The Archives of Witch City
By Katharine Dunn, Dean's Editorial Fellow
It's October — Halloween season — and people are donning pointed hats and dark capes and heading to Salem in droves for ghoulish holiday fun. But what's the real story about Salem and witchcraft? We interviewed Danvers historian and archivist Richard Trask who presides over a massive collection of printed materials related to the 1692 witchcraft hysteria to get some history behind this autumnal tradition.
Salem, Mass., calls itself the Witch City, and it's not hard to see why. Most storefronts on Essex Street — the main drag — advertise witch t-shirts, witch tours, souvenirs commemorating witchcraft, or psychic readings by local witches. So many of the latter have moved to town since the 1970s that they've formed public awareness groups to protect witches' rights.
But today's Salem witches, who commune with nature and practice spiritual healing, bear little resemblance to their infamous Puritan forebears, 19 of whom were executed during the witchcraft hysteria of 1692. And though the witch trials took place in Salem and over half of the legal records from the events reside in the Phillips Library of the Peabody Essex Museum on Essex Street, most of the accusations and examinations happened elsewhere, in surrounding towns like Andover, Billerica, and Topsfield.
The outbreak itself started five miles northwest of Salem in a satellite farming community called Salem Village — now known as Danvers — where today many residents don't even know there's a connection to the events. "Everybody was always happy to have [tourists] go to Salem if they want to see witchcraft," says Richard Trask, the Danvers town archivist and lifelong resident who has spent nearly four decades collecting materials related to the witch hysteria. "As a kid I remember that polite society didn't talk about it. Danvers just completely ignores it, and they're happy to do that because it's such a traumatic event."
In early winter 1692, a handful of girls in Salem Village began to act strangely. Their bodies convulsed and contorted, and they temporarily lost their hearing, speech, sight, or memory. Two of the girls were the daughter and niece of Samuel Parris, pastor of the Church of Christ at Salem Village, which recently had been granted independence from the mother church in Salem. Parris and others prayed and fasted, and Parris called in a physician to examine the girls. The doctor couldn't diagnose their fits; instead, he said they were touched by "the evil hand" of malicious witchcraft, which was illegal to practice in the Massachusetts colony. The affliction spread to others in the village, some of whom claimed to be bitten by unseen creatures (and often had the marks to prove it). And parents began to prod their children to confess who was to blame.
The earliest documentation from the yearlong ordeal is a record of that blame. On Leap Year Day 1692, warrants were issued to apprehend three outcast women — "what the normal witch was" at the time, says Trask. (The accusations would soon spread to full church members and the wealthy, eventually including the wife of the Massachusetts governor.) The next day, magistrates from Salem examined the women at the town meeting house, where Parris gave his sermons. Sarah Good and Sarah Osburn denied any involvement, though during questioning girls in the room suffered fits that observers attributed to the women's witchcraft. The third accused, a slave in the Parris household named Tituba, confessed. According to one transcription of her testimony, Tituba said that she met a man, "sometimes it is like a hog and sometimes like a great dog," who "say hurt the children or we will do worse to you."
What's recorded depends on who is doing the transcribing. In the four versions of Tituba's examination, she appears both manipulative and as though she has no idea what's going on, says Trask, who has pored through about two-thirds of the 950 surviving legal records of the witchcraft and has published several books on the subject. Tituba's confession is striking in another way: She implicates other villagers in witchcraft, which helped promote the hysteria.
"Instead of hanging the three women and then being done with it, as usually happened in New England, [Tituba's words] opened it up. The girls started accusing others," says Trask. Within a few months, dozens of people were examined in Salem Village; eventually, 150 of the accused languished in jails there and in surrounding towns.
Reverend Parris, father and uncle of two afflicted girls, was responsible for transcribing many of the examinations. "He says he's trying to write as truthfully as possible, but he's got all this baggage," says Trask. "He's seeing events differently than the husband of the accused." When the witchcraft frenzy was over about a year after it started, Parris was maligned for his role in encouraging ill will in the village during his sermons and otherwise. In 1696 he resigned from the church. But Trask sees him as a complex man in a difficult situation. "He didn't necessarily act the best," he says, "but I'm not sure anyone in his circumstance would have been able to."
Trask grew up hearing stories about his ancestor, Mary Esty, an accused witch who was hanged in September 1692. (More recently he discovered he's related to another executed witch, John Proctor.) He has run the Danvers Archival Center, which is in the basement of the Peabody Institute Library, since he helped found it in 1972. Since then, he's built a large witchcraft collection that bears the name of its original donor, Ellerton J. Brehaut. Most of the 7,000 items in the collection are published books and pamphlets from the 17th century to the present, by authors in New England, and beyond. There are rare gems, like the only surviving signature mark of accused witch Giles Cory, who was pressed to death by stones for refusing to plead to the charges against him; and the church record book in which Reverend Parris writes, in late March 1692, "The Devil hath been raised amongst us, & his Rage is vehement & terrible, & when he shall be silenc'd the Lord only knows."
Trask recently "paid through the nose" to buy Cases of Conscience, a book published in 1693 by Increase Mather, then president of Harvard, for distribution to those involved in the witch trials. Mather claims that spectral evidence — testimony about attacks by the spirit of an accused witch — should no longer be trusted to convict witches. He writes, "It were better that ten suspected witches should escape, than that one innocent person should be condemned." Though Mather (and his son Cotton) had also supported the trials, Cases of Conscience "was one of the major works that helped bring about the end of the witchcraft trials," says Trask.
In many ways, though, the witchcraft trials have never ended. "Every generation tries to determine what happened. It's like any other controversial thing in American history; it just evolves over time," says Trask. Almost since the trials shut down in early 1693, writers have published theories about the events. Among the most heavily debated is the cause of the girls' suffering. Ideas range from illness due to contaminated rye (a theory "debunked within months," says Trask) to mass clinical hysteria (Trask's view). As to why the hysteria spread as it did, a recent book suggests that the trials must be viewed in the context of the Indian wars that many New Englanders, including magistrates and judges involved in the witch trials, had witnessed.
The rise of Salem as the Witch City has happened only in the last four decades, introducing yet another perspective on witches: as a "cutesy symbol," says Trask, with a conical hat, broom, and wart on the nose. Trask, who helped design a witchcraft victims' memorial in Danvers, says, "I thought the Bewitched statue [erected in Salem in 2005 to commemorate the 1960's television show] was not the best idea. I don't want to be belligerent about it, but I don't want to completely subvert what the lessons are."
A lesson about human strength is particularly important to Trask. While in prison awaiting her hanging, his ancestor Mary Esty wrote a petition to the judge and bench, cautioning them about convicting innocent people. She urges them to examine those confessing witches who, she writes, "belied themselves and others." "The one thread that runs through these 19 who are executed is that no matter what, they weren't going to confess," says Trask. "They were under so much pressure from the church and civil and judicial authorities, and very often their families went against them. And they just stood up and said, 'I'm not going to say I'm guilty.' That's a real heroic thing for average people to do."