An Unsolved Mystery From History
Thou Shalt Not Suffer a Witch to Live
Why? That’s the question. Why did twenty people in 1692 in Salem, Massachussets get accused of witchcraft and have their lives snuffed at the end of a rope or by crushing with stones?
Here’s the reasons I have heard over the years. Because the people in Salem were crazy. Because they believed in freakin’ ridiculous things. Because they were jealous or envious of others. Because they were nuts. Because they were pious. Because they were stupid and uneducated. Because they were Puritans. Because they had a crazy religion. Because they were unusual people and couldn’t get along with others in society.
Perhaps, or perhaps not. Could something like this happen again?
Who believes in witchcraft, anyway? Perhaps before a person can understand the hysteria that resulted in 20 innocent people being killed, it might be good to first assess if you yourself believe in witchcraft.
I don’t know. Do you? Do you believe in witchcraft or the occult? That’s a good question. Do I believe in witchcraft? I don’t know.
For all the reluctance of modern and scientifically “enlightened” people to believe in witchcraft, there surely are a lot of people who love perusing fictional depictions of witchcraft and magic as evidenced by the fascination with Harry Potter and his adventures. Is it really a thing? Can witches really cast spells upon people? Can witches make magical brews and potions?
Perhaps we need to stir up a little magic of our own to find out what happened so many years ago in Salem….. and so……
ABRACADABRA……… bippity bop….. mystical magic make my meager mind transcend the metaphysical……
I have my detectives with me on this cool summer day to find out what happened so many years ago in Salem. Perhaps we will come away with more questions than answers, we shall see. And really, does it matter 300 years later?
Perhaps this dark stain on American history can just be brushed off as a relic from the past, a mystery from history, for undoubtedly mankind will never be so dumb again as to suspect people of mystical and magical and occult and supernatural and paranormal and transcendental capacities, for surely such things are nonexistent in a world that is so readily explained by science. Is that really so?
And surely if “we” had been there in Salem in 1692 this would not have happened, for not only are we enlightened, but clearly we have superior intelligence and good will that humanity lacked in those dark and evil days. That was then, this is now. Or was it?
We begin our tour of Salem with a stop at the Burying Point, which is the oldest burial grounds in Salem.
Incredibly we come upon the gravesite of the notorious John Hathorne, perhaps the most determined and influential judges on the witchcraft court of Salem. And incidentally, this man never issued an apology or indicated any penitence for his role in the untimely brutal deaths of 20 countrymen.
Adjacent to the burial ground is a memorial to those who were accused and convicted of witchcraft. Nineteen victims were hanged and one man crushed to death by rocks. As we approach, an elderly groundskeeper is hunched over cleaning up debris with great attention to detail. The memorial has a sense of serenity and remorse that envelops my soul. I take a deep breath in, and exhale slowly and deliberately.
And so we happen upon a marker dedicated to the very first victim, Bridget Bishop, her life extinguished on June 10, 1692, in a hanging so gruesome that Nathaniel Saltonstall, one of the judges who convicted her, quit his post on the court. He knew she was innocent and did not warrant the death that she suffered at the end of a rope, her hanging purposely executed in a manner such that her neck did not snap, but rather she hung at the end of the rope by her neck and suffocated to death, emitting grotesque gurgling noises as the flame of life was slowly extinguished.
“So indeed,” I ask my detectives, “what exactly happened here?”
It all begins in February 1692, when the Reverend Parris’s nine-year-old daughter Betty, and her cousin Abigail Williams, age 11, start having fits described as “beyond the power of Epileptic Fits or natural disease to effect”. The girls were in hysterics, screaming and writhing and flinging about, and ultimately they claimed that the cause was witchcraft.
Now interestingly enough, prior to these events these two young girls had spent a considerable amount of time with Reverend Parris’ servant, Tituba, who was known to be from Barbados. It is thought that Tituba spent much time telling Betty and Abigail stories from her home country, and about their customs, and even practicing voodoo. Perhaps this is what initiated the fits, for the girls may have felt fear or guilt for having partaken in these heathen storytelling sessions.
After having these fits the girls accused Tituba of witchcraft, to which amazingly and shockingly she confesses. Tituba went on to accuse others in her confession, and she talked about seeing large black dogs, hogs, a yellow bird, red and black rats, cats, a fox and a wolf. She provided many frightening details, which made the Puritan townspeople exceedingly afraid that the devil was amongst them in this strange new land.
I ask my detectives to put their heads together to come up with factors that may have motivated or affected the witch trials in Salem. Come on, detectives, let’s get to the bottom of this gory, sorry story!
Fear: Now imagine the fear in the hearts of the townspeople. They have young girls losing their faculties in screaming and writhing fits, and a self-professed witch standing in front of them who hails from a different country. They are afraid that the devil is among them, as they do not understand the cause of the fits.
Unusual People or Outcasts: Tituba is a foreigner with strange habits and customs. She looks different. She acts different. She talks different. And she claims to be a witch! Tituba in her testimony accuses two other women who are easy scapegoats of being her accomplices! Sarah Good was an easy target, because she was a ill-tempered homeless beggar. Sarah Osborne was a ready target, because she hadn’t been to church in 3 years due to illness and had an ongoing dispute with the prominent Putnam family.
Jealousy and Greed: Later on in this gruesome saga others were turned in as suspected witches due to jealousy and greed. Salem was known to be a particularly quarrelsome town. Perhaps there was a dispute about land rights or other longstanding issues with neighbors. Greedy neighbors saw accusations launched against others as a way to gain property for cheap, or to settle old scores. Even the town’s sheriff confiscated valuables from the accused for his own enrichment.
Self Preservation: In the end many people who were accused of witchcraft falsely confessed, and in doing so implicated others. None of the people who confessed to witchcraft were killed, but all those that confessed were hanged. Even Tituba, the woman who was first to confess, prompting the hysteria and implicating other innocent people, was never punished. Implicating others was an act of self preservation.
Conform: The villagers who doubted or questioned the allegations and verdicts were immediately suspect themselves. It became imperative to adhere to the “group think” in order to survive the atrocities.
Spectral Evidence: The court allowed spectral evidence in the trials, which resulted in the visions and dreams of the young girls being accepted as proof that the accused was indeed a witch. The testimony from girls engaging in histrionics in the courtroom was allowed to sway public opinion.
Power: Initially there was not a proper court to try the accused witches. The new governor Sir William Phips created a special witchcraft “Court of Oyer and Terminer”, which allowed for the use of spectral evidence. In other words dreams or visions of accusers could be used as evidence in court. Later he disbanded the court, but perhaps not until he realized that his own wife was being accused of being a witch and could end up with a noose about her neck.
Now, how are these variables any different from what we might experience today? Fear is a great motivator and form of manipulation to this day. Unusual people or outcasts are highly suspect. Jealousy and greed wreck havoc each and every day on interpersonal relationships. Self preservation instigates a plethora of human behavior, often unbecoming in nature. Group think is a powerful phenomenon, and anyone who questions the status quo or dares to have a different opinion from that of the majority is marginalized. Assumptions are made about motives. Absolute power corrupts absolutely. Special prosecutors and courts scrutinize suspected but unproven motives.
Alas, nothing has changed.
We walk from one engraved monument to the next with our heads held low, reading the names of the unfortunate people who lost their lives to the Salem witch hunt. The air is chilly, and the wind picks up for a moment, sending a shiver through my body. Or perhaps the chill descends upon me when we discover that not only were women accused of witchcraft, but also men, who presumably at the time had greater power and could have fought back! Sixteen victims were women and four were men.
One of the victims, the Reverend George Burroughs, had served the Salem congregation, but had left 10 years earlier in a dispute over his pay. A handsome and unusually strong man, he had witchcraft allegations levied against him by personal enemies who had previously sued him for debts he owed.
Prior to his hanging, Reverend Burroughs, Harvard educated, gave a moving speech which ended with a flawless rendition of the Lord’s Prayer. The villagers were astounded and many in tears, for a witch was not supposed to be able to recite the prayer. People began to protest his hanging unsuccessfully, but perhaps their consciences were pricked.
Sarah Good cursed Reverend Noyes, when upon her hanging he asked her to confess. Her dramatic reply to him was, “You are a liar! I am no more a witch than you are a wizard, and if you take away my life God will give you blood to drink.” And indeed, 25 years later her curse was realized when he had a hemorrhage and choked to death on great globs of his very own blood.
Giles Corey, an 81-year-old man, refused to play along with the witch trials. When he was accused, he refused to enter a plea of innocent or guilty, and as was the law at the time, if no plea was made the person could not be tried. The next step then was to strip him naked, place boards on top of him, and pile stones on top in an attempt to make him plead. Over the next two days they would ask him to plead, but each time he would reply with the words, “More weight!” As the story goes, the sheriff would stand upon the heap of boulders and stare at Corey’s bulging eyes, and when Corey’s tongue pressed out of his mouth the Sheriff shoved it back in with the butt of his cane.
When we can’t stomach the gruesome stories anymore, we walk away quietly and reflectively. The peacefulness of a walking street in Salem belies the dark history of this place.
It is with some trepidation that I approach this house, which today is known as the “Witch House”. You may wonder if a witch lived here given the name associated with this 17th century home. And the answer is, maybe.
In actuality, a rich merchant named Jonathan Corbin lived here in 1692 with his family, so clearly it was not a home of a witch, one might suppose. Although one might suspect that some evil spirits lurked here, for the youngest five of Corbin’s eight children died, most of them prior to the Salem witch trials. One question enters my mind. Did the death of his children have an effect on his role in the trials? Corbin was one of the judges who convicted and condemned innocent people to death.
Now one might suppose that in times past it was normal, and therefore perhaps more acceptable to parents when their children died at young ages. That would imply that perhaps the death of Corbin’s children was not such a big deal to him, as say the death of a child may be to a parent today. However, as a mother who has lost a child, I would hesitate to make such an assumption. The death of my infant son was so all consuming, and so devastating that I cannot even begin to bring myself to a place where I could imagine the grief of losing five children!
The loss of my son put me into a very dark place where I had to wrestle with great turmoil, and insurmountable doubts about my very existence. I was deeply troubled in the ensuing days.
The grief response had such a crazy effect on my mind. Somehow it seemed as though my son was not really dead, but was lost, and I felt a compelling urge to find him. The urge was so desperate that each day when I cycled to school with my five-year-old daughter I found myself searching for my baby. Not literally, but my mind would race in a great dark spiraling abyss.
As we cycled to school each day we rode past shallow ditches alongside the bike paths that were filled with dark, murky water. My eyes would get drawn therein, and some powerful force would tell my mind to come search in the water, for there I should find my son. Of course I knew that I would not find my son in a ditch filled with murky water, but the force was so powerful it was all I could do to not fall upon my knees on the banks of the ditch, to thrust my arms deep into the turbid sludge, and madly sweep about trying to find him. I refrained, but the psychotic urges frightened me greatly.
Having known so acutely the distress and the frightening plunge into near psychosis after the loss of my son, I would surmise that the deaths of his five children could very well have affected Corbin’s responses to accusations of witches in his community. Perhaps he felt that witches had caused affliction in his own home, cast spells upon his very own family, caused devastation and destruction within the walls of this very house in front of which we now stand. How does one remain psychologically and emotionally stable under such heavy loss?
Jonathan Corbin was initially involved in the Salem witch trials by engaging in preliminary interrogation of accused witches, of which there were about 200. Some of those interrogations are purported to have happened in this home, although admittedly that is not historically substantiated. Mr. Corbin’s involvement intensified in the Salem mayhem when Nathaniel Saltonstall quit the special Oyer and Terminer witch trial court when the first victim of the hysteria, Bridget, was so brutally and wrongfully hanged. Jonathan Corbin, owner of this house, rich and powerful shipping magnate in his own right, politician and magistrate, father of many deceased children, and a brother-in-law to the most vociferous and outspoken magistrate on the witch court, known as John Hathorne, suddenly found himself on the bench judging and sentencing suspected witches to brutal death.
Shall we enter therein?
With such dark thoughts upon my mind I push open the low door in the rear of the house. The hinges emit an ominous creak, and when released the door snaps shut quickly with a loud clap, as though to say there is no turning back. We are here now, standing inside the only remaining building from that era of false accusations and mass hysteria, that wrote a dark and sinister chapter in the saga of the new land, where such things were not supposed to happen.
A fire no longer crackles in this fireplace, but surely on a cold winter’s evening the judge may have leaned close to warm his soul. Perhaps as the fire crackled and popped he reflected upon the happenings on the day, the presumed innocence or guilt of the accused witches, for how could he not? It’s as though an eternal hellfire burns upon this fireplace, an eerie red glow emitting into the space about it. What conversations were held in front of this fireplace one cannot know. Perhaps Corbin would invite his brother-in law Hathorne over, and in front of this very fireplace they would discuss the merit of the cases, the gravity of the threat to this community, the infirmities that rocked the citizenry.
Perhaps in moments of despair and worry for his community he may have stood stock still in front of this window, mulling in his own mind if their actions were justified.
Upstairs we find the childrens’ room. Perhaps this room witnessed death on more than one occasion, one can never know lest it were recorded in history. But given that five of Judge Corbin’s children died, I must speculate some may have passed in this very room. I feel a cool breeze sweep past my face as I gaze upon this room, perhaps just a breeze from an open window, or drafty floorboard, I cannot tell.
When I walk into the master bedroom I feel a knot form in my belly. It is in that very bed that Corbin rested after long days of interrogations and convictions and hangings. Perhaps he even had stood upon the pile of rocks heaped upon Corey’s chest, I can never know. It is from that very bed that he would rise refreshed each morning to execute his mission to eradicate his community from the scourge of witches.
Perhaps when he lay next to his wife she would question him about the events of the day. Perhaps she would gently remind him to remain fair and judicious. Perhaps she warned him that it would be better to let one hundred witches live than to kill one witch, which is not a witch. Perhaps she feared that she should get accused of being a witch herself or even one of their surviving children. Perhaps each night her heart pounded in great fear and trepidation.
Perhaps he was haunted by visions of hangings and death, and gruesome displays of histrionics by children in the courtroom, and frightened villagers. Perhaps he wondered if indeed he were a witch himself, instead of those who stood accused. Perhaps he wondered if his work was really the work of the devil.
If I listen very quietly maybe I can hear the wail of a child…… the sob of a grieving mother….. the anguished cry of a father who holds his deceased child within his arms….. or perhaps I can hear the muffled cries of villagers who protest the hanging of their loved ones…. the creaking of rope as it tightens upon soft flesh…. the ragged breaths that escape past clenched teeth….. a man’s voice passionately and flawlessly reciting the familiar Lord’s Prayer, Our Father which art in Heaven…… the heavy clunking of a large stone piled upon another, followed by a muffled grunt…… the scraping sound of a shovel digging a shallow grave….. a soft thump as a limp body is lowered therein….. a nearly imperceptible sound of a teardrop splashing down upon the victim as a loved one gives a final embrace….. a whisper…… “Rest in peace, my beloved.”
But alas the human psyche is a delicate thing suspended somewhere in the realm of the paranormal, just beyond the reach of human understanding. How is it that in this supposed modern era we purport to know so much, yet we know so little? Scientific theories vascillate from one supposed reality to another, and consensus cannot be reached even on such a simple matter as to the health effects of caffeine, so how can we suppose to know much about the human psyche? I contend we don’t, and as such should pay heed to the lessons of this mystery from history, lest it should repeat itself in one form or another.
Perhaps it already has repeated itself in a society where people of “inferior genetics” are often not even given a chance at life because they are different or unusual, but rather are torn from their mothers’ wombs limb for limb, in a manner so brutal that even the very bones of the most ardent supporter of Salem’s witch hangings would clatter deep in their graves should they witness it.
Or what of today’s massive stockpiles of deadly weapons, powerful bombs and ships and submarines and killing machines, all designed with the intent to crush and dismember and maim and destroy and annhilate those who look or believe different, or somehow are supposedly evil? We think we are right, and they think that they are right. We spread fear and propaganda, and they do likewise. Our authorities justify our actions, and their authorities justify theirs. Our side fans the flames of paranoia and hysteria, and their side does the same. And to what end?
We are no strangers to hysteria and paranoia today, any less than the Puritans who engaged in these heinous acts. Indeed no, rather there is endless fear mongering, bloodshed, and wars, and rumors of wars. To suppose that something as ridiculous as “witch trials” could never happen in modern society is to turn a blind eye to the very makeup of humanity.
And therein lies the message of Salem three hundred years later.
To be so arrogant and prideful and boastful as to suppose that the murder of 20 innocents would never have happened should “we” have been in Salem in 1692, is to fail to recognize the realities of the human condition, the frailty of the human spirit, the power of societal norms, the ostracization of those who are different, the nastiness of human nature, the envy of the human heart, the intolerance for diversity of thought, the arrogance of a self-obsessed society, and the underlying forces that mold and shape our very coexistence. And those elements, my dear friends, are etched deep upon the hearts and souls of each and every one of us to this very day.
The Witch Within Us
Yes, the witch hunt of Salem can happen again, no matter how smart and enlightened we think we are. Perhaps we won’t accept fanciful renderings of evil women cooking potions of lizard legs, flying on broomsticks and casting spells upon unsuspecting members of society, but we are never far from falling prey to mass hysteria and mind manipulation. And to such should we remain vigilant. And should we each look for the “witch” that is buried deep within us and to keep it suppressed, so that we can embrace people who are different from us, that we can love all of humanity, that we can overlook faults of others, that we could value all human life, and so that we would not be greedy or envious of the successes of others.
The church was the mind manipulators of yesterday in the “modern” minds of many people today. But who then are the manipulators today? The government? Society? The media? People in positions of power? Educational institutions? Entertainers? Popular culture? What do you suppose are the demons and witches of today? Is there something that could cause mass hysteria and great fear in our society? Could innocent lives be lost on account of such hysteria?
When my heart can bear no more we leave the Witch House. One positive thing has been gleaned from the lessons of Salem, and that is the judicial concept of “innocent until proven guilty”, but even this fundamental right is under increasing strain when harsh courts of public opinion on social media condemn and accuse and vilify. It’s a dangerous path we tread upon and great freedoms are at stake.
Yes. Salem does matter 300 years later.
I shift my mind to the beautiful architecture as we walk through town.
The House of the Seven Gables
Before we leave Salem we have one more place to see. We visit the house that served as the inspiration for the book The House of the Seven Gables written by Nathaniel Hawthorne. Perhaps you don’t recognize the author’s name in this context, but should I tell you that he wrote the book The Scarlet Letter, you would know of whom I speak.
I must say that I never did read the House of the Seven Gables, but our tour guide makes the story sound super interesting. And I must tell you, the author is a descendant of the now infamous Mr. Hathorne, who convicted so many innocents in Salem, and who never acknowledged his errors and never apologized for his deadly decisions. Nathaniel chose to alter the spelling of his last name by adding the letter “w” to disassociate himself with the family shame.
We are not allowed to take photos inside the house, but how can one resist? There is an amazing secret passageway that goes behind the fireplace.
And the master bedroom.
We all loved the guided tour of this house. If you ever get to Salem, don’t hesitate to take the tour of this house. You will love it!
But now, we are ready to move on out of Salem. Our goal is to go see the Mayflower in Plymouth, MA. See you there! There will be no more stories of witches.