09 October 2010

Keeping the witch trials in perspective

Last year on a trolley tour of Salem, Massachusetts, the conductor plied us with stories as we traveled the old streets, from Roger Conant founding the city in 1626 to the great age of ships. It’s a fascinating place with great houses, literary figures, and maritime history. But flocks of tourists really visit Salem for its connection with the 1692 witch trials. That’s why they’re on the trolley in the first place, to go from the Salem Witch Museum and the Witch Dungeon Museum to the Witch Trials Memorial and everything in between.

Yet our conductor, who claimed descent from several hanged witches, wanted to downplay the prevalent theme of the Witch City. He wanted to put history in perspective and so he reminded us tourists that, after all, the witch hysteria only lasted for six months. Six months? Sure, if you’re counting first arrest to last hanging—but not including final trials and prisoner releases. It took years for the witch hysteria to build to a crescendo and the after-effects had long-lasting results.

In the last 300 years, we still haven’t figured out why 20 innocent people were killed. Whatever it was—the devil, oppression of women, fermented rye seed, Indian war fears, interpersonal relationships, struggles over land acquisition, political stress, bad weather, poor crops, or God’s punishment—that brought Salem and the other villages to that bubbling pot of toil and trouble, did not end abruptly after Governor Phips dissolved the Court of Oyer and Terminer.

Even after the trials were over, accused witches rotted in jail cells, waiting for their families to pay their bills. Lydia Dustin, in fact, died in the spring of 1693 while awaiting money for her release. The effects of confinement, meager food, poor sanitation, and infection, drove some, such as Mary English, to an early death. Others—such as the youngest victim, Dorothy Good—were never capable of taking care of themselves again.

Some, such as Anne Putnam Jr. and Judge Samuel Sewall, were weighted down with guilt for their part in sending innocent people to their deaths. Others who were accused abandoned their homes, their livelihoods, their friends and relatives, to start again someplace else. Some people continued to live next to neighbors still suspicious of them.

That doesn’t even begin to touch on the grief of those who mourned their mother, father, husband, wife, daughter, son, brother, sister, cousin, aunt, uncle, grandparent, or friend who was ignobly hanged as a witch.

The reverberations of 1692 spread far and wide. If your ancestors lived in 17th century New England, no doubt in some way large or small they were affected by the Salem witch hunt.

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