Three were given a reprieve a mere day before they were scheduled to be executed, their graves already dug out of the frozen ground. More were jailed that spring but these were released by the end of the summer. And the panic was over.
Much of the initial reflection on what happened was deeply personal, involving new feuds and court cases to recover lost property. Notable apologies included Anne Putnam, who made special apologies to the family of Rebecca Nurse. Jurors expressed regret. Through the first half of the 1700’s various reparations were ordered paid to help “the families as were in a manner ruined in the mistaken mismanagement of the terrible affair called witchcraft.” Several of the circle of girls went on to lives of “dissolution and profligacy.” One, probably Abigail Williams, was never sane again, and may have not been all along.
“Witch-hunts, like most large social and historical phenomena, invariably show a pattern of multiple causation; in scientific language, they are overdetermined.” The author presents many of these theories. For example, a link was discovered that many of the accusers had spent time in frontier lands and were subject to fighting with Native Americans, having lost family members in wars or skirmishes, and one, Mercy Short, was a captive of the Wabanaki for several months. Salem was also divided into different factions, there were the interior old-style farmers and people closer to the sea more involved with trade, “the Village” and “the Town,” respectively. Division between these two factions went back decades. The accusers tended to come from people closer to “the Village” and the accused came from people living closer to and trading with and benefitting from trade with people from “the Town.” In this interpretation, witchcraft provided a means for struggles, actually based on these divisions, to be fought on a stage that belief in witchcraft provided. As Arthur Miller, the playwright, said of The Crucible, his aim was to spotlight “the primeval structure of human sacrifice to the forces of fanaticism and paranoia that goes on repeating itself forever as though imbedded in the brain of social man.”
Wow! This is why, I believe, the story of Salem and the witch trials remains so fascinating to us today. Witchcraft is mostly gone, as a superstitious belief, but the way we struggle and seek answers to why we struggle outside ourselves but within something close to us, within our community, remains. Another way to put what Arthur Miller said is to say that the witch hunts of Europe and Salem weren’t about witches as much as they were an expression of something even deeper in humans that seeks that enemy within. In fact, the book opens with a time when Christians were sought out and punished in many of the same ways and for similar invented crimes as Christians fifteen hundred years later would hunt and punish witches for committing.
The last section of the book describes some more modern examples of incidents in American history, the Red Scare of McCarthyism, and others, which I’ll let you read about on your own, and asks how these incidents resemble the witch trials of Salem and how they’re different. The common thread I see is that desire for a relationship with what troubles us. We’re troubled by our own perceived weaknesses and faults and tend to find those faults and weaknesses in others, this is known as projection, and blame others to evade self-blame. It’s uncomfortable to peer in, to think, What am I doing I can change? How am I responsible for this or that trouble in my life? So we tend to first look outwardly, but we have to look where there is a relationship. It wouldn’t make sense to blame my problems or struggles on what’s happening on Mars. We have to have that intimacy with our enemies for that blame to land. All of that is okay, as long as it remains only an instinct. As long as it’s only an instinct we can take it out and look at it and think about it, and then decide not to give expression to it. The history of Salem is a sad case of people failing not to give expression to that instinct, but imagine all the times people did and still do avoid giving expression to it. Think of ways that instinct tries to emerge in you, on a much smaller scale, and let the lesson of Salem be a teacher in your life to help you find better solutions. I can think of examples in my life. When I’m leaving late for work, all the sudden everyone on the road is driving too slow and making me wait for them. They’re witches! No, of course the real solution is for me to leave for work with plenty of time to get there. Then the traffic is the same but I can listen to my audio book and enjoy my drive. I changed my behavior and made my life better, but it’s not magic—I’m not a witch!—I some days fail and blame everyone else for my failing to leave for work on time. I can only strive to do better in life, but lessons from history, like the lesson of the Salem Witch Trials, offer perspective to help me in that aim. I think your interest that began with The Crucible will do the same for you. I hope this book and accompanying book report will complement that interest.
Part two of a book report I wrote for my niece interested in The Crucible.
Greg Metcalf is the author of Flowers on Concrete, a novel, Hibernation, a YA thriller, and the memoir Letters Home: A WWII Pilot’s Letters to His Wife and Baby from the Pacific. All are available as paperbacks and as Ebooks at amazon.com. He has three other completed novels, unpublished to date. His short fiction has appeared at Boston Literary Magazine, Metazen, and Toasted Cheese.