Historian Richard Trask is a leading authority on the Salem witch-hunt of 1692. He serves as Town Archivist for Danvers (formerly Salem Village), Massachusetts, where he is custodian of all early town records, the Brehaut Witchcraft Collection, and tens of thousands of manuscripts. He was also curator of the Rebecca Nurse Homestead for many years and chaired the Salem Village Witchcraft Tercentennial Committee from 1990 to 1992. Trask has written numerous books and articles on Salem and two of his ancestors were hanged as witches.
These frequently asked questions were posed to Trask on a National Geographic “Salem Witchcraft Hysteria” Web Site. Below, he gives brief, simplified answers to the questions.
Q: What is the difference between a Puritan and a Pilgrim? Where did they settle?
A: “Pilgrim” is a modern term for a 17th-century Englishman who believed in complete separation from the Anglican church. Pilgrims generally settled in Plymouth Colony, south of Boston, and referred to themselves as “separatists.” Puritans were 17th-century Englishmen who wanted to purify the Anglican church by removing all traces of Catholic papist trappings, such as crosses, vestments, or anything resembling Catholicism. They generally settled in the Boston area starting around 1630. Plymouth Colony was absorbed into Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1692.
Q: How was witchcraft defined in the 17th century?
A: In the 17th century, witches were both male and female persons who had made a pact to serve the devil. In exchange, the devil passed along certain powers to the witches. According to confessed witch William Barker, the devil promised to pay all Barker’s debts and that he would live comfortably. The devil also told him that he wanted to set up his own kingdom where there would be neither punishment nor shame for sin.
Q: To what degree did one’s socio-economic position play a part in the trials? Were any of the “elite” ever named as witches or was this primarily the plight of the agrarian community?
A: In most witchcraft cases, the status and sex of the witch had much to do with who was accused. It began that way with 1692 Salem, but eventually became much more democratic as to who was accused. Many men were accused, as were a number of church members and upper class types, including Philip English, one of the Colony’s richest men. It is true that rich or influential persons could find means of escape.
Q: What was the average age of the “witches” and the “afflicted” persons?
A: In the Salem cases, accused witches could be any age, from a four-year-old girl up to individuals in their 80s and 90s. As for the “afflicted ones,” most were adolescent girls between the ages of 9 and 18, though they were joined by some older women and by at least two adolescent boys.
Q: What is known about Tituba?
A: If it weren’t for the Salem witchcraft proceedings, we would know nothing about Tituba. And precious little is known about her. Almost nothing is written about lower-class people of that era. There is evidence that suggests that Tituba was not black but an Indian. After her imprisonment, Tituba was sold by the Reverend Parris, and the rest of her existence was lost to history.
Q: Were Salem witches ever burned at the stake?
A: No. According to English law, which prevailed in New England at the time, witchcraft was a felony punishable by hanging. In continental Europe witchcraft was heresy against the church and was punishable by burning at the stake.
Q: Is there any modern medical explanation for the children’s behavior?
A: From 1692 to the present, various observers, researchers, and scholars have attempted to explain what caused the outbreak at Salem. The theories are many: backsliding New Englanders being punished by God, power-hungry clergy, the pranks of bored adolescents, socio-economic conflict, ergot poisoning, and so on. It seems that every new generation reflects its own time in trying to explain what happened in 1692 Salem.
My feeling is that, although there were many factors involved in setting the stage, the witch-hunt was powered by clinical hysteria. You might want to read “Witchcraft at Salem” by Chadwick Hansen.
Q: What happened to the so-called “afflicted” girls?
A: Most of those young women have been lost to history. The young ones married, changed their names, and moved away. Several remained in the area, however. Ann Putnam never married, but eventually made an apology for 1692 and became a full member of the Salem Village church. She was said to be “sickly” and is known to have died young. Elizabeth Parris married and moved about 20 miles from Salem Village to Concord.
Q: Why were some of the accused convicted even after they maintained that they were Christians? How were the cases investigated? What evidence was found?
A: Generally, citizens made complaints against individuals, who were then brought before magistrates for preliminary hearings. When magistrates felt that there was sufficient evidence for a trial, the accused was jailed pending a hearing before a grand jury. And if those juries handed up a “true bill” (signifying evidence of misbehavior), a formal trial by jury could follow.
The formal trial followed 17th-century English precedents, in which the accused were not represented by lawyers but could question accusers and witnesses. Most, however, were not emotionally or intellectually equipped to defend themselves against a hanging court and hysterical witnesses–over 40 persons confessed to being witches.
The historical irony is that only those who did not confess to being witches were actually tried and convicted. And with “spectral evidence” being accepted, your accuser is the only person who presents and verifies your “crime.” So, you could say the afflicted girls provided the evidence while sometimes other confessed witches corroborated it.
Q: Why were they considered witches?
A: If you confessed that you were a witch, as Tituba did, they could use this as prima facia evidence. Over 40 people in 1692 did in fact confess, and in some instances those confessing accused others. Also, the court tended to believe the afflicted–those who claimed to be tormented by the spectres of witches–and the spectral evidence exhibited within the court itself really made believers of those who were present. Judge Stoughton and other prominent officials believed that God would not allow the spectre of an innocent person to afflict others.
Q: Was Giles Cory pressed to death because he wanted to hold onto his estate?
A: No. Although convicted witches might have had their personal estates confiscated according to the law, their land could be inherited. Cory was most likely showing his complete distaste for the court and its legitimacy. When Cory was indicted, he refused to enter a plea to be tried.
Q: What brought about the end of the Salem witchcraft hysteria? Did some of the judges refuse to convict for reasons of conscience?
A: There were a number of factors that ended the hysteria. The chief reason was that “spectral evidence” against the accused was eventually disallowed, which meant there wasn’t enough additional evidence to bring about convictions.
Q: When did the people of Salem realize that they had made a grave error?
A: By 1693 is was recognized that incorrect procedures and invalid proofs had been used. Most people, however, still believed in witchcraft as a reality. Following the trials, the people felt that the devil was still loose among them, but that he had deluded people into believing that innocents were witches.
Although by 1700 most learned people doubted the reality of witchcraft, there were scattered witchcraft accusations in America far into the 18th century.
Q: Did the British crown take any action on this matter or was it left to the colony?
A: Obviously there was a communication problem at that time in terms of asking for advice and receiving responses from the mother country. Even if there had been instant communication, the English government would most likely have kept its hands off what was considered a local problem. Massachusetts Governor Phips, as the representative of the Crown, was expected to take care of his provincial problems. Phips received some advice–when it was almost all over–that said “Do what you think is appropriate.”
Q: Are there any witchcraft laws today in Salem?
A: There are no Massachusetts statutes with respect to witchcraft. In 1992 the Massachusetts House of Representatives passed a resolution acknowledging the good names of those condemned witches of 1692 who had not been previously exonerated.
Q: Does “The Crucible” portray what actually happened in Salem?
A: This is my opinion: When someone watches a play, he knows that he is partially suspending belief and not observing accurate visual reality. The words, not the stage setting, are the most important components of the play. Playwright Arthur Miller successfully used the Salem witch trials as a vehicle to talk about witch-hunts in general, but the Miller play does not attempt to make a historical representation of the witchcraft events. It also gives a dramatized, incorrect account of John Procter and Abigail Williams.
In the film, given the nature of the medium, the audience assumes that if the setting and characters look real, then the events portrayed are displaying reality. And most will take it for granted that the film presents the story as it truly occurred, which usually is not the case. The movie version of “The Crucible” as well as Oliver Stone’s film “JFK” are entertaining, but poor history lessons.
Q: Are there any descendants of those 25 who died?
A: There are undoubtedly hundreds of thousands of descendants living in the U.S. today.
Q: Why did Salem become the center of the witchcraft tourist trade when the actual events took place in what is now the Town of Danvers?
A:Salem Village (Danvers) was ground zero of the witchcraft events of 1692, with virtually the entire 500 person population involved. Salem Town (Salem), though they had several accused witches who lived there and had the formal trials there, escaped the social and religious maelstrom that followed. When witch times were over, Salem Village didn’t want to be reminded of those dark days. When the Village became independent in 1752, it was given the new name of “Danvers” and their association with the witchcraft was happily obscured. By the late 19th century, Salem became a tourist destination and the witchcraft events took on a caricature of a non-threatening witch riding a brookstick and wearing a conical hat.
Online beginning August 2013