Documents bring facts to Salem witch trials
Breaking the Spell
AMHERST – The good news is that no one in New Hampshire was ever executed as a witch.
The bad news is that 153 people in colonial Massachusetts were formally accused of witchcraft; 19 of them were hanged, and one man was pressed to death under a pile of stones.
The Salem witch trials of 1692-93 are among the strangest events in American history, and Margo Burns brought an enormous knowledge of this era to the Amherst Historical Society recently.
Burns is a descendant of Rebecca Nurse, one of the 14 women hanged as witches. She is also an academic historian and associate editor and project manager of the book "Records of the Salem Witch-Hunt," a collection of all of the primary-source legal records of the trials.
During her slideshow in the society’s newly-renovated Wigwam Museum, she asked the standing-room-only audience if any of them were related to witch-trial victims. Several people raised their hands, including three who said they, too, are descended from Nurse, who was a well-respected 71-year-old grandmother when she was executed.
"There are a lot of us out there," said Burns – and that’s understandable because Nurse had eight children.
Many people get their information about the trials from Arthur Miller’s "The Crucible." Burns characterized the play as "very good fiction," then tried to set the record straight.
Her presentation, "The Capital Crime of Witchcraft: What the Primary Sources Tell Us," showed 20 original manuscripts from the period, including the warrant for the apprehension of Rebecca Nurse.
In popular imagination, torch-carrying crowds brought the so-called witches and wizards to trial, she said. In reality, the process "was far more bureaucratic than you’d ever expect," Burns said. We know this because "they left a really big paper trail," she said.
Along with arrest and execution warrants, the 20 manuscripts include summons for witnesses, testimony and an account for payment to a jail keeper.
And if the events seem like they occurred in the distant past, she noted that the Massachusetts Superior Court of Judicature, where the "witches" were prosecuted, is the same court hearing cases today.
But each prosecution started with rumors instead of facts. Two men, John Hathorne and Jonathan Corwin, would go to a local magistrate, and the magistrates accepted all of the charges.
The accusers were adolescent girls, and instead of reacting to their stories of "spectral afflictions" with skepticism, the adults took them seriously. The girls, seeming to enjoy the attention, told their stories at packed public proceedings where the Rev. Samuel Parris said to them, "Tell me why you hurt these people."
Describing Parris as "a little naive and a little narcissistic," Burns said he was "caught up in something he didn’t know how to handle."
The chief witch-trial villain, though, was Chief Magistrate William Stoughton, who served as judge and prosecutor and was ready to hang all of the accused, Burns said. After a jury declared Nurse not guilty, Stoughton sent them back to deliberate until they gave him a guilty verdict.
The witch hysteria brought out the worst in some people, who used it to get even.
The Salem witch trials make for entertainment now, but they resulted in terrible suffering. Babies died in jail, and Burns told of a 4-year-old girl who was kept in shackles for months and never recovered from the trauma.
We know this because her father, William Good, eventually petitioned for restitution for the loss of his wife and children. His successful petition was one of the documents Burns displayed.