As is my custom on this date, the day on which the final eight victims of the Salem Witch Trials met their deaths, I am writing about this enduring event in the spirit of commemoration and remembrance. This late September day proved to be the beginning of the end in 1692; conversely in our own time everyone in Salem is now getting ready for a celebratory Halloween season. The fear must have been palpable then; the excitement so now. The fact that we celebrate tragedy here in Salem always saddens me, every single day, but particularly on this poignant one at the very end of summer. I’d like to focus on one of the “eight firebrands from hell” who died on this day long ago, but also about the process (es) of exoneration for the victims of 1692: a more hopeful topic. Or is it?
Ann Greenslit Pudeator was just one victim of September 22, 1692. She fits the traditional stereotype of an accused “witch”: older ( in mid-70s), widowed (twice), and a healer of sorts–she definitely functioned as a nurse; I’m not sure I would go so far as to call her a midwife. She was often in a vulnerable position, but was nevertheless assertive. When her first husband died she was left destitute and with five children. To provide for her family, she began nursing, and included among her patients her neighbor Isabel Pudeator, the ailing (alchoholic?) wife of Salem blacksmith Jacob Pudeator. Isabel died, Ann remarried the much younger and wealthier Jacob, who himself died five years later, leaving his not-inconsiderable property to Ann and her children: a conspicuous inheritance which enhanced her vulnerability. Several years later the finger-pointing and Trials began, and Ann was accused, tried, found guilty, and sentenced to hang for “Certaine detestable Arts called Witchcraft & Sorceries Wickedly Mallitiously and felloniously practiced and Exercised At and within the Township of Salem”. A succession of neighbors gave evidence against her, but not a single person–including any of her five children—spoke for her: not in 1692 or for 265 years thereafter.
So that brings me to the topic of the legal exoneration of the victims of the Salem Witch Trials, a process that occurred in three distinct phases over several centuries: in 1711 the Massachusetts colonial legislature reversed the attainders of “George Burroughs and others” (22 in all, “some put to death, others living still under the life sentence”) for witchcraft and paid a total of £600 in restitution to their heirs. For whatever reason, several victims did not have family members serving as advocates in this process, including Ann Pudeator. It was not until 1946 that her descendant H. Vance Greenslit of New Orleans commenced his campaign for her pardon, which remarkably took eleven years to accomplish via a Massachusetts state legislature resolution in March of 1957. A very illuminating 1954 New York Times article explains the hold-up: concerns that tourists would be less inclined to visit a witchless Salem (!!!!), that descendants might expect reparations for a sullied escutcheon, which would be costly, and the opponents’ main argument that Massachusetts has no business tampering with the Crown’s work anyway–Massachusetts was a British colony in 1692; if anyone is going to absolve witches, it will have to be Queen Elizabeth II. One petitioner offered this solution: Take the whole matter to the United Nations.” Both Her Majesty’s Government and the United Nations neglected to rule on the matter, and so the Massachusetts Legislature quietly passed an oddly-worded resolution that relieved the descendants of “Ann Pudeator and others” from “disgrace or cause for distress”. It took another 44 years–and the energetic initiative of one of our Department’s graduate students, Paula Keen–for the “others” to be formally exonerated in a bill signed by acting Governor Jane Swift on November 1, 2001. And just like that and their fellow victim Ann Pudeator before them, Bridget Bishop, Susannah Martin, Alice Parker, Margaret Scott, and Wilmot Redd were cleared summarily with the simple stroke of a pen.