Salem Witch Trials – Part 1

September 17th, 1692 – Salem, Massachusetts

Today I awoke to find myself not in my bed, but sat on an unpaved road, hidden in the shade of a wooden building.  Up ahead a large and very animated throng of people was headed in my direction in the midst of a heated debate, allowing me to slip unnoticed into the back of the procession as it passed by.  The people’s outfits immediately put me in mind of Pilgrims or Colonial America.  When I heard what they were talking so excitedly about I knew I was not far off the mark.  One word was constantly repeated in their agitated conversations – “witch”.  My growing suspicions were confirmed as I followed the horde into a building.  A sign on the façade informed me that I was entering the Salem courthouse.  I took a seat at the very back, in the hope that I could watch the proceedings unnoticed, but soon afterwards a man sat down right beside me and introduced himself.  His name was Nathaniel.  I passed myself off as a new arrival in town, up from New York on business.  This would help explain my ignorance when I fished for information.

A picture of Salem in 1760, 68 years after the Salem Witch Trials

Salem in 1760

Nathaniel filled me in on the events to date.  Everyone was here to see the trial of eight women and one man charged with witchcraft.  Over the previous six months similar trials had resulted in the execution by hanging of eleven women and men convicted of being witches.  Over 200 more had been accused and at least 150 were currently in prison.  Not having really studied the subject before, I was amazed when I discovered the cause of so many accusations, trials and executions.  Ten girls, ranging in age from 9 to 21, had become afflicted with some unknown malady.  It began with two cousins, aged 9 and 11, who began to have hysterical fits.  They would yell and scream, bark like dogs, contort their bodies into bizarre positions, and spout ridiculous speeches, along with various other unexplained behaviors.  A doctor diagnosed witchcraft as the only explanation for their problems and soon several other girls began to manifest the same symptoms.  These were known as the “afflicted” girls.

For these girls to be under the effects of witchcraft there naturally had to be witches at work.  Pressured by adults to name their attackers, the girls named three women as their tormentors.  One of these, a slave named Tituba, amazingly confessed to being a witch, even implicating the other two women as fellow witches.  Apparently they had all three met with the Devil together.  Her confession was probably not a bad idea though, since despite having been the first one accused of witchcraft, she still hadn’t been to see the hangman.  From that point on things began to snowball and the girls accused dozens of people.  Those accused often confessed and in turn accused yet others.  Not one of those who had confessed and named names had so far been killed.  Only those maintaining their innocence were hanged, so Tituba probably had been wise.  On the other hand, had she said nothing at all the whole affair might have ended right there.

As far as the proceedings I witnessed over the next few hours, I will try to be brief.  I would soon fill the space in this diary if I were to describe all the lunacy that took place.  Each and every one of these nine unfortunate people was found guilty and sentenced to hang.  But the “evidence” and the antics in the courtroom truly astounded me.  The most common form of evidence on that day was “spectral evidence”, and according to Nathaniel the same went for all the previous trials.  This was testimony by the girls, and other accusers, that the accused witch’s spirit had appeared to them in dreams or visions.  These specters would pinch, bite, kick and even sometimes choke their victims.  And the mere word of these adolescent girls, with their fanciful stories, was taken as incontrovertible proof and was sufficient to have all these people put to death.  Apparently there was quite some philosophical debate as to whether a person had to give the Devil permission for their shape to be used in this way.  The prevailing wisdom was that permission was indeed required, so anyone seen in these visions clearly had to be in league with the Devil.  I could tell that Nathaniel was not a believer when it came to these girls, but he quickly hushed me when I began to voice my skepticism.  Amongst those already executed was one man who had publicly doubted the girls’ testimony.  Some of the girls quickly branded him a witch himself, accusing his spectral self of choking them, and in short order he was arrested, tried and hanged.  From that point on I kept my doubts and astonishment to myself.A picture of one of the Salem witch trials in 1692

Every now and then, when the moment seemed right, some of the girls would perform one of their fits right there in the courtroom.  In the case of some of the accused, I watched in amazement as the girls writhed in agony, or mimicked the accused’s every movement.  If the accused shifted her feet or raised an arm, so did the girls.  If she bit her lip, so too did the girls, crying out in pain as they made themselves bleed.  It was all quite farcical, but everyone there was quite taken in by it and many seemed terrified.  A little later I witnessed another absurd test for whether someone is a witch – the “touch test”. Apparently if an afflicted person is touched by a witch during one of their fits, the fit immediately stops.  A rather convenient test for someone who is fabricating their affliction.  This happened with several of the unfortunate souls accused that day and naturally, as soon as the girls were touched by an accused, their fits ceased immediatelyA picture of one of the Salem witch trials in 1692.

It was all quite appalling.  By the end of the proceedings all nine defendants were sentenced to hang.  Throughout the trials the afflicted girls present in the courtroom performed their crazed antics at all the most opportune times.  If one of the accused was denying the charge, or their defense seemed to be gaining traction with those present, it would be their cue for a renewed bout of screaming and writhing.  If an accused looked in their direction, this too would set them off.  Prior to this journey I knew comparatively little about the Salem witch trials.  But I really had no idea how the deaths of so many people was entirely dependent on the stories and histrionics of a few immature girls.

As the proceedings came to an end Nathaniel asked me if I had lodgings for the night and kindly invited me to stay with him.  Not knowing how long I would remain here in the 17th century, I gladly accepted his offer.  I would come to appreciate this hospitality and being able to get some sleep, because over the next few days I would witness some truly awful events…

To be continued in Part 2

 

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