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.