Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)

Stay for a Spell: Wisdom Harvested from the Wicked Witch Trials of the East

Salem blends schmaltz and scholarship when dealing with its infamous witchcraft trials.

October 8, 2008

It's amazing, the craziness that overwrought teenage girls can cause. It was more than forty years ago today that shrieking tweens sent America into orbit about the Beatles. (One writer famously observed that the caterwauling sounded like a jet plane taking off.) Before that, there was a similar fuss about a skinny guy from Jersey named Sinatra.

But the most notorious episode of pubescent female hysterics occurred more than 300 years ago in the rolling farmlands north of Boston, when a handful of girls, ages 9-20, launched an infamous chapter in American history: the Salem witch trials. And there is no better time to explore those events than during October, when the weeks leading up to the Halloween season send this seaport city into a full-flight autumnal reverie. (Check out Salem Haunted Happenings for a comprehensive list of events.)

The story of the trials began in early 1692 at the home of Samuel Parris, pastor of Salem Village, when Betty Parris, 9, and her cousin Abigail Williams, 12, began to have inexplicable and cataclysmic fits. The girls screamed, slipped into trances, crawled on all fours, contorted their faces and bodies, and shrieked that they were being pricked by unseen pins.

Some historians attribute the behavior to the Parris's slave, Tituba, who read tea leaves, practiced voodoo, and told spectacular tales that mesmerized the girls. Before long, other young women in the village demonstrated similar behavior. When the Reverend Parris proclaimed the children victims of witchcraft, he set off an outbreak of panic and hysteria, and the arrests and trials began with a fury. By summer, more than 160 people had been accused and most were imprisoned. Before the madness subsided later that year, 19 women and men had been hanged at Gallows Hill, several others had died in prison, and an 80-year-old man was crushed to death under heavy stones for refusing to stand trial.

Though the iconic story of the Salem witch trials may be well known, the realities are far more interesting: Frances Hill's A Delusion of Satan is essential reading for those who want to know more. When completely described, the trials are a tale of land disputes, social prejudice, bitter family rivalries, intimidation, sexual repression, and the Reverend Parris's attempts to hold onto his job. In fact, many of the things you think you know about the trials may be dead wrong. None of the accused witches were burned (that was a European twist). Some of the accusers later admitted they were wrong and made public apologies. The fear of witches was not ubiquitous; in nearby Boston, the townspeople thought the folks around Salem were flat-out nuts. And the events that led to the trials actually occurred in what is now the town of Danvers, then known as Salem Village.

Salem makes a lot of hay out of the hysteria: The town calls itself Witch City, and the witch-on-a-broomstick image is everywhere -- from the mascot of the local high school to the uniform patch of the town's police officers. There's even a statue downtown of Elizabeth Montgomery, who played the enchantress Samantha in the television series Bewitched.

An orienting first stop is the Salem Witch Museum, which offers a narrated show depicting scenes from the trials on twelve stages. Life-size figures in period costumes represent the main characters, and the show is filled with eerie music and deep-voiced narrators saying things like "The devil was the Prince of Darkness, and he was everywhere." Salem has changed remarkably since those days, but a number of the buildings that played a part in the hysteria remain. The most notorious is the Witch House, where some of the early hearings took place. In nearby Essex, be sure to check out the clerk's office in the Essex Superior Court House, which contains "Witch Pins" used in the examination of the accused and a small bottle puported to contain victim George Jacobs's finger bones. The Peabody Essex Museum has hundreds of original documents and items relating to the trials.

Then hop in your car and head to nearby Danvers. Although they are privately owned, several homes of the accused witches remain, and maps detailing the locations can be found at the museum. One of the most fascinating sites is the Foundations of the 1692 Parsonage, where the hysteria began. In the winter of 1691-92, it was here, at the home of the Reverend Parris and his wife, Elizabeth, that the circle of girls first met to listen to Tituba's tales of magic and the occult. You can wander around the site, ground zero for the madness that ensued.

The best final stop is the Salem Witch Trials Tercentenary Memorial, back in Salem. The memorial is a quiet and contemplative place where prisoners' names are engraved, each with their execution date, on individual stone benches. The pleas of the innocent are engraved along the walkway: "Oh Lord, help me! It is false. I am clear. . . ." "I am no witch. . . ." "If it was the last moment I was to live, God knows I am innocent." It is here that the full human pathos of those dark days hits home.

The Salem witchcraft trials may be 300 years removed from our own day, but their important lessons remain. When false implications, borne on the wings of paranoia, are interpreted as facts, terror results. That's true whether the accusations are coming from bewigged Puritanical magistrates or ill-informed television commentators. One may hang, but the noose has quietly slipped around the necks of us all.

James Daly is the former editorial director ofEdutopia.

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