No aspect of our history has quite caught the imagination like the Salem Witch Trials of 1692. The focus of numerous books, television shows, magazine articles and one famous play by Arthur Miller, the Witch Trials continue to fascinate the American public. Nineteen people were hung, one man pressed to death, hundreds were jailed and many people fled for their lives.
We hang our heads even today at the shame of this injustice, this despite the fact that thousands of innocents were burned to death in Europe then and well into the 18th century. (We never burned our witches.)
As a writer of historical mysteries with two nosy Puritans as detectives, I could not resist including the witch trials when I came to the year 1692 in my detectives' adventures. This made it necessary for me to do a great deal of research, to comb through some strange theories - there really were witches involved - and to discover other connections on my own.
One of the facts I discovered was that "the afflicted children" as they were called,were really a group of young women in their late teens and early twenties. Hardly children, even by the standards of 1692. (The original afflicted 12-year-old girls were removed from the scene early on.) The 'afflictions' imposed upon the accusers of hysteria, pin-pricks and choking sensations were adopted by will by the girls, especially when some sympathy was shown to the old women accused of witchcraft. "We must have our sport," one of the girls was quoted as saying. Bullying is a problem even today.
With our knowledge of psychology we may be able to understand this age group's idea of 'sport' but the adults who became involved are another thing. Adults took advantage of the situation to settle old scores or to justify their adulterous urges, in the case of tavern-owner Bridget Bishop whose 'shape' appeared to men in their dreams. The mother of one of the original afflicted 12-year-olds, became a vociferous accuser of other adults, especially the Proctors, John and Elizabeth. John was hung by her testimony and Elizabeth was only saved from hanging by her pregnancy. By the time she gave birth, the trials were over. I knew that members of the Town of Salem and members of the Village of Salem were at odds frequently over land disputes. What I uncovered in my research was that there was a feud between the Proctors and the Putnams going back two generations, at the least. This became my "aha" moment.
The trials ended when the ministers of Boston, led by Increase Mather, wrote a pamphlet of protest called "Cases of Conscience." That pamphlet and the fact that the Governor's wife had just been accused of being a witch, made a quick end to the hysteria in Salem.
The publicity about the trials became so loud and shameful, when reason finally returned, that the Village of Salem changed it's name into the Town of Danvers. So if you go to visit the Witch Museum in the City of Salem, MA, know that the real trials were held down the road. I continue to research the witch trials, although the book in which it is featured has been published (Death Of A Bawdy Belle.) I decided to use all the research I did in a talk which has become quite popular in libraries and historical societies. These talks also help with sales of that book and of others which I've written since. So long as the public remains fascinated by the Salem Witch Trials I will continue to investigate this incident in our country's history and psyche and to hopefully uncover more new material which may help to explain this lapse in our sober ancestors' judgment.
M.E.Kemp writes the Hetty and Creasy series of historical mysteries set in Colonial America. Her own ancestors settled in Salem in 1636 but were excommunicated from the Church and fled to Cape Cod well before the trials took place. Kemp lives in Saratoga Springs, NY where she touts tip sheets to bettors at the 'track.