October 28, 2015

You can still see the shadow of the Salem witch trials on Massachusetts — and all America.

Our First Dance with the Devil

As John Winthrop, Massachusetts’ first governor, first came to our shores, he gave the famous address, “A Modell of Christian Charity.”

When Winthrop declared, “we shall be as a city upon a hill — the eyes of all people will be upon us,” he may well have been thinking of Salem, a pious little place perched on the north shore of Massachusetts Bay, older and richer than the future capital of Boston.

Just before that, Winthrop predicted that a new kind of covenant would govern the people of Salem, Boston, Plymouth and York — a religious fellowship, a peaceful neighborliness:

We must uphold a familiar commerce together in all meekness, gentleness, patience and liberality. We must delight in each other; make others’ conditions our own; rejoice together, mourn together, labor and suffer together, always having before our eyes our commission and community in the work, as members of the same body. So shall we keep the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace… So that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken, and so cause Him to withdraw His present help from us, we shall be made a story and a by-word through the world.

By the century was out, Salem, a city named for peace, would break out into an unholy war of all against all: a fever of recrimination and betrayal directed at witches in high places and low.

Accusers named almost 200 people in places high and low — from slave women and homeless widows to the governor’s wife — as their stabbing spectral oppressors. A fiery court went to work in Salem’s main street, extracting confessions. By the time the fever had broken, twenty martyrs — those women and men who refused to pose as witches in order to save their own lives — had been killed. (Five more had died in prison, including an infant.)

The witch-trial mania of 1692 represented the gravest disappointment of Winthrop’s Christian charity yet seen on these shores — and the shame of it pervades everything.

So, led by Stacy Schiff, author of a controversial new thriller-history of that year, we’re looking at the Salem trials again as a whole: not just as a memory or a metaphor for McCarthyism, not as a Halloween jolt of adrenaline, but the ghostly after-image and lingering shame in our neck of the woods.

Historians and writers in town will bring us home: Emerson “Tad” Baker pitches Salem as a pivotal moment in American history, Marilynne Roach acquaints us with victims of the hysteria, and novelist Katherine Howe finds the clearest soundings of the story in the Gothic “romances” of Nathaniel Hawthorne and in the gray surround of her home turf in Essex County, Mass.

Guest List
Stacy Schiff
author of The Witches: Salem, 1692, and Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer of Véra Nabokov and Cleopatra.
Emerson Baker
historian of 17th-century New England at Salem State University, author of A Storm of Witchcraft: The Salem Trials and the American Experience, and a descendant of one of the executed witches.
Marilynne Roach
Watertown, Mass., historian of the witch trials and author, most recently, of Six Women of Salem: The Untold Story of the Accused and Their Accusers in the Salem Witch Trials.
Katherine Howe
bestselling novelist of The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane, editor of The Penguin Book of Witches, and a descendant of three accused witches.

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