Revenues and Reparations in the Witch City

I often find that my profession and my residence are in conflict: it’s challenging to be an historian in Salem, especially at this time of year. More than one person has suggested that I move, and I think every one of my colleagues has done so when I come in all hot and bothered about one thing or another. But even though Salem is often frustrating, it is always engaging and has offered me many “teachable moments” throughout my career. The past few days, beautiful autumn days, have been a case in point. On Friday, we were considering the immediate and slightly longer-term aftermath of the Salem Witch Trials in my two freshmen seminars. I am not an American historian or an expert in the Trials, but the historian who is both of those things in my department, my colleague Emerson “Tad” Baker, has been working in the administration for the past few years so I have been pinch-hitting. Students come to Salem State with a certain degree of awareness and/or interest in the Trials and so we thought we should offer a freshman seminar focused on 1692 to introduce students to both college work and Salem. I put a lot of work into last year’s seminars so I thought I should repeat them this year, but never again: Tad is back and that is that! Anyway, on Friday we were reading about apologies, reversals, and restitution: several participants in the trials (Judge Samuel Sewall, the jurors, accuser Ann Putnam) issued apolgies after their conclusion, the General Court of Massachusetts reversed the attainders of witchcraft conviction for some (but not all) of the accused “witches” and also compensated their families for some (obviously not ALL) of their damages upon petition. Both my students and myself were very touched by the petition of Isaac Esty, Sr. for restitution following the execution of his wife Mary, one of the three former Towne sisters accused of witchcraft in 1692. Mary and her sister Rebecca Nurse were executed while their sister Sarah Cloyce escaped to Framingham. Here is Mr. Esty’s petition of September 8, 1710 and a transcription, from the University of Virginia’s Salem Witch Trials Documentary Archive and Transcription Project:

Isaac Esty Sen of Topsfield in the county of Essex in N. E. having been sorely exercis’d through the holy & awful providence of God depriving him of his beloved wife Mary Esty who suffered death in the year 1692 & under the fearfull odium of one of the worst of crimes that can be laid to the charge of mankind, as if she had been guilty of witchcraft a piece of wickedness which I beleeve she did hate with perfect hatred & by all that ever I could see by her never could see any thing by her that should give me any reason in the lest to think her guilty of any thing of that nature but am firmly persuaded that she was as innocent of it as any to such a shameful death — Upon consideration of a notification from the Honored Generall Court desiring my self & others under like circumstances to give some account of what my Estate was damnify’d by reason of such a hellish molestation do hereby declare which may also be seen by comparing papers & records that my wife was near upon 5 months imprisoned all which time I provided maintenance for her at my own cost & charge, went constantly twice aweek to provide for her what she needed 3 weeks of this 5 months she was in prison at Boston & I was constrained to be at the charge of transporting her to & fro. So that I can not but think my charge in time and mony might amount to 20 pounds besides my trouble & sorrow of heart in being deprived of her after such a manner which this world can never make me any compensation for. Isak Esty sen’r.

He had lost his wife 18 years previously, but it sounds like it was yesterday. She hated witchcraft: her death and execution was a “hellish molestation” for which “this world can never make me any compensation for.” She was imprisoned for 5 months, including three weeks in Boston, and he was compelled to pay for all of the associated expenses, which might amount to £20, “besides my trouble & sorrow of heart.” I found the combination of profound emotional distress and relatively inconsequential damages moving; my students did too. So there we were, discussing this horrible event and a community’s attempts at reconciliation. Class dismissed, and I’m walking home through the streets of Salem, and when I get to downtown there are laughing witches, young witches, older witches, half-dressed witches, all sorts of witches—all so celebratory, and happy to be in Salem, the Witch City, where Mary Esty and her sister died with others, proclaiming fervently that they were not witches. Later vindicated, but forevermore witches, because Salem needs to be Halloweentown, and what would Halloweentown be without witches? Our present Mayor, and soon-to-be Lieutenant Governor, expressed the connection succinctly:

And she is expressing a majority opinion. Halloween is very popular in Salem: the crowds get bigger and bigger with each passing year, and apparently so do the revenues, for both private businesses and the City. According to several sources, Salem tourists spent 140 million in the Witch City in 2020, 35% of which was spent during October: and that was a Covid year. I’m sure revenues will be off the charts this year, as crowds certainly are. I had numbers on my brain as I walked home on Friday night and woke up the next morning with them still in my head. We had discovered that the Massachusetts General Court alloted £578 to the Salem victims’ families in 1710-1711: how much would that be now my students asked? We went over to my favorite past-to-present currency calculator at the UK National Archives and came up with around £60,648, which is about $79,000 in US dollars. $79,000, 19 executions, one crushing, five deaths in jail, a succession of reversals of attainder and apologies: this all adds up to the “legendary witch history” referenced by Mayor Driscoll above, the basis of Salem’s spectacularly successful witchcraft tourism. 140 million in a pandemic year, with 49 million generated just in October, compared to a mere $79,000! I wonder if a reconsideration of compensation is in order? That would be one way to justify the exploitative nature of Salem’s witchcraft tourism: acknowledge it for what it is, just business. Thanks to all of the genealogical research on those accused of witchcraft in seventeenth-century Salem we probably know who and where all of their descendants are: why shouldn’t they get a cut? I just kept thinking about these numbers when I was walking around Salem this past weekend, amongst HUGE crowds: people = profits.

Scenes from a Salem weekend, October 2022: light and dark and a very well-dressed witch; there’s a tour guide in there somewhere (no one could hear him, so no one was listening); the line for PEM’s Ropes Mansion which seems to be identified primarily as “Allison’s House” from Hocus Pocus by Salem tourists; Chestnut Street from my bedroom window (that line of cars went on all day long on Saturday)’ the Salem Witch Museum is very proud that this is the 50th anniversary of Haunted Happenings.

Am I really recommending reparations? Sadly, no. I just want to point out the inequities between past and present, and the exploitation of the former by the latter. It’s nothing new, but I don’t think you can call it out enough. While reparations are most commonly referenced in the disastrous imposition on Germany following World War I and the ongoing issue of compensation for enslavement here in the US, there have been more successful experiments, most notably the restitution initiatives extended to the families of Japanese-Americans interned during World War II. But a Salem reparations program would be impossible: so much time as passed, there would be so many claimants, and so much money involved!  Reparations would also run counter to Massachusetts state law, as politicians past protected witchcraft profiteering proactively. The legal exoneration of the persons convicted of witchcraft in Salem in 1692 came in three phases. In 1711 Chapter 80 of the Resolves reversed the attainder for the majority of victims, but excluded six women:  Ann Pudeator, Bridget Bishop, Susannah Martin, Alice Parker, Margaret Scott and Wilmot Redd. Following World War II, relatives of Ann Pudeator started lobbying for her exoneration, which was finally achieved with Chapter 145 of the Resolves of 1957 . Finally, following the appeal of Salem State University graduate student Paula Keen and the concerned families, Chapter 122 of the Acts of 2001 included Bridget Bishop, Susannah Martin, Alice Parker, Margaret Scott and Wilmot Redd in the 1957 law, in which they were simple referred to as “others.” The 1957 Pudeator bill was debated for quite some time, particularly in the period 1954-1957, as legislators openly questioned the impact of the exoneration on tourism and the possibility that it might expose the Commonwealth to legal action. Consequently the language of the bill’s final passage specifically provides that descendants of the victims of 1692 may not sue for damages! No worries for Salem.

United Press National Headlines 1954 & 1957: not sure why Senator Evans of WAKEFIELD was so concerned but he gets the most quotes for sure!

The word “reparations” usually means money, but it also refers to repairing one’s reputation, image, or perception (and not simply replacing it with something new and shiny, as in Salem). I’ve been thinking about that process too, because of another witchcraft course I’m teaching this semester, Magic and Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe (yes, it’s a pretty intense semester). Unlike the situation in Massachusetts, there were no immediate attempts to rehabilitate the many victims of the succession of witch trials which occurred in much of Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries; indeed, that process is happening now. This very year the provincial governments of Scotland, where witch-hunting was particularly intense, and Catalonia, where witch trials began relatively early, have apologized formally for their witch hunts. Both exoneration movements were clearly feminist in inspiration, highlighting the fact that the majority of the victims in both regions were women, but both also focused on the necessity of repairing the historical memory of the accused. I’ve been so struck by the Catalan discourse, triggered by the slogan/hashtag No Eren BruixesThey were not witches. I hope that that the apologies to those who were not witches paves the way for true historical understanding through reparation in both Catalonia and Scotland, rather than expedient exploitation once the slate has been wiped clean.

“They were not Witches,” (they were Women): a call to action in Catalonia. 

16 responses to “Revenues and Reparations in the Witch City

  • Nancy

    Fabulous article, Donna. I am still aghast that, when speaking with people, many do not know the true history of the time period, including the Trials. Why is this era not taught with some measure of importance? It will forever remain a carnival, otherwise. Thank goodness for the 8th graders who recently petitioned for and succeeded in the exoneration of Elizabeth Johnson, Jr. of Andover, accused of witchcraft in 1692. Education, not capitalism, is the key.

  • Cheryl

    Working with my genealogist on my Mayflower application I learned about the witchcraft trials in Connecticut from 1647 to 1663. My ancestor Mark Haskell from Salem was called witchcraft Mark. His mother was Elizabeth Hardy and father Roger Haskell. Mark was suppose to be on the Jury, but instead left Salem and his family. He may have known from relatives in Connecticut about the trials and that there really wasn’t a choice but to convict. Connecticut covered up the witchcraft trials so well that very few people know about it to this day, but it needs to be known.

  • fairlynch

    Here in the UK, Exeter Civic Society is at least putting the word witches in inverted commas, unlike the commemorative plaque in the plaque. And as for the grotesque mural featuring the women and cauldron I am appalled. I saw it close up for the first time just a few days ago. So wrong to perpetuate this injustice as a carnival.

  • fairlynch

    ‘commemorative plaque in the plaque!’ – I meant to say ‘in the photo’ of course.

  • Linda Zak

    Excellent, excellent post (it almost brought me to tears)! My adult daughter and I just happened to be in Beverly (Sept. 27-October 3) researching my ancestors. We mosyed over to Salem to visit some of the cemeteries, The First Church of Salem (that my 9th great grandfather helped found), and walk down some of the streets to view the gorgeous (!) homes first hand. To say we were ASTOUNDED (and saddened!) by the magnitude of the crowds is putting it mildly! I think I’m going to have a t-shirt made of “No Eren Bruixes!”

  • Brian Bixby

    By all means let us avoid controversy in Massachusetts! I’m reminded of how my father wanted to have a debate about Shays’s Rebellion by our hometown historical society in 1955, only to be told it would be too controversial.

    Coincidentally, as you mention reparations for descendants of the Salem ‘witches,’ I just found out this summer one of my childhood friends is descended from Rebecca Nurse. Descendants must indeed be widespread.

  • Johnathan Steele

    Being a descendant of the last witch to be hanged in the trials (Samuel Wardwell), I and my cousins are quite aware of the ‘gift’ that we inherited. An esp trait. We can predict something happening milliseconds before it happens. Samuel was accused of foreseeing the future, so the story goes. Strange, after my mother passed away last year, I’ve won numerous slot machine jackpots within 10 months of her death, each time drawn to certain slots and winning within a minute of playing each machine. Coincidence? Who knows but I’d like to think it’s my ancestor Samuel doing this to me.

  • Les Haskell

    Three Haskell brothers settled in Salem on the Cape Ann side of the Bass River (today’s Beverly) in 1635. My ancestor, William Haskell (8th ggf), moved to Gloucester around 1645 (his house, built around 1690, still stands and is a bed and breakfast where you can stay and experience some first period colonial living). The youngest brother, Mark, was fined 5 shillings by the Salem court in 1655 for wearing broad lace (dressing above his station – obviously a ne’er-do-well – probably even celebrated Christmas). The eldest, Roger, owned a lot of property and lived out his life in Beverly.

    One of Roger’s sons, John, married Patience Soule, daughter of George Soule, Mayflower passenger, and moved down to Middleborough in Plymouth Colony (George had specifically willed them some land there). Another of Roger’s sons, Mark, married a woman named Sarah Goodale (Smith). In 1675, her uncle Jacob Goodale was beaten to death by Giles Corey (Corey was later pressed to death for not entering a plea in the trials) for allegedly stealing some apples. Jacob was an indentured servant so Corey was only fined for using excessive force. In 1692, as the story goes, the same Mark Haskell was selected for jury duty in the trials. It is said that he was a freethinker and didn’t believe in witchcraft or in punishing people for it and he rode his horse as far as he could in a day and settled in Rochester in Plymouth Colony. His family followed five years later. He became Rochester’s first town clerk and had earned himself the nickname Witchcraft Mark.

    My first cousin (11x removed), Sarah Noyes, married the Reverend John Hale (his 2nd wife) and was the last person accused of being a witch before Governor Phips abolished spectral evidence and the Court of Oyer and Terminer, ending the trials. Sarah was never tried or even arrested. The good reverend’s third wife, Elizabeth Somerby is another first cousin (also 11x removed). My 2nd cousin 11x removed, Abigail Philips, was Reverend Cotton Mather’s 1st wife.

  • Nancy

    I am the 7th great grand daughter of Samuel Wardwell of Andover. My paternal grandmother was a Wardwell. He was the last male hanged as a witch in 1692. I live in Ohio now, but always leave white flowers on his commemorative stone in Salem (those granite bench-shaped stones inside the memorial area, which I love) when I get back home. So—we descendants are here, there, and everywhere!

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: