Spotlight on the Salem Witch Trials
We commemorated the anniversary of the hanging of Bridget Bishop, the first victim of the Salem Witch Trials, on June 10. The Witch House hosted an excellent lecture by historian Margo Burns as well as a brief ceremony at the Witch Trials Memorial. Bridget Bishop was the first of twenty to be condemned and executed during the Salem witchcraft hysteria of 1692.
The Salem Witch Trials are a fascinating time in American history, and the stories of the victims and their accusers have withstood the test of time, holding the fascination of people from around the world. Any great story changes and evolves as it is told and retold, and from time to time it is good to check back in with the facts. There are many misconceptions of the Trials and the hysteria, as well as frequently asked questions, and the Salem Witchcraft Trials has inspired retellings in literature and film for centuries.
Here is our “top-ten” list of misconceptions, frequently asked questions, and favorite retellings.
It all happened in Danvers, not Salem. The Witchcraft Hysteria of 1692 happened throughout the region, with accused and accusers coming from Salem, Ipswich, Gloucester, Andover, Methuen, and other communities. Salem Village is now the town of Danvers, and some of the sites associated with the trials and hysteria are in Danvers. Salem Town, modern day Salem, is where the trials actually took place, as well as the hangings and the pressing of Giles Corey. The Salem Award Foundation has produced a Visitor’s Guide to 1692, which is available through Destination Salem, the Salem Regional Visitor Center, and several participating sites.
Gallows Hill is a soccer field today. Maybe, but maybe not. There is definitely a soccer field up on a hill in a neighborhood that is called, “Gallows Hill.” That much is true. That said, the location of the gallows or hanging tree (we are not sure which was used) is not on any modern map. We recommend people go to the Witch Trials Memorial, adjacent to the Old Burying Point, to remember the victims and consider the past. Please treat the Memorial with respect when you visit, and note that the Witch Trials Memorial is closed between dusk and dawn.
The House of the Seven Gables was part of the Salem Witch Trials. The mansion does date back to 1668, so it was here during the trials, but the house itself does not have direct ties to the Witch Trials. The Turner family lived in the house in the 17th-century, and they made their fortune at sea. Nathaniel Hawthorne’s great-great-grandfather was Judge John Hathorne, one of the “hanging judges” during the trials, and his involvement with the Witchcraft Hysteria drove Hawthorne to add the w to his name and write The House of the Seven Gables, which is fiction.
The victims really were witches. Doubtful. It is equally doubtful that the accusers were witches. The Salem Witchcraft Trials were a social hysteria that spun out of control.
The accused were “swum” to determine if they were a witch. Not in Salem. The practice of swimming a witch was used in Europe, and in Connecticut, but not in Salem.
Victims were burned at the stake. Not in Salem. Burning at the stake was punishment for heresy, a crime against the church, in Europe. Witchcraft was a felony in the colonies, a crime against the government.
The Hysteria ended in October. The Court of Oyer and Terminer was dissolved by Governor Phips in October, and a new Superior Court was convened to try the remaining witchcraft cases. The Superior Court condemned three additional people in January 1693, but Governor Phips pardoned them and all who were still imprisoned on the charge of witchcraft. Not everyone was freed, however, as prisoners had to pay for their imprisonment before being released.
On stage: The Crucible, by Arthur Miller, is a remarkable play that is set in Salem in 1692. Miller wrote the story as allegory for the House on Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) that was having its own social witch hunt for communism in the 1950s. The play is fiction, inspired by actual events and actual people. Historian Margo Burns writes more in her essay, “Picky, Picky, Picky.”
On the big screen: Hocus Pocus is definitely fiction, but it sure is fun. A bigger hit in DVD and on network television each October than it was in theatres when it was released in 1993, the story of the Sanderson sisters, starring Bette Midler, Sarah Jessica Parker, and Kathy Najimi is one of our favorites, and many of the locations where they filmed in Salem are still here, and were featured in the 2013 Guide to Salem Haunted Happenings.
In literature: The Heretic’s Daughter, by Kathleen Kent, is about Martha Carrier’s family. Told from the perspective of Martha’s daughter, Sarah, it is a wonderful work of fiction inspired by actual events. Katherine Howe’s novel, The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane, is also an engaging work of historical fiction inspired by the events of 1692.
Resources and References:
The Salem Award Foundation gives the Salem Award for Human Rights and Social Justice annually and maintains the Witch Trials Memorial.
Salem Witch Trials Documents Archive and Transcription Project, University of Virginia
17thc.us, Historian Margo Burns
Witch-Hunting in Seventeenth Century New England, David D. Hall
In the Devil’s Snare: The Salem Witchcraft Crisis of 1692, Mary Beth Norton
The Salem Witch Trials: A Day-By-Day Chronicle of a Community under Siege, Marilynne K. Roach
Records of the Salem Witch-Hunt, Bernard Rosenthal