The View From Gallows Hill


Salem Witche Trials

It isn’t Mardi Gras … yet. But maybe it’s getting there. It’s the October-long celebration of everything weird, wild and not-quite-natural that culminates on Halloween in the city of Salem, Massachusetts.

And what’s the occasion for all this revelry? Well, a bit over three centuries ago some folks who would have been content to live out their ordinary lives and disappear quietly from Earth’s stage, instead became victims of an early American miscarriage of justice. There would be many more such atrocities committed in this country’s history, much larger ones, but this is the one that still captures our imaginations, and for so many wrong reasons.

Let’s put aside some misconceptions. The victims of the 17th century witchcraft hysteria in Massachusetts weren’t witches, although one for sure and perhaps a few more may have been dilettantes of the occult arts. And what’s the matter with that? They were hanging on to the edge of a continent by their fingernails, the legitimacy of the ownership of their homes had been questioned by the mother country, “savage” indigenous peoples were poised a tree or two away in the forest to kill them. And a fierce Calvinist God was forever looking over their shoulders waiting for them to screw up. Under such stressful circumstances, could you blame them for looking for a little “edge” to get them through the day?

The accused who went to the gallows did so to avoid placing their souls in mortal danger. How? By confessing under oath to a heinous crime that they did not commit. Confessing would save their life, but their soul would always be stained by a lie that gave them a one-way ticket to perdition. Talk about a Catch-22. So, they weren’t witches; they abhorred witches, so much so they would rather die in ignominy rather than admit to being a witch.

Today the Wiccan community happily embraces them as religious martyrs. Sorry, folks, they died for their beliefs, not your beliefs.

Another big misconception: the hysteria began in Salem. Salem at the time was a seaport called Salem Town. It was a tiny farming community about five miles inland where the lethal nonsense took root. That place was called Salem Village.

That’s where a bunch of bored adolescent girls amused themselves during long and boring winter nights by telling spooky tales. They got caught by the father of one, an ambitious but incompetent minister that no one seems to have liked very much. The girls reacted to being caught doing something they weren’t supposed to the way adolescents have reacted since there’ve been adolescents: they tried to put it on someone else. Instigated and encouraged by adults who should have known better by just taking the hickory stick to their tender derrieres, the girls’ finger-pointing escalated into lethal accusations against their neighbors. The first to be accused was a much-married, much-widowed woman who ran a road house and liked to vex her neighbors. She was also the one most likely to have actually toyed with the forbidden arts, and she scandalized the Puritan community by wearing a scarlet bodice. Shameless hussy!

Once they put her neck in the noose, the others were easy. Pent up resentments surfaced that spawned more accusations. Add to the mix spur-of-the-moment jurists who thought their duty was to find more offenders rather than find justice, plus a chief jurist with no legal training who denied the accused long established legal protections, and the atrocity was set well in motion. Only when the girls accused the wife of the colony’s governor did someone – the governor in fact – say, “Okay, that’s enough of this bullshit!”

So why does Salem town, now city, get the rap? Because in 1692, as it is today, Salem was the seat of Essex County, where all the legal business, including trials, takes place.

Until very late in the last century, Salem recoiled from this sorry episode in its history and turned a jaundiced eye at the town of Danvers – the new name chosen for Salem Village so as to evade the shame and wrath that was directed wrongly by succeeding generations at Salem the town. Meanwhile Salem blazed a glorious history through the Revolutionary and federal eras as the home of dashing and daring merchant adventurers who brought wealth and cosmopolitan ideas back to the new country via the East Indies and China trade.

The “hysteria” as it came to be known – until feminist historians took issue with that term – was just not talked about in Salem. It wasn’t until about the tercentenary of the Witch Trails that people – most from outside of Salem – realized there was money to be made from the connection with witchcraft and the supernatural.

Money was invested in shops, restaurants, museums – quite a bit of kitsch. And that’s how Haunted Happenings was spawned. Today it’s a month-long party.

A large Wiccan community has taken hold in Salem and embraced the commercial potential. In one of the more bizarre though hilarious instances of cross-purposes occultism, one year an international vampire organization decided to hold its annual Vampires Ball at the chi-chi Hawthorne Inn in Salem.

The city’s witch community sent an irate letter to the editor of the local paper complaining that allowing vampires a foothold in Salem would give the town “a bad name.” (!)

Aside from such minor flare-ups, Haunted Happenings has been pretty good for the old town. Maybe it’s even made Danvers envious. The city is second only to Boston as a New England tourist destination. People are having fun, people are making money, and people are making love.

Yup, ala New Orleans, where there’s always been an erotic undercurrent of laissez le bon temps rouler, Salem’s festival “for the whole family” has taken on a definite adult flavor. Not that you’re likely to see young women show their breasts for a string of beads – not on a chilly October evening in New England. But you might enjoy having your fortune told by a comely young witch at the psychic fair, especially if she’s set her crystal ball about eye-level with her cleavage.

And let’s face it, Trick-or-Treat is for kids, but Halloween has become an adults-especially party day over the past couple of decades. You’re just as likely to see a lady in a French maid costume as a witch’s get up. In Salem, when the crowds show up, the bars get crowded, the music plays, the dancing goes on all night, or at least until closing time. And the dawn of the Feast of All Saints arrives with hangovers, or couples all hung over each other.

It’s odd, isn’t it? It’s such a great party. And while all that revelry is going on, in a quiet little rectangle formed by a low granite wall set hard against the Old Burying Point, a memorial lists twenty names that got left off the party list.

Robert Buckley
October 2010

“Cracking Foxy” © 2010 Robert Buckley. All rights reserved. Content may not be copied or used in whole or part without written permission from the author.

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