A little history on the Salem Witch Trials

30 Oct

zachary-kanin-i-ve-been-in-the-doghouse-ever-since-i-tried-to-get-my-mother-in-law-hang-new-yorker-cartoon

Hello and welcome back to Suffragette Kitty.

We’ve been busy having a grand time with Granny these past few days. I do wish she lived closer because I think we’d spend a lot of quality time together.

Meanwhile, I want to get in the piece on the Salem Witch Trials before October draws to a close. It’s a fascinating time in American history that we could write a thesis on. But we don’t have that kind of time so we’ll just highlight the basics. But if you find yourself in the Boston area, make time to visit Salem, Massachusetts.

A whole stretch of the city is devoted to the 1692 trials that convicted 14 women and five men of witchcraft. They were hung. Another man was stoned to death for refusing to give a plea at his arraignment, and 150 others were imprisoned awaiting their trials on the charges of witchcraft, which at the time meant associating with the devil.

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We must add that eight of the accused were children, the youngest being Dorcas Good, who was 4 or 5, according to records by the Massachusetts Historical Society. Is there a better conduit for the devil than an impressionable child? Seven people died in prison. Others, including little Dorcas, never recovered from the emotional trauma.

A few things to know. The Puritans believed in the Devil and demons as unconditionally as they believed in God and Angels. Witches were a carryover from Europe, which saw its own witch trials primarily during the 15th and 16th centuries. Between 40,000 and 100,000 people were executed in trials throughout Europe during this time. Those who cohorted with the devil were a threat Christianity, the global power at the time.

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A group of Calvinists from England and the Netherlands broke away from the Church of England in the late 1500s. Their beliefs were somewhat extreme and unwelcome in the homeland. Religious freedom lay right across the ocean. They founded the Province of Salem Village after arriving in the New World.

The locals, now known as the Native Americans were as hospitable as the Church of England. Both sides had to be on the alert for attacks. Refugees from war-torn New England villages vied for space in Salem Village. Simultaneously, disease began to spread. Life was unsettling and tense.

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Add to that chaos the belief that in In 1600s Colonial America, an unmarried woman was another mouth to feed and therefore a  burden to her family. Family ties were important to Puritans, so spinsters were unlikely to be put out on the streets. Just because they were Puritans, however, did not mean their relationships were immune to the discourse some families endure today. Then, of course, there was mental illness, which in 1600s Colonial America meant you were possessed by the devil or some other evil demon. Possessed family members could be difficult to live with.

Divorce was not as common in Puritan villages as it is today. This did not mean that every marriage – most being arranged – made it to the “death do us part” segment of the vows. A man unhappy with his lot could easily up and leave. Work could be found, as well as shelter, and, perhaps a more desirable life partner. He did not lose sleep over Google searches or tell-all credit card transactions. No one would ever know that he was living happily ever after barely 20 miles away.

glinda

While the deadbeat had little fear of being found, he had less fear of being hauled back to support the ones he left behind. One act of kindness that society did bestow upon the abandoned wives was to refer to them as widows. Losing your husband to death was morally acceptable. Having him walk out on you was not.

Widows, however, had the same disadvantages as abandoned wives. There were no insurance policies or social welfare systems to sustain them, and if applicable, their children.

If they were lucky, relatives would take them in. But the concept of marrying them off in the first place was to free up space at the dinner table, so the gesture was counterproductive.

Puritan woman also did not work outside the home as there were no employment opportunities. Women hard on their luck were left to wander the village and beg for food and shelter. Dinnerware consisted of a caldron over an open fire. Beggars, mostly women, would smell the aroma of a family supper, and knowing the cook was a good Christian, would be brazen enough to knock on the door to see if a few morsels could be spared.

Meanwhile, the woman stirring the caldron, usually Goody Someone (Goody was short for Goodwife, which stood in for Mrs.) would be winding down from a long day, trying to prepare a meal with rowdy children at foot. Despite her forced Christian beliefs, she was irritated by the requests of the beggar woman. (And you were wondering where the phrase “witching hour” came from.)

wendy

As life became unsettled, i.e. sick relatives, tensions from potential battles, poor crops, etc., villagers needed an explanation. Women who did not have a man do protect them were excellent scapegoats.

What really prompted the Salem Witch Trials were the unexplained peculiar behavior of Betty Parris, 9, and her cousin Abigail Williams, 11. Betty was the daughter of the Reverend Parris. One day in early 1692 the girls experienced fits that appeared epileptic and peculiar. The local doctor could not find cause for their condition, which consisted of making weird noises and throwing thing. The girls claimed Tituba, the Parris families’ Caribbean dark-skinned slave, was responsible. As a witch working with the devil, she had cast a spell on them.

Eventually other young girls in the Province of Salem were blaming all the woes of the community on all the outcast women. At the time, spectral evidence was all that was needed haul someone before the courts. In other words, it was enough to say you had a dream about the beggar woman doing something horrid and a warrant would be issued for her arrest. Pretty soon everyone was blaming someone for something. The court rooms were filled with drama as the accusers would loll around in fits, screaming the names of others who the deemed to be witches. The names of men and boys were eventually added to the suspect list.

The Court of Oyer and Terminer was established to hear the flood of cases coming before the courts. Local minister Cotton Mather began to question the use of spectral evidence in issuing warrants. He suggested hard evidence.

The Court took that under advisement, but did not act upon it until the names of relatives of prominent men were being accused of witchcraft. Church-going wives of influential men were certainly not witches. What was that thing Cotton Mather was blathering about again? Suddenly spectral evidence was out. Concrete evident was in. Those held in jail were released. The Court of Oyer and Terminer was dissolved. The Witch Trials ended in late 1692.

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But it was too late for some. As mentioned before, 14 women and 5 men were hung. One was crushed to death. Seven accused witches died in prison and 150 people were charged.

Within months, my great-great uncle Samuel Sewall, who presided over the cases, began having second thoughts. He realized a huge mistake had been made (actually more than 150 mistakes had been made.) He was the first to publically apologize. While I, like he, disagree with his past actions, I am proud of him for being brave enough to come forward and beg forgiveness. He was doing what he thought was right, yet was strong enough to admit he was wrong.

I hope you enjoyed this piece. Naturally, there is more on the subject so feel free to check it out. Iused a lot of resources, but you may enjoy this: http://www.salemwitchmuseum.com/

Have a great Halloween everyone, xo, LMA

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5 Responses to “A little history on the Salem Witch Trials”

  1. Carol October 30, 2013 at 9:30 pm #

    Great and informative post, Miss Alcatt!

  2. Sheila October 31, 2013 at 12:29 pm #

    Very scary! That’s funny that your great-great uncle was the judge. I also know someone who’s related to the one who was crushed to death. I didn’t know or didn’t remember that young children were accused. Salem must have been a scary place to be at that time, and Europe sounds even scarier! Hope you have a fun and not too spooky Halloween!

  3. Nancy Loderick October 31, 2013 at 1:40 pm #

    HI Louisa,

    Thanks for a fascinating blog post. I’m glad you’re having fun with Granny. 🙂

    I am especially interested in the Salem Witch trials since I live in Massachusetts, about 30 miles from Salem. It’s a fun city to visit even today.

    Nancy

  4. sued51 November 1, 2013 at 11:07 am #

    Great post. I had to read Arthur Miller’s play “The Crucible” in school (Maybe because I”m from MA) and I remember seeing a movie with Hope Lange in relation to the witch trials where she was crushed to death…scared the heck out of my back then…

  5. LB November 2, 2013 at 2:41 pm #

    I am getting caught up on all the posts I’ve missed the past 2 weeks since the accident and am so glad I didnt miss this one! Fascinating and horrible. Good on your uncle for stepping up and admitting his mistake. I’m going to have save and re-read this one – lots of info here!

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