Just in time for Hallowe'en, Vox reminds us of the Salem Witch Trials. But Vox is more interested in "The Crucible" and "Bewitched" than in the history of the trials. The article can't be bothered with more than reading the trials through the lens of Miller's play and one episode of the '60's TV series. No historian I, but I can read, and fortunately Project Gutenberg has Cotton Mather's The Wonders of the Invisible World available, in which we learn something delightfully appropriate to this gateway to the holiday seasons:
It has been a frequent thing for the Bewitched People to be entertained with Apparitions of Ghosts of Murdered People, at the same time that the Spectres of the Witches trouble them. These Ghosts do always affright the Beholders more than all the other spectral Representations; and when they exhibit themselves, they cry out, of being Murthered by the Witch-crafts or other Violences of the Persons who are then in Spectre present. It is further considered, that once or twice, these Apparitions have been seen by others, at the very same time they have shewn themselves to the Bewitched; and seldom have there been these Apparitions, but when something unusual or suspected, have attended the Death of the Party thus Appearing. Some that have been accused by these Apparitions accosting of the Bewitched People, who had never heard a word of any such Persons ever being in the World, have upon a fair Examination, freely and fully confessed the Murthers of those very Persons, altho' these also did not know how the Apparitions had complained of them. Accordingly several of the Bewitched, had given in their Testimony, that they had been troubled with the Apparitions of two Women, who said, that they were G. B's two Wives, and that he had been the Death of them; and that the Magistrates must be told of it, before whom if B. upon his Tryal denied it, they did not know but that they should appear again in Court. Now, G. B. had been Infamous for the Barbarous usage of his two late Wives, all the Country over. Moreover, it was testified, the Spectre of G. B. threatning of the Sufferers, told them, he had Killed (besides others) Mrs. Lawson and her Daughter Ann. And it was noted, that these were the Vertuous Wife and Daughter of one at whom this G. B. might have a prejudice for his being serviceable at Salem Village, from whence himself had in ill Terms removed some Years before: And that when they dy'd, which was long since, there were some odd Circumstances about them, which made some of the Attendents there suspect something of Witch-craft, tho none Imagined from what Quarter it should come.
The accepted excuses for the trials are hysteria, or ergot poisoning. Or was it just gossip run amok?
II. The Court accounted themselves, alarum'd by these Things, to enquire further into the Conversation of the Prisoner; and see what there might occur, to render these Accusations further credible. Whereupon, John Allen of Salisbury, testify'd, That he refusing, because of the weakness of his Oxen, to Cart some Staves at the request of this Martin, she was displeased at it; and said, It had been as good that he had; for his Oxen should never do him much more Service. Whereupon, this Deponent said, Dost thou threaten me, thou old Witch? I'l throw thee into the Brook: Which to avoid, she flew over the Bridge, and escaped. But, as he was going home, one of his Oxen tired, so that he was forced to Unyoke him, that he might get him home. He then put his Oxen, with many more, upon Salisbury Beach, where Cattle did use to get Flesh. In a few days, all the Oxen upon the Beach were found by their Tracks, to have run unto the Mouth of Merrimack-River, and not returned; but the next day they were found come ashore upon Plum-Island. They that sought them, used all imaginable gentleness, but they would still run away with a violence, that seemed wholly Diabolical, till they came near the mouth of Merrimack-River; when they ran right into the Sea, swimming as far as they could be seen. One of them then swam back again, with a swiftness, amazing to the Beholders, who stood ready to receive him, and help up his tired Carcass: But the Beast ran furiously up into the Island, and from thence, thorough the Marshes, up into Newbury Town, and so up into the Woods; and there after a while found near Amesbury. So that, of fourteen good Oxen, there was only this saved: The rest were all cast up, some in one place, and some in another, Drowned.
IV. John Atkinson testifi'd, That he exchanged a Cow with a Son of Susanna Martin's, whereat she muttered, and was unwilling he should have it. Going to receive this Cow, tho he Hamstring'd her, and Halter'd her, she, of a Tame Creature, grew so mad, that they could scarce get her along. She broke all the Ropes that were fastned unto her, and though she were ty'd fast unto a Tree, yet she made her escape, and gave them such further trouble, as they could ascribe to no cause but Witchcraft.
V. Bernard Peache testifi'd, That being in Bed, on the Lord's-day Night, he heard a scrabbling at the Window, whereat he then saw Susanna Martin come in, and jump down upon the Floor. She took hold of this Deponent's Feet, and drawing his Body up into an Heap, she lay upon him near Two Hours; in all which time he could neither speak nor stir. At length, when he could begin to move, he laid hold on her Hand, and pulling it up to his Mouth, he bit three of her Fingers, as he judged, unto the Bone. Whereupon she went from the Chamber, down the Stairs, out at the Door. This Deponent thereupon called unto the People of the House, to advise them of what passed; and he himself did follow her. The People saw her not; but there being a Bucket at the Left-hand of the Door, there was a drop of Blood found upon it; and several more drops of Blood upon the Snow newly fallen abroad: There was likewise the print of her 2 Feet just without the Threshold; but no more sign of any Footing further off.
Much of the testimony against Susanna Martin is of this type, to the point one recognizes a woman who asserts her independence and finds that's not such a good idea. The account of her trial includes her testimony, and modern audiences can't help but be impressed with her:
Magistrate. Pray, what ails these People?
Martin. I don't know.
Magistrate. But what do you think ails them?
Martin. I don't desire to spend my Judgment upon it.
Magistrate. Don't you think they are bewitch'd?
Martin. No, I do not think they are.
Magistrate. Tell us your Thoughts about them then.
Martin. No, my thoughts are my own, when they are in, but when they are out they are anothers. Their Master.——
Magistrate. Their Master? who do you think is their Master?
Martin. If they be dealing in the Black Art, you may know as well as I.
Magistrate. Well, what have you done towards this?
Martin. Nothing at all.
Magistrate. Why, 'tis you or your Appearance.
Martin. I cannot help it.
Magistrate. Is it not your Master? How comes your Appearance to hurt these?
Martin. How do I know? He that appeared in the Shape of Samuel, a glorified Saint, may appear in any ones Shape.
The evidence against her, however, is less than impressive:
VI. Robert Downer testified, That this Prisoner being some Years ago prosecuted at Court for a Witch, he then said unto her, He believed she was a Witch. Whereat she being dissatisfied, said, That some She-Devil would shortly fetch him away! Which words were heard by others, as well as himself. The Night following, as he lay in his Bed, there came in at the Window, the likeness of a Cat, which flew upon him, took fast hold of his Throat, lay on him a considerable while, and almost killed him. At length he remembred what Susanna Martin had threatned the Day before; and with much striving he cried out, Avoid, thou She-Devil! In the Name of God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, Avoid! Whereupon it left him, leap'd on the Floor, and flew out at the Window.
And there also came in several Testimonies, that before ever Downer spoke a word of this Accident, Susanna Martin and her Family had related, How this Downer had been handled!
VII. John Kembal testified, that Susanna Martin, upon a Causeless Disgust, had threatned him, about a certain Cow of his, That she should never do him any more Good: and it came to pass accordingly. For soon after the Cow was found stark dead on the dry Ground, without any Distemper to be discerned upon her. Upon which he was followed with a strange Death upon more of his Cattle, whereof he lost in one Spring to the Value of Thirty Pounds. But the said John Kembal had a further Testimony to give in against the Prisoner which was truly admirable.
Being desirous to furnish himself with a Dog, he applied himself to buy one of this Martin, who had a Bitch with Whelps in her House. But she not letting him have his choice, he said, he would supply himself then at one Blezdels. Having mark'd a Puppy, which he lik'd at Blezdels, he met George Martin, the Husband of the Prisoner, going by, who asked him, Whether he would not have one of his Wife's Puppies? and he answered, No. The same Day, one Edmond Eliot, being at Martin's House, heard George Martin relate, where this Kembal had been, and what he had said. Whereupon Susanna Martin replied, If I live, I'll give him Puppies enough! Within a few days after, this Kembal, coming out of the Woods, there arose a little Black Cloud in the N. W. and Kembal immediately felt a force upon him, which made him not able to avoid running upon the stumps of Trees, that were before him, albeit he had a broad, plain Cart-way, before him; but tho' he had his Ax also on his Shoulder to endanger him in his Falls, he could not forbear going out of his way to tumble over them. When he came below the Meeting House, there appeared unto him, a little thing like a Puppy, of a Darkish Colour; and it shot backwards and forwards between his Legs. He had the Courage to use all possible Endeavours of Cutting it with his Ax; but he could not Hit it: the Puppy gave a jump from him, and went, as to him it seem'd into the Ground. Going a little further, there appeared unto him a Black Puppy, somewhat bigger than the first, but as Black as a Cole. Its Motions were quicker than those of his Ax; it flew at his Belly, and away; then at his Throat; so, over his Shoulder one way, and then over his Shoulder another way. His Heart now began to fail him, and he thought the Dog would have tore his Throat out. But he recovered himself, and called upon God in his Distress; and naming the Name of Jesus Christ, it vanished away at once. The Deponent spoke not one Word of these Accidents, for fear of affrighting his Wife. But the next Morning, Edmond Eliot, going into Martin's House, this Woman asked him where Kembal was? He replied, At home, a Bed, for ought he knew. She returned, They say, he was frighted last Night. Eliot asked, With what? She answered, With Puppies. Eliot asked, Where she heard of it, for he had heard nothing of it? She rejoined, About the Town. Altho' Kembal had mentioned the Matter to no Creature living.
Not exactly the kind of evidence you find in modern criminal court proceedings, but taken and presented as "more than that which is called Spectre Evidence for the Conviction of the Persons condemned."
The Vox article notes that, for centuries, the Salem witch trials were an embarrassment to the environs of Salem, and the less said of them the better. Reading these accounts it seems the embarrassment far less to do with hysteria than it does with credulousness; less to do with witchcraft than with getting one's pound of flesh and using a rather fast and loose "legal system" (to read these accounts is to decide the term has limited application) to do it. The embarrassment, in other words, seems to stem from some lingering guilt about what was done by the community, and in the community's name. Most of the testimony against Susanna Martin sounds very much like finding someone to blame for your problems:
It was further testify'd by this Deponent, That after he had given in some Evidence against Susanna Martin, many years ago, she gave him foul words about it; and said, He should never prosper more; particularly, That he should never have more than two Cows; that tho' he was never so likely to have more, yet he should never have them. And that from that very day to this, namely for twenty years together, he could never exceed that number; but some strange thing or other still prevented his having any more.
That's not hysteria; but neither should it be evidence in a capital trial. But these were kangaroo courts, not trials, and it seems fairly clear the courts were as legitimate and well run as any set up to get convictions and provide the people with panem et circenses. Much of the accusations, indeed, had to do with securing the authority of the church, i.e., the community, against individuals. Susanna Martin dies asserting she'd led a virtuous and holy life. Elizabeth How, another convicted witch:
This How had made some Attempts of joyning to the Church at Ipswich, several years ago; but she was denyed an admission into that Holy Society, partly through a suspicion of Witchcraft, then urged against her. And there now came in Testimony, of preternatural Mischiefs, presently befalling some that had been Instrumental to debar her from the Communion whereupon she was intruding.Pretty much the definition of "damned if you do and damned if you don't." The church, the community, is protecting itself from those it doesn't like; and finding reasons to condemn them, even execute them, so it can maintain it's purity. But here purity doesn't mean holiness; it means keeping out people we don't want in. Any one familiar with a small church would recognize the behavior immediately, and be grateful such churches today don't have the power of summary execution available to them.
Some of the evidence sounds like Monty Python and the Holy Grail:
V. Allin Toothaker testify'd, That Richard, the son of Martha Carrier, having some difference with him, pull'd him down by the Hair of the Head. When he Rose again, he was going to strike at Richard Carrier; but fell down flat on his Back to the ground, and had not power to stir hand or foot, until he told Carrier he yielded; and then he saw the shape of Martha Carrier, go off his breast.
This Toothaker, had Received a wound in the Wars; and he now testify'd, that Martha Carrier told him, He should never be Cured. Just afore the Apprehending of Carrier, he could thrust a knitting Needle into his wound, four inches deep; but presently after her being siezed, he was throughly healed.
Well, he got better! Why, you can't even see the scar!
Nineteen Witches have been Executed at New-England, one of them was a Minister, and two Ministers more are Accus'd.
And why doesn't that surprise me?
And frankly, this doesn't sound like the work of hysteria, or spoiled rye:
In December 1692, the Court sate again at Salem in New-England, and cleared about 40 persons suspected for Witches, and Condemned three. The Evidence against these three was the same as formerly, so the Warrant for their Execution was sent, and the Graves digged for the said three, and for about five more that had been Condemned at Salem formerly, but were Repreived by the Governour.I've been through a "church trial," back when I was a lawyer, before seminary. It went much like this: what was said against the pastor was taken as irrefutable. Whatever was said by him, or in his favor, was taken as....well, not testimony from Satan, but near as dammit. I was even presented with a set of rules as accepted by the Church (so the lawyer representing the Church represented to me) which, it turned out, were only drafts of rules which were explicitly rejected by the General Assembly (the body of that church judicatory which decided such matters). The draft rules put me, and my client, in a box from which there was no escape; but they were "Spectre Evidence for the Conviction of the Person condemned," or as good as. It was a kangaroo court from start to finish, and though it didn't end in my client's execution, it practically ended in his damnation. A similar set of circumstances to today's hue and cry about sexual abuse and sexual assault, too, as he was accused of improper attentions to a young lady in his church. Come to think of it, I don't think he ever even faced his accuser.
So I don't know; I haven't made an extensive study of Salem, but "hysteria"? Ergot poisoning? Or just people being people? Frost speculated between fire and ice, and favored fire because of what he knew of desire. I've had enough experience with people to know it really doesn't take much to set them off, and against "the other." I think there's a reason Salem disavowed its connection to the trials for so long, and why interest in them revived centuries later only through fictionalizing the accounts, which I suspect we continue to do.
We do love our stories, especially when they allow us to make "others" of people, and convince ourselves we'd never do such things; or that no one would do them, without more elaborate reasons or causes than the simple desire to be in charge, and to do unto others before they do unto you.
Now, about that Hallowe'en candy.....