The Long Hot Summer of 1692

Given that it is something you cannot and should not forget (or escape) in Salem, I touched on the chronology and geography of the Witch Trials and their impact pretty regularly last year, the first year of my blog.  In terms of the historical timeline, I focused particularly on the beginning of the trials in the spring of 1692 and their end in the fall, leaving the long hot summer of trials, executions, anxiety and suffering out.  But now we’re in another long hot summer, and we should remember the five women who died on this day, July 19, 320 years ago:  Rebecca Nurse, Sarah Good, Susanna Martin, Elizabeth Howe, and Sarah Wildes.

A word about the weather. I am using the phrase “long hot summer” metaphorically here; I have no idea what the average temperature was in the summer of 1692. As someone who was trained in the history of early modern Europe, a time and a place that witnessed thousands of witch trials, I’ve always been surprised that American historians don’t make more of the weather as a contributing factors to the trials here in Salem because it is definitely a factor of consideration across the Atlantic.  A few years ago, an economist asserted the theory that the so-called  “Little Ice Age” (a long trend line of colder temperatures in this same early modern era, particularly noticeable as compared to the preceding “Medieval Warm Age”) might have been a background cause of the events and accusations in Salem, but the reasoning behind the assertion didn’t really fly with me:  why 1692 as opposed to 1682, 1672 or 1662?  Extreme weather (especially hail!) is better understood as a short-term catalyst for scapegoating accusations rather than a long-term, structural cause.

Nevertheless, the accusations started flying in the cold January of 1692, the first formal charges came at the beginning of March, and the special Court of Oyer and Terminer convened in Salem Town in early June, overseeing the charge of more than 150 people on charges of the capital felony of witchcraft and the eventual conviction of 29, of which 19 victims were hanged on Gallows Hill over the summer.

The women who died on this particular day in 1692 were somewhat representative of their fellow victims:  they were women of a certain age (Sarah Good was the youngest at 39, Rebecca Nurse and Susanna Martin were both in their early 70s), from the fringes of this little world, either geographically or socially.  None came from present-day Salem, then Salem Town (now, sadly, “Witch City), but rather from either Salem Village (present-day Danvers) or the outlying communities of Topsfield, Ipswich and Amesbury. The two Salem Village women, Sarah Good, could not have been more different in both age and situation:  Good was a destitute vagrant with a “disorderly” reputation which made her very vulnerable to accusations of witchcraft, while Nurse was elderly, pious, and from a well-established family:  her trial and conviction would ultimately cast considerable doubt on the entire proceedings.

What remains:  some pictures taken on a 99-degree day in mid-July of 1692:  the Towne field and Parson Capen House (1683) in Topsfield, and the Rebecca Nurse Homestead (c. 1678) in Danvers at dusk. Rebecca Nurse and her sisters Mary Eastey and Sarah Cloyse were the daughters of William and Joanna Towne, who emigrated from England as part of the “Great Migration” and wound up in western Salem Village/Topsfield. The field below is where their original homestead was located.  All three women were accused of witchcraft, and only Sarah escaped death. The Parson Capen house in Topsfield village has no connection to the trials beyond the fact that it was standing witness at the time.

After the women were killed on July 19 their bodies were buried in shallow graves in the crevices of Gallows Hill in Salem; the exact location is still somewhat of a mystery. When darkness fell, her family came to Salem and removed her body to the hallowed ground of the family homestead. In 1885, with all of her ancestors in attendance, a memorial monument inscribed with a passage from John Greenleaf Whittier’s poem Christian Martyr was dedicated on the site:  “O Christian Martyr/who for Truth could die/When all about thee/owned the hideous lie!/The world redeemed/from Superstition’s sway/Is breathing freer for thy sake today.”


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