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Deconstructing Salem - Separating Fiction from History

Updated on January 1, 2016
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Introduction

The events that transpired in Salem in the year 1692 remain a dark spot on America's often bloody history. Since the story is so atypical to modern thought and reason, it has drawn the attention of not only historians, but writers, filmmakers and more. When creative license is applied to history, the results may be entertaining for a wider audience, but they are not necessarily accurate in historical terms. Going back to the primary sources is one way historians can uncover history, separate fact from fiction and make distinctions about what really happened – and why. By following a time-line of historical documents, artifacts and testimony and comparing those sources to works of literature, a scholar can determine when the understanding of historical events began to shift into fictional perspectives. From February to October in 1692, New England colonies were caught in a web of terror, accusation and execution and was the setting for the largest witch hunt in North America. Over 150 individuals were accused and arrested on suspicion of witchcraft from Salem and the surrounding villages, 44 of the accused confessed to witchcraft and 20 of the accused refused to confess and were found guilty of witchcraft and executed. Four additional accused persons died in prison.

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The Use of Spectral Evidence

One of the most controversial aspects that set the Salem witch trials apart from other, individual cases in the colonies was the significance and weight placed upon spectral evidence against the accused. Spectral evidence is defined as “evidence presented by a witness who claimed to see the spirit or specter of an accused person committing acts of witchcraft” (Goss. 2007. Pg 21.) Spectral evidence was not uncommon in witchcraft cases across the colonies and Europe, but it typically carried much less significance than it did when utilized in Salem. The court in Salem relied so heavily on the use of spectral evidence to convict and condemn the accused that it even drew concern from a council of Boston ministers originally consulted about the accusations before trials could even begin. The ministers argued that accusations of witchcraft should be thoroughly and aggressively examined, but warned the magistrates against using spectral evidence so heavily in their proceedings. This advice, offset by the encouragement of Cotton Mather, who played an active and pivotal role in the witch hunt mania, was largely ignored until much later. Like his father, Increase, Cotton Mather felt called to the ministry, and published over 400 of his written works. He was instrumental and influential with the magistrates presiding over the witch trials in Salem, and demanded that Satan's influence be stopped by whatever means necessary when it appeared. His work Remarkable Providence published in 1684 described the affliction of several girls in Boston that he had studied, and set the stage for the diagnosis of possession and affliction for the girls in Salem that set the witch trials in motion. (Walker. 2001) The court kept prosecuting accused witches relentlessly without considering which rules of evidence would be allowed going forward. (Ray. 2010. Pg 49.) Although the emphasis placed on spectral evidence in Salem was noteworthy, it was not the only type of evidence required to secure a conviction. Contrary to several fictional accounts, therefore, no one in Salem was convicted or executed on the basis of spectral evidence alone. All charges by necessity had to be corroborated in order to proceed. (Louis-Jacques, 2012)

Confession and Presumption of Guilt

Similarly to the inquisitions and witch hunts of Europe in the preceding centuries, confession was the court's primary aim. An accused witch's confession was evidence of his or her guilt, and confessions were not thought to be sincere unless the accused was willing to name their accomplices, insuring that the cycle of accusations and prosecutions moving forward. Reading the pre-trial examinations of the accused witches and the official transcripts of what amounted to grand jury type trials hammers this point home conclusively. Question after question was posed to each of the accused that went to trial, leading them towards what the court and magistrates wanted to hear. Overall, over 200 people were accused of witchcraft and 150 of the accused were taken to prison to await trial. It was not a question of whether or not the victim was guilty in the minds of the judges, but rather what exactly they were guilty of. Innocence was never really offered as an option, as highlighted in the case of Rebecca Nurse, who was originally found innocent and acquitted of the charges against her. Rebecca Nurse was an upstanding a respected woman of the community, who opposed the witch trials when they first began. When the verdict was read, it was met with outrage by the inflicted girls and magistrates alike, who implored the jury to reconsider. After a brief pause, the guilty verdict was then handed down, and Rebecca Nurse was sentenced to death for witchcraft. (Goss. 2007. Pg 24) This is confirmed by a declaration made by Thomas Fisk, a juryman in Rebecca's case on July 4, 1692. “I Thomas Fisk , the Subscriber hereof, being one of them that were of the Jury the last week at Salem-Court, upon the Tryal of Rebecka Nurse, etc., being desired by some of the Relations to give a Reason why the Jury brought her in Guilty, after her Verdict not Guilty; I do hereby give my Reasons to be as follows...she being then at the bar, but ade no reply, nor interpretation of them; whereupon these words were to me principal evidence against her”. (Fisk, 1692) Ironically, the cause for Rebecca's silence is even more sinister – when considering the fact that she was partially deaf, and it's likely that she did not even hear the question posed to her in order to respond. (Goss. 2007) Depictions of Salem in literature or film never mention that an acquittal took place, focusing instead of the unfair nature of the convictions. This oversight is understandable given how quickly the verdict was overturned, but portraying it would shine a light on unfair a witchcraft trial truly was, and how innocence was irrelevant in the minds of the magistrates overseeing the trial proceedings. Rebecca Nurse's case is a prime example of how even innocence is overlooked in the face of mass-hysteria, as evidenced in one of the most famous Salem plays, Arthur Miller's “The Crucible”. Another classic example is the case of the Reverend George Burroughs, who did something that no witch should have been able to do by the assertion of Cotton Mather, himself. On the day of his execution, George flawlessly recited the Lord's Prayer. This had such an effect on the people of Salem, that they began to push for his immediate release, despite his conviction. Cotton Mather, who had come to witness the execution, calmed the crowd, stating that Satan himself had assisted the doomed man in his recitation of the prayer, and that even the devil could be disguised as an angel of light. (Goss. 2007) The execution of George Burroughs further demonstrated that actions thought to be undeniable indications of innocence were insufficient to save a condemned witch's life once the process was set in motion, and that the opinions of the magistrates (and their backing ministers) was enough to convict and condemn, regardless of the opinions of the townspeople. Proving innocence, once accused, was demonstrably impossible.

The Witch's House, Salem Massachusetts

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Tituba - the Fatal Salem Spark

One of the most controversial and interesting characters in the Salem story is the slave/servant of the Reverend Paris, Tituba. Almost everything about Tituba has been debated by historians examining the events that transpired in Salem, from her nationality to her role in the initial accusations to her controversial confession and beyond. The truth, however, is often stranger than fiction. Later literary sources like notable author Henry Wadsworth Longfellow began Tituba's transformation from a Native American slave to a half-negro and half Indian in his story Giles Corey of Salem Farms, and the transformation continued to picture Tituba as an African slave. (Ray 2010) Many high school and even college textbooks to this day blame Tituba for the entire witch craze that took place in Salem, accusing her of using occult practices and telling tales that frightened the girls who later became the accusers of the village. Unfortunately for those texts, that spark was never once mentioned in the trial transcripts or examinations of Tituba – or of others. Tituba's examination and trail record is fairly straight-forward. She is referred to as an Indian "Titiba an Indian Woman brought before us by Const' Jos Herrick of Salem upon Suspition of Witchcraft" (Tituba 1691), and throughout her examination, no questions were posed to her about practicing witchcraft or magic among the girls, sparking the initial accusations. In her first examination, she is asked three questions about evil spirits, why she is hurting the girls and who is doing it. She answers these questions in the negative. By the fourth question, however, she is asked if she has ever seen the devil – and answers that the devil came to her and asked her to serve him. What prompted this abrupt change of tactic is concerning, but may have an underlying answer when examining other sources. In an essay entitled "Tituba's Story", Bernard Rosenthal asserts that Tituba was compelled to confess to consorting with the devil after being beaten prior to examination by her master – the Reverend Paris. (Rosenthal. 1998) This startling accusation is demonstrated further in Robert Calef's "More Wonders of the Invisible World" published in 1700, but the accusation of beating was not found in any primary sources and cannot be ascertained reliably. Regardless of Tituba's motivation for confession, whether it was in a desperate attempt to escape the noose or to avoid further physical punishment from her master, Tituba's confession to consorting with the devil played a pivotal role in the future of the Salem witch hunts, and it set the standard for the further accused. "Against this long-standing legal precedent, neither Tituba nor any of the over fifty confessed witches lost their lives. On the contrary, only those who were found guilty by the jury, yet refused to confess guilt, were executed." (Goss. 2007) Confession meant escaping execution – but only if you were willing to implicate and testify against others, including members of your own family. This is demonstrated in the case of Margaret and George Jacobs. Margaret testified against her grandfather after confessing to witchcraft herself to escape execution. Her grandfather George refused to confess to the crimes and was tried in 1692 and sentenced to death. Only after his sentence did Margaret change her testimony against her grandfather, and wrote to the court to rescind her own confession of witchcraft as well. George Jacobs was executed as a convicted witch, but had the opportunity to hear his granddaughter's apology and grant her forgiveness in prison prior to the sentence being carried out. (Goss. 2007) While Tituba's reputation as a witch prior to the trials may not be based in fact, her eager confession to witchcraft furthered the hysteria in Salem village and ultimately triggered the events that would lead 19 people to a violent and unnecessary end. In this regard, Tituba was the fatal spark of the Salem events, regardless of whatever initial part she may have played prior to the accusations of the afflicted.

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Conclusion

While the Salem witch trials will always carry a certain curiosity and fascination for students and historians alike, the misconceptions about the events that transpired can be nipped in the bud with comprehensive study and examination of the original documents. Although the events happened several centuries ago, the court transcripts, journals and sermons of the time remain preserved, and are an invaluable source in determine what transpired and how it played such a key role in later sentiments to spectral evidence, unjust accusations and the unfair treatment of the accused throughout the Salem trials. Examining the proceedings can shed light on a very dark subject, and open the eyes of scholars and students alike. By understanding the horrors of the past, historians can understand their triggers and take precautions against history repeating itself, especially in the spirit of enlightenment, reason and tolerance.

One of the Condemned

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Sources

Calef, R. (1700). More wonders of the invisible world.Retrieved from http://salem.lib.virginia.edu/speccol/calef/calef.html

Fisk , T. (1692, July 4). Declaration of Thomas Fisk, juryman. Retrieved from http://salem.lib.virginia.edu/texts/tei/BoySalCombined?div_id=n94

Goss, D. (2007). Salem witch trials: a reference guide. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.

LiBrizzi, M. (2003). Salem Witch Trials. In Conspiracy theories in American history.

Louis-Jacques, L. (2012, October 29). The salem witch trials: a legal bibliography. Retrieved from http://news.lib.uchicago.edu/blog/2012/10/29/the-salem-witch-trials-a-legal-bibliography- for-halloween/

Ray, B.C. (2010). "The Salem Witch Mania": Recent Scholarship and American History Textbooks. Journal Of The American Academy of Religion, 78(1), 40-64

Ray , B. (2002). “Case File: Tituba” Salem witch trials documentary archive and transcription project. Retrieved from http://salem.lib.virginia.edu/texts/tei/BoySalCombined?div_id=n125.

Rosenthal, B. (1998). Tituba's story. The New England Quarterly, 71(2), 190-203.

Walker, R. (2001, January 1). Cotton Mather. Salem Witch Trials. Retrieved April 18, 2014, from http://salem.lib.virginia.edu/people/c_mather.html



© 2014 Julie McFarland

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      sheilamyers 3 years ago

      I knew quite a bit of the information you presented, but there were also some things that were new to me. This hub was very informative and educational. It's unfortunate that today a lot of people get their information from movies and television and learn a false history because they don't want to take the time to read the historical records. Thanks for presenting a true account.

    • JMcFarland profile image
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      Julie McFarland 3 years ago from The US of A, but I'm Open to Suggestions

      Thanks, as always, for your words of encouragement, Sheila.

    • Brittany Kussman profile image

      Brittany Kussman 2 years ago from St. Louis, MO

      I loved your hub! With so much misinformation out there on the Salem Witch Trials it's great to read something based on facts. I especially liked the part on Tituba's story because I haven't heard of it before now. Great hub I enjoyed reading it.

    • S T Alvyn profile image

      S T Alvyn 2 years ago from New England

      A nice read, I am currently writing a book on the precursor to the events ( way before 1692) and have spent a lot of time in the Salem Library and Massachusetts Historical Society going over documents. There is a lot of mis information in secondary and tertiary sources which no one has had an incentive to clarify.

      However, Tituba was a slave and under slavery laws could not be executed and was sold on and coerced into making a false confession. In other documents, the first few to be accused did not face execution as the unstable governance had not decided to pass the unlawful law, but anyhow there is more to this which is too long to detail!

      Interesting to read another person's perspective.

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