12 October 2014

Descendants of witch-hunt victims turn to fiction to reimagine history

More than 300 years have passed since the Massachusetts witch hunts in 1692, and yet every year, more books are written to explore theories of why more than 150 people were jailed for practicing witchcraft while 19 were convicted and hung. For genealogists seeking answers about how this turbulent time affected their ancestors’ lives, whether they were participants or not, reading trial records and historical accounts may not bring the past to life. But a good writer can reimagine the past, filling it with characters, dialogue, settings, context, and historic facts. 

Kathleen Kent, a 10th generation descendant of Martha (Allen) Carrier (hanged 1692), doesn’t shy away from her ancestor’s austere and uncompromising personality or her sharp tongue—as shown in actual historical records. She builds it into her novel, The Heretic’s Daughter, narrated by Martha’s young daughter Sarah. From being accused of bringing smallpox to Andover to being accused of witchcraft, Martha and her family’s bonds grow stronger through persecution.

Though Reverend Cotton Mather famously calls her the “Queen of Hell,” Martha Carrier professes her innocence and chastises the judges for believing the words of a few hysterical girls, aware her harsh speeches might lead her to the gallows. But when her three sons and daughter Sarah are imprisoned, she tells them to lie and admit to witchcraft to save their lives, even if it means damning their souls. Meanwhile, Martha’s giant and silent husband Thomas walks miles to the prison to support and sustain his family.

Besides historical sources about the trials, Kent uses family stories passed onto her by her mother and her grandparents to infuse character and details into her novel. Though fictional, you’ll be wishing one of the Carrier descendants has a little red book hidden away.

Katherine Howe, descendant of Elizabeth (Jackson) Howe (hanged 1692) and Elizabeth (Bassett) Proctor (sentenced to death in 1692 but reprieved), turned to fiction to understand the past. In writing The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane, Howe asks herself: What if some of the accused were practicing witches? In real life, Deliverance confesses to being a witch to save herself, so Howe turns her into a witch with supernatural but good powers and an in-depth knowledge of herbology. But Howe strays from history by having Deliverance executed in her novel, though she lived until 1735, because it works better for her story.

In Conversion, Howe considers how Ann Putnam Jr.’s 1706 confession came to be. In interludes between a present-day story, Ann tells the rapt Reverend Joseph Green her role in the witch hunt and why she thinks her heart is black. This confession, this humbling before God to admit wrongdoings, is Ann’s saving grace to become a full-fledged member of the Salem Village Church. From Reverend Samuel Parris’ sermon notes, we know he denounced Mary Sibley for suggesting the making of a witch cake. In her novel, Howe expands upon that little detail, putting the required ingredients of the recipe together—making it uncomfortable for the girls, for Tituba, and even for the reader. 

For the present day, Howe weaves the story of girls at an exclusive Catholic boarding school in Danvers, preparing for their last year and moving onto college—and all the stress that entails. These girls end up exhibiting conversion disorder, a medical diagnosis in which psychological stress manifests itself as physical symptoms.

The juxtaposition between Ann’s confession of getting caught up in lies and deceit and the cloistered girls displaying conversion disorder makes the reader ask if one or both were the underlying causes of the 1692 witch hunt.

In their novels, Kent and Howe show in-depth knowledge of the witch hunts. Both successfully use their imaginations to help readers envision what their ancestors may have experienced in 1692.

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