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The “Psychology” of Salem

October 18, 2012 in American Authors, American History, Dark New England, Halloween, New England Travel, Psychology

And mark this. Let either of you breathe a word, or the edge of a word, about the other things, and I will come to you in the black of some terrible night and I will bring a pointy reckoning that will shudder you. And you know I can do it; I saw Indians smash my dear parents’ heads on the pillow next to mine and I have seen some reddish work done at night, and I can make you wish you had never seen the sun go down!

– Act I:  The Crucible, by Arthur Miller

Returning as an adult to historic Salem, Massachusetts, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I also didn’t know what I was looking for. As a child, Salem was terrifying. Make-believe witches were scary–carrying off children in the night to eat them–but now what’s frightening is that innocent women were accused of being witches simply because they didn’t fit in, and then hanged for it. My father claims that one of our people, a ‘Morse’ in Newburyport, Mass., was at one point convicted of witchcraft and consequently hanged. There is something so utterly inhuman about it. The idea of a swinging body in a tree (a “strange fruit”) is completely disarming. It’s eerie and odd and tragic. But what of the girls who had the women accused in the first place?  Without them, would the hysteria have occurred?

Were these girls just bored? Like drugs or petty theft, did they decided to get there hands dirty. Is that why they cried ‘witch’, to slyly watch the horror unfold?  Was it for the attention? Were these girls so incredibly starved for attention and excitement that they took to writhing around on the ground foaming at the mouth? One account states that one of the girls took to crawling around on the ground like a dog, barking. Having been a teenage girl myself not so very long ago, I can recall the strange psychology of a girl’s mind at this pivotal age. The mind of a teenage girl is a slippery and amorphous thing. It is unpredictable, wily, and damage that may occur during this time period can have long-lasting affects on both the teen, and those around her. Perhaps the most dangerous element of the teenage mind is the inability to grasp the concept of linear thinking. Some teenagers cannot see beyond immediate gratification.  This makes decision making tricky.

Having said all this, can I understand letting something that started out as a prank get so out of hand that innocent people would be put to their deaths? I think I can. I can remember that out of control feeling that comes with being a teenager, that feeling that the world was slipping out my control and I was  powerless to stop it. These girls must have felt the same.

As mentioned in the presentation at the Salem Witch Museum, life would have been incredibly dull and stifling for the daughters of Puritan households. The day would have been long and tiresome, and imagination, creativity and individuality were certainly not acknowledged or encouraged in a typical home. Where would these girls have channeled their pent up energy? Where would they have looked to for entertainment? Living in the 21st century, there are endless distractions: Facebook, Twitter–the virtual world is practically designed for bored teenagers. But in 1692, all young girls would have had was each other. It seems only natural that as Abigail Williams and her cousin Betty Parris became “afflicted”, each girl simply followed suit…and then tried to out-perform.

Another aspect of teenage mentality is pack-like thinking, in which groups are formed and leaders are chosen, and followers fill in the gaps. Clearly some girls were more invested then others, but all the girls were bonded together by what must have been the greatest play-acting of all time. Once a single lie is told, the subsequent lies becomes easier and easier. Perhaps these girls took on the role of the bewitched so intensely that they began to believe it themselves. Not to mention how important these girls must have suddenly felt! How powerful! Physicians, priests, parents and townspeople, looking to them for answers. They went from being virtually powerless to dictating the fate of members of their community. It must have been addicting.

In Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, he creates a complicated network of relationships, suggesting that Abigail Williams and John Proctor were engaged in an affair, and that Williams was acting out of jealousy. Miller paints the girls as conniving and selfish; power hungry and intoxicated by the affect their accusations have. Abigail Williams is charismatic and ruthless and will stop at nothing to have John Proctor back. Reading The Crucible, it becomes possible to blame the trials on Abigail alone. But what about the townspeople and juries who fell for it?

Sitting in the darkened room at the Salem Witch Museum, watching the representations of the trials light up, and seeing these young girl’s faces illuminated, I realize there are no easy answers. Because wrapping up the details in a neat little story is exactly the kind of thing we can learn from.

As an adult in Salem, I found myself still amazed by the power this particular group of young girls managed to grasp. Should we fear witches, I thought? Or should we fear the dangerous nature of a bored mind?

The Salem Witch Trials: A Retelling and Commentary

October 12, 2012 in American History, Massachusetts Travel

Literary Traveler took a trip to Salem, Massachusetts this week, so expect a bunch of interesting posts and photos next week. Before we get rolling, here’s a refresher on the Trials and the profound affect they had on American history, by contributor Wes Newbury.

It was the dead of night and John Louder lay awake, listening to the dead leaves scratch across the cobblestone streets. Moonlight beamed through his frail windowpane, pale and haunting. Upon his chest he felt a suffocating weight and his strength left him altogether. Later he would testify  ‘It was her, the woman from the tavern.’ She sat “upon my stomake and… layd hold of my throat.”[1]

In 1692, fear spread through Salem, Massachusetts like contagion, infecting the minds of the mainstream, and claiming the lives of those among the periphery. In the span of ten months, over 150 people, mainly poor, ill-reputed women, were accused of witchcraft. Of the accused, 19 were hanged, five died in prison, and one was slowly crushed by the weight of piled stones.[2] Fourteen of the nineteen hanged were women.

Bridget made her way up the stairs, patting her sleeve to her lip to check for blood. “The old devil,” she whispered under her breath, “The old rogue.” She heard his footsteps pounding up the stairs, and when she turned to face him she met another blow. “You witch,” he accused her, “Trying to curse me on the Sabbath.”*

Bridget wore her bruises to the court where she was convicted of fighting with her husband, Thomas Oliver.[3]  When he died in 1678, Bridget was accused of bewitching him to death.

Salem of the late seventeenth century was a male dominated society that regarded the souls of women as corruptible vessels for the devil’s work. Sexual repression, Puritan law, and old English folklore were all part of a misogynistic tradition that viewed women as an inferior sex to be dominated and controlled. Bridget was not a woman of her time. She was independent and far from being a submissive Puritan wife. She left her first husband in England, quarreled with the other until his death, and transformed the home of her third and final spouse into a tavern where she served apple cider to late night drinkers.

The boys were rowdy tonight. Bridget wasn’t expecting so many sailors and they had nearly cleaned her out of her last batch of cider. They laughed heartily and rammed their mugs together over the shovelboard, already sticky with sweet cider. It was late and her neighbors had doused their lights long ago. Bridget wasn’t expecting any other visitors when the door burst open. It was the woman from across the street, Christine Trask, and she had a crazed look in her eye. The sailors stopped laughing and Christine charged them. She swiped the shovelboard clean and threw their board pieces into the fire.. “You have no right entertaining this riff-raff at such an unseasonable hour!”* she shouted at Bridget.

Christine began having fits a few days after the strange encounter. When she eventually killed herself in a moment of self-destructive rage, Bridget Bishop was again accused of witchcraft. The year was 1686.

Six years later, the Minister Parris’ girls began behaving freakishly. It started with nine-year-old Elizabeth, but spread quickly to her sisters and friends. The girls had convulsions and became entranced at times. They claimed to be cursed and tormented by evil specters. When they started pointing fingers, Bridget Bishop was accused of witchcraft for the third and final time.

A court of Oyer and Terminer had been created to deal swift justice to the overflowing population of accused witches in the Salem Prison. The court was composed of magistrates and a grand jury ripe with fear. Their objective was to rid Salem of devilry and Bridget was the first to stand trial.

When she walked into the courtroom the girls began to twist and scream in agony. They broke into fits. “What witchcraft are you conversant in,” hissed Judge Hathorne, glancing at the contorted figures of the young girls.

Bridgett looked at them in horror. Then she turned to the grand jury and surveyed the sea of suspicious faces. “I take all this people to witness 
that I am clear,” she demanded.

“Why do you seem to act witchcraft before us?”

“I know nothing of it,” Bridget protested. “I am innocent to a witch. I know not what a witch is.”

“They say you bewitcht your first husband to death.”

“If it please your worship I know nothing of it.”*

Despite her pleas of innocence, and there being no tangible evidence to prove her guilt, Judge Hathorne sentenced Bridget Bishop to death. Her grave reads, “Hanged June 10, 1692.” Eighteen more people would follow her to the grave, they all claimed to be innocent of witchcraft.

Five years after the executions, people tried to come to terms with what they knew had been a gross miscarriage of justice. The nine girls confessed to their trickery and lies. Salem was ashamed.

A century later, Nathaniel Hathorne, the great grandson of the infamous judge, changed his name to Hawthorne to distance himself from his family’s despicable legacy. It became clear that the only evil spirit the town had encountered was fear.

In 1952, Arthur Miller used the Salem Witch Trials as an allegory of McCarthyism in his play The Crucible. By suggesting the same phenomenon that occurred in Salem 1692 could reoccur on a national scale in the 1940’s, Miller illustrates how history has always had its witches. They are the enemy, the source of our woes, and the antagonist of our endless hunt.

Bridget Bishop wasn’t a communist, but she challenged societal norms. She was killed by a society possessed by fear and in need of a scapegoat. Her story is one of innocent defiance, not sorcery. Literature that indulges in the satanic and mystical nature of the Trials skewers the real reasons they are so horrifying. Ghosts, ghouls, and witches are inventions of our imagination used to justify the irrational fear we have of each other. The fear that pervaded Salem in the seventeenth century is the same fear that fuels witch hunts today. Our history is scarier than our imagination; for when fear takes hold of us, we can become the monsters we were hunting.

Salem is the capital of Halloween.  If you visit, enjoy the festivities, zany costumes, haunted houses, and ghost tours. But, please remember what really happened in 1692. To better understand the history of the Salem Witch Trials stop by the Salem Witch Museum or sign up for a show with History Alive. Come find out why Salem truly is one of the spookiest places on earth.

********************

*All quotations are taken from the Verbatim Transcripts

[1] Verbatim Transcripts of the Legal Documents of the Salem Witchcraft Outbreak of 1692.

[2] The Witches Curse. Secrets of the Dead. PBS.org

[3] Cry Innocent: The People Vs. Bridgett Bishop. History Alive!

 

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