Switching sides: Tony Fels takes on the classic Salem witch hunt books

Only a handful of books published on the Salem witch hunts have become standard textbooks in classrooms and popular among the reading public. These influential books, published between 1974 and 2002, are “exemplary histories that have greatly augmented the world’s knowledge of witch hunting in 17th century America,” according to Tony Fels, associate professor of history at the University of San Francisco. However, in looking for underlying causes of the witch hunts, Fels claims these writers lost sight of the real victims—the accused witches.

Switching Sides: How a Generation of Historians Lost Sympathy for the Victims of the Salem Witch Hunt is not a history book, Fels explains. Its purpose is to describe author biases and how they chose data to emphasize their storylines, while justifying myriad causes of the accusers.

Literally the study of historical writing, “historiography” emphasizes not the events of the past and their causes—the standard subject matter of the discipline of history—but rather how historians construct their narratives and explanations of these events. —Tony Fels

As counterpoint, Fels begins with Marion L. Starkey’s The Devil in Massachusetts: A Modern Enquiry into the Salem Witch Trials (1949). In spite of its Freudian analysis and out-of-fashion sexism, Starkey highlights the heroism of the men and women who were martyred for their religious beliefs or for standing up for truth. (She tells a good story, but for me, Starkey relies too much on Charles W. Upham’s 1867 History of Salem Witchcraft with its caricatures and imaginations disguised as truth.)

Fels interweaves many other witch-hunt books into his narrative, but centers on the themes of socioeconomic imbalances, village factionalism, social solidarity, deviant behavior, gender oppression, and racial politics as found in these four scholarly works:

As students of the 1960s and 1970s, Fels claims these “New Left” authors are attracted to the marginality and psychological factors of the afflicted accusers, who they see as the rebels of 1692. The accusers’ motives stem from their own victimization, or from the dead cows and sickly children the accused witches leave behind.

Switching Sides emphasizes that accused witches were innocent targets of injustice in an out-of-balance world. If we read all four books together, we understand multifaceted reasons behind the witch hunts—but skirt around what Fels believes are the underlying causes, of Puritanism and communal scapegoating. By reviewing these classic texts, Fels also incorporates newer research to update the Salem story.

Well worth reading, especially if you’re familiar with the books mentioned.


Switching Sides: How a Generation of Historians Lost Sympathy for the Victims of the Salem Witch Hunt by Tony Fels (2018)


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Witches and witchcraft with Tom the tour guide

Tom in front of Judge John Hathorne’s grave

Thomas O’Brien Vallor has been sharing his knowledge of the 1692 witch hunts with countless tourists for the last 15 years. Unlike ghost tours and campy attractions, Tom tells the Salem story in a way that is respectful, inclusive, and educational. And his perspective is just a little different from your average tour guide.

WitchesMassBay: With so many tours in Salem, what makes the Salem Witch Walk different?

Thomas O’Brien Vallor: The Salem Witch Walk is unique because it is history from a practicing witch‘s perspective and witchcraft from a historian’s perspective. Magic is a cultural phenomenon that exists in all societies and its influence on the Salem witch trials is very interesting.

WitchesMassBay: How would you define a modern-day witch compared to what people were accused of in 1692?

Thomas O’Brien Vallor: To put it simply, a witch today is someone who practices magic; the people of 1692 were not practicing magic. Of course, there‘s a bit more nuance to it than that.

WitchesMassBay: Tourists flock to Salem looking for telltale signs of the witch hunts, but very little physically remains that has ties to 1692. Do you have any suggestions of where to go or what to do next (after taking your tour, of course!)?

Thomas O’Brien Vallor: Because I feel such a strong connection to history, I think the important sites in Salem still hold the most power even if today they’ve been replaced by office buildings or intersections. I think that if I were a tourist visiting Salem, I really would just like to walk around the city and soak everything in.

WitchesMassBay: What’s something that tourists repeatedly ask you?

Thomas O’Brien Vallor: One common question we get is: “Where were the witches burned?” They weren’t witches and they weren’t burned. It’s frustrating that people still believe that.

WitchesMassBay: Even though people on your tour sign up for a witch walk, do some tourists expect something else?

Thomas O’Brien Vallor: What‘s annoying is when people think witchcraft is all hocus pocus and magic tricks and then expect me to perform for them. If I‘m teaching someone about witchcraft, sometimes all they want to do is wind me up like a toy and watch me do tricks.

WitchesMassBay: What’s your experience been like as a tour guide?

Thomas O’Brien Vallor: I can‘t even begin to get into all the ways that being a part of the magic of Salem has changed my life for the better. Just being able to help educate people has given me a fulfilling and happy life at such a young age, especially when I see so many people around me searching for meaning in their lives.

You can follow Tom on Facebook @SalemWitchWiles and watch his videos on YouTube.


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Teaching the everyday & the extraordinary: Salem in 1692

1684 John Ward house (PEM)

For the 300th anniversary of the Salem witch trials, the Peabody Essex Museum created the Days of Judgement: Salem in 1692 exhibit and video. On display were original trial documents along with artifacts belonging to some people involved in the trials. Items included Judge Jonathan Corwin’s chest, Mary (Hollingsworth) English’s embroidered sampler, old George Jacobs’ canes, and John Proctor’s sundial.

Besides the exhibit, the Peabody Essex offered The Everyday & the Extraordinary: Salem in 1692 tours to school groups. Originally located across the street from the “old witch gaol,” the 1684 John Ward house helped students imagine what 17th century life was like, from its simple furnishings to outmoded kitchen implements. The old home set the stage for talking about the social, economic, religious, and political conditions that led to the witch hunt.

Next, the students congregated in the one-room meetinghouse, which was similar to the 17th century courthouse with bench seating, where they learned about court procedures. Afterwards, the students reenacted the parts of accuser and accused using testimonies from the witch trials.

Recommended for middle and high school students, the program also provided teachers with a 50-page curriculum packet and reading list. Developed and tested by educators, the lesson plans introduced the basic story of the witch hunt and covered four themes: jurisprudence/law; folk belief and magic; group dynamics and prejudice; and material culture.

What the Witch Hunts Teach Us

Between the museum visits and the classroom lessons, students discovered why studying the Salem witch hunt is still relevant today. Some of the ideas include:

  • The importance of primary sources and how secondary accounts and later interpretations can change how we view history
  • The difference between bias and objectivity, and how loaded words can influence the audience
  • How group dynamics and mob mentality can influence outcomes
  • How to weigh evidence based upon what you know, and what’s admissible evidence within the historical context
  • How laws, scientific knowledge, and belief systems change over time
  • How traditions and practices are different among groups of people and through time
  • How ethnocentric groups discriminate, stereotype, and scapegoat others; and how we can combat intolerance and prejudice by recognizing it
  • How the roles of women have changed over 300 years; and why gender, ethnicity, religious beliefs, culture, etc., influence us today
  • How to have courage and believe in yourself, like the innocent victims who would not falsely confess to witchcraft and were hanged

In 1998, the Peabody Essex Museum opened The Real Witchcraft Papers “permanent exhibit” at the Phillips Library across the street from the main museum. Before 2011, when the Phillips Library collection was moved to a “temporary” collection center during renovations to the building, the so-called permanent exhibit was dismantled and taken off display.

Today, the Peabody Essex no longer maintains a witch-hunt exhibit nor offers witch-hunt themed school programs, despite the huge value of using these artifacts and original documents as teaching tools. Over the last 10+ years, the Peabody Essex Museum changed its mission by focusing on art and culture, while relegating “history” to the tourist attractions. Unfortunately, those businesses don’t have the historical settings, artifacts, original documents, educational resources, and prestige to put together an influential exhibit and educational program like PEM did with The Everyday & the Extraordinary: Salem in 1692.




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Q&A with Jeanie Roberts on Weave a Web of Witchcraft

Jean M. Roberts recently published Weave a Web of Witchcraft, the story of Hugh and Mary Parsons of Springfield, Massachusetts, who were tried for witchcraft in 1651. Below, we discuss the writer’s craft, the research involved, and how the community reacted to charges against this married couple. 

WitchesMassBay: Why did you decide to write the story about Hugh and Mary Parsons?

Jeanie Roberts: The road to this book was long and twisty! Several years ago, I was doing genealogy research on an ancestor, William Sanderson, who lived in Watertown, Massachusetts. At the time I thought his father might be a man by the name of Edward Sanderson. While digging for information I uncovered a nasty skeleton in the proverbial closet. Edward Sanderson had raped Ruth, the eight-year-old daughter of Hugh Parsons, also of Watertown. This Hugh has been, over the years, confused with the Hugh Parsons accused of witchcraft in Springfield. I remember thinking, “Wow, how could this poor man have had such a wretched life?” And I thought it would make a great book. Only after I began to seriously research Hugh and his wife Mary Parsons did I realize that there were two separate men, but by then I was hooked on the witchcraft story.

WitchesMassBay: How do you as an author put yourself into a 17th century mindset to tell their story?

Jeanie Roberts: I fell in love with history as a young woman. Most of the books I read are nonfiction history books. When I began doing genealogy, I was surprised, happily, to find that I have dozens of Puritan ancestors. I was also somewhat shocked to find that among my ancestors were accused witch Mary Bradbury and many accusers. Naturally I had to read everything I could about the Salem witch trials. My most recent read was The Witches: Suspicion, Betrayal, and Hysteria in 1692 by Stacy Schiff, which I highly recommend.

For me, genealogy is not just about names and dates, it’s about who these people were, what were they like, how did they live, what did they believe. So, I began reading everything I could about them. Even before I decided to write this book, I was reading resource books. One of my favorites is Albion’s Seed by David Hackett Fisher. I even bought a book on how they constructed their houses. One of my favorite reads is 17th century probate files, including wills and their inventories. I love to see what they owned, how their houses were furnished, what small creature comforts they possessed. Other books that I found extremely insightful were Goodwives: Image and Reality in the Lives of Women in Northern New England, 1650-1750 by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich and Governing the Tongue by Jane Kamensky.

My husband indulges me in my research and a few years ago we went on a research vacation through Massachusetts and New Hampshire, looking at first-period houses to get a better idea of what they were like. We even toured the Macy-Colby House in Amesbury, where my ancestor Anthony Colby lived.

When I laid out the outline for the book, I was determined to give a fairly accurate representation of life in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. From making soap to butchering a pig to putting supper on the table, I hope I have captured the essence of life in Springfield and that the reader feels immersed in the world of Hugh and Mary.

WitchesMassBay: Do you think of the Parsons’ witchcraft accusations as an isolated incident—or similar to earlier cases in Massachusetts Bay and the Connecticut colonies? 

Jeanie Roberts: The accusation against Hugh came shortly after a Wethersfield, Connecticut, couple—John and Joan Carrington—were accused of witchcraft. Was this the impetus for his accusers? I think that these people really believed that the devil lurked behind every tree and that witches were very real. Mary Beth Norton raises this point in her excellent book, In the Devil’s Snare.

These people were also very contentious and quick to take each other to court. I believe that jealousy, resentment, and grudges had much to do with the accusations. Hugh was not a poor man. Economically, he was probably in the middle of the pack. He had a brickmaking skill that was in demand. He seems to have taken advantage of his monopoly and maybe charged more than others liked. It may be that his accusers were seeking revenge. Anne Rinaldi makes this point in her fictionalized story of the Salem witch trials, A Break with Charity.

In 1656, a second Mary Parsons—married to Joseph Parsons of Northampton (relationship to Hugh unknown)—was also the victim of witchcraft gossip. Her husband sued for slander and won. However, her accuser later made a formal charge against Mary in 1674 and she was taken to Boston for trial. Thankfully, she was acquitted. It is suggested that economic jealousy played a part in that case.

WitchesMassBay: Why do you think the Springfield community supported and corroborated the witchcraft claims against the Parsons, knowing that it could lead to their deaths? 

Jeanie Roberts: This is a good question. I think psychologists and psychiatrists would love to have the answer. I believe that mob mentality plays a huge role in all the trials that involved multiple accusers. It’s easier to convince yourself that you bear little responsibility for their deaths if burden is spread among many.

I think it’s interesting that accusations against Hugh began in the depths of winter when there was less to occupy the hands and minds of his neighbors. They had more time to stew about past grievances and recall slights and odd statements.

WitchesMassBay: With a husband and a wife accused as witches, were they treated differently by their neighbors and the courts based on their gender?

Jeanie Roberts: Augh. I don’t want to give the plot away for those who don’t know the whole tale. I’ll try to skirt around the story. Hugh, once accused, was placed under house arrest at the home of the town constable. The depositions in his case were dragged out over several months. From their testimony, it would seem that they were not frightened of him even after the testimony began. The constable’s wife asked him to help her with a task down in the cellar. Clearly, she did not fear him. Were they giving him the benefit of the doubt? It’s hard to tell.

Mary was on the receiving end of her friends and neighbors’ sympathy until she went off the rails, so to speak. She was dealt with rather rapidly after that. That’s all I can say without spoiling the plot!


In Jeanie’s book, Weave a Web of Witchcraft, you’ll even find testimony by my ancestor, Griffith Jones, and his curious story about disappearing knives.


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The Salem witch trials and the Body of Liberties laws

When the witch hunt started in Salem Village in February 1692, the Massachusetts colonists were waiting for Rev. Increase Mather to return home from England with a new governor, Sir William Phips, and joint monarchs William & Mary’s new charter. In the interim, four magistrates held examinations (hearings) to see if any of the accused should be held for trial. The jails in Salem, Boston, Ipswich, and elsewhere were filled with accused witches when Governor Phips arrived in May 1692. In short order, he established the special Court of Oyer and Terminer to handle the witchcraft cases, before heading northward to handle military issues with the Native Americans.

Led by Lieutenant Governor William Stoughton, the Salem court had an imposing job set before them: Discover witches during unruly public meetings filled with afflicted accusers, scared or disbelieving townspeople, and bewildering stories of possession, strange occurrences, unexplained deaths, animal familiars, black Sabbaths, and the like.

Following the Rules?

In December 1641, the Massachusetts Bay Colony published the Body of Liberties. These 100 rules, which were based on both English law and Biblical law, were intended to be the foundation of the colony’s court system.

Under rule 94, Capital Laws, number 2 it says:

“If any man or woman be a witch, that is, hath or consulteth with a familiar spirit, they shall be put to death.”

Deuteronomy 18:10-11 had a much larger definition: “There shall not be found among you any one that maketh his son or his daughter to pass through the fire, or that useth divination, or an observer of times, or an enchanter, or a witch, or a charmer, or a consulter with familiar spirits, or a wizard, or a necromancer.” But the Salem judges specifically were looking for Sarah Good’s yellow bird or Bridget Bishop’s cat.

So, let’s look at some of the other legal points and see how they pertained to the Salem witch trials.

26. Any man that findeth himself unfit to plead his own cause in any Court, shall have the liberty to employ any man against whom the Court doth not except, to help him provided he give him no fee or reward for his pains. This shall not except the party himself from answering such questions in person as the Court shall think meet to demand of him.

On 9 September 1692, sisters Sarah (Towne) Cloyce and Mary (Towne) Estey petitioned the court to allow testimony on their behalf, “seeing we are neither able to plead our own cause, nor is council allowed to those in our condition” (Records of the Salem Witch-Hunt, p. 620). These two eloquent women were fit to plead their cases, but clearly were not allowed to in the Salem court. They had no defense attorney and the judges were acting as prosecutors.

45. No man shall be forced by torture to confess any crime against himself nor any other unless it be in some capital case where he is first fully convicted by clear and sufficient evidence to be guilty. After which, if the cause be of that nature, that it is very apparent that there be other conspirators or confederates with him, then he may be tortured, yet not with such tortures as be barbarous and inhumane.

According to accused witch John Proctor, 18-year-old Richard Carrier and his 16-year-old brother Andrew Carrier, “would not confess anything till they tied them neck and heels till the blood was ready to come out of their noses” (Robert Calef, More Wonders of the Invisible World, 1700). The Carrier brothers had not even been indicted, much less been charged guilty before being tortured.

46. For bodily punishments we allow amongst us none that are inhumane, barbarous, or cruel.

It goes without saying that peine forte et dure, or being pressed to death like Giles Corey, is “inhumane, barbarous, or cruel.” Once the rocks were placed on his prone form, even if the 70-year-old Corey changed his mind and started talking, he’d probably die from the internal injuries anyway. It took him two long and painful days to die.

47. No man shall be put to death without the testimony of two or three witnesses, or that which is equivalent thereunto.

Since witchcraft meant being in league with the Devil, it’s surprising that the justices did not rely on the opinion of several prominent ministers who were against using spectral evidence—visions seen only by the afflicted accusers—as the main reason to charge a person. Nor did the justices find conflict in accepting the words, visions, and bodily contortions of the afflicted accusers that one could say were possessed by the Devil themselves. The afflicted accusers often supported each other’s testimonies or mimicked each other during the trials. The people in the court house became witnesses of the afflicted accusers.

Confessed witches sometimes claimed to have seen other accused witches at witch meetings. Since the court was using confessors to find more witches, the confessors were spared until a later date (that never came). In most circumstances, confessing to a crime was as good as or better than having two witnesses. Yet none of the confessors were hanged before Governor Phips stopped the trials.

94 Capital 11. If any man rise up by false witness, wittingly and of purpose to take away any man’s life, he shall be put to death.

After the trials were over, we don’t hear much backlash against the accusers or the judges and jury. Some disappear from the records, while others, such as Judge Stoughton, continued to be prominent members of society. However, Judge Samuel Sewall, numerous jurymen, and accuser Ann Putnam Jr. publicly asked for forgiveness for their part in the trials.


reposted from Genealogy Ink


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Bernard Rosenthal: Lessons to learn from the Salem witch hunt

Professor emeritus of English at State University of New York at Binghamton, Bernard Rosenthal is the author of the classic Salem Story: Reading the Salem Witch Trials of 1692 and general editor of Records of the Salem Witch-Hunt, which includes all the extant legal documents newly transcribed, in chronological order, with notes.

WitchesMass Bay: In Salem Story, you essentially peel back the onion, and tell people to read the primary sources. With all the books and movies that have covered the subject, what one thing do people keep repeating about the Salem witch hunt that is inaccurate, untrue, or has no 17th century corroborating evidence? (Your favorite pet peeve!)

Bernard Rosenthal: Over and over again, scholars and others go back to the idea that the Salem witch hunt was all started by village quarrels. If I were to rewrite Salem Story I would start by showing how that idea has been taken apart. The evidence just doesn’t support it. Fortunately, some recent scholarship has dismantled parts of the village quarrels idea. I proposed to Cambridge University Press a revised edition of Salem Story with a new first chapter that addressed this, but for a lot of reasons it didn’t work out.

WitchesMassBay: What made you decide to tackle the huge editing project that became Records of the Salem Witch Hunt?

Bernard Rosenthal: Tackling Records, like a lot of other things, just sort of happened. I found some errors in the standard work, poked around, and the next thing you know 20 years went by. I had made a mistake in Salem Story based on an incorrect transcription in the source I was using and gradually, after looking at other manuscripts, I came to the conclusion that a new edition was needed. It proved a lot more complicated than I had anticipated and took a lot more time—20 years I think. I chose a wonderful group to work with me on this—and without them the book would not have been possible for me alone—but working with a group also involved heavy work of administration, group dynamics, as well as pure scholarship.

WitchesMassBay: One of your causes is social injustice and fair trials. Do you find something about the Salem witch hunt that we as a society or our court systems still need to learn?

Bernard Rosenthal: Yes, but I think this answer is going to surprise you. I think what we need to learn from Salem is how a community can do something awful, but be courageous enough to realize and acknowledge it. Our modern criminal justice system is based on an adversarial system, and institutions that have little interest in justice. Our prisons have too many inmates who do not belong there but remain locked up because the state’s legal team was better than the defendant’s legal team. The state has enormous power against which its victims can do little.

I am working now on something called the Headstart case, and am doing what I can to get out the word of the injustice done to two people. One is now out of prison, but with a criminal record. The other remains in prison. Neither committed the crime for which they went to jail, and in fact the “crime” never happened. Just like the witchcraft claims. You can see my Facebook page, Free Joseph Allen, and you can get an excellent account of it all on the web at the National Center for Reason and Justice.

There are other cases on that website of innocent people incarcerated, and not by a long stretch inclusive of them all. The Puritans, for all their faults, really wanted to get it right, and when they saw they had failed they did what they could for the survivors and for families of the victims. I don’t present them as an ideal, and I don’t want a government without due process. But due process needs serious fixing, and a good place to begin is to look at how the Puritans had the courage to stay with the witchcraft matter and to do what they could to remedy the mistakes. You will not find that in our contemporary criminal justice system, at least nothing analogous to what the Puritans did. But it makes us feel superior to say that they were crazy and we are wise.


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Salem from the point of view of a practicing witch

Walking down Essex Street in Salem, you notice the influence of Warlock Christian Day. As he puts it, Day and his husband Brian Cane’s “business empire is probably the largest single occult revenue generator in the city.” They own two stores—Hex: Old World Witchery and OMEN: Psychic Parlor and Witchcraft Emporium—and host the annual Festival of the Dead event. Yet they live in New Orleans due to animosity from local residents who “detest anything related to the city’s Witchy identity, and who maintain half-truths and age-old assumptions about the Witches in this city and why we are here.”

Day says, “many of the anti-Witch folks who moved to Salem in the past 20 years or so have no idea what a factory lunchbox town of poverty and destitution Salem actually once was. When I was the child of a poor mother, we lived at places like Winter Street, Derby Street, and other areas of the city that were all, to be quite kind, dumps.”

In Praise of Samantha

“Most of these people would never have moved to Salem had Salem not cleaned up its factories. They seem to forget that it’s tourism that caused the cleanup,” he continues. “When you have people coming over for dinner, you clean your house. Well, that handful of Bewitched episodes had about as much to do with Salem’s tourism success as anything ever has, so to give a nod to the TV show makes perfect sense to those of us who understand and respect our city’s tourism history.

“I was a Salem Witch for nearly 20 years before Witchcraft also became my career. I never thought that the people of 1692 were my ‘ancestors’—other than the various folks from Salem to Ipswich who actually are, given that Robert Day of Ipswich first came over from Hertfordshire, England, on the Hopewell in 1635.

“Laurie Cabot came here around the same time as those Bewitched episodes aired. She came here because it made sense, not because anyone executed in 1692 was related to her. If she were going to capitalize on that aspect of things, I think she might have changed her name to Nurse or Bishop. No, it was something bigger than that.”

Conveying the Craft

“Because the Witch Trials forever branded Salem with an association with the word ‘Witch’ itself, this city remains the single greatest platform from which to educate what real Witchcraft is—not the Satanic delusions of paranoid puritans, but a mystery cult steeped in magic and old gods.

“Given that my entire adult life has been spent educating people about Witchcraft, I can think of no better place to do it than Salem,” Day claims. “It’s one of the reasons that—in spite of my having moved a world away from the tension that exists between the city’s diverse population—through the platform of our two shops, our events, and other endeavors in Salem, we maintain a strong educational presence. We see our staff there as ambassadors of Witchcraft, magic, and, yes, Salem. They take that role as seriously as we take it. I think I speak for many Witches in Salem when I say we resent the type of misrepresentation that continues to be foisted upon our spiritual and religious community.”

Read more of the dichotomy of Witch City in J.W. Ocker’s A Season with the Witch: The Magic and Mayhem of Halloween in Salem, Massachusetts.

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No ‘memento mori’ for Mary

Sometimes you’re so sure your ancestor is buried in a certain cemetery, but you can’t find any proof. Unfortunately, someone went too far.

Besides the obvious lines to keep the lettering straight, these stones were not carved. You can tell by the B, the Y, and the numbers that one person forged these two markers by scratching out the details and filling them in with permanent marker on broken slate. In 2007, Chester and Julia True printed Burials in some cemeteries in the towns of Salisbury, Amesbury, and Merrimac, in Essex county, Massachusetts. These two markers, taken at a later date, are not listed in the book.

Plus, Mary’s dates are wrong:

In the Old Burying Ground in Salisbury, you will find the couple’s grandson, Thomas Bradbury (1674-1718). And that’s an original gravestone.

Mary on Trial

On 26 May 1692, Ann Putnam Jr. and others were attacked by specters on Lecture Day, including the specter of Mary Bradbury of Salisbury. A month later, Mary was arrested. Despite friends and neighbors from Salisbury and Ipswich attesting to Mary’s good character, on 10 September 1692, Mary and five others were found guilty of witchcraft and sentenced to hang. From the existing records, it appears Mary escaped jail before the hangings occurred 12 days later.

On 14 January 1693, Judge William Stoughton signed death warrants for five condemned witches from the previous Court of Oyer and Terminer, including Mary Bradbury. In his report to Governor William Phips, however, King’s Attorney Anthony Checkley was of the opinion that the earlier cases were much like the cleared cases before the new Supreme Court of Judicature, being based on spectral evidence. On 1 February 1693, Gov. Phips sent a reprieve to the Salem court, which infuriated Judge Stoughton, but saved the lives of Mary Bradbury and seven others who were expected to be hanged that day.

For many 17th century people, their gravestones do not exist today. But, Mary, we remember you.

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Treasures of the court house

Witch trial display, Essex County Court library

Witch trial display, Essex County Court library (photo credit: THD)

The Supreme Judicial Court celebrated its 325th anniversary in Salem in January. Previously known as the Superior Court of Judicature, this high court took over after the Court of Oyer and Terminer was dismissed by Governor William Phips in the fall of 1692. Appropriately enough, the law library inside the Essex County Superior Court building at 56 Federal Street, Salem, features a small witch trials display case.

The glass-topped pedestal display case contains a copy of the death warrant for Bridget Bishop, the first person hanged for witchcraft; a copy of the examination of Rebecca Nurse, in Rev. Samuel Parris’ handwriting; pins the afflicted accusers claimed were used by the “witches” to injure them in court; and the county seal used on the warrants. While there’s a debate whether the pins were used as 17th century staples to hold court papers together or if they were admitted as evidence, the county seal is genuine. First used in 1687, the seal affixed wax to documents, stamping them with the monogram “Essex.”

Note: To visit the library, you must go through security screening. Visitors are not allowed to bring cell phones and other electronic devices inside the building. Cameras require pre-approval from the security department.

Read about the 325th anniversary lectures and view pictures (including copies of Salem witch trial documents mounted on a display board):


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Q&A with Juliet Mofford on Abigail Accused: A Story of the Salem Witch Hunt

Recently, Juliet Haines Mofford published a historical novel on Abigail (Dane) Faulkner, accused of witchcraft in 1692 in Andover, Massachusetts. I had some questions for the author of The Devil Made Me Do It: Crime and Punishment in Early New England and other non-fiction books.

Abigail Accused by Juliet MoffordWitchesMassBay: How did you become interested in the Salem witch trials, and specifically in the witch hunts in Andover, Massachusetts?

Juliet Mofford: I first got hooked on the Salem witch trials when we moved to Andover and I learned that more citizens from here were imprisoned for witchcraft than from any other town in New England. I soon found little in print about Andover’s 1692 experience even though this town had the most persons who confessed to committing the capital crime of witchcraft and the most children arrested.

An assignment to write a local history required research into primary documents at the Andover and North Andover historical societies. In 1992, I presented “The Andover Witch Hunt” at the Tercentenary Conference in Salem. As a lifelong writer and a professional museum educator, I developed and directed such programs as Cry Witch!—The Andovers Remember 1692, a community play I scripted and produced under Massachusetts Cultural Council grants; The Suspicious Season, about the accused women of Reading; and an interactive play entitled The Judgment of Martha Carrier. Later, as Director of Education and Research at Andover Historical Society, I had access to early town, land, and court records. I have lectured and taught classes on the Salem witch trials at Phillips Academy, for Elderhostel, and at Middlesex Community College.

WitchesMassBay: Why did you decide to write a book about Abigail (Dane) Faulkner?

Juliet Mofford: Since every person accused of being a witch in 1692 was different, each witchcraft case is unique. The daughter of Andover’s senior minister Francis Dane who opposed the trials, she was convicted of witchcraft and narrowly escaped the gallows. I wanted to get to know Abigail better so I might understand, for example, why her sister and her own daughters testified against her in court.

I was especially drawn to Abigail because she was a survivor and, obviously, a strong and articulate woman. The petition she wrote Governor William Phips from Salem prison won her early release on bond while another written in 1703 resulted in a Reversal of Attainders that revoked the court ruling and restored legal rights to those convicted.

WitchesMassBay: How does writing historical fiction help tell Abigail Faulkner’s story in ways beyond the basic historical record?

Juliet Mofford: Many myths and misconceptions about Puritans have been perpetuated by Victorian authors like Nathaniel Hawthorne and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and passed down to us. And many historical errors are found among the countless books about Salem witchcraft, including Arthur Miller’s play, The Crucible. Historical documents, and court records in particular, demonstrate that Puritans were not “goody-goodys,” all dressed in black who seldom dared laugh.

I wished to present an actual family whose members were impacted by the horrifying events of 1692, and base the book upon the original documents. I wanted to recreate the realities of their daily life and personal experiences such as courtship, marriage, childbirth, the sin of fornication, poverty, and—in Andover’s caseterrifying attacks by Native Americans and their French allies upon this frontier community.

WitchesMassBay: It’s been more than 300 years since the Salem Witch Trials. Why do you think it’s still relevant today?

Juliet Mofford: Abigail’s personal life has contemporary relevance because PTSD or Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is in today’s news. This Colonial goodwife sustained her husband through the “fitts” he suffered as a result of sporadic Indian attacks.

Abigail Accused: A Story of the Salem Witch Hunt is the historical revelation of how one particular wife and mother, alongside her minister father, fought bigotry and religious fanaticism and helped bring an end to the deadly witch hunt. Petitions by both father and daughter represent landmark documents of free speech that serve to remind us of the ongoing struggle for human rights. Lessons hopefully learned from the Salem witch trials remain relevant today because, unfortunately, prejudice, intolerance, and xenophobia have raised their ugly heads throughout history and continue to happen.


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