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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  • Cambridge Forecast


    This ROS show was not only entertaining at a high level but cautionary too showing how
    hysteria can suddenly “cathect” onto random victims.

    In pop culture, the word “witches” brings to mind those mentioned on the show but including of
    course, the Macbethan witches, the “Wicked Witch of the West” (Margaret Hamilton?) in “The Wizard of Oz,” and all the witches in the folktales and fairy tales we all know or once knew.

    I assume that the fear and hysteria directed at witches, classically or in Salem 1692, have to do with unnamable dread that combines a fear of witches’ “clairvoyance”, ensnarement, doom, sinister futurology.

    I. The following classic historization of witches and witchcraft and their
    relationship to various kinds of distress and upwellings of hysteria can be highly recommended:

    “Europe’s Inner Demons”

    “Europe’s Inner Demons: An Enquiry Inspired by the Great Witch-Hunt
    is a historical study of the beliefs regarding European witchcraft in Late Medieval and Early
    Modern Europe, with particular reference to the development of the witches’
    sabbat and its influence on the witch trials in the Early
    Modern period. It was written by the English historian Norman
    Cohn, then of the University of Sussex, and first published by
    Sussex University Press in association with Heinemann Educational Books in 1975. It was
    released as a part of a series of academic books entitled ‘Studies in the
    Dynamics of Persecution and Extermination’ that were funded by the Columbus
    Centre and edited by Cohn himself.

    Within the book, Cohn argues that there never were any Devil-worshiping witches in Early Modern Europe, and that all of those persecuted for being so were innocent.”

    See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Europe%27s_Inner_Demons

    Cohn, Norman (1975). Europe’s Inner Demons: An Enquiry Inspired by the Great Witch-Hunt. Sussex and London: Sussex University Press and Heinemann Educational Books. ISBN 0-435-82183-0.


    Hayao Miyazaki‘s “Spirited Away”.

    “Spirited Away (2001): You will truly get spirited away by this film, which
    follows Chihiro, a sullen (but still adorable) little girl who, after moving
    with her parents to a new house, takes a wrong turn and ends up in a world
    filled with gods, witches, and monsters, and her parents are turned into giant
    pigs (for fittingly stuffing themselves with too much food). Once trapped in
    the strange world, it’s up to Chihiro to save her parents and return to the
    real world.”
    See: http://www.younghollywood.com/scene/the-5-best-films-of-hayao-miyazaki.html
    This “anime” of genius features such witch-like figures as “Yubaba,” the bathouse witch.

    I assume that witch-oriented hysteria has to do with fears somewhere between being “spirited away” (a la Hayao Miyazaki film just mentioned) or Hawthorne’s 1844 story “Earth’s Holocaust,” in either way, being swallowed up by some kind of personal-social obliteration.

    Richard Melson

  • Apropos Demonic Males show…yep, witch hunts continue.

    Shift’s darkness narrative – things were so much darker then than now, sure, but they didn’t know that they were darker. Darkness would only explain it from today’s perspective. The darkness of the natural world was close by everywhere.

    Chris “…die with that much blood on their hands..” It was a blood-thirsty time. The way to a land grant for the indentured was to kill the autochthonous.

    Web find – The Jury’s Apology:

    Some that had been of several juries have given forth a
    paper, signed with our own hands in these words. We whose names are
    underwritten, being in the year 1692 called to serve as jurors in court in
    Salem, on trial of many who were by some suspected guilty of doing acts of
    witchcraft upon the bodies of sundry persons.

    We confess that we ourselves were not capable to
    understand, nor able to withstand the mysterious delusions of the powers of
    darkness and prince of the air, but were for want of knowledge in ourselves and
    better information from others, prevailed with to take up with such evidence
    against the accused as on further consideration and better information, we
    justly fear was insufficient for the touching the lives of any, Deuteronomy
    17.6, whereby we fear we have been instrumental with others, though ignorantly
    and unwittingly, to bring upon ourselves and this people of the Lord, the guilt
    of innocent blood, which sin the Lord saith in Scripture, he would not pardon,
    2 Kings 24.4, that is we suppose in regard of His temporal judgments. We do,
    therefore, hereby signify to all in general (and to the surviving sufferers in
    especial) our deep sense of and sorrow for our errors in acting on such
    evidence to the condemning of any person.

    And do hereby declare that we justly fear that we were
    sadly deluded and mistaken, for which we are much disquieted and distressed in
    our minds, and do therefore humbly beg forgiveness, first of God for Christ’s
    sake for this our error. And pray that God would not impute the guilt of it to
    ourselves nor others. And we also pray that we may be considered candidly and
    aright by the living sufferers as being then under the power of a strong and
    general delusion, utterly unacquainted with and not experienced in matters of
    that nature.

    We do heartily ask forgiveness of you all, whom we have
    justly offended and do declare, according to our present minds, we would none
    of us do such things again on such grounds for the whole world, praying you to
    accept of this in way of satisfaction for our offense, and that you would bless
    the inheritance of the Lord that He may be entreated for the land.

    Foreman, Thomas Fisk Thomas Perly, Senior William Fiske
    John Peabody John Batcheler Thomas Perkins Thomas Fisk, Junior Samuel
    Sather John Dane Andrew Elliott Joseph Evelith Henry Herrick, Senior

    From “The Apology of the Salem Jury,” 1697. THE PENGUIN BOOK OF WITCHES Introduction and selection copyright © Katherine Howe, 2014.

    John Peabody was a juror for the trial of Rebecca Nurse. I am a descendant of John’s brother William.

  • WikiGuy68

    We all really need to stop pretending that we don’t know what got the Salem witchcraft stuff started, because we do know. It was ergot poisoning or ergotism, from moldy rye. The toxin is chemically very similar to LSD. Besides hallucinations, it can cause excruciating pain, and other symptoms that would have been terrifying to those afflicted and the community as well. A program about this has aired on PBS, via NOVA, I believe. Anything bringing up the Salem story needs to deal with or at least mention this important work. The link is pretty well established now. Sure there was a lot of lying after the whole thing got rolling, but it was moldy rye that got it started: http://www.pbs.org/wnet/secrets/witches-curse-clues-evidence/1501/

    • Max Larkin

      WikiGuy — I should add, ventriloquizing our guest Emerson Baker, that there are a few problems with the ergot theory, reeled off in his book, A Storm of Witchcraft. I quote:

      “Surviving accounts mention no vomiting or diarrhea, not to mention the gangrene or neurological damage that ergot poisoning inflicts upon the limbs. Nor do the symptoms of ergotism come and go, as apparently did the afflictions in 1692. Furthermore, prolonged exposure to ergot for the months of affliction witnessed at Salem would have led to permanent dementia and in extreme cases death. Most of the girls led fairly normal and obscure lives after their involvement… Most of them lived to a healthy old age.”

      And then there’s the question why people in the same house ate the same bread but didn’t show the same symptoms! And then there’s the idea that the hallucinations spread across an area much wider than would have been served by a single diseased stash of rye! I found it persuasive, but I’d love to hear the latest!

      • Sure, but the environmental toxin, which could have been
        anything (horse nettle, carbon monoxide), was the key to unlock the hysteria.
        The broader community need only be affected by the hysteria, not the toxin.

  • Potter

    Unexpectedly interesting conversation. Good point that the world was a much darker place then, the light pollution that we have now, none existent.

    Maybe above all, this is about the same human nature, vulnerabilities, that exist today as your guests rightly point out: power, religious fervor, fear of the unknown and then the attraction of superstition and rumor and the power of pack behavior. We do have this now of course in different forms.

    Let’s not forget the wonderful Peabody Essex Museum in Salem today. And of course, you whet my appetite to read Hawthorne after so many years.

    Thank you……great guests as usual.

  • Kabe500

    It’s just sad. The sunsets that the dying know will be missed! in the dawn of such an era, with time for contemplation, and continuing place, that no one appreciates in holding the other. We’re all so dangerous to one another.

    God will remember all of them, I hope, unless… there was a real darkness, somewhere… behind it.

    I know those exist, I just deal with combatting another kind of something, everywhere now, that is rooted in interests of conflict and denying it, because it’s really true! that the Catholic Church deals in firmly denying gay people. Look at how without turning people off in its public change, the divide between a new spiritual access and appearing peacefully pure of conflict leads to a false calm. All our persecutors, and I’ve been persecuted and denied for a long time, are always snitching and twitching about something. Yes, I would leverage authority against the old, just like the Soviet Union did.