WHICH WITCH IS WHICH?
I write a mystery series with two nosy Puritans as detectives. I figured Puritans were supposed to be nosy, to keep an eye on the UnGodly Acts of their neighbors, and a good detective has to be nosy,
so.... Hetty Henry is a Boston widow with money and connections to both high and low society. Increase "Creasy" Cotton is a young Puritan minister trained to ferret out the guilty secrets of the human soul.
(He is also part of the humanist movement coming to the fore in the period of the 1690's, so he's more sympathetic to sinners.) In my third book of the series time-wise I was up to 1692 and I could not
ignore the major event of that year, the Salem Witch Trials. Somehow that incident in our history has become so fascinating that a surfeit of books have been written about it, all spouting different causes.
I'd like to point out that this was basically one incident in our history where 20 people died, and that in Europe at the same time and well into the 18th c. thousands were being burned as witches. (We
didn't burn witches, we hung them and pressed one man to death with boulders.)
Here are some of the causes that have been proposed as per my research into that year for my book, DEATH OF A BAWDY BELLE.
(1.) Ergot - that is, rye grain spoiled by a disease that may cause hallucinations and physical reactions like contortions and jerking of the body. The obvious answer to that is that if the grain was spoiled
everyone would have eaten the bread and had the same illnesses. However, only a group of girls accused others of witchcraft at first, and they continued to be the main accusers.
(2.) the French and Indian Wars - it is claimed that the survivors came to Salem from the Indian attacks on Maine residents, and while one of the accusing girls did come from Maine, and certainly those wars
must have unsettled colonial society, the trials would have taken place even if there was peace on the border.
(3.) the Clergy - poor minister Cotton Mather has been accused of starting the whole witch craze, but the fact of the matter is that certain persons who disliked him made the accusation. At this time Cotton Mather was 26 years old and left in charge of the largest congregation in the colonies while his esteemed father Increase Mather was on a mission of diplomacy in London. The witch trial judges were all colleagues of his beloved father and he hesitated to criticize them, although he did write a letter advising them not to employ the
testimony of ghosts. The clergy did play a part through Salem minister Samuel Parrish, the father of one of the girls, who first claimed witchcraft was responsible for the accusing girls physical symptoms of being choked, pinched and jerking around.
(4.) Village vs. Town - property disputes between adults in the town of Salem and the Village of Salem may have brought in the animosity of a few adults, but that came later. The main accusers were a group of
girls who did not own property.
(5.) Mass hysteria - there have been occasions of mass hysteria but this doesn't seem to be one of them. Not everyone in town believed the witchcraft charges, and the accusing girls were well aware of what they were doing.
(6.) Real witchcraft was going on. Poppets (dolls) were found in some of the accused women's houses (might be used like voodoo dolls.) Any child could have left a doll in a house and forgotten about it. The first witch to hang, Bridget Bishop, was accused of such a thing. Bridget was also a sexy woman, responsible, said the men, for their night dreams.
(7.) Girls without husbands. I can go with this one: the so-called "afflicted children" were primarily adolescent girls in their late teens and early twenties, all unwed. Had they husbands and children they'd have been too busy to accuse old women of being witches.
(8.) Adolescent girls playing a deadly prank. The girls themselves admitted that "they must have their sport." Pretty deadly sport, since 20 people died as a result. Some of the girls tried to recant their
testimony but then they themselves were accused by the other girls so they quickly rejoined the group,
It should be noted that when the hysteria died down - mostly by the return to Boston of Increase Mather and his petition "Cases of Conscience" signed by all the Boston ministers -- amends were made as far as possible. A Day of Humiliation was declared; financial compensation was granted to the victim's families; witchcraft judge Samuel Sewall stood up and made a public confession that he was wrong, another judge got drunk and quit the jury; chief judge William Stoughton never admitted he made any mistakes.
It was an aberration in our society that never happened again, as contrasted to Europe, but it continues to fascinate us today,
Bio: M. E. Kemp grew up in New England with long links, the first family baby being born in Salem in 1666. Her family were part of the original settlement of Oxford, MA in 1713. Her grandmother filled her
with tales of family lore from the Gold Rush to the Civil War, so a love of American history was natural. She lives in Saratoga Springs, NY with husband Jack H. Rothstein and two kitties, Boris and Natasha.
Her books include DEATH OF A DUTCH UNCLE set in Dutch Albany, DEATH OF A BAWDY BELLE, set in Salem, and DEATH OF DANCING MASTER, set in Boston.
Her work in progress is DEATH OF A CAPE COD CAVALIER. Her short stories have appeared in many anthologies and are also historical mysteries. Check out her website at: mekempmysteries.com.